By Phillip Smith
The bipartisan congressional budget agreement to keep the federal government operating through September contains exactly no money for the Justice Department to wage war on medical marijuana in states where it is legal. The agreement reached Sunday instead explicitly bars the use of federal funds to go after medical marijuana.
And it sends a strong message to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an avowed foe of marijuana and loosening marijuana laws, who told reporters in a February Justice Department briefing that while states “can pass the laws they choose,” it remains “a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
The budget agreement eliminated funding for medical marijuana enforcement by adopting the language of an amendment that has been successfully used since 2014 to keep the feds out of medical marijuana states. Known originally as the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment and now as the Farr-Rohrabacher amendment, the measure bars the Justice Department from spending money to prevent states from “implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
The budget language lists the states that have medical marijuana laws, but curiously enough, does not include Indiana and North Dakota, both of which recently adopted medical marijuana laws. At this point, the omission is considered an error, not evidence of malign intent toward those two states.
It should be noted that the budget move does not necessarily mean medical marijuana operators are now free and clear of potential federal attention. Federal prosecutors could attempt to go after such operations by arguing that they are somehow not in compliance with state laws.
Still, the move was greeted with studied approval by medical marijuana supporters, who are now calling for marijuana to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act.
“Medical marijuana patients and the businesses that support them now have a measure of certainty,” said Oregon US Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a founding member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. “But this annual challenge must end. We need permanent protections for state-legal medical marijuana programs, as well as adult-use.”
It is time to “amend federal law in a manner that comports with the available science, public opinion, and with America’s rapidly changing cultural and legal landscape,” agreed Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
The best way to do that, Strekal said, is “removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act so that states possess the flexibility to engage in their own marijuana regulatory policies how best they see fit.”
Adding restrictive amendments to the Justice Department budget bill has served in recent years to block the feds from interfering in medical marijuana states, but is only a stopgap measure. The amendments have to be renewed each fiscal year, and there is always a chance they could fail. That’s why activists and the industry want the certainty that would be provided by either changing the federal marijuana laws or by making the funding ban permanent.
“Medical cannabis patients in the US can rest easy knowing they won’t have to return to the black market to acquire their medicine,” said Jeffrey Zucker of the marijuana business strategy firm Green Lion Partners. “Operators can relax a bit knowing their hard work isn’t for naught and their employees’ jobs are safe.”
But only until September — and that’s why it’s not quite time to get comfortable, he said.
“While this is great as a continuing step, it’s important for activists and the industry to remain vigilant and getting cannabis federally unscheduled and truly ending the prohibition of this medicinal plant,” Zucker said.
In the meantime, medical marijuana is protected in the 29 states where it is legal. But adult-use legal marijuana, legal in eight states, is not under the purview of the budget agreement and is still theoretically at risk from a Sessions Justice Department.
But even Sessions, a fire-breathing foe of the weed, increasingly seems disinclined to make good on earlier vows to go after legal pot. Like Donald Trump discovering that health care reform is “complicated,” Jeff Sessions is apparently coming to understand, as he reportedly told Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff last week, that the Obama administration’s toleration of state-legal marijuana legalization under specified conditions is “not too far from good policy.”