The First Marijuana Reform Bill of the New Congress

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If the last Congressional session is any guide, there are likely to be a number of bills introduced this year to reform various aspects of federal marijuana policy, from reducing interference with state laws to allowing the use of banking services by marijuana businesses to providing medical cannabis access for military veterans. During the 2013-2014 session, at least 15 separate pieces of legislation concerning marijuana were introduced.

On Friday, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) got the brand new 114th Congress off to a good start by introducing a bill to prevent federal law enforcement from seizing property involved in state-legal medical marijuana operations.

Such enforcement actions have been a big problem in Lee’s California district, which includes Berkeley and Oakland. Activists in these Bay Area cities pioneered the medical marijuana movement in the 1990s and continue to be at the forefront of the emerging industry, which is perhaps why providers there have been specifically targeted by federal officials who want to send a message to others looking to get involved in the cannabis business.

For example, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag filed a federal lawsuit in 2012 seeking forfeiture of the land and building where Oakland’s Hardborside Health Center, the nation’s largest dispensary, operates. In 2013, she filed a similar action against Berkeley Patients Group, one of the oldest and most prominent dispensaries. Both are in Lee’s district.

“Working to protect my constituents and the medical establishments in my district from federal overreach is very important to me,” Lee told Marijuana.com.

She has introduced similar legislation in the past two Congresses, but the bills did not advance to a hearing or a vote.

“I will continue fighting for federal reforms in Washington that protect my constituents,” she said, “because the government should never get between patients and their medicine.”

In December, a federal judge dismissed a forfeiture action Haag initiated against the Shambhala Healing Center dispensary just across the Bay in San Francisco. The cases against Berkeley Patients Group and Harborside are still pending, and there’s nothing stopping Haag or other U.S. attorneys from continuing to sue other landlords that rent to marijuana businesses, hence the need for Lee’s latest legislation.

Lara DeCaro, a lawyer representing Berkeley Patients Group, predicted that if Lee’s bill passed, Haag would be “hard-pressed” to continue her efforts against medical marijuana businesses that are legal under state law.

She said that “even if the new law were not to be retroactively applied to our case, we will continue to analyze and pursue all available arguments to protect the uninterrupted, safe, and affordable access for BPG’s member patients.”

In either case, the dispensary, which was presented a “Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition” by Lee upon its 15th anniversary in October, appreciates the congresswoman’s work. Executive Director Tim Schick told Marijuana.com that “Congresswoman Lee has been a long-time supporter and champion of safe, legal access, so it is an honor for BPG to have her recognition and support. We are optimistic that her brave leadership on what is essentially a bipartisan issue will encourage more action from her colleagues in Congress.”

Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access agreed. He called Lee “one of the strongest leaders on federal medical marijuana reform in Congress.”

He pointed out that her forfeiture bill was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), one of a few dozen Republicans to have voted in favor of floor amendments to let states set their own medical marijuana laws without federal interference.

“This is more of a state issue than it is federal,” Upton said of his votes.

Liszewski thinks Upton’s support and the general shift in favor of marijuana reform in Congress and among voters bodes well for Lee’s effort to block forfeiture actions against state medical marijuana businesses. He said her bill “stands a reasonable chance of getting heard before the committee, something that would be unprecedented for standalone medical marijuana legislation in Congress.”

Also last week, a bipartisan group of four senators — including new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — introduced legislation to exclude industrial hemp from the federal definition of marijuana. It is expected that a number of other marijuana reform bills will be introduced in the coming weeks and months.

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

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