By Tom Angell on December 5th, 2016 at 10:33 am
Don’t count on there being any marijuana votes in the U.S. House next year.
That’s the message that Republican leadership in Congress is sending after blocking a number of cannabis amendments from reaching the House floor earlier this year.
“The chairman has taken a stand against all amendments that are deemed poison pills and that would imperil passage of the final bill,” Caroline Boothe, spokeswoman for House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX), told Marijuana.com in an email on Monday.
The Rules Committee is responsible for deciding which submitted amendments are allowed to be considered on the House floor.
In recent years, Congressional leadership has taken up spending bills under relatively open rules whereby almost any amendment could be debated and voted on as long as it was germane to the overall legislation. But due to unrelated disputes over gay rights, gun policy and the right of transgender people to access public bathrooms, House Republicans began locking down the amendment process earlier this year so that only certain approved amendments can come to the floor.
While marijuana law reformers have been able to pass amendments in recent years — such as a rider preventing the Department of Justice from interfering with state medical cannabis laws — the new approach has impeded efforts to demonstrate that there is majority support in Congress for scaling back prohibition.
Earlier this year, for example, the Rules Committee blocked House floor votes on amendments concerning marijuana businesses’ access to banking services and Washington, D.C.’s ability to spend its own money legalizing and regulating cannabis sales. The committee also prevented two measures to expand medical marijuana research from being considered.
But despite Boothe’s reference to “poison pills,” the House approved a version of the banking amendment in 2014 by a vote of 231 – 192, and the overall bill was later passed as well. Similarly, the measure to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference was approved with strong bipartisan House votes in 2014 and 2015, and the overall spending bills were also passed once the marijuana measures were attached.
Boothe did not respond to a request for clarification about her boss’s position on the broadly popular medical marijuana measure.
The restricted amendment rules put in place this year left marijuana law reformers much less confident about the ability to enact and extend their legislation, which must be approved each year because appropriations measures only apply to specific fiscal years.
But until now, it was not known that there is in effect a blanket ban on measures concerning cannabis policy.
The notion of an outright prohibition on any marijuana amendments was first reported Monday by Politico Magazine. Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY), who has sponsored industrial hemp measures, told the magazine that the new operating procedure is “an affront to regular order” and “a travesty to our democracy.”
As a result of the inability to take marijuana votes on the House floor, reformers must increasingly rely on the Senate to include cannabis language in its versions of appropriations bills. If efforts succeed there, it is left up to conference committees of members from both chambers to decide whether to include marijuana language in the final enacted versions of spending bills.
Current spending levels for the federal government — along with the state medical marijuana protections that are current law — expire this Friday. It is expected that Congress will pass a short-term measure before then extending funding and policy riders until next spring.
But Sessions, who has been selected to continue chairing the Rules Committee for the next Congress, seems poised to continue the policy of blocking marijuana amendments from coming to the House floor. That, combined with uncertainty about how the incoming Trump administration will handle marijuana, leaves advocates in a precarious position even at a time when a growing number of states are ending prohibition.