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Congressional Funding Bill Restores Financial Aid For Students With Drug Convictions, And Has Other Marijuana Provisions

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Students would no longer be disqualified from receiving federal financial aid over past drug convictions under a large-scale, bipartisan spending bill introduced in Congress that’s expected to receive floor votes on Monday.

While the main function of the omnibus bill is to keep the government funded through September 2021 and provide assistance amid the coronavirus pandemic, the proposal finally eliminates a question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that prompts students to disclose prior drug offenses.

The new appropriations and COVID relief legislation also contains a number of other cannabis-related provisions such as the extension of a longstanding rider protecting state-legal medical marijuana programs from federal interference and a ban on Washington, D.C. legalizing recreational sales. Meanwhile, despite a push from the marijuana and financial services industries, it does not contain any language to shield banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by regulators. Importantly, it also extends a 2014 pilot program for hemp until 2022—a win for stakeholders who have been concerned about its expiration.

Meanwhile, a series of reports attached to the legislation contain discussion of hemp and CBD regulations and adding questions about marijuana edibles and flavored vaping products as part of a federal youth drug use survey, among other topics.

For the most part, this bill represents a continuation of past marijuana statutes that have been annually renewed through the appropriations process. But the financial aid reform is a significant victory for advocates who have been working for decades to quash the drug conviction question, which they argue is racially discriminatory and unnecessarily punitive when it comes to access to education.

Buried in the 5,593-page legislation is a subtle and easily overlooked change that doesn’t explicitly reference the FAFSA language. It simply strikes the subsection of the Higher Education Act that sets that drug-related eligibility standard.

Rachel Wissner, co-interim executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), told Marijuana Moment that the group “was founded in 1998 in large part as a response to remove the Aid Elimination Penalty.”

“This amendment has denied federal financial aid to hundreds of thousands of students, particularly burdening students of color from communities marginalized by the War on Drugs,” she said. “Over the last two decades, we have been fighting alongside other drug policy reform and education organizations to scale back the penalty.”

“Now that the penalty has fully been repealed, SSDP looks forward to the opportunity to work with Congress and the new administration on broader drug policy reform that ensure those who have been most harmed by the war on drugs are not left behind,” she added. “We celebrate that Congress has finally accepted that a drug conviction does not mean that someone should be denied access to higher education.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) championed the reform in bipartisan negotiations and said in a press release that “every single person in this country should be able to access and afford a quality higher education—and today we move substantially closer to that goal.”

“I’m incredibly pleased that these students will finally be able to access aid and begin and continue their education,” the senator, who also helped secure language to restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, said.

Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that these reforms “represent a major victory for students who have been unfairly deterred from pursuing higher education.”

“No one should be denied access to education because of a criminal record,” he said. “For more than twenty years, these policies have punished students who rely on federal aid to attend college and disproportionately harmed Black and Brown people targeted by drug enforcement.”

Beyond the education policy change, the spending bill also retains language that prevents the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in state-legal medical cannabis programs. The measure has been part of federal law since 2014 and the new version was updated to add South Dakota to the list of states that are protected since voters there approved a medical marijuana reform initiative last month.

However, negotiators declined to adopt broader language from House-passed appropriations legislation that would have extended those protections to all state and tribal cannabis programs, including those for adult use.

There are a few other disappointments for advocates in the new bill as well. For example, a rider that prevents D.C. from using its local tax dollars to implement retail marijuana sales was kept in the text. The proposal also maintains language stipulating that federal dollars cannot be spent on “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attempted to get that provision nixed through an amendment to spending legislation last year, but the House rejected the proposed reform in a floor vote.

Another setback for reform allies concerns the COVID-19 portions of the omnibus bill. The House on two occasions included in their versions of relief legislation language that would protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. But despite passing both times, it was not added to the final bicameral bill. And more limited marijuana banking language that the House passed as part of its version of an annual spending bill was also not included.

