The president of a major GOP super PAC is suggesting that sponsoring marijuana legislation will be an asset in Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s fight to retain his vulnerable Colorado seat in the 2020 elections.
But while the senator’s embrace of cannabis reform has earned him bipartisan praise, he still faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled chamber to actually score a legislative win on the cannabis front to bring home to voters before next November.
“Cory Gardner is a tremendously facile politician. He gets a lot of bipartisan legislation pushed through,” Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law, who previously served as chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers last week. “Because of where Colorado is on legalization of marijuana, he’s fighting for a states’ rights solution there that protects his state’s interests.”
“Again, I think good politicians, good senators, figure out what matters in the state, what they can get done, and it’s going to be unique to each individual state depending on what their voters care about,” Law, whose organization spent $127 million to put and keep Republicans in office last cycle, said.
Gardner’s seat is one of the most embattled in the 2020 race, with a dozen Democratic primary candidates and deep-pocketed committees threatening to push him out. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who remains popular in the state, became the latest to enter the race after dropping his bid for the presidency this month.
An Emerson College poll released this week found Hickenlooper thirteen points ahead of Gardner. And with just 40 percent of voters stating in another recent survey that they view Gardner favorably and 39 saying the opposite, the incumbent needs to score some wins ahead of the general election. And it stands to reason that passing his legislation to protect legal cannabis states from federal interference—or at least a bill allowing banks to service marijuana businesses, for which he’s also the chief GOP sponsor—could give him a much-needed boost in a state that overwhelmingly voted for legalization.
But standing in his way is a Republican-controlled Senate that has so far expressed little interest in achieving those goals. While Law, of the Senate Leadership Fund, said Gardner gets “a lot of bipartisan legislation pushed through,” that hasn’t included his marijuana bills so far.
The Senate Banking Committee did hold a hearing on cannabis financial services issues at which Gardner testified in July, but no votes have yet been scheduled and the chamber under McConnell’s leadership generally has not been amenable to broader reform—outside of legalizing non-intoxicating hemp late last year.
“Even as appetite for comprehensive marijuana reform continues to grow in Congress and amongst American voters, McConnell continues in his legacy of being the barrier between the status quo and meaningful reform,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “McConnell finally advancing comprehensive marijuana reform, from descheduling to criminal justice provisions, would be a real win for Gardner, Colorado, and the country.”
“Criminal justice reform and second chances have generated robust bipartisan support—there’s an opportunity here to deliver a win that brings people together across the aisle and benefits communities most impacted by decades of the failed policy of prohibition,” she said.
While it’s unclear if Law has talked to current McConnell staffers or the majority leader himself about moving Gardner’s marijuana bills in an effort to boost his political survival, his comments on C-SPAN signal that at least some key Republicans in Washington, D.C. believe that cannabis could be a key part of the vulnerable senator’s reelection strategy.
Could the prospect of losing Gardner’s seat—and potentially the Senate majority—be enough to motivate GOP leaders like the anti-marijuana McConnell to get the senator’s cannabis bills passed? Advocates have mixed opinions.
“It would appear that the Senate leadership now views marijuana reform as a winning issue,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “Voters support ending federal prohibition, and one way or another, voters will end it. This may be good news for Senator Gardner, but it’s great news for reformers.”
Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said “we really need to take a moment to appreciate how far we have come over the past decade.”
“In just the past week, we have seen approving statements related to respecting state cannabis laws from the head of [the Office of National Drug Control Policy] and the head of a Republican Senate campaign committee,” he said. “We are moving beyond majority support to consensus support.”
Still, not all advocates are convinced that the risk of losing a key Senate seat will be enough to move staunchly anti-legalization leaders in the chamber.
“Senator McConnell has shown zero interest in advancing legislation that would rename a post office, much less bills that would do something as ambitious as ending our failed prohibition on marijuana,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “On top of his blockade on most substantial policy, Mitch has been outspoken about his personal opposition to legalization.”
“As much as I’d love to see our war on cannabis come to an end sooner rather than later, there is little evidence to suggest that McConnell is ready to suddenly reverse course on marijuana law reform,” Altieri said.
Michael Correia, government relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said Republicans would do well to draw lessons from the 2018 election, which “showed that marijuana obstruction was not a winning position for House Republicans to take.”
“If Senate Republicans don’t learn that same lesson, and get in line with the vast majority of voters, a similar result will play out in 2020,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Majority Leader McConnell is savvy and knows his power is retained by defending seats like Senator Gardner’s so I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibilities to see some marijuana reform legislation reach the Senate Floor at all.”
Should the Senate battle see Hickenlooper and Gardner go toe-to-toe in November, it’s not clear how the race would play out among marijuana reform advocates and leaders of the state’s growing cannabis industry, who are increasingly flexing their muscles as a political players who can cut big campaign checks.
Gardner has, after all, put the issue in the congressional spotlight and served as a valuable GOP vehicle for cannabis legislation in a chamber that hasn’t see much action on the issue, even if he hasn’t yet gotten any marijuana bills passed. He even elicited a tentative endorsement of his states’ right marijuana bill from President Trump last year.
And while Hickenlooper was initially opposed to his state’s legalization measure, he by most accounts effectively implemented the voter-approved law and has since become a vocal proponent of legalization even though he vetoed some legislation to expand the industry and consumer access before leaving office.
But for Gardner to overcome the odds, it may require him to deliver something actionable for his constituents. Marijuana seems like a rational place to start, but unless Senate leadership gets behind him, achieving that won’t be simple.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
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.