Congress approved an historic piece of legislation late Thursday that prevents the Drug Enforcement Administration from continuing to raid, arrest, and prosecute medical marijuana patients, by no longer allowing agencies under the Justice Department to use federal dollars to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized medicinal use of the drug.
In a 219-189 vote, the bipartisan-backed amendment, introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), and sponsored by Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Paul Broun (R-Ga.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Steve Stockman (R-Texas), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Dina Titus (D-Nev.), received support from a record-high 49 Republicans as well as 170 Democrats.
“This vote showed that Congress is ready to rethink how we treat medical marijuana patients in this country,” Rep. Farr said in a press release, after pointing out that states with medical marijuana laws are no longer outliers, but a majority. “This amendment gives states the right to determine their own laws for medical marijuana use; free of federal intervention. It also gives patients comfort knowing they will have safe access to the medical care legal in their state without the fear of federal prosecution.”
In response to the passage of Amendment No. 25 to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, for 2015, an amendment medical marijuana advocates have tried to pass since 2003, advocates said it appears Congress is finally ready to end the failed war on drugs.
“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, a legalization advocacy group that has lobbied in support of the measure since 2003, in a media statement. “Federal tax dollars will no longer be wasted arresting seriously ill medical marijuana patients and those who provide to them. This is a historic vote, and it’s yet another sign that our federal government is shifting toward a more sensible marijuana policy.”
In a media statement, Steph Sherer, executive director of the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, called the vote a “huge victory for patients.”
“No longer will we have to look over our shoulder and worry when the next raid or indictment will prevent us from safely and legally accessing our medicine,” she said, adding, “This is a game-changer that paves the way for much more policy change to come.”
Although Riffle and Sherer noted that the Senate has yet to pass its version of the legislation, both expressed confidence that the Democratic-controlled Senate would do so, and said prohibition’s days are numbered, since Congress is now advocating for the reform their constituents have demanded for years.
While Farr, too, celebrated the passage of the amendment, the lawmaker also pointed out that until the Senate passes its version of the bill, “the federal government can continue to prosecute medical marijuana patients,” which he recognizes as a “waste of taxpayer dollars” that “needlessly destroys lives and tears families apart.”
The medical marijuana legalization community largely applauded the passage of this particular piece of legislation, but one concern held by some advocates is that on the same day the House voted to restrict DEA spending in states that have legalized medical marijuana or the cultivation and production of hemp, the House voted to give the agency $35 million more than what the agency itself requested.
The legislation allocating an additional $35 million to the DEA came after an amendment proposed by Rep. Polis, which would have reduced the DEA’s budget to the amount the agency had requested, was defeated in a vote of 339-66.
Frustrated by the support for the DEA and its chief Michele Leonhart, whom Polis refers to as “a terrible agency head” who has embarrassed herself and the agency, Polis asked his peers during a speech on the House floor why additional funds would be given to an agency that “has demonstrated time and time again that it can’t efficiently manage the resources it already has.”
“It’s diverting funds to ridiculous things like impounding industrial hemp seeds, which have no narcotic content, intimidating legal marijuana businesses in states like mine, wasting money on marijuana infractions that are legal in states where they occur,” Polis said.
The financial boost for the DEA was suggested by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chair of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations subcommittee, who is retiring from Congress this year.
Wolf, who has long defended the DEA and Leonhart to many, including Attorney General Eric Holder, said he wanted to help the DEA by increasing the agency’s budget after Leonhart said the agency was only able to afford to hire one agent for every two agents who retired or left.
While the budget increase for the DEA shouldn’t affect the new protections awarded to patients and hemp growers in a handful of states that have legalized some forms of the plant, there is a concern that giving additional funds to the DEA is indicative that Congress is not entirely ready to end the war on drugs.
However, groups like Americans for Safe Access remain hopeful that the amendment limiting the DEA’s influence in the 32 states and Washington, D.C. that have legalized hemp or medical marijuana will occur in the near future and lead to other positive changes such as the end of mandatory minimum sentences and federal prosecutions for those patients living in medical marijuana states, such as the Kettle Falls 5 case in Washington state.