State Marijuana Votes Could End Federal Prohibition in 2017

The five state marijuana legalization measures that voters are deciding on next month will have an impact far beyond the borders of California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada: If passed, they could lead to the end of the federal government’s war on cannabis as early as 2017.

Here’s why:

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment that would have prevented the U.S. Department of Justice and its component agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from spending money to interfere with state marijuana laws.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), was broader in scope than budget riders that have already been enacted into law for the past two fiscal years which protect state medical cannabis policies from federal harassment; it would have blocked DEA from interfering with state laws allowing full legalization of recreational marijuana use by adults.

It failed by a tally of 206 – 222, meaning that if just nine votes flipped from no to yes, the amendment would have passed.

Among the 53-member U.S. House delegation from California alone, 13 representatives voted against the measure.

Do the math.

Add to that the 10 additional members from the four other states with legal marijuana measures on the ballot who opposed the McClintock amendment last year and that’s 23 representatives who will likely feel greater pressure to vote in favor of protecting their constituents who follow state law from being arrested by the DEA.

That’s if voters approve all five legalization ballot initiatives.

“One of the most exciting things about the prospect of this year’s initiatives winning is how many additional Republicans would be brought to the table,” Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs in Washington, D.C., told

Republicans largely voted against the amendment last year, with 45 in favor and 198 in opposition.

Nine minutes earlier, the House had passed the more narrow measure sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) focused specifically on protecting state medical cannabis laws. It earned 22 more Republican votes than the broader amendment did, and it also got 14 more Democratic votes than the full legalization one.

Collins, who lobbied Congress for the amendments, said that the four additional states voting on medical cannabis measures in November could increase the level of support for the Rohrabacher measure next year as well. Florida, which has a medical marijuana initiative on its ballot, has 27 U.S. House seats; its members broke 14-13 against the amendment last year.

“Four of the five adult use initiative states have numerous Republicans and the medical initiative states do too,” he said. “My sense is that the finish line is in sight for ending medical marijuana prohibition and we are about to take a leap forward in ending overall marijuana prohibition.”

According to a analysis of the two votes from last June, there are 38 House members who voted for the medical marijuana amendment but not the one covering full legalization laws. (An additional two members voted for the McClintock amendment but not the Rohrabacher one focused on medical marijuana. See below for the full list.)

Four members were absent from both votes, including Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) who had voted for the medical cannabis measure in past years and is seen as likely to support the broader amendment too, and Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), who said in a written Congressional Record explanation that she would have voted for both if present.

That’s two of the additional votes needed for passage.

Among members from states deciding on legalization ballot measures on November 8 who voted for the medical marijuana measure last year but not the broader McClintock amendment are Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) and Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME). If their states’ voters enact legalization laws on Election Day, those lawmakers will likely feel greater pressure to support measures protecting their constituents who follow those policies from federal harassment.

That’s three more votes that legalization advocates stand a good chance of picking up if the California, Massachusetts and Maine measures pass.

In an election debate this week, Poliquin expressed reservations about his state’s proposed legal marijuana law but said, “The people of Maine are going to decide this… I’m not going to tell the people of Maine how to vote.”

Even members who have not supported the narrower medical cannabis amendment in the past may be more likely to support it and the broader McClintock proposal next time if voters approve full legalization measures in their states. There is a growing consensus that marijuana policy reform is needed, and more political operatives are beginning to recognize that it is now a mainstream issue supported by a majority of Americans. Nothing would make that more clear to still-skittish lawmakers than strong votes to end cannabis prohibition by their own constituents.

Of course, the full House is up for reelection next month so the overall makeup of the body will be somewhat different than the current members whose amendment votes analyzed for this article. Many political observers are predicting modest Democratic gains and, given the partisan breakdown of the past votes on the amendments, that would likely give the measures an added boost next year.

Plus, there are at least two Republican congressional candidates seeking to replace retiring marijuana law reform opponents who are expected to support cannabis proposals.

In Virginia, Tom Garrett is running for the seat of retiring Rep. Robert Hurt (R), who has consistently voted against the medical marijuana amendment and opposed the broader one as well. In a debate last month, Garrett said, “While I’m not advocating for legalization, I’m advocating for the return to the state’s role as it relates to determining the appropriate marijuana policy.”

And in Minnesota, longtime talk radio host Jason Lewis is the Republican candidate vying to replace retiring Rep. John Kline (R), who also opposed the marijuana amendments. Lewis has been an outspoken opponent of cannabis prohibition and the broader war on drugs for years.

Of course, any marijuana policy reforms that make it through the House will also need to be approved by the Senate and/or the bicameral conference committees that work out differences between each chamber’s versions of bills before they are sent to the president to be signed into law. But while the Senate has not yet voted on broad legalization legislation like McClintock’s House amendment, the body’s Appropriations Committee has approved a number of medical marijuana provisions by strong bipartisan majorities over the past two years.

While some marijuana legalization supporters have reservations about certain provisions of the proposed state initiatives, it is clear that victories on Election Day will help propel efforts to reform federal prohibition laws in Congress. Conversely, defeats may make some federal lawmakers much more reluctant to sponsor or vote for cannabis amendments in the coming legislative session.

And strong margins in favor of the ballot measures will also likely encourage local lawmakers in nearby states that don’t have the voter initiative process to seriously consider enacting legislation to legalize marijuana, thereby further increasing the number of members of Congress who represent places that have ended cannabis prohibition.

A lot more is riding on the results of next month’s votes than just whether people who use marijuana will be able to do so legally in five more states.

A list of House members who voted for the Rohrabacher medical marijuana amendment last year but against the McClintock full legalization amendment is below, ordered by state:

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard [D] CA
Rep. Thomas Rooney [R] FL
Rep. Gwen Graham [D] FL
Rep. Rob Woodall [R] GA
Rep. Bob Dold [R] IL
Rep. Adam Kinzinger [R] IL
Rep. Stephen Lynch [D] MA
Rep. Bruce Poliquin [R] ME
Rep. Debbie Dingell [D] MI
Rep. Collin Peterson [D] MN
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer [R] MO
Rep. Ryan Zinke [R] MT
Rep. Kevin Cramer [R] ND
Rep. Brad Ashford [D] NE
Rep. Peter King [R] NY
Rep. Louise Slaughter [D] NY
Rep. Yvette Clarke [D] NY
Rep. Paul Tonko [D] NY
Rep. Tom Reed II [R] NY
Rep. Christopher Gibson [R] NY
Rep. Richard Hanna [R] NY
Rep. Lee Zeldin [R] NY
Rep. Elise Stefanik [R] NY
Rep. Daniel Donovan Jr. [R] NY
Rep. Joyce Beatty [D] OH
Rep. Greg Walden [R] OR
Rep. Jim Cooper [D] TN
Rep. John Duncan Jr. [R] TN
Rep. Gene Green [D] TX
Rep. Ruben Hinojosa [D] TX
Rep. Marc Veasey [D] TX
Rep. Filemon Vela [D] TX
Rep. Jason Chaffetz [R] UT
Rep. Chris Stewart [R] UT
Rep. Mia Love [R] UT
Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. [R] WI
Rep. Glenn Grothman [R] WI
Rep. Alex Mooney [R] WV

Reps. Corrine Brown (D-FL) and Vern Buchan (R-FL) both voted for the McClintock amendment but against the Rohrabacher amendment.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

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