They won a historic vote in the House last week on relaxing federal marijuana policy, but backers said it’s too early to declare victory, acknowledging that it will be a tough fight to get something through the Senate and on to President Obama this year.
Still, the vote, which approved language blocking the federal government from interfering with state medical marijuana laws, was stunning. It marked the first time either chamber of Congress has approved a stand-down measure on the marijuana issue, and the 219-189 tally wasn’t even close.
“This demonstrated something more than just the medical marijuana issue,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who led the fight for the policy change. “It showed where you can actually have a coalition on specific issues that can’t move forward with just one party, but there can be a coalition that can carry things through when it’s based on some kind of a more libertarian premise.”
The fight came as part of the annual debate on the spending bill that funds the Justice Department.
Mr. Rohrabacher’s amendment stops all funding for the federal government to interfere in medical marijuana policies in the District of Columbia and the following states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.
It does not change federal policy on recreational marijuana use, even in Colorado and Washington, where voters have approved use of the drug for recreational purposes.
Despite overwhelming House passage, it’s doubtful the bill will clear the Senate, backers said.
Neither Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski nor Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate spending committee, have been approached about attaching a similar provision to their version of the bill, and Mr. Shelby has signaled he opposes the idea.
“Sen. Shelby opposes legalizing marijuana, and would therefore oppose such a provision. However, he has not been approached about including anything related in the Senate’s version,” said Jonathan Graffeo, spokesman for Mr. Shelby.
Mr. Rohrabacher conceded it will likely take another year or so for the House’s momentum to carry over to the upper chamber.
“What happened was a historic breakthrough but it won’t be totally successful this Congress, but it puts us on a path to be successful in the next Congress,” he said.
Friday morning’s vote saw 49 Republicans join with 170 Democrats in backing the policy change for medical marijuana.
Only two years ago, a similar amendment garnered little more than 160 votes in support. The leap of nearly five dozen extra votes signals just how quickly the politics of pot are changing.
Still, Mr. Rohrabacher said there should have been even more Republicans in support, if only out of fealty to the principles of federalism.
The House also approved other amendments that would prevent the federal government from hindering states that want to allow industrial hemp production. While industrial hemp contains almost none of the active ingredient that makes marijuana so potent, the plants look similar and some authorities have feared the industrial plant could be used to cover for marijuana plants.