The House of Representatives rejected an amendment on Thursday that would have removed an existing rider that scientists say inhibits research into the therapeutic potential of Schedule I controlled substances such as psilocybin, MDMA and marijuana.
The amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) last week, would have eliminated a section of a large-scale appropriations bill stipulating that no federal dollars can be spent on “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.”
The presiding officer ruled that the measure was approved in a voice vote after the debate early Thursday morning, but that was reversed during a later roll call vote of 91 to 331.
“Academics and scientists report that provisions like this create [stigma] and insurmountable logistical hurdles to researching schedule I drugs like psilocybin and MDMA which have shown promise in end of life therapy and treating PTSD,” a summary of the amendment states.
The House Rules Committee cleared the proposal for floor consideration before the full chamber on Monday. However, during the same meeting it blocked a separate amendment that would have barred the Department of Education from denying or limiting funds to universities that allow the use or possession of medical cannabis on campus in a legal state.
Ocasio-Cortez’s measure was cosponsored by Reps. Lou Correa (D-NY), Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL).
“I’m a strong believer in evidence-based policymaking,” Ocasio-Cortez said during the floor debate. “And wherever there is evidence of good, we have a moral obligation to pursue and explore the parameters of that good. Even if it means challenging our past assumptions or admitting past wrongs.”
Yesterday I offered an amendment to allow Fed researchers to study Schedule I Drugs, incl:
– MDMA & PTSD
– Psilocybin & severe depression
– Ibogaine & opioid withdrawal
🚨 House votes TODAY.
If you’re supportive, CALL YOUR REP. Don’t assume they’ll vote for it – let them know. https://t.co/NrVoxKQa2X
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 13, 2019
Describing the current situation researchers face as a “catch-22,” she said that the problem with the current policy is that it is “so vague and broadly interrupted that it prevents scientists from researching, examining and exploring avenues of treatment that could alleviate an enormous amount of suffering from medical conditions.”
Correa also spoke in support.
“We need legitimate, reliable research by universities and other institutions into the health benefits of cannabis and other substances,” he said. “This amendment will allow credible research institutions to conduct research by removing layers of paperwork that serve as hurdles meant to block such research. As more Americans, including veterans, use cannabis and so-called ‘magic mushrooms’ to manage or treat their pain or other health conditions, it’s important that doctors have the necessary information on the possible benefits, or not, of these substances.”
Correa called the amendment “both timely and very necessary” in light of recent local moves to reform criminal policies dealing with psychedelics.
Voters in Denver approved a local measure to decriminalize the substance last month, and the Oakland City Council unanimously passed a similar measure last week that also applies to other psychedelics including ayahuasca, mescaline and ibogaine.
Both Correa and Ocasio-Cortez spoke about the suicide rate among military veterans and the potential of psychedelics to help them with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
This bill has bipartisan support, but it also has bipartisan opposition.
Many Dem & GOP alike, are uncomfortable w/ letting federal researchers merely *study* the clinical promise of certain drugs – even in veteran PTSD.
Your call can help them see a shift in public sentiment.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 13, 2019
“Thirty percent of all military veterans have considered suicide. If a substance shows promise in treating PTSD, we have an obligation to study it,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “One of the leading causes of death in America today is suicide. So if a Schedule I drug shows clinical promise in treating and in treatment resistant depression, perhaps it is not the drug we should say morally wrong, but perhaps it is the law, the schedule, the statute.”
But Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) rose to oppose the amendment, saying that it wouldn’t actually help to foster research, a goal he said he shares.
“The bottom line is, this is not the place and this won’t do what the authors in support of the amendment say it’s going to do. The fact of the matter is that the DEA is the one that enforces the classification of Schedule I. This bill does nothing to do with the DEA,” he argued. “The problem lies in the fact that it is a Schedule I drug and the appropriate way to deal with this is through an authorizing committee.”
A longtime opponent of legalization, Harris suggested that cannabis “induces psychosis in young people,” adding that it is “a gateway drug.”
The amendment, he said, “sends a bad signal” and isn’t just about marijuana. “It’s about every Schedule I drug. And there are very dangerous schedule 1 drugs.”
Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) also spoke against the proposal.
“Do we want the federal government telling our families and our children, take this, it’s good for you?” he asked. “Maybe it is. I sure don’t think it is. I certainly don’t want my kids taking it and I don’t want the government promoting it.”
Citing the growing political support for marijuana reform at a time when tobacco use rates are at historic lows, Perry said, “now we’re going to tell the rest of the country, ‘let’s all start smoking marijuana instead.”
“I don’t think this is what the government should be promoting,” he said.
But Ocasio-Cortez argued that her amendment has bipartisan appeal.
“My colleagues on the other side of the aisle often bemoan the role of government and promote ideas of choice. And here I am happy in that spirit to agree,” she said. “We should get government and political opinion out of scientific research when we have seen and shown promise in a way that can help people and their medical needs.”
“I understand that the politics of this bill may make it difficult for some to support right now,” she said. “But I propose this amendment and urge my colleagues to support it because politics isn’t always about winning today, but it is about fighting for what is right in the future and for future generations.”
If Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment had passed through the House, and deleted from that chamber’s bill the longstanding prohibition on advocating legalization that was first enacted in 1996, that wouldn’t have necessarily meant that the rider would have ultimately been removed from federal law. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet introduced its version of the funding legislation.
The last few weeks has seen a significant uptick in cannabis reform being pursued through the congressional appropriations process, with multiple committee reports urging the adoption on marijuana legislation. Committees have called for provisions on regulating CBD, implementing hemp policies, lifting barriers to cannabis research, preventing impaired driving, protecting veteran benefits and requesting that the federal government reconsider its employment policies as it relates to federal workers who use cannabis in compliance with state laws.
On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that includes a section providing protections for banks that service state-legal marijuana business and also remove a longstanding rider that has blocked Washington, D.C. from using its own local tax dollars to legalize and regulate cannabis sales.
Update: This story has been updated to include information about the roll call vote on the amendment.
Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor.
Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.
The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.
Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.
There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.
The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.
The JSC on the Cannabis Control Bill will report to the @TTParliament by February 29, 2020. Trinidad & Tobago's government only required a simple, however, the bill received the support of the country's opposition in its amended form, the context here: https://t.co/o6ibF39KRS
— Clydeen Seeorne McDonald 🇹🇹 (@ClydeenMcDonald) December 12, 2019
Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.
“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”
“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”
The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”
“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”
“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”
The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.
New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot
New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.
The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.
"If we are successful in placing this question on the ballot next year, the voters will make the final decision," says @JoeDanielsen17 on today's public hearing on legislation that would allow voters to decide to amend the State constitution to legalize adult-use cannabis pic.twitter.com/1Mlt8gcrzg
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.
The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.
“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.
In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.
“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.
Assembly Panel Hosts Public Hearing on @AnnetteQuijano, @jamelholley, @AswTimberlake and @AswMcKnight Measure Amend State Constitution to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis: https://t.co/IfEf98LO43 pic.twitter.com/h6gfT9CDwQ
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.
Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) December 12, 2019
In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.
As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications
A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.
It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.
It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.
But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”
“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”
The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”
“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”
The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.
The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.
“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”
“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.
Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.
One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.
DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.
Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.