Hundreds of marijuana reform bills have been filed in Congress in recent years, but none have ever been given a vote, until now.
In an historical first, a House committee approved cannabis law reform legislation on Tuesday. While legalization supporters have previously scored victories in the form of amendments attached to larger legislation, none of their standalone bills have ever advanced before.
Though the current proposal is fairly limited in scope — it would encourage the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct research on marijuana’s medical benefits — it comes at a time of unprecedented bipartisan support for cannabis reform and likely signals more action to come on Capitol Hill.
“The tide is turning on cannabis, and today’s vote is the latest example,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment. “We still have a long way to go, but we are one step closer to helping our veterans get the care they want and deserve. Now is our moment. Now is the time to redouble our efforts.”
Filed by Veterans’ Affairs Committee GOP Chairman Phil Roe of Tennessee and Congressman Tim Walz of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the committee, along with 52 other cosponsors, the bill would encourage the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to “conduct and support research relating to the efficacy and safety” of medical cannabis “on the health outcomes of covered veterans diagnosed with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions.”
The committee approved the bill by a voice vote after a brief discussion.
Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) introduced a companion bill in the Senate on Monday.
Under the bill as introduced, VA research would be conducted on whole plant marijuana as well as extracts, and involve “at least three different strains of cannabis with significant variants in phenotypic traits and various ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol in chemical composition.”
Studies would examine “varying methods of cannabis delivery, including topical application, combustible and noncombustible inhalation, and ingestion.”
The legislation would require VA to preserve all data collected from the studies and issue a report to Congress within 180 days that includes a plan for implementation of research. The department would also have to send updates no less than annually for a period of five years.
Separately, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee called on VA to expand medical cannabis research on Tuesday. In the report attached to legislation to fund VA for Fiscal Year 2019, the panel wrote:
“Cannabis research.—The Committee recognizes that continued focus on the discovery of treatment alternatives for veterans diagnosed with various conditions such as chronic pain and PTSD are essential to reducing the number of veteran suicides. For this reason, the Committee urges VA to utilize funds, in an amount deemed appropriate by the Secretary, to prioritize investments in research on the efficacy and safety of cannabis usage among the veteran population for medicinal purposes. The Committee also requests a report, within 180 days after the enactment of this Act, by the Secretary containing a detailed plan on how the Department expects to pursue this research. The Committee also urges VA to ensure any research conducted or supported by VA on cannabis therapy is preserved in a manner that will facilitate further research.”
While VA is already allowed to participate in cannabis research under current law, its leadership has been reluctant. Former Sec. David Shulkin, for example, repeatedly claimed in public remarks that Congress needs to act before the department can refer veterans to cannabis studies.
Several veterans advocacy organizations submitted testimony in support of the research bill.
“While this bill is certainly modest in its immediate impact, we believe that it is a necessary first step toward building bipartisan support for broader cannabis reform legislation in Congress,” the Veterans Cannabis Coalition said in a statement. “Hundreds of thousands of veterans, like the millions of other Americans who have medicated with cannabis, have experienced profound and sustained relief or elimination of underlying conditions. Many of those conditions–prominently traumatic brain injuries (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain–are poorly managed with current medication models, with health providers offering few or no alternatives to powerful pharmaceuticals like opioids, stimulants, and tranquilizers to patients.”
Legalization activists say that the research bill doesn’t go nearly far enough. They want Congress to force the VA to begin letting its doctors issue recommendations for military veterans in states where it is legal.
“The VA has been instrumental in cutting edge research to improve the lives of those who serve our country,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “With nearly 1 in 4 veterans reporting that they consume cannabis to alleviate their ailments, it is absolutely imperative that the VA reform their policies to both conduct research and allow VA doctors to recommend therapeutic cannabis when they see fit.”
Colorado Governor Touts Marijuana Legalization’s Benefits
After the 2012 election, which saw Colorado become the first state to legalize marijuana, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said he probably would have reversed the vote if he had a magic wand.
But with the perspective of a few years post-legalization, today he says he’d put that wand “back in the drawer.”
“I’m not quite there to say this is a great success, but the old system was awful,” Hickenlooper said at a forum hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago on Wednesday.
What’s more, “the things that we most feared—a spike in teenage consumption, a spike in overall consumption, people driving while high—we haven’t seen them,” he said.
“We had a little increase in teenage consumption, but then it went down. We do think that some of the teenage consumers are using it a little more frequently than they were five years ago before legalization. We have in many ways seen no demographic where there’s an increase in consumption, with one exception: senior citizens. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.”
Hickenlooper, who’s been floated as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, described the challenges his administration faced when Colorado voters approved an adult-use legalization measure. Elected officials and advisors were opposed to it, he said, and plus, “it’s no fun to be in conflict with federal law.”
But he pushed forward with implementation, recruiting the “smartest people” he could find to figure out the best approach to regulation and taxation. And Illinois, which recently elected pro-legalization J.B. Pritzker for governor, will likely be better off if they pursue reform because they can learn from the successes and failures of Colorado’s system, Hickenlooper said.
“Ultimately, I haven’t come to a final conclusion yet, but I think it’s looking like this is going to be—for all of the flaws and challenges we have—a better system than what we had. You guys are going to benefit, I think, having let us make a bunch of the mistakes and deal with it, I think you’re going to be able to have a much better system if indeed that is the direction that the state wants to go.”
Asked what advice he’d give to Pritzker if Illinois does elect to fully legalize cannabis, Hickenlooper offered three tips: 1) don’t overtax marijuana, or else the illicit marketplace will persist, 2) get data from law enforcement on the presence of cannabis metabolites in the blood after highway fatalities to establish “good baselines” for comparison and 3) set limits on THC concentrations in edibles.
