Sessions Seeks to End Protection for Medical Marijuana

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who uses medical marijuana, you need to be aware of something going on in Congress that could affect your legal right to use cannabis.  

A few months ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a letter to congressional leaders urging them to ditch an amendment that effectively prevents the Department of Justice from investigating or prosecuting cannabis users or sellers in states where medical marijuana is legal.

The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment first became law in 2014. It forbids the Justice Department from using any funds to prevent states from “implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” Last year the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the provision protects marijuana growers, patients and dispensaries who are complying with medical marijuana laws in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Those of us involved in our own state's medical marijuana programs felt safe and legally protected – until the Attorney General wrote his letter.



Although the amendment has been attached to spending bills for years, Sessions wants to make sure it’s not in appropriations legislation for 2018. He stated in his letter that the court ruling gives dangerous criminals a loophole to protect themselves from prosecution. 

Sessions says the country is “in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” and the Justice 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.” 

Sessions appears to be deliberately equating medical marijuana use with the so-called opioid epidemic. But an emerging tide of research indicates otherwise. Opioid overdoses have actually declined in states where marijuana is legal and many pain patients prefer cannabis over opioid medication.

John Hudak of the Brookings Institution called Session’s letter a "scare tactic” that just might work. He told The Washington Post that Sessions "could appeal to rank-and-file members or to committee chairs in Congress in ways that could threaten the future of this Amendment."

So far Session’s arguments haven’t gained much traction in the U.S. Senate. In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to keep the Rohrabacher–Farr  amendment in the appropriations bill for 2018.

“The federal government can't investigate everything and shouldn’t, and I don’t want them pursuing medical marijuana patients who are following state law,” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) told The Hill. “We have more important things for the Department of Justice to do than tracking down doctors or epileptics using medical marijuana legally in their state."

But the Senate and House must work out a compromise, and it’s unclear how the House will vote. Last month the House Committee on Rules voted to remove the amendment from the House appropriations bill after Republican leaders said it was too “divisive.”

In the past, there has been broad bipartisan support for the amendment in Congress. One of its sponsors, California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, is a conservative Republican who has long supported marijuana legalization. Without his amendment, Rohrabacher says Congress would be undermining the rights of states to make their own laws.

“The status quo for four years has been the federal government will not interfere because the Department of Justice is not permitted to use its resources to supersede a state that has legalized the medical use of marijuana,” Rohrabacher told his colleagues.

Many Americans agree. Support for medical marijuana is at an all-time high, reaching as much as 94 percent in one poll. 

Where do you stand? Where does your congressman? Should medical marijuana be protected from federal prosecution in states where it is legal?

I, for one, depend on cannabis for life. And will do all I can to let my voice be heard.

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Ellen Lenox Smith lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.