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.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Circulate Letter Urging FDA To Back Off CBD Companies
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers are circulating a sign-on letter asking colleagues to join them in urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to back off companies that are selling CBD products in a responsible manner.
The “Dear Colleague” letter, which is being led by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and James Comer (R-KY), emphasizes that hemp and CBD were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill and argues that the lack of regulations for such products is creating industry uncertainty that’s inhibiting economic opportunities.
The letter was first reported by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, which is asking its supporters to encourage their representatives to sign on.
FDA has said it is in the process of developing rules for the non-intoxicating compound, including a potential alternative regulatory pathway allowing for CBD to be added to the food supply and as dietary supplements. That could take years, however, as former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has noted.
In the meantime, the agency is being selective about enforcement action against companies that make unsanctioned claims about their products while also maintaining that all businesses selling CBD food items are violating the law.
The lawmakers aren’t satisfied. They described FDA’s regulatory timeframe as “untenable,” particularly because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to release its rules for hemp “any day now,” and an official revealed this month that its draft regulations are currently undergoing final White House and Department of Justice review.
The members of Congress added that FDA’s current approach to CBD has “created significant regulatory and legal uncertainty for participants in this quickly evolving industry.”
“Given the widespread availability of CBD products, growing consumer demand, and the expected surge in the hemp farming in the near future, it’s critical that FDA act quickly to provide legal and regulatory clarity to support this new economic opportunity,” they wrote.
“Please join us in signing this bipartisan letter to Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless urging the agency to adopt a risk-based policy of enforcement discretion that targets bad actors while eliminating uncertainty for responsible industry stakeholders and consumers. Additionally, we are requesting that FDA to issue an interim final rule to regulate CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”
In the letter to Sharpless that Pingree and Comer are asking fellow lawmakers to sign, they laid out two requests for FDA.
First, the agency should “promptly issue guidance announcing a policy of enforcement discretion that maintains FDA’s current risk-based enforcement approach towards hemp-derived CBD products.” And second, it should “consider issuing an interim final rule, pending issuance of a permanent final rule, to establish a clear regulatory framework for CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”
The lawmakers added that they appreciate that FDA has pursued “enforcement actions against the worst offenders,” but that “it can do so while eliminating regulatory uncertainty for farmers, retailers, and consumers.”
“Without a formal enforcement discretion policy, anyone participating in the growing marketplace for legal hemp-derived products will continue to face significant legal and regulatory uncertainty,” they wrote.
Though issuing guidance on a “policy of enforcement discretion” wouldn’t be a codified law allowing companies to market CBD in the food supply, it would demonstrate to the industry that some protections are in place while FDA continues to navigate the rulemaking process.
Lawmakers have until Tuesday to sign the letter to FDA.
Read the Dear Colleague invitation and CBD letter to FDA below:
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A Full House Floor Vote This Month
A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service marijuana businesses will get a House floor vote by the end of the month, the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed to Marijuana Moment on Friday.
House leadership announced the decision to Democratic lawmakers at a closed-door meeting on Thursday.
“Mr. Hoyer said at the Whip meeting yesterday that he intends to move it this month,” a Hoyer staffer said in an email. “We’re discussing it with Members, but it hasn’t been scheduled just yet.”
Prior to confirmation from Hoyer’s office, four sources initially described the development to Marijuana Moment, with some saying the vote would be made under suspension of the rules—a procedure that is generally reserved for non-controversial legislation.
Voting on suspension would require two-thirds of the chamber (290 members) to vote in favor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in order for it to pass. The bill, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March, currently has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans.
No amendments would be allowed to be added on the floor under the suspension process.
Problems could arise if lawmakers aren’t able to rally additional votes from conservative members or if there’s pushback over the strategy from progressive lawmakers, though it is unlikely Democratic leadership would advance the bill if they didn’t believe they have the votes for passage.
While interest in resolving the banking issue is generally bipartisan, it’s within reason to assume that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle might have wanted the opportunity to offer provisions such as extending protections to hemp businesses or adding language promoting social equity policies. That said, it is possible that leadership could file an entirely new piece of legislation that is similar to the SAFE Banking Act but contains modified provisions negotiated with key members and use that as the vehicle for floor action.
Many expected cannabis banking legislation to receive a floor vote before the August recess, but that did not come to fruition.
In any case, the development comes as the Senate Banking Committee is also preparing to hold a vote on marijuana banking legislation, with Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) announcing on Thursday that his panel is “working to try to get a bill ready.” He didn’t offer a timeline, however, other than saying he hoped to advance the legislation by the end of the year.
While sources told Marijuana Moment that Hoyer made his decision to allow cannabis banking vote following an earlier Wednesday meeting on the issue, it is likely that building momentum in the GOP-controlled Senate added to pressure on the House to act so that Democrats wouldn’t be seen as lagging behind Republicans on cannabis reform, an issue the party has sought to take political ownership of.
