Two members from the House of Representatives are asking for an investigation regarding the Department of Justice’s focus on medicinal cannabis providers and patients. Sam Farr, a California Democrat, andDana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, believe the DOJ is in violation of federal law.
The two politicians created an amendment that prevents the DOJ from using its funding to target state-legal medical cannabis programs. The provision gained congressional support and became part of the federal spending bill, which President Obama signed last December. Though the annual funding bill is set to expire, lawmakers reintroduced an identical cannabis provision in June, and the House promptly passed the measure.
Despite this chain of events, the letter from representatives Farr and Rohrabacher reads:
“The Department has continued to pursue and prosecute individuals and businesses for involvement with medical marijuana in states where it is legal.”
Patrick Rodenbush, a Justice Department spokesperson, told the LA Times that the cannabis amendment prohibited the entity from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws,” and did not “impact our ability to prosecute private individuals or private entities who are violating the Controlled Substances Act.”
In response, the letter reads,
“Mr. Rodenbush’s interpretation is clearly a stretch. The implementation of state law is carried out by individuals and businesses as the state authorizes them to do. For DOJ to argue otherwise is a tortuous twisting of the text … and common sense.”
The congressmen believe that any DOJ official who claims the amendment states otherwise is disregarding the facts. Furthermore, using federal funding to prevent legally compliant patients and businesses from engaging in medicinal cannabis programs is a flagrant violation of the marijuana provision. While a Justice Department spokesperson acknowledges receiving the letter, the entity will not respond until the document is reviewed.
Earlier in 2015, Rohrabacher and Farr publicly condemned the DOJ’s attempt to shut down Harborside Health Center, a California company that is one of the largest and most respected medicinal cannabis businesses in the United States. Last year in Washington state, the Justice Department targeted a family of medicinal users who claim their 70 plants were solely meant for personal use in their rural Kettle Falls home. Both congressmen believe that the DOJ is overstepping its authoritative limitations and diverting federal funds into unauthorized areas.
Though the DOJ has reeled in its crackdown, it still targets state-legal patients and businesses. The federal government is partially to blame as it continues to equate cannabis with harmful substances such as heroin and crack cocaine. According to a CBS News poll, 86% of Americans support medicinal cannabis. Reflecting the current public opinion, 23 states allow medical use of the plant and its products, while 17 more states have legalized non-psychoactive marijuana extracts. Additionally, four states along with the District of Columbia have lifted their prohibition on recreational cannabis use. With Farr and Rohrabacher’s letter, the hope is to align policy with the public’s current perspective.
As patients and recreational cannabis consumers celebrate the wave of legalization sweeping the nation, federal authorities continue to apply whatever pressure is available to them to prosecute both individuals and marijuana-related businesses.
In May 2014, an amendment to an appropriations bill, Section 538, was introduced to Congress by Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California and Sam Farr, a Democrat from the same state. Prohibitionist opponents of the amendment and the Department of Justice (DOJ) at the time said that it would, “…in effect, limit or possibly eliminate the Department’s ability to enforce federal law in recreational marijuana cases….”
However, in an internal Department of Justice memo obtained by Marijuana.com, the Department stated that “This suggestion, which was intended to discourage passage of the rider, does not reflect our current thinking.” Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland who is staunchly opposed to cannabis legalization of any type, said, “The amendment as written would tie the DEA’s hands beyond medical marijuana.”
The amendment, which passed, was intended to barr the DOJ from using federal funds to “prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” Unfortunately, based on the Department’s reversal in its interpretation of the language of the amendment, it claims that it prevents interfering only with states, not individuals or businesses.
According to the Justice Department, the law prevents it “from impeding the ability of States to carry out their medical marijuana laws, not from taking actions against particular individuals or entities, even if they are acting compliant with State law.”
However, this clearly isn’t the spirit of the law. In April, Rohrabacher and Farr sent a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder to clarify their position and the intent of the law. “As the authors of the provision in question, we write to inform you that this interpretation of our amendment is emphatically wrong.”
The letter stated:
“The implementation of state law is carried out by individuals and businesses as the state authorizes them to do so. For the DOJ to argue otherwise is a tortuous twisting of the text…and common sense and the use of federal funds to prevent these individuals and businesses from acting in accordance with state law is clearly in violation of Rohrabacher-Farr.”
Despite a request from Rohrabacher and Farr to the inspector general of the DOJ for an investigation, the Department has stood firm in its “new” interpretation of the law. The memo obtained by Marijuana.com states that the only effect of the Rohrabacher-Farr law is to stop the DOJ from pursuing cases in which “the State or state officials are a party.” This means that, unless a state is officially involved in such a case, the DOJ believes that it is simply doing its job by enforcing federal-level prohibition.
