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.