Marijuana reform advocates are getting concerned as rumors about the potential cancellation of a cannabis legalization vote on the House floor that’s been planned for next week continue to circulate and expand.
And they didn’t get much peace of mind when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) on Tuesday seemed to signal that now might not be the right time to put the legislation to the floor. That said, a representative for his office later told Marijuana Moment that, as for now, nothing about the schedule has changed.
While leadership announced earlier this month that they intended to hold a floor vote on Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act during the week of September 21, there’s been some pushback from certain moderate Democrats in vulnerable reelection races who feel that advancing cannabis reform before the next round of coronavirus relief legislation would come back to bite them, even if they’re personally supportive of the proposal at a time a majority of American voters back legalizing cannabis.
Hoyer said on a press call that Democrats are “really focused on the [continuing resolution] and on the COVID-19, which are the two critical pieces of legislation that in this three-week period we have to pass,” referring to legislation to keep the government funded and avoid a shutdown at the end of this month.
“I’m a support[er] of the MORE Act, but we’ve got to get the CR and COVID-19 done, because they’re absolutely critical to the welfare of our country,” he said. “There are a lot of bills that are possible which are—which are important bills, good bills, but we’re focused on COVID-19 and the CR, because that keeps government open, and it gives assistance to millions of people who absolutely need it.”
A spokesperson for Hoyer’s office told Marijuana Moment that they didn’t have anything to add on the leader’s remarks, but that “the schedule hasn’t changed.”
Also on Tuesday, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) was asked about the MORE Act and said that the bill did not come up on a caucus call earlier in the day.
“We didn’t discuss the MORE Act on the call today or the timing of some of the bills that are going to be on the floor next week,” he said.
“With respect to some of the other items on the legislative agenda—particularly as it relates to next week—I’m just trying to get to tomorrow,” Jeffries added said. “That’s the approach that many of us have taken in the context of the long national nightmare that has been the Trump administration since January 20 of 2017.”
He also pushed back against criticism from the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), which put out a a press release on Monday highlighting some apparent Democratic discontent with plans to hold a vote on the MORE Act.
“I think the comment about marijuana is just silliness,” he said. “They care more about the wealthy, the well-off and the well-connected.”
But it is the case that there has been some splintering over the pending scheduled vote; it’s just not clear the extent to which there’s been pushback and whether it’s enough to convince leadership to pull the bill following the public announcement of their intention to hold it this month.
“At a time when people are really struggling just to pay the bills and to get through this health crisis, [COVID relief] should be our priority,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) told The Hill, adding that he’s told Democratic leadership the legislation is “probably something I would support but we should do it later on.”
Another unnamed lawmaker said that certain colleagues feel that holding a vote on the bill doesn’t make sense at this time because “it’s not something that you can get passed into law,” presumably referring to its prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) seemed less convinced that the MORE Act stands no chance in the Senate during a virtual meeting on Tuesday that also involved Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). He said “I think we’re going to see not just a strong vote in the House, but I think there’s a chance that this is going to move through the Senate, with the leadership of Senator Booker.”
An aide to a senior Democrat who was also unnamed told The Hill flippantly that “prioritizing weed smokers over funding the government and providing relief to families and small businesses doesn’t make much sense to the American people.” The official added that while there are certain concerns about provisions of the bill, the ultimate issue “is the timing of this.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), sponsor of the MORE Act, acknowledged that there are discussions about delaying the vote, but told Politico that he’s feels the legislation should advance as planned.
“I’m not in favor of” a delay “because I think we can do it now,” the congressman said. He also dismissed concerns about the optics of voting on marijuana reform at this time because the issue “polls pretty well.”
But Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), cochair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, took a different stance and expressed openness to pushing the vote back if it could ultimately increase the vote count.
“We want to make sure the bill has the maximum number of votes. So the timing is not that crucial,“ she told Politico. “Whatever it takes to get unity and maximize our votes, we need to do that.”
In clarifying those comments, Lee told Marijuana Moment that legalization is “not an unpopular issue,” referring to polling data showing voter support and the growing number of states enacting reforms.
“Especially as the country reckons with its history of racial injustice, this should be seen as a prime opportunity to address a form of systemic racism,” she said. “Each day we gain more and more cosponsors, giving me no doubt that we are going to finally correct this historic injustice once and for all. We’re doing everything we can over the next week to build broad coalitions of support to ensure that happens sooner rather than later.”
Legalization advocates are pushing House leadership to move ahead with the vote next week.
“Congress has the ability and responsibility to walk and chew gum at the same time. The House can and must pass a bill that will bring justice to millions of Americans while continuing to work on other priorities,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “Taking a vote on the MORE Act will not preclude the House from working on the CR or another COVID-19 package, which by the way, the House already voted on back in May but is now wasting away in the Senate.”
“The MORE Act is not simply a bill about the marijuana plant—it’s about addressing the unjust criminalization of a substance that has led to the economic and social devastation of millions of Americans and whole communities in the middle of a global pandemic,” she said.
Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “confident that Congress will pass comprehensive marijuana reform legislation in the near future.”
“The precise timing of the MORE Act vote will not change the fact that 66 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization and a growing number of states are enacting marijuana reform policies,” he said.
Should the legislation be formally scheduled and head to the floor for a vote, it wouldn’t be entirely partisan, as three GOP members have already publicly said they will vote in favor of the proposal.
The latest to say as much, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), said he’s “confident” it will pass the chamber.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor on the bill, said earlier this month that he would be voting “yes” on the MORE Act, though he expressed criticism about a provision that would impose a federal excise tax on marijuana sales to be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war, calling them “reparations.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) also said “I intend to vote yes on the bill” in a recent interview with Politico. “With respect to timing, I do find it ironic that the only small businesses the Democrats seem to be worried about is cannabis shops, but I would support this bill whenever it is brought to a vote,” he said.
McClintock, along with Gaetz, voted for the MORE Act when it was marked up by the Judiciary Committee last year.
This story was updated to include comment from Lee and to correct a quote misattributed to Hoyer by another outlet.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Federal Agency Loosens Marijuana-Related Grant Funding Restrictions For Mental Health Treatment
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) loosened restrictions this week on grant funding for state health providers and other entities that allow patients to use medical marijuana for mental heath treatment.
The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs flagged the new policy change in a notice to SAMHSA grant recipients on Monday. It said that the federal agency has removed language from its terms and conditions that until now has prevented grant funds from going to any institution that “provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders.”
This restriction led the state department to issue a memo in June warning recipients and applicants about the possible withholding of funding.
Despite the recent change, SAMHSA is still continuing a narrower ban that says federal funds themselves “may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana.”
The broader prohibition, which has now been rescinded, prompted a notice last year from Maine’s Education Department, which said is was no longer eligible for certain federal funds to support mental health programs in schools because the state allows students to access medical marijuana.
It seems the federal agency is now being somewhat more permissive.
Here’s how SAMHSA’s updated marijuana restriction reads:
“SAMHSA grant funds may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory and public policy requirements); 21 U.S.C. 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana).”
The older, more broad prohibition read:
“Grant funds may not be used, directly or indirectly, to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. Treatment in this context includes the treatment of opioid use disorder. Grant funds also cannot be provided to any individual who or organization that provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. § 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to “ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory requirements.”); 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana). This prohibition does not apply to those providing such treatment in the context of clinical research permitted by the DEA and under an FDA-approved investigational new drug application where the article being evaluated is marijuana or a constituent thereof that is otherwise a banned controlled substance under federal law.”
The marijuana restrictions were first added to grant award terms for Fiscal Year 2020. The language was initially carried over to Fiscal Year 2021 but was more recently switched out for the narrower language by the federal agency.
In a January 2020 FAQ that the Pennsylvania department shared from SAMHSA this June, the federal agency responded to a prompt inquiring whether grant recipients can serve patients who are “very clear about their wish to remain on their medical marijuana for their mental or substance use disorder.”
“No. The organization cannot serve a patient who is on medical marijuana for a mental or substance use disorder and wishes to remain on such treatment,” it said. “SAMHSA promotes the use of evidence-based practices and there is no evidence for such a treatment; in fact, there is increasing evidence that marijuana can further exacerbate mental health symptoms.”
While the agency seemed adamant in enforcing that policy at the time, it appears to have had a change of heart and has since loosened the restriction.
A SAMHSA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the new rules took effect on Sunday, but played down their significance.
“This Aug. 1 clarification simply made clearer what was already in place: SAMHSA funds should not be used to procure a federally prohibited substance,” he said in an email.
While it is true that the revised provision, as was the case in the prior language, states that federal funds cannot be used to pay for marijuana, the spokesperson avoided commenting on the new deletion of the broader prohibition on grants going to entities that otherwise allow patients to use medical cannabis to treat substance use or mental disorders.
After SAMHSA announced in 2019 that its marijuana policy would impact organizations applying for its two main opioid treatment programs and another that provides funding to combat alcoholism and substance misuse, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Oregon Health Authority issued notices on the impact of the rule.
Read the Pennsylvania department’s notice on the SAMHSA marijuana policy change below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Mexican Lawmakers Could Finally Legalize Marijuana Sales Next Month (Op-Ed)
The legislature missed repeated deadlines, and then the Supreme Court moved to allow homegrow. What’s next?
By Zara Snapp, Filter
Mexico has never seemed so close and yet so far from fully regulating the adult-use cannabis market.
A first Supreme Court resolution determined in 2015 that the absolute prohibition of cannabis for personal use was unconstitutional because it violates the right to the free development of personality. To reach jurisprudence in Mexico, five consecutive cases, with the same or more votes each time, must be won before the Supreme Court. This was achieved in October 2018, which detonated a legislative mandate that within 90 days, the Senate should modify the articles in the General Health Law that were deemed unconstitutional.
The first deadline came and went without the Senate modifying the articles; so the Senate requested an extension, which was granted. The second deadline to legislate expired on April 30, 2020—but another extension was provided because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At first, it looked like the third time was the charm. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the Federal Law to Regulate and Control Cannabis in November 2020 and passed it to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, for review and approval. Since the deadline of December 15, 2020, was fast approaching, the Chamber asked for its own extension. The Supreme Court granted it (until April 20, 2021) and the bill underwent significant changes before being approved by the Chamber on March 10, and so sent back to the Senate.
The Senate certainly had enough time to review and either reject or accept the changes made by the lower house. That would have made this a shorter story. However, the Senate had other plans. Rather than approve the bill or request an additional extension, it simply did not do anything. June’s national midterm elections were approaching, and political calculations were made. The legislative process came to a standstill.
Since the Senate did not approve the bill by the deadline, the Supreme Court basically did what it had mandated Congress to do. It activated a mechanism to guarantee rights that had only been undertaken once before in Mexican history: the General Declaration of Unconstitutionality (GDU).
On June 28, the Supreme Court approved, with a qualified majority of eight of the 11 Ministers, that two articles in the General Health Law must be modified to permit adults to cultivate cannabis for personal use in their homes.
These changes were officially published on July 15, with specific instructions to the Health Secretary to approve authorizations for any adult who applies.
The GDU has certain restrictions attached, including that this is only for personal use and cannot be used to justify any commercialization of cannabis or cannabis-derived products. Adults cannot consume in front of minors, or other adults who have not expressly given their permission. Nor can they operate heavy machinery or drive while under the effects.
With the GDU, the judicial process concludes. However, the Supreme Court was clear in its final recommendations: Congress can and should legislate to clear up inconsistencies and generate a legal framework for cannabis users.
Whether the Senate decides to take up the matter again in September when it returns to its legislative session will depend largely on its political whim. The body no longer has a deadline to meet; however, there are growing calls from society to regulate the market beyond home-grow, as well as several legal contradictions that obviously need to be harmonized.
The General Health Law has now been modified and the health secretary must approve permits or authorizations for adults to cultivate in their homes. But the Federal Criminal Code has not changed—it still penalizes those same activities with sanctions ranging from 10 months to three years or more in prison.
The Supreme Court decision ignores the need for a comprehensive regulation that would allow the state to apply taxes to commercial activities, which are currently still criminalized with penal sanctions. It also overlooks the urgency of an amnesty program for the thousands of people currently incarcerated on low-level cannabis charges, or hampered by criminal records for such charges.
The Senate should now revisit the bill it initially passed. It should maintain the positive aspects of the bill, which would improve things well beyond the scope of the Supreme Court decision. These include provision for cannabis associations (permitting up to four plants per person for up to 20 members), for home-grow without the need to request authorization, and for a regulated market with a social justice perspective—allocating 40 percent (or more!) of cultivation licenses to communities harmed by prohibition and imposing restrictions on large companies.
The Senate could also build upon the previous version of the bill by eliminating simple possession as a crime, by allowing the associations to operate immediately and guaranteeing the participation of small and medium companies through strong government support.
During the last three years, and before, civil society has closely accompanied the process of creating this legislation, providing the technical and political inputs needed to move forward in a way that could have great social benefits for Mexico.
By becoming the third country in the world to regulate adult cannabis use, after Uruguay and Canada, Mexico could transition from being one of the largest illegal producers to being the largest legal domestic market in the world. As well as economic benefits, this could have substantial impacts on how criminal justice funds are spent, freeing up law enforcement dollars to focus on high-impact crimes and changing the way the state has shown up in communities that cultivate cannabis.
Rather than eradicating crops, the government could accompany communities in gaining legal licenses, provide technical assistance and improve basic services. These positive externalities of regulation could signal a shift from a militarized state of war to a focus on rights, development and social justice.
Of course, this all depends on key political actors recognizing the benefits—and that requires political will. Mexico deserves better; however, it remains to be seen whether legislators will act.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.
Oregon Governor Plans To Veto Bill To Regulate Kratom Sales That Advocates Say Would Protect Consumers
The governor of Oregon has announced her intent to veto a bill that’s meant to create a regulatory framework for the sale and use of kratom for adults.
The Oregon Kratom Consumer Protection Act is bipartisan legislation that would make it so only people 21 and older could purchase the plant-based substance, which some use for its stimulating effects and which others found useful in treating opioid withdrawals.
Vendors would have to register with the state Department of Agriculture to sell kratom. The agency would be responsible for developing regulations on testing standards and labeling requirements. The bill would further prohibit the sale of contaminated or adulterated kratom products.
But while the House and Senate approved the legislation in June, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said on Sunday that she plans to veto it, in large part because she feels the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is better suited to regulate the products.
“Given there is currently no FDA-approved use for this product and there continues to be concern about the impacts of its use, I would entertain further legislation to limit youth access without the state agency regulatory function included in this bill,” the governor said.
This comes as a disappointment to advocates and regulators who share concerns about the risks of adulterated kratom but feel a regulatory framework could help mitigate those dangers and provide adults with a safe supply of products that have helped some overcome opioid addiction.
“Kratom has been consumed safely for centuries in Southeast Asia and Americans use it in the same way that coffee is used for increased focus and energy boosts. Many use kratom for pain management without the opioid side effects,” Rep. Bill Post (R), sponsor of the bill, wrote in an op-ed published in June. “The problem in Oregon is that adulterated products are being sold.”
“Kratom in its pure form is a natural product,” he said. “Adulterated kratom is a potentially dangerous product.”
Pete Candland, executive director of the American Kratom Association, said in written testimony on the bill in February that four other states—Utah, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada—have enacted similar legislation with positive results.
He said that “the number of adulterated kratom products spiked with dangerous drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and morphine in those states has significantly decreased” in those states.
Meanwhile, six states—Vermont, Alabama, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Rhode Island—have banned kratom sales altogether.
Candland said that number is actually a testament to the noncontroversial nature of the plant, as prohibition is only in effect in six states despite “a full-throated disinformation campaign on kratom by the FDA with outrageously untrue claims about kratom being the cause of hundreds of deaths.”
After failing to get kratom prohibited domestically, FDA recently opened a public comment period that’s meant to inform the U.S. position on how the substance should be scheduled under international statute.
“Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects,” FDA wrote in the notice. “Kratom is available in several different forms to include dried/crushed leaves, powder, capsules, tablets, liquids, and gum/ resin. Kratom is an increasingly popular drug of abuse and readily available on the recreational drug market in the United States.”
Responses to the notice will help inform the federal government’s stance on kratom scheduling in advance of an October meeting of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, where international officials will discuss whether to recommend the substance be globally scheduled.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a report to spending legislation that says federal health agencies have “contributed to the continued understanding of the health impacts of kratom, including its constituent compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.”
It also directed the Health and Human Services secretary to continue to refrain from recommending that kratom be controlled in Schedule I.
Late last year, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) asked the public to help identify research that specifically looks at the risks and benefits of cannabinoids and kratom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year separately received more than one thousand comments concerning kratom as part of another public solicitation.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/ThorPorre.