Lost in the furor sparked by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s remark that he expects “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws was a revealing indication that the Trump administration is considering a big move on medical cannabis in the coming weeks.
In answering reporter’s questions about the Trump Justice Department’s policy on local marijuana laws on Thursday, Spicer repeatedly mentioned a rider approved by Congress that prevents federal officials from interfering with state medical cannabis programs:
“There’s a big difference between the medical use which Congress has, through an appropriations rider in 2014, made very clear what their intent was in terms of how the Department of Justice would handle that issue. That’s very different than the recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice I think will be further looking into.”
The rider, commonly referred to as the “Rohrabacher-Farr amendment,” after its two primary legislative sponsors, prevents the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. It was passed with bipartisan majorities on the House floor and signed into law by President Obama in 2014 and again in 2015. It remains in effect, at least until April 28, which is when current funding for the federal government and all annual spending riders are set to expire. Congressional leadership is working behind the scenes to determine whether the medical cannabis protections will be extended in further funding legislation.
In the meantime, President Trump’s first budget request, expected soon, will contain a key indication on whether he supports continuing to legally prevent Attorney General Jeff Sessions, federal prosecutors and the DEA from going after people who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
Presidential budget requests generally use the current year’s existing spending levels and provisions as a starting point, and then suggest additions, deletions and amendments for the next fiscal year.
In his last two budgets, President Obama actually suggested deleting the medical cannabis protections enshrined in law (as well as related ones on state industrial hemp programs).
Note the brackets indicating suggested deletion in Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 proposal:
And in his Fiscal Year 2017 request:
So when President Trump submits his budget request we should see whether the administration is proposing to continue or delete the medical cannabis protections that are current spending law.
In his comments at the press briefing, Spicer went out of his way to distinguish between medical and recreational marijuana, and indicated that the White House supports letting patients use cannabis if it brings them relief:
“I think medical marijuana, I’ve said before that the President understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing especially terminal diseases and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them.”
While federal law requires that budget requests are due by the first Monday in February, first-year presidents are usually given more leeway and typically initially release what’s referred to as a “skinny budget” that roughly outlines their priorities and then follow up with a full request weeks or months later. (President Obama’s first full budget request came out on May 11, 2009.)
The White House says they will roll out their basic proposal by March 14, and haven’t yet announced a deadline for the full budget. It is likely that the administration’s position on the medical marijuana amendment would be revealed in the latter document, though it’s possible that the initial bare-bones version could contain some related drug policy revelations.