After months of threatened government shutdowns and stopgap budget extensions, Congress is finally close to approving the Fiscal Year 2018 budget bill. The news is particularly positive for the country's medical cannabis industry, as the bill contains a rider that will protect it from interference from the Department of Justice (DoJ) until the end of September.
To date, all Congressional attempts to permanently protect state-legal medical marijuana programs from the DoJ have failed, but pro-cannabis legislators have been able to enact a string of temporary protections via an amendment to each year's federal budget bill. This amendment, originally known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, effectively prevents the DoJ from spending federal funding on the prosecution of any medical cannabis user or business that is legal under state law.
The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment was first successfully added to the budget bill in 2014, and it's been successfully added every year since. Last summer, however, Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged legislators to block the rider, and an early attempt to include these protections in the 2018 budget failed last fall. Since then, Congress has struggled to hash out the details of this year's budget, resulting in a week-long government shutdown and several stop-gap bills to keep the money flowing.
Now, as yet another budget shutdown looms, legislators seem to be drawing near to a final version of the bill. And thanks to a strong push from pro-cannabis legislators, the protections for medical cannabis, now known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, are firmly in place. Over sixty members of Congress co-signed a letter to the legislative leadership asking them to include this amendment in the bill, and 59 Representatives also co-signed a letter to the House Appropriations Committee asking for protections for both medical and recreational cannabis industries in 2019.
The spending bill does have negative consequences for the cannabis industry in Washington, D.C., however. In 2014, the nation's capital legalized the possession, but not the sale, of cannabis. Today, the District of Columbia is facing an upsurge of black market and grey market weed sales as a result. Many of the city's residents and politicians support a fully regulated recreational cannabis market, but recent federal budget bills have included a rider that prevents D.C. from using its own money to establish a regulated cannabis market. This year's budget bill unfortunately extends that rider.
Republican leaders in Congress also removed the Veterans Equal Access amendment from the bill, which would have allowed veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations from their VA doctors. This amendment passed a Senate appropriations committee last year with a 24-7 vote, but did not make it into the final bill, which will allow VA officials to continue denying medicine to the nation's veterans.
Congress must still vote in favor of the bill for it to pass, and President Trump must also sign it into law. If they fail to do so, the federal government will shut down again on March 23rd at midnight.