A powerful congressional panel voted on Thursday to continue shielding medical marijuana patients and providers who comply with state laws from prosecution by the federal government.
While the provision has been federal law since 2014, when it was first attached to legislation that funds the U.S. Department of Justice, its continuance has been in question because of recent efforts by Republican leadership to prevent votes on cannabis amendments.
But in a stunning bipartisan move, the House Appropriations Committee voted to add the provision as a rider to legislation funding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s department for Fiscal Year 2019.
The amendment was offered by Rep. David Joyce (R-OH).
“I’d be remiss if I did not point out that recent polling from just last month shows 92 percent of the American people support the use of medical marijuana,” Joyce said in debate before the committee adopted his amendment by a voice vote. “In fact, even more voters from every political demographic oppose federal interference in state marijuana laws.”
Historically, the measure has been approved on the House floor but, because Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) has effectively blocked floor votes on cannabis amendments for the last several years — most recently on Wednesday when his panel prevented three hemp measures from advancing — supporters haven’t gotten a chance to bring the medical marijuana measure before the full chamber since 2015, when it passed by a margin of 242-186.
Since then, the provision has been extended, mostly by default, through large-scale omnibus bills or short-term continuing resolutions that have largely kept federal spending policy riders frozen in place for the last few budget cycles.
But legalization supporters circumvented their Pete Sessions problem on Thursday by inserting the marijuana language into the funding bill at the earlier Appropriations panel stage, a move they previously haven’t risked because members of Congress are seen as more likely to avoid bucking party leadership at the committee level when bills are being crafted.
“Congress still has a long way to go, but it’s remarkable how far we’ve come,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who has played a leading role in pushing cannabis reform measures, said in a statement. “Today’s vote is the latest example of the progress we’ve made. It’s still not enough, especially with Jeff Sessions at the helm of the justice system. Congress must seize this moment and act to expand protections to adult use.”
The growing number of states that are enacting medical cannabis laws in recent years means that far more members of Congress represent constituents who stand to be harmed by the spending riders’ disappearance, however, so advocates felt comfortable placing the measure before the committee this year.
“Today’s vote marks a victory for medical marijuana patients and another defeat for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his prohibitionist agenda,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said in an interview. “Representative David Joyce has demonstrated to his colleagues that it is time for mainstream Republicans to embrace federalism and provide protections for state-approved marijuana programs.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has no familial relation to the Rules Committee chairman of the same last name, asked congressional leadership to discontinue the provision in a 2017 letter, but lawmakers then extended it anyway as part of large-scale budget deals for the rest of that fiscal year and into FY 2018.
“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” Sessions wrote at the time. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”
Now, the protections for state medical marijuana laws and the people and businesses who rely on them are pace to continue through 2019 as well. The rider does not protect broader state laws allowing recreational marijuana use and businesses.
Great news for states' rights and those suffering severe pain. @HouseAppropsGOP Fiscal Year 2019 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill will include an amendment offered by myself protecting states' rights regarding the use of medical marijuana.
— Dave Joyce (@RepDaveJoyce) May 17, 2018
The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to take up its version of the Justice Department legislation next month. That panel has easily approved the medical cannabis rider — and other marijuana provisions — in recent fiscal years, and is expected to do so again.
By taking the House committee route, led by Joyce, marijuana reform supporters also avoided the measure’s long association with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has been its chief sponsor for years and who isn’t a member of the Appropriations panel. The reputation of Rohrabacher, who is seen as one of the most pro-Russia members of Congress, has been damaged amid revelations about that country’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race
And his reelection this year, in a district that Hillary Clinton won, is uncertain.
Now, because the measure was successfully attached to the 2019 Justice Department bill by Joyce, it is the Ohio congressman’s name — and not Rohrabacher’s — that will likely appear at the top of congressional sign-on letters about it, probably making it more likely that fellow GOP members will more seriously consider supporting its extension.
For now, advocates are hopeful that Congress is getting the message that supporting marijuana law reform is good politics.
