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Congress Fails to Stop Federal Prosecution of Recreational Cannabis

Bag of Trimmed Cannabis Buds
Photo Gracie Malley


Congress Fails to Stop Federal Prosecution of Recreational Cannabis

An amendment that could have finally stopped the federal government from persecuting individuals and organizations who sell, distribute or use recreational cannabis in compliance with state laws failed to pass on Wednesday.

Representatives Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced the amendment to an annual spending bill that would have prohibited the Department of Justice (DOJ) from using funds to enforce federal cannabis laws over all state cannabis laws on Wednesday, but it was defeated in the House by a 206-222 vote as lawmakers chose to instead to renew amendments that only covered state medical marijuana laws.

The amendment would have “reaffirmed that the DOJ and the feds will not interfere with state industry,” said a spokesperson for Representative Jared Polis, regardless of if states allowed medical or recreational marijuana. “The state industries need to be confident that they can open a dispensary consistent with state law and not have to worry about finding out there’s going to be a federal investigation.”

Lobbyists for the McClintock-Polis amendment were confident before the vote that it would pass, but asserted that if it should fail, they would continue to fight the obstinate power of the Department of Justice.

“Eventually the Justice Department is going to have to give up,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the marijuana lobbying organization Drug Policy Alliance. “We’re going to keep going after their budget and their power and eventually the DOJ will realize they have nothing to gain by undermining the state marijuana laws. Our strategy is to keep fighting.”

The amendment that did pass in a resounding 242-186 vote was a renewal of the 2014 Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which took over a decade and four attempts to pass. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, from Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Sam Farr (D-CA), would have expired in September.

Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project who drafted and lobbied for both the McClintock-Polis and Rohrabacher-Farr amendments, said that he has seen policy change enacted faster through amendments to spending bills than independent legislation.

“Legislation doesn’t tend to move because the Republicans in charge of committees won’t move the bill forward,” said Riffle, who also lobbied for a House bill now stuck in subcommittee that would protect everyone compliant with state law from federal prosecution. “Offering it as an amendment gives us a chance to pass the legislation faster.”

However, in the months since the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment was first passed, the Department of Justice has circumvented the amendment by continuing its ongoing medical marijuana prosecutions, which a spokesperson justified to The Los Angeles Times in April by saying the department retained the authority to enforce federal law against individuals and organizations, though not on state governments themselves.

The defeated McClintock-Polis amendment would have closed those loopholes and reasserted the rights of individuals and organizations under state law. According to Representative Farr’s press secretary Adam Russell, Farr and Rohrabacher did support and even co-sponsored the stronger amendment.

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