The Department of Justice (DOJ) could be forced to stop arresting medical marijuana growers and sellers that comply with state laws if Congress approves a proposed $1 trillion spending bill before Thursday, when a government shutdown looms.
Tucked inside the massive budget proposal unveiled Tuesday by Congressional leaders is an amendment from two California Congressmen, Democrat Sam Farr and Republican Dana Rohrabacher, that would forbid the DOJ and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from using taxpayer money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws.
"The public has made it clear that they want common sense drug policies," Farr said in a statement. "The majority of states have passed reasonable medical marijuana laws but the federal government still lags behind. Our amendment prevents the unnecessary prosecution of patients while the federal government catches up with the views of the American people."
There are now 32 states with some type of medical marijuana law on the books — statutes that are in direct conflict with federal drug laws. Last year, the DOJ said in a memo to its regional offices that federal agents should defer to state laws on most matters of regulation, including medical marijuana, going forward. But there had been no official change to the law until, possibly, now.
Two states — Colorado and Washington — have also passed laws allowing the sale and use of recreational marijuana, but the amendment in the proposed spending bill does not apply to them.
The deal is potentially a huge win for medical marijuana advocates, who hope it is the first legislative step toward an end to marijuana prohibition. Erik Altieri, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told VICE News that marijuana lobbyists have been trying to get some form of federal legislation passed since 2002.
'We're very encouraged to see Congress begin to take some legit steps to resolving the state and federal conflict with marijuana law.'
"We're very encouraged to see Congress begin to take some legit steps to resolving the state and federal conflict with marijuana law," Altieri said. "There are issues that still need to be resolved with banking and taxation, but this at least shows they can come together in a bipartisan way and stop raiding state-approved medical marijuana."
Altieri said that more conservative states passed medical marijuana laws in 2014, increasing the number of Congressmen in the House who have a stake in the issue.
"It's been largely problematic," Altieri said. "Patients had no real certainty whether they'd have a consistent supply of the medicine they need and people didn't know, even if they were in compliance with state law, whether they'd receive threats from the DOJ or the US Attorney in their states. It created a lot of confusion in setting up a stable program."
He added that, while the deal could offer some relief, there is still conflict between the state and federal laws. Ideally, Altieri said, the rules should be changed so that marijuana is no longer considered a Schedule I controlled substance, a category of drugs that have "no currently accepted medical use."
The DEA and DOJ did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News regarding the proposed marijuana regulations.
"I'm sure the DEA is feeling frustrated,"Altieri said. "They were allowed to operate with almost complete impunity in this area for a long time regardless of whether there were actually threats or bad players, so now that they are facing oversight I'm sure it does frustrate them, but hopefully this will begin to provide clear guidance."
The proposed spending bill isn't entirely pro-pot. A different part of the legislation actually bans Washington, DC from following through on a voter-approved plan to allow recreational marijuana. Language in the spending would prohibit the DC city council from "enacting" the pot law, which passed overwhelmingly in the November elections.
According to the federal bill, marijuana could remain decriminalized in Washington DC, but the city council would likely be prohibited from taxing and regulating the drug. Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Colorado-based Marijuana Policy Project, said his organization will attempt to find a way around the language in the bill so that the DC council can proceed as previously planned.
"It's ridiculous that there are members of Congress fighting to ensure that marijuana remains an uncontrolled substance in the nation's capitol," Tvert said.
The amendment is the first major win on the federal legislation front for groups like NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project. Tvert pointed out that at least six states could follow the lead of Colorado and Washington and legalize recreational marijuana in the next few years, naming Rhode Island and Vermont as two of the most promising candidates.
"Congress is moving forward more quickly, and I hate using that term, but moving forward more quickly on medical-specific marijuana issues than broader issues regarding prohibition, and that's to be expected," Tvert said.
The current budget proposal would also block the DEA from interfering in industrial hemp research in states where hemp — a non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana — is legal.
Separate bills currently pending in Congress propose regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol, and offering immunity from federal prosecution to people who obey state marijuana laws.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
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