Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) withdrew an amendment on Friday that would have allowed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states where it’s legal.
The congressman, whose separate measure blocking the Justice Department from intervening in state-legal cannabis activities passed on the House floor on Thursday, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that VA “blindsided” lawmakers by arguing for the first time that their physicians “would have been professionally liable” if they issued medical cannabis recommendations.
“This is a new wrinkle from the VA,” he said. “If we’d known, I’m absolutely convinced we could have” passed the measure.
— House Press Gallery (@HouseDailyPress) June 21, 2019
“I have been working in this Congress to extend [medical cannabis access] to our veterans who, if anything, need medical marijuana more than any other category of our citizens,” Blumenauer said in a speech on the House floor just before pulling the amendment. “We lost 7,000 people to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we’ve lost 100,000 of those veterans to suicides and opioid overdoses. The VA, I’m afraid, has not been as helpful as it should be.”
He cited high rates of opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths among veterans as one reason he’s “repeatedly advanced this amendment.”
In 2016, versions of the measure cleared both the House and Senate but the language “stripped out by the Republican leadership,” he said.
“An illustration of how far we have evolved: the House leadership that stripped this provision out was headed by [Speaker John Boehner], who is now a spokesperson for the cannabis industry, having described that he’s evolved on this issue and thinks it’s a good idea,” Blumenauer said. “We haven’t evolved in this Congress in providing protections for the VA.”
This time around, VA itself stood against the measure.
“Even though this amendment has passed repeatedly, all of a sudden the VA has decided, well, they would be putting their doctors at risk,” he said. “Never came up before. If we’d known about it, we could work it around. I think we can and should work to fix this.”
The specific concern, apparently, is that VA doctors could potentially be prosecuted for aiding and abetting violations of the Controlled Substances Act by filling out forms on federal property to help veterans obtain cannabis, which is still a Schedule I drug. Blumenauer had filed a separate amendment on the issue blocking the Justice Department from punishing VA physicians for that activity, but also withdrew that measure earlier in the week prior to Rules Committee consideration because it would have been ruled not in order.
There are “limitations in terms of the Rules Committee pushing things that are actually stretching what we can do under the rules” of the House, Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in an earlier interview.
The congressman also cited “some procedural roadblocks, among others, thrown up by some members of the Appropriations Committee.”
“We worked very hard to see if we could resolve them in the time that we had, but unfortunately we couldn’t,” he said.
Advocates have pointed out that federal courts have already determined that doctors who simply recommend medical cannabis to their patients are protected under the First Amendment, but VA’s concerns caused uncertainty among lawmakers as to whether that protection extends to federally employed physicians. And those questions could have jeopardized the amendment’s passage on the floor.
“After the momentum of this week between House hearings on cannabis small business access to capital, a [House Veterans’ Affairs Committee] hearing on medical cannabis research, and a historic victory in the House with the Blumenauer CJS amendment, it is incredibly frustrating to see the Congressman withdraw an amendment that would provide medical cannabis access to veterans,” David Mangone, director of government affairs at Americans for Safe Access, told Marijuana Moment.
“The VA’s last minute sabotage of this amendment creates an unforeseen hurdle that could have easily been avoided,” he said. “Instead of coming up with watered-down excuses, the VA should be working with Congress to create a functioning framework to get medical cannabis to our veterans.”
It’s not just Blumenauer’s measure that VA is resisting. A department representative testified in opposition to four pieces of legislation focused on cannabis and veterans that were discussed during a congressional committee hearing on Thursday, including Blumenauer’s standalone bill to accomplish the same objective as his appropriations amendment.
The official told the panel that VA is also against legislation that would require the the department to conduct clinical trials on the therapeutic benefits of marijuana for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain, a bill that to mandate a survey of veterans on their cannabis use and a proposal to require training on medical cannabis for VA health practitioners.
All that said, it’s possible that if the congressman would have moved ahead with his amendment and VA effectively made its case to defeat the measure, that could have jeopardized his related bill, which would permanently codify the policy as opposed to being attached to an annual funding bill that needs to be renewed as is the case with the amendment. Considering how the standalone legislation received a hearing this week and seems positioned to advance further, a failed vote on the amendment could have risked politically damaging the bill’s prospects.
Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment that the department’s opposition to cannabis reform shows that it “has its head in the sand” and that “they’re in denial.”
“They aren’t serving the needs of veterans,” he said.
“I hope that we’ll be able to work together to fix this little quirk to make sure that VA doctors can do what doctors everywhere do in states where medical cannabis is legal and be able to work with their patients,” he concluded on the floor. “The VA ought to give their patients, our veterans, the same consideration to be able to have them be able to have these conversations with the doctors that know them best.”
Photo courtesy of the House of Representatives.
Three Federal Agencies Take Public Comments On Cannabis Topics
Three federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—are now accepting comments from the public on cannabis-related topics such as hemp pesticides and the legal classification of marijuana globally.
In a notice published in the Federal Register last month, FDA said that it is seeking input on potential changes to the status of marijuana under international treaties.
EPA invited comments on applications for pesticides to be used on hemp, which comes months after the crop was federally legalized.
Meanwhile, people have the chance to share their perspective on a proposal DEA released last week that calls for the cultivation of more than three million grams of cannabis for research purposes next year. That 3.2 million gram quota would be 30 percent higher than this year’s. At the same time, DEA said its quota for prescription painkillers such as fentanyl and oxycodone would be decreased next year by more than 50 percent.
The comment period opened last week, and 25 people have weighed in at this point. Submissions received so far are primarily focused on DEA’s proposed reduction opioid production, with several chronic pain patients arguing that they will be negatively impacted. People can send comments on the cannabis and other drug quotas through October 15.
FDA initially made its request for input on cannabis’s global treaty status in March, but it was closed because an expected United Nations (UN) vote on a proposal to remove marijuana from the most strictly regulated category was postponed.
Last month, FDA said it was reopening the comment period until September 30, in anticipation that the UN will make a decision on the possible changes in the coming months. So far, a total of about 3,000 comments have been received, including those posted since August 29. The vast majority voice support for legalization, with many sharing personal anecdotes about the plant’s therapeutic benefits.
“Please lift the ban and prohibition of marijuana. Marijuana isn’t ruining the lives of countless Americans… America’s drug laws are doing that all by themselves via mass incarceration,” Zach Fowler wrote.
“I am 30 years old and suffer from a progressive neurologically condition that leaves me in constant debilitating pain along with a host of other symptoms. Without cannabis, I could not function enough to work for even care for my children,” Amanda Wood-Devore said. “Cannabis calms my pain, eases corresponding anxiety, and helps my constant nausea and vomiting.”
Alex Rol said that the “current marijuana laws are more destructive than protective.”
“We have seen extensive reports that cannabis can be used for medical purposes and many find its effects increase the ease of life,” he said. “While I understand the concern of those less familiar with cannabis on its legalization it simply isn’t right to incarcerate people for possession of a generally harmless substance.”
“I agree with the [World Health Organization] that cannabis should be removed from the Schedule 1 classification,” Michael Ochipa wrote, referring to a recommendation WHO released in February urging the rescheduling of marijuana and descheduling of CBD.
“Most of the research to date indicates that cannabis has a very positive risk/reward profile,” he wrote. “Side effects are lower, and medicinal benefits are greater than many over the counter drugs. It can also be grown easily at home making it more economical.”
Though it’s not clear how much stock FDA will put into personal stories of individuals who’ve benefited from marijuana in shaping the Trump administration’s position on scheduling changes, the volume of comments and consistency of support for legalization is significant. While there has been a focus on the medical potential of cannabis, several others emphasized the consequences of prohibition, particularly for communities of color.
If the United Nations does decide to adopt WHO’s recommendations, it wouldn’t mean that member nations would be free to legalize marijuana without technically violating the treaties. However, even under its current strict status, Canada and Uruguay have moved forward with legalization models, with Mexico expected to follow suit as early as next month.
Over at EPA, there hasn’t been quite as much interest from the public in submitting comments on pesticides applications for hemp. The agency announced last month that it was accepting input on 10 existing applications and said it hoped “this transparent and public process will bring hemp farmers and researchers increased regulatory clarity in time for next growing season.”
EPA said it’s not required to take public comment on the applications but is doing so “because of the potential significant interest from the public in these initial applications and in furtherance of being completely transparent about these applications.”
