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Democratic Congressional Bill Protects Medical Cannabis But Not Broader State Marijuana Laws

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Medical marijuana states and industrial hemp programs would continue to be protected from federal interference under a wide-ranging congressional spending bill that was released by a House subcommittee on Thursday.

This marks the first time that the medical cannabis rider has been included in a base House appropriations bill as introduced, signaling that the chamber’s new Democratic majority is paying closer attention to the issue as standalone marijuana legislation separately makes its way through Congress. Last year, the rider, which has been federal law since 2014, was added during a full Appropriations Committee hearing. Prior to that it had been inserted through floor amendments.

But while the procedural development is encouraging to advocates, the legislation as it’s currently drafted does not afford states that have more broadly legalized marijuana for adult use the same protections.

The medical marijuana-focused rider attached to the spending bill—which appropriates funds for the Department of Justice for Fiscal Year 2020—stipulates that none of the money may be used to prevent states and certain U.S. territories “from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

“I’m proud that the critical language I offered as an amendment last year to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis is now included in the base text of this year’s appropriations bill,” Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), told Marijuana Moment. “This progress is a testament to my colleagues’ and my commitment to protecting the will of the states and ensuring decisions about medical cannabis are between a patient and their doctor.”

The bill lists all of the states and territories that have medical cannabis laws—including comprehensive programs as well as more limited CBD-focused policies—that the rider would apply to. But the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical cannabis in January, was not included. However, that likely wasn’t intentional, as past versions of the legislation have also inadvertently omitted newer medical marijuana states like North Dakota and Indiana.

On the Senate side of the appropriations process, the medical cannabis protection rider appeared in that chamber’s base bill for the first time last year. It had previously been adopted there via full Appropriations Committee votes.

Missing from the new House spending legislation is another rider that’s been previously proposed to prevent the Justice Department from using funds to intervene in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.

If it’s put forth as an amendment later in the process, advocates are optimistic that it would pass. The last time it came up for consideration on the House floor, in 2015, it fell just nine flipped votes short of being approved. The number of states that have legalized cannabis for adult use has since more than doubled.

California alone, which legalized in 2016, has 53 representatives in the House.

“House Democrats have a real opportunity to demonstrate that they ‘get it,'” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “There are still opportunities to call for amendments and they should be seized.”

Lawmakers who back cannabis policy reform also say they hope the protections will be expanded.

“While I wish this provision went further, it is a good first step,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment of the current medical cannabis rider.

“With more than half of Americans living in a jurisdiction with some kind of legal cannabis, hopefully the Senate will see that protecting recreational programs isn’t a radical idea anymore,” he said. “Total legalization will be a process and those of us on the frontlines are ready to get to it. It’s time to make the change.”

Joyce said he “look[s] forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to advance commonsense federal cannabis policies that respect responsible decisions made by our states.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said that the congressman “was pleased to see the medical cannabis provision included and is supportive of expanding those protections to adult-use states like Alaska.”

“He continues to review the broader appropriations package and is engaged in ongoing discussions with his fellow co-chairs on possible amendments,” the spokesperson said.

A separate provision of the House appropriations bill as introduced concerns industrial hemp pilot programs authorized under the 2014 Farm Bill. As with medical marijuana, the Justice Department would be barred from interfering in such programs.

But because the 2018 version of the large-scale agriculture legislation legalized hemp and its derivatives, and shifted regulatory responsibility for the crop from the Justice Department to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its inclusion going forward may no longer be necessary.

The spending bill that the cannabis provisions are attached to is set to be considered on Friday by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. After that, it will head to the full House Appropriations Committee and then to the floor. The Senate will also soon begin work on its own version of the legislation.

New Congressional Bill Aims To Resolve Marijuana Industry Border Issues

This story was updated to include comment from Joyce, Young and NORML.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

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A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.

The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.

Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.

There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.

The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.

That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.

“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”

“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”

The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”

“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”

“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”

The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.

Thailand Prime Minister Uses Medical Marijuana At Event With Ganja Mascot

Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.

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New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot

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New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.

The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.

Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.

The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.

“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”

After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.

In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.

“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.

Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.

Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.

In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.

As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.

Legalizing Marijuana Has Majority Support In Kansas, Poll Finds

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications

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A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.

It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.

It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.

But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”

“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”

The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”

“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”

The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.

The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”

“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.

Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.

One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.

DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.

Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:

Senators Press Feds On Mari… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

House Democrats Cave To Senate On Two Marijuana And Veterans Measures

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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