Congress will again vote on a proposal to protect all state and tribal marijuana programs from federal interference, a key committee decided on Wednesday.
The House Rules Committee made in order a bipartisan amendment to spending legislation that would provide the protections, which expand upon an existing rider that currently prevents the Justice Department from interfering in the implementation of medical cannabis laws alone. That more limited protection has been annually renewed as part of federal law since 2014.
Meanwhile, the panel also advanced a competing amendment from Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) that would eliminate the current medical marijuana provision—despite the fact that it shields the decades-old program of the sponsor’s own state.
The votes on the conflicting cannabis measures could come on the House floor as soon as Thursday.
Given Democratic control of Congress and the increasingly cross-party nature of support for marijuana reform overall, advocates aren’t necessarily concerned about LaMalfa’s amendment passing. But while the GOP congressman has earned a reputation as a staunch reform opponent—going so far as to recently bulldoze illicit cannabis grow sites in California alongside local police—his proposal to end protections for the state’s decades-old medical cannabis program has raised eyebrows.
The main amendment that advocates are focused on is the one from Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) to protect all state and tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention.
The lawmakers circulated a letter to build support for the spending bill amendment last week.
In remarks before the Rules Committee on Tuesday, Blumenauer spoke about the “dramatic increase in public support” for marijuana reform and how voters in “state after state” are enacting legalization policies.
“Let’s continue to protect state-legal activities while we move towards full legalization” at the federal level, he said. “The longer you delay, the worse it is. In the interim, I strongly urge that we enact this amendment to be able to provide some stability.”
This language has been proposed in past sessions as well, passing the House last year and in 2019. But it was not attached to final appropriations legislation sent to the president’s desk under GOP control of the Senate. Now that Democrats have a slim majority in that chamber, however, advocates are optimistic that it could finally be enacted.
During the last two House votes, members approved the expanded protection with substantial bipartisan support.
It stands to reason that the amendment could see even greater support this round considering that eight more states—represented by a total of 69 House members—have legalized cannabis for adult use since last year’s vote on the proposal.
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The Rules Committee also dealt with other cannabis-related amendments to the Justice Department funding legislation.
Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-CA) filed an amendment intended to transfer $25 million within the Department of Justice to “support efforts to eliminate illegal marijuana grows in South Eastern California.” It was cleared for a floor vote.
Speaking to the Rules Committee on Tuesday, Obernolte described the environmental damage caused by illegal cultivation operations, including how banned pesticides that are used in the process end up in groundwater. “This is a catastrophe for everyone involved, including the folks who are trying to follow the law and pursue legal marijuana cultivation,” he said.
LaMalfa proposed another revision aimed at “including marijuana grow sites in the eligible category for [Drug Enforcement Administration] reimbursement of state, units of local government, or tribal governments for expenses incurred to clean-up and safely dispose of substances which may present a danger to public health or the environment found at illegal marijuana grow sites.” But the panel did not advance it to the floor.
An additional LaMalfa amendment to a separate funding bill for the State Department that was also proposed was meant to “express the intent to direct the Department of State to issue a report on the connections between international criminal organizations and illegal marijuana grows within the United States.” The Rules Committee also blocked this proposal.
LaMalfa has been prolific with his marijuana-related amendments this session, and he did recently get a revision cleared for floor consideration on separate “minibus” legislation covering funding for multiple agencies that would transfer “$25 million from the Environmental Programs and Management enforcement activities account to the National Forest System account for enforcement and remediation of illegal marijuana trespass grow sites on federal lands and for the clean-up of toxic waste and chemicals at these sites.” That measure was rejected by the full House, however, as part of an en bloc package with other amendments.
Beyond the new amendments that are advancing out of the Rules Committee, separate cannabis-related provisions were previously attached to the base bill for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) funding.
For example, a spending report accompanying the bill notes that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has moved to approve additional marijuana manufacturers for research purposes and says the committee supports ongoing research efforts on cannabis, particularly in the wake of an outbreak of lung injuries associated with unregulated vaping products.
