Congressional Medical Pot Biz Threat: From "Nothingburger" to "Alarming"

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
Last night, September 6, the U.S. House of Representatives' rules committee blocked floor consideration of an amendment that would have prevented the Department of Justice, headed by pot-hating Attorney General Jeff Sessions, from interfering with state-legal medical marijuana. When another issue related to the department and MMJ happened this past June, the Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell, a major national voice for progressive cannabis policies, branded the development a "gigantic nothingburger" despite claims to the contrary by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group headed by recent Westword profile subject Kevin Sabet. But to Angell, the latest development is reason for much more concern.

"This is an alarming development," notes Angell, corresponding via email.

The current controversy swirls around legislative language created by representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Sam Farr, a pair of California Republicans, that would bar Sessions and company 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 this proviso be included in a DOJ funding bill, and SAM maintained that it did appear for a time in the base text. But it was absent from the version released on June 28.

SAM submitted testimony to the Appropriations Committee arguing against the language and celebrated its absence from the bill in a press release sprinkled with pronouncements folks like Angell see as ultra-dubious. "If I were an investor, I would sell my marijuana stocks short," Sabet said in a statement. "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."

SAM's Kevin Sabet.
Courtesy of Smart Approaches to Marijuana
In the wake of such claims, Rohrabacher and Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer issued a press release of their own, emphasizing 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."

Angell was optimistic, too. In June, he described SAM's assertions as "especially disingenuous, even for Sabet," adding that "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."

Now, though, the situation has changed, as Angell concedes. "The earlier development went exactly how things have gone in past years," he points out. "This, however, is the first time that House leadership has blocked these state medical marijuana protections from even being considered on the floor as an amendment."

In Angell's view, "opposing seriously ill patients' access to medical cannabis is sick enough, but blocking the people’s representatives from even being able to vote on the matter is just obscene."

The Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell on the streets of Denver circa 2012.
File photo
Blumenauer and Rohrabacher concur, as seen in a statement they released jointly after the committee's move. It reads: "By blocking our amendment, committee leadership is putting at risk the millions of patients who rely on medical marijuana for treatment, as well as the clinics and businesses that support them. This decision goes against the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly oppose federal interference with state marijuana laws. These critical protections are supported by a majority of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle. There’s no question: If a vote were allowed, our amendment would pass on the House floor, as it has several times before."

They add: "Our fight to protect medical marijuana patients is far from over. The marijuana reform movement is large and growing. This bad decision by the House Rules Committee is an affront to the 46 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized use and distribution of some form of medical marijuana. These programs serve millions of Americans. This setback, however, is not the final word. As House and Senate leadership negotiate a long-term funding bill, we will fight to maintain current protections."

Angell also holds out hope for a reprieve. In his words, "the issue is not dead yet thanks to the language being included in the Senate bill. It's too soon to predict what will come out of the conference committee, but we need all hands on deck — patients and especially industry players — to advocate that they do the right thing."

SAM's Sabet (update) expressed a far different viewpoint via Twitter. His message reads: "In other big news: No pot riders in House budget; Cong. support not as strong as $Big Pot$ banked on — results of legalization catching up."

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