Drugs

GOP Congress Won't Give Jeff Sessions a Penny to Go After Medical Marijuana

Attorney General Sessions may not like weed, but Congress isn't going to let him spend any federal dollars to bust patients and suppliers.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Teri Virbickis

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 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 U.S. 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 stop-gap 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 U.S. 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 weed. 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 administraion's laissez-faire approach to state-legal pot is "not too far from good policy."

 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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