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Has the Federal Ban on Pot Really Been Lifted?

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[DIGEST: Forbes, LA Times, CBS News, NPR]  

In December 2015, multiple news sources reported that the federal ban on medical marijuana had been lifted. This excited many legalization advocates, and seemed to indicate a significant shift in the country’s ongoing debate regarding the legalization of marijuana. However, this was old news—one-year old news to be exact. How did news from a year ago became recycled and touted as a current event?


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In December 2014, Congress approved a rider to the federal omnibus spending bill—one of twelve appropriation bills that had to be passed to fund the federal government for the next fiscal year. The rider, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, stated that, “None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used … to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” In other words, the amendment would apply only to states in which medical marijuana was already legal.

After the omnibus bill passed, news headlines proclaimed that the federal ban on medical marijuana had been lifted. The Los Angeles Times spearheaded the media movement with the headline, “Congress quietly ends federal government's ban on medical marijuana.”

Yet the amendment did not prevent the Department of Justice (DOJ) from interpreting the law as they saw fit. According to the DOJ, continuing raids of dispensaries did not infringe upon states’ rights to establish their own laws for medical marijuana use. And continue

raiding they did. A year later, in December 2015, the same rider was approved again—basically an auto-renewal—with proponents hoping for a more strict adherence to the intended interpretation of the amendment.

Cue widespread media misinterpretation, again: “Feds Approve Truce in War on Medical Marijuana” (Lost Coast Outpost); “In budget bill, Congress wises up a little by banning medical marijuana raids and prosecutions” (Daily Kos); “Federal Ban Lifted on Medical Marijuana, Provision Lifting the Ban Quietly Placed in the Recent Spending Bill” (Inquisitr). Headlines like these exaggerated the scope of the amendment. While these publications upcycled their headlines, Evan Halper, the Los Angeles Times optimist from the previous year, published an article revealing his disillusionment: “A year after Congress voted to end war on medical pot, raids continue in California.”

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The problem is that cannabis is on the federal list of Schedule I drugs, which includes substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

So long as cannabis remains a Schedule I drug, anyone growing, dispensing, or using medical marijuana is technically breaking federal law. It is this technicality that allows the DOJ to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana patients or providers—even those in full compliance with their state’s laws.

Marijuana has been a hot topic this election cycle, particularly among current Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both of whom have called for changes in regulation of medical marijuana. Clinton has remained conservative on this front, saying that she is in support of medical marijuana use, but is not committed to the

legalization of recreational use. Her stand is that, within states where medical marijuana is already legal, more research should be done to find conclusive evidence that could be used for federal regulation purposes. In order for research to be conducted legally, Clinton is also in support of marijuana being reclassified as a Schedule II drug.

Bernie Sanders is highly critical of Clinton’s stance, stating she does not go far enough and that the reclassification of marijuana goes beyond mere use and into social equality issues and the criminal justice system.

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"If we are serious about criminal justice reform and preventing many thousands of lives from being impacted because of criminal convictions for marijuana possession, we must remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act and allow states the right to go forward, if they choose, to legalize marijuana without federal legal impediments," said Sanders in November.

It will take more than the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to meaningfully resolve the issue nationwide. This truth will certainly dash the dreams of hash hopefuls misled by media outlets. The increased bipartisan support of medical marijuana, however, as well as the upcoming presidential election, could pave the way for more significant change in the future.