This year has seen a record number of cannabis reform bills introduced into Congress, but most of these bills have met the same fate: getting shot down by conservative lawmakers in committee meetings. Many of these bills have been killed by one politician, Rep. Pete Sessions — no relation to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but just as vehement a prohibitionist.
As chair of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Sessions is able to block pretty much any bill from coming up before the full House for a vote. The chairman has used this power to kill at least 34 cannabis-related bills or amendments to date, including bills protecting veterans who use medical marijuana, as well as a federal budget rider that protects states' medical marijuana programs from federal prosecution.
This week, Rep. Sessions struck again, tabling two more marijuana-related amendments intended to be added to the Fiscal Year 2019 budget bill. The first of these amendments would have enacted protections for financial institutions willing to serve the cannabis industry. Federal law currently prohibits all banks from handling funds associated with illegal drugs, forcing canna-businesses across the U.S. to operate on a cash-only basis. This amendment, which had 22 co-sponsors, would have prevented the feds from prosecuting any banks serving state-legal marijuana businesses, but Rep. Sessions blocked it from passing.
The second of these measures concerned the legality of recreational pot in the nation's capital. In 2014, Washington D.C. voters approved a ballot measure legalizing the possession, but not the sale, of cannabis for adults. This has led to an explosion of black- and grey-market sales, and as a result, a majority of the city's residents and politicians are in favor of legalizing a fully licensed and regulated retail market. This has been prevented, however, by an amendment to each year's federal budget rider that prevents D.C. from using its own funding to establish such a market.
This year, D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton proposed a measure to reverse this rider, but again it was shut down by Rep. Sessions. "This rider has unintentionally benefited violent drug gangs," Norton testified to the Rules Committee, Marijuana Moment reports. "For that reason, some refer to it as the 'Drug Dealer Protection Act.' As one marijuana dealer told the Washington Post, the rider is 'a license for me to print money.' Regulating marijuana like alcohol would allow D.C., instead of drug dealers, to control production, distribution, sales, and revenues [of cannabis]."
Although Sessions' alliances are with the GOP, cannabis is not quite the partisan issue it used to be. Republican lawmakers like Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher have proposed some of the most effective cannabis reform bills and amendments ever to hit Congress. But on the other side of the fence, there are many Democratic lawmakers who have voted against cannabis reform, as they recently did in the case of the Senate version of the cannabis banking amendment.
In the past two years, the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved amendments to protect banks willing to serve the cannabis industry, but Rep. Sessions killed the House versions of these amendments. This year, both the House and the Senate versions of the amendment failed. In the Senate committee, several Democrats, including ranking member Senator Patrick Leahy, sided with Republicans in a 21-10 vote to kill the amendment.
"I was disappointed," said Senator Jeff Merkley, who proposed the amendment. "We had passed this twice before." Senator Leahy voted against the bill for a procedural reason, arguing that the budget should be "free of new controversial policy riders" so that Congress can quickly pass them without risking more government shutdowns. Merkley acknowledged that, despite his disappointment, his compatriots "had a fair point to make on the policy front" in this case.
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Even so, Merkley pointed out to Marijuana Moment that there are few other ways to propose such a measure in Congress today. "Normally we could take these policy bills like I was putting forward [and] you could put it on the floor of the Senate as an amendment to something. In 2017, outside of the budget process, not a single amendment was considered on the floor of the Senate… This is the end of the Senate really as a deliberative body on policy. So if you're blocked in the Appropriations Committee, and you're blocked on the floor, then it's very hard to put ideas out there and say, 'Hey vote on this. This matters.'"
Although the situation in the Senate is not likely to change, the blockade in the House could possibly end this year. Rep. Sessions is facing stiff competition in this fall's midterm elections, and political analysts have called his district a "toss up" this year. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, co-sponsor of both of the amendments that Sessions shot down this week — and many others — has helped set up the Cannabis Fund Super PAC, which will fund politicians who are challenging Sessions and other foes of cannabis reform.
"Everyone who knows that Congress has a responsibility to at least debate these issues should unite and help Pete Sessions find another line of work," Blumenauer said to Marijuana Moment.