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Congress Passes Temporary Spending Bill, Extends Medical Marijuana Protections Another Month

The 30-day lifeline for the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment will protect the medical cannabis industry into 2018, when a long-term budget debate will once again put legal weed on the chopping block.

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The United States Congress passed a temporary federal budget bill yesterday, swooping in at the 11th hour to prevent a government shutdown. The one-month funding extension, which expires on January 22nd, was quickly confirmed by the Senate and continues current spending allocations, including a budget rider that protects the country's extensive medical cannabis industry from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice.

First announced by cannabis activist and Forbes writer Tom Angell, the temporary spending bill also extended the Obama-era Rohrabacher-Farr amendment — the initiative safeguarding state-approved medical cannabis providers and users from federal prosecution. (Note: the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment is now called Rohrabacher-Blumenauer, as Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer co-sponsored the legislation after Rep. Sam Farr retired this year)

According to a report from Politico, the short-term funding bill was passed in Congress by a vote of 231-188 on Thursday and confirmed by a 66-32 vote in the Senate only hours later. Still, legislators will have to once again resume spending talks before the new January 22nd deadline or face the same shutdown they avoided yesterday.

The spending debate deferral doesn't quite give the medical marijuana industry reason to celebrate. That said, it does ensure that no dispensary owners will wake up to cease and desist letters from Jeff Sessions in their stockings on Christmas morning. And while the four-year-strong Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment still needs to be saved next month, cannabis advocates on Capitol Hill are confident the medical marijuana shield will find its way into the final budget.

"It's more trouble than it should be, but I think it will ultimately be protected," Rep. Blumenauer told Politico last week. "And what's going on right now is going to accelerate further reform… The public is behind us. Both chambers of Congress are behind us, and if they choose to make it a partisan issue, it won't go well for them."

But as the medical cannabis community waits for the other shoe to drop, America's recreational cannabis industry was met with some unexpected good news on Thursday. The notoriously anti-cannabis Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was rescinding 25 federal guidance documents but the Cole Memo — an Obama-era referendum barring the Department of Justice from interfering with state-approved recreational cannabis —  was thankfully not among them.

In the official announcement yesterday, Sessions decried "any guidance that is outdated, used to circumvent the regulatory process or that improperly goes beyond what is provided for in statutes or regulation should not be given effect."

And while most cannabis insiders might expect legal weed protections to top that list, a deep dive from Tom Angell found absolutely no mention of the Cole Memo.

Outside of the implicit cannabis protections, Sessions' actions are still alarming, including the removal of an Obama-era letter that aimed to prevent the criminal justice system from trapping low-income Americans into debt and jail time.

But for the cannabis industry, where constant crackdown threats have kept stress levels high since Sessions was sworn into office, the continuation of the Cole Memo and the temporary Rohrabacher-Farr extension almost feels like a holiday miracle. For the time being, canna-businesses can rest easy.

Follow Zach Harris on Twitter