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House votes to decriminalize marijuana at federal level

The Democratic-controlled House on Friday approved a bill to decriminalize and tax marijuana at the federal level, reversing what supporters called a failed policy of criminalization of pot use and taking steps to address racial disparities in enforcement of federal drug laws.

Opponents, mostly Republicans, called the bill a hollow political gesture and mocked Democrats for bringing it up at a time when thousands of Americans are dying from the coronavirus pandemic.

“With all the challenges America has right now, (Republicans) think COVID relief should be on the floor, but instead, the Democrats put cats and cannabis” on the House floor, said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “They’re picking weed over the workers. They’re picking marijuana over (providing) the much-needed money we need to go forward″ to address the pandemic.

FILE - In this July 20, 2017, file photo, Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, walks the property near Tampa, Fla. Officials said, a female volunteer who regularly feeds big cats was bitten and seriously injured by a tiger Thursday morning, Dec. 3, 2020, at the sanctuary, which was made famous by the Netflix series “Tiger King." (Loren ElliottTampa Bay Times via AP, File)

McCarthy’s comment about cats referred to a separate bill approved by the House to ban private ownership of big cats such as lions and tigers, a measure boosted by the Netflix series “Tiger King.″ That bill, approved by the House on Thursday, would allow most private zoos to keep their tigers and other species but would prohibit most public contact with the animals.

Democrats said they can work on COVID-19 relief and marijuana reform at the same time and noted that the House passed a major pandemic relief bill in May that has languished in the Senate.

Supporters say the pot bill would help reverse adverse effects of the decades-long “war on drugs” by removing marijuana, or cannabis, from the list of federally controlled substances while allowing states to set their own rules on pot. The bill also would use money from an excise tax on marijuana to address the needs of groups and communities harmed by the drug war and provide for the expungement of federal marijuana convictions and arrests.

“For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health,″ said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a key sponsor of the bill. “Whatever one’s views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrests, prosecution and incarceration at the federal level has proven unwise and unjust.″

The vote comes at a time when most Americans live in states where marijuana is legal in some form, and lawmakers from both parties agreed that national cannabis policy has lagged woefully behind changes at the state level. That divide has created a host of problems — loans and other banking services, for example, are hard to get for many marijuana companies because pot remains illegal at the federal level.

Four states, including New Jersey and Arizona, passed referendums allowing recreational cannabis. Voters made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., called the House bill an important racial justice measure. Lee, who is Black, said the bill is the product of years of work by a range of advocates and is long overdue.

The bill “is a major step, mind you, a major step toward ending the unjust war on drugs and racial inequities that are central to these laws,″ Lee said.

The bill also would open up more opportunities for marijuana businesses, including access to Small Business Administration loans to help ensure that minorities can take part in an industry dominated by white famers and growers. “This is a job-creating industry, and (the bill) also provides economic opportunities for minority-owned business owners,” Lee said.

The bill, which passed 228-164, now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it is unlikely to advance. A related bill that would give pot businesses access to traditional banking services has languished in the Senate after being approved by the House last year.

Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, said GOP lawmakers have been pushing for weeks to bring up a bill that allows small businesses to receive another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans. Many small businesses are struggling or have closed as a result of the pandemic.

If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought the GOP bill to the House floor, “it would get over 400 votes,″ Scalise told Fox News. ”And yet, she’s actually focused more on legalizing pot this week than on helping those small businesses with PPP loans. It’s just unbelievable how tone deaf (Democrats) are to these small businesses and the jobs, the families that are tied to them.”

Among its provisions, the legislation would authorize a 5% sales tax on marijuana products to fund programs aimed at assisting people and communities harmed in the so-called war on drugs, such as job training and legal aid. It also would require federal courts to expunge prior marijuana convictions.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act also is unlikely to move forward in the Senate.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, criticized Democrats, saying in a tweet that they are moving to “Prosecute Tiger King” rather than address issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Carole Baskin, whose animal rescue organization is featured in the Netflix series, said the legislation would culminate a decades-long effort to end abuse of tiger cubs and other big cats, and protect the public and first responders from injuries and death.

“None of these important goals are partisan in any way, and we hope the Senate will follow suit quickly to make it into law,″ said Baskin, CEO and founder of Florida-based Big Cat Rescue.