Republicans might have held on to a majority in the House in last month’s midterm elections if they’d passed a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition, according to one GOP member of Congress.
In a phone interview with Marijuana Moment this week, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) said failing to vote on cannabis reform “was a huge missed opportunity for Republicans” and that states’ rights-focused marijuana legislation would’ve passed in the 115th Congress if GOP leaders hadn’t been so adamant about blocking such legislation from even being considered.
He also talked about hemp legalization and legislation he plans to introduce in the next Congress that would allow cannabis consumers to legally purchase firearms, something that is currently prohibited under federal law—even for medical marijuana patients in legalized states.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: Let’s start with your proposed legislation. For someone who isn’t familiar with the application process to buy a firearm, what’s the concern about the question asking applicants whether they use marijuana?
Thomas Massie: Contrary to some notions out there, almost everybody goes through a background check, and everybody who buys a firearm from a licensed [Federal Firearms License holder] has to fill out a form 4473. Well, the 4473 has a series of questions on it—it’s a series of questions where you basically self-report as to your eligibility to own a firearm. Form 4473 question 11e says “are you an unlawful user of or addicted to marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug or any other controlled substance?” Now, they added recently something else to this question, in bold. It says, “warning: the use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medical or recreational purposes in the state where you reside.”
What they’re doing there is trying to remove any ambiguity as to whether you think you can legally purchase a firearm if you use marijuana. Basically, they’re saying, for their purposes, any user of marijuana is an unlawful user of marijuana. And so if you use marijuana and you lie on this form, you’ve committed a crime. You’re lying to the federal government. And then if you complete the purchase—if your background check goes through and you buy a gun—you’ve committed another crime because you’re among the category of ineligible people.
MM: And you think we should do away with that question. Why?
TM: I think we’ve created millions of felons with this question. You can’t imagine that everybody in Colorado, who under Colorado state law is legally using marijuana, has never purchased a firearm. That would be completely illogical. Or vice versa. And by the way, whether you purchased it or whether it was a birthday gift, it doesn’t matter. Whether you fill out a form 4473 or not, it doesn’t matter. You’re still committing a crime by possessing a firearm or ammunition in your house if you use marijuana.
[The legislation] will take the question off the form, but my bill goes deeper than that. It makes it legal for marijuana users to also be gun owners, is what my bill does. So the question is, when people hear about the bill, “well, if you just take it off the form aren’t they still going to be criminals because you haven’t changed the underlying statute, which prevents a marijuana users from owning a gun?” But what my bill would do is fix the underlying statute. And I want to remind people that this is a problem for not just recreational users of marijuana, but medical marijuana recipients, according to the federal government, are felons if they possess a firearm. This is something that needs to be fixed.
MM: What turned you on to this issue?
TM: I’m always looking for issues that might be trans-partisan. In other words, I joke that I don’t identify with either party some days, so that makes me trans-partisan. Not always bipartisan but trans-partisan. I don’t love both parties, I just can’t identify with either. So this to me, I thought this is an interesting issue. Would Democrats be willing to join me in this effort?
MM: Have you found a Democratic co-sponsor for the bill since you tweeted about it in October?
I’ve drafted, but haven’t yet introduced, a bill to remove the marijuana question from ATF form 4473 — the question that requires anyone who uses marijuana (crime) to lie (crime) in order to purchase a gun (crime) from a gun dealer. Any Democrats who would support such a bill? https://t.co/5cAmsTPLoX
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) October 20, 2018
TM: I haven’t aggressively sought one, but when I sent the balloon up in October, I didn’t get any Democrat offices saying they want to jump on this bill. By the way, it might also be hard for some Republicans to get on this bill. I’m not convinced Jeff Sessions would be a fan of this bill.
MM: Any lawmakers you think might be inclined to join you?
TM: You know, we’re so close to the end of Congress that I have decided not to introduce it this Congress, but I will be looking for a co-sponsor next Congress, and I wouldn’t want to drop any names.
MM: The National Rifle Association (NRA) hasn’t weighed in on this particular issue. What do you make of that?
TM: I don’t know. The NRA gave me a ‘B’ not an ‘A’ because I got sideways with them when they supported a bill that I didn’t think followed due process, and so I came out against the bill called Fix NICS Act and they did robocalls against me in my district. The NRA has actually spent more money against me than they have for me. They sponsored my first opponent and then recently they ran robocalls against me. They’re not my gold standard for civil liberties, so I’m not really concerned with what they think.