There may be significant interest from the public on hemp legalization generally, particularly among stakeholders who are eagerly awaiting federal regulations to unlock the crop’s potential, but that isn’t being reflected on the Federal Register notice page yet when it comes to pesticides. Only five people have commented on the proposal.
One person noted that the 10 pesticides under review contain almost the same ingredients and said “it really limits the ability of producers to manage pests and diseases.”
“I highly recommend expanding the list of compounds available to producers to increase the ability to suppress pests and diseases,” the anonymous commenter wrote. “There are many more bio-pesticides on the market that are safe for humans that specifically target agricultural pests.”
Another individual who said he and his partner are making a transition from growing cannabis in California to hemp in North Carolina wrote in support of the proposed pesticides.
“We have used the products under discussion with great effectiveness, especially the biological controls,” the person said. “Because hemp can be so susceptible to mold, fungus, and pests, it is imperative to have these tools to ensure a healthy and plentiful product.”
Finally, there was one comment in opposition to allowing any pesticides on hemp because, they wrote, “IT WILL JUST TURN IT IN TO POISON.”
EPA’s public comment closes on September 23. The agency did not say when decisions would be made about the applications, but it did state that it planned to give hemp farmers approval to use the tools before the 2020 planting season.
The fact that three separate federal agencies are now accepting comments on separate cannabis issues is another sign that the public has more opportunity than ever before to influence the government’s position on marijuana policy.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Circulate Letter Urging FDA To Back Off CBD Companies
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers are circulating a sign-on letter asking colleagues to join them in urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to back off companies that are selling CBD products in a responsible manner.
The “Dear Colleague” letter, which is being led by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and James Comer (R-KY), emphasizes that hemp and CBD were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill and argues that the lack of regulations for such products is creating industry uncertainty that’s inhibiting economic opportunities.
The letter was first reported by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, which is asking its supporters to encourage their representatives to sign on.
FDA has said it is in the process of developing rules for the non-intoxicating compound, including a potential alternative regulatory pathway allowing for CBD to be added to the food supply and as dietary supplements. That could take years, however, as former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has noted.
In the meantime, the agency is being selective about enforcement action against companies that make unsanctioned claims about their products while also maintaining that all businesses selling CBD food items are violating the law.
The lawmakers aren’t satisfied. They described FDA’s regulatory timeframe as “untenable,” particularly because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to release its rules for hemp “any day now,” and an official revealed this month that its draft regulations are currently undergoing final White House and Department of Justice review.
The members of Congress added that FDA’s current approach to CBD has “created significant regulatory and legal uncertainty for participants in this quickly evolving industry.”
“Given the widespread availability of CBD products, growing consumer demand, and the expected surge in the hemp farming in the near future, it’s critical that FDA act quickly to provide legal and regulatory clarity to support this new economic opportunity,” they wrote.
“Please join us in signing this bipartisan letter to Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless urging the agency to adopt a risk-based policy of enforcement discretion that targets bad actors while eliminating uncertainty for responsible industry stakeholders and consumers. Additionally, we are requesting that FDA to issue an interim final rule to regulate CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”
In the letter to Sharpless that Pingree and Comer are asking fellow lawmakers to sign, they laid out two requests for FDA.
First, the agency should “promptly issue guidance announcing a policy of enforcement discretion that maintains FDA’s current risk-based enforcement approach towards hemp-derived CBD products.” And second, it should “consider issuing an interim final rule, pending issuance of a permanent final rule, to establish a clear regulatory framework for CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”
The lawmakers added that they appreciate that FDA has pursued “enforcement actions against the worst offenders,” but that “it can do so while eliminating regulatory uncertainty for farmers, retailers, and consumers.”
“Without a formal enforcement discretion policy, anyone participating in the growing marketplace for legal hemp-derived products will continue to face significant legal and regulatory uncertainty,” they wrote.
Though issuing guidance on a “policy of enforcement discretion” wouldn’t be a codified law allowing companies to market CBD in the food supply, it would demonstrate to the industry that some protections are in place while FDA continues to navigate the rulemaking process.
Lawmakers have until Tuesday to sign the letter to FDA.
Read the Dear Colleague invitation and CBD letter to FDA below:
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A Full House Floor Vote This Month
A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service marijuana businesses will get a House floor vote by the end of the month, the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed to Marijuana Moment on Friday.
