If the just-concluded 114th Congress is any indication, there are likely to be a huge number of bills introduced in the new 115th Congress aimed at reforming various aspects of federal marijuana policy, from reducing interference with state laws to allowing the use of banking services by marijuana businesses to providing medical cannabis access for military veterans.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, at least 22 House bills concerning cannabis were introduced, and the Senate considered at least 10 pieces of standalone legislation on the topic. That’s in addition to a sizable number of marijuana-related amendments that lawmakers sought to attach to broader bills, sometimes with success.
The new Congress only just convened on Tuesday, and legislation to reform federal cannabis policies has already been introduced.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, both Democrats, dropped a bill on Thursday to exempt businesses that are acting in accordance with state medical marijuana policies from being subject to federal asset forfeiture laws.
Such enforcement actions have been a big problem in Lee’s California district, which includes Berkeley and Oakland. Activists in those Bay Area cities pioneered the medical marijuana movement in the 1990s and continue to be at the forefront of the emerging industry, which is perhaps why providers there have been specifically singled out by federal officials who want to send a message to others looking to get involved in the cannabis business.
Former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, for example, targeted the properties where Harborside Health Center and the Berkeley Patients Group are housed for seizure. Following lengthy and costly court battles, those actions were dismissed, partially due to political pressure and court rulings stemming from a Congressionally-approved appropriations rider that prevents the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws.
Those protections are only temporary, however, and must be renewed each year. They are currently set to expire on April 28 along with funding for the federal government as a whole, and advocates are uncertain whether they will be extended into the 2017 fiscal year. That’s why Lee and Blumenauer are seeking a more permanent, albeit limited solution through the new standalone bill on asset forfeiture.
The duo introduced somewhat similar legislation at the beginning of last Congress, but it did not receive a hearing or a vote and it didn’t end up garnering any additional cosponsors. Still, it marked the beginning of a very busy two years of efforts on Capitol Hill to scale back the federal war on cannabis.
It is likely that several other marijuana bills will be introduced in the coming weeks, though it was also recently announced that Blumenauer and other members are forming an official Cannabis Caucus which could lead to better coordination and marshaling of support behind a smaller number of targeted bills.
For now, the new asset forfeiture bill has been referred to the House Committees on Judiciary and Energy and Commerce.
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