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.
Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress To Delay Marijuana Banking Vote
A coalition of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance is urging congressional Democratic leaders to delay a planned vote on a marijuana banking bill next week until more far-reaching legislation ending federal cannabis prohibition advances first.
“We are concerned that if the House approves this bill, it will undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country’s marijuana laws,” the groups wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a letter on Tuesday.
Hoyer’s office confirmed to Marijuana Moment last week that the House planned to vote on the cannabis financial services legislation by the end of the month.
“The Congress has a unique opportunity to address the myriad injustices created by this nation’s marijuana laws. For decades, people of color have suffered under harsh and racially-biased marijuana laws,” the groups, which also include Center for American Progress, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and JustLeadershipUSA, wrote. “The banking bill does not address marijuana reform holistically. Instead, it narrowly addresses the issues of banking and improved access to financial services, measures that would benefit the marijuana industry, not communities who have felt the brunt of prohibition.”
The letter is the most public sign yet of a dispute that has been brewing among advocates in the marijuana policy reform movement, with some seeing a successful vote on banking legislation as demonstrating momentum for broader reform and others expressing concern that the financial services proposal primarily helps the industry and could take the wind out of the sails of a full-scale push to end prohibition.
Advocates who want broader reform have focused on a bill that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed this summer that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and invest money into programs aimed at repairing the harms of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially disproportionate manner.
“Individuals and communities who are still suffering from the destabilizing collateral consequences of prohibition need reform and should not be second in line behind the industry,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “We need to ensure that the sequencing of federal marijuana bills, especially under House Democratic Leadership, is well thought out and done in a way that centers the millions directly impacted by overenforcement. We want to avoid the banking bill becoming Congress’ only bite at the apple for cannabis reform this session.”
Nadler’s bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, has been referred by House leadership to eight committees, none of which—including his own—have scheduled a vote on it. The financial services legislation—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—cleared a committee with a bipartisan vote in March and has been waiting on the House calendar for floor action for months.
“It’s a difference in tactics, not desired outcomes,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal, who supports going forward with the banking vote next week, told Marijuana Moment. “It’s our hope that the SAFE Banking vote demonstrates which members of Congress are willing to recognize the successes of state level reforms as we continue to move the MORE Act through the committee process.”
Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, took a similar view.
“The SAFE Banking Act is a necessary reform that would represent a major step toward more sensible cannabis laws, and it’s looking increasingly likely that it can actually pass soon,” he said. “We have an opportunity to end policies that actively endanger people, hurt small businesses, and stymie equitable participation in the cannabis industry. Banking reform is certainly not the end of the road, and the industry is committed to working in support of far more comprehensive reforms that more fully address the harms caused by prohibition. Passage of this legislation will only add momentum to those efforts.”
But the groups signing the new letter disagree.
“Marijuana legislation must first address the equity and criminal justice reform consequences of prohibition,” they wrote to Pelosi and Hoyer.
“To be clear, we recognize the challenges facing marijuana businesses that lack access to financial services. However, we believe it is a mistake to move this issue forward while many of the other consequences of marijuana prohibition remain unresolved,” they wrote in urging the House not to vote on cannabis financial services legislation next week. “The banking bill does not solve the underlying problems of marijuana prohibition – namely, that many people of color have been saddled with criminal records for a substance that is now legal in many states, and that communities have been shut out of the emerging and booming marijuana industry.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said last week that he plans a vote on the marijuana banking bill in his panel by the end of the year. That chamber’s version of the legislation got its 33rd senator signed on this week, meaning that it now has the proactive support of a third of the body’s membership.
Because House leaders plan to bring the marijuana banking bill to the floor under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, any Democratic votes lost as a result of the groups’ opposition could jeopardize the legislation. The SAFE Banking Act currently has 207 lawmakers signed on, whereas 290 votes are needed to approve a bill under suspension.
“Since the start of the 116th Congress, we have expressed concern to House Leadership, the House Financial Services Committee, and member offices, that if the banking bill moved to the Floor before broader reform, it would jeopardize comprehensive marijuana reform,” the concerned groups wrote in their letter. “Therefore, we have pushed for a conversation among advocates, Committee leadership, and House Leadership to formulate a plan for moving marijuana legislation in a way that is comprehensive and does not result in carve-outs for the industry and leave behind impacted communities.”
“We ask that you delay any vote on the banking bill until agreement has been reached around broader marijuana reform,” they said.
Read the full letter urging a delay on the marijuana banking vote below:
This story has been updated to include comment from Drug Policy Alliance and National Cannabis Industry Association.
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.