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What Are Colorado's Congressional Reps Doing to Protect the Marijuana Industry?

Congressman Jared Polis visits a Northglenn dispensary on April 20.EXPAND
Congressman Jared Polis visits a Northglenn dispensary on April 20.
Kenzie Bruce
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Members of Congress joined legal cannabis-industry representatives in front of the United States Capitol today, May 23, calling for an end to federal pot prohibition. Among the lawmakers appearing in solidarity with the National Cannabis Industry Association were Colorado representatives Diana DeGette and Jared Polis.

"There are 34,000 Coloradans who are licensed to work in this industry, so you can imagine how dismayed everyone in Colorado was when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was going to rescind the Cole Memo," DeGette told the gathering. "I can say, I have never seen our delegation work so quickly to fix something in a bipartisan way."

Federal lawmakers in states with legal cannabis have been on the offensive since Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum, an Obama-era set of federal guidelines intended to protect state-legalized pot users and businesses, back in January. Shortly after the Cole memo's revocation, DeGette set up a conference call with other congressional delegates from the state, including Senator Cory Gardner and Robert Troyer, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, to discuss why federal prosecutors shouldn't change their approach to federal cannabis prosecutions.

Also in attendance at the May 23 action were representatives Earl Blumenauer (Oregon), Matt Gaetz (Florida), Ruben Gallego (Arizona), Barbara Lee (California), Lou Correa (California) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (Washington, D.C.), who all spoke about their legislative efforts to protect their jurisdictions from federal persecution for choosing to legalize different forms of cannabis.

DeGette introduced her Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act in the House in 2017; it's designed to amend the Controlled Substances Act to prevent it from superseding any state law legalizing cannabis. The measure has been stuck in a House subcommittee for nearly a year, but DeGette says she feels that support for legal pot in D.C. — something that was non-existent fifteen years ago — has risen sharply as of late. "As public awareness of these issues grows, you're getting a much better reception when you come to the Hill," she told NCIA members. "We stand ready, willing and able to help you."

Polis, who founded Congress's first Cannabis Caucus with Blumenauer last year, has been championing his Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act since 2015 and similar measures since 2013. The bill would order the U.S. Department of Justice to transfer marijuana regulation from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Food and Drug Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforce federal alcohol regulations. The proposal met with a lukewarm reception from the majority of his colleagues, though, and has been stuck in a subcommittee since April 2017.

Like DeGette, Polis said that he's noticed the pot industry's growing power on Capitol Hill as it brings more revenue to the 29 states that have legalized some form of the plant. "Ten years ago, when [Representative Blumenauer] and I were advocating for marijuana legalization at the federal level, we were met with a lot of stinkers. No one is laughing anymore," Polis told the gathering. "Our next challenge is to take the model that Colorado voters put in place and allow other states free of federal interference to follow suit."

Other bills being pushed by members of Congress attending the NCIA event include Lee's REFER Act of 2018; REFER would prohibit federal funds from being used to prosecute law-compliant cannabis users and businesses in states where the plant is legal, and would protect banks and financial institutions working with those businesses from federal charges. Introduced by Lee in January, it hasn't seen any action since then.

Gaetz, the only Republican to attend the NCIA gathering, is currently cosponsoring the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018. Introduced in April, it's on the House calendar for consideration. If passed, it would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct and support medical marijuana research while setting up a cannabis delivery system for veterans with conditions such as chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Update: This story has been updated to add the correct date for when Polis introduced the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act.

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