Legal Pot: Will Jeff Sessions’s War on Medical Marijuana Start Next Week?

The legislation that prevents Attorney General Jeff Sessions from using federal law enforcement against medical marijuana in states where it's legal remains up in the air until December 22, the deadline for Congress to vote on the federal budget for next year.

Congress got a last-minute, two-week extension to figure out the federal budget, and has that time to decide whether to include the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment in an appropriations bill that funds the government––a decision the House Rules Committee will make behind closed doors, congressional staffers say. The amendment is somewhat of a Band-Aid on a complex issue: It bars the Department of Justice from spending even a single dollar to go after marijuana users—but because it is an amendment to a budget bill, Congress has to vote on it every year.

12_11_RohrabacherBlumenauer_RohrabacherFarr_JeffSessions The text of the Rohrabacher-Farr (also known as Rohrabacher-Blumenauer) Act, which blocked the U.S. Department of Justice from spending any money to prosecute medical marijuana users in states where it’s legal. H.R. 2029 - CONSOLIDATED APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2016

It has passed every year since 2014, or been subject to continuing resolutions, until the House Rules Committee, led by anti-marijuana Representative Pete Sessions (R-Texas)—no relation to Jeff—blocked a vote on it in September. The initial deadline was December 8, before Congress pulled together an extension bill.

Jeff Sessions has opposed the amendment, finding it “unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic," he wrote to lawmakers in May.

Many states have legalized medical and recreational marijuana, though the drug is still illegal on the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act. And research on its medical benefits has not been conclusive—a Catch-22, because the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a Schedule I drug, and rarely approves research into it. 

The attorney general is skeptical of the drug. At a speech in Richmond, Virginia, in March, he called it a "life-wrecking dependency" that was "only slightly less awful" than heroin, and said begrudgingly at a Senate hearing in November that he would consider looking into research on its medical benefits, but that he was not optimistic. In August, he wrote to state leaders in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, expressing skepticism that their regulatory structures worked to keep marijuana use safe and keep the drug away from minors, The Denver Post reported. As a senator, he supported the death penalty for drug trafficking, including for marijuana dealers. 

But proponents say the government should at least consider its benefits, citing a Quinnipiac poll showing that 94 percent of Americans support it.

“The train has left the station for marijuana reform,” Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the amendment's sponsors, told Newsweek. “This is going to happen—the American public demands it.”

12_11_JeffSessions_MarijuanaLegislation U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives at a roundtable discussion December 8 at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. Sessions hosted a roundtable discussion on drug policy with representatives from The Heritage Foundation. GETTY/Alex Wong

Now it’s up to the members of the House Rules Committee to figure out whether to include the amendment in the federal budget package. Passed in 2014 by sponsoring Representatives Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), it received bipartisan support—170 Democrats and 149 Republicans were in favor—and it protects the 29 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have voted to legalize medical marijuana.

If the amendment is not included in the budget bill, Sessions could redeploy Justice Department funding so that Drug Enforcement Administration agents could target big producers or distributors of medical marijuana, experts say

Rohrabacher, one of the bill's namesake authors, said prosecuting something so widely supported was not an efficient use of Department of Justice resources. “That’s the sign of...someone who is adamant beyond reason to this issue,” Rohrabacher told Newsweek in October.

The Department of Justice declined to comment on the attorney general's plans for medical marijuana, but Sessions's May letter to Congress emphasized that he wants to have the power to prosecute it.

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