Congress Just Made It Easier to Buy and Sell Medical Marijuana

Marijuana plants at the MedMar Healing Center in San Jose on Feb. 7, 2013. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

As Jon Stewart mockingly noted on Tuesday night, the $1.1 trillion federal appropriations bill is packed with all sorts of nuggets that weren’t widely touted. In addition to the list Stewart scrutinized, 85 words tucked into the 1,603-page bill give for the first time some federal legal protection to medical marijuana use, even though pot itself will still be illegal under federal law.

The amendment forbids the Justice Department from using federal funds for anything that will “prevent” states from implementing their own laws that legalize medical marijuana. Taylor West, the deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said that will prevent the feds from policing medical pot customers and providers who operate legally under state law. “Those federal funds cannot be used to raid them or shut them down” just for existing in the first place, she said.

The amendment was sponsored by two California representatives. Republican Dana Rohrabacher’s district covers coastal Orange County, which has become home to several marijuana businesses, including the investment firm Ghost Group, a Rohrabacher donor. Democrat Sam Farr’s district covers the Central Coast, including Santa Cruz, where interest in this issue is, well, obvious.

The amendment is just a partial fix for a few reasons. It’s temporary because the bill deals with just one year of funding, so the amendment’s inclusion will be year-to-year unless Congress passes a more permanent change. The bill also refers to each state by name, meaning if other states legalize medical marijuana, they’d need to get Congress to add them to the do-not-touch list.

And this doesn’t change the fact that federal law still considers pot illegal. That means it doesn’t directly change the complicated status marijuana businesses have with banks, which have been reticent to open accounts for providers peddling a product that’s still illegal under federal law. West said that a companion proposal, which prevents the Treasury Department from prosecuting banks for working with customers that operate legally under state law, didn’t make it through negotiations.

The amendment also doesn’t do anything to provide federal cover for recreational marijuana, even though the providers can essentially be the same as for medical pot. In Colorado, the first recreational dispensaries to open had to have been medical providers before. One Denver dispensary I visited when reporting on marijuana legalization in February had a masking-tape line splitting the salesroom in two: one half for medical customers, the other for everyone else.

The Justice Department has already said it will focus enforcement on certain violations (PDF) of federal law, such as selling to minors. But that’s just how the department prioritizes its policing efforts. This amendment is different, because it makes the protections part of federal law, something the cannabis industry called “historic.”

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