While the legal cannabis industry is growing state-level in the U.S., with 29 states plus D.C. having legalized some form of medical marijuana, the industry overall has faced uncertainty in its countrywide expansion due to the drug’s continued federal prohibition. However, a congressional panel vote last Thursday surprised the industry with an unexpected provision.
A proposal for a new budget amendment, spearheaded by Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), may provide marijuana businesses in legalized states with respite through the end of 2019.
Most of the bills endeavoring to legalize medical marijuana or provide protection to marijuana businesses in legalized states the past few years never make it past Congress. Therefore, in place of new legislation that would offer states protection in their rights to legalize cannabis, politicians that are proponents of cannabis have sought alternative avenues for protecting those in the MMJ industry. The solution, for the time being, has come via amendment to several years’ worth of annual budget bills.
Joyce stated during the debate, prior to the vote, “I’d be remiss if I did not point out that recent polling from just last month shows 92 percent of the American people support the use of medical marijuana. In fact, even more voters from every political demographic oppose federal interference in state marijuana laws.”
Through the original rider, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, the Department of Justice was prohibited from accessing federal funds for prosecution or interference in MMJ programs in legalized states. Once passing the vote, the amendment was successfully included with every annual budget from 2014 on. However, cannabis reform opponents nearly succeeded in blocking the amendment last year.
The biggest blow to MMJ stocks came last year, when Attorney General Sessions moved for Congressional leaders to dismiss the existing protections.
Pete Sessions (R-TX), the House Rules Committee Chairman, responded by blocking the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, thus preventing it from being taken into consideration by his committee. He has succeeded in blocking votes for cannabis amendments on the floor the past several years.
The most recent block came last Wednesday, in which Rep. Sessions and his panel put a stop to the advancement of three measures regarding hemp. Three years ago was the last time an MMJ measure came before a full chamber, passing by 242-186 margin. Since its passage in 2015, the provision has largely been extended by default, thanks to large-scale omnibus bills or continuing short-term resolutions.
Even as Congress debated over the budget for 2018, the protections offered by this amendment remained in jeopardy, including a complete lapse during a week of government shutdown. Finally, in March Congress approved the budget for the year, which included the amendment’s protections for medical marijuana.
The amendment seemed to face the same slim chances of passing through the House Rules Committee this year. For one, Pete Sessions remains the committee chair. Also unfavorable, the man who originally sponsored the amendment (Rep. Rohrabacher) has acquired a strong pro-Russia reputation among congressional members that may prevent his re-election.
Introducing the amendment to a different committee in the House enabled a short-term victory for pro-cannabis politicians and marijuana stocks.
This time around, however, Rep. Joyce avoided interference by Rep. Sessions and the House Rules Committee by instead proposing the amendment and opening it up for debate in the House Appropriations Committee.
The bipartisan committee came together to approve the funding in what was a rare display of cooperation. This approval means that Rep. Sessions will not be able to block the amendment from debate once it reaches the House floor.
Following the approval, Justin Strekal, Political Director of NORML, stated “Today marks a victory for medical marijuana programs and a loss for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Passage of this amendment through regular order in the appropriations committee represents another big step in the normalization of state level marijuana reform in the Congress of the United States.”
The approval of the amendment is a hopeful start for MMJ stocks, though the whole funding bill plus the amendment still must face both Congressional chambers for approval before passing into law.
Next month, the amendment faces debate in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has historically voted in favor of protections for medical cannabis and likely will again. It is possible, however, that the whole budget bill will be delayed through partisan debate as it was last year, which could lead to further government shutdowns or delay in the amendment’s adoption.
In an interview with Forbes, Michael Liszewski, policy advisor for the Drug Policy Project, stated that the amendment’s recent approval “shows that protecting state medical marijuana programs from interference by the Department of Justice is no longer a controversial issue when members of Congress are given an opportunity to vote on this issue.” He continued, “The House Appropriations Committee stands with the 90 percent of Americans, including supermajorities of all Republicans and Democrats alike, who think Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice have no business disrupting state medical marijuana programs.”
According to Liszewski, “The only thing standing in the way of more comprehensive federal marijuana reform proposals is a small handful of committee leaders who are blocking these bills and amendments from moving forward.”
(For more recent political news, read Is This a Win for Marijuana Stocks? Sessions Admits to the Value of Medical Marijuana Research)