Congress Votes to Protect State Cannabis Laws from Federal Interference


In what could prove to be a landmark move for the cannabis industry, the House of Representatives voted on Thursday, June 21st to block the federal government from enforcing federal cannabis laws in states where cannabis--either medical, adult-use, or both--is legal. While this may not sound like a groundbreaking decision, it is actually an important victory for those that oppose federal cannabis prohibition.

The Situation: Federal vs. State

As you may already be aware, cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance --the same category as heroin and bath salts--under federal law. While many states have taken steps to decriminalize or legalize cannabis, either for medical use, adult (recreational) use, or both, even card-carrying medical cannabis patients are technically in violation of federal law when purchasing, using, or transporting cannabis products.

According to an article from Forbes, an amendment to H.R. 3055 (Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2020) co-sponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Tom McClintock (R-CA) that shields cannabis laws in states where cannabis is legal (including Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories) is attached to a large-scale appropriations bill that will fund parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2020. In layman's terms, the amendment bars the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from spending money to prevent states and territories from “implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.”.

The inclusion of adult-use programs is a significant expansion of existing policy enacted in 2014 that protects only local medical cannabis laws from federal intervention. This policy has since been extended through annual spending bills, but when an amendment similar to the one that passed this week came before Congress via the Drug Policy Alliance back in 2015, the measure failed to pass by nine votes. 

Given that the number of states with full cannabis legalization laws has more than doubled since 2015, it seems the time is right for a second attempt. “It’s past time we protect all cannabis programs,” said Rep. Blumenauer, founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. “The federal government is out of touch and our cannabis laws are out of date.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.” Rep. McClintock, in agreement with Blumenauer, offered his thoughts to the Washington Times

“Under the Constitution, the federal government has no right to interfere with the states’ role in administering and enforcing those laws. This amendment represents a simple proposition, that when jurisdictions have the freedom to experiment with divergent policies, other jurisdictions can benefit from their example, good or bad.

“While I don’t recommend marijuana use, it is a matter of state prerogative and individual choice. The measure simply protects the right of a jurisdiction’s citizens to make decisions within their own boundaries.”

Michael Collins, Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance also weighed in on the subject: 

“The end of marijuana prohibition has never been closer. 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.”

Industry Reactions

Cannabis legalization advocates and industry organizations alike rejoiced following the news from Congress. National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Political Director Justin Strekal commented on the enormity of the move a week ago Thursday:

“This is the most significant vote on marijuana reform policy that the House of Representatives has ever taken. Today’s action by Congress highlights the growing power of the marijuana law reform movement and the increasing awareness by political leaders that the policy of prohibition and criminalization has failed.”

Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF) CEO Neal Levine also touted the importance of this legislative victory: 

“The historic nature of this vote cannot be overstated. For the first time, a chamber of Congress has declared that the federal government should defer to state cannabis law.”

Similarly, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association Aaron Smith described the vote as “without a doubt the biggest victory for federal cannabis policy reform to date, and a hopeful sign that the harmful policies of marijuana prohibition will soon be a relic of the past.” 

The Problems with Prohibition

Cannabis was first prohibited by the federal government in 1937 as a direct result of an extremely effective racist and xenophobic propaganda campaign which was the brainchild of Henry Anslinger. According to recent research,  approximately 52% of Americans today admit to having tried marijuana, while 22.2 million report having used it in the past month, regardless of its legal status in the state or territory where they reside.

The problems with cannabis prohibition are multifold, but according to NORML some of the most concerning and pervasive issues include (but are not limited to):

  • Marijuana offenders are often sentenced to lengthy jail terms; 

  • Even those who avoid incarceration are subject to an array of additional punishments, including loss of driver's license (even where the offense is not driving related), loss of occupational license, loss of child custody, loss of federal benefits, and removal from public housing;

  • Black and Hispanic populations are overrepresented in both the number of arrests and in the number of marijuana offenders incarcerated;

  • Nonviolent marijuana offenders often receive longer prison sentences than those allotted to violent offenders;

  • Marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers about $7.5 billion annually, funding that could be better spent elsewhere;

  • By defining all marijuana smoking as criminal, including that which involves adults smoking in the privacy of their own homes, we are wasting police and prosecutorial resources, clogging courts, filling costly and scarce jail and prison space, and needlessly wrecking the lives and careers of otherwise good citizens.

What Does it All Mean?

While this is a great victory for the cannabis industry, there is still a ways to go before this amendment can be put into practice. The fate of the cannabis measures in the Senate remains unknown, although that chamber’s Appropriations Committee has historically been open to attaching cannabis riders to spending bills and has consistently approved the medical cannabis protections first enacted in 2014. 

The wild card here is the body’s Conservative leadership, who may be reluctant to tying the DOJ’s hands when it comes to enforcing federal prohibition against licensed businesses and consumers in states where medical and recreational cannabis use and sale is legal. Unfortunately, only time will tell. 

Today’s blog post is written by Rick Liogier-Weyback, MD, founder and president at Doctor Jane and our licensed medical cannabis physician. If you are considering cannabis treatment or are wondering if medical cannabis may be right for you, please contact our team at your earliest convenience.

About Doctor Jane

Doctor Jane is South Florida’s most discreet, professional, and convenient concierge medical cannabis practice. Dr. Luis Enrique R. Liogier-Weyback and his wife, Katie Liogier-Weyback, B.S., R.N., founded Doctor Jane on the core tenets of bringing personal, convenient, professional and discreet patient care to the medical cannabis treatment process. Doctor Jane provides South Florida patients and their caregivers with a safe space where they can exercise their right to access medical cannabis therapy in an environment of their choosing, free from stigma and complications. 

Visit our website to find out more or to schedule your own medical cannabis consultation.