In this year’s close U.S. Senate race in Florida, marijuana is playing a mostly sidelined role so far as voters in the key swing state decide between incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is term-limited out of his current job.
But among the two candidates, the winner of which could help determine which party controls the Senate next year, there are sharp disagreements about some aspects of marijuana policy.
Florida voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, in the fifth year of Scott’s term. The governor himself has not been a supporter, and his administration continues to fight efforts to allow patients to consume medical marijuana in smokeable form.
Despite 71 percent voter approval for the initiative, the Florida legislature limited the scope of medical cannabis to oils, tinctures, sprays and edibles—a move that was met with resistance from activists like attorney John Morgan, who largely funded the legalization effort and later supported legal action against the state on behalf of a small handful of patients and organizations, claiming the restrictions were unconstitutional.
Morgan urged Scott to drop his appeal in the smokable marijuana case, suggesting that he would lose the Senate race if he kept up the fight, and that if he did indeed drop it, he’d gain “five points overnight.”
.@FLGovScott didn’t even wait 10 minutes to file his notice of appeal.
He IS the department of health. This is HIS case.
Rick this type of meanness will COST you the US Senate seat.
THIS is what the PEOPLE voted for!
Don’t be like the others. Grow some brass ones!!
— John Morgan (@JohnMorganESQ) May 25, 2018
Scott’s “boneheaded decision” to appeal the smokable marijuana case even garnered criticism from Trump ally Roger Stone, calling it a “waste of taxpayers’ money” likely to “cost him Republican votes [and] hurt him in the Senate race.”
Trump insider Roger Stone is protesting “this boneheaded decision” by Gov Rick Scott: “his waste of the taxpayers money appealing the decision not to ban the smoking of Medicinal Marijuana”
“It’s going to cost him Republicans votes. This could hurt him in the Senate race” —Stone pic.twitter.com/Bl7lr2qBtr
— Marc Caputo (@MarcACaputo) August 4, 2018
And Congressman Matt Gaetz, also a Republican, said the decision was “neither compassionate nor conservative.”
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) June 12, 2018
Meanwhile, Scott had been defensive of his administration’s efforts to implement medical cannabis, even before the lawsuit ruling: “The Department of Health is implementing Amendment 2,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to streamline the process and work through this process… As you all know, this is a new process and they’re working very hard.”
That said, the governor himself had taken a stand against the state’s medical cannabis initiative at the ballot box. “I voted against it,” Scott said. “I believe people should have access to any drugs they need or anything they need, but I think it ought to go through the legislative process.”
He also vetoed research funding to study the effects of medical marijuana. Explaining his, decision, Scott also said that the University of Florida and the Moffitt Cancer Center already had enough of their own money to fund the research on their own.
— Alex Leary (@learyreports) June 12, 2018
In 2014, Scott signed into law a limited low-THC medical cannabis program.
“I have a great deal of empathy for people battling difficult diseases and I understand arguments in favor of this initiative,” he said at the time, referring to a more comprehensive medical marijuana measure that went on to a narrow defeat at the ballot box that year. “But, having seen the terrible effects of alcohol and drug abuse first-hand, I cannot endorse sending Florida down this path and I would personally vote against it.”
Two years later, voters approved a similar initiative.
For his part, Nelson has positioned himself in direct opposition to Scott, stating that doctors should be able to recommend smokable cannabis to patients. “I don’t want a government or a politician to get in the way of a doctor recommending what should be the treatment, the medical treatment for the doctor’s patient,” he said. “Of course” that includes smokable cannabis, he added. “That’s what the constitutional amendment was.”
However, while he supports medical marijuana (and indeed voted for the state’s ballot measure to legalize it), Nelson remains opposed to broader recreational legalization. When asked if he agreed with the growing number of Democrats aiming to reform cannabis policy, he answered: “That’s a fancy way that you’ve asked me ‘Do I agree with recreational marijuana’, and the answer is no.”
His opposition to legalizing cannabis seems to be rooted in the belief that, outside a medical context for “desperate” patients, the drug is otherwise harmful.
“Just listen to the personal testimonies of people that nothing will help them as they are dying and marijuana gives them comfort and relieves the pain,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.
Nelson began his political career in 1972, when he joined the Florida House of Representatives. He later served more than a decade in the U.S. House and, in 2001, became a U.S senator. Over time, he has maintained a reputation as one of Congress’s more moderate Democrats.
While Nelson has said that cannabis legalization should be “left to the states,” he hasn’t added his name as a cosponsor to a single piece of marijuana reform legislation during his decades on Capitol Hill. He did, however, vote on the 2014 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp for research purposes.
Nelson has, however, signed onto a small handful of bills geared toward supporting drug war-style initiatives. Among them were a 1990 resolution to “take ongoing responsibility in the drug war by incorporating the issue of the illegal narcotics trade as an integral component of United States trade policy.”
While that legislation can be contextualized amidst the height of 1980s drug war propaganda, Nelson has nonetheless done little to modernize his attitude toward prohibition in the years since.
Neither the incumbent senator nor his challenger have taken strong stances in support of marijuana law reform— though perhaps the upcoming election will encourage them to, in one direction or another.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
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.