Congress To Decide On State Marijuana Protections Soon

By Tom Angell | August 22, 2017

Under current federal law, the Department of Justice is barred from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. But that provision — along with funding for agencies across the federal government — is set to expire in just over a month, on September 30, unless Congress votes to extend it.

Details are now beginning to emerge about how lawmakers plan to address Fiscal Year 2018 spending levels and policy riders concerning marijuana and other issues.

The House Rules Committee announced earlier this month that Republican leaders intend to bring a combined appropriations bill covering various federal departments to the floor in September, and there could be opportunities to vote on extending the medical cannabis protections as well as several other marijuana riders.

That’s if Republican leaders allow those amendments to even be considered, and there is reason to be concerned that they might not.

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.

And so last month, the Rules Committee blocked a measure to allow military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations through U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) doctors from being voted on by the full House, even though it had bipartisan support and a similar measure was approved there by a vote of 233 to 189 in 2016. Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last month to attach the veterans language to its version of the V.A. bill by a margin of 24 to 7.

In a letter first reported by MassRoots, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked Congress earlier this year to not renew the state medical cannabis protections. But the Senate spending panel ignored that request, opting to attach the language to the Justice Department’s 2018 spending bill with a bipartisan voice vote.

Now, with a huge bill covering spending for the Department of Justice and other federal departments coming to the House floor next month, marijuana policy reform supporters in that chamber will have a chance to push for votes on the medical cannabis rider and other marijuana-related amendments.

Here a some of the cannabis amendments that could be voted on in the House next month, if they are not blocked by leadership:

Protecting state medical cannabis laws: This is the big one. State-legal medical cannabis patients and providers have been protected from Justice Department interference since this rider was first enacted in late 2014. Since then it has been extended annually, and would almost certainly be approved by the House with a strong bipartisan margin again if allowed a vote. But even without a House vote, the language is already in the Senate bill and thus still alive for inclusion in the final spending legislation that will be sent to President Trump.

Protecting all state marijuana laws: In 2015, an amendment to broaden the medical cannabis protections to cover all state marijuana laws — including those allowing recreational use and sales — came just nine flipped voted shy of passing on the House floor. Since then, the number of states with legalization has doubled and a number of retiring prohibitionist lawmakers have been replaced by supporters. Advocates feel that if the measure is brought up this year it will likely pass. (The Senate has never voted on such a broad proposal, and that chamber’s Appropriations Committee did not consider it during their passage of 2018 Justice Department spending legislation.)

Letting Washington, D.C. legalize and regulate marijuana sales: In 2014, District of Columbia voters approved a ballot measure that legalized low-level cannabis possession and homegrow. But, thanks to Congressional meddling, they have no place to legally buy marijuana. Under annual amendments championed by Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD), D.C. government is prohibited from spending its own money to legalize and regulate cannabis sales. The bill coming to the floor next month continues a version of that rider that was expanded in scope by a spending bill signed into law by President Trump earlier this year.

But Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has already introduced an amendment to cut the prohibition from the bill. If passed, her measure would allow D.C. officials to spend local money to legalize marijuana sales. (She also filed amendments to strip riders that interfere with D.C.’s local abortion and assisted suicide policies.)

“The anti-democratic interference in D.C.’s purely local affairs flies directly in the face of the oft touted Republican principle of local control, and I am making sure no Member gets a free pass on abusing congressional authority over the District,” Norton said in a press release on Tuesday. “Republican Members from states where medical aid in dying and recreational marijuana are legal should particularly apply the same right of local autonomy that their states have used to the District of Columbia.”

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has been a lead sponsor of the state medical cannabis protections, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the D.C. amendment.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet considered its version of legislation to fund D.C., but that chamber’s original bills have in recent years not included the language blocking marijuana regulation expenditures and so amendments on the topic have not been offered there.

Allowing marijuana businesses to access banks: Because of federal prohibition laws, many banks refuse to work with cannabis businesses. As a result, they often have to operate on a cash-only basis, which makes them targets for robberies.

When the House Appropriations Committee considered the Treasury Department spending bill last month, lawmakers briefly debated, but did not vote on, a marijuana banking amendment. A similar measure was approved on the House floor in 2014 by a vote of 231 to 192, but the language did not make it into that year’s final bill. And last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 16 to 14 to pass similar language, but that too was stripped from the final legislation. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet considered its version of the Treasury spending bill this year but is likely to do so after lawmakers return from recess in September, and it likely that supporters will push for a marijuana banking amendment.

Protecting state hemp programs: In past years, amendments to protect state industrial hemp laws have been approved by overwhelming bipartisan margins in both chambers, and it is expected that will likely be the case as well this year. Senators have already attached several hemp amendments to various spending bills this year.

Even without House votes on some or all of the marijuana measures, advocates are still hopeful of enacting some of them into law because of their success getting the riders approved at the Senate committee level. Specifically, they believe they have a good chance of getting cannabis language cleared by the House-Senate conference committee that will merge the two chambers’ bills together into a single proposal to be sent to the president.

In the meantime, because it could take time to form bipartisan deals needed to advance remaining House and Senate floor action on the spending bills, it is likely that that Congressional leaders will first move a short-term extension of current funding levels and policy riders — such as the medical cannabis protections — in order to give themselves more time to craft the final FY18 bill.

That extension would likely continue the medical cannabis language, other existing policy riders and current funding levels through the end of the year.

Amendments for the large appropriations bill are due to the House Rules Committee by this Friday at 10:00 AM.

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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