Politics

Cannabis Protected in Congressional Budget Deal

But Some States Are Not Listed.

Most states with medical cannabis laws will continue to be protected from federal interference under a bipartisan budget deal reached in Congress.

Under current law, the U.S. Department of Justice is prohibited from spending money to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws.

Funding for the federal government — along with the medical cannabis protections — is set to expire on Friday, but House and Senate Democrats and Republicans announced a deal late Sunday night to extend spending through September 30.

The medical cannabis rider — known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment after its chief sponsors in the House — is included. It reads:

“SEC. 537. None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, Guam, or Puerto Rico, to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Although the language is expanded from the most-recently enacted version to account for additional medical cannabis states, at least two states with new laws are omitted, for some reason. North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot initiative in November, and Indiana’s governor signed a CBD medical cannabis bill into law late last week.

As currently drafted, people abiding by those two state laws would not be protected by the rider.

With the retirement of former Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA), the new Democratic lead on the amendment will be Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

“Medical marijuana patients and the businesses that support them now have a measure of certainty,” Blumenauer said in a statement.

“But this annual challenge must end. We need permanent protections for state-legal medical marijuana programs, as well as adult-use,” he said, referring to the broader fight to enact more far-reaching changes to marijuana laws that would go beyond riders to annual spending bills.

The legislation, which still needs to be approved by lawmakers and signed by President Trump, covers the remainder of Fiscal Year 2017, through September 30.

Separately, lawmakers are working on Fiscal Year 2018 legislation, and medical cannabis supporters are asking Congressional appropriations leaders to include the rider in that legislation as well.

“Patients and doctors in states that have approved medical marijuana need to know that they safe from arrest and prosecution by the federal government,” Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats said in a summary of the bill.

If the medical cannabis protections aren’t included in the initial version of the FY18 legislation that Republican leaders will introduce in the next few weeks, supporters will have to fight to add it via an amendment, most likely on the House floor and/or in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In 2014 the measure was approved in the House by a vote of 219-189, and support grew in 2015 to 242-186. The measure was also approved twice by the Senate spending panel with similarly strong margins, and the language was included in the final spending packages signed into law by then-President Obama.

Since then, the federal government has been operating on temporary funding extensions without having individual appropriations bills brought forth under regular order.

Since the last House floor vote several more states have enacted medical cannabis laws or ended marijuana prohibition altogether, and a number of legalization opponents who consistently opposed the measure in the past have retired and been replaced with freshman supporters.

As a result, reformers are confident that if the amendment comes to a vote in the House, they have more than enough support to pass it again.

They also think it is likely that they have enough votes to pass a broader amendment protecting all state marijuana laws from federal interference — including those allowing recreational use. A measure along those lines came just nine votes short of passing on the House floor in 2015.

But the confidence in enacting the measures hinges on whether there are even votes on them in the first place this year. They have reason to be concerned, because in 2016 House leadership begin restricting the scope of policy riders that were allowed to come to the floor in accordance with the rules under which spending bills are considered. Last summer, for example, proposed amendments on banking services for marijuana businesses and Washington, D.C.’s ability to spend its own money regulating cannabis were blocked from even being considered on the House floor.

So while legalization advocates are optimistic that they have the votes to pass the state medical marijuana protections again and extend them through most of 2018, as well as add a new recreational rider, it’s an open question as to whether they will even get the opportunity.

The FY2017 budget deal announced on Sunday night also contains language continuing to protect state industrial hemp programs from federal interference and preventing Washington, D.C. from spending its own money to tax and regulate marijuana sales.

A summary prepared by House Democratic Appropriations Committee members noted that the bill does not include language protecting banks from being penalized for working with state-legal marijuana businesses, a rider some lawmakers had pushed for.

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