The U.S. House of Representatives approved a measure Friday barring the federal government from intruding into states' medical marijuana markets, a move that could alter the dialogue next session in Olympia.
Last legislative session, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, attempted to pass a measure that would have regulated Washington state's medical marijuana industry. She cited an impending crackdown from the federal government as one of the main reasons the state needed to move swiftly to regulate the system.
Her measure failed, but approval by the GOP-led U.S. House on Friday could ease some pressure on the state.
The bill would "help providers in Washington state to move forward without fear of prosecution," Rivers wrote in an email.
Rivers is continuing to work on crafting legislation for the coming session that would regulate the market.
The amendment was attached to a larger spending bill and spurred a debate about the Justice Department's budget. The provision would block the Justice Department from interfering with state laws that allow the "use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana," according to the Associated Press.
Kari Boiter, Washington state coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group, called the vote "historic" and said it "has to change the discussion."
Medical marijuana patients are still pushing for a regulated marketplace, and Boiter hopes that happens, but now the state could implement a regulated marketplace without fear that it is sanctioning a product that is against federal law.
"We don't have to wonder what the federal government will do," Boiter said.
Currently, the state's medical marijuana law allows qualified patients to grow medical marijuana or designate someone to grow on their behalf. There is no state agency that oversees the program, and because of legal gray areas, the system has been able to become a commercial marketplace.
The measure still needs approval by the Democratically controlled U.S. Senate.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, was behind the measure. On the U.S. House floor, he said, "People are suffering, and if a doctor feels he needs to prescribe something to alleviate that suffering it is immoral for this government to get in the way, and that's what's happening."
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, cast a vote against the measure.
"The difference between federal and state law has created a conflict that Jaime believes deserves policy clarification that should be carefully crafted and debated," her spokesman, Casey Bowman, wrote in an email, adding the amendment was not the appropriate place for that to happen.
Bowman added, "It's never a good situation when individuals don't know whether state or federal law applies to them. (Herrera Beutler) hasn't gotten behind any specific proposals regarding medical marijuana but supports a solution that doesn't impede individuals' safe, monitored use to address medical symptoms."
Voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 1998 for qualifying patients who have been diagnosed with a terminal or debilitating condition. In November 2012, voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana. The U.S. Department of Justice said it would not challenge the legalization, under the assumption that the state would move to regulate the market. State officials realized that would need to include the loosely regulated medical marijuana system.
Boiter said she was relieved after hearing the news.
"Clearly the tides are changing on Capitol Hill," she said.