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Congress effectively ended the ban on medical marijuana on Friday. (Photo: Dank Depot/flickr/cc)

After Decades of Failed Policies, Congress Quietly Passes Sweeping Drug Reforms

Omnibus bill included two riders that lift federal ban on medical marijuana and loosen restrictions on needle exchange programs

Nadia Prupis

The 2016 spending bill approved last week by U.S. Congress and signed late Friday by President Barack Obama included a measure that effectively ended the federal ban on medical marijuana and paves the way for significant reforms of the war on drugs.

"For decades Congress has been responsible for passing disastrous drug laws," said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "It's encouraging to see them starting to roll back the war on drugs by allowing states to set their own medical marijuana policies."

One provision prevents the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from spending money to interfere with state laws on medical marijuana. The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Sam Farr (D-CA), was passed on a temporary basis earlier this year and was up for renewal in the 2016 budget.

By approving it within the omnibus bill, Congress has codified the order into law.

"Patients who benefit from medical marijuana should not be treated like dangerous criminals, and the businesses that support them need to be protected from the old drug war mentality that still runs deep within the DEA," said Neill Frankin, executive director at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "It’s very encouraging to see such widespread support for protecting state’s rights and the rights of patients."

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) added, "The federal government should never get in between patients and their medicine."

The impact could be significant in states where the DOJ and DEA continued to raid dispensaries even after the passage of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which prohibited them from interfering with states that complied with local regulations on medical marijuana. In October, a federal court in California ruled that the DOJ and the DEA violated the law when they ransacked and shut down several medical marijuana providers in the state. Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court in northern California slammed the agencies for their loose interpretation of the amendment, which they claimed only blocked the DEA from challenging state laws, not from prosecuting individuals or businesses.

That decision, along with some pending cases, gives drug reform campaigners hope that the agencies will adhere to the new law and give up attempts to circumvent it.

"The war on medical marijuana is over. Now the fight moves on to legalization of all marijuana."
—Bill Piper, Drug Policy Alliance

"It's always a challenge when you're depending on the Department of Justice to police itself, but at least in this case we have the advantage that it's being litigated," DPA senior director of national affairs Bill Piper told Common Dreams on Monday. "The intent is very clear."

The passage of the measure follows a sea change in public perception of marijuana, as states continue to legalize pot nationwide. Arrests for public consumption have dropped in Washington, D.C. since voters in the district approved recreational marijuana last year, Piper said. Law enforcement has realized "they're on the losing side of history. We clearly have proved the political support is there. I think there's a norm that is being set that you shouldn't waste resources on marijuana, especially in states where it's legal."

Ironing out the wrinkles may take time, Piper added. "The DEA is obviously going to be the last agency, probably, to come to their senses on this."

Nonetheless, legalization advocates were optimistic that the drug reform movement was starting to make significant progress.

Another provision passed within the omnibus lifts a freeze on using federal dollars to support needle exchange programs. The ban on such programs, which allow drug users to hand over used syringes for new, sterile ones to reduce risk of disease, was put into place in 1988 at the height of the AIDS crisis. It was repealed in 2009, then reinstated in the 2011 omnibus after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.

DPA said outbreaks of HIV in Indiana, along with the increase of heroin use in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, prompted Republicans to rethink their stance on the programs.

"Syringe access programs are a sound public health intervention, rooted in science, and proven to drastically reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C," DPA's Collins said. "Lifting this archaic ban will save thousands of lives."

LEAP called the measure "an incredible victory for public health."

Frankin told Common Dreams, "Syringe exchange programs save lives. It's as simple as that. I applaud Congress for finally releasing some funds to implement their use and hope this is the start of a greater trend toward putting public health ahead of politics."

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