The so-called "cromnibus" spending bill currently before the house -- must-pass legislation to keep the government funded through the fiscal year -- contains a number of confusing and contradictory provisions related to marijuana policy. Here's a rundown of what we know.
1. Marijuana legalization -- and even decriminalization -- may be blocked in D.C.
The bill contains not one but two separate and nearly identically-worded provisions to block the implementation of D.C. marijuana laws. Either one appears to be sufficient to block the implementation of Initiative 71, the ballot measure approved by nearly 70 percent of D.C. voters that would make marijuana possession legal in the District. A Colorado-style retail marijuana market, with taxed and regulated sales, is completely out of the question.
The wording explicitly targets "reducing penalties" associated with marijuana possession, meaning that D.C.'s marijuana decriminalization measure passed earlier in the year could also be in jeopardy. As yet it's unclear whether federal funds are necessary in order to keep D.C. cops from arresting pot smokers.
Legalization supporters are outraged over the measure, which came as a shock to many. They're planning to march from the Justice Department to Capitol Hill today in protest.
The D.C. council isn't happy either: "To undermine the vote of the people--taxpayers--does not foster or promote the 'limited government' stance House Republicans claim they stand for; it's uninformed paternalistic meddling," said D.C. councilmember-at-large David Grosso.
But there remains some confusion over whether the language could even effectively block Initiative 71 as written. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s non-voting congressional representative, said in a statement "the omnibus rider does not block D.C. from ‘carrying out’ enacted marijuana policies... therefore, it can be argued that the legalization of small amounts of marijuana can proceed." A stricter edict, passed by the House earlier this year but never taken up by the Senate, would have prevented that from happening.
But this seems doubtful, given that there are two versions of the anti-pot rider in the cromnibus bill, one of which does contain the phrase "carry out." Regardless, Holmes Norton will be offering an amendment at the House Rules Committee meeting today to strike down the rider.
2. The Justice Department is now prevented from interfering with state-level medical marijuana laws.
While marijuana advocates grapple with how to deal with the D.C. provisions, they're celebrating the inclusion of a measure that would prevent the Drug Enforcement Administration from interfering with state-level medical marijuana laws.
The measure was originally introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.) and passed by the House earlier this year, but not by the Senate. Advocates believe that this will effectively put an end to DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, like recent ones in California, provided the dispensaries are in compliance with state laws.
“Congress has finally listened to the vast majority of Americans who believe the federal government has no right to interfere in the personal decision to use medical marijuana made by a patient in consultation with his or her doctor," said Major Neill Franklin of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization working to overhaul drug laws. "Law enforcement never should have been a part of that decision and if this amendment passes, they no longer will.”
3. The Justice Department has also been instructed to keep its hands off hemp.
The cromnibus also includes a provision preventing the Justice Department from interfering with the production of industrial hemp for research purposes, which the Farm Bill authorized earlier this year. Hemp is a completely non-psychoactive variant of the cannabis plant that was traditionally used in the manufacture of rope, canvas and other goods.
But the Drug Enforcement Administration still doesn't recognize this distinction: in May it seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds on their way to the University of Kentucky for a research project, and in June it seized 350 pounds of seeds bound for a farm in Colorado.
The cromnibus rider would likely put an end to these seizures, which have frustrated researchers and been an embarrassment for the Justice Department.
Overall, the cromnibus bill highlights the confusing and contradictory impulses behind federal marijuana politics. A vote for the bill is simultaneously a vote for federal interference in D.C. marijuana policy and against federal meddling in state-level marijuana laws. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the cromnibus can get enough votes to pass at all.