Big Week For Marijuana In Congress

By Tom Angell | July 24, 2017

As a Justice Department task force finalizes recommendations on possible marijuana enforcement policy changes this week, Congress will consider several important cannabis amendments on issues ranging from federal interference with state laws to water rights for cultivators to medical marijuana access for military veterans.

All of the proposals are amendments to bills concerning spending by federal departments and agencies.

Advocates haven’t had luck scheduling hearings or votes on standalone bills in recent years because those processes are tightly controlled by Congressional leadership, which remains largely opposed to cannabis reforms. As a result, recent marijuana votes in Congress have all been on amendments to appropriations legislation, the process for which is typically more open to revision by rank-and-file members.

Here’s what to expect this week:

VETERANS

First, the House will consider amendments that seek to allow military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations through U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) doctors.

A measure to do so was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month by a bipartisan vote of 24 to 7.

Last year, a similar amendment passed the House with a 233 to 189 margin, and a complementary provision also cleared the Senate panel by a vote of 20 to 10 before being passed by the full body. But the provisions were later stripped out by the conference committee that merged both chambers’ separate legislation into a final V.A. appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2017.

Advocates hope that the bigger margin of support in the Senate committee this year, combined with what they believe will be a similar increase on the House side, will be enough to get the language enacted into law this time.

But there’s a catch: In order to even receive a vote on the House floor, the amendment must first be cleared by the House Rules Committee, and that’s not something that can be taken for granted.

Whereas spending bills have in years past been brought to the floor under rules that allow votes on almost any germane amendment, House Republicans last year began locking down the process after controversy surrounding riders concerning gun policy and the right of transgender people to access public bathrooms threatened the passage of some bills.

For parliamentary reasons, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and a bipartisan list of 17 cosponsors are actually filing two veterans medical cannabis amendments on Monday. One is identical to the version that the Senate committee approved this month. But Blumenauer’s office was told that it might be found out of order under House rules because it creates additional duties for federal officials, so a second version that is identical to the rider as passed by the full House last year was also filed.

The Rules Committee meets on Monday and Tuesday to determine which amendments will be allowed on the floor for votes. It is expected that the overall bill, which concerns funding for several other federal departments in addition to V.A., will be considered by the House on Wednesday or Thursday.

PROTECTING STATE LAWS

Under an appropriations rider that is current federal law, at least through September 30 when the fiscal year ends, the U.S. Department of Justice cannot spend money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws. The provision has been enacted in each annual budget since late 2014, and is expected to be voted on again by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday when it considers legislation to fund the Justice Department for Fiscal Year 2018.

The panel approved the amendment with a bipartisan vote of 21 to 8 last year, and the measure has also previously been passed by the full House, most recently by a 242 to 186 vote in 2015.

It is not publicly known which senators might introduce the amendment this year. Previous Senate versions were sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who is now retired.

It is also possible, but considered less likely, that the Senate panel will consider a broader amendment this week that would protect all state marijuana laws — including those allowing recreational use — from Justice Department interference.

The House narrowly defeated a proposal along those lines in 2015, falling just nine flipped votes short of passage. Since then, the number of states with legalization has doubled and several Congressional prohibitionists have retired and been replaced with supporters of states’ rights to set their own marijuana laws, so advocates believe they have enough support to pass the measure in the House this year if given then opportunity for floor consideration.

The House version of the Justice Department spending legislation has already cleared that chamber’s Appropriations Committee, but it is unknown when the bill will reach the floor or if marijuana amendments will be allowed by the Rules Committee.

WATER RIGHTS

Blumenauer, along with Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO), filed an amendment before the House Rules Committee to protect water rights for state-legal marijuana and hemp growers.

Under a current policy from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, regulators who discover that federally-controlled water is being used for cannabis cultivation must report it to their supervisors who are then required to forward that information to the Department of Justice.

The Blumenauer-Polis amendment would prevent the Bureau of Reclamation from spending money to enforce that policy.

Separately, Polis, along with Congressman James Comer (R-KY) filed a similar amendment that would only apply to state-legal hemp cultivation. And, Polis filed a third version that would have a similar effect as the second but is worded differently.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION UNCERTAINTY

The votes this week come amid growing uncertainty about the Trump administration’s position on state marijuana laws.

Whereas President Trump repeatedly pledged as a candidate to respect state cannabis policies, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an ardent legalization opponent.

As MassRoots first reported last month, Sessions recently asked Congressional leadership to delete the appropriations rider protecting local medical marijuana laws. If the Senate committee votes to renew the provision, especially if via a strong bipartisan vote similar to last year’s, it will be considered a strong rebuke to the attorney general.

President Trump, when signing a spending bill earlier this year included a statement essentially reserving the right to ignore the medical marijuana provision.

Also, on Thursday, a Department of Justice task force is set to submit marijuana enforcement policy recommendations to Sessions, part of a review he launched in April. It is unknown what those recommendations with say and if or when they will be made public.

Last week, federal officials held secret meetings on marijuana policy with state and local officials in Colorado.

VICTORY FOR HEMP

In other news of concern for cannabis law reform advocates, last week the Senate Appropriations Committee also adopted two provisions supporting the hemp industry.

The body’s bill funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture contained language preventing federal officials from spending money to interfere with state hemp research programs. Separately, the panel approved an amendment to a water and energy regulatory spending bill that protects water rights for industrial hemp cultivators. That measure is identical to one of the Polis hemp amendments being considered in the House.

See below for the text of the House veterans amendments:

See below the the list of cosponsors for the House veterans amendments:

Republicans:
Justin Amash (MI)
Carlos Curbelo (FL)
Matt Gaetz (FL)
Tom Garrett (VA)
Duncan Hunter (CA)
Tom McClintock (CA)
Tom Reed (NY)
Dana Rohrabacher (CA)
Don Young (AK)

Democrats:
Earl Blumenauer (OR)
Steve Cohen (TN)
Luis Correa (CA)
Peter DeFazio (OR)
Barbara Lee (CA)
Ed Perlmutter (CO)
Mark Pocan (WI)
Jared Polis (CO)
Dina Titus (NV)

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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