Just days after voting to federally legalize marijuana, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a separate bill meant to promote research into the plant, in part by allowing scientists to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries.
In a voice vote, the chamber passed the bipartisan Medical Marijuana Research Act, which previously advanced out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in September.
The bill, which has been slightly revised in the months since, was considered under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, meaning that no further amendments were allowed on the floor and a two-thirds majority was required to pass.
The unlikely duo of pro-legalization Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) are the lead sponsors of the legislation.
“The cannabis laws in this country are broken, especially those that deal with research,” Blumenauer said on the House floor prior to the vote. “It’s a narrow bill that fixes one of many broken cannabis laws. And I want to hasten to add that this in no way negates the need to move forward with other areas of legalization… But this is sort of a foundational question. No matter where you are, there’s no reason the federal government should impede this critical research.”
Harris, for his part, pointed out that he and Blumenauer probably disagree more vigorously with one another about marijuana legalization than any two other members of Congress. But “we agree 100 percent that we need to do this research,” he said.
“Now, unfortunately, because of the public policy we’ve had in place with marijuana and its scheduling, [research] simply couldn’t be done,” Harris, who is a medical doctor, said. “You can’t do it under the current scheduling… This is on us. It shouldn’t have taken so long to get to this point.”
Watch the House debate and vote on the cannabis research bill below:
It’s not clear whether the GOP-controlled Senate will take up the measure with the limited time it has left before the end of the current Congress—but if it were to go to the floor, it stands to reason that it would similarly enjoy bipartisan support.
As the proposal was originally drafted, it would have made it so researchers could access marijuana from additional federally approved private manufacturers. But in September, an amendment in the nature of a substitute was approved in committee includes a component expanding scientists’ access to cannabis products from state-legal dispensaries.
For half a century, researchers have only been able to study marijuana grown at a single federally approved facility at the University of Mississippi, but they have complained that it is difficult to obtain the product and that it is of low quality. Indeed, one study showed that the government cannabis is more similar to hemp than to the marijuana that consumers actually use in the real world.
…Our bill will allow for rigorous and reputable clinical research on the efficacy of medical marijuana, as well as other potential uses. It’s critical we do the research first, because as a physician, anything that’s scientifically proven useful I want for my patients.
— Rep. Andy Harris, MD (@RepAndyHarrisMD) December 9, 2020
“Unfortunately, that [federally produced] marijuana is chemically distinct from what is commercially available from state-legal dispensaries such as in my home state of Oregon,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said. “What does that mean? Well, it means that we have little to no data on the actual health impacts of products in states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use.”
“We need research that reflects the reality of what’s on the market,” he said.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), said that “American researchers seeking to study [marijuana products] widely available and used by consumers in the states and territories face restrictions and numerous hurdles created by U.S. federal policy.”
The House continued to build on the progress of last week’s historic vote to federally decriminalize marijuana by passing a bill out of my committee that would significantly improve marijuana research. It’s time to reduce the barriers into cannabis research. pic.twitter.com/tMCTn91cQx
— Rep. Frank Pallone (@FrankPallone) December 9, 2020
Chairs praise House passage of four E&C health bills, including bills that will eliminate coverage gaps, allow for better coordination of benefits and streamline Medicare enrollment for seniors. The House also reduced barriers to cannabis research. https://t.co/JqX24dpvXt
— Energy and Commerce Committee (@EnergyCommerce) December 9, 2020
The new House-passed bill bill would mandate that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license additional growers and make it so there would be no limit on the number of additional entities that can be registered to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. Additionally, it would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to submit a report to Congress within five years after enactment to overview the results of federal cannabis studies and recommend whether they warrant marijuana’s rescheduling under federal law.
— House Press Gallery (@HouseDailyPress) December 9, 2020
There’s been bipartisan agreement that DEA has inhibited cannabis research by declining to approve additional marijuana manufacturers beyond the Mississippi operation, despite earlier pledges to do so. The agency would be forced to start approving additional cultivation applications for study purposes within one year of the legislation’s enactment.
