WASHINGTON – The House Rules Committee on Wednesday evening voted a key medical marijuana protection “out of order,” effectively blocking the chamber from including it in its fiscal 2018 budget and putting medical groups at risk of action from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, first approved in 2014, is seen as the first significant federal policy victory for medical marijuana advocates. It prohibits the Justice Department from spending appropriated funds to prosecute medical marijuana users and proprietors in legal states.
The amendment must be renewed with each fiscal year. Both the House and Senate approved the measure in 2015. In 2016, the Senate approved it, and the House did not consider the measure but it passed in conference. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) introduced similar language, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, this Congress. Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced companion language in the Senate, which approved the measure in July during a committee voice vote.
This is the first time either chamber has actively blocked the amendment from coming to a vote. The decision was led by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the House Rules Committee and an outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization.
Blumenauer and Rohrabacher released a joint statement after Wednesday’s decision: “By blocking our amendment, Committee leadership is putting at risk the millions of patients who rely on medical marijuana for treatment, as well as the clinics and businesses that support them. This decision goes against the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly oppose federal interference with state marijuana laws. These critical protections are supported by a majority of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle. There’s no question: If a vote were allowed, our amendment would pass on the House floor, as it has several times before.”
Attorney General Sessions in May wrote to leaders in both chambers, asking that Congress drop the Rohrabacher–Farr language so that DOJ could crack down on illegal activity in the face of a historic drug epidemic. The measure is slated to expire on Sept. 30, unless the Senate budget is approved in conference committee or Congress fails to pass a budget.
Though President Trump has made statements in the past that medical marijuana policy should be dictated by state authorities, he issued a signing statement in May against Rohrabacher–Farr language being included in the budget.
Though there’s no guarantee that the amendment will be dropped from the final budget, marijuana advocates believe this is a bad signal. In the past, key marijuana provisions have disappeared in conference committee even after passage in both chambers. The Blumenauer amendment, which allows veterans to discuss medical marijuana options with their VA physicians, is one example.
Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach for the Marijuana Policy Project and a former Republican state delegate for Maryland, said in an interview on Thursday that the “saber-rattling” from Jeff Sessions would indicate that the Department of Justice will pursue action against medical marijuana businesses and individuals in legal states, if given the opportunity.
“The only thing keeping him at bay right now is Rohrabacher-Farr,” he said, calling Wednesday’s decision a slap in the face to patients in legal states.” “People with cancer, people with AIDS, people with life-threatening illnesses shouldn’t have to worry about this in addition to everything else they have to deal with.”
According to a poll released in April by Quinnipiac University, 73 percent of American voters object to the federal government intervening in legal medical marijuana states, while 94 percent support medical marijuana use by adults.