“What they’re selling now, they tell me it’s 10-to-12 times more intense than what allegedly I smoked in high school,” Hickenlooper said, pausing before conceding, “I smoked pot in high school and I inhaled, but it was a fraction of the intensity of what these kids are getting now.”
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Economic Club of Chicago.
The DEA Just Got Scolded Over Its Marijuana Eradication Program
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) got a slap on the wrist from a federal watchdog agency over its management of a multi-million dollar marijuana eradication program.
In a report released on Wednesday, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the DEA had failed to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners that received funds through the federal program. And that lapse could prevent the agency from being able to accurately assess “program performance.”
What’s more, the DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals,” according to the report.
In other words, the agency expends about $17 million in funds to partners across the U.S. each year to help them get rid of illegal cannabis grows. That includes fully legal states like California, where enforcement efforts are generally limited to public lands—namely national forests. But due to inadequate record keeping, the DEA doesn’t really know if that money is serving its purpose.
To fix the problems, the GAO issued four recommendations:
1. The DEA Administrator should develop and implement a plan with specific actions and time frames to ensure that regional contractors are implementing DEA’s requirement for collecting documentation supporting participating agencies’ Domestic Cannabis Eradication And Suppression Program (DCE/SP) program expenditures in the intended manner.
2. The DEA Administrator should clarify DCE/SP guidance on the eradication and suppression activities that participating agencies are required to report, and communicate it to participating agencies and DEA officials responsible for implementing DCE/SP.
3. The DEA Administrator should clearly document all DCE/SP program goals.
4. The DEA Administrator should develop DCE/SP performance measures with baselines, targets, and linkage to program goals.
The DEA was able to review a draft of the GAO report ahead of its release and, in an October 17 letter, a Justice Department official said the agency concurred with all four of the recommendations and would take steps to address them.
You can listen to a podcast about the GAO report here:
Just because it’s the DEA’s program doesn’t mean it’s the only agency dropping the ball on marijuana eradication efforts. In April, a report from the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that agents weren’t adequately cleaning up public lands after cannabis busts, which can pose threats to humans, animals and the environment.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Here’s How Much Legal Marijuana Supporters And Opponents Spent Per Vote In Last Week’s Election
Political committees concerned with marijuana law reform in four states have waged an information war over the past year, first to qualify cannabis initiatives for the ballot, and then to support or oppose those measures in the lead-up to last week’s midterm elections. In total, over $12.9 million in cash and in-kind services was spent attempting to convince voters about these marijuana ballot measures.
Now that voters have had their say, Marijuana Moment decided to calculate how much each “yes” and “no” vote cost the committees on either side of the debate. Our calculations are based on dollars raised and disclosed before the election, since final totals of actual expenditures won’t be available until December or January reports required in the states that voted on cannabis.
In Michigan, where voters approved marijuana legalization, our calculations show that the two anti-legalization committees spent about $1.28 per “no” vote, as they raised $2.37 million for the 1.85 million votes against the measure. The proponents spent 19 percent more per vote, or $1.52 for each of 2.35 million “yes” votes.
In Missouri, three separate medical cannabis initiatives competed in the run-up to Election Day, resulting in the highest funding levels of the four states we looked at. There, committees raised a total of $5.4 million dollars to influence voters. Across all the committees, the average cost per “yes” vote was $1.82.
Amendment 3, which was supported by Find the Cures PAC, spent $2.91 for each of its 747,977 votes. Proposition C, supported by Missourians for Patient Care, spent $1.44 for each of its 1.03 million votes. New Approach Missouri, which supported winning Amendment 2, which garnered the support of 1.57 million voters, spent the least, at $1.10 per vote. Only Amendment 2 received a majority and was approved.
Given that there were three competing measures on the ballot, vote costs cannot be parsed in the same binary “yes” or “no” on marijuana reform that is possible for initiatives in the other states. A “no” vote for one measure in Missouri was often paired with a “yes” vote for another.
In North Dakota, there were many fewer votes cast on the state’s marijuana legalization initiative as compared to cannabis measure elsewhere, a total of 324,550. The two committees that opposed Measure 3 heavily outspent the pro-reform committees, to the tune of $629,648 to $94,308. With 131,585 people voting for the initiative, the cost per “yes” vote was 72 cents. On the opposing side, winning came at a high price: Each “no” vote cost four and a half times as much, or $3.26, the most costly per-vote expense on a marijuana ballot measure in the nation this year.
In Utah, a relatively state where proponents of medical cannabis measure Proposition 2 were narrowly outspent by opponents, the cost per vote was higher. Votes are still being counted more than a week after Election Day, but preliminary vote totals show opponents spent $908,464, or $1.99 for each of the 455,879 votes against the initiative. The prevailing “yes” committees spent $831,471 for 493,060 votes, or $1.69 each. About 8 percent of precincts are yet to be counted, so both of these figures will decrease as more votes are added to both the support and opposition tallies.
Overall in the three states that had a straight up-or-down vote (Michigan, Utah and North Dakota), the average cost per “no” vote was slightly more than each “yes” vote, with prohibitionist committees spending an average of $1.56 for each “no” vote, versus $1.51 spent on average for each “yes” votes. It should be noted that those costs include millions of dollars in in-kind services. In Michigan, for example, The Coalition to Regulate Cannabis like Alcohol reported $706,900 in in-kind services, or 23 percent of their total fundraising.
Looked at another way, the average per state cost (rather than total votes average) for “yes” votes was $1.31 while “no” votes cost 67 percent more: $2.18. And with the total number of “yes” votes in those states outnumbering “no” votes by 19 percent, it would seem that in the state-by-state marijuana legalization battle, you don’t always get what you pay for.