The final "cromnibus" federal spending bill that Congress passed over the weekend contains historic language prohibiting the U.S. Justice Department from spending any money to undermine state medical marijuana laws.
The spending bill also includes a bipartisan amendment that prohibits the DEA from blocking implementation of a federal law passed last year by Congress that allows hemp cultivation for academic and agricultural research purposes in states that allow it. It also contains an amendment allowing Washington, D.C.'s voter-approved initiative legalizing marijuana possession and home cultivation for personal use to move forward, but prohibits D.C. policymakers from using any local or federal 2015 funding to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol.
"For the first time, Congress is letting states set their own medical marijuana and hemp policies, a huge step forward for sensible drug policy," said Bill Piper, director of the Drug Policy Alliance's office of national affairs. "States will continue to reform their marijuana laws and Congress will be forced to accommodate them. It's not a question of if, but when, federal marijuana prohibition will be repealed."
Earlier this year, 219 members of the U.S. House voted for a bipartisan amendment that was sponsored by Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Democrat Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA) and ten other members of Congress prohibiting the DEA from undermining medical marijuana laws in nearly two dozen states, as well as eleven additional states that regulate CBD oils. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a similar amendment in the Senate but a vote by the Senate on the amendment was never held.
The House amendment made it into the final appropriations bill, marking the first time Congress has ever cut off funding to marijuana enforcement. Another House amendment sponsored by Republican Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Democrat Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) prohibiting the DEA from undermining a federal law that allows industrial hemp research under certain circumstances also made it into the final appropriations bill.
The spending bill also contains a provision affecting legalization efforts in D.C. In November 70 percent of D.C. voters approved Initiative 71, a ballot measure that legalizes small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Members of Congress have offered differing opinions on whether the language in the spending bill stops Initiative 71 or just prohibits D.C. from going further.
To the Democrats who fought to protect the right of D.C. to set its own policies and negotiated compromise language with Republicans, it is clear that the final rider protects Initiative 71. So says Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA); Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC); Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), the ranking member on the appropriations subcommittee that funds D.C.; and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the Ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) also spoke on the Senate floor last week in defense of D.C.'s right to reform its marijuana laws.
The rider that passed the Appropriations Committee earlier this year prohibited D.C. from spending money to "enact or carry out" any law or regulation lowering or eliminating penalties for marijuana or other Schedule I drugs. Democrats opposed that language in final negotiations over the "cromnibus" though.
The compromise amendment that Republicans were forced to accept eliminated the words "or carry out", meaning any D.C. law that has ready been enacted is protected. Under the D.C. Home Rule Act, a ballot measure becomes "an act of the council" when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethic certifies that voters approved it. Initiative 71 was officially enacted on December 3rd when the Board certified that 70 percent of D.C. voters approved it.
The Drug Policy Alliance urges the D.C. Council to side with D.C. voters and transmit the initiative to Congress in January.
"D.C. voters passed Initiative 71 because they want to see an end to racially unjust marijuana arrests," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It is now the Council's turn to honor the will of the people and move forward with legalization, even if doing so means standing up to Congress on the issue."
The campaign to pass Initiative 71 was driven by public demands to end racially-biased enforcement of marijuana laws and was seen as the first step at taking marijuana out of the illicit market. A broad base of community support from multiple civil rights organizations, faith leaders and community advocacy groups supported Initiative 71, viewing it as an opportunity to restore the communities most harmed by the war on drugs.
Two independent studies of marijuana arrest trends in the District of Columbia documented enormous racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests. Despite the fact that African American and white residents of the District of Columbia use marijuana at roughly similar rates, ninety-one percent of all arrests for simple possession of marijuana are of African Americans and are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
Whatever the fate of D.C.'s legalization effort, the national medical marijuana victory in Congress will further solidify drug policy reform's relevance as a mainstream political issue and build upon victories by drug policy reform advocates at the state level. Dozens of states have legalized marijuana for medical use in recent years.
Voters in Colorado and Washington State voted in 2012 to legalize and regulate marijuana like alcohol. In November, voters in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. also approved legalization, while voters in California and New Jersey passed groundbreaking criminal justice reforms.
Polls over the past few years have consistently found that a clear majority of Americans support marijuana legalization and other drug policy reforms.
"The war on drugs is unraveling at both the state and federal levels," said Piper. "It's taken a lot of work by a lot people working hard across the country for decades but from marijuana reform to sentencing reform punitive drug policies are finally coming to an end. The American people want change and policymakers are giving it to them."