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.”
Mitch McConnell Presses FDA Nominee On CBD And Hemp
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) met with the nominee to become the next Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner on Wednesday and discussed the need for a regulatory framework for CBD products.
While there are few specific details available about their conversation, McConnell said he emphasized the importance of hemp legalization for Kentucky farmers and pointed out that those producers are also facing challenges given the lack of FDA regulations concerning CBD.
“I look forward to working closely with Dr. Hahn on several important issues for Kentucky,” McConnell said in a press release. “Like many Kentuckians who are taking advantage of hemp’s legalization, I am eager for FDA’s plans to create certainty for CBD products.”
As @senatemajldr, Senator Mitch McConnell advocates for #Kentucky priorities with the Trump Administration and discussed his Tobacco 21 legislation, #hemp, and CBD with President @realDonaldTrump’s nominee for @US_FDA Commissioner: https://t.co/GZhkVgPeFV pic.twitter.com/a0gBs9z42u
— Senator McConnell Press (@McConnellPress) November 20, 2019
The majority leader has previously pressed FDA to issue enforcement discretion guidance that prioritizes action against only CBD companies making especially unfounded medical claims about their products while allowing responsible businesses to continue to market their products as the agency continues to develop rules.
McConnell similarly raised his concerns about the importance of expediting CBD regulations during a separate meeting with Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless in June.
Stephen Hahn, the FDA nominee, was also pressed on CBD issues during a confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) noted that there’s wide consumer interest in the cannabis products but stressed that more research is needed, barriers to research should be lifted and public health interests should be balanced with policies that support the industry.
Hahn replied that he believed there’s untapped therapeutic potential in the cannabis compound, but he also agreed that there are “unanswered questions that need to be filled in by data and science and research.”
In related developments, several consumer groups have recently expressed concerns about the current status of the CBD market.
Three groups—National Consumers League, Consumer Federation of America and Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America—announced on Tuesday that they are launching an initiative called “Consumers for Safe CBD” that is designed to “warn the public of the potential risks related to CBD products.”
According to a press release, the coalition will also encourage FDA “to use its existing authority to protect consumers, provide guidance to manufacturers, and encourage further research for FDA-approved CBD treatments.”
Another group, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), launched a citizen petition to FDA last week that implores the agency to quickly develop rules for CBD so that the products can be lawfully marketed as dietary supplements.
“Intense consumer demand and commercial interest has resulted in a flood of CBD products of uncertain quality and unapproved claims already in the marketplace, and this scenario has created an urgent need for FDA action,” CHPA President Scott Melville said in a press release.
“The request in our petition seeks to have FDA utilize the authority it already has to establish a lawful regulatory pathway for manufacturers to bring dietary supplements containing CBD to market,” he said. “Only then will consumers be able to purchase CBD-containing dietary supplements in a manner that ensures product quality, safety, and a level-playing field for enforcement.”
Photo courtesy of Twitter/Senate Majority Leader.
Senators Push USDA To Adopt Five Changes To Proposed Hemp Regulations
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday, requesting a series of changes to draft rules for hemp that the department released last month.
The senators said they appreciate that USDA issued the proposed regulations, which is a “necessary step to establish a domestic federal hemp production program.” However, they wanted to highlight “several concerns about the unintended and potentially harmful effects this interim final rule would have on hemp production in Oregon and across the country.”
In the letter to Agriculture Sec. Sonny Perdue, they listed five issues with the regulations and suggested potential fixes. Many of the concerns echoed those that stakeholders have submitted to USDA as part of a public comment period the department launched on October 31. Here’s what the senators highlighted:
—As written, the draft rules call for hemp to be tested within 15 days before harvest. Farmers have argued that’s far too little time, and the senators said it presents an “impossible obstacle for growers to overcome.” Oregon regulations require testing within 28 days, so they said USDA should adopt a similar timeline.
—USDA said that testing must be completed at a laboratory registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration. The senators said that will produce a bottleneck and delays for hemp producers, and that independent laboratories such as those operating in Oregon should be allowed to conduct the tests.
