A marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Jeffrey Beall via Flickr
Late last night, when no one was paying attention, the US House of Representatives did something that Congress has never done before: They voted to lighten up on marijuana prohibition. In a bipartisan vote, lawmakers passed an amendment that would bar the DEA from messing with state marijuana laws, prohibiting the agency from spending any of its funding on targeting legal weed operations and users.
It was a shocking moment of clarity for an institution that has spent the past three decades propping up the federal government’s failing war on drugs. Even more surprisingly, the amendment passed the infamously gridlocked chamber on the strength of both parties, with a final vote tally of 219 to 189. Although Democrats predictably carried the measure, 49 Republicans also voted yes, reflecting the party’s gradual shift toward embracing more libertarian views on drug policy.
"The heart and soul of the Republican party is that pro-freedom, individual philosophy that Reagan talked about," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who sponsored an amendment, said at a press conference Friday. "I think that what we've got now and what we have here in the Republican vote last night were people who took a lot of those words and the philosophy of Ronald Reagan to heart."
Of course, the measure, part of a funding bill for several agencies, still has a long way to go. The Senate is likely to pass its own appropriations bill, which means that the DEA amendment will have to survive Congress’s reconciliation process—and then get a signature from President Obama—before it becomes law. And despite the growing conservative support for legalization, the amendment still faces strong opposition from Republicans lawmakers whose hatred of weed still trumps their disdain for federalism. "Marijuana is not safe or legal,” Republican Rep. Andy Harris warned his colleagues before the vote. “There is more evidence every day that it is not safe.” Medical marijuana, he added, “is the camel’s nose under the tent.”
Weird Middle Eastern metaphors aside, the amendment is a big blow to the DEA, which continues to terrorize legal medical marijuana dispensaries and their disease-stricken customers. The drug enforcement agency has spent millions of dollars cracking down on legal weed purveyors, reversing the Obama administration’s 2009 promise that it would not try to circumvent state marijuana laws. According to the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, the DEA spent four percent of its budget on raiding legal cannabis dispensaries in 2011 and 2012, effectively shutting down more than 500 dispensaries in California, Colorado, and Washington. Not to mention, the agency is led by Drug War neocon Michele Leonhardt, a Bush-era relic whose hatred of marijuana runs so deep she reportedly called the day the hemp flag flew over the Capital “the worst day of her 33-year career at the DEA.”
Although raids have reportedly subsided since last year when the DOJ issued new guidance discouraging federal law enforcement and prosecutors from going after the legal pot industry, the DEA remains staunchly against medical marijuana. In fact, a report issued by the agency earlier this month warns that “Organizers behind the “medical” marijuana movement did not really concern themselves with marijuana as a medicine—they just saw it as a means to an end, which is the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.”
Thursday’s vote suggests that lawmakers, like most Americans, are starting to resent this zealotry, and the resulting encroachment on state drug laws. Medical marijuana is now legal in 22 states, and six more have legalized cannabis oil, which means that there are now hundreds of legitimate businesses—and even more customers—who live in fear of the DEA.
"The conflicting nature of state and federal marijuana laws has created an untenable situation," Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer said before the vote last night. "It's time we take the federal government out of the equation so medical marijuana business owners operating under state law aren't living in constant fear of having their doors kicked down in the middle of the night."
It’s not clear yet how the Obama administration will respond to the amendment, or if the measure will even survive Congress’s labyrinthine appropriations process. Regardless of what happens, though, last night’s vote is historic, marking a major turning point in the national legitimization of the burgeoning marijuana industry.
“The last time a similar amendment came up it didn't come very close to passing but, since then, more states have passed medical marijuana laws and a couple have even legalized marijuana for all adults,” Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell said in a statement Thursday night. “More states are on this way later this year and in 2016, and it's clear that more politicians are beginning to realize that the American people want the federal government to stop standing in the way. If any political observers weren't aware that the end of the war on marijuana is nearing, they just found out."