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House Panel Approves Amendment to Protect State Legal Cannabis Programs

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to protect individuals and businesses from federal prosecution and interference. After a voice vote, the amendment, which attached a budget rider for the 2023 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill, was passed by the House Appropriations Committee.

Bipartisan legislation was presented by Democratic Representative Barbara Lee (California) and Representative David Joyce (Ohio). The legislation has also been supported by the congressional cannabis advocates that do not serve on the Appropriations Commission, such as Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon or District of Columbia Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. Both are Democrats.

Weed Prosecutions are not funded by the Federal Government

According to the budget rider the Department of Justice cannot use federal resources to restrict the powers of States, Territories, Tribal Governments or District of Columbia to pass legislation to regulate production, sale, and usage of cannabis. House passed legislation that also bans government action against individuals who comply with legal adult-use programs for cannabis.

“Congress must honor the will of the voters and prevent wasteful Department of Justice prosecution of those complying with their respective state’s or tribe’s cannabis regulations,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “I have spearheaded the work to develop this language, which protects the state and tribal-legal programs that have been enacted laws to end prohibitionary policies and allow the development of both adult-use and medical marijuana programs.”

Similar amendments, however, were passed by the House of Representatives over the past two years as part of Omnibus Appropriations Legislation. They weren’t in final versions of the bills. Congress has approved appropriations bills since 2014 that include protections for state-legal medicinal cannabis laws.

The Cole Memo was repealed by Jeff Sessions, the former Attorney General. It had been in place since 2013, and directed that the Department of Justice give a low priority for prosecutions of cannabis crimes under state law. Merrick Garland, the current Attorney General has stated repeatedly that federal resources are not used effectively to enforce marijuana prohibition laws. However, prosecutions continue in some jurisdictions.

Morgan Fox (the political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) applauded the passing of the amendment in a statement by the advocacy group for cannabis policy reform.

“As federal lawmakers steadily work to determine the best way to finally end marijuana prohibition and undo the damage it has caused, the people involved in regulated cannabis programs in the growing number of states that are leading the way on this issue deserve to know whether the federal government will actively get in the way of their continued successes,” said Fox. “Including these protections in the federal budget will go a long way toward giving individuals, businesses, and state governments some peace of mind while signaling to the vast majority of Americans who support legalizing and regulating cannabis that their elected representatives are actually listening to them.”

Reacting to the House Vote, Cannabis Industry

Although the majority of representatives from the growing cannabis industry were positive about the passage of this budget rider amendment, many experts said that it doesn’t go far enough. Katrina Skinner (general counsel and chief bank officer of Simplifya’s cannabis compliance platform) stated that although the Appropriations Amendment passed, it is not a strong sign that lawmakers are willing to move forward on policy reform. However, the legislation does not contain the full force necessary to legalize recreational cannabis in the United States. Skinner said that prior legislation, known as the Rohrabacher Farr amend to protect state-legal medicinal cannabis programs, was not consistently implemented across the country.

“Although the House Bill is another symbolic step in the right direction for protecting state legal cannabis industries, it is unlikely to provide practical protections from federal law enforcement interference,” Skinner wrote in an email to Chronic News. “As we have seen before with the Rohrabacher Farr appropriations rider, federal law enforcement agencies have taken a narrow view about what constitutes ‘interference,’ and judicial decisions have differed by jurisdictions.”

“Finally, as worded, the bill does nothing to help protect interstate commerce rights for licensed operators, including transporting funds derived from legal sales across state lines so that the businesses can obtain limited banking services,” Skinner continued. “So long as marijuana remains illegal federally, federal law enforcement agencies have the right to investigate and prosecute violations related to the CSA.”

Christian Sederberg is the founding partner at Vicente Sederberg’s cannabis law firm. He stated that the amendment would help to protect state-level cannabis policy reform.

“This measure reflects the increasingly popular opinion that the federal government has no business interfering in state cannabis programs,” Sederberg wrote in a statement to Chronic News. “As Congress works to find more comprehensive solutions to repealing federal prohibition, it is important that states continue to implement regulatory programs aimed at protecting public health and safety.”