The Senate Appropriations Committee did something last week the Senate has never done; it passed a marijuana reform measure. It was the narrowest of proposals, an amendment co-authored by Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to a military spending bill that would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from using federal money to prosecute doctors who recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states where the drug is legal.
Last year, the House passed five measures that supported states’ rights on marijuana. For its part, the Senate would not budge — until Thursday. Twelve Democrats and four Republicans supported the amendment. Most amazing of all was a “yes” vote from Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “We’ve always had Dianne Feinstein down as a ‘no’ vote,” policy maven Michael Collins of the anti-drug war Drug Policy Alliance told me. The California Democrat has been a staunch hawk in the war on drugs. She has described marijuana as a gateway drug. She would have been the only Democrat to vote “no.” But DiFi voted “yes,” although, Collins noted, her “‘yes’ was the most muffled yes I’ve ever heard in my life.”
A like-minded House amendment failed less than a month ago in a 213-210 vote, but if the Senate amendment passes, it could survive a joint conference committee. Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority observed, “Elected officials are finally starting to wake up to the fact that endorsing marijuana reform is good politics instead of the dangerous third rail they’ve long viewed it as, and that means a lot more victories are on the way soon.”
Collins believes the landscape changed in March when Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act. The CARERS Act would bar the Department of Justice from using federal dollars to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal and reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug to allow for more medical research of cannabis. Feinstein has yet to reveal how she will vote on this bill.
On Thursday, Collins told me, Feinstein was pushing an alternate, watered-down amendment, which she failed to put up for a vote. Then she went with Daines-Merkley. “I strongly believe more research into the potential medical benefits of marijuana — specifically cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive component — is needed, and I am working to reduce barriers to conducting that research at the federal level,” quoth DiFi in a statement. “In the interim, I believe doctors at VA facilities in states where medical marijuana is legal should be able to discuss the potential benefits and harms of marijuana with their patients, especially those suffering from chronic pain or terminal illnesses.”
It wasn’t that long ago — January — that Feinstein and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, were urging the Obama administration to be tougher on states that have legalized recreational marijuana, lest the United States be seen as flouting U.N. conventions. This month, she has been forced to recognize that marijuana may have medical benefits and veterans in states that have legalized medical marijuana should have access to it. The ground has shifted.