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Congress Cautions Military Leaders About Marijuana Punishments For Recruits In Defense Bill Report

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The House of Representatives approved a defense spending bill on Tuesday that includes language pushing military leaders to exercise discretion in enforcing marijuana-related penalties against service members.

That said, for the second year in a row, House Democratic leaders have given up in negotiations with the Senate on stronger cannabis reform measures that were included in their chamber’s original version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

One House-passed amendment, sponsored by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), would have required the secretary of defense to issue regulations clarifying that military branches can grant reenlistment waivers to service members who have committed a single low-level cannabis offense. The Senate didn’t include that component in their NDAA bill, however, and Democratic conferees ended up receding to the other body in the final version.

In a joint explanatory statement on the bill, however, the bicameral conferees included language saying that “the secretaries of the military departments have the authority to allow for enlistment and reenlistment with waivers for cannabis use based on the needs of the military department.”

“The conferees encourage the secretaries of the military departments to use their authority as appropriate to ensure the military departments are not excluding talent from the pool of eligible individuals who volunteer to serve,” they said.

Another House-passed measure that the chamber receded on, championed by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), would have prohibited the Secretary of Defense from banning service members from possessing or consuming hemp or CBD products that are legal under state and federal law. There was no explanation included in the report about why House leaders didn’t fight for its inclusion in the final bill.

The Department of Defense and various military branches under it have issued several memos stipulating that service members are banned from using CBD, even though the cannabinoid was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Most recently, the Navy explained that it prohibited use of hemp products, including topicals and shampoos, because there’s a risk that the products are mislabeled and contain excess THC.

Gabbard told Marijuana Moment in an interview earlier this year that the military’s anti-hemp policies reflect “a very backward way of viewing these products.” 

Despite giving up on the cannabis-focused provisions, it’s not the case that House conferees receded on all of their proposals in the large-scale defense legislation. They gave in on 654 amendments and the Senate receded on 580, according to a keyword search of the document. And while the supplementary note on cannabis reenlistment waivers does signal that there was conversation on the issue, the Democratic-controlled chamber was evidently unable to get the GOP-run Senate side on board with its original language containing the specific policy directive to the defense secretary.

Another drug policy amendment, sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), that the House receded on after its passage would have prohibited the use of funds for aerial fumigation on drug crops in Colombia, a practice widely criticized by reform and human rights advocates. A note on the measure states that “any Department support for counterdrug activities in Colombia should be compliant with Colombia’s national and local laws and regulations.”

Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators attempted to attach marijuana and CBD research language to their version of the appropriations legislation, but that did not pan out.

For last year’s defense bill, House conferees receded on both the military reenlistment waiver proposal and a separate measure the chamber approved to protect veterans from being denied home loans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over employment in a state-legal cannabis market.

The Senate is also expected to take up the final version of this year’s NDAA soon. But assuming it gets to the president’s desk, it might face an unusual challenge. President Trump has threatened to veto the legislation because it doesn’t contain a provision making social media companies liable for content posted by users.

That said, lawmakers from both parties have made clear they are prepared to override any veto of the annual defense spending bill.

All of this comes in the shadow of two significant marijuana-related developments in the House. Most notably, the chamber approved a historic bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—to federally legalize marijuana last week.

And the House is scheduled to vote on bipartisan legislation as early as Wednesday that would promote research into cannabis, in part by allowing scientists to obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries.

This story was updated to reflect the House’s passage of the final bill.

Congress Begins Debate On Marijuana Legalization Bill, With Final Vote Expected Friday

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