Medical marijuana states and industrial hemp programs would continue to be protected from federal interference under a wide-ranging congressional spending bill that was released by a House subcommittee on Thursday.
This marks the first time that the medical cannabis rider has been included in a base House appropriations bill as introduced, signaling that the chamber’s new Democratic majority is paying closer attention to the issue as standalone marijuana legislation separately makes its way through Congress. Last year, the rider, which has been federal law since 2014, was added during a full Appropriations Committee hearing. Prior to that it had been inserted through floor amendments.
But while the procedural development is encouraging to advocates, the legislation as it’s currently drafted does not afford states that have more broadly legalized marijuana for adult use the same protections.
The medical marijuana-focused rider attached to the spending bill—which appropriates funds for the Department of Justice for Fiscal Year 2020—stipulates that none of the money may be used to prevent states and certain U.S. territories “from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
“I’m proud that the critical language I offered as an amendment last year to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis is now included in the base text of this year’s appropriations bill,” Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), told Marijuana Moment. “This progress is a testament to my colleagues’ and my commitment to protecting the will of the states and ensuring decisions about medical cannabis are between a patient and their doctor.”
The bill lists all of the states and territories that have medical cannabis laws—including comprehensive programs as well as more limited CBD-focused policies—that the rider would apply to. But the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical cannabis in January, was not included. However, that likely wasn’t intentional, as past versions of the legislation have also inadvertently omitted newer medical marijuana states like North Dakota and Indiana.
On the Senate side of the appropriations process, the medical cannabis protection rider appeared in that chamber’s base bill for the first time last year. It had previously been adopted there via full Appropriations Committee votes.
Missing from the new House spending legislation is another rider that’s been previously proposed to prevent the Justice Department from using funds to intervene in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.
If it’s put forth as an amendment later in the process, advocates are optimistic that it would pass. The last time it came up for consideration on the House floor, in 2015, it fell just nine flipped votes short of being approved. The number of states that have legalized cannabis for adult use has since more than doubled.
California alone, which legalized in 2016, has 53 representatives in the House.
“House Democrats have a real opportunity to demonstrate that they ‘get it,’” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “There are still opportunities to call for amendments and they should be seized.”
Lawmakers who back cannabis policy reform also say they hope the protections will be expanded.
“While I wish this provision went further, it is a good first step,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment of the current medical cannabis rider.
“With more than half of Americans living in a jurisdiction with some kind of legal cannabis, hopefully the Senate will see that protecting recreational programs isn’t a radical idea anymore,” he said. “Total legalization will be a process and those of us on the frontlines are ready to get to it. It’s time to make the change.”
Joyce said he “look[s] forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to advance commonsense federal cannabis policies that respect responsible decisions made by our states.”
A spokesperson for Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said that the congressman “was pleased to see the medical cannabis provision included and is supportive of expanding those protections to adult-use states like Alaska.”
“He continues to review the broader appropriations package and is engaged in ongoing discussions with his fellow co-chairs on possible amendments,” the spokesperson said.
A separate provision of the House appropriations bill as introduced concerns industrial hemp pilot programs authorized under the 2014 Farm Bill. As with medical marijuana, the Justice Department would be barred from interfering in such programs.
But because the 2018 version of the large-scale agriculture legislation legalized hemp and its derivatives, and shifted regulatory responsibility for the crop from the Justice Department to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its inclusion going forward may no longer be necessary.
The spending bill that the cannabis provisions are attached to is set to be considered on Friday by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. After that, it will head to the full House Appropriations Committee and then to the floor. The Senate will also soon begin work on its own version of the legislation.
This story was updated to include comment from Joyce, Young and NORML.