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Marijuana News From the Budget Bill

Marijuana legal reforms are now becoming if not commonplace in Washington, at least solidly within the realm of the conceivable. Both Republicans and Democrats are beginning to realize that big changes need to be made in the federal government's decades-long War On Weed.
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It's that time of year when Congress actually gets things done, so they don't have to work through the holidays. This is always a powerful incentive, and this year is no different. Paul Ryan actually bargained with Democrats instead of following the hotheads in his party into another government shutdown, which bodes well for the future of the House of Representatives (and America at large). But, as with all big omnibus budget bills, this means all kinds of unrelated issues -- from health care for 9/11 first responders to whether we export oil or not -- are tossed into the giant, must-pass bill. And along with the wave of other single-issue items came some good news for marijuana legal reformers.

Two riders to the big budget bill will continue to prevent the Department of Justice (which includes the Drug Enforcement Agency) from spending one thin dime to interfere with the implementation of state marijuana laws -- even though all of those laws run counter to federal drug law. This is Congress using its famous "power of the purse" to zero out the federal budget for fighting against medical marijuana state laws and hemp cultivation state laws. The medical marijuana provision is already law, having been passed as part of the previous federal budget. It means the Drug Enforcement Agency cannot spend any money on harassing medical marijuana providers, as long as they're faithfully following their state's laws.

Or at least that's the law's intent. The Department of Justice has "interpreted" the law a little differently, which is why some U.S. Attorneys are still pursuing court cases against state-legal medical marijuana providers. Sooner or later, though, the Attorney General is going to have to bow to the reality of the clear intent of this law and stop this legal harassment for good. Congress (and, by extension, The People) are telling the federal government not to spend any money on fighting a losing battle. That money should rightfully be spent on other drug enforcement, period.

Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority advocacy group, reacted to the news in a statement:

While marijuana was once treated like a dangerous third-rail by most elected officials, the inclusion of these provisions demonstrates how it has now become a mainstream issue at the forefront of American politics and policymaking. Polls show that a growing majority of voters support ending prohibition, and lawmakers can't help but listen. This is the second year in a row that Congress is using the appropriations process to tell federal agents and prosecutors not to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. But so far the Department of Justice has taken the absurd position that these spending provisions don't actually prevent them from going after patients and providers who operate legally under state policies. The intent of Congress is clear, and so is the will of the American people. Since the Justice Department is being so stubborn, the next step should be for lawmakers to pass permanent standalone legislation that goes beyond these temporary spending riders. Then the D.E.A. will have a much harder time undermining Congress and voters.

There was a second marijuana rider that made it into the budget bill as well, that actually expands a law that was included in last year's budget. It prevents the Justice Department (and the D.E.A.) from spending any money to harass state industrial hemp production programs. As Angell notes: "The negotiators added a second hemp provision, which has more teeth than existing law. It seems to be intended to stop the D.E.A. from interfering with the importation of hemp for state research programs, which is something they've done in the past (in Kentucky)." Mitch McConnell, who co-sponsored a hemp amendment earlier this year, may have had something to do with this, since he hails from Kentucky.

While all of this is good news, there were other commonsense reforms which unfortunately did not make it into the final bill. One would have allowed Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to veterans (notably, to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) without retaliation, and would have also prevented the V.A. from denying services to any veteran who is a medical marijuana patient (as long as they follow their state's laws). Another important reform that failed this year was a provision which would have prevented the federal government from punishing banks that do business with state-legal marijuana operations. This is a big stumbling block to the entire industry, and would have been a welcome change, but it looks like it'll have to wait for another year.

Angell, however, remains optimistic about the future:

While we'd of course like to have seen Congress include provisions protecting veterans and allowing for banking access, there's no denying that marijuana reformers have political momentum behind us. The federal government is on notice, more states are passing good laws and our movement is growing. We're going to see even more spending provisions enacted next year, and perhaps even some standalone bills in the near future.

He's right to feel the wind at his back. Marijuana legal reforms are now becoming if not commonplace in Washington, at least solidly within the realm of the conceivable. Both Republicans and Democrats are beginning to realize that big changes need to be made in the federal government's decades-long War On Weed. These initial budget bill victories represent the first time that Congress is taking positive marijuana reform seriously since approximately the 1970s (pre-Nancy Reagan, in other words). Serious bills are being proposed to solve targeted problems, but soon even that's not going to be good enough. The fundamental way the federal government sees marijuana still needs changing, beginning with rescheduling it off of Schedule I in the list of dangerous controlled substances. This is going to take a little more time, but likely not all that much.

Next year could be the biggest "Year of the Marijuana Voter" America has yet seen. Outright recreational legalization (for adults) is probably going to be on the ballot in multiple states across the country in 2016. So far, four states and D.C. have pioneered this radical path, but the number of states with fully-legal marijuana could easily double -- or even triple -- next year. This will likely set off a stampede, as other states greedily eye all those millions of tax dollars flowing in.

Politicians are starting to realize that there are a lot of pro-marijuana voters out there, and that many of them are "single-issue" voters -- meaning it's really the only reason they go to the polls. When even a Republican-led Congress begins dismantling the War On Weed (one tiny chip at a time), then fundamental legal reform can't be too far off.

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