MM: Shifting gears a bit, do you feel that outgoing Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who consistently blocked votes on cannabis reform legislation as House Rules chair, has been on the wrong side of history?
TM: He’s the chairman of a committee that’s called the Speaker’s committee. The Rules committee is called the Speaker’s committee. He is not chairman there, he doesn’t get a chance to exercise—frankly, he can exercise his opinion, but when it comes to actual votes or activity in the committee, he has to do what the Speaker of the House wants him to do. So I wouldn’t say he’s on the right side or the wrong side, I would say he’s on the speaker’s side, and the speaker is on the wrong side.
MM: Are you hopeful that marijuana reform will be accomplished in the next Congress?
TM: I think it was a huge missed opportunity for Republicans. I think if we had passed a bill that left this issue up to the states, I think we might still be in the majority. There are, believe it or not, there are one-issue voters out there and this is their issue for some of those voters. For some of them, it’s a secondary or tertiary issue. But it still affects which party they decide to vote for. I’ve polled constituents in my district—it’s a very conservative district—and whether or not they’re for outright legalization of marijuana, 75 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats in my congressional district are in favor of leaving it up to the states. That’s the legislation we should’ve put on the floor. Frankly, it would’ve passed if it had gone on the floor, and we might still be in the majority. I think there could be movement in the next Congress on this issue.
MM: Can I get your reaction to the Senate passage of the Farm Bill as it concerns Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s provision to legalize hemp?
TM: Well, let’s go back to Pete Sessions then. There were three hemp amendments in the House offered for the Farm Bill from three Kentucky legislators. All of them were disallowed because a message had been sent from the Senate that this was not going to be happening in the House—that somebody wanted to make it happen in the Senate and we weren’t allowed to do it in the House. Now of course it’ll be in the conference committee, but… You probably don’t have time to put all that backstory in and I’m probably better off not telling you it, but anyways, I support the hemp provisions in the Farm Bill 100 percent.
MM: How are you planning to vote when it comes to House floor?
TM: I’ll be a “no.”
MM: Presumably not because of anything hemp-related.
TM: No, no. I support the hemp provision 100 percent.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Marijuana Banking Bill Would Save Federal Money, Congressional Budget Office Says
The federal government would save money if a bipartisan bill to give marijuana businesses access to banks is approved, according to a report released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on Friday.
The legislation, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in a bipartisan vote of 45 to 15 in March, would change federal law to protect financial institutions that service the cannabis industry from being penalized by regulators. That reform would set off a chain of events, beginning with a likely increase in the number of banks accepting deposits from those businesses, CBO reasoned.
Assuming the bill takes effect near the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the office estimates that starting in 2022, banks would see a $1.2 billion increase in deposits, and credit union deposits would grow by $200 million. By 2029, the amounts “would rise to $2.1 billion and $350 million, respectively.”
Because those deposits would have to be insured through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), the CBO took into account the possibility that individual financial institutions will fail, and the estimated cost of resolving those failures is $5 million.
That said, those direct spending costs would be “offset by assessments levied on insured financial institutions,” which would amount to about $9 million.
“As a result, CBO estimates, H.R. 1595 would decrease net direct spending by $4 million over the 2019-2029 period,” the office reported.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the bill’s chief sponsor, told Marijuana Moment that its enactment would have benefits beyond fiscal savings.
“Getting cash off our streets and making our communities safer will come at no cost to the federal government and actually save money while providing a much-needed long-term banking solution for legitimate marijuana businesses across the country,” he said.
“This CBO score should only increase the significant momentum in Congress behind passing the SAFE Banking Act,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment. “It is now apparent that we can help diminish a serious threat to public safety at no net cost to the federal government. We look forward to the bill passing through the House and hope the Senate will follow suit.”
There are some implementation costs to take into account, CBO says. The administrative costs are estimated to be $3 million. But the FDIC and NCUA are able to charge premiums on the financial institutions they regulate to cover much of those costs. The total net administrative costs would, therefore, be about $1 million.
The Federal Reserve would also have to spend funds to implement the bill, and that would reduce remittances to the Treasury Department. Those remittances are considered revenue, which is expected to decrease by about $1 million if the legislation is implemented.
