Congress in Session(s)

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a determined opponent of legalized marijuana. As a former member of the U.S. Senate, he is also a formidable strategist when it comes to utilizing the rules governing congressional activity.

It is no surprise, then, that fellow prohibitionist Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee,  has moved to block multiple amendments supportive of cannabis reform from receiving full consideration from the full House.

These amendments affect federal incentives to revoke drivers licenses for those charged with marijuana offenses, protections for state hemp programs, funding for the DEA’s cannabis eradication program, expanded research on marijuana’s medical properties, protections for banks servicing state-legalized marijuana businesses, marijuana sales in the District of Columbia, protections from federal law for states that have legalized marijuana, and specifically the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to protect lawful state medical marijuana programs.

The Rules Committee determines the rules for how the House of Representative will consider any piece of legislation and has a long history of being used for setting up parliamentary obstacles to legislation (and specifically amendments). It’s power—though it’s not total.

In this case, the Senate can pass such amendments, and they can be implemented by way of a final agreement between the House and the Senate regarding the provisions in any piece of legislation. In this case, for example, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment is already part of the Senate Appropriations Bill. Such differences in legislation are worked out in a conference committee between the two branches, and a compromise bill is then voted on by both chambers.

The use of a congressional ally to engage in parliamentary obstruction shows, however, that Jeff Sessions remains undeterred by congressional and public support for marijuana legalization.

The attorney general’s recent announcement ending the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in which the Obama administration offered temporary legal status to young unauthorized immigrants (brought to the United States by their parents), provides a clear guide to his thinking and approach to the issue of marijuana legalization.

Sessions argued that “We are a people of compassion and we are a people of law.”

His announcement was characterized by Liz Goodwin of Yahoo News “as part of a larger push to restore the “rule of law” in America.”

The same argument, from the attorney general’s point of view, can be applied to the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, often justified by way of compassion for those who use cannabis medically.

Referring to DACA, Sessions argues, “The compassionate thing is to end the lawlessness, enforce our laws, and, if Congress chooses to make changes to those laws, to do so through the process set forth by our founders in a way that advances the interest of the nation.”

When it comes to immigration law, there is a lot of support in Congress for passing legislation to continue the DACA program.

Is there now enough support in Congress for legalizing marijuana?

Probably not, but marijuana legalization is trending well in Congress these days, with significant and influential support for medical cannabis and hemp, proven and demonstrated by several votes over the years on supportive amendments—the type of amendments Jeff Sessions and Pete Sessions are now trying to block.

Two things are clear.

First, support for cannabis reform will continue in the United States Congress. The supporters of reform in both the House and the Senate are just as experienced and cagey regarding the legislative rules and the two Sessions.

Second, in a larger sense, the attorney general has a good point with his more fundamental argument. It’s time for the U.S. Congress to end the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws.

The only ways to do this are to pass legislation to allow state reforms to continue and additional legislation to legalize marijuana throughout the United States.

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