Congressional Committee Protects Medical Marijuana From Jeff Sessions

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Photo Credit: Melina Mara

A powerful congressional panel voted on Thursday to continue shielding medical marijuana patients and providers who comply with state laws from prosecution by the federal government.

While the provision has been federal law since 2014, when it was first attached to legislation that funds the U.S. Department of Justice, its continuance has been in question because of recent efforts by Republican leadership to prevent votes on cannabis amendments.

But in a stunning bipartisan move, the House Appropriations Committee voted to add the provision as a rider to legislation funding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s department for Fiscal Year 2019.

The amendment was offered by Rep. David Joyce (R-OH).

“I’d be remiss if I did not point out that recent polling from just last month shows 92 percent of the American people support the use of medical marijuana,” Joyce said in debate before the committee adopted his amendment by a voice vote. “In fact, even more voters from every political demographic oppose federal interference in state marijuana laws.”

Historically, the measure has been approved on the House floor but, because Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) has effectively blocked floor votes on cannabis amendments for the last several years — most recently on Wednesday when his panel prevented three hemp measures from advancing —  supporters haven’t gotten a chance to bring the medical marijuana measure before the full chamber since 2015, when it passed by a margin of 242-186.

Since then, the provision has been extended, mostly by default, through large-scale omnibus bills or short-term continuing resolutions that have largely kept federal spending policy riders frozen in place for the last few budget cycles.

But legalization supporters circumvented their Pete Sessions problem on Thursday by inserting the marijuana language into the funding bill at the earlier Appropriations panel stage, a move they previously haven’t risked because members of Congress are seen as more likely to avoid bucking party leadership at the committee level when bills are being crafted.

“Congress still has a long way to go, but it’s remarkable how far we’ve come,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who has played a leading role in pushing cannabis reform measures, said in a statement. “Today’s vote is the latest example of the progress we’ve made. It’s still not enough, especially with Jeff Sessions at the helm of the justice system. Congress must seize this moment and act to expand protections to adult use.”

The growing number of states that are enacting medical cannabis laws in recent years means that far more members of Congress represent constituents who stand to be harmed by the spending riders’ disappearance, however, so advocates felt comfortable placing the measure before the committee this year.

“Today’s vote marks a victory for medical marijuana patients and another defeat for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his prohibitionist agenda,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said in an interview. “Representative David Joyce has demonstrated to his colleagues that it is time for mainstream Republicans to embrace federalism and provide protections for state approved marijuana programs.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has no familial relation to the Rules Committee chairman of the same last name, asked congressional leadership to discontinue the provision in a 2017 letter, but lawmakers then extended it anyway as part of large-scale budget deals for the rest of that fiscal year and into FY 2018.

“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,” Sessions wrote at the time. “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.”

Now, the protections for state medical marijuana laws and the people and businesses who rely on them are pace to continue through 2019 as well. The rider does not protect broader state laws allowing recreational marijuana use and businesses.

“Great news for states’ rights and those suffering severe pain. @HouseAppropsGOP Fiscal Year 2019 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill will include an amendment offered by myself protecting states’ rights regarding the use of medical marijuana.”

— Dave Joyce (@RepDaveJoyce) May 17, 2018

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to take up its version of the Justice Department legislation next month. That panel has easily approved the medical cannabis rider — and other marijuana provisions — in recent fiscal years, and is expected to do so again.

By taking the House committee route, led by Joyce, marijuana reform supporters also avoided the measure’s long association with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has been its chief sponsor for years and who isn’t a member of the Appropriations panel. The reputation of Rohrabacher, who is seen as one of the most pro-Russia members of Congress, has been damaged amid revelations about that country’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race

And his reelection this year, in a district that Hillary Clinton won, is uncertain.

Now, because the measure was successfully attached to the 2019 Justice Department bill by Joyce, it is the Ohio congressman’s name — and not Rohrabacher’s — that will likely appear at the top of congressional sign-on letters about it, probably making it more likely that fellow GOP members will more seriously consider supporting its extension.

For now, advocates are hopeful that Congress is getting the message that supporting marijuana law reform is good politics.

The Thursday vote “shows that protecting state medical marijuana programs from interference by the Department of Justice is no longer a controversial issue when members of Congress are given an opportunity to vote on this issue,” said Michael Liszewski, a policy advisory at the Drug Policy Alliance. “The House Appropriations Committee stands with the 90 percent of Americans, including supermajorities of all Republicans and Democrats alike, who think Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice have no business disrupting state medical marijuana programs. The only thing standing in the way of more comprehensive federal marijuana reform proposals is a small handful of committee leaders who are blocking these bills and amendments from moving forward.”

And Don Murphy of the Marijuana Policy Project said the fact that no cannabis opponents demanded a roll call vote on the state protection measure is significant.

“Opponents clearly want to avoid being on the record voting against sick patients and states’ rights, which explains why the committee held a voice vote,” he said.

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