Last week, Denver voters approved an initiative to decriminalize the use, possession and production of psilocybin—the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms.” And while they are the first in the nation to do so, other states like Oregon and California are also considering putting ballot measures on psychedelics up for a vote in 2020.
But as states are beginning to move toward psilocybin decriminalization, don’t expect the issue to garner the same level of attention in Washington, D.C. that cannabis is currently enjoying—at least not yet. Legislators on Capitol Hill who either come from a state considering psychedelics legislation or have a history of championing marijuana reform—another federal Schedule I substance—had no comment on the issue when asked over the past week.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a longtime supporter of cannabis reform legislation, was willing to answer questions about what it will take for a marijuana banking bill to pass the Senate, but when asked by Marijuana Moment if states’ rights apply to psilocybin, the senator demurred.
“I don’t, I don’t have a comment on that,” he said, picking up his pace and hurrying down the hall in Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who represents Denver, has filed several bills aimed at protecting state cannabis laws from federal intervention following Colorado voters’ approval of legalization in 2012. But her office did not respond to several queries about how the congresswoman voted on the local psilocybin ballot measure last week or what actions she is prepared to take to support it at the federal level.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), whose state may put a psilocybin measure on the ballot in 2020, was somewhat aware of the issue but said his office hasn’t considered it deeply.
“As you know, there have been a host of areas where, when the federal government has dragged its feet, the states have moved,” Wyden said.
The senator then directed Marijuana Moment to a health policy aide, who in turn referred to another staffer in the senator’s office who handles cannabis issues, who ultimately said it was an issue they haven’t looked into.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Conor Lamb (D-PA), who have all introduced or cosponsored cannabis legislation, and most of whom come from states considering psilocybin reform, all said they did not know enough about the issue to comment.
Lamb, who has signed onto bills calling for more research into cannabis’s potential medical benefits for military veterans, admitted he didn’t know what psilocybin was.
And Correa, who is the chief sponsor of the same veterans legislation, said, “I don’t know what a mushroom looks like—if it’s big, tall or what.”
Activists in Correa’s home state of California are preparing to place a psilocybin decriminalization measure on the state’s general election ballot next year.
The reluctant response isn’t surprising to advocates. Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for the decriminalization of all drugs, including marijuana and psilocybin, says that cannabis is by far the most well-known Schedule I substance among politicians.
“That shows right there how different [psilocybin] is from marijuana, where it isn’t… a name people are familiar with,” says Davies.
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) May 9, 2019
And many D.C.-based cannabis advocacy groups also do not have plans to incorporate mushrooms into their daily lobbying agenda.
“We have marijuana on the door, not drug,” Justin Strekal of NORML told Marijuana Moment.
Part of the reason for this, especially among advocates, is the impact level. Exponentially more Americans are arrested every year for cannabis possession than for mushrooms. According to the Denver district attorney’s office, only 11 psilocybin cases went to trial there over the past three years. Conversely, in Colorado the year before marijuana became legal, more than 12,000 people were arrested on cannabis-related charges.
Davies says singling out specific, smaller-impact drugs like psilocybin is a mistake that results in the lack of attention given to the issue on the federal level. Advocates feel that instead of trying to tackle the issue piecemeal, states and municipalities trying to end drug prohibition should take a holistic view of decriminalization, as the Colorado legislature has done in passing a bill that decriminalizes single possession of a Schedule I or Schedule II drug—which includes psilocybin. That bill is now headed to the Gov. Jared Polis (D), who is expected to sign it.
Most advocates agree, though, that psilocybin likely would not have been decriminalized had cannabis not already paved the way. And even so, it wasn’t until multiple states legalized marijuana for recreational use that Congress began to take cannabis legislation seriously. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, for example, his campaign took pains to clarify that he didn’t even support decriminalizing cannabis; but in 2019, Democratic presidential hopefuls are practically tripping over each other to show greater support for legalizing marijuana outright.
For most politicians on Capitol Hill, cannabis is where their focus is going to stay for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve spent years setting the table for the blueprint, dealing with cannabis legalization,” says long-time cannabis advocate Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who released a ‘blueprint’ detailing the path toward comprehensive cannabis legalization on the federal level last year.
“I’m resisting the siren call of being involved with each thing that comes down the path,” he said when Marijuana Moment asked whether he would endorse the proposed psilocybin measure that could appear on the ballot in his home state of Oregon next year.
