As expected, this year's omnibus spending bill extends a provision that bars the Justice Department (which includes the Drug Enforcement Administration) from interfering with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. The bill also includes a rider aimed at preventing federal interference with the cultivation of commercial hemp in states that allow it. At the same time, the bill renews the congressional ban on commercial marijuana regulation in Washington, D.C.
The medical marijuana rider, Section 542, says the DOJ may not spend money "to prevent [states, D.C., Guam, or Puerto Rico] from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." Before Congress approved that language last year, the DOJ warned that it would wreak havoc with marijuana prosecutions across the country. But after the rider was enacted, the department suddenly decided it had no impact at all on marijuana prosecutions or on civil forfeiture cases. Last October a federal judge in California disagreed, saying the rider prevents the DOJ from continuing its crusade against the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM), which was forced to close its doors in 2011, "to the extent that MAAM operates in compliance with California law."
Despite that victory, Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell argues that medical marijuana suppliers need clearer and more permanent protection. "This is the second year in a row that Congress is using the appropriations process to tell federal agents and prosecutors not to interfere with state medical marijuana laws," Angell says. "But so far the Department of Justice has taken the absurd position that these spending provisions don't actually prevent them from going after patients and providers who operate legally under state policies. The intent of Congress is clear, and so is the will of the American people. Since the Justice Department is being so stubborn, the next step should be for lawmakers to pass permanent stand-alone legislation that goes beyond these temporary spending riders. Then the DEA will have a much harder time undermining Congress and voters."
The hemp rider, Section 763, says money appropriated by the bill may not be used "in contravention of section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (7 U.S.C. 5940)," which authorizes experimental hemp cultivation projects. The amendment adds that the feds may not "prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp that is grown or cultivated" in accordance with that law—language aimed at preventing meddling by the DEA.
The anti-legalization rider, Section 809, is unchanged from last year, saying "none of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance." Since Initiative 71, the 2014 ballot measure that eliminated penalties for possession, sharing, and home cultivation in the nation's capital, has already been enacted, that language does not affect those aspects of legalization. But the rider does block the District of Columbia from proceeding with plans to regulate the commercial production and distribution of recreational marijuana—at least, if D.C. uses money allocated by this bill or the previous one. It might be able to evade the restriction by drawing on reserve funds from earlier fiscal years.
Two other marijuana-related provisions did not make it into the final spending bill. One would have let doctors at veterans hospitals in jurisdictions that allow medical use of marijuana recommend cannabis to their patients. The other would have instructed federal prosecutors and regulators to refrain from penalizing financial institutions for serving state-licensed marijuana businesses.