In a sweeping rejection of what advocates regarded as a commonsense drug reform measure, a large majority of Democratic House members joined all but seven Republicans on Thursday in a vote against an amendment that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) filed to expand research into the potential benefits of psychedelic substances.
The measure, which was cleared by the House Rules Committee and was initially approved in a voice vote earlier Thursday morning, was soundly defeated in a 91 to 331 afternoon roll call vote. Democrats accounted for 148 of those “nay” votes.
Ocazio-Cortez’s amendment would have removed a longstanding rider, first enacted in 1996, that prohibits the use of federal funds for “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.”
Supporters argued that the rider inhibits research into controlled substances that hold potential therapeutic potential, with Ocasio-Cortez pointing specifically to psilocybin and MDMA as examples of understudied drugs that could alleviate symptoms of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Cannabis is also a Schedule I substance that is more difficult to research due to its Schedule I status.
“It’s disappointing to hear folks say things like ‘the War on Drugs is a failure’ and that ‘we should treat drugs as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue’ then vote to uphold drug war relic language like this,” Dan Riffle, senior counsel and policy advisor in Ocasio-Cortez’s office, told Marijuana Moment. “It was last minute though, and a lot of folks weren’t sure what the amendment would do. I’m glad we brought some attention to the issue, and I think next year with more time to educate you’ll see a very different result.”
In a tweet posted ahead of the vote, the congresswoman acknowledged that while the amendment had bipartisan appeal, it also had bipartisan opposition. The opposition proved much stronger in the end, leaving reform advocates dismayed.
“It’s disappointing to see so many members vote to keep an outdated gag order in place,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “The road to ending the drug war is a long one, and we got a reminder of that today.”
Michael Liszewski, a policy advisor with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Marijuana Moment that Ocasio-Cortez introducing the amendment “helped raise the profile of this issue.”
“I think one reason the amendment failed was a lack of understanding of the issue by many members, so voting against the amendment was the instinctually safe move to make,” he said. “With increased awareness of how the ‘gag order’ provision prevents scientific research that we may see a different outcome next year if the amendment is offered again.”
Another reason for the amendment’s failure could be that Democratic leadership declined to give members a directive to support it in a list of recommendations distributed on Thursday morning. House Labor, HHS, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), whose panel drafted the section of the overall bill that Ocasio-Cortez sought to amend, offered “no recommendation” for the measure, whereas every other listed Democratic amendment was given a “vote yes” directive.
The amendment’s opponents include several members who usually lend their support to drug reform legislation as well as committee chairs and members of Democratic leadership. Reps. Charlie Crist (D-FL) and Dave Joyce (R-OH) rejected the amendment despite their typical support for marijuana reform.
Opponents in leadership positions include House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Veterans’ Affairs Chair Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), former Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-NY) and DeLauro.
Many of the usual cannabis reform suspects did vote in favor of the amendment, however: Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Steve Cohen (D-TN), amendment cosponsor Lou Correa (D-CA), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Denny Heck (D-WA), amendment cosponsor Ro Khanna (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Joe Neguse (D-CO), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Ocasio-Cortez, Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Dina Titus (D-NV) all voted aye.
Democratic leaders who voted in support include Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
The Republicans who voted in favor of the amendment are Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), amendment cosponsor Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Glenn Grothman (R-WI), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Brian Mast (R-MI), Thomas McClintock (R-CA) and Don Young (R-AK).
Finally, three 2020 Democratic presidential candidates supported the measure. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) voted aye. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who is also running for president, was absent during the vote on the psychedelics measure as well as those on other measures taken around the same time.
“Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment would have removed the bureaucratic red tape and legal hoops that scientists currently have to navigate in order to study the potential medical benefits of controlled substances,” Khanna told Marijuana Moment. “This includes cannabis, which is legal for medicinal use in more than two dozen states, and other compounds that have shown promise in treating depression, PTSD, and addiction.”
“I am an advocate for robust research investment to maintain America’s global leadership in science and medicine, and I supported this amendment because it would have unshackled our scientists from restrictions implemented at the height of the failed War on Drugs,” he said.
