Inside Congress’ Ceasefire with Medical Marijuana

The American people, in a strange way, can thank Republicans for the historic end to the federal war on medical marijuana this December in Washington DC.

Due to a weird mix of events much bigger than pot, newly elected House Republicans got a chance to do something they wanted — represent their constituents’ viewpoints on legalizing medical marijuana — by doing nothing at all.

A former tequila-drinking party-boy surfer from Huntington Beach named Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — a Republican — capitalized on powerful currents in the wake of the November 2014 election to float a bill to defund the federal war on medical marijuana. Astonishingly, it passed.

For the first time in U.S. history, the Department of Justice cannot spend federal funds going after state-legal medical cannabis activity. The Farr-Rohrabacher Amendment is already being cited in federal courts in cases involving the seizure of both Harborside Health Center in Oakland and Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley.

The law is open to interpretation, but the symbolism is not. A sea change in global drug policy is underway.

Sunday in downtown San Francisco, Rep. Rohrabacher gave attendees at the International Cannabis Business Conference a never-before-heard account of what went on behind the scenes in Congress.

“The leadership of the Republican party in the House was not opposed to this Amendment and had they been opposed they could have whacked it out at any moment,” he said.


TREACHEROUS WATERS

The November 2014 election was a terrible day for Democrats as Republicans swept to power in the Senate to control both chambers of Congress for the first time in the Obama presidency.

Republicans wanted to dismantle Obama’s legacy, but show they are responsible, too. The first order of business is the budget, and they could not allow a government default. Republicans — and Democrats — had to pass a budget by deadline in December.

Congress waters down its budget each year with hundreds of amendments, and the idea of de-funding the government’s war on medical marijuana that way had come up in recent years.

At first it was a lovable, if symbolic long-shot, but the last time the amendment was introduced it got a shocking amount of bipartisan votes.

Reps. Farr and Rohrabacher partnered on the amendment again (with ten co-sponsors) and added it as a rider on the huge, trillion-dollar Cromnibus.

Amendments like this — “it doesn’t just come to a vote [on the floor of the House]”, Rohrabacher said.

The amendment had to go through the Rules Committee, and a thing called “Scoring”.

NO SCORE
The Rules Committee chairman decides which bills the Committee hears. If it got out of Rules, then legislators would give a preliminary up or down vote on it through a process called “scoring” that asks “‘How are you going to vote on this?’”, he said.

Rohrabacher was deliberately demur on these steps.

Sunday, he told the crowd with a smile. “It was approved by the Rules Committee. [Smile]. Hmmm.”

The rider then moved to the floor, which is when it would have been scored.

“It wasn’t scored,” Rohrabacher said and smiled. “Hmmm.”

With no score, the floor vote took place, the rider passed, and it went to the Senate and President who did what they said they would do — pass and sign the budget and not let the government shut down.

“I was able to talk to various people in leadership and did not get any commitments,” said Rohrabacher. “They found a way to, ‘Let Dana be the point man here. Let him take all the grief if this has a bad impact.’ The lead sled dog has the best view, but he is the one who gets bit in the ass. And you know what? It hasn’t happened.”

The former Reagan speechwriter and self-described “right-wing” “libertarian-conservative” said the Republican party is essentially split — fifty percent of it is open to legalization on philosophical grounds that, “this is not in keeping with the basic principles of our country”: state’s rights, small government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and getting politicians out of the doctor-patient relationship.

The other half has negative associations with pot. “They just have a gut response to marijuana of any kind. It’s associated with a lifestyle they don’t like — long-haired people with beards. People who make fun of their religious beliefs and their own things. They got this visceral response to this lifestyle they think that’s what marijuana is all about and it’s not.”

The de-funding amendment comes up for renewal this year, Rohrabacher said. “We are on the edge now of building a new coalition,” he said. “This year, I think we can win with a much bigger majority.”

“We have a great opportunity in front of us now. We have reached a tipping point.”
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