Senate Committee Approves Protections For State Medical Marijuana Programs

06/11/2015 01:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2015
FREDERIC J. BROWN via Getty Images

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a provision Thursday that would protect medical marijuana operations from federal crackdown in states where the substance is legal.

The committee passed the measure, by a vote of 22-8, as an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016. The amendment blocks the Department of Justice, which includes the Drug Enforcement Administration, from using appropriated funds to interfere with medical marijuana programs in the states that have legalized the drug for medical purposes.

The amendment was offered by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and is a companion to an identical amendment introduced in the House last week from Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.), which passed the chamber overwhelmingly.

The same measure passed through both houses of Congress last year and ultimately made it into the federal spending bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in December. Unless Congress renews the medical marijuana provision, however, it will expire later this year since it was part of an annual funding bill.

To date, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and 15 others have legalized the limited use of purified marijuana oils for medical purposes. (In addition, four states and D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.) Still, the federal government continues to ban the plant, classifying it as one of the "most dangerous" drugs, alongside heroin and LSD, with no allowance for medical use.

The states that have legalized marijuana in any capacity have only been able to do so because of federal guidance urging prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations. However, under the Obama administration, the DEA and several U.S. attorneys have raided many marijuana dispensaries and sent people to prison, even though the operations were in compliance with state laws. According to a 2013 report released by the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, the administration has spent nearly $80 million each year cracking down on medical marijuana, which amounts to more than $200,000 per day.

The committee's passage of the provision follows its approval of a historic measure in May to allow Department of Veteran Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their veteran patients. Currently, VA doctors are banned from doing so.

The medical marijuana amendment still has a long road ahead before it becomes law. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto multiple spending bills, including the Commerce, Justice and Science bill, primarily because his administration believes the bills underfund various programs. If the bills are vetoed, however, the medical marijuana protections are still likely to make it into a larger federal spending package later this year, since the measure appears in both the House and Senate versions of the CJS bill.

“This is another resounding victory for medical marijuana patients, their families and their care providers," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Congress is making it clear that the Department of Justice and the DEA have no business interfering in state medical marijuana laws."

The American public overwhelmingly supports the use of medical marijuana: Last year, a CBS News poll found 86 percent of Americans believe doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana to their patients. A majority of Americans also believe the federal government should not interfere with states that allow marijuana use.

This story has been updated to reflect that the vote count changed to 22-8, after Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) changed their votes to 'yes.'

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