.@RepAOC’s amendment would have removed the bureaucratic red tape and legal hoops that scientists currently have to navigate in order to study the potential medical benefits of controlled substances. 1/3
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) June 13, 2019
I am an advocate for robust research investment to maintain America’s global leadership in science and medicine, and I supported this amendment because it would have unshackled our scientists from restrictions implemented at the height of the failed War on Drugs. 3/3
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) June 13, 2019
“I applaud 91 of my Republican and Democratic colleagues for courageously standing up for medical research,” Correa told Marijuana Moment. “As elected leaders, we must never be afraid to take risks when our constituents’ lives and health are on the line. Schedule 1 substances may be controversial but they hold great medical promise.”
“I am proud to have joined my colleague Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez in support of her potentially life-saving amendment,” he said. “For far too long, we have allowed the debate surrounding schedule 1 drugs to be informed by personal opinions and not science. This amendment would have given the power back to doctors and researcher so that they can tell us what these misunderstood substances can be used for.”
“I will not stop fighting for those yearning for new treatments and will continue to advocate for medical research—regardless the substance.”
For too long, the debate about cannabis, psilocybin & others has been informed by personal opinions, not #science.
I will not stop fighting for new treatments—regardless of the substance. Lives depend on it.
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) June 13, 2019
Ocasio-Cortez said that while the amendment failed, she is “undeterred” and “proud we were even able to bring a vote on psychedelic research to the House floor.”
Sadly our drug research amendment failed today, but I’m undeterred.
I’m proud we were even able to bring a vote on psychedelic research to the House floor.
30% of veterans have considered suicide. These drugs show extreme promise in treating PTSD + more.
Let’s keep at it. https://t.co/Hf6bsN7ws4
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 13, 2019
These drugs show extreme promise in treating PTSD + more,” she wrote. “Let’s keep at it.”
Natalie Ginsberg, director of policy and advocacy at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), said that advocates hope to keep building support over time for removing political roadblocks to research.
“As we see everyday in our work at MAPS, and as evidenced by the bipartisan support for this proposed amendment, we remain encouraged that our elected representatives will continue working together across the aisle to get politics out of the way of research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics and cannabis,” she said.
This story was updated to include comment from Ocazio-Cortez’s staff and MAPS.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
Majority Of Connecticut Residents Back Marijuana Legalization And Expungements, Poll Finds As Reform Bills Advance
As bills to legalize marijuana in Connecticut move through the legislature, a new poll finds that the reform has strong support among residents.
The survey from Sacred Heart University (SHU), released on Tuesday, found that about 66 percent of people in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, while 27 percent are opposed.
If the policy change is enacted, 62 percent said those with prior marijuana convictions should have their records expunged.
Younger people and those who identify as Democrats were more likely to back ending prohibition, compared to those 65 and older or Republicans.
Further, the poll asked about perceived harms of cannabis, and 77 percent said they felt the plant carried “fewer effects” or comparable effects as alcohol. About 72 percent drew the same contrast between marijuana and other drugs such as heroin, amphetamines and prescription painkillers.
These figures are largely consistent with a previous poll that SHU conducted in February.
And like that prior survey, nearly half of Connecticut residents again expressed that they still believe that there are potential negative public safety implications of legalization, even if they support the policy. In this case, 48 percent said they agree that allowing recreational cannabis would lead to a “significant” increase in impaired driving.
Two in five respondents said they agree that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs. The poll involved interviews with 1,000 residents from March 23-31.
But while these figures largely align with the last SHU survey, one thing that has changed is that reform legislation has started to advance in the legislature, including a bill being backed by the governor.
The Judiciary Committee approved Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) proposal, which was amended to more comprehensively address social equity issues, last week. That said, legislative leaders have indicated that the bill is fluid and will likely see additional revisions down the road.
A competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D) was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee last month.
One amendment that was adopted to the governor’s bill would provide for the free erasure of past marijuana convictions for possession or sales of up to four ounces of cannabis or six mature plants—a policy that is evidently backed by most residents in the state.
Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, initially described his legalization plan as a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
For his part, House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) said last month that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.
Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said “in principle, equity is important to both the administration and the legislature, and we’re going to work through those details.”
To that end, the majority leader said that working groups have been formed in the Democratic caucuses of the legislature to go through the governor’s proposal and the committee-approved reform bill.
