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.”
New Hampshire Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill
A New Hampshire House committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would legalize marijuana for adult use in the state.
While the legislation doesn’t provide for retail sales, it would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and gift up to three-fourths an ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants. The model would be similar to neighboring Vermont’s non-commercial cannabis system.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee advanced the bill in a 13-7 vote.
“I think that the legalization of cannabis is more popular than the legislature itself or the governor or any other political entity in the state of New Hampshire,” Chairman Renny Cushing (D) said prior to the vote. “This is something that the people of the state of New Hampshire want. They don’t want to be treated like they’re criminals if they have a plant.”
Watch New Hampshire lawmakers discuss the marijuana legalization bill below:
This vote comes a week after the panel held a hearing on the proposal, with advocates and stakeholders testifying in favor of the reform move.
“Like most Granite Staters, this committee understands that it’s time for New Hampshire to stop prohibiting cannabis,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Adults in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state should not be punished for their choice to use a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.”
“Now that New Hampshire is literally surrounded by jurisdictions where cannabis is legal for adults, our current policies can no longer be justified in any way,” he said. “It’s time for the House, Senate and Gov. Chris Sununu to work together and move cannabis policies into the 21st century.”
A floor vote by the full House of Representatives is expected on February 6.
Tax-and-regulate marijuana legislation has advanced in the legislature in prior sessions, but it never arrived on the governor’s desk.
Even if it did make it that far, however, it’s unclear if Sununu, a Republican, would sign it. He’s voiced opposition to commercial legalization, and he vetoed a bill last year that would’ve allowed medical cannabis patients to cultivate their own marijuana, raising questions about whether he’d be willing to support this latest measure extending that right to all adults over 21.
In any case, the New Hampshire development comes amid a flurry of legislative activity around cannabis in the Northeast.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legalization in his budget last week, as did Rhode Island’s governor, who pitched a state-run cannabis model in her plan. In New Jersey, the legislature approved a referendum to put the question of recreational legalization before voters during the November election. Top lawmakers in Connecticut are also confident that marijuana reform will advance this year. In Vermont, advocates are hopeful that lawmakers will add a legal sales component to the state’s current noncommercial cannabis law.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
AOC Says Colorado Is Doing A ‘Great Job’ With Marijuana Legalization
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) says Colorado is an example of a state that’s effectively taxing and regulating marijuana.
At a town hall event in Iowa on Saturday, the congresswoman, who serves as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) presidential campaign, was asked if revenue from legal sales of cannabis and other drugs would be used to fund the senator’s Medicare for All proposal.
While she said the economic benefits of legalization are secondary concerns, she acknowledged that “Colorado is doing a great job of taxing it to fund schools.”
That said, funding large programs such as universal health care would require a diverse financing strategy, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“In terms of financing, I think the financing for our health care program would potentially come from different sources,” she said. “Senator Sanders has outlined how he would pay for Medicare for All.”
“I would just say the financing is a different question,” she said. “But when it comes to decriminalization and legalization, I know that the senator believes in the legalization of marijuana and, frankly, having that part of a decarceral approach” to the criminal justice system.
Listen to the conversation below, starting around 1:45:
“We need to not only have a conversation about decriminalization and a conversation about legalization, but we need to have a conversation about the harm done during the war on drugs,” she said in comments that were first flagged by The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel.
First actual Q for AOC as a Sanders surrogate: Would she legalize drugs to pay for M4A?
"The funding is going to come from a lot of sources," she says, clarifying that Sanders supports legalizing only marijuana and is focused on ending war on drugs.
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) January 25, 2020
“It exacerbated the racial wealth gap in America as well,” she said. “But not only that, it tore apart communities, it tore apart families and it was an explicit targeting of black and brown communities that dates back to the Nixon administration.”
“On one hand it’s an economic issue, but much deeper, it’s a justice issue. This is an issue of justice, this is an issue of mass incarceration. The United States has historically incarcerated more people per capita than any other country in the world. We need to live up to our values about what ‘Land of the Free’ means and transitioning to that means dismantling the system of mass incarceration. That’s an incredibly important part of this agenda.”
While Sanders has been a long-standing champion of cannabis reform, his views on broader drug policy proposals diverge from those of his surrogate, who believes that possession of all currently illicit drugs should be decriminalized and federal laws around psychedelics should be loosened to promote research.
Despite being widely regarded as the most progressive candidates in the race, both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have so far declined to back comprehensive decriminalization for simple drug possession, a policy changed favored by former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another 2020 contender, recently said that she’s in favor of legalizing and regulating controlled substances.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
USDA Approves Hemp Plans For Texas, Nebraska And Delaware
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Monday that it has approved hemp regulatory plans for three more states and four additional Indian tribes.
This is the latest in a series of approvals that USDA has doled out since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Texas, Nebraska and Delaware—in addition to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and the Yurok Tribe—each had their regulatory plans cleared.
“USDA continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes on an ongoing basis,” the department said in a notice. “Plans previously approved include those for the states of Louisiana, New Jersey, and Ohio, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux, Santa Rosa Cahuilla, and La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indian Tribes.”
While hemp is no longer a federally controlled substance, farmers interested in cultivating and selling the crop must live in a jurisdiction where USDA has approved a proposed regulatory scheme. The process was outlined in an interim final rule USDA published late last year. If a state or tribe does not have, or plan to propose, regulations for hemp, cultivators can apply for a USDA license instead.
“This is a victory for Texas farmers,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement. “We are one step closer to giving our ag producers access to this exciting new crop opportunity.”
“We’ve got to get our rules approved and get our licensing program up and running, but the dominoes are dropping pretty quick,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment that “Texas has the potential to be the largest supplier of hemp in the U.S., providing farmers with an unprecedented opportunity.”
“With approval from the USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture already moving forward with establishing licensing standards, it’s refreshing to see our government paving the way for legal cannabis cultivation in Texas,” Fazio said.
While lawmakers and industry stakeholders have widely celebrated USDA’s commitment to implementing hemp legalization, it has also received a significant amount of pushback over proposed rules such as THC limits and laboratory testing requirements. A public comment period for the department’s interim rule ends on Wednesday.
USDA maintains a website that tracks the status of state and tribal hemp plans.
Monday’s announcement sends another signal to the hemp industry that the federal government is committed to supporting the market and ensuring that farmers have the resources they need to see their businesses thrive since the crop was legalized.
That said, one of the most lucrative market opportunities that hemp farmers are hoping to take advantage of is the widespread interest in hemp-derived CBD products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over rules for marketing CBD, and the agency has made clear that the process may take several years without congressional action.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers set out to do just that, filing a bill that would require FDA to allow CBD products to be sold as dietary supplements.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.