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.
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.