HHS and the attorney general would be required under the bill to create a process for marijuana manufacturers and distributors to supply researchers with cannabis from dispensaries. They would have one year after enactment to develop that procedure, and would have to start meeting to work on it within 60 days of the bill’s passage.
In general, the legislation would also establish a simplified registration process for researchers interested in studying cannabis, in part by reducing approval wait times, minimizing costly security requirements and eliminating additional layers of protocol review.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), who has previously said that her late husband, former Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) would have considered using medical cannabis near the end of his life if more research had been able to be conducted on its effects, decried the current roadblocks that scientists face.
“Regulatory red tape greatly limits our understanding of the health impacts of marijuana and prevents qualified researchers from engaging in further study,” she said.
“You can be for medical marijuana or against medical marijuana, but you can’t make a proper argument either way without the research,” Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) said.
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) pointed out that cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years but that its medical effects still aren’t properly understood due to research barriers.
“While we may all have differing opinions on the decriminalization of recreational marijuana,” he said, “I think we can all agree that we should facilitate better research on the plant’s medicinal benefits”
House leadership initially put the marijuana research bill on the floor schedule for September, but it was removed and a staffer for the House majority leader told Marijuana Moment that its placement on the schedule was a clerical error. Leaders subsequently announced that it would get a vote this week.
In July, the House approved separate legislation that also called for letting researchers study marijuana purchased from businesses in state-legal markets instead of only letting them use government-grown cannabis. The intent of that provision, tucked into a 2,000-plus-page infrastructure bill, was to allow the interstate distribution of such products even to scientists in jurisdictions that have not yet legalized marijuana.
During an Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing in January—which was requested by four GOP lawmakers last year—federal health and drug officials, including from DEA, acknowledged that the current supply of cannabis for research purposes is inadequate and that scientists should be able to access a wider range of marijuana products.
Advocacy groups on both sides of the legalization debate cheered the research bill’s passage.
“These common-sense regulatory changes are necessary and long overdue. The DEA has proven time and time again that it is not an honest broker when it comes to overseeing the cultivation of research-grade cannabis,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. “The reality that most high-schoolers have easier access to cannabis than do our nation’s top scientists is the height of absurdity and an indictment of the current system.”
At the same time, Kevin Sabet, president of prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, called the legislation the “right approach to marijuana policy” while criticizing broader reform efforts.
The U.S. House passed the SAM-supported Medical Marijuana Research Act. The bipartisan bill would remove barriers that prevent researchers from adequately evaluating the potential risks and benefits of the use of marijuana and its derivatives.
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) December 9, 2020
DEA said four years ago that it would be taking steps to expand the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers, but it has not yet acted on applications.
Last year, scientists sued the agency, alleging that it had deliberately delayed approving additional marijuana manufacturers for research purposes despite its earlier pledge.
A court mandated that DEA take steps to make good on its promise, and that case was dropped after the agency provided a status update.
In March, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party.
The scientists behind the original case filed another suit against DEA, claiming that the agency used a “secret” document to justify its delay of approving manufacturer applications.
That was born out when the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel document was released in April as part of a settlement in the case, revealing, among other things, that the agency feels its current licensing structure for cannabis cultivation has been in violation of international treaties for decades.
Another scientist recently filed a lawsuit against DEA, urging a federal court to compel the agency to grant his application to produce cannabis for research purposes.
New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature
“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
By Christian Wade | The Center Square
Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.
“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”
The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.
But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.
McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.
“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.
Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.
To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.
New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.
While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.
In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.
The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.
Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.
This piece was first published by The Center Square.
American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi
Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.
The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.
The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.
While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.
“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.
The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”
“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”
Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”
In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.
“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”
The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.
“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”
“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”
“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.
It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.
Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.
It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.
The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.
In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.
The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.
New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.
The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”
Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”
That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.
That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.
Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.
That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.
“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.
A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.
To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”
“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.
But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.