Big win, several losses for cannabis businesses in congressional bill

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By John Schroyer

A $1.9 trillion federal spending bill that Congress introduced this week represents a mixed bag for the cannabis industry, as it extends some key protections for marijuana businesses but also fails to address several hot-button issues such as banking relief.

On the positive side, the final bill includes an amendment that prohibits the federal government from spending money to hamper the implementation of state medical marijuana laws.

The provision is an extension of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment that was included in another spending bill a year ago, which was hailed at the time as a groundbreaking development that would prevent the government from cracking down on MMJ businesses in state-regulated markets.

While the industry celebrated the extension of that law, the latest spending bill falls short in several key ways.

Specifically, it doesn’t include a provision that would allow physicians with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend cannabis treatment for soldiers, nor does it include language that would protect banks that do business with marijuana-related companies.

Industry leaders and advocates had been holding out hope that both provisions would be added to the bill.

Additionally, lawmakers again included language that prevents Washington DC’s local government from establishing a workable recreational cannabis industry. A similar provision was tucked into last year’s spending bill but wasn’t in the most recent one until the last minute.

“It’s a little disappointing that we didn’t seem to advance much from last year, but that said, we definitely didn’t lose any ground,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority. “All of these provisions… either passed the full House or passed the Senate Appropriations Committee. So it’s not like we’re coming out of nowhere, asking for these things. These all already have traction, and legislators are paying attention.”

The DC recreational ban has been an ongoing fight for roughly a year now, since local voters overwhelming supported legalizing adult use and possession in the 2014 general election.

Rec sales, however, remained illegal after the vote, which led to months of back-and-forth between local leaders who want a way for their constituents to legally purchase marijuana and members of Congress who vigorously oppose having a rec industry in the nation’s capital.

“We are disappointed that Congress continues to block the will of the people of the District of Columbia,” Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, owner of the DC medical cannabis dispensary Takoma Wellness Center, said in an email. “We want a safe, regulated legal cannabis program that can effectively serve the needs of adults in Washington, DC.”

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, another ally of the cannabis industry on Capitol Hill, also said in a statement that he’s “disappointed” with the inclusion of the language blocking DC rec sales and the exclusion of the VA and banking provisions.

Blumenauer spokeswoman Nicole L’Esperance said in an email that the congressman intends to keep pressing his colleagues on both banking as well as access to MMJ for veterans.

She noted that a bill Blumenauer introduced in 2015 to allow veterans to obtain medical cannabis through the VA was defeated by just three votes. She added that a lack of banking services for cannabis businesses is “a huge safety risk” that must be resolved as quickly as possible.

Bob Capecchi, the director of federal policies for Marijuana Policy Project, called the inclusion of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment to prevent the feds from cracking down on state-legal MMJ industries a victory, though he also noted that the measure “hasn’t been 100% effective” over the past year.

The DEA has continued to target marijuana businesses in some states, including on tribal lands and in markets that don’t yet have statewide regulations in place.

Still, Capecchi noted that a federal judge in California slapped the DEA’s wrist in October and warned it to abide by the letter of the law.

Now that the amendment has been re-introduced into federal law – albeit only until next December, when Congress may or may not approve it again – Capecchi hopes that it’ll hold more sway over the DEA’s attitude toward legal marijuana businesses.

What’s really needed, Capecchi said, is stand-alone legislation that would install the amendment into permanent federal law so it doesn’t have to be renewed every year.

That said, Capecchi and Angell are both optimistic for 2016 and beyond when it comes to Congress.

They pointed out that presidential contenders such as U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul have both already put their names on pro-marijuana bills. Sanders introduced a bill to end federal cannabis prohibition, and Paul is a co-sponsor of the CARERS Act, which would ease banking access for cannabis companies and exempt medical marijuana states from the Controlled Substances Act.

“More politicians are realizing this is a political benefit and not a danger to work on,” Angell said.

Both Sanders’ and Paul’s bills, however, have been introduced in the Senate, assigned to the Judiciary Committee, and no action has been taken on either. The CARERS Act has been languishing there since March.

The spending bill is expected to pass both chambers of Congress by the end of the week.

John Schroyer can be reached at