House leadership announced the decision to Democratic lawmakers at a closed-door meeting on Thursday.
“Mr. Hoyer said at the Whip meeting yesterday that he intends to move it this month,” a Hoyer staffer said in an email. “We’re discussing it with Members, but it hasn’t been scheduled just yet.”
Prior to confirmation from Hoyer’s office, four sources initially described the development to Marijuana Moment, with some saying the vote would be made under suspension of the rules—a procedure that is generally reserved for non-controversial legislation.
Voting on suspension would require two-thirds of the chamber (290 members) to vote in favor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in order for it to pass. The bill, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March, currently has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans.
No amendments would be allowed to be added on the floor under the suspension process.
Problems could arise if lawmakers aren’t able to rally additional votes from conservative members or if there’s pushback over the strategy from progressive lawmakers, though it is unlikely Democratic leadership would advance the bill if they didn’t believe they have the votes for passage.
While interest in resolving the banking issue is generally bipartisan, it’s within reason to assume that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle might have wanted the opportunity to offer provisions such as extending protections to hemp businesses or adding language promoting social equity policies. That said, it is possible that leadership could file an entirely new piece of legislation that is similar to the SAFE Banking Act but contains modified provisions negotiated with key members and use that as the vehicle for floor action.
Many expected cannabis banking legislation to receive a floor vote before the August recess, but that did not come to fruition.
In any case, the development comes as the Senate Banking Committee is also preparing to hold a vote on marijuana banking legislation, with Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) announcing on Thursday that his panel is “working to try to get a bill ready.” He didn’t offer a timeline, however, other than saying he hoped to advance the legislation by the end of the year.
While sources told Marijuana Moment that Hoyer made his decision to allow cannabis banking vote following an earlier Wednesday meeting on the issue, it is likely that building momentum in the GOP-controlled Senate added to pressure on the House to act so that Democrats wouldn’t be seen as lagging behind Republicans on cannabis reform, an issue the party has sought to take political ownership of.
Following Crapo’s statement on advancing the banking legislation, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told Marijuana Moment that he welcomes the senator’s “commitment to resolve the banking conflicts that have been created by the misalignment in state and federal law on the issue of cannabis.”
“I remain focused on passing the SAFE Banking Act out of the House and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate as they take up the SAFE Banking Act or work to develop and pass similar legislation,” he said.
Banking access is largely seen as one of the most achievable pieces of cannabis legislation that stands to pass this Congress. Advocates and reform-minded lawmakers view it as one of the first steps on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition.
“We are seeing the blueprint in action and moving forward on critical legislation to protect state legal cannabis banking,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment, referring to a memo he sent to House leadership last year outlining a committee-by-committee process for passing incremental cannabis bills leading up to major legislation to end federal prohibition. “Earlier this summer, the House passed protections for state and tribal cannabis laws. In the most cannabis friendly Congress in history, we need to keep up this momentum. There is still much to be done.”
There has been some disagreement within advocacy circles about whether it’s prudent to pass legislation viewed as primarily favorable to the industry before advancing comprehensive legislation that deschedules cannabis and takes steps to repair the harms of prohibition enforcement.
“It is our hope that after the successful passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, we will be able to advance legislation that ends the federal criminalization of cannabis once and for all,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Now is our time to demonstrate that marijuana law reform is both good policy and good politics.”
“We will not stop until otherwise law-abiding Americans are no longer discriminated against or criminalized due to the past or future choice to consume cannabis,” he said.
Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “delighted that the U.S. House of Representatives is on the brink of passing a landmark piece of cannabis policy legislation that modernizes our antiquated banking laws to reflect the will of the people.”
“This is welcomed and long overdue news for the over 200,000 employees that work in the industry, cannabis businesses, and for public safety in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “Once the SAFE Banking Act passes the U.S. House, we call on the U.S. Senate to move quickly to protect our businesses and our workers.”
Pressure has been building all year from stakeholders and policymakers alike to get the legislation passed. Endorsements aren’t just coming from reform groups, either; 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and bipartisan governors of 20 states have also voiced support for the SAFE Banking Act.
Earlier this month, the head of the American Bankers Association predicted that the bill would be passed in the House “as early as September.”
This story was updated to add comment from Perlmutter and Hoyer’s office.