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January 05, 2018

Here's how Congress can protect states' medical marijuana programs

Medical Marijuana Laws
Carroll - NJ Marijuana Dispensary Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Packaged medical marijuana.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has struck a blow in his anti-pot crusade, rescinding a Justice Department policy allowing states to operate their legal marijuana programs despite the drug's federal classification.

The move has produced uncertainty in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. The same is true for medical marijuana, but an avenue remains for Washington to protect patients and providers in Pennsylvania and the 28 other states where medicinal pot is legal. 

RELATED: Unclear how Sessions' decision will affect Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program


In 2014, Congress passed the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which "prohibits the use of funds to prevent certain states from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."

Essentially, the federal government wasn't legalizing medical marijuana, but decided it wouldn't interfere with states that choose to allow and regulate the drug for medicinal purposes. It was the product of a bipartisan effort from U.S. representatives Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, and Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, the latter of whom blasted Sessions' recent decision as "attacking the clear will of the American people."

As part of a stop-gap spending bill, the amendment was renewed in December, but only until Jan. 19 when the temporary measure expires. Lawmakers have started negotiations on a full federal budget, although it's unclear if the amendment will make it into a final annual spending bill.

If the amendment is renewed long term, it would hypothetically stop federal prosecutors from going after medical marijuana growers, dispensaries, practitioners and patients, despite Sessions' new order allowing U.S. attorneys to prosecute marijuana cases regardless of states' laws.

As the Los Angeles Times notes, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted the amendment as barring prosecution in medical marijuana cases. But Sessions has tried to nix the law in the past, and Justice Department officials told the Associated Press that while they would follow the law, they wouldn't leave out the possibility of medical-marijuana prosecutions.

Earlier this year, Sessions asked Congress not to include the amendment, suggesting his frustration with the justice department's inability to go after medical pot. Per NewsWeek:

In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed back against the bill when he sent a strongly worded letter to Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress, asking them to oppose protections for legal weed and allow him to prosecute medical marijuana. “I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime," Sessions wrote in his letter.

Some experts say even without the protection, the Justice Department will likely be more focused on recreational marijuana. But Sessions has signaled an eagerness to use the federal government's resources to go after medical marijuana programs.

By including the amendment in the federal budget, Congress could stop the Justice Department from targeting medical pot in states where it's legalized, at least for another year.