A key U.S. Senate panel voted Thursday to continue preventing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from interfering with state medical cannabis laws.
By a vote of 21-8, the Appropriations Committee approved an amendment that prohibits the Department of Justice from spending money to prevent states “from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
Similar language has already been enacted into law for the past two fiscal years, but the provision must be voted on again each year because it only applies to annual spending packages.
The measure is now attached to the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill, and heads to the full Senate. The legislation is expected to be considered as soon as next month by the House, which approved a nearly identical amendment by a bipartisan vote of 242-186 last June.
“We should respect the rights of the states who are going through this process,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the measure’s sponsor, said in a brief debate prior to the vote. “The DEA has enough to do keeping illegal drugs out of our country at the border, rather than interfering where a state has determined though an open process that it wants to do these [medical marijuana]sales.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), spoke out against the amendment. “Civil liberties and supporting states’ rights issue are important to all of us,” he said, “but telling the Department of Justice not to enforce federal laws goes against legal principles.”
The text of the amendment lists all 24 states with comprehensive medical marijuana laws (in addition to Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico), as well as the 17 states that have more limited policies allowing patients to use nonpsychoactive extracts that are rich in cannabidiol (CBD).
Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access praised the committee action, saying it signals growing momentum for even more far-reaching reforms.
“Today, the Senate Appropriations Committee reaffirmed that patients, doctors and businesses operating in compliance with their state medical cannabis laws should not face federal arrest or prosecution,” he told Marijuana.com.
Liszewski said that the Senate should now take up broader legislation to change the Controlled Substances Act, going beyond the annual amendments to spending bills which have been enacted for the past several years. “The strong bipartisan support for the amendment shows that comprehensive medical cannabis legislation, such as the CARERS Act, would likely pass if it were given a vote.”
That bill has languished in the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) has refused to schedule a hearing or vote despite a growing list of bipartisan co-sponsors.
On Thursday, the appropriations panel also approved a separate amendment to protect state industrial hemp laws from DEA interference.
Before the vote, amendment sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said that hemp has a rich history in the U.S., pointing out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew the crop and that the first draft of the U.S. Constitution was written on hemp paper.
Shelby said that the measure would send a “confusing message” to the DEA, urging his colleagues to vote against it.
The amendment, which goes beyond provisions enacted in prior years that protected only hemp research programs, was adopted on a voice vote.
See below for the full roll call vote on the medical marijuana amendment.
Cochran, Thad (MS) – NO
McConnell, Mitch (KY) – NO, by proxy
Shelby, Richard C. (AL) – NO
Alexander, Lamar (TN) – YES, by proxy
Collins, Susan M. (ME) – YES
Murkowski, Lisa (AK) – YES
Graham, Lindsey (SC) – YES, by proxy
Kirk, Mark (IL) – NO
Blunt, Roy (MO) – YES
Moran, Jerry (KS) – ABSENT
Hoeven, John (ND) – NO
Boozman, John (AR) – NO
Capito, Shelley Moore (WV) – YES
Cassidy, Bill (LA) – YES
Lankford, James (OK) – NO
Daines, Steve (MT) – YES
Mikulski, Barbara A. (MD) – YES
Leahy, Patrick J. (VT) – YES
Murray, Patty (WA) – YES
Feinstein, Dianne (CA) – NO, by proxy
Durbin, Richard J. (IL) – YES
Reed, Jack (RI) – YES
Tester, Jon (MT) – YES, by proxy
Udall, Tom (NM) – YES
Shaheen, Jeanne (NH) – YES
Merkley, Jeff (OR) – YES
Coons, Christopher A. (DE) – YES
Schatz, Brian (HI) – YES
Baldwin, Tammy (WI) –YES
Murphy, Christopher (CT) – YES, by proxy
21 YES – 8 NO
Photo courtesy of Jiri Hera