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.
In Rules Cmte tonight, trying to get the McClintock-Polis amendment added to the short-term government spending bill.🤞It would stop the DEA from going after states that have legalized #marijuana.https://t.co/3vzc4eezrU
— Rep. Jared Polis (@RepJaredPolis) January 18, 2018
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.
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.
GOP & Dems Team Up To Shield State Marijuana Laws From Jeff Sessions
The Justice Department should be blocked from enforcing federal marijuana prohibition in states that have enacted legalization, a bipartisan group of 59 lawmakers wrote in a new letter.
“We are concerned about the Department of Justice enforcing federal marijuana law in a way that blocks implementation of marijuana reform laws in those states that have passed such reforms,” the lawmakers, led by Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Jared Polis (D-CO), wrote to top decisionmakers on the House Appropriations Committee on Friday. “The issue at hand is whether the federal government’s marijuana policy violates the principles of federalism and the Tenth Amendment. Consistent with those principles, we believe that states ought to retain jurisdiction over most criminal justice matters within their borders. This is how the Founders intended our system to function.”
The legislators want congressional leaders to insert a new provision into a funding bill covering the Justice Department’s 2019 budget that would prevent federal prosecutors, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies from spending money to go after people who are in compliance with state marijuana laws.
The language the lawmakers want included in the funding bill reads:
“None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used to prevent any of the several states from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana on non-Federal lands within their respective jurisdictions.”
Separately on Friday, a group of 62 House Republican and Democrats sent a letter requesting the extension of existing, more limited appropriations protections that shield state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department intervention.
The medical marijuana provision has been part of federal since 2014, and has been extended with bipartisan House and Senate votes several times.
The broader protections to shield all state marijuana laws, including those that allow recreational use, from federal interference came just nine flipped votes short of passage in 2015. The number of states with legalization has more than doubled since then, and lawmakers from places with new laws would be more likely to support it if another vote were held, but House leaders have since blocked floor consideration of cannabis-related measures.
“As I have promised my fellow Coloradans, I will continue to advocate for this simple amendment to be added to the federal budget – shielding Colorado from the Trump administration’s attacks on states that have legalized marijuana,” Polis said in a press release about the new letter. “It would be a temporary, but urgent and necessary fix, as I continue to push for passage of my Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which would finally lift the federal prohibition on marijuana.”
In the letter, the lawmakers argue that letting states enact their own cannabis laws is in keeping with constitutional principles laid out by the Founders of the nation.
“Experiences of states that have legalized marijuana, as compared to the experiences of states that have not, constitute the very ‘laboratories’ of social and economic experiments that were described by Chief Justice Louis Brandeis when he wrote about the beauty of the Tenth Amendment,” they said. “Our constitutional framework has afforded the whole nation the chance to allow states to differ on many matters of public policy, including marijuana.”
Stop Jeff Sessions From Busting Medical Marijuana, Bipartisan Lawmakers Demand
A bipartisan group of 62 members of Congress is asking House leaders to protect state medical marijuana policies and the patients and businesses that rely on them from federal enforcement agents and prosecutors.
“We respectfully request that you include language barring the Department of Justice from prosecuting those who comply with their state’s medical marijuana laws,” the lawmakers, led by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), wrote in a letter sent to the top Republican and Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee on Friday. “We believe such a policy is not only consistent with the wishes of a bipartisan majority of the members of the House, but also with the wishes of the American people.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Medical Marijuana Ban A “Disgrace,” Congresswoman Tells Trump Veterans Chief
A congresswoman took a top Trump administration official to task over a policy that blocks military veterans from getting medical marijuana recommendations through the doctors that know them best, calling the federal government’s stance “a shame and disgrace.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs currently prohibits its physicians from filling out medical cannabis recommendations for veterans, even in states where it is legal.
“Coming from California, of course, you know we have a variety of dispensaries which make marijuana available to patients and veterans who use it for PTSD and chronic pain, and it works,” Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) told VA Sec. David Shulkin on Thursday.
“So what’s the problem?” she asked. “What’s the federal statute that blocks the VA from doing this, and not letting physicians simply recommend cannabis to veterans who need it? And it’s proven that it works.”
In a series of public remarks over the course of the past year, Shulkin has repeatedly claimed that overarching federal law blocks VA from recommending or even participating in research on medical marijuana.
But advocates have pointed out that there is no federal statute blocking the VA from changing its own internal policies on medical cannabis recommendations.
During the exchange, Shulkin seemed to be unaware of the distinction between prescribing medical marijuana, which no doctor can do due to its Schedule I status, and simply recommending it, which is how patients get access in the 29 states that allow its legal use.
“Filling out a questionnaire, isn’t that the step towards prescribing?” the secretary asked during the exchange with Lee, which took place at a hearing of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies. “My understanding is federal law would not allow the physician to write the prescription, so I have to understand what the questionnaire would be in order to make a recommendation but not write a prescription.”
“Could we show you that questionnaire, Mr. Secretary?” Lee asked. “Because veterans need this, it works, and it’s a shame and disgrace that the VA is preventing this type of treatment that works.”
“Absolutely,” Shulkin replied. “I’d be glad to review that.”
Marijuana Moment supporters on Patreon can view video of the exchange below:
Shulkin has the unilateral authority to rescind the internal ban and clear the way for VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans in states where it is legal, but he has repeatedly claimed that federal law — without citing a particular statute — blocks him from doing so.
In recent weeks, a number of prominent veterans advocacy organizations like the American Legion and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have stepped up the push for access to medical cannabis.
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