—The senators said that USDA should allow for forms of THC concentration testing that do not involve post-decarboxylation and also argued that the congressional intent of hemp legalization was not to require testing of all THC compounds but rather just delta-9 THC in particular.
—USDA requires that testing samples come from the top one-third of the flower portion of the plant. Instead, the senators said, samples should follow established protocol in states like Oregon, which stipulates that samples should be taken from the flowering tops when they’re present and be eight inches long.
—While the Farm Bill defines hemp as cannabis containing no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis, USDA gave slight margin of error and considers any plants with more than 0.5 percent THC to be in violation of the regulations. Farmers have called that limitation arbitrary and the senators said it would be more reasonable to set the negligence threshold at 1 percent, if there must be a THC restriction at all.
“Farmers in Oregon and across the country are on the precipice of an agricultural boom that, with the right regulatory framework, stands to boost rural economies in every corner of the country,” they wrote.
Wyden and Merkley have been some of the most vocal proponents of developing USDA regulations that bolster the hemp industry since the passage of the Farm Bill, through which they worked to legalize the crop in the first place. As early as February, Wyden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) were knocking at USDA’s door, urging the department to expedite the rulemaking process.
Read the full senators’ letter to USDA on hemp regulations below:
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Virginia Attorney General Hosts ‘Cannabis Summit’ To Advance Reform In New Democratic Legislature
Virginia’s attorney general is inviting state lawmakers to a “Cannabis Summit” next month as talk about advancing marijuana decriminalization and other reforms during the 2020 legislative session picks up.
Officials from other states that have legalized or decriminalized cannabis will speak at the event, as will academics who study the issue.
“This upcoming General Assembly Session policymakers will be considering legislation related to cannabis use in the Commonwealth,” an invitation states. “This summit is designed to better inform those discussions and offer perspectives from states that have implemented similar changes at the state level.”
“The summit will consist of 4 panels of experts from around the country to speak on the following topics related to cannabis policy: decriminalization of marijuana, social equity, regulating CBD & Hemp products, pathways towards legalization through legislative efforts and other topics that will better inform the upcoming legislative work,” reads the invitation sent out by the attorney general’s office, which was first reported by The Virginia Mercury.
Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said last month that the legislature will first move to pass a cannabis decriminalization bill—something that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had campaigned on and talked about in his State of the State address.
Lawmakers will then “get to work on a larger study about how and when we could move toward legal and regulated adult use,” Herring said.
It's time for Virginia to decriminalize, address past convictions, and move toward legal, regulated adult use.https://t.co/aqWxQCVPIg
— Mark Herring (@MarkHerringVA) November 20, 2019
“Criminalizing marijuana possession is not working. It is needlessly creating criminals, saddling people with convictions and costing taxpayers millions each year,” the attorney general wrote in an op-ed for the Virginian-Pilot this week. “The social and human costs are tremendous, and the weight of the system falls disproportionately on African Americans and people of color. There are smarter, better ways we can handle cannabis and that begins with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions and moving towards legal, regulated adult use.”
The chances of getting cannabis reform policies through the General Assembly significantly increased after this month’s election, which saw Democrats reclaim control of both chambers for the first time in decades.
Accordingly, a lawmaker prefiled a cannabis decriminalization bill this week that would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty.
The announcement of the Cannabis Summit, which will take place in Richmond on December 11, is another signal that political support for reforming Virginia’s marijuana laws is strong. And while Northam has not endorsed adult-use legalization, the inclusion of that issue in panel discussions indicates that decriminalization is just the beginning of the conversation. Advocates are also pushing the state to expand its limited medical cannabis program.
“The attorney general’s public support for advancing evidence-based cannabis policy, coupled with the recent formation of the Virginia Cannabis Caucus, set the stage for a robust and unprecedented exploration of real-world experiences with decriminalization, legalization and regulation in other states,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told The Virginia Mercury.
NORML honored Herring with its “Vanguard Award” as part of its national conference in September.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.