Since Trump was elected and Jeff Sessions was put in charge of the national drug war, the unrepentant prohibitionist Attorney General has used every trick in the book to try to get his GOP allies to back his stand against cannabis. He almost succeeded in September, tried again this week, and will get another shot at destroying all of America’s medical marijuana programs just in time for Christmas.
This week, amid the multitude of swirling scandals besetting Washington, Congress reached a rare bipartisan agreement and agreed to continue funding the US government … for another two weeks. As scary as the prospect is for the country as a whole to have the future of our government hanging in the balance amid congressional partisan bickering, America’s cannabis community has some concerns.
For those unfamiliar, the entire American cannabis industry depends on a provision in that federal budget bill, currently known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, and Jeff Sessions is bound and determined to destroy it. He almost succeeded in September, tried again this week, and will get another shot at destroying all of America’s medical marijuana programs just in time for Christmas.
Protecting the patients themselves
Originally proposed by Rep. Maurice Hinchey in 2001, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment to the government budget prevents the Department of Justice from using taxpayer funds to prosecute compliant cannabis companies operating within state-sanctioned programs. Not only were cannabis businesses to be protected, but patients themselves could not be charged with federal charges as long as they participated in the state’s authorized program. Initially, it was considered such a radical idea, the bill was not even voted on in its first round, and was soundly defeated two years later when California Republican Dana Rohrabacher reintroduced it. After another decade and five more thwarted attempts, as American opinion shifted and evidence continued to mount that cannabis was not only popular, but effective as medicine, the Holder-era DOJ responded to the wave of medical and recreational marijuana ballot measures in 2010 and 2012 with the 2013 Cole Memo.
Reviewing nearly two decades of conflict between state medical programs and federal law, United States Deputy Attorney General James Michael Cole summarized eight key concerns the federal DOJ had about state medical programs in a list of concise bullet points. The items included the rational concerns the federal government had about effectively regulating state cannabis programs. Was the proposed state program strong enough to guard against abuse by minors? Criminal involvement? Interstate trafficking, and so on? Cole opined that if state programs could operate within those guidelines then the federal government could give them room to experiment in their “laboratories of democracy.” The following year an updated version of Hinchey’s original protections, then known as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, finally passed.
Since the provision’s original passage in 2014, America’s medical marijuana industry has blossomed to be a multi-billion-dollar enterprise serving almost two million patients in 46 states, employing upwards of 150,000 workers and receiving 94% public support. By 2021, cannabis sales nationwide are expecting to top the $30-billion-dollar mark. However, rather than permanently writing the provision’s protections into federal law, each year since its original passage, Congress has routinely reauthorized the provision as part of the continuing budget agreement.
The unrepentant prohibitionist
And then Trump was elected, and Jeff Sessions put in charge of the national drug war. Since then, the unrepentant prohibitionist Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions has used every trick in the book to try to get his GOP allies to back his stand against cannabis. Previously, Cannabiz News reported on Sessions’ lashing out against the industry in March, attempting to undermine the Cole Memo the first time Rohrabacher-Blumenauer was up for renewal last summer, and the near-successful derailing of the provisions by Jeff’s ideological brother-in-arms TX Rep. Pete Sessions in September.
Then, in November while on Capitol Hill to defend his role in the ongoing Russia Collusion investigation, Sessions took the time to sneer at Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen, when Cohen confronted Sessions on his misstatements on cannabis and opioids. In response, a bipartisan contingent of 66 Senators and Congressmen sent an open letter to the leaders of both parties demanding that Rohrabacher-Blumenauer be reaffirmed. Sessions remained unmoved, and instead, repeated his opinion that “the use of marijuana is detrimental” and his commitment to changing current DOJ policies regarding the plant.
Earlier this very week, a video leaked of Sessions’ antics at a DOJ in-house discussion, which caught the Attorney General belittling a DOJ intern who had to courage to challenge his “Canna-phobia.” Ganjapreneur’s TG Branfalt’s reports the AG cited a questionable 2015 study that asserts that more fatal crashes were caused by “drugs” than by alcohol, but failed to acknowledge that less than 60% of drivers in fatal crashes were even tested. Then, Sessions insulted the unnamed intern by referring to her as “Dr. What’s-Your-Name” and scolding her about needing to learn more about cannabis. As High Times’ Chloe Harper Gold noted, that advice coming from Sessions was, at best, “unintentionally hilarious.”
Further heightening concerns about Sessions’ next move, Buzzfeed reporter Dominic Holden, and Marijuana Moment founder Tom Angell, both report that Sessions spent Friday December 8th, the day after the extension vote, at a roundtable discussion on drug policy hosted by the extreme-right, Heritage Foundation, featuring notorious anti-marijuana drug warriors like Edwin Meese and Ken Sabet. Reporters were barred from the event, so we can only speculate on the discussion. But, given Sessions’ track record, it is worth keeping in mind this past spring, instead of celebrating 420, the Heritage Foundation published an editorial by their “senior legal fellow,” Hans von Spakovsky that called for reversing America’s legalization policies and trotted out the widely debunked reefer-mad myths that cannabis is a gateway drug more harmful than alcohol.
“Not enough certainty”
So, it comes as little surprise then that the current two-week extension of Rohrabacher-Blumenauer has not been very comforting to canna-entrepreneurs at a time of such unpredictability at the federal level. When Salon’s Amanda Marcotte interviewed Ames Grawert of the Brennan Center for Justice, he noted, “Every time, there’s sort of a dance around whether it will actually get cut this time or not.” It’s reasonable to be at least “a little concerned that Sessions’ pressure [may] eventually convince congressional Republicans to dump the amendment.” As amendment co-sponsor and leading cannabis advocate, Rep. Earl Blumenauer pointed out in a statement reported by NORML:
“While we are pleased that these critical protections will continue, two weeks is not enough certainty for the millions of Americans who rely on medical marijuana for treatment and the businesses who serve them. As Congress works out a long-term funding bill, it must also include these protections. And ultimately, Congress must act to put an end to the cycle of uncertainty and permanently protect state medical marijuana programs—and adult use—from federal interference. The American people have spoken. It’s past time that Congress catch up.” – Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)
As Leafly’s Bruce Barcott explained, the extension allows for the House and the Senate to reconcile their differing versions of the federal budget. The Senate version includes a cannabis protection provision by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy that mirrors Rohrabacher-Blumenauer. Due to the machinations of Pete Sessions, the House version does not. In any other year, the reauthorization would sail through. This year, given Congress’ volatility and Sessions’ relentless efforts, one cannot be sure what happens next.
So far, it appears the American cannabis community is not very optimistic. According to the website, Marijuana Index, this week US cannabis stock prices recovery efforts stalled around the extension vote and are still down by nearly half from pre-election exuberance in October of 2016. Meanwhile, the cannabis industry watchdog, New Frontier Data, reports that in addition to our national multi-billion dollar legal cannabis industry and the state budgets of dozens of states that depend on cannabis tax revenues, 1,914,767 legal US medical marijuana patients are left at risk while the final decision hangs in the balance. The next deadline is December 22nd. Happy Holidays.