Although there was a great deal of anticipation that the details of the latest federal spending bill would include a deeper level of protection in states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes, the congressional machine behind the dysfunctional of the United States government has revealed that nothing will change in the next fiscal year with regards to how Uncle Sam spends money to shake the foundation of the cannabis industry.
In a last ditch effort to prevent a federal shutdown, hammer fisted negotiators for the House and Senate came to terms late Tuesday night on a $1.1 trillion spending bill intended to keep some grease in the wheels of federal operations for another year. And while the brass tacks of the proposal does include a couple of amendments designed to shield the medical marijuana community from the dogs of the drug war, several other, newly proposed riders aimed at taking the stakes up a notch were, essentially, ripped to shreds and burned on the steps of the Capitol.
But first, the good news…
Among the amendments attached to Uncle Sam’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget plan is one that has become the subject of much controversy over the past year due to its apparent inability to be translated to English. The infamous Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which was designed to prevent the Justice Department and their overzealous warlords over at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from spending federal funds to conduct raids and prosecute the medical marijuana community, was renewed for another year. The goal of this measure is to prevent law-biding participants in state approved medical marijuana activities from being arrested and prosecuted under federal statutes.
However, the girth of this particular rider remains to be seen. Although the amendment was hailed a salvation’s wing when it was first approved last year, the measure has done very little to actually prevent the scourge of the DEA from inflicting its wrath. By and large, the Justice Department has utilized its criminal instinct to cleverly decipher the common text used within this document in order to benefit its underhanded agenda. Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the department told The Los Angeles Times that the rider only prevents federal enforcers from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws.”
“This is the second year in a row that Congress is using the appropriations process to tell federal agents and prosecutors not to interfere with state medical marijuana laws,” Tom Angell with the Marijuana Majority told High Times. “But so far the Department of Justice has taken the absurd position that these spending provisions don’t actually prevent them from going after patients and providers who operate legally under state policies.”
Another rider included in the latest federal budget is one that prevents the Justice Department and the DEA from impeding on states involved with industrial hemp. This amendment is also a renewal from the Fiscal Year 2015 budget. It was designed to prevent shakedowns like the one that took place in Kentucky last year when the DEA seized an entire shipment of hemp seeds and forced the state into a savage cock contest in order to put them in the ground. Fortunately, there has not been as much controversy surrounding this attachment, mostly because hemp programs are overseen by state governments and are not vulnerable in the same manner as businesses and individuals.
And now, for the bad news…
As congressional leadership locked horns over the demands put forth by Democrats and Republicans, the hope for other illusionary marijuana reforms being strapped to the latest budget, including those pertaining to Veterans and marijuana banking, dwindled fast.
In the end, the outcome of the negotiation did not allow for a handful of riders, most of which showed significant promise this year on Capitol Hill, to see the light of day.
Among the refused amendments was one that would have prevented physicians employed with the Department of Veterans Affairs from penalizing veterans for taking part in state-approved medical marijuana programs. The goal of this measure, which was passed last month in the U.S. Senate, was to stop doctors working at VA clinics from disqualifying patients from receiving prescription drugs and other services simply because they used medical marijuana under the conditions of their respective state program. But, apparently, Congress did not feel this was an important enough issue to address this year.
Another that didn’t survive the cut was a rider aimed at preventing the federal government from allowing banks to work with the cannabis industry. The inclusion of this amendment had the potential to provide pot businesses operating in legal states with more banking options than what are currently available. However, congressional leadership is obviously not interested in remedying the financial concerns of an industry that is expected to generate billions of dollars within the next couple of years.
But perhaps one of the saddest failures to be realized as the negotiations for the new federal budget came to a screeching halt is the fact that the District of Columbia will not be allowed to launch a retail pot market for at least another year. The rider, introduced last year by Maryland Representative Andy Harris, was picked up again for inclusion in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget plan. Although the possession, cultivation and transfer of marijuana is legal in the District of Columbia, this amendment prevents local lawmakers from enacting legislation to further the city’s endeavors by establishing a taxed and regulated cannabis industry.
Earlier this year, DC Councilmember David Grosso told High Times the city was fully prepared to get the ball rolling on recreational sales, but the “when” in the equation all depended on Congress.
Overall, there is hope the renewal of the latest marijuana protections will provide a stronger defense against the Justice Department in 2016. However, it is possible the department will continue to wage war against the medical marijuana community despite these actions – creating a desperate need for concrete laws rather than relaying on mostly worthless amendments.
“The intent of Congress is clear, and so is the will of the American people,” Angell said. “Since the Justice Department is being so stubborn, the next step should be for lawmakers to pass permanent standalone legislation that goes beyond these temporary spending riders. Then the DEA will have a much harder time undermining Congress and voters.”
Special thanks to Tom Angell with the Marijuana Majority for the late night email that prompted this report.