Congress’ spending bill protects medical pot states

(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP[3])
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP(3)

WASHINGTON — Congress extended protections to 44 states that have legalized medical marijuana in its proposed $1 trillion spending bill that funds the government through September.

The language prevents the Justice Department from using any of its funding to “prevent” those states from “implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

This amendment, championed by former Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., Sam Farr, D-Calif., and current Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., more than 10 years ago, finally became law in 2014 as part of the omnibus bill that funded fiscal year 2015.

It was unclear if it would be included again this year, given the Trump administration’s harsher tone on legal marijuana. Trump embraced states’ rights to set their own marijuana policies as a candidate, but his attorney general has long opposed loosening laws around pot.

“I am definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in late February. “I would just say, it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”

Sessions called the idea that medical marijuana could ease the heroin crisis “stupid.”

In March, however, Sessions said he thought much of the Obama administration’s Cole memo, which limited federal interference in states that legalized marijuana as long as they robustly regulated its growth and sale, was “valid.” That statement suggested he might not go after pot as much as its proponents feared. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said recently that Sessions will likely soon put forward a revised memo on the subject.

“He’s obviously reviewing the Cole [memo],” Hickenlooper told the Cannabist of his meeting with Sessions. “We’ll have to see how far they go.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer had suggested that any federal enforcement crackdown would focus on recreational, not medical, marijuana. He said Trump saw a “big difference” between legalizing pot for medical and recreational use.

“This is definitely good news, and it reflects the fact that nearly 90 percent of Americans support legal access to medical marijuana,” said Taylor West, spokeswoman for the Cannabis Industry Association. “Patients deserve access to treatment, and voter-approved state programs deserve respect from the federal government.”

She added that the group would work to gain the same “respect” from the federal government for recreational marijuana use.

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the provision. The spending bill is expected to pass before Friday, when government funding runs out.

Olivier Knox contributed to this report.

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