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‘Cromnibus’ includes medical marijuana protection

The final “cromnibus” federal spending bill that Congress will consider this week includes an amendment barring the Justice Department from spending money to undermine state medical marijuana laws – something a growing number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been pursuing for more than a decade.

The House in May had voted 219-289 for such an amendment, co-authored by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach – a sudden success 11 years after it was first offered.

When this “must-pass” spending bill – which would keep the government from shutting down when funding runs out Thursday night – was released Tuesday night, the amendment was included. Farr issued a statement Wednesday calling this “great news for medical marijuana patients all across the country.”

“The public has made it clear that they want common sense drug policies. The majority of states have passed reasonable medical marijuana laws but the federal government still lags behind. Our amendment prevents the unnecessary prosecution of patients while the federal government catches up with the views of the American people,” he said.

“We need to rethink how we treat medical marijuana in this country and today’s announcement is a big step in the right direction,” Farr added. “Patients can take comfort knowing they will have safe access to the medical care they need without fear of federal prosecution. And all of us can feel better knowing our federal dollars will be spent more wisely fighting actual crimes and not wasted going after patients.”

Bill Piper, the Drug Policy Alliance’s national affairs director, said Congress for the first time is truly letting states set their own medical marijuana polices. “States will continue to reform their marijuana laws and Congress will be forced to accommodate them. It’s not a question of if, but when, federal marijuana prohibition will be repealed.”

The spending bill also includes a bipartisan amendment that prohibits the Drug Enforcement Administration from blocking implementation of a federal law passed last year by Congress that allows hemp cultivation for academic and agricultural research purposes in states that allow it.

The news wasn’t all good for marijuana advocates, however. The “cromnibus” also includes an amendment blocking Washington, D.C. from spending any federal or local funds to implement the marijuana-legalization initiative approved last month by 70 percent of voters.

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House rejects Lee’s Iraq/Afghanistan amendments

Rep. Barbara Lee is among lawmakers moving to ensure America doesn’t get sucked back into war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but all of her proposals were rejected Thursday and Friday.

Lee, D-Oakland, on Thursday introduced four amendments to the 2015 Pentagon budget bill. One would specify that no money in the bill can be used for deploying troops on the ground in Iraq; this failed on a 165-250 vote late Thursday.

Another prohibits funding for use of force under the 2002 authorization that Congress gave for military action in Iraq; this failed on a 182-231 vote late Thursday.

The third prohibits funding for combat operations in Afghanistan after December, the time at which President Obama said the U.S. combat mission there would end. This failed Friday on a 153-260 vote.

And the fourth prohibits funding under the use of force Congress approved in September 2001; this failed on a 157-260 vote late Thursday. Lee famously was the sole vote against the 2001 authorization for use of military force.

“We must not let history repeat itself in Iraq,” Lee had said on the House floor Thursday. “Because the reality is there is no military solution in Iraq.

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Rand Paul, Cory Booker to team up on marijuana

U.S. Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. – an unlikely couple if ever there was one – are teaming up to introduce the same amendment the House approved in May ordering the Justice Department to stop targeting medical pot clubs that comply with state law.

The 219-189 vote in the Republican-led House on May 30 might eventually bring relief for some targeted California operations while emboldening other states to adopt marijuana legalization laws of their own — if it can survive a difficult path in the Democrat-led Senate. Even California’s Democratic senators don’t seem to be behind it.

California in 1996 was the first state to legalize medical marijuana; 21 states plus the District of Columbia have followed. But marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and many facilities in these states have been subject to federal raids, warning letters to landlords or civil property seizure lawsuits.

This amendment to the Justice Department’s spending bill – first offered in 2003 and voted upon several times since but never approved by House until now – would forbid the department from spending money on any such actions.

“The House just made history last month by voting to stop the DEA from interfering with state marijuana laws,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a news release. “Now every U.S. Senator has the opportunity to provide relief for the sick and dying – and to be on the right side of history, not to mention public opinion.”

Piper noted polls show voters from both parties support letting states set medical marijuana policies without federal interference. “No American should have to live in fear of arrest and prosecution for following their doctor’s advice. We’re going to make sure voters know which Senators vote to protect their states and which do not.”

The House version of the amendment made similarly strange bedfellows, offered by six Republicans and six Democrats: Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach; Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz; Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay; Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; Don Young, R-Alaska; Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; Paul Broun, R-Ga.; Steve Stockman, R-Texas; Justin Amash, R-Mich.; and Dina Titus, D-Nev.

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House votes to cut off money for high-speed rail

Rep. Jeff Denham’s amendment to would cut off federal funding for California’s high-speed rail project was approved by the House on Tuesday.

Denham introduced H.R. 3893, the Responsible Rail and Deterring Deficiency Act, in January with support from all California House Republicans. The House passed it Tuesday as an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill, H.R. 4745.

“Without a viable funding plan like the one voters supported, California’s high speed rail project is going nowhere fast,” Denham, R-Modesto, said in a news release. “I’m pleased to have the support of so many of my House colleagues who recognize that we shouldn’t be spending any more taxpayer money on a project without a future.”

The roll call was 227-186. Among the six Democrats who voted for it were four Californians who face tough fights to keep their seats this November: Ami Bera, D-Rancho Cordova; Julia Brownley, D-Thousand Oaks; Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Springs; and Scott Peters, D-San Diego.

Here’s what Denham said about it on the floor:

But before you get too excited: This has happened before. Denham offered the same amendment to the same THUD (!) appropriations bill in June 2012, and that one passed on a 239-185 vote; all California Democrats (and all but four House Democrats) had voted against it.

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And the military bands played on.

Military bands can once again perform at community events, thanks to an Bay Area congressman’s amendment that was signed into law last month.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, wrote a National Defense Authorization Act amendment to fix a bureaucratic problem at the Defense Department which had been preventing events from hosting military bands even when their sponsor agrees to pay the cost.

Marine Corps Band“The provision represents a common-sense solution to a needless, bureaucratic problem,” Swalwell said in a news release Monday. “My job as a legislator is to identify problems and find a solution – and we did so in this case without costing the taxpayer a dime. Residents in my congressional district will once again be able to enjoy the patriotic music of the military bands at the Pleasanton Scottish Games.”

Swalwell introduced his amendment after a Marine Corps veteran in his 15th Congressional District informed him that the Marine Band San Diego was prohibited from playing at the Scottish Games held at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton over Labor Day weekend. The Caledonian Club would have fully funded the band’s costs as it had in years past.

The Defense Department earlier last year had changed its prior policy and stopped allowing military bands to perform at community events, claiming that reimbursements from sponsoring organizations were not going to its correct account.

Some critics might accuse Swalwell of letting the bands fiddle while Rome burns – the NDAA also continues the controversial policy enacted in 2012 that allows indefinite military detentions without charge or trial. Some opponents also said the bill authorizes too much military spending, particularly at a time when other government programs are being slashed.

Swalwell actually voted against the House version of the NDAA last June, as did every other Bay Area House member except for Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton; he also voted against a compromise version of the bill on Dec. 12. President Obama signed it into law Dec. 27.

Spokeswoman Alison Bormel later Monday said Swalwell was “disappointed with the bills as a whole.”

“The Congressman thought the bills authorize more money than necessary for the Department of Defense, fail to adequately address the problem of sexual assault in the military, and inadvisably keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open,” she said. “He voted against the bills as he thought they were not in line with his constituents’ priorities.”

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State Senate OKs open-government amendment

The state Senate passed an amendment Wednesday that would enshrine the California Public Records Act in the state constitution while making local governments foot their own bills, winning praise from the open-government advocates who were pillorying the same lawmakers just a few weeks ago.

SCA 3 by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and state Sen. Mark Leno specifies that all local government agencies are required to comply with the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act, and removes the mandate that the state reimburse local entities for the costs of following these laws. It will be heard next in Assembly policy committees, and if it’s approved by the required two-thirds vote of the Legislature, it would appear on the June 2014 ballot.

“The Senate vote today moves us one step closer to strengthening the state’s most critical transparency laws by putting them in the California Constitution,” Leno, D-San Francisco, said in a news release. “This constitutional amendment permanently protects the right of Californians to inspect public records and attend public meetings. It also clarifies the role of local governments to make their activities open and accessible without expectation of reimbursement from the state.”

Steinberg said the amendment doesn’t preclude strengthening these laws in the future. “Rather, it makes crystal clear that local agencies must comply with those laws and pay the costs to do so, which is important both for our democratic process and the protection of state taxpayers.”

California Newspaper Publishers Association general counsel Jim Ewert said his organization applauds Leno and Steinberg for this effort “which, if approved by voters, will strengthen and protect the public’s fundamental right to access government agency meetings and records in order to meaningfully participate in the decision making process. SCA 3 will ultimately and emphatically resolve the reimbursable mandate issue that has threatened the public’s right to know about local government activities for over 20 years.”

First Amendment Coalition executive director Peter Scheer agreed the amendment “removes any lingering doubt about local governments’ obligation to comply fully with the Public Records Act and Brown Act” and “hardwires the public’s ‘right to know’ to the state constitution.”

These and other organizations were calling for Steinberg’s and Leno’s heads a few weeks ago after they advanced a budget trailer bill that would’ve removed the state’s reimbursements for compliance with the Brown Act and CPRA and let local agencies choose whether or not to comply with key provisions of those laws.

When a public outcry ensued, Leno and Steinberg proposed this amendment but still wanted to withdraw the state reimbursements for the year until voters could approve it. Further pressure compelled the lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown to agree to continue the reimbursements for the next fiscal year.