Congress’ Spending Bill Is A Rude Awakening For Sessions’ War On Medical Marijuana

Photo Credit: Reuters

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be prohibited from going after state medical marijuana growers, retailers, and patients for at least another fiscal year, after lawmakers included language tying the Department of Justice’s hands on therapeutic weed in an omnibus spending bill this week.

The restrictions defy Sessions’ personal plea to Congress from roughly a year ago, when he sent a letter asking for permission to interfere with the medical cannabis industry. Lawmakers have sheltered state medicinal pot programs from federal law enforcement for several years now using a policy rider in spending legislation. The language, known today in both political and pot industry circles as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment (RBA), says the Department of Justice (DOJ) can’t spend a penny of its budget on investigations or prosecutions of medical marijuana actors in 46 states.

The omnibus deal hasn’t yet reached final passage. But if lawmakers or the White House were to attempt changes to it, the RBA would likely still be safe. Every spending measure adopted for the past three years has included some version of the language.

The lead sponsors of the policy say that Sessions’ attempts to crack down on marijuana have only strengthened congressional support for the protections. Though the attorney general has made noise on pot in various ways — including some chilling letters to legalization state officials where he cited erroneous statistics — he hasn’t yet managed significant or concrete action steps that could push the growing conflict between federal prohibition and state legalization into court.

In January, Sessions ripped up a series of DOJ memos spelling out the conditions under which a state-legal marijuana operation could expect to be left alone by the feds. The largely symbolic move prompted titters and eyerolling inside the industry — a line of business already worth billions and projected to grow at staggering rates in the coming years is not an easy target, and business owners know they’ve got significant support from both politicians and law enforcement organizations in their states — but nonetheless stoked concern that Sessions might take harder steps soon.

But it may have backfired. The January move “will give us something to rally behind, both Republicans and Democrats, to show that we need to have a comprehensive bill [for] not just medical marijuana but…all of the decisions of the states when it comes to cannabis,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) told reporters at the time. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) agreed, saying he’s “seen steady progress throughout this Congress” on pushing to curtail federal interference with even adult-use recreational cannabis in states that have legalized it.

Merely maintaining the RBA in the omnibus is not really a win for Congress’ growing “Cannabis Caucus,” though, the Oregon lawmaker told ThinkProgress.

“While I’m glad that our medical marijuana protections are included, there is nothing to celebrate since Congress only maintained the status quo. These protections have been law since 2014. This matter should be settled once and for all,” Blumenauer said.

And though Attorney General Sessions is adrift through the end of the omnibus spending cycle, it’s a different Sessions who lawmakers must now target. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), head of the House Rules Committee, “is stonewalling,” Blumenauer said. The chairman has used his committee statute to kill a number of widely supported amendments and bills that would bring federal cannabis policy further in line with the popular will, as Politico detailed on Wednesday.

“They’re ignoring the will of the American people by blocking protections for state adult-use laws and cannabis banking. They even refused our veterans access to lifesaving medicine,” Blumenauer said. “Republican leadership is hopelessly out of touch, and they should be held accountable.”