Colorado congressmen butt heads on spending bill amendment to protect state-legal marijuana

The recent “groundswell” of support for a spending bill amendment protecting state-legal marijuana proposed by Colorado Rep. Jared Polis wasn’t enough to move a powerful Congressional committee — or even a Republican from his own state serving on it.

Polis attempted to push the provision known as the McClintock-Polis Amendment into the continuing resolution to fund the government during an emergency meeting of the House Rules committee late Wednesday night. The provision would ensure U.S. Department of Justice funds cannot be used to interfere with states that have authorized some form of marijuana legalization.

The Democratic congressman’s case didn’t just crash into conservative Republican Chairman Pete Sessions — it also rammed into fellow Coloradan Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican serving on the committee.

“I withdrew my amendment because I knew that Republican leadership wouldn’t allow it to move forward because they refuse to challenge Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions and stand up for states that have legalized marijuana,” Polis said in an email to The Cannabist.

“I got the commitment of several colleagues to work on the issue legislatively but they weren’t prepared to vote for my amendment last night,” he said. “But I know the American people agree with me that the federal government should not go after states that have legalized marijuana. My amendment would have protected those states, and with my community backing me I will continue to push for it with leadership.”

Buck claimed during the meeting that the McClintock-Polis language was “superfluous” because language that restricted the Justice Department’s ability to enforce federal marijuana laws was already in place in the existing continuing resolution to fund the government.

Polis pointed out that the language to which Buck was referring is known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, and it provides protections only to medical marijuana.

“That only covers probably about a quarter of regulated marijuana business our state,” Polis said, “the bulk would not be medicinal or home grow, it would be the commercial industry, which is why (the McClintock Polis) amendment is important.”

Buck then brought up a Jan. 12 phone conference with members of Colorado’s congressional delegation and their state’s U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. The Cannabist previously reported that in the call, Troyer told the delegation that his office will not step up marijuana-related prosecutions at the expense of other matters such as immigration, the opioid crisis and violent crime.

With Troyer’s assurances, and with protections in place for medical marijuana, “I don’t believe it’s necessary to pass this,” Buck said. “I’ll be voting against it.”

At that point, Polis withdrew the amendment so that he could continue work to include the amendment in the permanent funding bill language, he said.

The Rules Committee determines when and how bills are considered on the House floor and also considers original jurisdiction measures, which often affect the standing rules of the House. Buck has been on the committee since January 2017; he also serves on the Judiciary Committee.

Less than a week ago, 69 members of Congress signed a letter sent to House leadership asking for the inclusion of the McClintock-Polis Amendment in appropriations legislation funding the government.

The McClintock-Polis Amendment has taken on a new level of urgency in the wake of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Jan. 4 memo rescinding Obama-era guidance on marijuana enforcement, Polis told The Cannabist Jan. 12.

“In the last week there’s been a groundswell of support to include this amendment in appropriations legislation,” he previously told The Cannabist.

Debate on the larger topic of legal marijuana continued Wednesday night after Polis withdrew the amendment.

Chairman Sessions, a Republican from Texas, went on an unprovoked, nearly four-minute rant in which he said marijuana was addictive, implied it was a gateway to opioid abuse, blamed its use by members of his Boy Scout troop for their subsequent addiction issues and confessed he’d never smoked a “marijuana cigarette.”

“I have a strong opinion on drugs. Illegal drugs. Alcohol,” he began. “Marijuana is an addictive product, and merchants of addiction make it that way. They make it for addiction. They make it to where our young people become addicted to marijuana and keep going. And there’s massive amounts of evidence that suggest our young people — many of them that get into heroin, methamphetamine, a lot of other things — begin not only with marijuana but by addiction.”

Polis responded that all sides of the marijuana legalization debate believe addiction is a big problem, and there was no doubt that marijuana — like alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine — can be abused. But he also said that states with legal marijuana have 25 percent lower opioid abuse rates than other states, and that medical marijuana was part of Colorado’s successful strategy to battle the opioid epidemic.

He then briefly recounted the story of an Iraq War veteran awarded the Purple Heart who moved from Florida to his Colorado district so that he could treat his chronic pain with medical marijuana instead of prescription pills.

“(Medical marijuana) allowed him to get off the prescription opioids, conquer that addiction, and live a normal and productive life,” he said. “I’m proud to say he’s back at work.”

Watch the debate