Following Crapo’s statement on advancing the banking legislation, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told Marijuana Moment that he welcomes the senator’s “commitment to resolve the banking conflicts that have been created by the misalignment in state and federal law on the issue of cannabis.”
“I remain focused on passing the SAFE Banking Act out of the House and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate as they take up the SAFE Banking Act or work to develop and pass similar legislation,” he said.
Banking access is largely seen as one of the most achievable pieces of cannabis legislation that stands to pass this Congress. Advocates and reform-minded lawmakers view it as one of the first steps on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition.
“We are seeing the blueprint in action and moving forward on critical legislation to protect state legal cannabis banking,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment, referring to a memo he sent to House leadership last year outlining a committee-by-committee process for passing incremental cannabis bills leading up to major legislation to end federal prohibition. “Earlier this summer, the House passed protections for state and tribal cannabis laws. In the most cannabis friendly Congress in history, we need to keep up this momentum. There is still much to be done.”
There has been some disagreement within advocacy circles about whether it’s prudent to pass legislation viewed as primarily favorable to the industry before advancing comprehensive legislation that deschedules cannabis and takes steps to repair the harms of prohibition enforcement.
“It is our hope that after the successful passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, we will be able to advance legislation that ends the federal criminalization of cannabis once and for all,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Now is our time to demonstrate that marijuana law reform is both good policy and good politics.”
“We will not stop until otherwise law-abiding Americans are no longer discriminated against or criminalized due to the past or future choice to consume cannabis,” he said.
Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “delighted that the U.S. House of Representatives is on the brink of passing a landmark piece of cannabis policy legislation that modernizes our antiquated banking laws to reflect the will of the people.”
“This is welcomed and long overdue news for the over 200,000 employees that work in the industry, cannabis businesses, and for public safety in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “Once the SAFE Banking Act passes the U.S. House, we call on the U.S. Senate to move quickly to protect our businesses and our workers.”
Pressure has been building all year from stakeholders and policymakers alike to get the legislation passed. Endorsements aren’t just coming from reform groups, either; 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and bipartisan governors of 20 states have also voiced support for the SAFE Banking Act.
Earlier this month, the head of the American Bankers Association predicted that the bill would be passed in the House “as early as September.”
This story was updated to add comment from Perlmutter and Hoyer’s office.
New ‘Marijuana 1-to-3 Act’ Would Reclassify Cannabis Under Federal Law
Another bill to reschedule marijuana was filed in Congress on Thursday.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introduced the legislation, which is titled the “Marijuana 1-to-3 Act.” True to its name, the bill would simply require the attorney general to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act, with the aim of increasing research on the drug’s effects.
“As marijuana is legalized for medical and recreational use across the United States, it is important that we study the effects of the substance and the potential impacts it can have on various populations,” Steube said in a press release. “By rescheduling marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule III controlled substance, the opportunities for research and study are drastically expanded.
Today, I introduced a bill to reschedule marijuana from a schedule I to a schedule III controlled substance. The Marijuana 1-to-3 Act will allow additional research to be done on the benefits of marijuana by removing bureaucratic red tape. https://t.co/w45WAKHBr9
— Congressman Greg Steube (@RepGregSteube) September 12, 2019
“With this rescheduling, researchers can now access federal funds to research this substance and determine its medical value,” he said.
The press release came hours after a bipartisan pair of lawmakers introduced separate legislation to reschedule marijuana, also to Schedule III.
That bill contained additional provisions that would require federal agencies to develop research agendas for marijuana within one year of its enactment and also establish a system whereby universities could be designated as “Centers of Excellence in Cannabis Research” if they conducted comprehensive studies on issues related to marijuana.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is a sponsor of the broader research bill, is also cosponsoring Steube’s more focused rescheduling proposal.
It’s not clear why Steube chose to file his own reclassification bill or whether the other legislation’s additional provisions were a factor.
The congressman’s two-page bill states that “the Attorney General of the United States shall, by order not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this section, transfer marijuana…from schedule I of such Act to schedule III of such Act.”
“We hear every day about the positive health benefits of marijuana,” Steube said. “Whether it’s young children with seizure disorders, or veterans suffering from chronic pain, it is clear that there are medical benefits to marijuana and I think it’s time we remove the bureaucratic red tape that prevents us from thoroughly studying this substance.”
While he emphasized that the intent of his legislation is to encourage research into marijuana, placing cannabis in Schedule III would also have implications for marijuana businesses, who are currently ineligible for federal tax deductions under an Internal Revenue Code section that applies to anyone “trafficking in controlled substances” in Schedule I or II.
Read the full text of the bill below:
Photo by Ndispensable.