National direction to protect medical marijuana advances forward.
In a direct opposition to an already embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont led the Senate Appropriations Committee to passing the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment today. The amendment protects state law-compliant medical cannabis providers from the Department of Justice.
After years of effort, the amendment originally passed in 2014. It essentially blocks the DOJ from using federal funds to take action against the many well-regulated medical cannabis distribution programs across the U.S. This protection trickles down to everyone taking part in the program, like dispensaries and cultivators, as noted last August by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court concluded unanimously the language prevents the federal government from prosecuting anyone involved in the medical marijuana without proving a clear violation of state law.
Long time pot policy watchdog Tom Angell was among the first to react to today’s big news.
“This vote is not only a blow against an outdated Reefer Madness mindset, it is a personal rebuke to Jeff Sessions,” Angell, the founder and chairman of Marijuana Majority, said. “The attorney general, in contravention of President Trump’s campaign pledges and of public opinion, specifically asked Congress to give him the power to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers who are following state laws. A bipartisan group of his former Senate colleagues just said no. A majority of states now allow medical cannabis, and we will not allow drug warriors in the Justice Department to roll back the clock. The war on marijuana is ending, even if Jeff Sessions doesn’t realize it yet.”
The cannabis industry’s biggest voice on the hill, the National Cannabis Industry Association, also cheered the committee’s decision to continue to block funding,
“It’s great to see the members of the Senate Appropriations Committee stand up for medical cannabis patients, the responsible businesses that serve them, and the states that have worked hard to create safe regulated programs,” said executive director Aaron Smith. “More than 90 percent of Americans favor medical marijuana policies, and this amendment is a common-sense way to respect that overwhelming support.”
Smith went on to call for quick action on the other side of the capital.
“Now it’s time for the House to do the same,” Smith said. “Patients deserve access to care, states deserve respect and members of the House deserve the opportunity to vote on amendments like this that have the strong support of their constituents.”
The Drug Policy Alliance noted in a statement the amendment passed with strong Republican support, “a sign that Sessions is isolated politically as rumors of a crackdown on marijuana businesses abound.”
DPA Deputy Director Michael Collins called it a clear message to Sessions to keep his hands off marijuana.
“Today’s vote is a huge win for the marijuana reform movement,” Collins said. “Because in the face of real pressure from the Department of Justice, the Senate has opted to block Jeff Sessions from interfering with any medical marijuana law.”
The nation’s oldest cannabis policy organization, NORML, said now was the time for Congress to take its stand against Sessions.
“With the troubling rhetoric coming from Jeff Sessions and his justice department, it is more crucial than ever that Congress protects state approved medical marijuana programs and the patients that benefit from them,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri. “Attorney General Sessions thinks that medical marijuana patients are no better than members of illegal drug cartels, it is imperative that our elected officials remove any potential bite from Sessions’ bark by taking away his ability to use the full force of the federal government to go against the will of over 90 percent of American citizens who support medical marijuana access and, in the process, endangering the well-being of millions of medical marijuana patients.”
The Marijuana Policy Project offered a timeline for success on the amendment. If the Senate Appropriations Committee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) budget is approved in the Senate, the amendment will go to a special conference committee which will attempt to craft a compromise with the House’s bill. If no compromise is made by Sept. 30 and the budget doesn’t pass, the previous amendment will be automatically renewed for another year.
“More than half the states have taken a stand and said they want their seriously ill residents to have safe and reliable access to medical marijuana, and today the Senate Appropriations Committee listened,” said Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach for the Marijuana Policy Project. “What was expected to be a very successful vote passed on an overwhelming voice vote, while opposition to the Leahy amendment was literally a whimper. That sound we heard in the Senate was the sound of a waving white flag as the federal war on medical marijuana patients and providers winds down.”
Murphy urged the rest of Congress to do the right thing and include this amendment in the final budget.
“Even if you are one of the few people who don’t support medical marijuana, states should still have the right to help their most vulnerable residents,” he said. “They should not have to worry about the Department of Justice interfering.”
In the eight states that regulate recreational cannabis the amendment does not protect state regulatory bodies, dispensaries, or cultivators. However in places where one regulatory body is handling the licensing of both recreational and medical cannabis facilities, it will be pretty time consuming for the DOJ to weave through what they could and couldn’t challenge a state on.
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