Earlier this year, the House inserted language into its version of spending legislation that would have provided protections against universities losing funding for studying cannabis, but that did not make it into the final appropriations bill.

Additionally, the new large-scale legislation does not make any mention of extending coronavirus relief benefits to the marijuana industry through the Paycheck Protection Program, despite months of industry appeals for fair and equal access to the funds.

A couple of sections of the bill do continue protections for the hemp market, however. They prevent the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with the hemp pilot program detailed in the 2014 Farm Bill or lawful research into the crop.

A report on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spending provisions touches on various issues with USDA’s proposed hemp regulations that businesses have been flagging, including restrictive testing protocols and the limited THC content negligence threshold.

The bipartisan negotiators directed USDA “to ensure that any final rule is based on science, is in accordance with underlying law, and will ensure a fair and reasonable regulatory framework for commercial hemp production in the United States.”

FDA is receiving $5 million to support its regulatory activities with respect to CBD, and the report states that the agency must work with the White House to issue “policy guidance in a timely manner regarding enforcement discretion.”

“When appropriate, FDA is encouraged to ensure that any future regulatory activity does not discourage the development of new drugs,” the report says. “The agreement also encourages FDA to partner with an academic institution to expand sampling studies of CBD products currently on the market.”

USDA would have to “study the usage and impacts of energy and water in hemp cultivation” and report back with its recommendations, communicate with stakeholders about research opportunities for the crop, partner with eligible research institutions on studies into hemp germplasm and “provide access to guaranteed loans for hemp producers and businesses” through the agency’s

Further, an agreed-upon report for the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies spending legislation notes that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has developed technology capable of rapidly differentiating hemp and marijuana, and it encourages the agency to continue to work with state and local partners to makes those tools more widely available for law enforcement purposes.

DEA is also required to report “on its efforts to interdict illicit vaping cartridges containing THC” within 180 days of the enactment of this bill.

A separate report for U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources funding states that the National Institute on Drug Abuse is advised to include “questions on consumption of flavored marijuana vapes and marijuana edibles flavored to appeal to adolescents in the [annual Monitoring the Future] survey.”

Prior to the release of the bill that was negotiated by House and Senate leaders, legislators in the latter chamber released several wide-ranging spending bills and related reports for the 2021 fiscal year that include a variety of provisions related to marijuana and hemp.

The new report language seems to incorporate the Senate Appropriations Committee’s prior criticism of USDA’s proposed hemp rules as it concerned THC limits.

The House version of spending legislation that the chamber approved in July was much more far-reaching. It additionally contained provisions to loosen rules on marijuana business access to banking services, expand cannabis research, regulate the hemp and CBD industries and give D.C. the ability to legalize recreational sales.

Read the spending bill’s marijuana and hemp provisions below:

SEC. 531. None of the funds made available under this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the United States Virgin Islands, Guam, or Puerto Rico, to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

SEC. 809. (a) None of the Federal funds contained in this Act may be used to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative.

(b) No funds available for obligation or expenditure by the District of Columbia government under any authority may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.

SEC. 530. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used in contravention of section 7606 (‘‘Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research’’) of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Public Law 113–79) by the Department of Justice or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

SEC. 744. None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be used—(1) in contravention of section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (7 U.S.C. 5940), subtitle G of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946, or section 10114 of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018; or (2) to prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of hemp, or seeds of such plant, that is grown or cultivated in accordance with subsection section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 or Sub-title G of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946, within or outside the State in which the hemp is grown or cultivated.

SEC. 509. (a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance included in schedule I of the schedules of controlled substances established under section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act except for normal and recognized executive-congressional communications.

(b) The limitation in subsection (a) shall not apply when there is significant medical evidence of a therapeutic advantage to the use of such drug or other substance or that federally sponsored clinical trials are being conducted to determine therapeutic advantage.

