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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.

If you value staying updated on cannabis news, please start a monthly Patreon pledge to support Marijuana Moment!

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of 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. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Voters In Key Congressional Districts Support Marijuana Legalization, Poll Says

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With many key congressional races rated as “toss ups” by political observers, either major party could end up controlling of the U.S. House of Representatives after this November’s midterm elections.

A new poll identifies one thing that can help Republican or Democratic candidates come out ahead: Embracing marijuana legalization.

The polling firm Lake Research Partners surveyed 800 likely 2018 general election voters in 60 so-called “battleground districts,” finding that 60 percent support ending cannabis prohibition. Only 36 percent are opposed.

Medical marijuana is even more popular, with 79 percent of voters in these swing districts on board.

More to the point for politicians looking to win elections, the survey showed that 44 percent of battleground voters say they would be more more likely to vote for a candidate who supports legalization, including 26 percent who say they would be “much” more likely. Only 33 percent said they would be less likely to back a pro-legalization candidate.

The survey was conducted in February but is being released on Tuesday at Washington, D.C. event sponsored by MedMen Enterprises, a cannabis dispensary chain that commissioned the poll.

Another key finding is that 55 percent of voters say they would be “more likely” to vote if a marijuana initiative was on the ballot in their state.

The survey also tested the effectiveness of various arguments concerning legalization, determining that “the strongest pro-legalization message frame highlights how we need legalization to repair the financial and moral damage of the failed war on drugs,” according to a polling memo prepared by the firm.

Several other recent national polls have found majority support for marijuana legalization, but the new results narrowed down to key swing districts are likely to warrant special attention from candidates and political operatives.

Support for Marijuana Legalization At Record High, New Survey Shows

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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Congressional Committee Blocks Marijuana Votes (Again)

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Lawmakers on a key congressional committee once again blocked colleagues in the full House from being able to vote on marijuana-related amendments.

One proposed measure, filed last week, would have allowed Washington, D.C. to legally tax and regulate retail marijuana sales and another would have prevented federal regulators from penalizing federal banks from working with businesses and individuals in the legal cannabis industry.

But on Monday evening, the Republican-controlled Rules Committee, led by Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), continued its recent tradition of preventing floor votes on any and all measures to scale back federal cannabis prohibition.

“Everyone who knows that Congress has a responsibility to at least debate these issues should unite and help Pete Sessions find another line of work,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who cosponsored both cannabis measures, told Marijuana Moment in a statement.

Sessions’s Texas district, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, is currently considered a “toss up” by political analysts in this November’s midterm elections.

Before Monday, his panel had blocked at least 34 other cannabis-related amendments from reaching the floor for votes during the current Congress. The full House of Representatives has not been allowed to consider marijuana reform proposals since the spring of 2016.

Analysis: GOP Congress Has Blocked Dozens Of Marijuana Amendments

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers cosponsored both new cannabis measures, which they were seeking to attach to legislation to fund parts of the federal government through Fiscal Year 2019.

(A third marijuana-related measure considered on Monday proposes shifting money away from forest and rangeland research toward “eradicating, enforcing, and remediating illegal marijuana grow operations on National Forest System land.” That measure was cleared for a floor vote, likely sometime this week.)

“Our federal laws are outdated. The people in this country want the law to treat marijuana as we do alcohol,” Congressman Denny Heck (D-WA), said in testimony about his marijuana banking amendment. “These large sums of cash make dispensaries an obvious target for robberies.”

He recounted the story of Travis Mason, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who was killed during a 2016 robbery at a Colorado marijuana dispensary where he was serving as a security guard.

“He managed to survive his service in the United States Marine Corps, but he didn’t survive his job guarding a store here at home,” Heck said.

“If we do nothing, this is bound to happen again.”

The D.C. measure was filed by Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia.

“This rider has unintentionally benefited violent drug gangs,” Norton said of current policy in her testimony before the Rules Committee. “For that reason, some refer to it as the ‘Drug Dealer Protection Act.’ As one marijuana dealer told the Washington Post, the rider is ‘a license for me to print money.’ Regulating marijuana like alcohol would allow D.C., instead of drug dealers, to control production, distribution, sales and revenues.”

Under a ballot measure approved by D.C. voters in 2014, low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation is legal. But because of an ongoing federal appropriations rider enacted in past years and included in the new FY19 bill, local officials have been prevented from adding a system of taxed and regulated cannabis sales.

Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO), a member of the Rules Committee, specifically moved during the meeting Monday night to make the amendment on cannabis businesses’ access to banks in order for a floor vote, but that was defeated by a party-line vote of 8 – 2.

The marijuana banking measure had 22 cosponsors, more than any of the 276 other measures the Rules Committee considered this week. Eighty-seven amendments were cleared for floor consideration.

Congress Could Vote On These Marijuana Amendments Next Week (Unless GOP Blocks Them Again)

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Sen. Jeff Merkley “Disappointed” That Democrats Blocked His Marijuana Banking Amendment

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One of the U.S. Senate’s foremost champions for marijuana law reform says he is “disappointed” that fellow Democrats recently joined with Republicans in blocking his amendment to increase cannabis businesses’ access to banks.

Last month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) offered a measure that would have shielded banks that open accounts for state-legal marijuana businesses from being punished by federal regulators for that activity even though cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

While the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved two similar amendments in previous years, the panel this time voted to table the measure with a bipartisan vote of 21 – 10, with ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and other Democrats who normally support marijuana reform objecting on procedural grounds.

“I was disappointed,” Merkley said in an interview with BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith on Monday. “We had passed this twice before.”

“We need to establish banking for cannabis because a cash economy is an invitation to money laundering and theft and cheating your employees and cheating on your taxes [and] organized crime. All bad.”

“I accompanied the owner of a company who had $70,000 in his backpack to pay quarterly taxes,” Merkley recounted in response to the cannabis banking question on Monday, which was suggested to BuzzFeed by Marijuana Moment’s editor. “It’s so bizarre going down the freeway and talking about how they have to pay their employees in cash, have to pay their suppliers in cash. It’s a bad system.”

“Everyone should agree: States’ rights on this. Let the states have an electronic system to track what these businesses are doing, not billions of dollars floating around like this.”

Despite his disappointment with the measure being blocked, the Oregon Democrat, who is believed to be considering a 2020 presidential run, said that his colleagues “had a fair point to make on the policy front” in tabling the measure.

At the time, Leahy argued that spending bills such as the one before the committee should be kept “free of new controversial policy riders” and that a more appropriate forum would be an authorizing committee that sets banking laws.

“It wasn’t existing policy and therefore it was new policy,” Merkley acknowledged in the new interview.

But he pointed out that there are few other avenues available for senators to pursue the issue.

“Here’s the thing. Normally we could take these policy bills like I was putting forward [and] you could put it on the floor of the Senate as an amendment to something,” he said. “In 2017, outside of the budget process, not a single amendment was considered on the floor of the Senate… This is the end of the Senate really as a deliberative body on policy. So if you’re blocked in the Appropriations Committee, and you’re blocked on the floor, then it’s very hard to put ideas out there and say, ‘Hey vote on this. This matters.'”

The House Appropriations Committee also defeated a cannabis banking amendment last month.

See the video of Merkley’s remarks at about 19:15 into the clip below:

Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.

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