An amendment that would block the Justice Department from using funds to intervene in state and territory marijuana laws was debated on the House floor on Wednesday, with consideration of additional cannabis-related measures scheduled for later this week.
In a voice vote, the chamber approved the amendment—introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)—as well as a separate measure that extends the same protection to tribal lands where cannabis has been legalized.
While no lawmakers spoke in opposition to the tribal measure, and a roll call vote was not requested, the state and territory amendment still requires a recorded vote for final passage through the House. And the ultimate fates of both measures are unknown as the Senate prepares to consider companion legislation.
The last time a similar amendment to shield state marijuana laws from federal interference was up for consideration in 2015, it came just nine flipped votes short of passage on the House floor. But in the years since, the number of states with legal marijuana has more than doubled and now includes large states like California and Michigan that have vast constituencies who stand to benefit from the protection—with Illinois just a supportive governor’s signature away.
The Justice Department is already barred from interfering in state medical cannabis programs under a separate, more limited rider that’s been enacted each year since 2014.
Language of the broader amendment stipulates that federal law enforcement agencies cannot use funds to stop states and territories “from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.”
In a floor debate before the voice vote, Blumenauer pointed to shifting public opinion in favor of marijuana reform.
“This is what the American people have demanded, why it is now legal in 33 states,” he said. “It is supported by two-thirds of the American public, and 90 percent for medical marijuana. It’s time that we extend this protection to state-legal activities so they can drive and move forward.”
“We’re watching the growth of this industry, a multibillion-dollar industry. We’re watching state after state move forward,” he said. “Every one of us on the floor of the House who are here now represent areas that have taken action. We have had embedded in our legislation protections for medical marijuana. And this would simply extend that same protection to prevent the Department of Justice interfering with adult use. I strongly, strongly urge that we build on the legacy that we’ve had in the past, that we move this forward to allow the federal government to start catching up to where the rest of the states are.”
Norton, whose constituents in Washington, D.C. voted to approve marijuana legalization in 2014, decried Congress’s longtime interference in the city’s affairs.
Thanks to @repblumenauer for working with me to treat DC as a state in our amendment that prohibits @TheJusticeDept from interfering with state marijuana laws. The amendment is expected to pass the House tomorrow for the first time ever. pic.twitter.com/6sGGpb0sLz
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) June 19, 2019
“The District has insisted that Congress cease interfering with our desire to commercialize adult-use marijuana, and I appreciate that D.C. is included with the states that have the same goal,” she said of the amendment. “This amendment is a breakthrough.”
I'll soon speak on the House floor. My thanks to my good friend @repblumenauer for ensuring our amendment covers the District of Columbia in prohibiting the DOJ from using its funds to prevent jurisdictions from implementing their own medical and recreational marijuana laws.
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) June 19, 2019
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke against the measure.
“This proposal would prevent federal law enforcement from enforcing current law, from protecting public health and ensuring community safety,” he said. “Claims of benefits from smoked or ingested marijuana are anecdotal and generally outright fabrication. It is established by fact that such marijuana use has real health and real social harms.”
“This amendment that’s before us sends the wrong message about widely abused drugs in the United States,” he continued. “The amendment ignores the problems of abuse and sends the false message to youth that smoking marijuana is healthy.”
Blumenauer countered that marijuana’s current classification under federal law isn’t supported by the science.
“If we were rescheduling drugs today, cannabis probably wouldn’t be scheduled at all. And what would be schedule I is tobacco, which is highly addictive and deadly,” he said.
While Blumenauer voiced confidence that the amendment would pass when it comes up for a roll call vote, expected on Thursday, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the body’s Democratic leadership is whipping for support.
Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in a brief interview on Wednesday that the amendment is “being whipped by people who care about it,” referring to its sponsors and supporters.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said “it’s not their priority,” referring to Democratic leadership.
“Each state is different and I think members have to vote their district, so I don’t know that leadership will necessarily whip it,” Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment. “I don’t know really if leadership should, because ultimately members are going to do what they think is best for their politics back home.”
Meanwhile, the amendment enjoys support from a coalition of fiscally conservative thought leaders, including Michelle Minton, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
“Though we vary in our opinions on marijuana legalization, the signatories to this letter are in strong accord when it comes to the matter of the level of government to which this question should be left: with the states,” they wrote in a sign-on letter that was released on Wednesday.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who has historically voted against cannabis measures, told Marijuana Moment that “increasingly as voters go to the ballot box, you’re finding increasing support in [reform]” and that “there’s broadly a movement in that direction.”
At the same time, anti-legalization group Smart Approaches To Marijuana circulated a one-pager on the Hill on Wednesday, claiming that the amendment would fuel the opioid epidemic.
Blumenauer’s separate measure would make it so the Justice Department couldn’t use its resources to block Indian tribes “from enacting or implementing tribal laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first Native American women ever elected to Congress, cosponsored the amendment.
“Tribes have an interest in being able to conduct activities that deal with cannabis,” Blumenauer said on the floor. “It is a multibillion-dollar growth industry. It provides opportunities for health, economic development, recreational activities. The states have been granted a certain amount of latitude moving into this space, but the tribes have been denied.”
