Historical Vote by Congress to Offer Protection to Marijuana States

In what’s considered a great win for cannabis activists, the U.S. House of Representatives set a historic precedent by voting to allow marijuana states to operate without federal interference.

As cannabis advocates have suspected, major marijuana reform could arrive in the 116th Congress. The United States House of Representatives last week approved an amendment that prohibits the Department of Justice (DOJ) from cracking down on state-legal marijuana programs.

The amendment, attached to a large-scale spending bill, allows state-legal medical and recreational marijuana markets to function without fear of interference from the federal government.

This is the first time Congress has voted in favor of a marijuana-related measure that protects adult-use marijuana markets. The vote is considered a significant victory by marijuana reform advocates.

If passed, the Justice Department would not be able to intervene with medical and recreational marijuana cultivation and retail businesses operating in states where marijuana was legalized.

A similar policy was encapsulated in the Cole Memo, an Obama-era DOJ document that was rescinded by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Democratic-controlled House passed the new measure passed as an amendment to the 2020 Fiscal Year spending bill with a vote of 267-165. The amendment had the backing of the Democratic leaders, who sent an email prior to the vote urging members to support the bill. It went through on largely partisan lines.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a longtime supporter of cannabis legalization, spoke in favor of the bill during a House floor debate last week, declaring, “This is what the American people have demanded, why it is now legal in 33 states. It is supported by two-thirds of the American public, and 90 percent for medical marijuana. It’s time that we extend this protection to state-legal activities so they can drive and move forward.”

Blumenauer sponsored the rider, along with Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Delegate Elenor Holmes Norton (D-DC).

The bill earned the votes of House members Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Seth Moulton (D-MA), and Tim Ryan (D-OH), all of whom are vying for the Democrat party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

What’s Next for the Bill

The large-scale appropriations bill and its broad marijuana rider now head to the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate for consideration. It remains unclear whether it will support it.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill, has approved provisions to protect medical marijuana operations in the past. However, it is unclear if the Republican leadership will allow the broader amendment to go through.

A similar bill died in 2015 in the then-Republican-controlled House of Representatives by nine votes.

While the measure still has a hill to climb, the historic nature of the U.S. House vote on marijuana reform cannot be overemphasized.

“This is the most significant vote on marijuana reform policy that the House of Representatives has ever taken,” Justin Strekal, NORML Political Director, told Forbes.

“Today’s action by Congress highlights the growing power of the marijuana law reform movement and the increasing awareness by political leaders that the policy of prohibition and criminalization has failed.”

Because the amendment would be passed as part of a yearly spending bill, it would have to be approved again the following year to remain in effect in a similar fashion, a practice not uncommon in Congress.

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