Republican Congressional Caucus Approves Bill to Block Marijuana Rescheduling, While Rejecting Amendment to Protect States from Cannabis

Republican Congressional Caucus Approves Bill to Block Marijuana Rescheduling, While Rejecting Amendment to Protect States from Cannabis

A key Republican-led House committee approved a sweeping spending bill that would prevent the Justice Department from reclassifying marijuana, while amending a longstanding provision protecting medical marijuana states from federal interference by adding new language authorizing harsher penalties for sales near schools and parks. Members also rejected an amendment that would have extended those protections to all state and tribal cannabis programs, including those that allow recreational use and sale.

At a House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday, the panel passed the legislation covering Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) with the hostile marijuana provisions attached.

The bill as approved in committee would prevent the Justice Department from using its funds to reschedule or downschedule marijuana. The measure comes as part of an active regulatory process to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), as the Justice Department formally proposed earlier this year.

SEC. 623. No funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to reschedule marijuana (as that term is defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802)) or to remove marijuana from programs established under section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812).

Republican senators separately tried to block the administration from reclassifying cannabis in a standalone bill introduced last September, but that proposal failed to get a hearing or a vote. Including such a ban in a key annual spending bill is one way opponents are trying to advance the issue. But it’s far from certain that the Democratic-controlled Senate would take up the proposal.

The legislation approved by the panel Tuesday still includes a long-standing rider aimed at preventing the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state medical marijuana programs that has been part of federal law since 2014, but the committee added new language saying the Justice Department can still enforce a section of the U.S. code that provides harsher penalties for distributing marijuana within 1,000 feet of an elementary school, vocational school, middle school, playground or public housing.

ARTICLE 531. (a) No funds made available to the Department of Justice under this Act may be used, with respect to any of the following States: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the United States Virgin Islands, Guam, or Puerto Rico, to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws authorizing the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

(b) Funds made available to the Department of Justice under this Act may be used to enforce violations of 21 USC 860.

Toward the end of the hearing, the panel also rejected an amendment proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) that would have prevented the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in state or tribal cannabis programs.

“This amendment prevents the federal government from imposing its outdated cannabis regulations on the states, and it is time for the federal government to get with the times and stop obstructing progress,” said Lee, co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

After several Republican members spoke out against the proposal, the committee rejected it on a show of hands. No roll call vote was requested.

Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), another co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus, was the only Republican lawmaker to speak in favor of the amendment.

“We should give states the power to regulate the product as they see fit, and this amendment would help do that,” he said. “The disparity between state and federal policies has created a loophole that has allowed illicit operators to thrive and endanger public safety. It’s time to close that loophole, to make sure the products are safe and out of the hands of young people.”

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), ranking member of the CJS Appropriations Subcommittee, also spoke in favor of the measure, saying it aimed to “align law enforcement efforts between state and federal entities.”

“It doesn’t make sense for state and local law enforcement to pursue one set of policies and federal law enforcement to pursue a different set of policies,” he said. “It’s time to end this disparity (by passing) an amendment that prioritizes the rights of states to choose to implement laws that best reflect the needs of their citizens.”

But most of the speeches from Republican members on the amendment criticized the proposal. CJS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), for example, argued that it was “premature” given the administration’s desire to reschedule cannabis, which is currently under regulation.

What he refused to mention, however, is that he secured a separate provision in the CJS bill that would prevent the Justice Department from using its funds to reschedule or deschedule marijuana.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), a staunch prohibitionist who has long championed a provision that would prevent Washington, D.C., from using tax dollars to legalize marijuana sales, also opposed Lee’s proposal. He argued that it would tie the hands of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in pursuing illicit operators in legal jurisdictions.

However, as Lee pointed out in his closing remarks, the amendment is more narrowly aimed at preventing federal enforcement against cannabis-related activities that comply with state laws, and so there would be nothing explicitly preventing the Justice Department from working with state and local law enforcement to pursue bad actors.

“What we’re saying in this amendment is that Justice Department funds should not be used to prosecute people who are complying with the cannabis laws of their state, territory or tribe. Period,” she said.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) also opposed the measure because he said “the Justice Department should never be put in a position where it is obligated to enforce federal laws and regulations on a state-by-state basis.”

“That’s exactly what’s happening with this amendment, and we’re going to enshrine that practice in law,” he said. “This amendment overturns the doctrine of federal preemption.”

Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-OK) initially questioned the amendment’s relevance, saying it represents an inappropriate authorization measure for an appropriations bill.

The congresswoman then said that “prohibiting federal law enforcement officials from actually engaging with states, I think, is dangerous,” arguing that it would undermine the Justice Department’s ability to address the problems she sees in her home state of Oklahoma, where there has been cartel-related violence linked to illicit marijuana operators.

Lee’s proposed amendment has been revisited several times in recent sessions, and a Democratic-controlled House committee passed it as part of the CJS’s fiscal 2023 appropriations bill, for example. It did not make it into the final bill that was signed.

The CJS bill also leaves intact another long-standing feature preventing Justice Department interference in state hemp research programs.

ARTICLE 530. None of the funds made available under this Act may be used in violation of Section 7606 (“Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research”) of the 2014 Farm Bill (Public Law 113-79) by the Department of Justice or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Meanwhile, the Appropriations Committee is also considering a spending bill Tuesday covering Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, which includes a report on illegal cannabis operations on public lands.

“Marijuana on Public Lands. — The Committee is aware that trespassers are illegally growing marijuana on public lands in California. These illegal activities have a detrimental impact on the public, water, soil, and wildlife. The Committee supports the Forest Service’s efforts to develop tools to detect and eradicate grow sites. The Committee directs the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to continue to cooperate with State, local, and tribal governments on investigation, remediation, and prevention efforts to the extent possible. Further, the Committee directs each agency to meet and develop a strategy with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to eliminate grow operations that are not approved by State or tribal authorities and to provide a report to the Committee on its efforts and the estimated cost of remediation no later than 180 days after enactment of this Act.

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Last month, the House Rules Committee rejected several marijuana-related amendments to a series of spending bills, including proposals to prohibit some federal agencies from testing job applicants for cannabis and to prevent Border Patrol agents from seizing marijuana from state-licensed businesses.

Last month, the Appropriations Committee separately passed another spending bill that was amended to remove provisions protecting banks that work with state-licensed cannabis businesses. Members also reattached a section preventing Washington, D.C., from legalizing marijuana sales, which had been omitted from the original bill.

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