The acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was put through the wringer by lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, pressed repeatedly to answer questions about the federal agency’s outdated marijuana policy.
Here’s a roundup of exchanges between DEA Acting Administrator Robert Patterson and members of the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on the opioid epidemic.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN)
“The DEA has always been in a position of great importance—and it’s important that the DEA administrator stay current with what the people have shown by their actions and their statements what they believe is the right priorities for the DEA,” Cohen started.
In short, the people don’t think marijuana should be a federal law enforcement priority, he said. He then asked Patterson why marijuana is classified in the same drug scheduling category as more harmful drugs such as heroin.
“The reason why it remains in Schedule I is the science,” Patterson said.
“The science?” Cohen responded. He later added, “I’m happy to hear that you believe in science, that’s refreshing.” But Cohen wanted to know what the DEA official’s personal views on marijuana scheduling were, and Patterson delivered: He said that he was worried the country was “going down a bad path with marijuana” and that all of the national conversations around reform mainly had to do with revenue.
Cohen pushed back, arguing that adults also care about racially disproportionate arrests for non-violent marijuana offenses, for instance. Patterson said he didn’t see a link between prohibitionist marijuana policies and mass incarceration, then went into a rant that concluded:
“At what point did we determine that revenue was more important than our kids?”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)
Johnson began his questioning by asking Patterson how many Americans died from opioid-related overdoses among the 64,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in 2016.
Patterson knew that figure, responding that about 44,000 deaths were the result of opioid-related overdoses. But when asked a follow-up question about marijuana-related overdose deaths, the DEA official said that he didn’t believe there were any officially recorded in 2016, but that he was “aware of a few deaths from marijuana.”
(The DEA itself said there were no known deaths attributed to a marijuana overdose in a 2017 report on drug abuse.)
“You are aware of a few deaths from marijuana?” Johnson asked. At that point, Patterson said that he didn’t have materials in front of him to reference, but that he believed these deaths were caused by “adulterated” cannabis and said he ultimately understood the congressman’s point: that in terms of risk of overdose, marijuana and opioids are “not comparable.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA)
Swalwell used his time at the hearing to talk about the struggles of families he’s met whose children have either fatally overdosed on opioids or suffered from addiction. He asked Patterson what can be done to prevent and address youth substance abuse.
The DEA official discussed the importance of early education drug prevention programs—and then pivoted to marijuana.
“I hate to do this, but I’m going to do it to you—and this is what concerns me about marijuana because those same stories I hear all the time, I generally hear marijuana introduced,” Patterson said. But he then made a surprising admission, telling Swalwell that he’s “not going to compare” drugs like marijuana and opioids, and also that he wouldn’t “say [marijuana is] a gateway [drug].”
That caveat was significant, Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “When the head of the DEA rejects the gateway theory, he’s a witness for an end to prohibition,” Murphy said.
Patterson did go on to say that “the problem is that these things all seem to dovetail together, and my concern is—and again, I’ll take my DEA hat off for a second is as a person in the United States—what message we send as we try to navigate this space in terms of that, and I think that’s problematic.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)
Gaetz wanted to know whether it is “the position of the DEA that democratizing access to medical marijuana will add to the substance abuse problem in this country.” Patterson said he feels “it’s a conversation that we have to have.”
But that question appeared to set Gaetz up for an extensive back-and-forth during which the DEA head demonstrated a stunning lack of knowledge about the existing scientific literature concerning marijuana’s health benefits and its potential use as a substitute for dangerous pharmaceuticals, including opioid painkillers.
Was Patterson familiar with a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science that found “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis and cannabinoids effectively treats chronic pain—a condition that is traditionally treated with opioid painkillers? No.
Was he familiar any of the numerous patient surveys from states where marijuana has been legalized, showing significant reductions in pharmaceutical use correlated with cannabis reform? No.
OK, was he aware of any studies that showed the opposite? That marijuana use was associated with increased use of dangerous illicit drugs? Again, no.
So then, going back to his first question, why is it that the DEA cannot speak to its official position as to whether marijuana legalization would add to the country’s substance abuse problem if its acting administrator can’t defend that argument based on any “evidentiary standpoint,” Gaetz asked. A flustered Patterson reaffirmed the agency’s support for research into medical marijuana and also pinned blame on the lack of DEA-approved research grants for medical marijuana research on international treaties that he claimed were being deliberated by the Justice Department.
Gaetz said he appreciated the agency’s support for research and asked whether the DEA would commit to partnering with lawmakers in their efforts to expand federal marijuana research.
“We’ve been consistent in that message,” Patterson said.
Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan.
O’Rourke And Cruz Clash On Marijuana And Drugs At Senate Debate
Candidates in one of the most contentious U.S. Senate races in the country this year clashed about the issues of marijuana legalization and drug policy reform during a debate on Friday night.
“I want to end the war on drugs and specifically want to end the prohibition on marijuana,” Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke said in response to an attack on his drug policy record from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, whom he is seeking to unseat in November.
During one of the most heated exchanges of the hour-long debate, the GOP incumbent slammed O’Rourke for sponsoring an amendment as an El Paso city councilman in 2009 that called for a debate on legalizing drugs as a possible solution to violence along the Mexican border.
