The surprising victory for reformers could nix federal medical pot raids

Steven Nelson, U.S. News & World Report

The Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration aren't saying much about the House of Representatives' Friday morning vote to ban federal law enforcement from undermining state medical marijuana laws.

The House voted 219-189 to attach the prohibition to a spending bill.  It must survive the Senate and be signed into law by President Barack Obama to take effect.

“We’re referring all of these inquires to the Department of Justice,” DEA spokesman Joe Moses tells U.S. News.

"The department is reviewing the amendment," DOJ spokeswoman Ellen Canale says.

The measure does not make marijuana legal under federal law, but would deny the DEA and federal prosecutors the ability to investigate, prosecute and incarcerate people complying with state medical marijuana laws.

Americans for Safe Access, a grass-roots medical marijuana advocacy group, estimated in a 2013 report that the Obama administration spent more than $100 million in 2012 going after medical marijuana. ASA also estimated Obama’s Justice Department had spent nearly $300 million combating medical marijuana as of halfway through 2013, compared to the less than $200 million spent during the entire George W. Bush administration.

In one of this year’s most high-profile medical marijuana prosecutions, four Washington state family members plus a friend – together nicknamed the "Kettle Falls 5" – are facing long prison sentences for growing a garden of pot in a rural area. The five have medical conditions that qualify them under state law to use and grow pot for medical use, but the local U.S. attorney filed federal charges following a DEA raid.

Attorney General Eric Holder said in August federal prosecutors should begin avoiding charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, and his department has issued guidelines urging restraint from busting medical marijuana patients – but the DEA and some prosecutors have ignored that guidance.

The DOJ, meanwhile, has not sought to block recreational marijuana laws from taking effect in Colorado and Washington state. Even marijuana reformers acknowledge the department would likely succeed if it went to court to shut down the two states' programs, because they are operating in violation of federal law.

Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value. Obama has resisted calls to administratively reschedule the drug – which he has the power to do – and legislative attempts have thus far stagnated. Doctors cannot prescribe Schedule I drugs, so states that allow marijuana for medical use instead allow doctors to “recommend” it to qualifying patients.

Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., currently allow medical marijuana for certain illnesses. Several others have older laws that aren't used but allow doctors to prescribe it, and a handful of states recently legalized more limited cannabis-derived treatments.

National polls show overwhelming support for legal medical marijuana. CBS News gauged support at 86 percent in January and Fox News found 85 percent support in February 2013. Several polls conducted in 2014 found a more narrow majority of Americans support outright legalization.

In Friday's House vote, 49 Republicans joined 170 Democrats in opting to shield state medical marijuana programs. Seventeen Democrats – including Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. – joined 172 Republicans in voting no.

Wasserman Schultz’s vote runs contrary to the mainstream of the party she leads and comes as voters in her state consider a popular initiative to legalize medical marijuana. Polls show the measure clearing the 60 percent threshold needed to become law.

"The congresswoman believes that it is not appropriate to limit the ability of the executive branch to enforce federal law at their discretion,” Wasserman Schultz spokesman Sean Bartlett said in an emailed statement.

The DEA, led by Administrator Michele Leonhart, has been notably intransigent as the DOJ softens marijuana enforcement policies.

In January, Leonhart denounced Obama for saying marijuana is less harmful to users than alcohol, chastised White House staffers for playing after-hours softball against a team of marijuana reform activists and said the lowest point in her 33-year career was when a U.S. flag made from hemp flew above the Capitol on July 4, 2013.

Earlier this month, the DEA temporarily impounded 250 pounds of nonnarcotic hemp seeds en route to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture for congressionally authorized pilot programs. The Huffington Post reports that Holder met with Leonhart earlier this year, asking her to bring her conduct in line with current administration policies.

The House also approved two amendments Friday banning federal interference with state hemp programs. The DOJ has not commented on those measures.

As cannabis reform gains ground, enthusiasm for anti-marijuana measures appears to be fading. Fervent drug liberalization foe Rep. John Fleming, R-La. – who at a May 9 committee hearing railed against a pending Washington, D.C., law that would decriminalize marijuana – still hasn't decided if he will introduce a resolution seeking to block that law, spokesman Doug Sachtleben says.