In February, a Lamont administration official stressed during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee that Lamont’s proposal it is “not a final bill,” and they want activists “at the table” to further inform the legislation.
The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. Those bills stalled, however.
Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.
Ritter said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.” The governor said in an interview earlier this year that he puts the odds of his legislation passing at “60-40 percent chance.”
Should that effort fail, the speaker said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. Lamont made similar remarks last week.
The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”
He also said that legalization in Connecticut could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to purchase legal cannabis in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Remembering Cannabis Legalization Pioneer Steve Fox
This post is a remembrance of longtime cannabis policy activist Steve Fox from his colleagues at VS Strategies and Vicente Sederberg LLP.
Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,
We are truly heartbroken to share news of the passing of our partner and dear friend Steve Fox. Steve served as managing partner of VS Strategies since co-founding it in 2013, and he was a leader at Vicente Sederberg LLP since its formation in 2010.
We welcome the celebration of Steve’s life through the sharing of thoughts and memories, and we ask for respect and privacy for his family, friends, and coworkers who are still reeling from this loss. We have also started a GoFundMe page to support Steve’s wife and daughters as they navigate their way through this extremely difficult time—https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-the-family-of-steve-fox
With wisdom beyond his years and a pioneering spirit, Steve was an “old soul” with a knack for seeing things in a new light. He was strongly principled, deeply empathic, and fiercely kind. And despite his usually soft-spoken and lighthearted demeanor, his opinions rarely went unheard and always carried significant weight.
His passion for politics and policy were exceeded only by his passion for people—his family, friends, and colleagues, as well as the multitude of strangers that he knew were being affected every day by politics and policy. He had a burning desire and uncanny ability to envision and effect positive change, both societally and in those closest to him. He was not just a remarkable human being, but a truly transformational leader.
Steve was always the first to volunteer and the last to seek credit. He was beyond generous with his time and patience, and perpetually understanding. He relished opportunities to provide counsel and guidance, and the feeling was mutual for those who received it. He was warmly regarded as a mentor by no fewer than a dozen current and former members of our firm, including all seven of us.
Steve was one of the first political professionals to enter the marijuana advocacy space. At a time when cannabis policy was just a blip on the political radar and most savvy up-and-comers were unwilling to dip a toe into the space, Steve dove in headfirst. While many viewed it as a losing cause that wasn’t worth the fight, he saw it as a cause worth fighting until it was won. And in working to legalize and regulate cannabis for medical and adult use, he found a way to fight simultaneously for several of his core values: To promote justice and compassion, to advance freedom and liberty, and to nurture and inspire the human spirit. Humbly righteous, judiciously aggressive, and relentlessly ethical, he was committed to doing the right thing, doing it the right way, and doing whatever it takes to get it done.
When he joined the Marijuana Policy Project in 2002, Steve was the only full-time cannabis lobbyist on Capitol Hill. He would remain at the forefront of the cannabis policy reform movement for nearly two decades, playing pivotal roles in several major victories at the federal and state levels.
Steve was a lead drafter of Colorado’s historic Amendment 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use, and he managed all aspects of the successful campaign behind its passage and implementation. He also conceptualized and co-founded Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), which laid a lot of groundwork for the legalization effort and contributed to a seismic shift in the U.S. cannabis policy debate. In 2009, he co-authored the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink?,” which is based on the SAFER strategy.
Steve was always thinking step ahead of the rest. Long before cannabis was legalized, he envisioned a legal, organized, and responsible cannabis industry. He played leading roles in conceptualizing and establishing several of the nation’s largest and most influential cannabis trade organizations, including the National Cannabis Industry Association, the Cannabis Trade Federation, and the U.S. Cannabis Council. He regularly led working group meetings and calls, and he was a frequent speaker at cannabis conferences.
Steve’s role in cannabis community cannot be overstated. He was a trailblazer in the movement to end prohibition, and he was an architect and caretaker of the legal industry that is quickly replacing it. He beat the path, built the shelter, and worked tirelessly to make it as welcoming, accessible and beneficial as possible. He always put the mission—the wellbeing of others and the betterment of society—ahead of himself.
No one was more reluctant to sing their own praises while being so deserving of a louder refrain.