Then there are costs related to other provisions of the bill. Financial regulators would have to update and issue new guidance, which would “cost less than $500,000 over the 2019-2024 period.”
The legislation also requires the Government Accountability Office to study barriers to entry in the marijuana industry and to financial services for minority- and women-owned cannabis businesses. The costs are estimated to be less than $500,000 annually from 2020 to 2024.
The CBO also estimated that enacting the legislation “would not increase on-budget deficits by more than $5 billion in any of the four consecutive 10-year periods beginning in 2030.”
The CBO outlined “several noteworthy areas of uncertainty” that could change the calculus.
1. New guidance from federal financial regulators could be more or less stringent than existing guidance implemented under the Obama administration, which could impact the amount of deposits banks and credit unions will receive.
2. Data on cannabis-related deposits is currently “limited,” as federal restrictions have forced marijuana businesses to operate on a largely cash basis. That means CBO’s estimates on the amount of deposits financial institutions will see could end up being “greater or smaller.”
3. If those estimates do end up being different, costs associated with the bank and credit union insurance funds “could be higher or lower depending on the amount of premium collections and capital deposits and on changes in the resolution costs for financial institutions.”
Sahar Ayinehsazian, an associate attorney at Vicente Sederberg LLP who specializes in cannabis banking, told Marijuana Moment that most of the figures lined up with her expectations. However, given that many marijuana businesses have gravitated toward credit unions rather than banks, she said the estimate increase in deposits to those financial institutions may well end up being larger.
“Looking at the chances of this legislation passing from an economic standpoint, I think [the CBO score is] good news,” she said.
Other advocates agreed that the CBO estimate should help efforts to advance the bill.
“For years, cannabis advocates have been preaching the net benefits SAFE Banking would have on consumers, patients, financial institutions, regulators and taxpayers. This CBO cost estimate confirms that,” Michael Correia, director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “The increase of insured deposits, coming from the added certainty this legislation brings, far outweighs the minor administrative costs to implement this bill.”
The House marijuana banking bill currently has 184 cosponsors, and a companion Senate version has 30 lawmakers signed on. The committee of jurisdiction in the upper chamber has not yet set a hearing or a vote, but pressure is increasing.
Banking associations from all 50 states urged the Senate to take up the legislation earlier this week. Other organizations that have called for a resolution to the cannabis banking dilemma include the National Association of Attorneys General, which has endorsed the bill, and the National Association of State Treasurers, representing state treasurers and finance officials, which adopted a resolution last week in favor of the legislation’s passage.
Want 4 million more reasons why members of Congress should support the #SAFEBankingAct, which would allow cannabis businesses to access the banking system in the 33 states where it’s legal? @USCBO says the legislation will save taxpayers $4M over 10 years.
— American Bankers Association (@ABABankers) May 24, 2019
The new analysis is just the third time that the CBO, which is mandated to score bills that pass full committees, has issued a report on the economic impact of standalone cannabis legislation. The agency scored two marijuana research bills that cleared committees last year.
This story was updated to include comment from Perlmutter and Correia.
Federal Small Business Administration Pressed On Supporting Marijuana Industry
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) pressed a federal official responsible for advocating for small businesses on Wednesday about whether existing laws and regulations are preventing the growth of state-legal marijuana markets.
The line of questioning comes as members of Congress are preparing legislation aimed at removing barriers to small business assistance for cannabis industry participants.
The senator said at a hearing of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee that her state’s legal industry is attracting small businesses and entrepreneurs who are selling millions of dollars of product each month. She asked Major Clark, acting chief counsel of the office of advocacy at the Small Business Administration (SBA), about the unique barriers these companies face under federal prohibition.
“Senator, that’s a difficult question,” Clark replied. “We have not actually studied the issue of marijuana in that regard, and we have not because the federal government has not yet legalized it.”
“We do, in conversations with a lot of businesses, get inquires as to what they can do and how they can do it. But to actually do an analysis of it, we have not yet done that,” he said. “I’m sure that as soon as the federal government decides to legalize this substance, we will begin to study its impact and the ability to use it in a more economical context within the state.”
Watch the conversation about small business assistance for cannabis operators at 35:50 in the video below:
Rosen followed up to get Clark’s opinion about whether marijuana companies would benefit from some of the guidelines and resources the SBA offers to small businesses in other industries.
