The House of Representatives on Thursday voted in favor of an amendment to protect all state, territory and tribal marijuana programs from federal interference.
The measure, which would prevent the Department of Justice from using its funds to impede the implementation of cannabis legalization laws, passed in a 254-163 vote on the floor. Earlier in the day, it had been approved in an initial voice vote.
Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) sponsored the amendment, which builds on an existing, more limited provision to shield only state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department intervention that has been enacted through appropriations legislation each year since 2014.
The House is considering @repblumenauer Part B, amendment #87 – Prohibits the DoJ from interfering with state and tribal cannabis programs. The term “state” includes District of Columbia, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
— House Press Gallery (@HouseDailyPress) July 30, 2020
As a growing number of states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, “we’ve watched across the country shifting attitudes,” Blumenauer said in the floor debate prior to the vote. “The federal government, sadly, is still trapped by the dead hand of Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, declaring cannabis a schedule I controlled substance.”
The congressman also talked about separate House-passed legislation to protect banks that service the marijuana industry and another standalone bill to federally deschedule cannabis.
“Make no mistake, that day is coming,” he said. “In the meantime, until that day of reckoning comes, we must pass this amendment to ensure the federal government does not interfere with state cannabis activities. This modest extension of existing protections, which we have achieved through the appropriations process in the past, is critically important.”
All but six Democrats participating in the vote supported the measure, while 31 Republicans cast their votes in favor.
Watch the House debate the marijuana amendment below:
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke in opposition to the amendment, arguing that the health benefits of cannabis are not proven and that passing the measure would send “the false message to youth that smoking marijuana is healthy.”
“Claims of benefits from smoked or ingested marijuana are very unreliable and generally outright fabrication,” he said. “However, it is an established fact that marijuana use has real health and social harms.”
Blumenauer gave an impassioned response, underscoring the fact that marijuana is used to effectively treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, epilepsy in children and nausea for people undergoing chemotherapy.
“The existing policy of prohibition is an abject failure,” he said, adding that criminalization disproportionately impacts communities of color and has driven mass protests against police violence. “This selective enforcement of nonsensical policy has posed huge problems for black Americans.”
Later on the floor after the voice vote, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) made a point of criticizing the cannabis amendment, using time that was designated for debate on an unrelated measure.
“This isn’t just what some might look at as a states’ rights issue. This is a problem,” he said. “We have a 50-state standard for [Food and Drug Administration] legalization of drugs and we are going to have a willy-nilly hopscotch way of doing things with every state that wants to legalize it doing their own thing.”
“What it boils down to, this is still in violation of federal law by legalizing marijuana,” he said. “We should continue to enforce it.”
The congressman also expressed concerns about potential consequences of legalization such as out-of-state trafficking of state-legal products, and he said drug cartels are moving in on public lands to cultivate illicit marijuana.
Nonetheless, his fellow representatives went on to vote overwhelmingly in support of the reform amendment.
Last year was the first time the House passed the more sweeping protections to cover state recreational marijuana laws, and members approved it along largely bipartisan lines in a 267-165 vote. At the time, the tribal cannabis program language passed as a separate amendment, whereas this year the protections have been combined into a single proposal.
The Senate didn’t include similar language in their version last year, however, and it was excluded from the final appropriations legislation that was signed by the president. The chamber has not yet started considering its appropriations bills for the 2021 fiscal year.
“For far too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in our discriminatory past and have continued inflicting harm on communities of color,” Lee, one of the amendment cosponsors, said in a press release following the new vote. “As the public’s views toward cannabis have evolved, Congress has a responsibility to ensure that our policies follow suit and move toward restorative justice.”
The passage of the new amendment came days after the measure was cleared for floor action by the Rules Committee. That panel also declined to make in order two anti-cannabis amendments offered by Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) to strip federal money from states that allow sales of “kid-friendly” edible cannabis products or that don’t have THC-impaired driving education programs in place.
Glad @repblumenauer’s amendment to protect legal state run cannabis programs from federal overreach passed.
The American people largely support cannabis reforms. It’s time the federal government got with the program.
Thank you, Earl, for leading the charge for reform. pic.twitter.com/W1nCYgH3IM
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) July 31, 2020
“This is the most significant vote on marijuana policy reform that the House of Representatives has taken this year,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “The importance of this bipartisan vote cannot be overstated as today; nearly one in four Americans reside in a jurisdiction where the adult use of cannabis is legal under state statute. It is time for Congress to acknowledge this reality and retain these protections in the final spending bill.”
“The next logical step for House Leadership is to bring legislation to the floor to end prohibition and demonstrate to the American people that the era of marijuana criminalization is drawing to a close,” he said.
This latest amendment comes as sources tell Marijuana Moment that there are plans in the work to hold a floor vote on a more sweeping standalone marijuana legalization bill in September. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which was approved by the Judiciary Committee last year, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and fund programs to begin repairing the harms of the war on drugs.
Several other cannabis-related measures have already been attached to this latest FY 2021 appropriations legislation that the House will vote on in the coming days. That includes the current medical cannabis protections as well as separate provisions allowing banks to service legal marijuana businesses without being penalized by the Treasury Department and protecting universities from losing funding for studying cannabis.
Notably, the funding bill also excludes language to continue a longstanding policy that has blocked Washington, D.C. from spending its own money to legalize cannabis sales.
The measure’s approval by the Democratic-controlled House comes days after the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) platform committee defeated an amendment to include support for legalizing cannabis in the party’s 2020 platform. One of the amendment’s sponsors, Cannabis Caucus Co-chair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), was among the delegates who voted against the DNC proposal.
This story has been updated to include comments from LaMalfa.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.