The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has approved a bill to decriminalise and tax marijuana in the US at the federal level.
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.
“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.”
Mr 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 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.
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 Jerry Nadler, 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 decriminalise possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
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.