You would not think that legal marijuana and federal government shutdown threats have much to do with one another. But they do, in a slight yet very significant way. Every time the government comes close to shutting down, it raises the possibility that the Department of Justice can begin prosecuting people in the marijuana industry for drug crimes — regardless of whether medical or recreational marijuana is legal in their state.
What protects the industry is a little piece of legislation called the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment, a 2014 amendment that was tucked into a larger federal budget omnibus bill. The Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment demands that federal funds cannot be used by the Department of Justice to prosecute residents acting legally within their state’s cannabis laws. And the amendment has to be renewed with each year’s budget.
This year’s budget still hasn’t passed, but we do have yet another stopgap spending measure that funds the federal government through January 18, 2018. And that also delays the debate on the states-rights marijuana amendment, as the Cannabist reports that the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment has been extended for four weeks.
“Protections for state medical marijuana programs known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment were also continued in the legislation to fund the government through January 19,” the Cannabist’s Alex Pasquariello writes.
The Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment failed six times before it was eventually passed in 2014. Southern California representative Dana Rohrabacher had several co-sponsors over the years getting it passed, and the bill has previously had the names Rohrabacher-Hinchey Act and the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment.
While this all sounds complicated, the text of the amendment is really quite simple:
“None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana,” the amendment reads.
Since it’s an amendment, it has to be reauthorized by Congress each successive year. And in the latest batch of 2017 government shutdown shenanigans, the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment has been temporarily extended twice in both September and December.
“While we are pleased that these critical protections will continue, two weeks is not enough certainty for the millions of Americans who rely on medical marijuana for treatment and the businesses who serve them,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer said in a statement upon the December 7 extension. “As Congress works out a long-term funding bill, it must also include these protections. And ultimately, Congress must act to put an end to the cycle of uncertainty and permanently protect state medical marijuana programs—and adult use—from federal interference. The American people have spoken. It’s past time that Congress catch up.”
The full house and Senate will not debate the details of the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment’s renewal. Because both houses of Congress have to pass “reconciled” (or exact same) versions of the bill, the reapproval of the amendment is handled in a joint congressional subcommittee with only eight members who will do the so-called reconciling.
Attorney general Jeff Sessions is a well-known marijuana opponent, and Politico reports he hopes to see Rohrabacher–Blumenauer fail to renew. “I, as you know, am dubious about marijuana,” Sessions says, according to Politico. “States can pass whatever laws they choose, but I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store.
For his part, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher feels it’s outrageous that Sessions’ Justice Department would prosecute, and whose legality is broadly supported. “That’s the sign of...someone who is adamant beyond reason to this issue,” Rohrabacher told Newsweek.
The OC Weekly, in their always-amusing “Dana Watch” series that is largely critical of the pro-pot southern California Republican, got a statement from Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), the amendment’s co-sponsor.
“Patients around the country who rely on medical marijuana for treatment–and the businesses that serve them–now have some measure of certainty,” Blumenauer said after the amendment was given another extension. “Our fight, however, continues to maintain these important protections in the next funding bill passed by Congress.”
In other words, the whole issue gets hashed out again when Congress debates its funding measures before the latest January 19, 2018 deadline. That debate is scheduled to begin when Congress returns from its holiday recess on January 3, 2018.