The Substantial Limitations of the Rohrabacher Marijuana Amendment to H.R. 4660

Nota bene: I initially published this in 2012 when US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher offered virtually the same amendment to the current appropriations bill. I am reproducing this post as the analysis is essentially the same. I also do not mean to detract from the notion that the passage of this amendment represents a substantial political victory for marijuana reformers, which may offer opportunities for substantial further reform.


In an op-ed yesterday in the Huffington Post, Steph Sherer touts the Rohrabacher-Hinchey-Farr Amendment to the appropriations bill H.R. 5326 as a tool “to deny funding to DEA raids against dispensaries operating in accordance with state law”. While I agree that limiting appropriations is a great tool to control federal agency behavior with, I do not believe that the Rohrabacher-Hinchey-Farr Amendment will effectively end DEA prosecution of marijuana dispensaries operating legally under state law.  There are two core reasons for this: I do not believe the text of the amendment will close off federal prosecution of marijuana dispensaries, and the amendment does not touch non-appropriated funds, particularly funds contained in the Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Fund.

Will the Rohrabacher-Hinchey-Farr Amendment End DEA Raids of State-Legal Dispensaries?

The Amendment reads:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

If this amendment passes, I predict that the DEA will continue raiding state-legal marijuana dispensaries. The justification will be that while any state can “implement their own State laws” regarding medical marijuana the amendment does not (explicitly) prohibit the enforcement of federal law criminalizing all aspects of marijuana, and a court is likely to sanction the interpretation that a federal agency can enforce federal law without “preventing” states from “implementing” their own laws. Nor does the Rohrabacher-Hinchey-Farr Amendment provide an affirmative defense for defendants caught in the federal medical marijuana crackdown. In other words, the Rohrabacher-Hinchey-Farr Amendment provides only the barest of restrictions on the actual conduct of the Department of Justice and its subsidiary agencies towards medical marijuana. And before we finish beating this horse, I should note the Amendment does not reach non-DOJ agencies like the IRS, who are also currently part of the federal crackdown on medical marijuana.

And…this Amendment would also not prevent state or local agencies from enforcing the federal law at the behest of the Drug Enforcement Administration. How is this the case? Keep reading…

Beyond Appropriations: Asset Forfeiture Allows for Agency Independence

A basic, structural feature of Drug War funding are the federal asset forfeiture laws that drive hundreds of millions of dollars of seizure revenue into funds not appropriated by Congress but by the Department of Justice itself. I’ll excerpt this overview from the FY 2013 Performance Budget of the Asset Forfeiture Fund of the Department of Justice:

The Assets Forfeiture Fund was created by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 (P.L. 98-473, dated October 12, 1984) to be a repository of the proceeds of forfeitures under any law enforced and administered by the Department of Justice (see 28 U.S.C. 524(c)).

The primary purpose of the Fund is to provide a stable source of resources to cover the costs of an effective Asset Forfeiture Program (AFP), including the costs of seizing, evaluating, inventorying, maintaining, protecting, advertising, forfeiting, and disposing of property seized for forfeiture. Prior to the creation of the Fund in 1985, the costs of these activities had to be diverted from agency operational funds. The more effective an agency was in seizing property, the greater the drain on its appropriated funds. The creation of the Fund is responsible, in large measure, for the growth in the Department’s forfeiture program over the past decade. A secondary benefit of an aggressive and well-managed forfeiture program is the production of surplus revenues to assist in financing important law enforcement programs. If the forfeiture program ceases to function effectively in its primary role, these surplus revenues will not be generated. The AFF’s mission has as its primary strategic goal to enforce Federal laws and prevent and reduce crime by disrupting, damaging and dismantling criminal organizations through the use of civil and criminal forfeiture. The program attempts to remove those assets that are essential to the operation of those criminal organizations and punish the criminals involved by denying them the use of the proceeds of their crimes.

Table 1 on page 2 displays the functional activities of the participating agencies. For the full names of the participating agencies, see footnote 1. These agencies investigate or prosecute criminal activity under statutes, such as the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, the Controlled Substances Act, and the Money Laundering Control Act, or provide administrative support services to the program.

Note again that line from the Rohrabacher-Hinchey-Farr Amendment…”None of the funds made available in this Act”…that is, funds appropriated by Congress. But this ignores the river of non-appropriated forfeiture revenue controlled by the DOJ, implying that in the case that this law is read to substantially affect appropriations for federal marijuana law enforcement, DOJ agencies will just find their revenue from non-appropriated sources. Moreover, the federal Equitable Sharing program is slated to distribute close to half a billion dollars in forfeiture revenue to state and local law enforcement agencies participating in a federal seizure in 2013. Another $147 million in forfeiture revenue is budgeted for joint operations between state and federal law enforcement operations. In other words, the DEA and any other federal agency that still deems it worthwhile to enforce federal law against state-legal medical marijuana operations still has plenty of funding…and motive…to do so.


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  • commented 2014-05-30 14:39:59 -0500
    Eapen, I’ll research further, but I believe the amendment can’t be trampled on with forfeiture funds because the forfeiture fund does not pay agent’s salaries which have to be used for them to work. If paying them for this activity is forbidden, federal agents won’t be able to use their salaries, I.e. time, in contravention.
  • commented 2014-05-30 12:39:14 -0500
    Federal law criminalizing all aspects of marijuana is unconstitutional under the 9th, 10th and 21st amendments to the US constitution.

    It existed in a gray area so long as marijuana was equally illegal in every state, but as soon as even one state relaxed its laws, the gray area started shrinking. The authority to ban or not ban anu intoxicating substance is reserved to the states — if it wasn’t the feds wouldn’t have needed the 18th amendment. But they did then and they do now…and it was repealed by the 21st.

    The feds have some authority to stop shipments of intoxicants into states that ban them, and to prosecute smugglers. But if those intoxicants are legal in a given state, the feds lack any authority whatsoever to take action against it.