The midterms are over, but Democrats in the House have already found themselves locked in another contentious race that could ultimately have big implications for marijuana legislation in the 116th Congress.
Will Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reclaim her seat as speaker of the House? Or will a coalition of frustrated lawmakers usher in a new leader like Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who has all but confirmed her intent to run for the position?
What’s known at this point is that at least 17 Democratic lawmakers have signed a letter opposing Pelosi’s bid, and a handful of others have made public statements affirming that they plan to vote against Pelosi when the new Congress is seated on January 3.
Here’s a look at where Pelosi and Fudge fall on marijuana issues:
Looking at voting records, Pelosi cosponsored a number of marijuana bills in the 1990s and early 2000s—including several to protect states that legalized medical cannabis from federal interference—but she hasn’t signed her name onto a single piece of standalone marijuana legislation over the past 17 years.
Although Pelosi started cosponsoring fewer bills in general after being named House speaker in 2007 and in her post-speakership years, she’s still put her name on dozens of pieces of legislation during that time—though none are related to marijuana.
Fudge, meanwhile, has been ramping up her bill cosponsorships when it comes to cannabis reform. Over the past two years, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) signed on to a bill that would end federal marijuana prohibition and a resolution acknowledging the failures of the war on drugs, for example. Prior to the current Congress, though, she hadn’t signed onto any cannabis bills since first joining the House in 2008.
Aside from the issue of proactive bill sponsorship, both Pelosi and Fudge have consistently voted in favor of floor amendments to protect legal medical and adult-use marijuana states, allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend cannabis to patients, allow industrial hemp and expand access to banking institutions for marijuana businesses.
“Looking at the conversation of Democratic leadership right now and how the speaker vote is set to go, I would suspect that Pelosi is going to be elected to be the speaker for the 116th Congress,” NORML political director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment.
“Nancy Pelosi has demonstrated herself to be a very effective leader of the Democratic Caucus and was instrumental in ensuring a favorable vote outcome for the first time that the [Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)] language was passed on the House floor in order to restrict the Department of Justice’s ability to enforce federal prohibition against the states that have legalized medical marijuana programs. Her operation has been engaged with—and in regular talks with—our champions of the Cannabis Caucus and members who are supportive, and we have every indication that we will have her full support in moving legislation forward that would end federal prohibition.”
Where the two Democratic lawmakers seem to diverge is in public statements about cannabis reform. For example, Pelosi has talked about marijuana (and yoga) as a safer alternative to opioids and she pushed back against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to rescind an Obama-era marijuana guidance policy.
“Congress must now take action to ensure that state law is respected, and that Americans who legally use marijuana are not subject to federal prosecution,” she said in a press release earlier this year. “Democrats will continue to insist on bipartisan provisions in appropriations bills that protect Americans lawfully using medical marijuana. Congress should now consider expanding the provisions to cover those states that have decriminalized marijuana generally.”
Attorney General Sessions, your unjust war against Americans who legally use #marijuana is shameful & insults the democratic processes that played out in states across the country.
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) January 4, 2018
Pelosi also endorsed California’s successful adult-use legalization ballot measure in 2016.
“Pelosi has been a solid ally on drug policy reform,” Michael Collins, interim director for the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “She has voted for many marijuana reform amendments, been a tough negotiator on numerous appropriations issues, has fought against regressive drug sentencing proposals like [Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act].”
“Crucially, her staff have always been available, willing and ready to advance drug policy reform,” he said.
Fudge, meanwhile, has been relatively quiet on the issue in spite of her recent support for reform legislation. And she doesn’t seem to have weighed in on Ohio’s unsuccessful 2015 legalization ballot measure.
For all of Pelosi’s talk and votes on cannabis reform, though, she was noncommittal when asked in September whether she planned to bring marijuana bills to the floor in 2019 if Democrats retook the House.
“Well, the marijuana initiatives have received bipartisan support on the floor of the House,” Pelosi said. “I don’t know where the president is on any of this. So any decision about how we go forward would have to reflect where we can get the result.”
Fudge also hasn’t indicated that she’d pursue a marijuana reform agenda if selected to be speaker. Instead, she told HuffPost reporter Matt Fuller that she’d make issues like health care, student debt, infrastructure and job creation top priorities for Democrats.
Other potential House speaker contenders on cannabis.
Another Ohio Democrat, Rep. Tim Ryan, is reported to be floating another run for the speakership after losing to Pelosi for Democratic leader in 2016. Ryan said that he was initially reluctant to get behind marijuana legalization but, after witnessing the harms of prohibition, he wrote that cannabis “should be legal in all 50 states.”
The current chair of the CBC, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), is another potential contender for the position. Under Richmond’s leadership, the CBC has called for the end of federal marijuana prohibition and released a bill in May that outlined several wide-ranging reform proposals such as removing cannabis from the list of federally banned substances.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) is reported to be laying the groundwork for a future House speaker run, starting with a bid to become the next House Democratic Caucus chair, Politico reports. He’s a strong proponent of marijuana decriminalization. “The connected and powerful—including many in high political office—have frequently admitted to smoking marijuana when they were young,” Jeffries wrote in a 2012 editorial for CNN. “We didn’t unmercifully penalize them. We should stop needlessly criminalizing tens of thousands of our young people for doing the same thing.”
Then, of course, there’s Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), one of the most vocal advocates for cannabis reform on Capitol Hill for years. She’s also currently running to become the next House Democratic Caucus chair, though a sizable following of supporters are pushing her to compete against Pelosi in the speaker race. This year, Lee has introduced legislation to protect legal marijuana states and also promote diversity in the burgeoning cannabis industry.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana
Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.
The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.
Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.
The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.
Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.
Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.
He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.
“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.
One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”
“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.
Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency
Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.
At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.
That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.
Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says
Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.
Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.
Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.
Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.
In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.
The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”
In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”
Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:
Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.
Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”
“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”
Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.
“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”
Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.
“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”
Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.
“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.
Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”
USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.
Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.
“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”
The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.
“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.
A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”
“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.
While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”
USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.
The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.
While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.
The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.