As the federal government rolls back a policy allowing legal marijuana sales to flourish, one member of New York’s congressional delegation is contemplating whether a legislative fix is necessary.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican who represents the 21st District in upstate New York, will be discussing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind an Obama-era policy that generally kept federal enforcement from interfering with states’ marijuana sales with her colleagues and “reviewing whether any legislative solution would be necessary,” a spokesman said.
“Congresswoman Stefanik supports states’ rights to allow medical marijuana. The Sessions’ memo does not specifically address prosecuting medical marijuana facilities, patients or caregivers and currently the [U.S. Department of Justice] is prohibited from spending any federal dollars on prosecuting cannabis-related activities if those activities are allowed under state medical marijuana laws, by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment,” said spokesman Tom Flanagin. The amendment was co-sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, a Democrat, and its protections were extended through Jan. 19 as part of the temporary government funding bill passed in Congress last month.
A spokesman for Republican California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher—a member of the bipartisan Congressional Cannabis Caucus—said he planned to bring up the issue with congressional leadership.“There will be a renewed push for Rep. Rohrabacher’s Respect State Marijuana Laws, which is now in the Judiciary Committee,” said spokesman Ken Grubbs. The bill would effectively codify into law the same protections of the Cole memo and end federal marijuana prosecution in states that have legalized its use.
Last week, Sessions announced that he would rescind the 2013 policy memorandum written by then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole during the Obama administration, which allowed states to have marijuana programs without the interference of the federal government as long as states acted to keep marijuana away from children and gang-related activity. Since the Cole memo was written, the marijuana industry in the United States has flourished. More than two dozen states have medical marijuana programs. So far, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
New York’s medical marijuana program was signed into law in the summer of 2014 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and began operating in January 2016. The program—billed as the strictest in the nation by the governor when it was first enacted—initially gave licenses to grow marijuana and sell cannabis-based preparations to five companies. Each of the five companies would have to run its own manufacturing facility and have four dispensaries throughout the state.
Stefanik is one of the few members in New York’s delegation who has a medical marijuana manufacturing facility in her district. The New York Law Journal reached out to members of Congress in New York who had dispensaries or manufacturing facilities in their districts to discuss how Sessions’ directive would affect their districts. Several did not return calls or emails requesting comment.
As of November, the state had collected $912,000 for the fiscal year—which began in April—from a 7 percent excise tax on sales of medical marijuana. Counties that house the state’s growing facilities and dispensaries receive 45 percent of the medical marijuana tax revenue, a relatively negligible amount. Cuomo also signed legislation last summer meant to encourage production in the state of industrial hemp.
Meanwhile, the architects of New York’s medical marijuana program—Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and state Sen. Diane Savino—are calling on Congress to pass legislation protecting marijuana programs in the states that have them.
The New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group representing the top five companies awarded a license to grow and dispense medical marijuana in July 2015, also urged Congress to pass legislation to remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act.
The New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association does not anticipate it will be lobbying members of Congress on the issue, however, a spokesman said. So far, the trade group has focused on state-level lobbying, asking Albany legislators to expand the list of conditions for which medical marijuana could be administered and expanding the methods for consuming the drug.