House Votes to Block Feds From Interfering With State-Legalized Marijuana

“It is the start of the end of a national prohibition,” said Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado.

Drug of choice?
National Journal
Billy House
May 30, 2014, 4:06 a.m.

Us­ing states’ rights as a bi­par­tis­an ral­ly­ing cry, the House voted 219-189 early Fri­day to pro­hib­it the Justice De­part­ment from spend­ing fed­er­al tax­pay­er dol­lars to con­duct raids or oth­er­wise in­ter­fere with med­ic­al-marijuana activ­it­ies that are leg­al in the states.

The move came shortly after mid­night with pas­sage of an amend­ment to the $51.2 bil­lion an­nu­al Com­merce, Sci­ence, Justice, and Re­lated Agen­cies spend­ing bill, sponsored by GOP Rep. Dana Rohra­bach­er of Cali­for­nia. Two oth­er amend­ments to block the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion from in­ter­fer­ing with in­dus­tri­al hemp op­er­a­tions leg­al­ized by states also were ap­proved.

“To­geth­er we have made his­tory in the battle for com­mon­sense marijuana law re­forms. It is the start of the end of a na­tion­al pro­hib­i­tion,” gushed one co­spon­sor, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Jared Pol­is of Col­or­ado, in a tweet after the vote.

In all, 49 Re­pub­lic­ans and 170 Demo­crats sup­por­ted the amend­ment, with 23 mem­bers not cast­ing a vote. The en­tire ap­pro­pri­ations bill was it­self later ap­proved 321-87.

House re­cords show Speak­er John Boehner did not vote on the amend­ment, which is not un­com­mon. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy, and GOP Con­fer­ence Chair Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers voted against the meas­ure. Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi voted in fa­vor of the amend­ment, as did Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er and Demo­crat­ic Caucus Chair­man Xavi­er Be­cerra.

The Sen­ate has yet to vote on its ver­sion of the same spend­ing bill. It was not cer­tain Fri­day that a sim­il­ar amend­ment would be at­tached to that bill. Any dif­fer­ences between the House and Sen­ate meas­ures would have to be re­con­ciled in a two-cham­ber con­fer­ence.

Dur­ing a news con­fer­ence hours after the vote, sev­er­al law­makers be­hind the amend­ment ad­mit­ted sur­prise over its pas­sage. Said Rohra­bach­er, “It is vi­tally im­port­ant for the Amer­ic­an people to speak up now about med­ic­al mari­ujana.” He urged them to “get ahold” of their rep­res­ent­at­ives in Wash­ing­ton, “and let them know how you feel about (Fri­day morn­ing’s) vote.”

At the same time, Rohra­bach­er, Pol­is and oth­er amend­ment co­spon­sors would not, or could not, identi­fy a spe­cif­ic sen­at­or who might cham­pi­on the meas­ure in that cham­ber. Adding doubt about the amend­ment’s fate is that none of the 12 an­nu­al spend­ing bills have yet passed both the House and Sen­ate for the fisc­al year that be­gins on Oct. 1.

With time run­ning out, the budget pro­cess could again be short-cir­cuited this elec­tion year to­ward a more gen­er­al­ized “om­ni­bus” bill or short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion as a de­fault to keep agen­cies fun­ded in­to the new fisc­al year. Those paths likely would not in­cor­por­ate such a con­tro­ver­sial amend­ment.

Still, Pol­is said “the will of the House” in sup­port­ing the amend­ment is at least “of­fi­cially on the re­cord” and that, in it­self, will help build mo­mentum. He said Con­gress is not lead­ing the way, but only “catch­ing up” with some states and loc­al­it­ies.

More than half the states — at least 26 and the Dis­trict of Columbia — have already en­acted laws al­low­ing pa­tients ac­cess to some form of med­ic­al marijuana or a de­riv­at­ive. “The train has already left the sta­tion,” ar­gued one of the amend­ment’s oth­er co­spon­sors, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Ore­gon, in a short de­bate on the House floor be­fore the vote.

