Washington, D.C. -- Medical cannabis is currently legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia and there are approximately 2 million medical cannabis patients in the United States overall. In the coming weeks before the August recess, these patients will be watching closely as Congress is expected to vote on the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment for the Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations bill, which prohibits the Department of Justice from spending federal funds to prosecute states acting in accordance with their own medical cannabis laws.
The amendment, introduced by Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calf.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), was originally passed in the House in 2014 and 2015, and has remained on the current budget through the continuing resolution, but is set to expire this September.
While some congressional offices feel the amendment is destined to pass again, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing his best to enforce federal law. On May 1, he wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stating:
“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”
Later that week, President Trump issued a signing statement for the Fiscal Year 2017 omnibus appropriations bill, in which he spoke to the amendment directly, stating, “I will treat this provision consistently with my constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” It is understandable that these events have made participants in state medical cannabis programs uneasy, to say the least.
Session’s comments both prior to and after his confirmation as Attorney General have demonstrated a disdain for cannabis, even if used for medical purposes. For example, Sessions told a Senate committee in April of 2016, “This drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it's not something to laugh about. ... Good people don't smoke marijuana."
He also commented in a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing in 2014:
“I thank … you and some of your officials in DEA for speaking out and telling the truth about the dangers of marijuana. This is not a non-dangerous drug. And I've got to tell you in terms of messaging, the president's statement — to me, I spent 12 years working with grassroots citizens’ groups to change the approach to drugs and the climate of drugs and to make it hostile climate for drugs and explain the dangers of drug use.”
Furthermore, despite recent research that points to medical cannabis being a likely tool in helping reduce opioid overdose deaths, Sessions stated in March, “...I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.”
While legislation that provides permanent protections for patients, like the CARERS Act or Ending the Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act would be preferable, it is unlikely that these bills will be passed before the current budget expires on September 30. Without these protections, the Department of Justice could begin the process of shutting down state medical cannabis programs, forcing some patients toward the illicit market to find their medicine. Moreover, there would be an increase in Medicaid costs and opioid deaths as well as a loss of workplace productivity, according to research.
If state medical cannabis programs are unable to continue serving the healthcare needs of patients who benefit from cannabis-based treatments, often where conventional medications have failed, the most vulnerable Americans will be the ones who suffer. Patients living with or treating cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), epilepsy, severe childhood epilepsy disorders such as Dravet Syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain, and a myriad of other conditions will be left without access to this medicine.
Medical cannabis patients across the country deserve better than to live in fear. That is why we urge Congress to pass the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment.
Steph Sherer is the executive director of Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research.
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