A powerful Congressional committee delivered a strong rebuke to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday, rejecting his request to delete a provision that protects state medical marijuana laws from federal interference.
With a voice vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee added the rider to legislation funding the Department of Justice for Fiscal Year 2018. The policy has been in effect in every annual spending bill enacted since late 2014.
Earlier this year, as first reported by MassRoots, Sessions, a former senator, sent a letter pleading with his old colleagues in Congressional leadership not to continue the policy into next year.
“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” he wrote. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives… I respectfully request that you oppose the inclusion of such language in Department appropriations.”
But senators rejected the request.
The successful amendment was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
“It is more humane to regulate medical marijuana than to criminalize it,” Leahy said during a brief discussion before the vote. “I don’t want them spending money pursuing medical marijuana patients who are following state law… We have more important things for the Justice Department to do than tracking down doctors or others, epileptics, who are using medical marijuana legally in their state.”
While the provision has been approved on the House floor with large bipartisan majorities, most recently with a vote of 242 to 186 in 2015, it is unknown if that chamber’s leadership will allow it to be considered this year.
The Republican-controlled House Rules Committee has begun locking down the amendment process and not allowing votes on some riders it deems controversial. This week, for example, the panel blocked floor consideration of a proposal to allow military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors, a proposal which was approved by the House last year.
But even without a House vote, advocates have a good chance of getting the Senate-approved state medical cannabis protections included in final enacted legislation that will be drafted by a conference committee charged with merging the two chambers’ proposals into a single bill.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved the veterans medical cannabis provision earlier this month by a vote of 24 to 7.
In the letter to Congressional leadership, Sessions wrote that marijuana use has “significant negative health effects,” arguing that is “linked to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders such as psychosis, respiratory ailments such as lung infections, cognitive impairments such as IQ loss, and substance use disorder and addiction.”
The vote, a stinging loss on an issue Sessions cares deeply about, comes as his position in the Trump administration is in question amidst an increasingly public spat with the president over issues related to the investigation on Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 election.
Also on Thursday, the Senate panel adopted an amendment to protect state industrial hemp programs from federal interference.