Rohra­bach­er on the House floor ap­pealed for law­makers to make good on their pro­fessed re­spect for state sov­er­eignty un­der the 10th Amend­ment’s lim­it­a­tions on fed­er­al power and to show that “we really do be­lieve in re­spect­ing the doc­tor-pa­tient re­la­tion­ship.”

Rohra­bach­er also cited a re­cent Pew sur­vey that found 76 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans — in­clud­ing 69 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans and 79 per­cent of Demo­crats — think that people con­victed of pos­sess­ing small amounts of marijuana should not have to serve time in jail.

“Des­pite over­whelm­ing shift in pub­lic opin­ion, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues its hard line of op­pres­sion against med­ic­al marijuana,” Rohra­bach­er said. But he said the DEA would be blocked from us­ing any money in this ap­pro­pri­ations bill to con­duct raids on state-leg­al med­ic­al-marijuana op­er­a­tions or dis­pens­ar­ies, or oth­er­wise in­ter­fere with state med­ic­al-marijuana laws or doc­tors or pa­tients abid­ing by them.

Not all law­makers who spoke on the House floor were sup­port­ive, however.

Rep. Frank Wolf, a Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an, cited op­pos­i­tion to med­ic­al marijuana from a list of med­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions, in­clud­ing the Amer­ic­an Med­ic­al As­so­ci­ation and the Amer­ic­an Can­cer So­ci­ety. And two House mem­bers who are doc­tors, Re­pub­lic­an Reps. John Flem­ing of Louisi­ana and Andy Har­ris of Mary­land, also spoke out against it.

“First, it’s the camel’s nose un­der the tent,” said Har­ris. He went on to ex­plain, quot­ing from a DEA re­port this month, that or­gan­izers be­hind the med­ic­al-marijuana move­ment are not really con­cerned with marijuana as medi­cine, or such things as ap­pro­pri­ate dos­ing re­gi­mens. Rather, he said, that study says back­ers see it as a step to­ward leg­al­iz­ing re­cre­ation­al marijuana.

Flem­ing ar­gued that ar­gu­ments for leg­al­iz­a­tion, even for medi­cin­al use, should not be made “on the backs of our kids and our grandkids — this is dan­ger­ous for them.” He cited stud­ies that show health risks.

But a third House mem­bers who is a doc­tor, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Paul Broun of Geor­gia, said that while marijuana is ad­dict­ive if used im­prop­erly, there are val­id med­ic­al reas­ons to use marijuana or ex­tracts un­der the dir­ec­tion of a doc­tor. “It’s ac­tu­ally less dan­ger­ous than some nar­cot­ics pre­scribed all over the coun­try,” said Broun, who also de­scribed this as a states-rights is­sue.

“We need to re­serve the states’ powers un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion,” he said.

Though it re­mains un­cer­tain what the Sen­ate will do, one group out­side Con­gress that has been lob­by­ing in sup­port of the meas­ure since first in­tro­duced in 2003 was de­clar­ing vic­tory.

“Con­gress is of­fi­cially pulling out of the war on med­ic­al-marijuana pa­tients and pro­viders,” said Dan Riffle, dir­ect­or of fed­er­al policies for the Marijuana Policy Pro­ject, in a state­ment.

Riffle said it re­ceived more sup­port from Re­pub­lic­ans than ever be­fore, and that, “It is re­fresh­ing to see con­ser­vat­ives in Con­gress stick­ing to their con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples when it comes to marijuana policy. Re­pub­lic­ans in­creas­ingly re­cog­nize that marijuana pro­hib­i­tion is a failed big gov­ern­ment pro­gram that in­fringes on states’ rights.”

“This is a his­tor­ic vote, and it’s yet an­oth­er sign that our fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is shift­ing to­ward a more sens­ible marijuana policy,” he said.

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