“These types of businesses can benefit from some of these types of things, but again, because this issue is an issue that has not reached the surface of being legalized, we have actually stayed away from trying to advise these businesses on these particular aspects,” he said.
Nevada’s cannabis industry cannot thrive without access to financial services. At yesterday’s @SmallBizCmte hearing, I asked what steps @SBAgov is taking to break down regulatory barriers for our nation’s legal marijuana businesses to ensure they can continue to grow. pic.twitter.com/lyfXGwpoRf
— Senator Jacky Rosen (@SenJackyRosen) May 24, 2019
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), chair of the committee, weighed in on the issue after the Rosen’s time expired, saying that he recognizes the difficulty that federal agencies face when it comes to regulating a controlled substance.
“It is a unique challenge dealing with a Schedule I drug on the federal side and to also know that some states, including my own, have said that they want to allow it,” Lankford said, referring to the medical cannabis law that Oklahoma voters approved in 2018. “And the federal government and the [Food and Drug Administration] continues to study it and say there’s no medicinal gain from this product.”
“It’s a Schedule I drug. I get it,” he said. “The science, and whether it is SBA or whoever it is continues to be able to deal with that.”
While lawmakers push to get marijuana businesses access to federally authorized financial services, industry advocates say that SBA-specific reform legislation may be on the horizon.
The day after Rosen questioned the SBA official about cannabis policy, Khurshid Khoja, a board member for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said at a press conference on Capitol Hill that a bill was being drafted to “essentially get SBA services for cannabis businesses and for cannabis businesses from disproportionately impacted communities.”
Watch the SBA reform discussion at about 32:15 in the video below:
“The House Small Business Committee is looking into the issue and is interested in holding a hearing and drafting legislation this summer that addresses these issues,” a cannabis policy lobbyist who didn’t wish to be named in order to discuss plans that are in development, told Marijuana Moment separately.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
GOP Congressman Exposes Flaws In VA Marijuana Research Projects
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) emphasized the importance conducting clinical trials on medical marijuana at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on Tuesday, a topic on which he has often focused.
He also criticized the catch-22 of VA cannabis research, arguing that while the department is able to conduct clinical trials on marijuana, it doesn’t effectively publicize those studies, leaving veterans who might be interested in participating in the dark.
The congressman started by asking whether Mike Colston, director of mental health policy and oversight at the Department of Defense, felt that giving veterans access to medical cannabis could reduce suicides.
Colston said “there’s far more research to be done” and that there’s “insufficient evidence for or against that position.”
Gaetz cited research showing reductions in opioid use in states that have loosened cannabis laws, and he questioned whether “the current offramp for opioid addiction,” which typically involves prescribing long-term opioids that are less potent and less prone to abuse, “is a more effective offramp than medical cannabis.”
“I just think those are the three evidence-based therapies right now that meet the medical bar,” Colston said, referring to bupenehprine, methadone and naltrexone. “Obviously more research can change that.”
That prompted Gaetz to expand on VA policy as it pertains to medical cannabis. He asked for confirmation that the department’s doctors cannot currently recommend marijuana to veterans in states where it’s legal.
They can’t do that because “there’s a federal law against it right now,” Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevention at the VA, claimed. (This has been a point of contention for legalization advocates, who argue that only the VA’s own internal administrative policies, and not an overarching federal law, blocks such recommendations.)
But VA officials can conduct clinical trials on marijuana, Franklin said.
“We have two ongoing research studies going on right now in this space,” she said. “I think we are open to research, yes.”
The congressman wanted to know if the VA publishes information about these studies and where to find it. The VA official wasn’t sure—and that was exactly Gaetz’s point.
“I don’t think anyone is clear, which is the source of my frustration because I think that there are a lot of these clinical trials that are seeking veterans,” he said. “The VA, due to a lack of clarity, won’t publicize that information or make it available, and then we’re unable to do the research that Captain Colston says is necessary to advance additional options for veterans trying to get off opioids and to stop them from killing themselves.”
Lawmakers have introduced legislation this session that would allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations and require the department to conduct clinical trials on the plant’s potential therapeutic benefits for veterans, among other cannabis and veterans-related bills.
But if the VA is mandated to research the plant, Gaetz wants the department to better publicize the studies so that would-be participants actually know about them.
Photo courtesy of YouTube.