Three senators proposed amendments Wednesday to ban the Justice Department from spending money to combat medical marijuana in states that allow it.
Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., are sponsoring an amendment to broadly ban action against state medical marijuana laws. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., is sponsoring an amendment that would specifically protect patients.
The amendment offered by Paul and Booker mirrors a prohibition attached May 30 to a spending bill by the House of Representatives in a shocking 219-189 win for reformers.
The more narrow Walsh amendment would block enforcement of laws against illegal drug users possessing guns or ammunition if the drug in question is medical marijuana. “This measure will ensure that patients can hunt, purchase ammunition and protect their homes without fear of prosecution,” Walsh said in an emailed statement.
The Senate is currently considering the underlying spending bill – the 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act – and a vote on the medical marijuana amendments may come late Thursday or on Friday.
[RELATED: House Votes to Ban DOJ Enforcement Against Medical Pot]
“Our recent bipartisan victory in the House showed that elected officials are beginning to wake up to the fact that supermajorities of voters support letting states set their own marijuana laws without federal interference,” says Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell.
“Now that senators with clear presidential aspirations are getting on board, it’s even more clear that savvy politicians are aware that this is a mainstream, winning issue they should support instead of run away from,” he says.
The measures would not make medical marijuana legal under federal law, but rather would deny the Drug Enforcement Administration and federal prosecutors the ability to investigate, prosecute and incarcerate people complying with state laws.
That may save the federal government millions of dollars and spare patients from the possibility of decades in prison.
[ALSO: DOJ, DEA Greet House Amendment With Silence]
In one of this year’s most high-profile medical marijuana prosecutions, four Washington state family members plus a friend – together nicknamed the “Kettle Falls 5” – are facing long prison sentences for growing a garden of pot in a rural area. The five have medical conditions that qualify them under state law to use and grow pot for medical use, but the local U.S. attorney filed federal charges following a DEA raid.
Medical marijuana user Larry Harvey, currently facing federal drug charges including a felony count for having an otherwise legally owned gun near his pot garden, joins Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access and Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., at a press conference May 7, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in August federal prosecutors should begin avoiding charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, and his department has issued guidelines urging restraint from busting medical marijuana patients – but the DEA and some prosecutors have ignored that guidance.
The DOJ, meanwhile, has not sought to block recreational marijuana laws from taking effect in Colorado and Washington state. Even marijuana reformers acknowledge the department would likely succeed if it went to court to shut down the two states’ programs, because they are operating in violation of federal law.
Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value. Obama has resisted calls to administratively reschedule the drug – which he has the power to do – and legislative attempts have thus far stagnated. Doctors cannot prescribe Schedule I drugs, so states that allow marijuana for medical use instead allow doctors to “recommend” it to qualifying patients.
[MORE: Congressman Unveils ‘Conservative’ Case for Medical Pot]
Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., currently allow medical marijuana for certain illnesses. Several others have older laws that aren’t used but allow doctors to prescribe it, and a handful of states recently legalized more limited cannabis-derived treatments.
Editorial Cartoons on Pot Legalization
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia are named in the proposed Senate amendments.
National polls show overwhelming support for legal medical marijuana. CBS News gauged support at 86 percent in January and Fox News found 85 percent support in February 2013. Several polls conducted in 2014 found a more narrow majority of Americans support outright legalization.
Americans for Safe Access, a grass-roots medical marijuana advocacy group, estimated in a 2013 report that the Obama administration spent more than $100 million in 2012 going after medical marijuana. ASA also estimated Obama’s Justice Department had spent nearly $300 million combating medical marijuana as of halfway through 2013, compared to the less than $200 million spent during the entire George W. Bush administration.
Updated on June 19, 2014: This article was updated to include a statement from Sen. John Walsh.
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