ALERT 🚨: Major victory!
Today, the first ever amendment to protect tribal cannabis programs passed the House without opposition. While I continue to work with @RepDebHaaland on our larger movement to legalize, we must protect tribal sovereignty.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) June 19, 2019
“It’s ironic—this is a substance that has been used by tribes for healing going back millennia. And there’s an opportunity for them to be able to be part of an economic opportunity that is taking place across the country. We need to grant them that authority,” he said. “I hope that there is a recognition that tribes deserve this latitude and this empowerment. And that we vote in favor of it to allow them to proceed as has taken place in states around the country.”
In a press release, Haaland, who is co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, said that “tribal cannabis programs are giving Native American communities access to diverse revenue streams.”
“This amendment is important to ensure tribes can exercise their rights as sovereign nations and rightfully reflects that to promote self-determination while maintaining the economic opportunities that come with them,” she said.
Separately on Wednesday as part of a voice-vote approval of a bloc of noncontroversial amendments, the House signed off on a measure to add the U.S. Virgin Islands to the list of jurisdictions protected by the funding bill’s existing medical cannabis rider. It had been inadvertently omitted from the language when the legislation was introduced.
Even setting aside the roll call votes yet to come on the state-focused measure, the House is far from done considering marijuana amendments to the overall large-scale spending bill funding parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2020.
On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee also made in order measures to block the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from punishing doctors that issue medical cannabis recommendations in states where it’s legal and directing the Food and Drug Administration to develop guidelines that would allow certain levels of CBD in the food supply and as health supplements.
Another Rules-approved amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), would take $5 million from Drug Enforcement Administration and distribute it to an opioid treatment program.
This isn’t the freshman congresswoman’s first time floating a bold drug policy measure. Last week, her amendment to a separate appropriations bill that would have lifted barriers to research for psychedelic substances including psilocybin and MDMA was advanced by the Rules Committee but defeated on the House floor.
While the successful voice votes on the Justice Department-focused amendment is a positive signal for reform advocates, Thursday’s roll call votes will show just how far lawmakers are willing to go to protect cannabis consumers and patients in states that have decided to legalize.
Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.
Bernie Sanders Asks Campaign Rally Audience To Share Stories About Marijuana Arrests
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked an audience in South Carolina to share stories about marijuana possession convictions and then argued that those anecdotes help to demonstrate the case for national legalization.
During a campaign stop in the early primary state on Sunday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate asked people to raise their hands if they knew someone who’d been arrested for possessing cannabis. There was no shortage of hands raised.
“Holy God, whoa. That’s a lot of people,” Sanders said before asking for volunteers to go into detail.
“I got caught with about a joint and they took my license for a year and I lost my job,” an audience member said. “Ended up losing my house, and it went worse from there.”
The War on Drugs has been a disaster. It is time to legalize marijuana nationwide. pic.twitter.com/tehuM7xjxx
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 17, 2019
“Wow, this is for smoking a joint?” Sanders asked.
“Yeah, I had a little—like a dime bag in my car,” the person said.
Another person in attendance who appeared in the campaign video Sanders released on Tuesday said that she visited a guilty plea court and witnessed “three different men get put in at least two years of prison just for anywhere from two grams to eight grams of marijuana found on them.”
“That’s why all over this country states are doing the right thing and either decriminalizing or legalizing the possession of marijuana,” Sanders said to applause.
Since becoming the first major party presidential candidate to call for cannabis legalization in 2015, Sanders has continued to place an emphasis on the need for marijuana reform, with a focus on the racial injustices of prohibition.
Last month, he released a criminal justice reform plan that included proposals to legalize cannabis federally and also provide for safe injection sites to curb opioid overdoses.
But while Sanders has been a leading voice in the drug policy reform movement, he’s said twice in recent weeks that he’s not ready to embrace decriminalizing possession of drugs beside marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.
New York Gov. Cuomo Hints Marijuana Smoking Ban Could Be Part Of Next Legalization Push
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) seemed to suggest that he might want a ban on smoking marijuana included in legalization legislation when lawmakers take up the issue again next year.
During an interview with MSNBC on Sunday, the governor was asked whether the spike in apparent vaping-related lung injuries and deaths, which experts attribute to altered nicotine and cannabis oils primarily purchased on the illicit market, has made him reconsider pursuing legalization in the state.
“No,” he said, adding that his administration is “not in favor of smoking marijuana” and that there are “ways to get THC without smoking marijuana.”
“People are vaping THC, yes that is true,” Cuomo said. “We think that from a public health point of view, that is not something that we recommend and we think it’s dangerous—smoking of any kind.”
“You can legalize marijuana and sell THC in compounds that do not require you to smoke the marijuana, and we do not support smoking of marijuana,” he said. “There are compounds that have the THC, which is a compound in marijuana, that you don’t smoke.”
It’s not entirely clear if Cuomo plans to ask for a smoking ban the next time a legalization bill emerges or if he was simply outlining an administrative position advising against smoking. A spokesperson for his office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment by the time of publication.