In 2013, Steve received a highly esteemed award from the Drug Policy Alliance in recognition of his long-term spearheading of the Colorado legalization effort. With an audience of hundreds and the spotlight squarely on him, he used the better part of his brief acceptance speech to give recognition to the people and organizations who had supported and worked alongside him. He reserved only the final thought for his own personal message and dedication. It was to his parents, for raising him to believe in the Jewish philosophy “Tikkun olam”—to “repair or heal the world” through beneficial and constructive acts. That is what drove Steve to take on the cause of cannabis policy reform. And it was what drove Steve to be the person he was.
Tikkun olam. Mission accomplished, dear friend.
And the entire VSS and VS family
Biden’s Pick To Lead DEA Voiced Openness To State Medical Marijuana Program
President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) previously described a New Jersey medical marijuana bill as “workable” while serving at the state’s attorney general.
Although the former top state prosecutor, Anne Milgram, doesn’t appear to have publicly detailed her personal views on cannabis reform, the limited comments she made over a decade ago signal that, at the very least, she’s open to allowing states to enact their own marijuana policies despite federal prohibition.
That’d be a big deal, as far as advocates are concerned. Having a DEA administrator who appears flexible with respect to state cannabis reform efforts would be a notable development given the role that the official plays in federal marijuana policy.
However, Milgram’s on-the-record remarks on the issue are admittedly minimal. In 2009, when the New Jersey legislature was considering a medical cannabis legalization bill, she called the proposal “workable,” according to a one-word quote included in an Associated Press report.
After the legislation was amended, a spokesperson for the then-attorney general said the change “tightens up the provisions…that could have become loopholes by people seeking to divert marijuana for illicit purposes.”
Biden announced Milgram as his pick to be the next DEA administrator on Monday, and now her nomination heads to the Senate. It is possible that she will be asked to elaborate on her views during a confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
Milgram’s prior statements are far from an explicit endorsement of medical cannabis legalization, but they do indicate that the nominee is not vociferously opposed to state-level reforms as has been the case for prior DEA administrators. And in combination with other Biden cabinet picks, that bodes well for advocates.
Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony before the Senate, for example, that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws. That stands in contrast with President Donald Trump’s first selection for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who rescinded Obama-era guidance deprioritizing prosecutions over state-legal cannabis activity.
The DEA, with authority delegated from the Department of Justice, plays an important role in determining the schedule status of marijuana and other drugs. If the agency’s administrator were to acknowledge the medical benefits of cannabis, it would deeply undermine its current classification in Schedule I, which is supposed to be reserved for substances with no therapeutic value.
That said, while the Justice Department and DEA play a key role in federal scheduling, a medical and scientific review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration is binding on the attorney general’s classification decision.
To that end, the former attorney general of California, Xavier Bacerra, was confirmed by the Senate to lead HHS, and he has a considerable record supporting cannabis reform and working to protect California’s legal program from federal interference.
Meanwhile, Biden has yet to nominate someone to run the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), despite earlier reporting that a selection was imminent.
The presumed leading candidate to be White House drug czar—Rahul Gupta, the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board—has played a critical role in overseeing the implementation and expansion of a state medical marijuana program and has publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.
But while any pro-reform appointment is notable in the new administration, the DEA administrator has played a historically antagonistic role opposing federal or state policy changes as they concern cannabis. And so Milgram would stand out as an especially significant pick to that end.
The nominee would be taking over the defense to a number of pending lawsuits from marijuana and psychedelics reform advocates and patients if confirmed.
For example, Seattle doctor hoping to expand access to psilocybin mushrooms for terminally ill cancer patients is taking DEA to court over the agency’s recent denial of an application to legally use the psychedelic in end-of-life treatment.
Scientists and veterans sued the federal agency last year, arguing that the legal basis DEA has used to justify keeping marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional. They asked for a review of its decisions to reject rescheduling petitions in 2020, 2016 and 1992. DEA subsequently requested that the court dismiss that suit.
The agency has also been taken to court over delays in approving additional cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
The Scottsdale Research Institute alleged that DEA has been deliberately using delay tactics to avoid approving cultivation applications. A court mandated that the agency take steps to make good on its promise, and that suit was dropped after DEA provided a status update.
In March 2020, 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.