Earlier this week, marijuana law reform advocates scored a victory by incorporating language protecting state medical cannabis laws in a must-pass bill to keep the federal government funded for the rest of the fiscal year.
The measure, which is similar to amendments that have been enacted with bipartisan support in recent years, prevents the U.S. Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with the implementation state medical marijuana programs.
But it leaves recreational laws now on the books in eight states open to attack from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the federal law enforcement agencies that work for him.
Supportive members of Congress tried this week to attach a broader amendment to protect the fuller legalization laws from the feds, but it was shot down on Tuesday by the House Republican leadership.
“With each new state marijuana initiative, there come the same gloom and doom predictions,” said Congressman Jared Polis, a Democrat of Colorado, in introducing the amendment before the House Rules Committee, of which he is a member.
“In my state, these fears simply haven’t come to pass,” he said, adding that violent crime and underage marijuana use are down in Colorado since legalization.
Polis, who is cosponsoring the amendment with Congressman Tom McClintock, a Republican of California, said the measure wouldn’t force legalization on any state but instead “simply ensures the federal government doesn’t waste its limited resources prosecuting men and women who are acting in full accordance with state law.”
“The DEA has more pressing concerns than actions that are fully legal under state law,” he said.
Whereas the language currently included in the bill specifies that it applies to”laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana” (emphasis added), the proposal from Polis and McClintock would broaden the protections to read:
“None of the funds made available in this title may be used, with respect to any of the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana on non-Federal lands within their respective jurisdictions.”
As drafted, it would also fix an error in the bill’s current cannabis rider which omits protections for Indiana and North Dakota, which both recently enacted medical marijuana laws.
But the amendment was not considered in order by the GOP-controlled panel.
The overall bill in question concerns funding levels and policies for the federal government through September 30.
Taken by itself, the Rules Committee’s rejection of the broader cannabis provision shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a direct strike against marijuana policy, as the panel blocked all 20 of the other amendments submitted for consideration on bill as well. The huge 1,665-page omnibus spending bill is the result of a carefully-crafted bicameral, bipartisan deal worked out over the course of weeks, and leadership is extremely reluctant to risk the possibility that the agreement could be unraveled by contentious floor amendments.
But reformers have other reasons to be worried about how the committee will handle the issue later this year as part of the separate appropriations process for Fiscal Year 2018 that will soon get underway.
A similar measure sponsored by McClintock and Polis to protect state marijuana laws came just nine votes short of passage on the House floor in 2015.
Since then, the number of states with legalization has doubled, and several marijuana law reform opponents who consistently opposed cannabis amendments in the past have retired and been replaced with freshman supporters.
As a result, legalization advocates are confident that if the amendment comes to a vote in the House again, they have more than enough support to pass it. But that’s a big if.
Last summer, House leadership begin restricting the scope of policy riders that were allowed to come to the floor in accordance with the rules under which spending bills are considered. For example, proposed amendments on banking services for marijuana businesses and Washington, D.C.’s ability to spend its own money regulating cannabis were blocked from even being considered on the House floor after partisan disputes on unrelated issues like gun policy and LGBT rights threatened the passage of appropriations bills.
For now, the Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations legislation is expected to be voted on by the House on Wednesday, and must be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Trump by Friday to avoid a government shutdown.