Lawmakers have once again failed to include protections for state-legal cannabis programs in the base spending bill that funds the Department of Justice (DOJ). Legislators will now have to vote to include those protections as an amendment to the bill. But there are other cannabis reforms at work in the current spate of spending bills moving through Congress.

Protections Missing From CJS Bill

Earlier this month Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and 44 others including New Mexico Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández sent a letter to the chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies of the House Appropriations Committee to include protections for states where cannabis has been legalized at the local level in the final draft of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations Act. The bill provides funding for the Departments of Commerce, Justice and Science for the fiscal year.

Every year since 2014, lawmakers have approved a rider that has been attached to the spending bill that forbids DOJ operatives from using funds to interfere with state-legal medical cannabis programs. The amendment allows medical cannabis companies to operate without worrying about being prosecuted by the feds, but the letter’s authors were pushing to have the language included in the base bill to halt the need for an amendment floor vote each year.

The representatives also wanted broader protections that applied to adult-use marijuana markets as well as state medical cannabis programs. They asked the subcommittee to include language in the spending bill that would bar the DOJ from using funds to prevent states, tribes, U.S. territories or the District of Columbia from “implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.”

During a subcommittee hearing in May, Blumenauer said the changes would reflect the desires of voters. “As states, territories and tribes take action to address the failed and discriminatory War on Drugs, Congress has a responsibility to heed the public’s call for these reforms through the annual appropriation process,” he said. “My top priority this fiscal year is language in the base text that would bar the Department of Justice from prosecuting those who comply with their state or tribal marijuana laws.”

The House did include these protections as amendments in their version of the CJS appropriations bill in 2019 and 2020, but they were ultimately removed before the bill was signed those years.

Last week the House Appropriations Committee released a draft of its bill. While the amendment protecting medical cannabis from intervention was maintained, the requested additional protections for legal adult-use cannabis operations were not included. Lawmakers will now have to push Congress to include the language as an amendment if they want to see it in the final bill.

The CJS bill is in subcommittee this week and is on its way to the House floor.

Other Spending Reforms

Congressional leaders have been busy slipping cannabis reform language into other government spending bills, though. Spending bills for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Financial Services and General Government (FSGG), U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) also include provisions related to cannabis.

Language in the proposed DHS spending bill forbids the agency from using funds to deny admission to immigrants based solely on use or possession of cannabis. The proposed FSGG bill would block agents from using funds to interfere with financial institutions that choose to work with legal cannabis companies. The bill would protect television and radio stations that choose to broadcast advertisements for legal cannabis companies. The USDA spending bill would block the agency from interfering with legal hemp operations and commerce. Finally, the appropriations bill for the DOI includes language that denies the agency from using funds to enforce cannabis laws on tribal land as long as it is located in a state that has legalized cannabis.

Tribal Considerations Paramount

While these provisions might seem less than extraordinary, they appear to be the result of a concerted effort by legislators and federal agencies to clarify peripheral policies surrounding cannabis, suggesting that the nation’s leaders are preparing for more significant reforms in the future.

Provisions protecting tribal cannabis rights are especially noteworthy this year as federal forces have made moves to infringe on the sovereignty of some Indian nations. In May, New Mexico signed an intergovernmental agreement with Picuris and Pojoaque Pueblos reinforcing their right to develop their own cannabis policies and markets.

The agreement was made following federal raids of legally grown medical cannabis operations on Picuris Pueblo by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is overseen by the DOI. Current federal protections of medical cannabis that we mentioned above only apply to the DOJ, making tribal medical marijuana an open target for BIA agents. When BIA was contacted by the tribe, it refused to budge. “The BIA Office of Justice Services is obligated to enforce federal law and does not instruct its officers to disregard violations of federal law in Indian Country,” wrote an agent.

If the appropriations bill for the DOI is signed into law with the cannabis provision included, agencies like the BIA will be unable to prosecute cannabis producers on tribal lands in states that have legalized the drug. Raids like the ones in Picuris Pueblo would be halted for the time being.

At a congressional hearing in April, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was asked to comment on the current troubles faced by tribes that wish to take part in the cannabis industry but are held to different standards than states. “I understand what tribes are saying, and I generally, of course, respect tribal laws,” the secretary said. “We want to work in partnership with tribes on any public safety issues and their priorities.”