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House Votes to Protect Legal Marijuana States from Federal Interference

U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer
U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer announcing the completion of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building renovation project in downtown Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management, 2013)

“The federal government is out of touch and our cannabis laws are out of date. I’m pleased that the House agrees, and we are able to move forward.”

(StopTheDrugWar) In a history-making vote Thursday, the House voted 267-165 to approve a bipartisan measure aimed at protecting state marijuana policies from federal interference.

The vote came on an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill that prohibits the Justice Department from using funds to prevent states, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia from implementing laws authorizing the use, distribution, possession, and cultivation of marijuana.

A similar appropriations rider known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment has been in effect since 2014, but it only protected state medical marijuana programs, not states that have legalized marijuana for adults.

Sponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and Tom McClintock (R-CA), the measure’s fate will now be up to House and Senate negotiators as they seek to bridge differences between House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill.

“It’s past time we protect all cannabis programs,” said Rep. Blumenauer, cofounder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and lead sponsor of the amendment. “We have much more work to do. The federal government is out of touch and our cannabis laws are out of date. I’m pleased that the House agrees, and we are able to move forward.”

Marijuana reform organizations and industry spokesmen pronounced themselves quite pleased but pushed for more.

“Today’s vote is the most significant step Congress has ever taken toward ending federal marijuana prohibition,” said Steven Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “Congress is recognizing that the federal government must let the states decide on cannabis legalization — and not the other way around.”

“The historic nature of this vote cannot be understated. For the first time, a chamber of Congress has declared that the federal government should defer to state cannabis laws,” said Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation.

“The bipartisan nature of this vote is a strong signal that there would be majority support in the House for the STATES Act (S. 3032), which could be considered a more permanent version of this amendment. We hope the full House will be given the opportunity to vote on the STATES Act in coming months so that we can move closer to the end of federal cannabis prohibition.”

Sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), the STATES Act would amend the Controlled Substances Act so that it “shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with State law relating to the manufacture, production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marihuana.”

Passage of the STATES Act, while still a distant glimmer, would be a good interim measure, but the ultimate goal is the end of federal marijuana prohibition.

“The end of marijuana prohibition has never been closer,” said Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “When Drug Policy Alliance and a small band of allies first worked on this amendment in 2015, we were told that we didn’t stand a chance. But we convinced members this was the right thing to do, and four years on, victory is sweet. Now is the time for Democrats to pivot to passing legislation that will end prohibition through a racial justice lens, making sure that the communities most impacted by our racist marijuana laws have a stake in the future of legalization. To do anything less would be to repeat an injustice.”

The Senate is expected to take up companion legislation in the coming weeks, and then the battle will be to ensure that the House language stays in the final bill, but marijuana is picking up momentum in the Capitol.

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