But even while there appear to be no members of Congress who are currently ready to actively champion broader drug policy reform concerning psychedelics, some are keeping an open mind on the issue.
“Let me tell you how I came to the conclusion that veterans needed to be treated with cannabis: they came to me,” said Correa, who has since led the charge to expand veterans-focused marijuana research.
“I think [also considering psilocybin research for veterans] is a possibility,” the congressman added. “I think we need to look at other alternatives to treating patients, to treating veterans, other than opioids.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
Bernie Sanders Asks Campaign Rally Audience To Share Stories About Marijuana Arrests
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked an audience in South Carolina to share stories about marijuana possession convictions and then argued that those anecdotes help to demonstrate the case for national legalization.
During a campaign stop in the early primary state on Sunday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate asked people to raise their hands if they knew someone who’d been arrested for possessing cannabis. There was no shortage of hands raised.
“Holy God, whoa. That’s a lot of people,” Sanders said before asking for volunteers to go into detail.
“I got caught with about a joint and they took my license for a year and I lost my job,” an audience member said. “Ended up losing my house, and it went worse from there.”
The War on Drugs has been a disaster. It is time to legalize marijuana nationwide. pic.twitter.com/tehuM7xjxx
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 17, 2019
“Wow, this is for smoking a joint?” Sanders asked.
“Yeah, I had a little—like a dime bag in my car,” the person said.
Another person in attendance who appeared in the campaign video Sanders released on Tuesday said that she visited a guilty plea court and witnessed “three different men get put in at least two years of prison just for anywhere from two grams to eight grams of marijuana found on them.”
“That’s why all over this country states are doing the right thing and either decriminalizing or legalizing the possession of marijuana,” Sanders said to applause.
Since becoming the first major party presidential candidate to call for cannabis legalization in 2015, Sanders has continued to place an emphasis on the need for marijuana reform, with a focus on the racial injustices of prohibition.
Last month, he released a criminal justice reform plan that included proposals to legalize cannabis federally and also provide for safe injection sites to curb opioid overdoses.
But while Sanders has been a leading voice in the drug policy reform movement, he’s said twice in recent weeks that he’s not ready to embrace decriminalizing possession of drugs beside marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.
New York Gov. Cuomo Hints Marijuana Smoking Ban Could Be Part Of Next Legalization Push
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) seemed to suggest that he might want a ban on smoking marijuana included in legalization legislation when lawmakers take up the issue again next year.
During an interview with MSNBC on Sunday, the governor was asked whether the spike in apparent vaping-related lung injuries and deaths, which experts attribute to altered nicotine and cannabis oils primarily purchased on the illicit market, has made him reconsider pursuing legalization in the state.
“No,” he said, adding that his administration is “not in favor of smoking marijuana” and that there are “ways to get THC without smoking marijuana.”
“People are vaping THC, yes that is true,” Cuomo said. “We think that from a public health point of view, that is not something that we recommend and we think it’s dangerous—smoking of any kind.”
“You can legalize marijuana and sell THC in compounds that do not require you to smoke the marijuana, and we do not support smoking of marijuana,” he said. “There are compounds that have the THC, which is a compound in marijuana, that you don’t smoke.”
It’s not entirely clear if Cuomo plans to ask for a smoking ban the next time a legalization bill emerges or if he was simply outlining an administrative position advising against smoking. A spokesperson for his office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment by the time of publication.
But while there was no ban on marijuana smoking included in legalization legislation that he worked to pass earlier this year, it wouldn’t be entirely out of character given that he pushed for such a restriction as part of New York’s medical cannabis program in legislation enacted in 2014.
The logic behind that policy, according to Cuomo, was that it would prevent people from abusing the program. If he moved to incorporate a ban for adult-use legalization, however, it would presumably be a public health decision.
That could create problems when lawmakers return to the negotiating table. In California, flower and concentrates represent about 70 percent of the marijuana market, meaning any attempt to ban smokeable cannabis will likely be met with pushback from consumers, industry stakeholders and civil liberties-minded reform advocates.
Industry players seemed to have influence when Cuomo included a ban on home cultivation for personal use in his prior legalization proposal—something a major medical cannabis association recommended in a policy statement submitted to the governor.