But while there was no ban on marijuana smoking included in legalization legislation that he worked to pass earlier this year, it wouldn’t be entirely out of character given that he pushed for such a restriction as part of New York’s medical cannabis program in legislation enacted in 2014.
The logic behind that policy, according to Cuomo, was that it would prevent people from abusing the program. If he moved to incorporate a ban for adult-use legalization, however, it would presumably be a public health decision.
That could create problems when lawmakers return to the negotiating table. In California, flower and concentrates represent about 70 percent of the marijuana market, meaning any attempt to ban smokeable cannabis will likely be met with pushback from consumers, industry stakeholders and civil liberties-minded reform advocates.
Industry players seemed to have influence when Cuomo included a ban on home cultivation for personal use in his prior legalization proposal—something a major medical cannabis association recommended in a policy statement submitted to the governor.
For the time being, however, there don’t seem to be tangible plans to include a smoking ban in future cannabis legislation and it could be that the governor simply ends up pushing for public education campaigns discouraging the activity rather than keeping it illegal.
In July, he signed legislation broadening New York’s decriminalization law and creating a pathway for expungements for individuals with prior cannabis convictions.
Photo courtesy of MSNBC.
Mitch McConnell Tells FDA To Clear A Path For CBD Products Though Spending Bill Directive
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is moving to insert language into a congressional spending report that calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to clear a path for the lawful marketing of hemp-derived CBD products.
FDA has said that allowing CBD to be sold as food items or dietary supplements would require it to develop alternative regulations that could take years to complete without congressional action. But McConnell, who was the chief proponent of a hemp legalization provision of the 2018 Farm Bill, isn’t interested in waiting around.
In draft language shared by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable on Tuesday, the senator is asking FDA to “issue a policy of enforcement discretion with regard to certain products containing CBD” within 120 days—a move that industry stakeholders say will clarify rules so that banks are more willing to service CBD companies.
🚨 BREAKING FDA UPDATE 🚨 After close work with the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, @senatemajldr Mitch McConnell submitted legislation urging the FDA to take action on CBD. Visit the link in bio to take action! pic.twitter.com/zMohlD3NiS
— US Hemp Roundtable (@HempRoundtable) September 17, 2019
The provision of the spending report was marked up in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on Tuesday. It will go before the full Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
Prior to issuing its enforcement discretion policy under McConnell’s report language, FDA would have to submit a report to the committee within 90 days detailing its “progress toward obtaining and analyzing data to help determine a policy of enforcement discretion, and the process in which CBD meeting the definition of hemp will be evaluated for use in products.”
Once those provisional enforcement guidelines are established, they would remain in place until FDA finalizes the regulatory process.
“FDA is encouraged to consider existing and ongoing medical research related to CBD that is being undertaken pursuant to an Investigation New Drug (IND) application in the development of a regulatory pathway for CBD in products under the jurisdiction of FDA and to ensure that any future regulatory activity does not discourage the development of new drugs,” the report states.
Outside of McConnell’s proposal, the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) appropriations legislation already sets aside $2 million to support research and regulatory activities surrounding hemp-derived CBD products and $16.5 million for the broader hemp production program.
During the subcommittee meeting on Thursday, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) praised the bill’s support for hemp legalization implementation.
“You might note that this year in Oregon, the hemp industry may well be a billion dollar crop, and that is an incredible addition to income for our agricultural community,” he said.
The legalization of hemp and its derivatives has been met with intense interest from manufacturers and lawmakers alike, but limitations on the marketability of CBD has been an ongoing source of frustration.
Last week, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers asked fellow House members to join them in signing a letter to the head of FDA that similarly asks for enforcement discretion guidelines allowing companies to sell CBD products.
The House, which approved its version of appropriations legislation for the upcoming fiscal year prior to the summer recess, included a separate amendment that would require FDA to establish rules providing for the lawful marketing of CBD in food and dietary supplements.
Meanwhile, USDA is expected to soon release its broader hemp regulations soon.
Read McConnell’s full CBD report language below:
“As previously mentioned, the Committee provides $2,000,000 for research, policy evaluation, market surveillance, issuance of an enforcement discretion policy, and appropriate regulatory activities with respect to products under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration which contain cannabidiol (CBD) and meet the definition of hemp, as set forth in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o). Within 90 days, FDA shall provide the Committee with a report regarding the Agency’s progress toward obtaining and analyzing data to help determine a policy of enforcement discretion, and the process in which CBD meeting the definition of hemp will be evaluated for use in products. Within 120 days, FDA shall issue a policy of enforcement discretion with regard to certain products containing CBD meeting the definition of hemp as defined by section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1964 (7 U.S.C. 1639). Such enforcement discretion shall be in effect until FDA establishes a process for stakeholders to notify FDA for use of CBD in products that include safety studies for intended use per product, and makes a determination about such product. FDA is encouraged to consider existing and ongoing medical research related to CBD that is being undertaken pursuant to an Investigation New Drug (IND) application in the development of a regulatory pathway for CBD in products under the jurisdiction of FDA and to ensure that any future regulatory activity does not discourage the development of new drugs.”
This story was updated to include comment from Merkley.
Photo courtesy of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.