Read the cannabis-related report language on the spending bills below:

Hemp Testing Technology- DEA has developed field testing kits that can distinguish between hemp and marijuana on-the-spot. DEA is directed to continue to work to ensure State and local law enforcement have access to this field test technology so they can more efficiently conduct their drug interdiction efforts at the local level. DEA is further directed to report back, not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, and not less than every 6 months thereafter, until such time as testing kits are deployed to State and local law enforcement in the field.

Illegal Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Vaping Products- DEA is directed to report, not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, on its efforts to interdict illicit vaping cartridges containing THC. This report shall assess how and to what extent such products are being marketed to children.
Within the increases provided for food safety activities, the agreement provides $5,000,000 for Regulatory Activities Associated with Cannabis and Cannabis Derivatives…

As previously noted, the agreement provides $5,000,000 to support regulatory activities, including developing policy, and for FDA to continue to perform its existing regulatory responsibilities, including review of product applications, inspections, enforcement, and targeted research for cannabis-derived substances, such as cannabidiol (CBD). To provide more clarity to industry and the public, FDA is directed to work with OMB on issuing policy guidance in a timely manner regarding enforcement discretion. When appropriate, FDA is encouraged to ensure that any future regulatory activity does not discourage the development of new drugs. The agreement also encourages FDA to partner with an academic institution to expand sampling studies of CBD products currently on the market.

The agreement is aware of concerns that the interim final rule entitled “Establishment of a Domestic Hemp Production Program” published by the Department in the Federal Register on October 31, 2019 (84 Fed. Reg. 58522) may create compliance challenges for the regulated community by using sampling and testing protocols that require too short a timeframe between testing and harvest, failing to provide a lack of alternative to the use of Drug Enforcement Administration registered laboratories, requiring the conversion of THCA into delta-9 THC, requiring a sampling of only flowering tops, and establishing an inflexible negligence threshold of 0.5 percent. The agreement directs USDA to ensure that any final rule is based on science, is in accordance with underlying law, and will ensure a fair and reasonable regulatory framework for commercial hemp production in the United States. In addition, the agreement encourages the Secretary to utilize the current research at the Agricultural Research Service and the Land-Grant Universities partnering with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to guide the hemp sampling and testing protocols.

In addition, the USDA shall develop regulations, within existing authority, that protect the transportation, processing, sale, or use of hemp and in-process hemp extract, that may temporarily exceed a delta-9 THC concentration of 0.3%, including in-process hemp extract that was: (1) produced from hemp that meets the definition of hemp under 7 U.S.C. §16390; (2) cultivated in accordance with subtitle G of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 [7 U.S.C. 16390 et seq.] (as added by section 10113 of the Agriculture Improvement Act of2018) or section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 [7 U.S.C. 5940]; (3) not packaged as a finished product; and (4) not sold or offered for sale as a finished product to consumers.

The agreement encourages the Secretary to study the usage and impacts of energy and water in hemp cultivation and controlled environment agriculture and to make recommendations on best practices and standards in both sectors.

The agreement notes statements made by the Department acknowledging the eligibility of researchers participating in hemp pilot programs, as defined by Section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Public Law 113-79). The agreement directs the Department to work with and inform stakeholders of this eligibility and to support hemp research, as authorized by Section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of2014 (Public Law 113-79) and Subtitle G of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1621-1627, 1635-1638).

The agreement provides funding increases for…hemp germplasm [and] hemp production systems…

The agreement encourages ARS and the Plant Genetics Resources Research Unit to partner with 1890 institutions that have existing institutional capacity on hemp germplasm research, education, and extension capabilities.

The agreement recognizes the growing interest for U.S. hemp and hemp-based products for a variety of uses and directs FCA to work with the institutions under its jurisdiction to provide access to guaranteed loans for hemp producers and businesses.

NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE (NIDA)
Flavored THC-The agreement appreciates the important data collected in the annual NIDA-funded Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. The agreement recommends the inclusion of questions on consumption of flavored marijuana vapes and marijuana edibles flavored to appeal to adolescents in the MTF survey.

This story has been updated to include additional details about the cannabis provisions of the new bill and related reports. 

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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