Yesterday the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending restriction aimed at preventing federal prosecutors and drug agents from interfering with medical marijuana laws. The rider, which was included in the omnibus spending bill that Congress approved in December, will expire at the end of the current fiscal year unless it is renewed. Last week the House of Representatives reapproved it by a vote of 242 to 186, a bigger margin than last year. Yesterday's Senate committee vote was 21 to 9, with eight Republicans joining 13 Democrats in support of medical marijuana federalism.
This is the first Senate vote on the medical marijuana amendment, since last year it was added to the appropriations bill in conference after winning approval in the House. The Republicans voting for the rider, which was introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), were Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Shelley Capito (W.V.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Steve Daines (Mon.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). The only Democrat voting against it was Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), a hardline drug warrior who parts company with her fellow California senator, Barbara Boxer, on this issue.
"This is another resounding victory for medical marijuana patients, their families, and their care providers," says Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project. "Congress is making it clear that the Department of Justice and the DEA have no business interfering in state medical marijuana laws."
As I noted last week, the practical impact of this rider is unclear. Much depends on what it means to "prevent" states from "implementing" their medical marijuana laws, which is what the amendment forbids. The Justice Department maintains that prosecuting patients and providers, even when they strive to comply with state law, does not necessarily violate the rider. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.), who sponsored the amendment in the House, strongly disagree. The CARERS Act, introduced in March by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would go further than the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, making the federal ban on marijuana inapplicable to people who comply with state laws allowing medical use of marijuana.
Whatever restraint the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment imposes on the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration (a division of the department), it is interesting to see which Republicans are still letting their anti-pot prejudices defeat their avowed fealty to federalism. On the Senate Appropriations Committee they are John Boozman (Ark.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), James Lankford (Okla.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and Richard Shelby (Ala.).