house bill prohibit federal government interfering state legal cannabis

By: Kim Nunley

California Rep. Barbara Lee last week introduced legislation in the U.S. House that would protect marijuana states from federal enforcement.

New legislation introduced in the United States House proposes to prohibit the federal government from enforcing federal cannabis law in states where marijuana has been legalized.

The Restraining Excessive Federal Enforcement & Regulations of Cannabis (REFER) Act of 2018 (HR 4779) was introduced last week by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) in response to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rescinding the Cole memo earlier this month.

The federal policy had protected state-legal marijuana from federal interference. Sessions’ move to revoke the policy indicates the Trump administration could be planning a crackdown, prompting this new bill, which would nip funding for such a crackdown in the bud.

The REFER Act would ensure there’s no federal interference in state-legal marijuana by prohibiting federal agencies from spending money to “detail, prosecute, sentence, or initiate civil proceedings against an individual, business or property, that is involved in the cultivation, distribution, possession, dispensation, or use of cannabis” when operations comply with state law and local regulations. The legislation would also protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses.

Congresswoman Lee commented in a statement, “The federal government should respect the will of the voters in states that have voted to decriminalize cannabis. It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on the failed War on Drugs.”

“I’m proud to introduce the REFER Act, which would prevent the Attorney General and others in the Trump Administration from stifling the budding cannabis industry. If the federal government chooses to interfere in these state matters, it’s up to Congress to prevent this harmful overreach.”

The REFER Act has four cosponsors, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Don Young (R-AK), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Dina Titus (D-NV).

If approved, the bill would not affect the status of marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act. This means that cannabis would remain illegal in states that have not passed their own marijuana legislation. However, states that do adopt their own cannabis laws would no longer face the threat of federal interference.

How REFER Act Differs From Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment

Existing now and protecting state-legal medical marijuana is the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, an annual appropriations rider that restricts the Department of Justice from going after patients and providers for violating federal marijuana prohibition. The medical cannabis rider only shields medical marijuana operations and must be renewed every year as part of the annual spending bill.

A government shutdown, which could be days away if Congress doesn’t pass a spending bill before this weekend, would mean the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment expires and Sessions could use federal resources to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs.

If approved by Congress, the REFER Act and its directives would not only be permanent, but they’d protect both adult use and medical marijuana that comply with state laws.

“It is time we expand the protections of Rohrabacher-Farr to ensure that no government agency targets marijuana companies and their partners in ancillary businesses,” said Congresswoman Titus in an email to Marijuana Moment. “Taxpayer dollars should not be used to crackdown on law-abiding taxpayers operating legally in states.”

Marijuana Industry Looking Forward

Sessions’ change in federal policy did not slow the spread of marijuana legalization. Legislators on both sides harshly criticized his move, which may have in fact prompted cannabis-friendly lawmakers to act more swiftly.

Earlier this month, Vermont’s legislature became the first to pass a recreational marijuana bill, which Gov. Phil Scott has said he intends to sign. In New Hampshire, members of House gave preliminary approval to an adult use proposal. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have introduced legalization measures in New Jersey and Kentucky.

As of now, eight states have legalized recreational marijuana, while 29 have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana.

You can learn more about marijuana industry trends to be aware of in 2018 HERE.

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