Senators Include Medical Marijuana Protections In Justice Department Bill

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Photo Credit: Tom Sydow

For the first time ever, a provision protecting state medical marijuana laws is being included in base funding legislation for the U.S. Department of Justice.

While the provision in question has been federal law since 2014, in years past its enactment has required votes on the House floor or in a Senate committee. But now, in a dramatic sign of the rapidly changing politics of cannabis, the budget rider is part of the initial spending bill for the Justice Department as introduced by Republican Senate leaders.

“It’s taken years of hard work by patients and their advocates, but we’ve finally reached the point where even in a U.S. Senate controlled by Republicans, a medical marijuana provision is not considered a poison pill and its support requires no further debate,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an interview.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies approved Fiscal Year 2019 spending legislation including the measure on Tuesday. A full committee vote on the overall bill is expected on Thursday.

The House Appropriations Committee inserted the medical marijuana protections into its version of the Justice Department bill by a voice vote last month. That means the provision is all but certain to end up in the final FY19 appropriations legislation that is sent to President Trump for his signature later this year, clearing the way for states to keep implementing medical marijuana programs without federal interference through at least September of next year.

“The Senate Appropriations Committee finally read the writing on the wall and accepted the inevitable, that allowing the Department of Justice to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs is bad policy and losing politics,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, said in an interview. “Looking at the scorecard, today it’s medical freedom: 1; Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his reefer madness ways: 0.”

While the rider does not protect recreational marijuana consumers or the businesses that serve them, it does continue to shield patients and medically-focused providers in the 46 states that now allow some form of legal cannabis for therapeutic use . And that is a much-appreciated measure of relief in light of the fact that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year rescinded Obama-era protections that generally allowed states to implement cannabis laws without harassment from the Justice Department.

Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are teaming up on separate legislation to change federal law to permanently let states set their own marijuana laws without fear of federal intervention — and President Trump is on board.

“I really do. I support Senator Gardner,” the president said on Friday of when asked if he supports the bill, filed last week by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act, would exempt state-legal marijuana activity from the provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act. It would also protect banks that work with legal cannabis businesses and allow industrial hemp cultivation.

Before the Tuesday appropriations subcommittee vote on the Justice Department legislation, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), said he was “surprised to see the medical marijuana language.”

Lankford, who recently filmed a television commercial opposing the medical cannabis ballot measure that voters in his state will consider during this month’s primary election, called it “conflicting here that we’re spending millions of dollars focused on fighting opioids and yet leaning into pushing in the base bill towards the medical marijuana piece.”

“The FDA still considers marijuana as a gateway drug to opioid abuse,” he said.

In fact, numerous studies show a correlation between legal marijuana access and reduced opioid issues.

Democrats cheered the move, however,

“This bill again contains language preventing the Justice Department from interfering with states that have medical marijuana laws, ensuring that the prescribing and dispensing of medical marijuana in those states is both legal and regulated,” Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats wrote in a summary of the provision, somewhat overstating its impact because it actually only prevents federal officials from spending money to enforce the prohibition on medical cannabis without actually repealing it. “Patients and doctors in states that have approved medical marijuana need to know that they are safe from arrest and prosecution by the federal government.”

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