The Thursday vote “shows that protecting state medical marijuana programs from interference by the Department of Justice is no longer a controversial issue when members of Congress are given an opportunity to vote on this issue,” said Michael Liszewski, a policy advisory at the Drug Policy Alliance. “The House Appropriations Committee stands with the 90 percent of Americans, including supermajorities of all Republicans and Democrats alike, who think Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice have no business disrupting state medical marijuana programs. The only thing standing in the way of more comprehensive federal marijuana reform proposals is a small handful of committee leaders who are blocking these bills and amendments from moving forward.”
And Don Murphy of the Marijuana Policy Project said the fact that no cannabis opponents demanded a roll call vote on the state protection measure is significant.
“Opponents clearly want to avoid being on the record voting against sick patients and states’ rights, which explains why the committee held a voice vote,” he said.
Separately during the Appropriations Committee’s markup of the Commerce, Justice Science spending bill, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), an opponent of legalization, successfully offered an amendment urging the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to quickly process pending applications to cultivate marijuana to be used in scientific research.
Hawaii Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Joint Committee Hearing
Two Hawaii Senate committees approved a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in a joint hearing on Tuesday.
The vote comes two weeks after the full House passed the amended legislation, which makes possession of three grams or less of cannabis a civil offense instead of a crime punishable by jail time. As approved by that full chamber, a first the offense was punishable by a $200 fine under the bill, but the Senate committees lowered it to $30 instead.
While the quantity of marijuana is significantly less than in other states have decriminalized, the development was welcomed by reform advocates in the state.
“[W]e embrace the move from criminalization that the bill still represents, and particularly applaud the provisions to dismiss pending charges and expunge convictions related to cannabis offenses,” the reform organization Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said in written testimony. “While we support full-scale legalization of adult use cannabis, this bill then also begins to reverse the brutal impact of the decades’ long, needless criminalization of this substance.”
The Senate Committee on Judiciary adopted the House recommendation without objection and advanced the bill. The Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs didn’t immediately have a quorum during the joint hearing, so that panel didn’t formally take its vote until later in the day.
Besides decriminalizing low-level cannabis possession, the legislation would provide for the expungement of prior convictions cocerning three grams or less.
It would also establish a marijuana evaluation task force to “examine other states’ laws, penalties, and outcomes pertaining to marijuana use, other than marijuana use for medical purposes, and make recommendations on amending marijuana use penalties and outcomes in the State.”
Advocates are cautiously optimistic that Gov. David Ige (D) will sign the bill if it arrives on his desk. While he’s expressed concerns about adult-use legalization, he put his name on decriminalization legislation as a state senator in 2013.
On that note, a separate legalization proposal that advanced further than similar legislation has ever gone in Hawaii after it was approved by a Senate committee last month did not receive consideration in another panel before the deadline to proceed through the legislative process, which effectively killed the bill.
Elsewhere, New Mexico lawmakers sent a more wide-ranging decriminalization bill to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) over the weekend. The pro-legalization governor is expected to sign the legislation.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
First Congressional Marijuana Vote Of 2019 Officially Scheduled For Next Week
A bipartisan bill designed to protect banks that service the marijuana industry from being penalized by federal regulators will get a vote in a key congressional committee next week.
The legislation, which was discussed during the first cannabis-related hearing of the 116th Congress last month, will go before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday.
Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) Denny Heck (D-WA), Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Warren Davidson (R-OH) are the chief sponsors of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. It was formally filed earlier this month, and currently has 138 cosponsors—more than a quarter of the House.
After no action for 6 years, #SAFEBanking has received its first hearing and will see its first vote next week. Glad to have the support of 138+ cosponsors as we work to address the #cannabis banking issue and get cash off our streets. https://t.co/jylk1udqVQ
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) March 19, 2019
“For six years, Congress has failed to act on the issue of cannabis banking, putting thousands of employees, businesses and communities at risk,” Perlmutter said in a statement emailed to Marijuana Moment. “However, the issue is finally receiving the attention it deserves with the first-ever congressional hearing and now a scheduled committee vote.”
‘Among the cosponsors is the chair of the committee herself, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who spoke about addressing banking issues in the cannabis industry shortly before assuming the position. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA), have also signed onto the legislation—demonstrating its support among powerful Democratic leaders of the House.
