US House Protects State Cannabis Programs in Landmark Vote
United States House of Representatives chamber at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.. Credit: United States House of Representatives or Office of the Speaker of the House
In a significant legislative victory for cannabis law reform, the US House of Representatives last Thursday (June 20) voted to approve a far-reaching amendment which would block the Department of Justice from interfering with state-legal cannabis laws, including those that allow recreational use, cultivation, and sale.
The vote, which passed easily by a 267-to-165 margin, concerned a bipartisan amendment to the fiscal year 2020 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies funding bill (H.R. 3055).
Put forward by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Tom McClintock (R-CA), the amendment formally prohibits the usage of federal funds to prevent states, Washington DC and US territories, from implementing their own adult-use and medical cannabis programs at the state level. A similar amendment which prevents the Department of Justice from interfering with tribal medical cannabis programs had been adopted by voice vote the day before.
“This is what the American people have demanded, why it is now legal in 33 states,” said Rep. Blumenauer in the floor debate leading up to the vote. “It is supported by two-thirds of the American public, and 90 percent for medical marijuana. It’s time that we extend this protection to state-legal activities so they can drive and move forward.”
Thursday’s vote is particularly significant as it marks the first time any congressional chamber has voted to protect state-legal cannabis programs from federal interference, and the wide vote margin is being seen by supporters of cannabis legalization as an indication of how lawmaker attitudes are changing and tending towards supporting cannabis reform.
“This is the most significant vote on marijuana reform policy that the House of Representatives has ever taken,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal, according to Forbes. “Today’s action by Congress highlights the growing power of the marijuana law reform movement and the increasing awareness by political leaders that the policy of prohibition and criminalization has failed.”
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association also told Forbes that the vote was "without a doubt the biggest victory for federal cannabis policy reform to date, and a hopeful sign that the harmful policies of marijuana prohibition will soon be a relic of the past.”
Previous attempts to protect state cannabis programs
A nearly identical measure to the one adopted last week was also proposed back in 2015, where it failed with 206 votes in favor to 222 votes against. The landscape of legal cannabis law has changed since 2015, with a number of large states like California, Michigan, and most recently, Illinois, opting to legalize cannabis in the past few years. Lawmakers from these states now have added pressure to support efforts in protecting state-level cannabis programs, as interference from federal bodies would directly trouble their own constituents.
“The end of marijuana prohibition has never been closer. When Drug Policy Alliance and a small band of allies first worked on this amendment in 2015, we were told that we didn’t stand a chance," said DPA Director of National Affairs, Michael Collins. "But we convinced members this was the right thing to do, and four years on, victory is sweet."
This year also sees a different political landscape, with the 2018 midterm elections resulting in a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, which had been under Republican control since 2011. While cannabis legalization is becoming less of a partisan issue, as evidenced by the amendment itself being sponsored by members from both parties, this vote saw the House Democratic leadership whip to encourage all Democrats to support the amendment, with only eight members breaking the party line to vote against it.
Interestingly, despite the amendment passing comfortably, it actually received less support from Republican party members than the 2015 amendment enjoyed. This is thought to be down to a combination of: a simple drop in the total number of Republican representatives following the midterm results; individual pro-cannabis GOP members failing to be re-elected; the inclusion of non-states, such as Washington DC and US territories, making the bill appeal less to “states rights” issue voters; and the partisan imagery of voting for an amendment which has a Democrat lead sponsor, when the 2015 bill was Republican-led.
What’s next for the bill?
While the bill has comfortably made it through the House, it still needs to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate before it can make it in to the final Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill. It is unclear whether the amendment is likely to receive enough support to pass in that chamber.
Additionally, even if it does so and is implemented in the final bill, the provision will only be in effect for the duration of that single fiscal year.
The cannabis industry lobby and pro-cannabis lawmakers have been seeking longer-term protections for state-legal cannabis programs, such as through the bipartisan STATES Act (the “Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act”) which would eliminate the threat of federal prosecution for cannabis businesses that act in compliance with local state law.
First introduced in the 2017-18 legislative session, the STATES Act was read several times in the Senate and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, but ultimately made it no further. A new version of the bill was re-introduced in the Senate this year by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) in early April.
Since 2014, amendments to annual spending bills have protected state-legal medical cannabis programs. If this new amendment makes it through the Senate and is included in the 2020 spending bill, there is a chance that recreational cannabis could be protected yearly in the same fashion, even if the ongoing push for longer-lasting protections is not successful.