Is Congressional Threat to Medical Pot Biz Protection Real or a "Nothingburger"?

A federal raid of a Denver-area marijuana business circa 2013.
A federal raid of a Denver-area marijuana business circa 2013. Photo by William Breathes
The most prominent anti-marijuana group in the country is touting the absence of language in a key Congressional funding bill that has protected the medical marijuana industry in Colorado and beyond from federal prosecution in recent years. But a cannabis advocate dismisses the suggestion that this development could soon unleash a law-enforcement blitzkrieg against the MMJ biz.

In the words of Tom Angell, who leads the national organization Marijuana Majority, "This is a gigantic nothingburger."

That's not the way it's being portrayed by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, also known as Project SAM, which launched in Colorado in 2013. In its first press release on the topic, the organization maintains that a "Commerce, Justice, Science bill that funds the Department of Justice...eliminated a provision that has protected the marijuana industry from federal prosecution for violating the Controlled Substances Act."

This line refers to language created by representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Sam Farr, a pair of California Republicans, that bars the Department of Justice from prosecuting anyone following the laws in states that allow medical marijuana. In an April letter to the subcommittee handling the bill (it's accessible below), Rohrabacher and more than thirty fellow members of Congress, including Colorado reps Jared Polis, Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette, asked that the language be included in the measure, and SAM says it did appear for a time in the base text. But it's absent from the version released yesterday, June 28.

SAM's Kevin Sabet.
Courtesy of Smart Approaches to Marijuana
SAM submitted testimony to the Appropriations Committee arguing against the language, and now that it's out, Kevin Sabet, the group's president, is celebrating in a big way. In one quote sprinkled with dubious assertions, he says, "If I were an investor, I would sell my marijuana stocks short. The marijuana industry has lost in every state in which they were pushing legislation in 2017, the industry's largest lobbying group is losing its bank account, and now they are losing protection that has helped them thrive despite marijuana's illegal status. Although the debate over Rohrbacher-Farr is far from over, the bad news just keeps coming for the pot industry. But it's great news for parents, prevention groups, law enforcement, medical professionals, victims' rights advocates and everyone who cares about putting public health before profits."

In the wake of such claims, Rohrabacher and Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer issued a press release of their own, maintaining that the language has been added by amendment in previous years, rather than being part of the base bill. According to Blumenauer, "The folks at SAM clearly don’t understand the legislative process. Our amendment has never been in the CJS Subcommittee’s bill. There is no news here. We are exactly where we thought we would be in the legislative process and look forward to amending the underlying bill once again this year to make sure medical marijuana programs, and the patients who rely on them, are protected. Voters in states across the country have acted to legalize medical marijuana. Congress should not act against the will of the people who elected us."

Earlier this morning, Sabet fired back in SAM's second release about the bill. After referencing the April request from Rohrabacher and company, he writes, "Now, like the fox and the sour grapes, they changed their tune once they didn’t get what they wanted. Despite their earlier letter, they issued a press release last night saying they never expected to get this amendment into the base spending bill in the first place. When a politician says, ‘nothing to see here,’ there is usually something to see. The problem for them is, their earlier letter speaks for itself."

Not in Angell's view. He calls the SAM assertions "especially disingenuous, even for Sabet. The medical cannabis protections have never been included in the base bill and have always been added via bipartisan amendments later in the appropriations process. We expect that to be the case this year, too."

Click to read the April letter about including the Rohrabacher-Farr language to protect the marijuana industry from federal prosecution.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts