As Congress prepares large-scale legislation to fund federal agencies for the next year, marijuana reform seems to be making progress. House versions of spending bills unveiled this week include provisions to protect medical legalization laws from federal interference, ease marijuana businesses’ access to basic banking services, expand cannabis research, oversee the country’s fledgling hemp and CBD industries and finally grant Washington, D.C. the ability to legalize recreational sales.
The specific provisions are still subject to change over the course of the legislative process, but as introduced in subcommittees this week, they signal a meaningful shift by lawmakers: Key cannabis provisions, once relegated to a convoluted amendment process, have been included in the base versions of the new bills. Some activists see the change as a sign that marijuana is no longer an afterthought in Congress.
“More and more, cannabis provisions are becoming a normal staple of federal appropriations packages,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday. “This bodes well for our opportunity to receive a vote on standalone marijuana legislation in the near future.”
Among the most notable inclusions in the new spending bills for Fiscal Year 2021 is a provision that would remove some roadblocks to banking and financial services for state-legal cannabis businesses. Cannabis firms have been pushing lawmakers to allow such access for years. The House has passed standalone banking legislation, later inserted into a recent coronavirus bill and approved again, but so far the matter has stalled in the Senate and is yet to become law.
The new spending rider suggests House lawmakers aren’t giving up. As introduced, the spending bill introduced Tuesday to fund fiscal and general government matters restricts Department of Treasury funds from being used “to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, a producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling hemp, hemp-derived cannabidiol products, other hemp-derived cannabinoid products, marijuana, marijuana products, or marijuana proceeds” that is legal under state or tribal law.
Marijuana businesses and some public safety officials have complained that lack of banking services for the cannabis industry leaves businesses vulnerable to robbery and other property crimes. All-cash transactions can make it easier for businesses to engage in unsavory practices, such as money laundering, tax evasion and bribery.
The spending bill’s banking provision, a similar version of which was also included in last year’s House appropriations proposal, is a watered-down form of a standalone banking measure the industry has lobbied hard for. That bill, the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, would add robust legal protections for cannabis financial services, while the appropriations rider simply says the Treasury Department would be unable to punish banks themselves for working with state-legal firms. The Justice Department could still prosecute both banks and businesses under the measure, for example.
Protecting State Medical Marijuana Laws
A separate spending bill introduced this week, which funds the Department of Justice, would extend legal protections granted to states with medical marijuana programs. The provision, once known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment after its longtime sponsors, prevents the Justice Department from using federal funds to interfere with legal medical cannabis laws. For years, the measure was one of the few legal protections for medical marijuana states and their patients.
Though the language has been part of federal law since 2014, supporters have traditionally had to fight for its inclusion as an amendment to the spending bill. This is only the second year the measure has been adopted as part of the base bill itself upon initial introduction, which advocates see as an indication the policy is here to stay.
The measure applies only to state medical cannabis programs, however, and doesn’t to broader recreational marijuana laws despite attempts in past years to expand the policy. In 2019, the House approved a floor amendment that would have broadened the protection to adult-use cannabis programs but the Senate did not follow suit and the expanded rider didn’t make it into the final legislation signed by the president, nor did another House-passed provision covering legalization laws enacted by Indian tribes.
Another provision in the new spending bills would protect public colleges and universities that conduct research on marijuana. A provision in House the spending bill that covers the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education would prevent schools from losing funding simply for researching the plant or its applications.
No monies could be “withheld from an institution of higher education solely because that institution is conducting or preparing to conduct research on marihuana,” it says.
Advocates hailed the measure as a common-sense reform to expand researchers’ understanding of marijuana.
“The time for willful ignorance is over,” said Strekal of NORML. “The enactment of this language would provide more certainty and legitimacy to the emerging educational efforts regarding cannabis and its properties. For too long, the federal government has deliberately prevented America’s brightest minds from conducting even basic research.”
Bipartisan House members, led by Reps. Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), tried and failed to include similar protections in last year’s spending bill. Despite scholarly interest in studying cannabis and other drugs, they said, the threat of losing funding presented “an undue hurdle for many academic institutions.”
No Legalization Advocacy
Schools receiving federal funds would be prevented from actually advocating for legalization, however, under another provision of the Labor-HHS-Education bill, which also extends an existing 1990s-era provision barring the use of funds “for any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance included in schedule I” of the Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana and most medically promising psychedelics are classified as Schedule I substances.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called last year for that obstacle to be removed, ostensibly to make it easier to study psychedelic drugs, but her amendment to accomplish it was soundly defeated by House colleagues in a floor vote.
Letting D.C. Legalize Marijuana Sales
The Financial Services and General Government spending bill, which also covers matters relating to the District of Columbia, would finally remove a budget rider that for years has prevented Washington, D.C., from legalizing recreational marijuana sales.. The District legalized low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation under a voter initiative in 2014, but Congress through a budget rider has prevented D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and local leaders from legalizing and regulating commercial sales.
Removal of the restrictive provision, as proposed in the House legislation, would mean D.C. leaders could finally act on Bower’s plan to allow marijuana sales. The mayor filed a bill to legalize sales in 2019, but that legislation has stalled due to the congressional interference.
The House also removed the rider in the 2020 spending bill but the Senate included it and that chamber’s version won out in negotiations on the final package sent to the president.
Hemp and CBD Regulation
The new Justice Department spending bill also includes another longstanding rider meant to protect state hemp research programs established under the 2014 Farm Bill, which launched research and commercial ventures in a number of states.
Congress has since more broadly legalized the regulated production of the crop, and nearly every U.S. state has established its own hemp program. Another House spending bill introduced this week, which funds the Department of Agriculture, sets aside $16.5 million to oversee those programs.
The bill funding the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contains “funding to develop a framework for regulating CBD products.” FDA’s slow movement toward creating a process to allow hemp-derived cannabidiol as a food product or nutritional supplement has frustrated lawmakers and industry advocates alike.
Another new spending bill covering the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doesn’t contain any cannabis language as introduced, but advocates may try again to attach language allowing VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to military veterans in states where it is legal. Both the House and Senate have passed differing versions of that provisions in the past, but none have ever been enacted into law.
None of the proposals included in this week’s bills are final. The appropriations process, one of the most crucial tasks undertaken by Congress every year, is a complicated tangle of bureaucratic procedure. The bills introduced this week are still being considered by House subcommittees and may still change significantly as they get worked through the full Appropriations Committee and make their way to the House floor.
And even if cannabis provisions do get a nod from the full Democratic-controlled House, the Republican-run Senate will also have to approve them or agree to let House language advance in subsequent bicameral conference committee negotiations. Disagreements could mean provisions are added, removed or otherwise changed on their path to becoming law on the president’s desk.
Whatever happens in the final bills, it’s clear that marijuana is having a moment. Advocates for decades have struggled even to get an audience in Congress. Now, with every passing year, lawmakers appear more and more willing to listen.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson
Nine Members Of Congress Tell DEA To Revise Proposed Hemp Rule On THC Content
Nine members of Congress sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Tuesday, urging the agency to revise its proposed hemp regulations.
DEA released an interim final rule (IFR) for the crop in August, and it said the regulations were simply meant to comply with the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives. But stakeholders and advocates have expressed serious concerns about certain proposals, arguing that they could put processors at risk of violating federal law and hamper the industry’s growth.
Reps. David Joyce (R-OH) and Denver Riggleman (R-VA) led the letter and pointed specifically to a provision of DEA’s IFR that could impact processing hemp extracts. The agency stipulated that “any such material that contains greater than 0.3% of Δ9-THC on a dry weight basis remains controlled in schedule I.”
That’s problematic, the lawmakers said, because in many cases the process of extracting cannabinoids from hemp temporarily causes THC levels to increase beyond that threshold. And so while Congress intended to legalize those extracts, businesses that produce the materials could find themselves inadvertently breaking the law.
I sent a letter to the @DEAHQ asking them to protect hemp producers and clarify hemp regulations.
The DEA must specify their requirements and streamline hemp directives by clarifying the legal means of processing hemp products. Read more here, #VA05:https://t.co/wGabQePrts
— Congressman Denver Riggleman (@RepRiggleman) October 21, 2020
“Our offices have received countless calls from constituents involved in the hemp industry who are extremely fearful that simply following the provisions of the Farm Bill will result in criminal liability under the IFR,” the lawmakers’ letter states. “The IFR will likely have the effect of inhibiting these nascent state hemp programs thereby harming those American companies and workers who chose to pursue careers in the hemp industry and made significant investments to effectuate those aspirations.”
Therefore, the lawmakers are “requesting a resolution to this issue as quickly as possible,” adding that “DEA must revise the IFR to eliminate the ambiguities set forth above and provide peace of mind to all Americans who have chosen to pursue a career in the hemp industry.”
Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Glenn Grothman (R-WI), Don Young (R-AK), Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) also signed the letter.
A public comment period on DEA’s proposed rules closed on Tuesday. It saw more than 3,300 submissions, many of which focused on issues with the “work in progress” hemp THC issue.
“This IFR’s criminalizes work in progress hemp extract, a fundamental component of any consumer hemp/CBD product, and will negatively impact the hemp/CBD industry at a time when financial pressure is already high,” one commenter wrote. “Hemp and subsequent extracts are not controlled substances.”
Another issue identified by more than 1,000 commenters concerns delta-8 THC. The most widely known cannabinoid is delta-9 THC, the main component responsible for creating an intoxicating effect, but delta-8 THC from hemp is also psychoactive and is an object of growing interest within the market.
Because DEA’s proposed regulations state that all “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain schedule I controlled substances,” some feel that would directly impact the burgeoning cannabinoid, as its converted from CBD through the use of a catalyst—and that could be interpreted as a synthetic production process.
In any case, it’s not clear whether DEA deliberately crafted either of these rules with the intent of criminalizing certain hemp producers—but stakeholders and advocates aren’t taking any chances.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which also closed this month.
USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.
Read the congressional coalition’s letter to DEA on its hemp rule below:
Pennsylvania House Votes To Protect Medical Marijuana Patients From DUI Charges
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved an amendment on Tuesday that would protect medical marijuana patients from being penalized under the state’s DUI laws for using their legal medicine.
The proposal cleared the chamber as an amendment to a broader piece of legislation concerning motor vehicle policies. It passed in a 109-93 vote.
As it stands, registered medical cannabis patients can be convicted of driving under the influence of a controlled substance if THC metabolites are detected in their blood. That’s despite the fact that marijuana can remain present in the body well after someone is considered impaired.
The House-approved amendment, which is now attached to a bill previously passed by the Senate, exempts “marijuana used lawfully in accordance with” the state’s medical cannabis law from DUI statutes.
“I think that you can ask any veteran or anybody that’s using medical cannabis right now, if they took the prescription on Monday, [on] Wednesday, they’re not high,” Rep. Ed Gainey (D) said in a floor speech before the vote. “And if they got pulled over, they darned shouldn’t be charged for being intoxicated or under the influence of medical marijuana.”
Medical marijuana has helped the people of the Pennsylvania. But even if you have a medical card, you can still get a DUI even if you’re not high – if you have a trace of THC in your system. Today I fought to pass a bill that would end that. pic.twitter.com/uxj8IsuVO9
— Ed Gainey (@RepGainey) October 21, 2020
“I think we’re putting an undue burden on the people of Pennsylvania if we’re saying this is what we want to do after we fought so hard to pass medical marijuana and we know what it’s done to help the people of Pennsylvania,” he said.
The amendment is similar in intent to separate standalone legislation introduced by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R) in June to end the “zero tolerance” DUI policy for medical marijuana.
While Pennsylvania legalized medical cannabis in 2016, with the first dispensaries opening two years later, the law has not caught up as it concerns impaired driving. A person can test positive for THC for weeks after last consuming marijuana, rendering traditional roadside tests incapable of determining active impairment.
