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Congress Misses Opportunity To Vote On Marijuana Amendment

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A powerful congressional committee debated, but did not vote on, a far-reaching amendment to protect state marijuana laws from federal interference on Wednesday night.

The measure, sponsored by Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO), would have prevented the Department of Justice from spending money to prosecute people who are in compliance with state marijuana policies.

Amidst an impassioned debate in the House Rules Committee, Polis opted to withdraw the amendment instead of forcing a vote that he likely would have lost due to the panel’s partisan makeup and tendency to decide along party lines. As a result, the measure will not be considered by the full House this week as part of legislation to fund federal agencies and avoid a government shutdown by a Friday deadline.

“I, as probably everybody in this rooms knows, have a strong opinion on drugs, illegal drugs, alcohol,” committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX), who has blocked numerous cannabis amendments from advancing in recent years, said during the debate. “Marijuana is an addictive product, and the merchants of addiction make it that way. They make it for addiction. They make it to where our people, our young people, become addicted to marijuana and keep going.”

Polis argued that his amendment “says nothing about whether you or I think marijuana should be legal or illegal. It simply respects the reality of the named states that have moved to regulate marijuana.”

A similar proposal sponsored by Polis and Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) came just nine flipped votes short of passage on the House floor in 2015. Advocates believe that the amendment would pass if given another opportunity, because the number of states with legalization has doubled since the last attempt, and significantly more members of Congress now represent businesses and consumers who would be protected by the measure.

Under a related appropriations rider that is currently in effect, the Department of Justice is barred from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws or people following them, but provides no protections for recreational marijuana businesses or consumers.

Advocates are concerned that in the wake of U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s rescission earlier this month of an Obama-era memo that generally allowed states to implement their own laws without federal interference, businesses that operate in accordance with adult-use local marijuana policies are now at risk.

Last week, a bipartisan group of nearly 70 House members sent a letter to congressional leadership asking that the broader state cannabis protection language be included in the funding bill.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Push For Marijuana Protections In Funding Bill

If the current legislation is approved by the House and Senate and signed into law by President Trump, funding for the federal government, along with policy riders like the medical cannabis protections, would be extended through February 16 as congressional leaders negotiate a full Fiscal Year 2018 spending package.

Passing the short-term extension is by no means certain, however, as partisan squabbles over immigration and other issues have put the legislation in jeopardy. If the government shuts down, the medical marijuana provision would expire and the Justice Department would be free to prosecute state-legal medical cannabis businesses.

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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