Congressional Committee Votes To Protect State Marijuana Programs From Federal Interference
A key House committee on Tuesday approved an amendment to provide broad protections for states, U.S. territories and tribes that have legalized marijuana.
While lawmakers had pushed Appropriations Committee leadership to include the cannabis language in the base Fiscal Year 2023 spending legislation for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CSJ) as introduced, that didn’t end up happening, much to their disappointment. Supporters, therefore, launched a backup plan to pursue the rider as an amendment in committee, as Marijuana Moment first reported on Monday.
Jointly introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Dave Joyce (R-OH), co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, the amendment passed on a voice vote. Now the CJS bill includes provisions preventing the Justice Department from using federal funds from interfering in the implementation of any cannabis programs.
“Today the majority of Americans reside in a jurisdiction where the medical or adult use of cannabis is legal under state law,” Lee told fellow panel members ahead of the vote. “We believe that the federal government should not interfere with these programs and should respect the will of the people residing in these states, territories and tribal jurisdictions.”
“It is critically important that we protect state territories and tribes that have made progress toward restorative justice by not interfering with their local laws,” the congresswoman said.
Lee, as well as key champions of reform like Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Tom McClintock (R-CA) and 44 other House lawmakers had previously sent a letter to Appropriations Committee leaders asking for the cannabis language in the base bill to avoid the amendment process.
“Congress must honor the will of the voters and prevent wasteful Department of Justice prosecution of those complying with their respective state’s or tribe’s cannabis regulations,” Blumenauer said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “I have spearheaded the work to develop this language, which protects the state and tribal-legal programs that have been enacted laws to end prohibitionary policies and allow the development of both adult-use and medical marijuana programs.”
“Using federal resources to go after lawful operators that function within the legal framework of their state or tribe is problematic on two fronts: One, it is an infringement on state and tribal rights. Two, it is a waste of resources that could instead be targeted at actual problems,” Joyce said at the committee meeting. “Let’s let the DEA return its attention to substances that are actually killing scores of people like fentanyl and opioids.”
“Inaction on this amendment allows illegal operations to thrive and outcompete the legal businesses which are forced to navigate the costly discrepancies between state and federal regulators,” the congressman said. “Let’s stop allowing this to happen. Regulated cannabis is not the problem.”
Here’s the marijuana protections text that was adopted:
“SEC.__. None of the funds made available by this Act to the Department of Justice may be used to prevent an Indian Tribe (as such term is defined in section 4 of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (25 U.S.C. 5304)) from enacting or implementing a tribal law that authorizes the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.
SEC.__. None of the funds made available by this Act to the Department of Justice may be used to prevent a State, the District of Columbia, or a Territory of the United States from implementing a law authorizing the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.”
“This historic action by the Appropriations Committee marks the first time the federal budget heads to the full House while including protections for adult state-legal marijuana programs,” Justin Strekal, founder of the BOWL PAC, told Marijuana Moment. “With bipartisan support, it is critical that the Senate concur with the House and respect the existing adult-use programs accessible to 45 percent of the American population.”
(Disclosure: Strekal supports Marijuana Moment’s work through a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
NORML Political Director Morgan Fox said in a press release that “the people involved in regulated cannabis programs in the growing number of states that are leading the way on this issue deserve to know whether the federal government will actively get in the way of their continued successes.”
“Including these protections in the federal budget will go a long way toward giving individuals, businesses, and state governments some peace of mind while signaling to the vast majority of Americans who support legalizing and regulating cannabis that their elected representatives are actually listening to them,” he said.
A narrower rider preventing DOJ only from using its federal funds to interfere in the implementation of medical cannabis legalization has been annually renewed since 2014, but the lawmakers have been pushing for broader protections in the CJS appropriations measure.
After the base CJS bill was released last week without the broader protections language, Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that it “should be not a heavy lift.”
“It makes so much sense to have the federal government not interfere,” he said. “The principle has been embraced. It should be low-hanging fruit.”
“Politically, this is something that—it’s not just Democrats, there are a number of Republicans that support this concept,” the congressman said. “I’m disappointed. And that’s another thing we’re working on.”
In 2019 and 2020, the House attached the sweeping state and tribal protections to its version of the appropriations legislation as amendments adopted on the floor, but they’ve yet to be incorporated into any final package enacted into law. CJS legislation didn’t end up making it to the floor in 2021, but supporters had planned an amendment that year as well.
In general, Democratic members have broadly supported the broad state protections language as amendments, while most Republicans have opposed it—with key exceptions.
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Blumenauer testified before the CJS appropriations subcommittee during a members day in April, describing his request for the inclusion of the cannabis language as his “top priority” in the bill this year.
“States from coast to coast—across the political spectrum, red and blue have—have taken meaningful action to end prohibitory policies and allow the development of both adult use and medical marijuana programs,” the congressman said. “The federal government should not interfere with these programs and the will of the voters.”
He also cited remarks from Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has said on multiple occasions that he believes prosecuting people over cannabis is a waste of Justice Department resources. The top prosecutor also recently disclosed to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) that DOJ would be addressing cannabis issues “in the days ahead.”
The recent letter to appropriators also asked that the tribe-specific language be included in the base bill for Fiscal Year 2023, which it ultimately was. In past years, the House has approved language on protections for tribal marijuana programs as floor amendments.
Similar language on tribal cannabis protections for cannabis programs was included in a separate appropriations base bill that was released this month, though it included a caveat that laid out guidelines for eligibility for those protections. For example, tribes located in states where marijuana hasn’t yet been legalized would not be eligible.
In a related development, a Senate committee recently held a listening session that explored cannabis issues for Native Americans, touching on areas such as tribal sovereignty in the marijuana space, agreements with state governments and taxation.
A coalition of nine U.S. senators also sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland in March, urging him to direct federal prosecutors to not interfere with marijuana legalization policies enacted by Native American tribes.
Meanwhile, there have been numerous drug policy provisions included in other appropriations bills and attached reports that have been released over recent weeks.
For example, House Appropriations Committee leaders are calling for a federal review of psilocybin policy, utilizing hemp as an alternative to Chinese plastics and letting researchers study marijuana from dispensaries in new spending bill reports.
There are other notable cannabis provisions that have been included in recently released spending bills and attached reports, including one submitted last week that encourages sports regulators to push international officials to “change how cannabis is treated” when it comes to suspending athletes from competition over positive tests.
The FSGG report also more broadly addresses drug testing requirement for federal workers, as previous versions have done in the past. But this time, there’s a new line that specifically urges the executive branch to apply drug testing standards with “consistency and fairness.”
Meanwhile, in an education spending bill, there’s again a section that would prevent the Department of Education from penalizing universities simply because the institutions are conducting research into marijuana.
The House Appropriations Committee also released other spending bills and reports last week, with lawmakers pushing multiagency coordination to create guidance on hemp manufacturing, better guidance on the marketing of CBD, updates on research into medical marijuana for veterans and investigations into “alternative treatments” for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as psychedelics.
Those provisions came out of Fiscal Year 2023 spending legislation for Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Related Agencies, as well as Military Construction, Veterans Affairs (VA), and Related Agencies.
Another set of spending bills and reports that were recently released call for protections for immigrants who use cannabis, freeing up marijuana-related advertising and providing the industry with access to the banking system.
Importantly, it remains to be seen whether the Senate will accept any of the House-led cannabis and drug policy proposals. Senate appropriators have not yet released their spending bills for FY23, and typically wait until after the House has acted, so it’s not yet clear which issues will ultimately get reconciled by the two chambers and adopted into law.
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