A provision was also attached to the bill that would make states and localities ineligible for certain federal law enforcement grants if they maintain a policy allowing for no-knock warrants for drug-related cases. That policy garnered national attention following the police killing of Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by law enforcement during a botched drug raid.
Another section in the CJS report reminds the Department of Justice that Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants it doles out to local law enforcement agencies can be used to fund efforts to expunge criminal records.
The bill as introduced also contains the language for the existing state medical cannabis protections as well as another provision shielding local hemp programs from federal interference.
Meanwhile, the full House took up several cannabis and drug policy amendments to separate spending legislation for floor votes on Tuesday after having been cleared by the Rules Committee a day earlier.
One of the most notable amendments, which was defeated, would have removed a rider that advocates say has restricted federal funds for research into Schedule I drugs, including psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA and ibogaine.
The reform measure was sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and it targeted 1990s-era provision that’s long been part of spending legislation for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The congresswoman previously attempted to eliminate the language via an amendment in 2019 only to have it rejected by Republicans as well as a majority of her party. This time, most Democrats were on board with the measure—but enough were opposed to defeat it.
Another pro-reform amendment, which was approved, encourages the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to enact rules allowing CBD as a dietary supplement and food ingredient.
On the other side, there was a proposal from Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) to eliminate a rider that’s in the Department of Health and Human Services spending bill that “allows federal funding to go to institutions of higher education that are conducting research on marijuana.”
The reason this measure has generated particular pushback is because research into cannabis is an overwhelmingly bipartisan issue, and top federal drug officials have repeatedly urged Congress to support policies that make it easier to study the risks and benefits of the plant. What’s more, Lesko represents a state with adult-use legalization on the books.
That amendment was rejected on the floor.
Activists are disappointed that two marijuana reform measures from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) were blocked from floor consideration. Her proposals—which were aimed at appropriations legislation for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—would have made it so marijuana possession or consumption could not be used as the sole basis for denying people access to public housing. One Norton amendment was narrowly focused on medical cannabis while a second measure would have covered all marijuana use that’s legal under state laws.
Overall, those amendments were targeted for inclusion in an appropriations minibus bill for fiscal year 2022 to fund the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, Rural Development, Energy and Water Development, Financial Services and General Government, Interior, Environment, Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.
Under its language as originally introduced in appropriations subcommittees, the large-scale legislation would allow Washington, D.C. to use its local tax dollars to implement a system of lawful marijuana sales for adults.
That stands in contrast to a budget proposal from President Joe Biden, whose administration is seeking to keep language protecting medical cannabis states from federal intervention but has excluded the provision on giving D.C. autonomy to legalize marijuana commerce.
Another provision that was added as part of the Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) spending bill would protect banks that work with marijuana businesses. Further, the committee report attached to that legislation encourages federal government agencies to reconsider policies that fire employees for using marijuana in compliance with state law.
Federal health agencies should pursue research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for military veterans suffering from a host of mental health conditions, a report attached to separate spending legislation that’s part of the advancing minibus package says.
Report language also directs the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to improve communication on veteran eligibility for home loans and report back to Congress on its progress within 180 days of the enactment of the legislation. A separate provision urges VA to expand research on the medical benefits of cannabis for veterans.
In the report for Agriculture Department funding, lawmakers took issue with the 2018 Farm Bill’s 0.3 percent THC cap for lawful hemp products and directed USDA to work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and DEA on a study of whether that threshold is scientifically backed. That report also addressed numerous other issues related to the crop.
Other report language attached to this spending package highlights the difficulty of studying Schedule I drugs like marijuana, recognizes the medical potential of cannabinoids like CBD, encourages federal agencies not to restrict the plant kratom and acknowledges the lifesaving value of syringe access programs and safe consumption sites for illegal drugs.
The appropriations process this session has seen numerous drug policy reform provisions included in bill text and attached reports—also stopping immigrants from being deported for cannabis, for example, among other issues.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.