July 25, 2014

D.C. Update: Victories in House Show Momentum for Cannabis Legislation

As Washington State celebrates its first retail sales of marijuana, and one state after another continues lowering the burdens to accessing medicinal marijuana, across the country in the “other” Washington (D.C.), Congress continues to lag public opinion polls and is slow to embrace the marijuana movement sweeping the nation.

But even as stand-alone legislation to address issues like banking access and unfair taxation has remained bottled up in Congressional committees, two recent victories show that positive momentum is gathering and progress is being achieved.

Every year Congress appropriates funds for the government to operate in the upcoming fiscal year. This is usually accomplished in 13 separate appropriations bills, each of which affects different departments. Each appropriations bill has to pass the House and Senate before it’s signed by the President, and in some years Congress consolidates multiple appropriations bills into one large bill. Gridlock and partisanship have gotten so bad in recent years that the “normal” budget process has not worked and government has been shut down. But this year, the appropriations process has presented an opportunity to offer amendments affecting the marijuana movement.

The specific appropriations legislation funding the Department of Justice was debated on May 30 in the House of Representatives, and Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Sam Farr (D-CA) introduced an amendment that would forbid the Department of Justice from using federal funds to interfere with medical marijuana patients or caregivers who are compliant with state and local laws. A similar amendment has been proposed in Congress before but never met with success. This time, the amendment was approved by a 219-189 vote, including the support of 49 Republicans.

Although there are still several challenges to surmount before the amendment’s language can become law, the vote was nonetheless historic as the first time in history the House of Representatives passed pro-marijuana legislation and agreed that individual states should be allowed to determine its own marijuana laws.

In the Senate, a bipartisan amendment introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) would accomplish the same goals as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, but Republican and Democrat Senators can’t even agree on debate procedures, so the legislation languishes and we continue to wait until Senate leaders bring appropriations bills up for a vote.

This month, the House debated the Financial Services Appropriations bill, which funds the Department of the Treasury. During that debate, Representatives Denny Heck (D-WA), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Barbara Lee (D-CA) offered an amendment that would forbid the use of federal funds to penalize financial institutions for serving cannabis businesses that are operating in compliance with state and local laws. In a vote that sent a strong message of support for opening up banking access to the legal industry, the House passed the amendment 231-192.

That amendment faces the same challenges of a gridlocked Senate that the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment does. But the combination of these two votes in the Republican-controlled House shows that the work of NCIA and our allied organizations to educate federal legislators about our issues is having a very real impact.

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