Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 12, 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press)

Senate committee, rejecting request from Sessions, keeps protection for medical marijuana states

In May, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter to Congress asking them not to extend the protections

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved an amendment to protect state medical marijuana programs from federal interference, despite a written request from Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year that they not do so.

The amendment, put forward Thursday by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), adds a clause to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2018 that prevents the Department of Justice from using funds to prevent any “State or jurisdiction from implementing a law that authorizes the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and territories Puerto Rico and Guam have passed laws legalizing various forms of medical marijuana.

In May, Sessions sent a letter to Congress asking them not to extend the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment with nearly identical language, which has been added to federal budgets since late 2014.

In his letter, Sessions argued that the amendment inhibits the Justice Department’s “authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act. … It would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

Last August, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the language of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment bars the federal government from taking legal action against any individual involved in medical marijuana-related activity absent evidence that the defendant is in clear violation of state law.

In May, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) introduced into the omnibus congressional spending bill a similar amendment that prevents the Justice Department from using funds to interfere with the implementation of medical marijuana laws in U.S. states and territories. That omnibus bill funds the government through September.

The CJS 2018 fiscal year budget now moves to the full Senate. If approved, the bill and its included amendments will go to a special conference committee to reach a compromise with the House version of the budget. If no budget is approved by Sept. 30, Congress may pass a continuing resolution of the current budget to avoid a government shutdown.

In response to the vote, Blumenauer tweeted: “No surprise! This effort has overwhelming bipartisan support. Now, it’s time for the House act.”

Blumenauer expressed a similar sentiment in an email statement provided to The Cannabist: “The Senate Appropriations Committee approval of our amendment comes as no surprise. These broadly supported protections have been in place for years. This is another important step to making sure they remain law.”

Here’s a look at some of the reactions from advocacy groups on both sides of the marijuana debate:

Erik Altieri, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said in a statement: “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.”

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said: “No one wants to deprive chronically ill patients of medication that could be helpful for them, but preventing the Justice Department from enforcing federal law is fueling black market activity and pushing patients toward an unregulated market proven to be hawking contaminated products as medicine.” He said efforts should be directed to fund more research on marijuana compounds that would go through the Food and Drug Administration approval process.

Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement: “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. We strongly urge the rest of Congress to do the right thing and include this amendment in the final budget.”

Watch Colorado Rep. Jared Polis talk about medical marijuana