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.
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.