A historic Congressional cannabis vote … or not?


The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to the 2015 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill (HR 4660) passed Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives. It would prohibit the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or the Department of Justice from using taxpayer money to interfere with medical cannabis in states where it is legal and would bar federal agencies from prosecuting hemp production in states where it is legal. It would not keep the DEA from arresting people unconnected to medical use. 

The bipartisan measure was co-sponsored by Democrats Sam Farr, Jared Polis, Barbara Lee, Steve Cohen and Earl Blumenauer and Republicans Dana Rohrabacher, Don Young, Tom McClintock, Paul Broun and Steve Stockman. 

The amendment was first offered by Rohrabacher and Maurice Hinchey in 2007. It was defeated 262- 165. The last time the amendment was introduced was 2012. It lost 262-163. Last week, it passed 210- 189, with 49 Republicans joining Democrats in voting yes. For some historical reference, the first House vote on the issue was on a nonbinding resolution opposing medical marijuana in 1998, which passed by a 311-94 margin. 

“We all are realists here,” Polis told reporters on Friday after the vote. “We know that we haven’t had an appropriations process in some time. We don’t know where this particular amendment and bill are going,” he said. “It’s the will of Congress. It has ramifications for banking, for insurance, for a number of other issues that affect the industry.” 

Rohrabacher, a Republican from California and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, conveniently forgetting that the 40th president and his wife declared war on cannabis at this time 30 years ago, praised Reagan for the 50-vote Republican turnaround. “I think that what we’ve got now and what we have here in the Republican vote last night were people who took a lot of those words and the philosophy of Ronald Reagan to heart.” 

Whatever it takes. 

Farr’s press statement summed up the importance of the vote. “States with medical marijuana laws are no longer the outliers; they are the majority,” he said. “This vote showed that Congress is ready to rethink how we treat medical marijuana patients in this country. This amendment gives states the right to determine their own laws for medical marijuana use; free of federal intervention. It also gives patients comfort knowing they will have safe access to the medical care legal in their state without the fear of federal prosecution.” 

Another amendment that passed will stop the administration from moving staff temporarily to increase the Pardon Attorney Office’s personnel, which could help stop the administration’s initiative to lower sentences for non-violent drug offenders now in million of the DEA budget on grants to state and prison. Rep. Steve Cohen added one that moves $5 local police to help them reduce the backlog in rapetesting kits. Another Cohen-sponsored amendment, the Legal Services Corporation, which would have shifted money from the DEA to was defeated.

Still, this is historic — the first time a federal congressional body has voted to oppose anything about the federal War on Drugs. Given the congressional divide today, that in itself is pretty extraordinary. It even brought together the director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann, and tax reform lobbyist Grover Norquist, who together penned an editorial in the Daily Caller asking Congress to support the bill as a stand for sensible drug policy and against wasteful government spending. I doubt those two have ever agreed on anything before.

The amendment has some hurdles to overcome. It goes to the Senate next week, which is working on its own appropriations bill. It could go along with the plan, change it or send it to a joint committee for revisions. But it suggests, for the first time, that Congress might be finally waking up to the fact that two states have legalized it, 22 states and the District of Columbia have passed medical cannabis laws, five more allow access to CBD oils, and 10 states are attempting to bring industrial hemp back to American fields — all in defiance of federal statutes.

The hope is that this amendment will end the pervasive DEA raids on medical facilities in the years while Michelle Leonhart has led the organization. Some doubt that the language is strong enough to deter a determined DEA. And nobody knows how the Senate will react, although there have been indications that some in the body are warming to the idea that cannabis should be a state rather than a federal matter.

Farr admits that it still faces long odds before the president finally signs off on the omnibus appropriations bill. “But while momentum is on our side, there is still work to be done to get this bill out of the Senate,” he said. “In the meantime, the federal government can continue to prosecute medical marijuana patients. This is more than just a waste of taxpayer dollars; it needlessly destroys lives and tears families apart. The majority of states and now the House of Representatives have clearly stated this absurd policy needs to stop.”

I couldn’t have said it better. 

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