WASHINGTON — Amid uncertainty over the federal government’s policy toward state marijuana laws, a U.S. Senate panel moved forward with a bill that would block the Department of Justice from cracking down on medical marijuana operations.
As part of a broader spending bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed language that prohibits the department from using money to go after medical marijuana dispensaries that are acting in accordance with state law.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chair of the committee, proposed the language Thursday as the panel finalized work on a bill that sets spending levels for commerce, justice and science in the next fiscal year.
“The federal government can’t investigate everything, and shouldn’t,” Leahy said at the hearing. “And I don’t want them spending money pursuing medical marijuana patients who are following state law.”
The language would ensure the Justice Department would “continue to focus their limited resources on more legitimate” issues, he said to his colleagues on the committee.
His amendment was approved on a voice vote.
Though 29 states now have laws allowing dispensing and use of marijuana to treat symptoms of medical conditions, the substance remains illegal at the federal level. The gap in state and federal policies leaves a gray area when it comes to enforcement, though in recent years the Justice Department has not focused on marijuana businesses that operate in accordance with state policies.
The language has been a part of the annual appropriations bill for the last three fiscal years, according to a Leahy aide. It was initially included as a floor amendment in the House.
However, the future of medical marijuana programs has been somewhat uncertain under the change in federal administration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled in June that he was interested in taking a different approach to medical marijuana. In a letter to congressional leaders, Sessions urged the removal of the section in appropriations bills that bars Justice Department dollars from being used to go after medical marijuana providers.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”