Congress’ Money Bags Will Decide Marijuana Legalization’s Fate

Photo Credit: Uriel Sinai

The current funding measure that continues operations of the federal government runs out on Friday, March 23, 2018. With the new appropriations bill, we should expect movement on a number of high-profile issues, in addition to the slightly less high-profile issue of marijuana policy. Medical marijuana may not occupy the level of controversy that guns and immigration do, but the new appropriations bill’s effects on it could be drastic.

This session of Congress has only successfully pushed through one major piece of legislation: tax reform. Conservatives have scored victories on Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, repeal of Obama era regulations, tax cuts, and the repeal of the individual mandate in Obamacare, but movement on many other issues has stalled. As they look for ways to move the ball forward, expect the next appropriations measure to be loaded with a number of policy changes.

Medical marijuana has long since been wrapped up in spending bill drama. Though the use and distribution of marijuana is still prohibited under federal law, Congress carved out an exception for states that have allowed medical marijuana using a funding rider, the Rohrabacher amendment, which prevents the Justice Department from using prosecutorial authority to go after states that have legalized marijuana. Due to this rider, which has been attached to annual appropriations bills for the last three years, the Justice Department is not allowed to go after medical marijuana users, growers and sellers.

Last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter to Congress demanding an end to this funding rider. There is a clear difference of opinion here: Congress generally wants to allow states flexibility with medical marijuana, and Sessions’ Justice Department wants to restart a federal war on the drug. And in a complicating twist for the Justice Department, President Donald Trump was supportive of allowing states to permit medical marijuana during his campaign.

There are also divisions within Congress: In the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is championing the issue of allowing states to permit medical marijuana, but Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not even allow a vote in the House on the amendment last year. However, polling indicates that Republican and Democratic voters alike support medical marijuana. According to a 2017 Yahoo/Marist poll, 83 percent of Americans said that doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana to patients.

Not many other issues poll this high.

Republicans can actually pass something that has wide support if they pass the Rohrabacher amendment and use the funding bill to remove Justice’s authority to go after states that have legalized the use of medical marijuana. Given that Americans are angry with Congress’ inaction on so many issues, it would be beneficial for both chambers to side with a large majority of Americans on an issue.

Will Congress do something or do nothing and suffer the consequences in November’s midterm elections? If Republicans drop the ball and go against the will of roughly 80 percent of the American public, many of them might have to make a trip to a dispensary when they get booted from Congress to deal with depression.