“I think it would be a profound mistake to legalize all narcotics and I think it would hurt the children of this country,” Cruz argued.
He also criticized a bill the Democrat filed in Congress to repeal a law that reduces highway funding for states that don’t automatically suspend drivers licenses for people convicted of drug offenses. “That’s a real mistake and it’s part of pattern,” he said.
“There’s a consistent pattern when it comes to drug use, that in almost every single instance, Congressman O’Rourke supports more of it.”
Calling the issue “personal to me,” Cruz spoke about his older sister, who died of a drug overdose.
“To be clear, I don’t want to legalize heroin and cocaine and fentanyl,” O’Rourke countered.
“What I do want to ensure is that where, in this country, most states have decided that marijuana will legal at some form—for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes or at a minimum be decriminalized—that we don’t have another veteran in this state, prescribed an opioid because the doctor at the VA would rather prescribe medicinal marijuana but is prohibited by law from doing that,” he said.
It’s time to end the war on drugs. That starts by ending the federal prohibition on marijuana.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 21, 2018
Enumerating other potential beneficiaries of cannabis reform, the Democrat also referenced an “older woman with fibromyalgia” and “an African-American man, because more likely than not, that’s who will be arrested for possession of marijuana, to rot behind bars, instead of enjoying his freedom and the opportunity to contribute to the greatness of this country.”
Cruz, who called O’Rourke, “one of the leading advocates in the country for legalizing marijuana,” said that he thinks ending cannabis prohibition “is actually a question on which I think reasonable minds can differ.”
“I’ve always had a libertarian bent myself,” he said. “I think it ought to be up to the states. I think Colorado can decide one way. I think Texas can decide another.”
But despite his support for letting states set their own cannabis laws, which he also voiced during his failed candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Cruz hasn’t cosponsored a single piece of legislation during his time in the Senate that would scale back federal marijuana prohibition.
Ted Cruz accidentally advocating against marijuana legalization, an incredibly popular policy in the country and in Texas…
— Texas College Dems (@CollegeDemsTX) September 21, 2018
Earlier in the debate, the two sparred over the killing this month of Botham Jean, an African-American man shot in his own apartment by a Dallas police officer, a subject about which O’Rourke recently made headlines by calling out in a fiery speech to a black church.
Photo courtesy of NBC News.
Lawmaker Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In Kenya
A Kenyan lawmaker is introducing legislation to legalize marijuana nationwide.
Member of Parliament Kenneth Okoth wrote a letter to the National Assembly speaker on Friday, requesting help to prepare the legislation so that it can be published.
The bill would decriminalize cannabis possession and use, clear criminal records of those with prior cannabis-related convictions, enact a legal and regulated commercial sales program and impose “progressive taxation measures” in order to “boost economic independence of Kenya and promote job creation.”
It's high time Kenya dealt with the question of #marijuana like we do for miraa, tobacco, and alcohol#DecriminalizeIt #LegalizeIt #RegulateIt #TaxIt #HarmReduction #PettyOffences @YoungMPsKenya @HumanRightsMPs @KEWOPA @ICJKenya @lawsocietykenya @shecyclesnbi @DavidNdii @gathara pic.twitter.com/6ISnxjt2gS
— Kenneth Okoth, MP Kibra (@okothkenneth) September 21, 2018
Currently, marijuana (or “bhang,” as it’s locally known) is illegal in Kenya—as it is in most of Africa.
Another provision of the draft legislation concerns “research and policy development.” Okoth wants the country to conduct studies on the medical, industrial, textile and recreational applications of cannabis. And that research would have a “focus on the preservation of intellectual property rights for Kenyan research and natural heritage, knowledge, and our indigenous plant assets,” according to the letter.
Kenya Gazette special issue "..Act of Parliament to decriminalize the growth and use of Marijuana.." pic.twitter.com/gXFNx8ehbC
— The African Voice (@teddyeugene) September 21, 2018
“It’s high time Kenya dealt with the question of marijuana like we do for tobacco, miraa, and alcohol,” Okoth wrote on Facebook.
“Legalize, regulate, tax. Protect children, eliminate drug cartels, reduce cost of keeping petty offenders in jail. Promote research for medical purposes and protect our indigenous knowledge and plants before foreign companies steal and patent it all.”
Okoth’s push for legalization in Kenya comes days after South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that individuals can grow and use marijuana for personal purposes. The court determined that prohibition violated a person’s right to privacy, effectively legalizing cannabis in the country.
It’ll take a while for Okoth’s bill to move forward. The legislation will need cabinet approval, then it must be published so that all interested parties can review the proposal before it enters into parliamentary debates. Whether Okoth’s fellow lawmakers will embrace the legislation is yet to be seen.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Bill, Making History In US Territory
With a governor’s signature on Friday, the latest place to legalize marijuana in the U.S. isn’t a state. It’s the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)—a tiny Pacific territory with a population of just over 50,000.
Under the new law signed by Gov. Ralph Torres (R), adults over 21 years of age will be able to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana, as well as infused products and extracts. Regulators will issue licenses for cannabis producers, testing facilities, processors, retailers, wholesalers and lounges. Home cultivation of a small number of plants will be allowed.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.