Pro-Pot Lawmakers to Join Forces, Launch Cannabis Caucus

Move comes amid uncertainty for state marijuana laws under Trump

Inventory including “Merry N’Berry” on display at the medical marijuana dispensary Takoma Wellness Center, in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Inventory including “Merry N’Berry” on display at the medical marijuana dispensary Takoma Wellness Center, in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 16, 2017 at 5:09am

Lawmakers looking to draw attention to pet issues have formed groups in favor of everything from auto care to zoos. Now, there’s a caucus for cannabis. 

Rep. Earl Bluemenauer said the move — to be announced at a press conference Thursday — is a sign of how mainstream the drive for marijuana legalization has become.

“This is happening all across the country, and its going to continue,” said the Oregon Democrat, an advocate for legalized marijuana since the 1970s. “The industry is growing, as is public acceptance and demand for medical marijuana.”

Blumenauer is one of the caucus’s founding members, along with California Republican  Dana Rohrabacher, Colorado Democrat Jared Polis and Alaska Republican Don Young.

A wave of states approved recreational marijuana in November, a seeming boon for the argument that federal laws and regulations need to be revised to keep up.

But it remains to be seen whether new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime foe of legalized marijuana, will roll back Obama-era policies that have allowed pot businesses to flourish in states where it is legal.

The marijuana industry brought in $6.7 billion in legal sales in the U.S. last year. That figure is expected to grow after eight states — including the economic bellwether of California — passed marijuana-related referendums in November.

With that election, a total of eight states and the District of Columbia have now legalized recreational use of the drug and 28 states have legalized medical marijuana.

“This is a huge deal for my constituents,” said Polis, whose state collects tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and fees from legal marijuana sales every year.

But some state-level officials have cautioned regulators and business owners that they have no way of knowing what the future of the industry will be under the Trump administration.

In California, for example, a state analyst warned lawmakers this week not to invest too much money into a new system to regulate medical and recreational sales because there could be a federal crackdown, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department declined to interfere with states that had legalized marijuana, even though federal law defines it as an illegal drug.

Rohrabacher said he doubted the new administration would target medical use, which has mainstream support, but recreational use could be vulnerable. A poll published in June by Quinniapiac University found that 89 percent of respondents supported medical use, while 54 percent supported legal recreational marijuana.

“There are some areas that we need to focus on and make sure the Trump administration doesn’t go wholeheartedly in the wrong direction,” Rohrabacher said.

He and other members of the caucus pointed out that Trump said during his campaign that states should be allowed to make their own laws regarding marijuana use.

Congress passed a spending bill in 2014 that prohibits the Justice Department from using federal money to prosecute medical marijuana businesses in states where it is legal. That prohibition, co-sponsored by Rohrabacher, must be reapproved every fiscal year.

One opponent of marijuana legalization, though, questioned the need for a cannabis caucus.

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a former White House adviser, pointed to records that showed the caucus members had taken donations from pot lobbyists, the Marijuana Policy Project and the National Cannabis Industry Association.

“So it’s not surprising they are forming a group to please their donors,” he said.

The cannabis caucus will focus initially on increasing medical research and revising banking and tax regulations that impede legal marijuana businesses, Blumenauer said. Measures that would address each of those issues have received broad support in both the House and the Senate in previous Congresses.

“These are things that aren’t strictly partisan,” Blumenauer said.