Dried flowers of medicinal marijuana plant are shown at The Canary's Song medicinal marijuana store in Nederland on Jan. 16. (David R. Jennings, Broomfield Enterprise)

House passes bill to prevent DOJ from interfering in states’ medical pot laws

The GOP-controlled House voted on Wednesday afternoon to continue to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering in states’ medical pot programs — but the House voted down a more sweeping bill that would have protected those who use, sell or possess recreational cannabis in America’s 420-friendliest states.

The House passed the Rohrabacher-Farr Medical Marijuana Amendment, which prevents the Justice Department from interfering with states that have legalized medical marijuana, by a vote of 242-186. The vote showed an increase of support for the bill, which passed by a 219-189 vote last year.

“The majority of the states have said they want medical marijuana patients to have access to the medicine they need without fear of prosecution,” Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said in a release. “For the second year in a row, the people’s house has listened to the will of the people and voted to give them that access … With a clear voice we have once again said to the DOJ: Stop wasting our tax dollars attacking patients. Let’s spend those funds more wisely going after real criminals and not sick people.”

But the McClintock-Polis Marijuana Amendment failed the House vote by 206-222. According to the office of Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., the amendment would have prevented “the DEA from prosecuting individuals who use, sell, or possess marijuana in compliance with state laws. This measure would provide much-needed certainty to marijuana businesses that they can operate free from harassment and interference by federal drug authorities.”

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo. (Denver Post file)

Polis was fired up on Wednesday.

“The federal government shouldn’t be swooping into Colorado to decide how we regulate marijuana any more than it should be swooping in to Louisiana to tell them how they should regulate crawfish,” Polis, also a co-sponsor of the Rohrabacher-Farr Medical Marijuana Amendment, told The Cannabist. “In Colorado we are regulating the marijuana industry in a way that doesn’t leave the market in the hands of criminal cartels. Congress is increasingly beginning to realize the folly of the federal prohibition on marijuana.

“I’m confident that in time we’ll succeed in letting states regulate this themselves.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., expressed a similar hope for and dedication to the failed bill.

“We made incredible progress today through passage of amendments that remove the threat of federal interference from state hemp and medical marijuana laws,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “Congress showed more support today than ever before, making this the latest victory in a quiet revolution underway across America to reform and modernize our marijuana laws.

“I was disappointed to see Congressman McClintock’s broader amendment narrowly fail. Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Alaska should be free to move forward with their voter-approved adult-use marijuana programs also free of the threat of federal interference. I look forward to continuing to work toward this goal.”

For the bills that passed in the House on Wednesday — including successful votes on states’ industrial hemp laws and CBD legislation — the Senate’s versions will be debated before they move to conference committees.

Legalization advocates found a lot to celebrate after Wednesday’s votes.

“Today was a big win for our organization and our movement,” Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told The Cannabist. “Rohrabacher’s amendment protecting medical marijuana laws got a record number of votes, and the broadest, most aggressive provision we’ve ever seen nearly passed on the first try.

“We’re as close as we’ve ever been to ending marijuana prohibition federally.”

Marijuana Majority chairman Tom Angell hopes that Wednesday’s wins — including the progress made on the more sweeping bill that lost — is a sign of what’s to come in the near future.

“Now that the House has gone on record with strong bipartisan votes for two years in a row to oppose using federal funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, it’s time for Congress to take up comprehensive legislation to actually change federal law,” Angell said in a statement. “That’s what a growing majority of Americans wants, and these votes show that lawmakers are on board as well.”

The executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association trade group thanked Polis and Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif, two of the failed recreational pot amendment’s sponsors.

“We’re disappointed that some members of Congress don’t think the principles of respect for state policies and voter mandates should be consistently applied, but we’re grateful to Rep. McClintock, Polis, and their co-sponsors for standing up for fairness,” NCIA executive director Aaron Smith said in a statement.

The influential Drug Policy Alliance took the opportunity to attack the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“There’s unprecedented support on both sides of the aisle for ending the federal war on marijuana and letting states set their own drug policies based on science, compassion, health, and human rights,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a release. “The DEA is a large, expensive, scandal-prone bureaucracy that has failed to reduce drug-related problems. There’s a bipartisan consensus that drug use should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue; with states legalizing marijuana and adopting other drug policy reforms it is time to ask if the agency is even needed anymore.”

Even though the recreational amendment failed, legalization advocates predict that it won’t take as much time as the medical bill to eventually pass.

“For some perspective,” the Marijuana Policy Project’s Riffle offered, “the Rohrabacher amendment was first introduced in 2003 and got only 152 votes. It took us 7 tries over 11 years from there to finally pass it. To start with 206 on the McClintock amendment is much better than we expected. With five more states voting on regulation next year, it should only take us one or two more years to get this over the finish line.”