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How the Budget Crunch Could Hurt Medical Marijuana Patients

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Photo Jacob Resor/Flickr


How the Budget Crunch Could Hurt Medical Marijuana Patients

The federal government has been marijuana’s number one enemy for years, but in this instance, cannabis needs the feds to stay afloat.

This afternoon, the Senate and the House hastily passed stopgap funding bills to keep the lights of the federal government on, staving off a government shutdown that would have gone into effect on Dec. 9, when Congress’s last spending bill expired. However, the stopgap bills passed today only provide funding for the federal government through Dec. 22, which means another government shutdown is just two weeks away, pending the actions of a legislature currently roiling in a larger debate about the U.S. budget. This looming budget fight is bad for marijuana.

Baked into the last few spending bills is a budget amendment — now called the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, named for its Congressional Cannabis Caucus authors — that protects medical cannabis operations that obey state law from federal Justice Department enforcement. Without the amendment’s protection, the Justice Department can prosecute states with medical cannabis.

The stopgap bill passed on Thursday included the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, but the fight continues to get it included in budget bills that would go into effect after Dec. 22.

“While we are pleased that these critical protections will continue, two weeks is not enough certainty for the millions of Americans who rely on medical marijuana for treatment and the businesses who serve them,” Blumenauer said in a press release. “As Congress works out a long-term funding bill, it must also include these protections. And ultimately, Congress must act to put an end to the cycle of uncertainty and permanently protect state medical marijuana programs — and adult use — from federal interference.”

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. A similar dance around a government shutdown unfolded in September, with the same players in the same places and the same stakes for medical marijuana patients at play.

In September, medical cannabis appeared at real risk after Republican leadership in House of Representatives refused to even consider debate on an extension of the amendment.

Luckily, that obstructionism proved purely symbolic. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) added the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment’s language into the Senate version of the budget bill, which passed without issue, and was eventually approved by the House.

What will happen this time around? All of the vocal public pressure seems to be coming from the pro-marijuana set.

In late November, a group of 66 lawmakers — including conservatives — sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Charles Schumer, asking for the protections to be extended.

If no detente on a budget bill is reached — and that seems more and more likely — Congress can pass what’s called a “continuing resolution,” which leaves the status quo in place, in order to fund the government following Dec. 22. They also could pass another extension.

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass and the government funding does expire, it doesn’t necessarily mean doomsday for cannabis interests. A widespread federal crackdown on medical cannabis would require significant resources. And a marijuana crackdown doesn’t appear to be high on the list of any lawmakers’ priorities, with military spending and protections for immigrants the leading causes of the Congressional budget squabble.

Still, if you doubt the power of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, recall that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lobbied Congress in the spring to have it removed, and marijuana is absolutely on the attorney general’s mind. As recently as Nov. 29, the Justice Department was reviewing federal marijuana policy — and if medical marijuana suddenly becomes a legal quarry for the federal government, Sessions try to leap at the opportunity.

However, it is important to remember that the amendment only covers medical marijuana. Sessions and the DOJ have the ability to go after recreational cannabis at any time — and it hasn’t. Keeping the amendment in place is smart policy, but a crackdown on weed will take more than a budget item’s absence.

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