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.
This story was updated to include comment from Joyce, Young and NORML.
Senate Schedules Second Cannabis Hearing For Next Week
A key Senate committee will hold a hearing next week to discuss hemp production, featuring witnesses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In the months since hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s been strong interest in developing USDA and FDA regulations for the crop and its compounds such as CBD, and lawmakers have repeatedly pressed the agencies to speed up the rulemaking process to unlock the industry’s potential.
While the hearing notice doesn’t go into detail about what will be discussed, the meeting’s title—”Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill”—and list of witnesses indicate that the conversation will revolve around the development of federal guidelines for hemp businesses.
— Sen. Ag Republicans (@SenateAgGOP) July 17, 2019
USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs Under Secretary Greg Ibach, USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy and EPA Assistant Administrator of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Alexandra Dunn will appear before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on July 25.
I am honored to be called by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry to testify next week (7/25) on “Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill.” As FDA, we recognize how important the topics of hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) are to Americans. https://t.co/bHMBGth1bL
— Dr. Amy Abernethy (@DrAbernethyFDA) July 18, 2019
Other invited witnesses include Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish, National Hemp Association Executive Director Erica Stark and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki.
The Senate Agriculture Committee meeting will mark the chamber’s second cannabis-related hearing of the week. The Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs announced on Tuesday that it will meet to discuss marijuana banking issues on July 23.
FDA and USDA have both recently signaled that they were cognizant of widespread interest in creating regulatory pathways for hemp and its derivatives, with USDA stating that it planned to release an interim final rule on the products in August and FDA’s Abernethy writing that the agency is “expediting” its rulemaking process. FDA added that it hoped to release a report on its progress by early fall.
That said, heads of the departments have also tried to temper expectations. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that USDA wouldn’t be expediting regulatory developments but that he expected them to be issued ahead of the 2020 planting seasons.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, meanwhile, cited policy complications that would make it difficult for the agency to create an alternative regulatory pathway for hemp-derived CBD products to be lawfully marketed as food items or dietary supplements. He said that without congressional action, it may take FDA years to establish those rules.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
As More States Legalize, DEA Chops Down Fewer Marijuana Plants, Federal Data Shows
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized far fewer marijuana plants in 2018 compared to the previous year but made significantly more cannabis-related arrests, according to federal data released this month.
More than 2.8 million indoor and outdoor marijuana plants were seized last year as part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That marks a 17 percent decline from 2017 levels.
NORML first noted the DEA report, which also shows that marijuana-related arrests the agency was involved with increased by about 20 percent in a year. And while the overall number of plants that were seized dropped, DEA said that the value of the assets totaled about $52 million—more than twice as much as it reported the previous year.
State-level legalization efforts appear to have played a role in the declining number of plant seizures, particularly those cultivated outdoors. In the same year that retail cannabis sales started in California, DEA confiscated almost 40 percent fewer outdoor plants in the state compared to 2017.
That data point is consistent with recent research showing that legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of illicit cannabis grows in national forests, which are often targets for DEA enforcement action.
It’s not clear why there was a significant uptick in marijuana-related arrests, but those increases generally did not occur in states where legal cannabis systems were recently implemented.
For example, arrests in Kansas, where marijuana is strictly prohibited, increased by more than 3,500 percent—from 15 to 544—from 2017 to 2018. Louisiana likewise experienced a 168 percent increase in cannabis arrests.
The data covers federal law enforcement actions and does not include those of local police agencies that did not partner with the agency.
Year-over-year decreases in cannabis seizures through DEA’s eradication program have been viewed by advocates as evidence that state-level legalization systems effectively displace the illicit market, removing the incentive to illegally cultivate cannabis.
Similarly, a separate recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showed that federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking dropped precipitously in 2018—another sign demonstrating that state-level legalization is disrupting the illicit market, advocates argue.
NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment that “federal eradication programs are a holdover from a bygone era.”
“At a time when roughly one-quarter of the country resides in a jurisdiction where adult marijuana use is legal, and when members of Congress are openly discussing removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is time for these federal anti-marijuana efforts to be put out to pasture and for federal agencies to take positions that more closely comport with cannabis’ rapidly changing cultural status in America,” he said.
DEA has also faced criticism of its cannabis eradication efforts from a non-partisan federal watchdog agency last year for failing to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners funded through the program.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report that DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals.”
At the same time that DEA is seizing fewer plants grown illicitly, it’s also setting higher goals for federally authorized cannabis cultivation for research purposes. In 2019, the agency said it hoped to grow approximately 5,400 pounds of marijuana to meet research demand, which is more than double its quota for 2018.
Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access
In one of the clearest signs of marijuana reform’s growing momentum on Capitol Hill, a Republican-controlled Senate committee has scheduled a hearing for next week that will examine cannabis businesses’ lack of access to banking services.
The formal discussion in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Tuesday comes as legislation aimed at resolving the marijuana industry’s financial services problems is gaining momentum. A House cannabis banking bill that cleared that chamber’s Financial Services Committee with a bipartisan vote in March now has 206 cosponsors—nearly half the body—while companion Senate legislation has 32 out of 100 senators signed on.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)