House Bill Would Force Feds To Respect State Marijuana Laws

04/22/2015 08:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2015
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A bipartisan group of lawmakers has come together to back a bill that would prevent the federal government from prosecuting individuals and businesses for drug crimes when they are in compliance with their states' marijuana laws.

On Wednesday, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) introduced the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2015 (H.R. 1940), a measure that would require the federal government to respect states that have ended prohibitions on the plant. Rohrabacher, who introduced the same bill in 2013, was joined by five members of his own party and six Democrats.

“The American people, through the 35 states that have liberalized laws banning either medical marijuana, marijuana in general, or cannabinoid oils, have made it clear that federal enforcers should stay out of their personal lives," Rohrabacher said in a statement Wednesday. "It’s time for restraint of the federal government’s over-aggressive weed warriors.”

Twenty-three states, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana, while 13 others have legalized limited cannabis extracts for specific therapeutic use. Four states and D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana. However, the federal government continues to ban marijuana in all forms, classifying it as one of the "most dangerous" drugs alongside heroin and LSD.

States that have legalized marijuana rely on guidance from Attorney General Eric Holder's office urging federal prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations.

And while a federal spending bill signed by President Barack Obama in December prohibits the Department of Justice from using funds to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs, the DOJ has said that it doesn't believe the congressional measure prohibits them from prosecuting individuals or businesses in violation of federal law.

The House bill introduced by Rohrabacher would go further than those previous measures by amending the Controlled Substances Act so it would make an exception to federal law for states that have developed their own marijuana policies.

Under the Obama administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration and several U.S. attorneys have raided hundreds of marijuana dispensaries and sent people to prison, even though they complied with state laws. According to a 2013 report from advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, the Obama administration has spent nearly $80 million each year targeting medical marijuana.

The federal government has ignored the congressional action, also introduced by Rohrabacher, in ongoing federal asset forfeiture actions against multiple dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area. The congressman sent a letter to Holder slamming the DOJ's interpretation of his amendment, calling the department's interpretation "emphatically wrong."

A majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana as well as protecting the states that choose to legalize from federal action. A recent report from centrist think tank Third Way found that a majority of Americans want each state to have the ability to decide its own marijuana laws without federal interference.

The report also found that most Americans would support a new federal law that would make those marijuana-legal states a "safe haven" from federal laws against cannabis, allowing them to act outside of federal policies on the substance.

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