The Democratic-controlled House has voted to block the Justice Department from interfering with states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
The bipartisan 267-165 vote represents a breakthrough for advocates of legalizing pot, who have unsuccessfully pressed the idea in the past under GOP control of the House. Although 11 states have legalized marijuana for personal use, possessing and selling the drug remains a federal offense. Lawmakers have already enacted protections for the 47 states where medical marijuana is legal in some form or another.
Attorney General William Barr said during his confirmation hearing in January that the Justice Department would not go after marijuana companies in states where cannabis is legal, even though the drug is outlawed under federal law.
Barr vowed not to use limited government resources to target cannabis businesses that are complying with state laws. Many of those businesses had relied on guidance from the Obama administration that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where cannabis is legal. But those guidelines were rescinded by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"We are watching the growth of this industry — a multibillion-dollar industry," said sponsor Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. "We are watching state after state move forward."
The vote came on an amendment to a pending House bill that sets the Justice Department's budget, and if put into place would apply for the 2020 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. There are also efforts afoot in Congress to pass permanent protections that would apply to states that have legalized cannabis for either medical or recreational use, with Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., offering a leading proposal dubbed the States Act. It has yet to advance.
"I certainly think it has support over here," said Gardner, whose home state has a thriving legal marijuana economy. "While appropriations riders are important in the interim, we do need the long-term certainty of the States Act."
The amendment passed over the opposition of conservative Republicans who say the benefits of medical marijuana are overblown.
"This amendment that is before us sends the wrong message about widely abused drugs in the United States," said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. "The Drug Enforcement Administration says more young people receive treatment for marijuana dependency than for alcohol and other illegal drugs combined. The amendment ignores the problems with abuse and sends the false message to youth that smoking marijuana is healthy."