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How Democrats Helped Republicans Shut Down AOC’s Psychedelics Research Measure

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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“It’s disappointing to see so many members vote to keep an outdated gag order in place,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.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.

dems-aoc-recommendation-email dems-aoc-recommendation-email-2

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

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This story was updated to include comment from Ocazio-Cortez’s staff and MAPS.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana

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Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Legislation And Policy Actions

Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.

The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.

Quotes And Social Media Posts

It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.

Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.

Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.

Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.

He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.

“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.

One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”

“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.

Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.

Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency

Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.

At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.

That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.

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Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says

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Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.

Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.

Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.

Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.

In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.

The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”

In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”

Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:

Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”

“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”

Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.

“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”

Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.

“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”

Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.

“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.

Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”

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USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.

“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”

The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.

“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.

A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”

“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.

While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”

USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.

The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.

While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.

The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.

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