Trillion-dollar package is a big step forward, but also step back for reformers

Steven Nelson, U.S. News & World Report

The $1.1 trillion federal spending package unveiled Tuesday evening after backdoor negotiations would end the federal crackdown on state-sanctioned medical marijuana, but also contains language appearing to block legalization of the drug in the District of Columbia.

Lawmakers must pass the package negotiated by Congressional leaders by Thursday to avoid a partial government shutdown. There’s no indication it will be voted down.

The medical marijuana-protecting language replicates the so-called Rohrabacher amendment, which passed the House in a surprisingly broad 219-189 vote on May 30.

The reform, authored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., would ban the Department of Justice from using appropriated funds to target medical marijuana in states that allow it.

If the package passes, marijuana for medical use won’t become legal under federal law, but federal prosecutors and Drug Enforcement Administration agents won’t be able to go after individuals complying with state laws.

That’s been a contentious issue for years. In the initial years of the Obama administration, raids on medical marijuana facilities accelerated, leading Marijuana Policy Project founder Rob Kampia to call Barack Obama “the world president on medical marijuana” in 2012.

It’s not immediately clear how the reform would affect pending prosecutions, such as the case against the so-called Kettle Falls Five - four family members and a friend who face long potential prison sentences for roughly complying with Washington state’s medical pot law.

Larry Harvey, the 70-year-old family patriarch and gout sufferer, lobbied for the federal reform alongside Reps. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Paul Broun, R-Ga., before the House vote. Without the reform, the five patients would be likely to stand trial next year after refusing plea deals of three years in prison.

The legislation specifically says that no funds may be used to prevent 32 named states and the District of Columbia “from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Though polls generally show a majority of Americans support outright legalization of marijuana, even more back medical marijuana. CBS News gauged support at 86 percent in January and Fox News found 85 percent support in February 2013.

"Congressional leaders seem to have finally gotten the message that a supermajority of Americans wants states to be able to implement sensible marijuana reforms without federal interference,” says Tom Angell, chairman of the group Marijuana Majority.

Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, a classification for substances that have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value. Because of this classification, doctors cannot legally prescribe the drug, so states have set up a jerry-rigged system where doctors instead “recommend” marijuana for treatment.

Obama has thus far resisted calls to administratively reschedule marijuana, which he has the power to order. A pending bill from Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., would legislatively reschedule marijuana, allowing it to be stocked at the neighborhood pharmacy and covered by health insurance.

Though the medical marijuana breakthrough - and a provision protecting states’ hemp-growing programs - is music to the ears of cannabis policy reformers, the spending package also offered a blow to supporters of pot legalization.

The negotiated package contains language appearing to scuttle implementation of a ballot measure to legalize marijuana possession for District of Columbia adults age 21 and older, which residents passed by a two-to-one margin in November.

Congress previously used its authority over the district’s finances to block implementation of a 1998 ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana - a prohibition that stalled the opening of the city’s first dispensaries until last year.

The specific prohibition mirrors a budget rider that passed the House unchallenged in June, after pot reformers opted to bet on the Senate blocking it. The rider, authored by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., sought at the time to block the district’s decriminalization law, which took effect in July. Maryland, meanwhile, has passed its own legislation decriminalizing pot.

The District-specific wording says no funds “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 under the Controlled Substances Act… for recreational purposes.”

Earlier Tuesday, the ballot measure’s author, D.C. Cannabis Campaign coordinator Adam Eidinger, said local activists were bracing for such a scenario. Still, it’s unclear how local politicians will respond. It’s possible they will argue the measure has already been enacted, or postpone submitting the election results to Congress for review until the rider lapses.

The measure would certainly block the D.C. Council from legislating to authorize recreational marijuana stores, but it does not prevent the city from ceasing enforcement of current marijuana law - which, since July, sanctions possession of 1 ounce of pot with a $25 fine. Harris, the measure’s author, told U.S. News in June the district can stop enforcing such laws whenever it would like, regardless of the spending prohibition.