The defiance of the DOJ, clearly illustrated by its strong pre-passage talking points regarding how the bill would “limit or possibly eliminate” its ability to enforce federal law concerning marijuana prohibition, smacks of convenient fear-mongering designed simply to thwart its passage. Now that the bill is law, the DOJ is engaging in the unsportsmanlike (and arguably illegal) behavior of re-interpreting its language.
According to Rohrabacher and Farr, the Department is defying the spirit of the law each time it seeks to prosecute an individual or business in a state where medical or recreational cannabis is legal. Will new Attorney General Loretta Lynch step in and discipline the Department? Or will she maintain the status quo, either by officially supporting the defiance of the DOJ or simply looking the other way?
Is the end in sight for the gross lack of clinical research regarding medical marijuana in the United States, including human trials, that’s been enabled by the federal government’s Schedule I status of the herb? The short answer: Maybe.
An amendment proposal has been made in Congress for a bill intended to accelerate development of new medicines. If passed, this bill would include creation of a new section of the Controlled Substances Act called Schedule IR. Any drug falling under Schedule IR would necessarily be cannabis, because the category is intended to “facilitate credible research on the medical efficacy of marihuana.”
According to the language of the amendment (note the spelling of “marijuana” as marihuana):
“The National Institutes of Health should initiate credible research on the medical efficacy of marihuana, including cannabidiol, as a treatment for patients.”
The amendment calls for the National Institutes of Health and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to work together to study the pros and cons of the use of cannabis as medicine. This bi-partisan legislation is sponsored by California Democrat Sam Farr, Maryland Republican Andy Harris, Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith, and Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer.
Republican Harris is a unusual sponsor for the bill; he led an unsuccessful efforts to block Washington, D.C. from implementing marijuana legalization. His opposition to the District’s legalization was especially controversial and attracted harsh criticism based on the fact that D.C.’s law was passed by a ballot initiative and, thus, directly reflected the will of the voters. It is possible that Harris is hoping research resulting from the amendment might uncover health risks or other fuel for the war on drugs.
This legislation cites the need for research at the federal level due to the legalization of medical marijuana in nearly half of U.S. states.
“As some States have begun to allow patients suffering from diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be treated with marihuana, it is imperative that the NIH, in consultation with the Drug Enforcement Administration, study the benefits and risks of marihuana and its derivatives and whether they are safe and effective forms of treatment for patients.”
If passed, the actual effect of this legislation is unknown. It cannot be assumed that the rescheduling of cannabis, strictly for research purposes and as directed by the federal government, will result in more open research and possibly human trials in the U.S. In fact, the regulations surrounding the new Schedule IR drug category would be written after passage of the law.
And guess who would be writing them? The DEA.
It should be noted that Schedule IR would apply strictly to marijuana research, not sales or any activity regarding recreational applications of the herb. For all uses of marijuana outside of research, the United States government and the attorney general would continue to apply the draconian regulations of Schedule I to their enforcement strategies and activities.
According to the language of the proposed amendment, Schedule IR would be a subset of Schedule I, with the “R” denoting the research focus of this new designation. According to the language of the bill:
“Except to the extent to which marihuana is intended to be used exclusively for research…shall treat marihuana in such Schedule IR as a Schedule I controlled substance.”
Between maintaining the Schedule I status of cannabis for all uses unrelated to research and the fact that the regulations for Schedule IR would be crafted by the DEA, this legislation leaves cannabis patients and advocates with little to celebrate. This bill’s passage would probably result in limited research, most or all of which was conducted by the NIH — and closely regulated and monitored by the DEA. There are also no guarantees of human trials.
Until the passage of bi-partisan bills like the CARERS act — which would re-categorize marijuana as Schedule II — objective, robust research in the United States will largely be a fantasy. Countries such as Italy, Israel, Germany, Spain, Canada, and the United Kingdom will continue to conduct the bulk of clinical studies and human trials involving cannabis.
Several marijuana-related amendments were introduced in the U.S. House on Wednesday, June 3. Some of the proposed amendments aimed to impact the Department of Justice (DOJ) and handicap their enforcement on local marijuana laws.
The amendments were presented as part of the funding bill which determines how the DOJ is able to spend money. Cannabis advocates both in and outside of the federal government are making a strong effort to educate and sway lawmakers.
One such advocate, Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, believes this is the time to bring members of the government to their side:
“The politics have continued to shift in favor of marijuana law reform. For a long time, lawmakers treated marijuana as a third-rail issue that was too dangerous to touch. But now that polling shows a growing majority of voters supports ending prohibition, more and more elected officials are starting to realize that demonstrating leadership on this issue has political benefits instead of harms.”
