Young tries again with legislative fix to marijuana conflict

  • Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young speaks during a Feb. 16, 2017, news conference to announce the formation of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus as fellow member Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., look on. Young has introduced several bills in the last three years to address state-federal marijuana law conflicts but none have ever received a committee hearing. (Photo/Office of Rep. Don Young)

Rep. Don Young teamed up with California Democrat Rep. Barbara Lee on Jan. 11 to introduce one of the first measures of the year meant to protect states’ legal marijuana laws in the wake of the recent federal shakeup to the industry.

House Resolution 4779 by Young and Lee, dubbed the REFER Act, seeks to provide certainty to financial institutions, patients, entrepreneurs, and other individuals by restricting federal funds regarding marijuana enforcement, he said.

Young, now the “Dean” of the House of Representatives as the longest serving congressman, has co-sponsored about seven bills since 2015 that relate to protections for states that have legalized use of marijuana.

None of them, however, have even received a committee hearing, though any of the bills could be brought back to help shape new laws, Young's spokesperson said.

Though he didn’t support legalizing marijuana in Alaska, accomplished through a 2014 voter initiative, he has said it’s a matter of states’ rights to decide whether to decriminalize and/or commercialize its use.

“(This) would keep the money appropriated to all federal departments and agencies from being used to crack down on these groups if they are operating within state and local regulations that permit the cultivation and use of cannabis,” Young said in a Jan. 16 statement.

“(It) would be an expansion of current law, known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, which prevents funds specifically appropriated to the Department of Justice from being used to interfere in states that have medical cannabis laws.”

Young is a founding member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, along with Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. The caucus’ stated intention is to “increase medical research into cannabis and change regulations on banking and taxation for cannabis businesses.”

States where marijuana is legal have relied on two measures to keep the federal government — which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act — at bay.

One was the memo written in 2013 by U.S. Assistant Attorney General James Cole that advised a hands-off policy in states that legalized recreational use of marijuana as long as they followed five conditions, including not allowing use by minors or letting in illegal drug operations.

The other was an amendment attached to each federal budget since 2014, called the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment (It was previously the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment but Rep. Samuel Farr has retired).

The amendment prohibits spending funds on prosecutions against medical marijuana enterprises in states that have authorized it, which now numbers 29 including Alaska.

A big criticism of both the Cole Memo — which was rescinded earlier this month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions — and the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment is that they offered only temporary protection, Young noted.

Congress hasn’t permanently protected state medical marijuana programs and adult recreational use from federal interference through direct laws granting states’ rights over the matter.

Eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use; and 18 states allow for the use of cannabinoid oil, also known as CBD, which is non-psychoactive.

Young believes it’s Congress’ duty, in light of the recent rescission of the Cole Memo, “to provide certainty to these groups and respect the right of states to set their own laws.”

The REFER Act would also prohibit the federal government from taking any punitive action against a financial institution involved in state-sanctioned marijuana-related activities.

By withdrawing the Cole Memo, Sessions was basically forcing Congress to take action.

“The federal government should respect the will of the voters in states that have voted to decriminalize cannabis. It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on the failed War on Drugs,” said Lee, co-sponsor with Young.

“I’m proud to introduce the REFER Act, which would prevent the Attorney General and others in the Trump Administration from stifling the budding cannabis industry. If the federal government chooses to interfere in these state matters, it’s up to Congress to prevent this harmful overreach.”

Specifically, HR 4779 bars federal funding for any efforts that seek to “detain, prosecute, sentence, or initiate civil proceedings against and individual, business or property that is involved in the cultivation, distribution, possession, dispensation, or the use of cannabis in accordance with the law or regulation of the state or unit of local government in which the individual is located.”

It also prohibits the federal government from taking any punitive action against a financial institution “solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity” that is involved in state-sanctioned marijuana-related activities.

Young has co-sponsored bills to require the federal government to respect state laws legalizing marijuana, to remove it from the Schedule I status, to allow financial institutions to do business with the marijuana industry, allow Veterans’ Affairs doctors to prescribe marijuana in states where it is legal, and to allow marijuana businesses to use the same tax deductions as other small businesses.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

01/17/2018 - 10:33am