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Congress Votes To Block Feds From Enforcing Marijuana Laws In Legal States

WASHINGTON DC, June 20, 2019— The House of Representatives approved a far-reaching measure on Thursday to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with state marijuana laws, including those allowing recreational use, cultivation and sales.

The bipartisan 267-165 vote represents a breakthrough for advocates of legalizing cannabis, who have unsuccessfully pressed the idea in the past under GOP control of the House. Although 11 states have legalized marijuana for personal use, possessing and selling the drug remains a federal offense. Lawmakers have already enacted protections for the 47 states where medical marijuana is legal in some form or another.

The amendment, which also shields cannabis laws in Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories, is now attached to a large-scale appropriations bill to fund parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2020.

The inclusion of adult-use programs represents a significant expansion of an existing policy that protects only local medical cannabis laws from federal intervention which was first enacted in 2014 and has since been extended through annual spending bills.

The broader rider was approved in a floor vote of 267 to 165, a tally that is considered by legalization supporters to be an indication of how much support there is in Congress for more comprehensive and permanent changes to federal marijuana policies.

“This is the most significant vote on marijuana reform policy that the House of Representatives has ever taken,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “Today’s action by Congress highlights the growing power of the marijuana law reform movement and the increasing awareness by political leaders that the policy of prohibition and criminalization has failed.”

An AP report noted that Attorney General William Barr said during his confirmation hearing in January that the Justice Department would not go after marijuana companies in states where cannabis is legal, even though the drug is outlawed under federal law.

Barr vowed not to use limited government resources to target cannabis businesses that are complying with state laws. Many of those businesses had relied on guidance from the Obama administration that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where cannabis is legal. But those guidelines were rescinded by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“We are watching the growth of this industry — a multibillion-dollar industry,” said sponsor Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. “We are watching state after state move forward.”

The vote came on an amendment to a pending House bill that sets the Justice Department’s budget, and if put into place would apply for the 2020 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. There are also efforts afoot in Congress to pass permanent protections that would apply to states that have legalized cannabis for either medical or recreational use, with Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., offering a leading proposal dubbed the States Act. It has yet to advance.

“I certainly think it has support over here,” said Gardner, whose home state has a thriving legal marijuana economy. “While appropriations riders are important in the interim, we do need the long-term certainty of the States Act.”

The amendment passed over the opposition of conservative Republicans who say the benefits of medical marijuana are overblown.

“This amendment that is before us sends the wrong message about widely abused drugs in the United States,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. “The Drug Enforcement Administration says more young people receive treatment for marijuana dependency than for alcohol and other illegal drugs combined. The amendment ignores the problems with abuse and sends the false message to youth that smoking marijuana is healthy.”


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