Congress Includes Cannabis Provisions in Big Spending Bill

Congressional leaders released a crucial end-of-year funding bill early Wednesday morning, and it contains some but not all of what marijuana law reformers were hoping for.

The provisions that made it in, if enacted into law as expected, will:

  • Prevent the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration from spending money to interfere with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. Similar language was enacted last year and is current law for Fiscal Year 2015.
  • Prevent the federal agencies from spending money to interfere with the implementation of state industrial hemp research programs. Similar language was enacted last year and is current law for Fiscal Year 2015. The new bill goes beyond last year’s provision by making it clear that DEA cannot impede a researchers’ ability to import hemp from another state. The new language was likely added in response to the agency’s seizure of hemp seeds en route to the University of Kentucky last year.

Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access told Marijuana.com that the renewal of the medical marijuana provision “provides a layer of legal protection to medical cannabis patients and providers for at least another year.” But he pointed to the Department of Justice’s unfriendly interpretation of the spending rider as a reason Congress should go further.

Justice Department officials have claimed that the way the provision is worded only prevents the government from stopping states from implementing their laws but doesn’t provide any protections for people who use, grow or sell marijuana in accordance with those laws. One federal court recently ruled that the government’s interpretation is incorrect, however.

“This shows that the amendment was not merely symbolic, despite those who bought into DOJ’s narrow definition of ‘implementation,’” Liszewski said. “Congress still needs to permanently end the war on medical cannabis patients by passing the CARERS Act,” a bill that would amend the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Despite the momentum generated by the inclusion of the medical marijuana and hemp provisions, the bill did not contain two other measures that advocates had hoped for.

If included, those riders would have:

  • Allowed doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical marijuana to military veterans, and prevented the V.A. from denying services to veterans because they are medical marijuana patients in accordance with state law. Language to that effect was approved by the full Senate last month and was narrowly defeated on the House floor in April.
  • Prevented the federal government from punishing banks for doing business with state-legal marijuana providers. In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to do that, but the bill never made it to the Senate floor and wasn’t considered in the House either.

In another setback for marijuana law reform supporters, the legislation also includes language from previous years’ spending bills that has prevented Washington, D.C. from spending money to implement a system of legalized and taxed sales of marijuana. It is currently legal to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana in the nation’s capital, under a voter-approved initiative, but cannabis cannot be bought or sold there.

“Marijuana is now legal for adults in the District of Columbia, and it needs to be treated like a legal product,” Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “It is irrational to prohibit D.C. officials from establishing a regulatory system to control the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. By renewing [the rider], Congress is posing a real threat to public health and safety in our nation’s capital.”

The 2,009-page spending bill is likely to be voted on in the next few days and sent to President Obama for his signature.

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