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Shutdown Shock: Protections for Medical Cannabis Programs Depend on Fate of Federal Spending Bill

Sen. Rand Paul has proposed amendments to shield states with legal marijuana as part of a federal budget compromise.

by Chris Moore

Photo via Keith Ellison

Last week, the federal government shut down after Congress failed to reach a compromise on the 2018 budget bill, becoming the first time in U.S. history that a government shutdown occurred while one political party controlled the House, Senate, and executive branch. Until an agreement can be reached, many non-essential federal employees are out of work, national parks are closed, and many federal assistance programs are at risk of running out of money by the end of the month.

The uncertainty over the budget bill also leaves the fate of the country's cannabis industry hanging in the balance. Since 2014, states with medical marijuana programs have been protected from federal intervention by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, a federal budget rider that prohibits the Justice Department (DoJ) from spending any federal funds to prosecute state-legal medical cannabis programs.

Because these protections were only included in an amendment, not a law, they were set to expire along with the previous budget bill. Congress has failed to agree on a new spending bill, but have previously passed temporary spending bills to keep the government running, temporarily keeping protections for medical cannabis intact. These protections have now expired along with the rest of the government budget, and the Justice Department is currently free to prosecute any breach of federal cannabis laws regardless of state legality.

As Congress struggles to reach a compromise on the budget, pro-cannabis legislators are working to ensure that cannabis protections will be a part of that deal. Republican Sen. Rand Paul has proposed two budget amendments to the House spending bill that would greatly expand the protections for state-legal cannabis, as reported by Marijuana Moment. The first of these measures would defund any attempts by the Justice Department to interfere with either state-legal medical or recreational cannabis. Paul's second proposed amendment would prevent the DoJ from prosecuting banks that serve state-legal cannabis companies.

Earlier today, the Senate leadership announced that they have reached a short-term compromise deal to fund the government, which they expect will pass. If approved, this temporary bill will keep the government open until February 8th, and the protections offered by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment will be back in full effect until that date. The fate of Sen. Paul's amendments to the House version of the federal budget bill is uncertain in the wake of this new temporary extension, however.

Although the passage of the budget bill has deep implications for the cannabis industry, the debate in Congress has primarily hinged on the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This Obama-era program, which helped children of immigrants lacking proper documentation work toward citizenship, was ended by President Trump in September, and Democrats have been blocking the passage of the spending bill until they could secure protections for those affected by the termination of the program. As part of the newly proposed temporary spending extension, the Senate Republican leadership promised that they would allow a vote on immigration reform before February 8th.


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Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.



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