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Congressional Bills Affecting Cannabis Laws Go To Conference Committees

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Key bicameral congressional panels that will determine the fate of two far-reaching proposed cannabis measures are taking shape. At issue is whether hemp will finally become legal and whether military veterans will be able to receive medical marijuana recommendations from government doctors.

House and Senate leaders have begun making appointments to the so-called “conference committees” that will merge each chambers’ respective relevant legislation into singular proposals that can be sent to President Trump’s desk.

In both cases, the Senate legislation contains cannabis reform language while the House version is silent on the issue. The conferees on both bills will decide what gets enacted into law.

Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans

Last month, the Senate approved a wide-ranging funding bill that includes a provision to allow military veterans in medical cannabis states to get the necessary certifications from their doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The House’s version of the bill contains no such provision; it was blocked from reaching the floor by Republican leaders, as has been the case with every cannabis reform amendment proposed during the current Congress.

Now, a conference committee will decide which chamber’s version prevails.

Medical cannabis advocates looking at the lists of participating members will take heart in knowing that Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who offered the veterans medical cannabis amendment in the Appropriations Committee, will be in the room. Congressman Scott Taylor (R-VA), a military veteran who has been outspoken in support of marijuana law reform, will also be there. So will Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who has posed questions about the benefits of medical marijuana during several hearings, including ones focused on veterans issues.

That said, a number of ardent marijuana opponents will be at the table, along with other lawmakers who have been skeptical of reform.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who appeared in a television commercial opposing his state’s successful medical cannabis ballot measure and has sponsored a number of anti-marijuana amendments and pieces of legislation, is a member. So is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who has historically been one of Congress’s most vocal legalization opponents (although she has softened her stance this year amidst a reelection battle).

On the House side, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), who has made a number of bizarre claims about fentanyl-laced marijuana during recent hearings and media appearances (but has supported marijuana amendments during House floor votes), will be on the committee. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), who voted against an earlier version of the veterans cannabis amendment before evolving to support a subsequent version, is also a conferee.

Because the medical marijuana language is in the Senate bill, it will be up for discussion by the conference committee and has a chance of being enacted into law for the first time.

But medical cannabis supporters are not necessarily getting their hopes up, given the measure’s history. In 2016, both chambers’ bills had slightly differing provisions allowing VA medical cannabis recommendations, but both were stripped out of the final enacted legislation.

That said, advocates are working to press conferees on the issue.

“Given the incredible amount of support, both from the general public and veterans community specifically, it would be politically disastrous to vote against veterans and their ability to get access to a substance—which 22 percent are currently consuming, according to the American Legion—to alleviate symptoms of a physical or mental ailment,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment in an interview.

Hemp Legalization

Advocates are much more optimistic about hemp legalization this year.

Last month, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve large-scale agriculture legislation known as the Farm Bill, which includes provisions to finally remove hemp from the federal definition of marijuana after decades of prohibition.

The push is being driven by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has spoken often about the economic benefits that industrial hemp can bring to farmers in Kentucky and other states.

On the House side, Republican leaders blocked floor votes on including hemp legalization in that chamber’s version of the Farm Bill.

So as is the case with medical cannabis recommendations for veterans, the fate of hemp’s legal status will come down to a conference committee.

There is reason for advocates to be hopeful. It is unlikely that many or any of the House Democratic conferees would strongly object to inclusion of the Senate’s legalization language.

On the Republican side, advocates were overjoyed to see Congressman James Comer (R-KY) named to the panel on Wednesday.

As Kentucky agriculture’s commissioner, Comer championed and implemented the state’s industrial hemp research program. In Congress, he has served as the lead sponsor of hemp legalization bills.

“The hemp industry has reason to celebrate — one of our most passionate advocates…was appointed — he will literally be ‘in the room where it happens,'” the Hemp Roundtable said in an alert. “As the final Farm Bill is reconciled, it is comforting to know that Rep. Comer will be on hand to support the Senate’s language which would permanently legalize hemp.”

Also among the conferees are a number of GOP lawmakers who co-sponsored a hemp bill that Comer filed in the House last year, including Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Congressman Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Congressman Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL).

Comer told the Associated Press in an interview that he will push hard to include the hemp language in the final legislation.

“The economic viability of industrial hemp in Kentucky grows every day,” he said.

The Senate hasn’t yet appointed its conferees on the Farm Bill, but the hemp legalization proposal has broad support in the chamber and it is unlikely that Democratic or fellow GOP senators would try to buck McConnell by seeking to strip the language.

Timetable For Action

The conference committee dealing with the veterans bill was supposed to hold its first meeting last week, but that was postponed due to scheduling conflicts. A new date has not yet been set.

Current funding for the federal government is set to expire on September 30, so Congress is working to enact the veterans funding bill and other appropriations legislation before that date, though it is entirely possible that lawmakers won’t finish work in time and will need to enact a temporary extension of current provisions, known as a continuing resolution.

The 2014 version of the Farm Bill is set to expire on the same day, so the conference committee will likely move quickly once the Senate appoints its conferees, though a temporary extension is also possible on that legislation.

Whenever the committees issue their final conference reports on either bill, those will go to the floor of both chambers for up or down votes on sending the legislation to President Trump.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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