House vote to rein in feds shows times are changing

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle

Members of Congress whose states allow the medical use of marijuana have been trying since 2003 to stop federal prosecutors from going after state-approved pot suppliers. In one vote after another, they've been beaten back in the House - until now.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, a lead sponsor of the latest hands-off amendment, expected to fall a few votes short of the 218-vote majority needed for passage. But a 219-189 roll call last week approved the measure, which would cut off funding for Justice Department enforcement actions that interfere with medical marijuana laws in 22 states and with laws in another 10 states that allow medical use of hemp oils.

Like any proposal to ease drug penalties, the amendment still faces a difficult road to final congressional passage. But Farr said the vote by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives reflected a generational and attitude shift, both in Congress and among the public, that has shown up in opinion polls and an increasing number of state laws.

"States with medical marijuana laws are no longer the outliers; they are the majority," Farr said in a statement. "This vote showed that Congress is ready to rethink how we treat medical marijuana patients in this country."

Libertarian bent

It's also a sign of "emerging libertarian sentiment in the House," said Ken Grubbs, spokesman for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach (Orange County), who has cosponsored the measure since 2007, when only a handful of Republicans supported it.

Last week, 49 Republicans joined 170 Democrats to win passage in the House. Another conservative California Republican, Tom McClintock of Rocklin (Placer County), is among the sponsors, along with Democrat Barbara Lee of Oakland.

"This is historic, a victory for states' rights, for the doctor-patient relationship, for compassion, for fiscal responsibility," Rohrabacher said.

But it's no guarantee of passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where one of the most vocal opponents represents the state whose voters were the first to legalize marijuana as medicine 18 years ago.

"Federal law enforcement officials must have the ability to shut down marijuana dispensaries that fail to operate under strict medical marijuana guidelines," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.

Feinstein's position

Feinstein said she was sympathetic to marijuana patients with "legitimate medical needs." But she said the bill would thwart federal action against "rogue medical marijuana dispensaries, which require little or no medical bona fides and are prevalent throughout California." She praised U.S. attorneys for closing more than 400 "rogue dispensaries" since 2012 by threatening their landlords with forfeiture of their property.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Justice Department's 2015 budget - which includes $1.9 billion for U.S. attorneys and $2 billion for the Drug Enforcement Administration - without proposing any restrictions on medical marijuana enforcement.

"We do not have a sponsor yet for a Senate version of the amendment, but we are certainly seeing an increased interest about it," especially among senators in states with medical marijuana laws, said Mike Liszewski of the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

He said the budget should reach the Senate floor within the next three weeks, and advocates hope a senator will propose an amendment from the floor, which is what happened in the House. If not, a medical marijuana provision could still be added by the conference committee that reconciles the Senate and House budgets.

Feinstein's opposition to restrictions on federal enforcement is consistent with her past positions - she opposed Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California, and signed the ballot arguments against Prop. 19, the defeated 2010 ballot measure that would have legalized personal use of the drug for adults.

California's other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, also opposed Prop. 215, and expressed some reservations about the new House bill last week. But in a statement Monday, Boxer endorsed the premise that Feinstein rejected - that each state should police its own medical pot industry, with federal enforcers adding their muscle only at a state's invitation.

Boxer's view

"I strongly support cutting off (federal) funds that would shut down legal and licensed medical marijuana dispensaries," Boxer said. "I believe that federal funds should not be cut off if the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) is asked by the state to go after rogue operators."

That's the distinction that the Farr-Rohrabacher bill draws, said a supporter, Amanda Reiman of the Drug Policy Alliance in Berkeley.

The measure allows federal enforcement against suppliers that violate California's requirements to provide marijuana only to patients with a doctor's recommendation, Reiman said.

Limits the crackdown

"What it does prevent is the feds coming in and going after places that do operate with (local) licenses and in compliance with state laws," she said, like Harborside Health Center in Oakland and the Berkeley Patients Group, both targets of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag's office.

Even if the measure passes, there's no guarantee that President Obama would sign it. As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to respect states' medical marijuana policies, but federal prosecutors under his administration have continued to raid state-approved pot dispensaries or taken legal action to shut them down.