Riders of the Stoned: Senate Considers Illusionary Repeal of Prohibition

A series of federal spending bills were introduced last week by the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Thad Cochran, which include riders aimed at preventing the government from paying U.S. drug enforcers to unleash their wrath against states that have legalized the leaf. However, while the submission of these bills suggests that some folks on Capitol Hill are looking out for the cannabis industry, the reality is that the provisions contained in these documents are likely worthless.

One of the proposed budget restrictions filed by Senator Cochran is essentially regurgitated from a 2014 budget plan that was supposed to prevent the federal government from interfering with states that have legalized medical marijuana. A section of Senate Bill 2131 indicates that it would stop the U.S. Department of Justice from spending tax dollars to bring the heat down on states that have established medical marijuana programs, while another keeps them from sending in the Drug Enforcement Administration to tear down industrial hemp programs.

Both sections of the proposal are attempts to put into action a concrete policy to ensure the Obama Administration keeps true to its word, as outlined in the 2014 Cole memorandum suggesting the DOJ will stay out of the way of states deciding to legalize weed. But the rider must be renewed this year before even a semblance of protection can be maintained.

The second rider—Senate Bill 2130—would allow physicians with the Department of Veterans Affairs to communicate with veterans about medical marijuana. It would also force the VA to make changes to the policy that penalizes veterans simply for testing positive for cannabis, sometimes revoking their painkiller prescriptions. A third rider – Senate Bill 2132 – looks to stop the federal government from cracking down on banks choosing to work with marijuana businesses in legal states. Both of these restrictions have been introduced before, but have never become a reality.

Perhaps the most appreciated aspect of Senate Bill 2132 is that there’s no longer any mention of federal funds being used to stop the District of Columbia from launching a retail cannabis market. If this segment of the rider is allowed to remain as is, it is conceivable that the DC Council could begin to enact legislation to establish retail pot commerce by late 2016.

Unfortunately, the problem with these riders is that while they are supposed to provide a shield against federal marijuana laws, they’re really just temporary fixes that could easily be squeezed out in the next fiscal year. And, as we have learned in 2015, the language of these riders can easily allow federal drug agencies to do whatever they want in regard to legal marijuana.

Despite current riders “preventing” the federal government from stopping state officials from allowing the legalization of marijuana, not to mention a separate rider aimed at stopping federal funds from being used to kick down the doors of the medical marijuana community, the federal government and DEA drug warriors have not stopped shaking people down in legal states.

Therefore, while Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority suggests the latest riders are “good news for marijuana reform advocates,” these quasi-reforms, even if passed, would do little to change the sad state of current affairs. If these proposals are only good for a fiscal year, and subject to interpretation by higher-ups, then they’re really just rabbit reforms being pulled out of the not-so-magic hats of lawmakers. They carry no real weight in the grand scheme of changing the federal government’s position on or control over the cannabis plant.

The cannabis industry will not be allowed to function outside its current “grey” experimentation phase without risk of prosecution until a solid level of federal reform is passed, and actual laws are created.

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