The medical marijuana community achieved a landmark victory Thursday night, when the U.S. House of Representatives took what may be the first move toward rolling back federal pot enforcement. By a vote of 219–189, the House passed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would strip the Department of Justice of funds for enforcing federal marijuana law in states where medical marijuana is legal. The vote included 170 Democrats and 49 Republicans in favor of the amendment, by Americans for Safe Access’s count.
The House also passed two other amendments stripping funds for federal intervention in state hemp production and hemp research projects, after recent DEA intervention triggered a battle with Kentucky over its experimental hemp program.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in marijuana policy reform,” said Neill Franklin, a retired police major and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Never before has the US Congress acted so decisively to protect states’ rights to make their only laws regarding marijuana.”
The amendment was attached to an appropriations bill that also passed in its entirety Friday morning. It strips the U.S. Department of Justice from using any of its resources toward preventing states from “implementing their own state laws” on medical marijuana. The Department of Justice includes not just the Drug Enforcement Administration, which makes arrests and conducts raids against medical marijuana dispensaries. It also encompasses all the federal prosecutors pursuing legal action against these individuals.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidance in August urging U.S. attorneys to avert prosecution against state-compliant actors. But some enforcement has been ongoing, including a criminal trial against three Washington medical marijuana growers and moves to shut down some of the nation’s largest dispensaries in Oakland and Berkeley. Others are sitting in jail for earlier prosecutions.
That would stop with this amendment, although it would not affect recreational marijuana use in the two states that have legalized it, Washington and Colorado.
The amendment lists 32 states and the District of Columbia with laws implicated by the funding restriction, including several that have medical marijuana bills now pending in the legislature or awaiting a governor’s signature. As of yesterday with the governor’s signature, Minnesota became the 22nd state with a full-fledged medical marijuana law. Ten others have laws or bills pending that allow some use of an oil containing a chemical compound from marijuana that has been particularly effective in treating children’s seizures and other conditions, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The compound, cannabidiol (CBD) is very low in the psychoactive component of marijuana, THC.
During debate on the House floor, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) called for compassion, saying, “Some people are suffering, and if a doctor feels that he needs to prescribe something to alleviate that suffering, it is immoral for this government to get in the way.”
Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), a doctor, blasted a new DEA report that continues to use the word “medical” in scare quotes when describing medical marijuana — a relic of a fading War on Drugs. An increasing number of advocates and several members of Congress are calling for DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to step down, as the DEA remains increasingly out of step with moves away from the War on Drugs.
“DEA Administrator Leonhart is virtually the only person left who still zealously supports the failed war on drugs,” said Drug Policy Alliance Director of National Affairs Bill Piper. “These votes are her wake up call. It is time for her to go.”
Aaron Houston, who worked for many years as a marijuana lobbyist and advocate, called the vote a “tipping point” on marijuana. He noted that this amendment has been offered six times before over the course of 11 years and never before gained traction. This year, after a flurry of media attention around kids’ inaccess to CBD to treat life-threatening seizure conditions, more than half of states now have a medical marijuana or CBD law, meaning more members of Congress are representing their constituents.
The amendment’s passage reinforces the transformation of medical marijuana into a mainstream political issue over the past year.
“It’s clear that more politicians are beginning to realize that the American people want the federal government to stop standing in the way,” said Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell. “If any political observers weren’t aware that the end of the war on marijuana is nearing, they just found out.”