For the time being, however, there don’t seem to be tangible plans to include a smoking ban in future cannabis legislation and it could be that the governor simply ends up pushing for public education campaigns discouraging the activity rather than keeping it illegal.
In July, he signed legislation broadening New York’s decriminalization law and creating a pathway for expungements for individuals with prior cannabis convictions.
Photo courtesy of MSNBC.
Mitch McConnell Tells FDA To Clear A Path For CBD Products Though Spending Bill Directive
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is moving to insert language into a congressional spending report that calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to clear a path for the lawful marketing of hemp-derived CBD products.
FDA has said that allowing CBD to be sold as food items or dietary supplements would require it to develop alternative regulations that could take years to complete without congressional action. But McConnell, who was the chief proponent of a hemp legalization provision of the 2018 Farm Bill, isn’t interested in waiting around.
In draft language shared by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable on Tuesday, the senator is asking FDA to “issue a policy of enforcement discretion with regard to certain products containing CBD” within 120 days—a move that industry stakeholders say will clarify rules so that banks are more willing to service CBD companies.
🚨 BREAKING FDA UPDATE 🚨 After close work with the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, @senatemajldr Mitch McConnell submitted legislation urging the FDA to take action on CBD. Visit the link in bio to take action! pic.twitter.com/zMohlD3NiS
— US Hemp Roundtable (@HempRoundtable) September 17, 2019
The provision of the spending report was marked up in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on Tuesday. It will go before the full Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
Prior to issuing its enforcement discretion policy under McConnell’s report language, FDA would have to submit a report to the committee within 90 days detailing its “progress toward obtaining and analyzing data to help determine a policy of enforcement discretion, and the process in which CBD meeting the definition of hemp will be evaluated for use in products.”
Once those provisional enforcement guidelines are established, they would remain in place until FDA finalizes the regulatory process.
“FDA is encouraged to consider existing and ongoing medical research related to CBD that is being undertaken pursuant to an Investigation New Drug (IND) application in the development of a regulatory pathway for CBD in products under the jurisdiction of FDA and to ensure that any future regulatory activity does not discourage the development of new drugs,” the report states.
Outside of McConnell’s proposal, the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) appropriations legislation already sets aside $2 million to support research and regulatory activities surrounding hemp-derived CBD products and $16.5 million for the broader hemp production program.
During the subcommittee meeting on Thursday, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) praised the bill’s support for hemp legalization implementation.
“You might note that this year in Oregon, the hemp industry may well be a billion dollar crop, and that is an incredible addition to income for our agricultural community,” he said.
The legalization of hemp and its derivatives has been met with intense interest from manufacturers and lawmakers alike, but limitations on the marketability of CBD has been an ongoing source of frustration.
Last week, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers asked fellow House members to join them in signing a letter to the head of FDA that similarly asks for enforcement discretion guidelines allowing companies to sell CBD products.
The House, which approved its version of appropriations legislation for the upcoming fiscal year prior to the summer recess, included a separate amendment that would require FDA to establish rules providing for the lawful marketing of CBD in food and dietary supplements.
Meanwhile, USDA is expected to soon release its broader hemp regulations soon.
Read McConnell’s full CBD report language below:
“As previously mentioned, the Committee provides $2,000,000 for research, policy evaluation, market surveillance, issuance of an enforcement discretion policy, and appropriate regulatory activities with respect to products under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration which contain cannabidiol (CBD) and meet the definition of hemp, as set forth in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o). Within 90 days, FDA shall provide the Committee with a report regarding the Agency’s progress toward obtaining and analyzing data to help determine a policy of enforcement discretion, and the process in which CBD meeting the definition of hemp will be evaluated for use in products. Within 120 days, FDA shall issue a policy of enforcement discretion with regard to certain products containing CBD meeting the definition of hemp as defined by section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1964 (7 U.S.C. 1639). Such enforcement discretion shall be in effect until FDA establishes a process for stakeholders to notify FDA for use of CBD in products that include safety studies for intended use per product, and makes a determination about such product. FDA is encouraged to consider existing and ongoing medical research related to CBD that is being undertaken pursuant to an Investigation New Drug (IND) application in the development of a regulatory pathway for CBD in products under the jurisdiction of FDA and to ensure that any future regulatory activity does not discourage the development of new drugs.”
This story was updated to include comment from Merkley.
Photo courtesy of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.