All of this sets the stage for a potentially game-changing vote, as Republican leadership during the last Congress consistently blocked marijuana-related bills from even being considered. With Democrats in control and leading lawmakers embracing the legislation, it stands a good chance of heading to the full House and then on to the Senate.
Resolving banking problems for marijuana companies was one of several legislative goals that Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) outlined in a blueprint to end federal marijuana prohibition he sent to his party’s leaders last year.
“The banking issue is just one aspect of the failed policy of federal marijuana criminalization. In order to truly bring the marijuana industry out of the shadows, actions need to be taken by Congress to amend this, and many others, outdated and discriminatory practices,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said in a statement. “This will certainly not be the last hearing of this Congress to discuss marijuana prohibition and we expect a full hearing on prohibition to be scheduled in the months to come.”
There were several changes made to the banking bill since it was last introduced in the 115th Congress. For example, the legislation clarifies that protections are extended to financial institutions that work with ancillary cannabis business—not just those that directly sell marijuana or marijuana products.
“[P]roceeds from a transaction conducted by a cannabis-related legitimate business shall not be considered as proceeds from an unlawful activity solely because the transaction was conducted by a cannabis-related legitimate business,” the bill states.
It also calls on the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council to implement “uniform guidance and examination procedures for depository institutions that provide financial services to cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
There have been widespread calls to tackle the banking problem, including from members of Congress and representatives of cannabis businesses. With this vote, it seems those calls are at least starting to be answered.
Meanwhile, Nadler has signaled that his Judiciary Committee may also take up broader marijuana legislation soon.
“With 97.7 percent of the U.S. population living in a state where voters have legalized some form of adult recreational, medical or limited-medical use of marijuana, congressional inaction is no longer an option,” Perlmutter said. “And with broad, bipartisan support in the House, I look forward to the SAFE Banking Act continuing to move forward in the Financial Services Committee and on the floor of the House.”
This story has been updated to include statements from Perlmutter and NORML.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Feds Ramp Up Calls For Research Into Marijuana Treatment For Chronic Pain
A federal health agency is seeking the public’s help in identifying studies that explore the potential benefits and harms of using marijuana instead of opioids for chronic pain treatment.
In three separate notices published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) said it is in the process of reviewing existing research on chronic pain—specifically alternatives to opioid-based painkillers—and requested “supplemental evidence and data submissions” from the public.
The agency provided guidelines for what exactly it was interested in learning. One notice called for studies on the “comparative effectiveness” of using non-opioid therapies, “including marijuana,” instead of opioids. The studies should explore differences in “outcomes related to pain, function, and quality of life.” The filing also includes a prompt for evidence about utilizing cannabis in tandem with opioids, including how the harms of the prescription pain medications vary for patients who also use marijuana.
In another notice, AHRQ, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said it wants help completing its review of non-invasive and non-pharmacologic chronic pain treatments such as exercise, mindfulness, acupuncture—and yes, medical marijuana. The request specified that the agency is interested in research on “any formulation” of cannabis.
Finally, a third notice included marijuana in a list of non-opioid pharmacologic treatment options that AHRQ is interested in exploring. The public is encouraged to submit studies and data on the risk of “overdose, misuse, dependence, withdrawals due to adverse events, and serious adverse events” for medical cannabis, as well as more conventional oral and topical treatments.
Altogether, the package of solicitations demonstrates that while marijuana remains a Schedule I drug (meaning the federal government does not recognize it as having medical value), there are federal agencies that are compelled by the prospect that cannabis effectively treats pain without the risks posed by opioids.
And there are any number of studies that AHRQ might want to take into consideration. For example, there are surveys that show patients often use marijuana as a substitute for opioid painkillers and other pharmaceuticals, as well as several comprehensive studies indicating that states with legal cannabis access experience lower opioid overdose rates and have fewer opioid prescriptions compared to non-legal states.
The deadline to submit studies and data for all of the new notices is April 18.
These are the latest in a series of notices that AHRQ and other federal agencies have published in recent months. Last year, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health hosted a workshop that specifically addressed barriers to cannabis research while the substance remains federally prohibited.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.