Most observers of marijuana policy are aware of the annual budget rider that has protected state medical cannabis laws from federal interference since late 2014. But many incorrectly assume that it is the only federal provision that makes an exemption for state-legal marijuana.
Actually, there is another, much more obscure U.S. regulation that carves out a manner of legitimacy and protection for cannabis activity that is legal under state law.
And, it’s 45 years old.
Enacted just two years after the founding of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws, the 1972 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule banning pilots from operating aircraft with illegal substances on board specifies that it “does not apply to any carriage of narcotic drugs, marihuana, and depressant or stimulant drugs or substances authorized by or under any Federal or State statute or by any Federal or State agency.” [Bolded emphasis added.]
An earlier, 1969 version of the regulation did not contain the clause protecting state-legal activity.
It is unclear what occurred during the three-year window between the versions that prompted FAA to make exemptions for state marijuana laws, but the 1972 revision does contain explanatory text showing that the penalty-setting provision preceding the clause with the state exceptions was also amended. Previously, it, too, only concerned federal laws and violations thereof.
“Since the adoption of Amendment 91-66, information available to the FAA indicates that the illicit carriage of drugs by aircraft may be occurring in various places within the United States and involve violations of State as well as Federal statutes,” the agency wrote in the Federal Register. “Accordingly, in order to cope effectively with the threat to safety in air commerce from such illicit carriage of drugs, it is proposed to amend § 91.12(a) and make the prohibition therein apply to the operation of civil aircraft within the United States with knowledge that narcotic drugs, marihuana, and depressant or stimulant drugs or substances as defined in Federal or State statutes are carried in the aircraft.”
When it comes to the subsequent exemption clause, it is remarkable that the federal government may have contemplated as far back as 1972 not only that states would begin legalizing marijuana but that activity in accordance with those laws should be shielded from a federal penalty on airplane pilots.
It wasn’t until 24 years later, in 1996, when California became the first state to enact a broad medical cannabis policy, and full-scale adult-use legalization didn’t arrive until Colorado and Washington State ended their prohibition laws in 2012. (Beginning in 1978, a number of states enacted mostly symbolic and ineffective medical marijuana laws that didn’t provide patient access, but that was still six years after the FAA rule change.)
While it is possible that FAA didn’t actually mean in 1972 to protect consumers carrying future-legal cannabis in the sky — and may have just meant to make sure law enforcement could legally transport seized contraband — a plain reading of the regulation would seem to have that perhaps unintended effect today.
In any case, it is still on the books. And very few people working on cannabis issues, if any, seem to have ever noticed it.
None of a half-dozen longtime D.C.-based marijuana policy reform advocates that Marijuana Moment reached out to for this story said they were aware of the FAA exemption’s existence.
But the provision could nonetheless have huge implications for the growing number of states that are making marijuana legal for medical or recreational purposes.
Much has been made, for example, of licensed cannabis producers’ difficulties in transporting their wares in states with populated islands.
A 2014 Seattle Times story on legal cannabis access by Washington State residents living on islands mentions the FAA’s ban on using aircraft to transport illegal drugs, but makes no mention of the decades-old exemption for state-legal marijuana products.
A 2015 Martha’s Vineyard Times piece describes difficulties in getting Massachusetts-legal cannabis to the island and raises federal concerns, but it, too, ignores the FAA exemptions for state laws.
While crafting medical cannabis regulations, Hawaiian legislators included their own state-level prohibition on interisland transportation. A lawmaker indicated in a 2016 Associated Press interview that she and colleagues were “trying to figure out how to get around federal laws that prevent marijuana from being transported by sea or air,” according to the news organization’s paraphrase of her remarks.
And earlier this year, a Boston Globe story even linked to the relevant section of FAA regulations to cite the ban, but the reporter apparently didn’t notice the state carve-out in the following clause.
States could potentially be able to solve their local transport issues by citing the little-known exemption. But, depending on the Trump administration’s response, the issue could end up being settled by courts.
And while the provision in question only concerns the ability to operate aircraft and doesn’t directly implicate broader interstate drug trafficking issues under the Controlled Substances Act, the fact that the exception exists could provide some room for arguments about Transportation Security Administration policies on the transport of marijuana on commercial planes, for example, as well as other gray areas at the intersection of conflicting federal and state drug laws.
After this story was published, a reader pointed out that Marijuana Business Daily briefly discussed the FAA regulation’s state-legal exemption in an earlier piece about transportation issues.
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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