An amendment introduced by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R) and Sam Farr (D) forbids the DOJ from using federal funds to impede on states’ medical marijuana laws. This measure was approved in 2014, but must be renewed when the Justice Department’s spending bill expires each year. On Wednesday, it was approved again by a vote of 242-186. This is a significant increase from 2014 when the vote was 219-189.
Tom Angell, Chairman of the Marijuana Majority, commented on the increased support from lawmakers:
“Now that the House has gone on record with strong bipartisan votes for two years in a row to oppose using federal funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, it’s time for Congress to take up comprehensive legislation to actually change federal law. That’s what a growing majority of Americans wants, and these votes show that lawmakers are on board as well. Congress clearly wants to stop the the Justice Department from spending money to impose failed marijuana prohibition policies onto states, so there’s absolutely no reason those policies themselves should remain on the lawbooks any longer.”
The amendment from Reps. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) was pushing for even more than just impacting state medical laws. It would have denied the DOJ the ability to use federal funds to interfere with state laws allowing recreational marijuana use. This amendment was defeated, however, by a vote of 206-222.
Still, drug policy reform in the United States is shifting for the better, and funding is being reallocated to benefit citizens of the United States. Three other amendments, combined, significantly reduced the budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Those funds were reallocated to such subjects as solving the rape kit testing backlog, helping child abuse victims and paying for police body cameras.
Tom Angell commented on this in an email to Whaxy:
“Almost anything would be a more effective use of taxpayer resources than paying DEA agents to arrest people for marijuana. Thanks to these amendments that succeeded in swiftly cutting $23 million from the drug agency in about 10 minutes of floor time, this money will be used for things that actually help people instead of being used to ruin people’s lives for no good reason.”
Another win on Wednesday was sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.). She presented an amendment to protect state hemp laws from the DOJ. In another increase in support from lawmakers over last year, it was approved by a vote of 282-146.
This will assist farmers in the movement towards legal hemp cultivation in the United States. Hemp originates from the same plant as cannabis, but does not offer the intoxicating feeling. It is used around the world to make materials such as paper, rope, and cloth.
The increase in support of cannabis policy reform by United States lawmakers in just one year, from 2014 to 2015, is a sign of hope for continued progress in the future.
Last week, two lawmakers in Washington, D.C. expressed their frustration over the fact that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has continued to prosecute patients in states where medical cannabis is legal — in open defiance of a congressional amendment passed last December that protects patients and dispensaries. California Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (a Republican) and Sam Farr (a Democrat), co-sponsors of the amendment that prohibits federal interference in states where medical cannabis is legal, sent a letter to the DOJ demanding that prosecutions of patients and providers cease.
Wrote the representatives in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder:
“We respectfully insist that you bring your Department back into compliance with federal law by ceasing marijuana prosecutions and forfeiture actions against those acting in accordance with state medical marijuana laws.”
The Justice Department, however, in a very narrow interpretation of the law, has issued statements reflecting its belief that the amendment does not apply to cases against individuals or organizations (such as dispensaries that are currently being prosecuted in California). Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesperson for the DOJ, said the law only stops the department from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws.”
Congressmen Rohrabacher and Farr, in their letter to Holder, said that the DOJ’s interpretation of the amendment was “emphatically wrong.” They went on to state that the purpose of the amendment was to prevent the DOJ from wasting law enforcement resources on prosecutions of “medical marijuana patients and providers, including businesses that operate legally under state law.”
These “enforcement resources” are outlined in a 2013 report by Americans for Safe Access. The report illustrated that the Obama administration has spent more than $80 million per year — equal to about $200,000 per day — to prosecute medical marijuana users, cultivators, and dispensaries. The crackdown has been justified by the fact that cannabis is, alongside heroin and meth, a Schedule I drug, giving it an official status of “no currently accepted medical use.”
Separate legislation has been introduced to Congress that would reclassify cannabis to Schedule II, preventing the crackdown by the DOJ and DEA in states with legal medical marijuana. It would also allow much needed research into the plant’s medical efficacy. While passage of this rescheduling is uncertain, it would go beyond the existing federal amendment and offer broader, less ambiguous protections for individuals and retail outlets.
The only thing that seems certain currently is the DOJ’s defiance of the existing amendment and its continued prosecution of patients and dispensaries in places like the San Francisco Bay area and the state of Washington. However, given the strict interpretation of the amendment and defiant stance of the DOJ, patients and providers in all 23 states where medical cannabis is legal are subject to fear, federal scrutiny, and prosecution.