Several legal cannabis states have enacted per se THC limits in blood, similar to blood alcohol requirements. However, evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.
A study published last year, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.
Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance… studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”
The modest cannabis DUI reform approved by the Pennsylvania House comes amid repeated calls from the state’s leaders to more broadly legalize marijuana for adult use.
Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in a speech stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.
That marked the third time in three months that the governor has held events focused on making the case for legalization. Last month, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), a longstanding legalization advocate, has been similarly vocal about his position. In speeches and on social media, the official has expressed frustration that Pennsylvania has yet to enact the policy change, especially as neighboring like New Jersey are moving in that direction.
He said last month that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously legalize cannabis before voters next door in the Garden State enact the policy change this November.
Fetterman also recently hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.
While Wolf initially opposed adult-use legalization, he came out in support of the reform last year after Fetterman led a statewide listening tour last year to solicit public input on the issue.
Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montana Supreme Court Rejects Challenge To Marijuana Legalization Initiative
The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the state’s November ballot.
With weeks before the election, opponents asked the court to quash the measure, arguing that because it involves appropriating funds, it violates state statute on citizen initiatives.
The court didn’t weigh in on the merits of the challenge; rather, it said the petitioners with the campaign Wrong for Montana (WFM) failed to demonstrate “urgency or emergency factors” that would justify moving the case into its jurisdiction instead of going through trial and appeals courts first.
It left the door open for the opponents to take its challenge through the traditional process. Brian Thompson, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, told Marijuana Moment that they now intend to file the suit in district court “soon,” but he wasn’t able to provide an exact timeline.
“We express no opinion on the merits of WFM’s constitutional challenge, nor to its right to pursue this challenge in district court,” the justices wrote. “However, WFM’s claim does not present an appropriate basis on which to invoke this Court’s original jurisdiction. Even if it did, WFM has wholly failed to establish that urgency or emergency factors make litigation in the trial courts and the normal appeal process inadequate.”
Dave Lewis, policy advisor to the pro-legalization New Approach Montana, said in a press release that this “was an easy decision for the Montana Supreme Court.”
“At best, this lawsuit was a frivolous longshot,” he said. “At worst, it was an intentional effort to create confusion right before the election.”
The measure in question would establish that adult-use marijuana system. The lawsuit did not target a separate, complementary initiative that would specify that only those 21 and older could participate in the legal market.
It is the case that state statute says citizens “may enact laws by initiative on all matters except appropriations of money and local or special laws” and that the initiative does allocate cannabis tax revenue to certain programs. But prior measures that have appeared on the state’s ballot have done so as well.
Under the proposal, half of the public revenue generated from marijuana sales would go toward environmental conservation programs—a provision that earned the campaign key endorsements last month.
The initiative is already on the ballot and voting has started, so presumably if the court had sided with the plaintiffs, the votes simply wouldn’t have been counted or implementation would have been prevented. It is also possible that a court could rule that monies raised by legal cannabis sales under the initiative would simply into the state’s general fund instead of toward the specific programs delineated in its current text.
“We’re receiving strong support from voters across the state,” Lewis, who is a former Republican state senator and former budget director for three Montana governors, said. “Instead of making a coherent argument against the initiatives, our opponents tried to deprive Montanans of their constitutional right to a citizen initiative process.”
“Our opponents are desperately throwing everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks,” he added. “They’re resorting to fear tactics and misinformation because they know that a majority of Montana voters are ready to vote yes on legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana for adults 21 and over.”
In neighboring Nebraska, the state Supreme Court did rule last month that a measure to legalize medical cannabis that had qualified for the November ballot could not proceed because it violated the state’s single-subject rule for ballot initiatives.
Recent polling indicates that Montana voters are positioned to approve the legalization proposal. Forty-nine percent of respondents in a survey released last week said they support the policy change, with 39 percent opposed and 10 percent remaining undecided.
This story has been updated to include comment from Thompson.
Read the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling on the marijuana challenge and the original lawsuit below: