Editor's note: Although this interview was conducted ahead of the latest government shutdown, which took effect at midnight on December 22, the information contained regarding how the shutdown will impact medical marijuana patients is just as pertinent now as it was when this article was first published on November 30, 2018.
Given that medical marijuana remains illegal at a federal level, why is it that those laws are not being enforced?
The answer to that question, for the most part, has to do with a budget rider known as the Joyce amendment, updated from the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment established in 2001 as part of a spending bill. The budget rider states that the Justice Department can allocate no funds to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.
Earlier this month, President Trump told CNN that if he is unable to secure funding from Congress for his border wall, he said it might be a "very good time" for a government shutdown. Essentially, a threat—one that could put a hold on a number of legislative issues—but could it affect the status of the Joyce amendment?
Civilized asked Chris Lindsey, Senior Legislative Counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, who said that while the shutdown would include the budget rider, it’s unlikely that it will lead to any federal prosecution of medical users.
"Almost everything dealing with regulations and management of the medical cannabis and adult use industries is really in the hands of the states, so a federal shutdown would be an inconvenience for many, but I don’t expect it would impact operations or access," he said. "If anything, it might result in less federal interest in those that are participating. Because, if anything, a government shutdown would lead to less resources to go after individuals or businesses."
Still, the potential shutdown points out just how inadequate and the amendment is for providing protection to those who use cannabis in states that allow for medical use.
"All a budget rider does is say 'we’re withholding money for the federal government to prosecute people,'" he explained. "It doesn’t actually change federal law to say it’s okay for these people to engage in these activities at a federal level. It just means the people who would usually go after them don’t have the resources to do it."
While the budget rider is providing some sense of security for users, Lindsey says that it is clearly not enough, adding that advocates and some government officials who are working to establish something more permanent.
"There are a lot of different ways to approach this, but the one that seems the most viable, given the current political landscape, is one where federal law simply recognized the state regulatory systems in a more formal way," he said. "What we really want is something that would actually impact the way the controlled substances act is set up and the authority that the different agencies get because of it."
In the meantime, medical users can still feel exposed, given that federal legislators continue to drag their feet when it comes to cannabis use. Knowing this, how worried should cannabis users be that the lack of proper regulation will lead to their facing legal penalties?
"That’s never really become an issue that I’ve seen," assured Chris Lindsey. "It is technically possible, but the federal government indicated several years ago that they have no interest in going after individual users, and so far, that seems to be correct. The interest is much more likely to be aimed at businesses, if at all."
So, long story short, as a user, one is not likely to get arrested by federal agents in a legal state. However, this does not mean that a fairer, more permanent solution is any less vital.