Saturday, June 20, 2015
Media Source: 
The Hill (DC)
Author: 
Tim Devaney

Pot policy is splintering the GOP.

GOP support for medical marijuana is on the rise as backers look to couch legalization as a states’ rights issue, while other Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to beat back recreational pot laws like the one approved in Washington, D.C.

The division reflects a political conundrum for the party, which is torn between social conservatives who still see marijuana as a gateway drug, and libertarian-leaning voters who want to legalize pot.

The GOP’s internal conflict has been on full display of late, as Congress has voted on a series of conflicting marijuana measures — frustrating advocates on both sides of the fight over legal pot.

“I think there are some mixed signals, particularly among Republicans,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project.

Added Kevin Sabet, the head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which advocates against legalization: “I think a lot of lawmakers are confused.”

Many of the recent votes have come as Congress looks to fund the federal government for fiscal 2016. A number of competing pot amendments have been tucked away in government spending bills.

Most would further the push to strike down varying degrees of the federal prohibition of pot. One popular provision, for instance, would prohibit the Justice Department from interfering with state medical marijuana laws.

But other provisions backed by some of the same lawmakers would prohibit the sale of recreational marijuana in the nation’s capital and a select few states around the country.

“It’s hugely hypocritical to vote to protect your state from federal interference, but then turn around and vote to undermine what the District is doing,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and a contingent of conservative lawmakers are looking to use the Congress’s sway over D.C. funding to prohibit future sales of marijuana.

Last November, voters elected to legalize marijuana in the District, but Harris fought back including a provision in the government funding bill that prohibited the city from using federal dollars to regulate marijuana.

Harris is redoubling his efforts this year in a provision of the financial services and general government funding bill.

“The current language is clear in its intent and has already blocked full legalization and regulation of marijuana in the District,” Harris said in a statement.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) intends to fight the provision on the House floor. She believes Congress should not interfere with the District’s pot laws.

Pot advocates hope the growing support they’ve received over marijuana reform will be enough to block Harris’ provision this time around. They’re reframing the larger debate as one over states’ rights, which they say has growing appeal with some factions of the party.

That was evident earlier this month as both the Senate and House voted to protect states’ medical marijuana laws.

Congress approved a medical marijuana measure backed by a pair of California lawmakers — Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R) and Sam Farr (D) — for the first time last year. It garnered 23 more votes this time around and passed 242-186.

Among the Republicans who flipped their vote on the issue were Reps. Raul Labrador (Idaho), Scott Tipton (Colo.), John Duncan (Tenn.), Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Peter King (N.Y.), Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), Thomas Rooney (Fla.), and Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.).

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (Utah) also voted this year to allow states to legalize medical marijuana, even though he previously voted against the measure in 2012 and refrained from voting last year.

Chaffetz voted for an amendment from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to give military veterans more access to medical marijuana, which he opposed as recently as last year.

He also voted against an amendment from Reps. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) earlier this month that would have blocked the DOJ from interfering with any state marijuana law, including laws that permit the recreational use of pot.

So opposed was the Oversight chairman to the District’s recreational pot law, however, that he threatened to throw D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in jail over it.

“If you decide to move forward with the legalization of marijuana in the District, you will be doing so in knowing and willful violation of the law,” Chaffetz wrote in a letter sent to Bowser back in February.

At the same time, medical marijuana bills are gaining GOP support in the Senate, where a key panel approved a companion measure to the Farr-Rohrabacher bill introduced by by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

The legislation won support from several Republicans, including Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

Still, the veteran lawmaker said he has mixed feelings about marijuana.

While Alexender also voted this year to give military veterans and children suffering from epilepsy more access to medical marijuana, he said there is a fine line he doesn’t want to cross.

“I still have a substantial concern about widespread legalization of marijuana,” Alexander cautioned.

Slowly but surely, the politics surrounding pot may be changing, suggested Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).

“I think it’s getting easier,” Cohen told The Hill. "Republicans wouldn’t have touched these issues in the past. Now they’re real popular. I think things are changing.”

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