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“It’s disappointing to see so many members vote to keep an outdated gag order in place,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.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.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Tell DEA To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from the House and Senate sent a letter to the Justice Department on Friday, requesting a policy change allowing researchers to access marijuana from state-legal dispensaries to improve studies on the plant’s benefits and risks.
The letter, led by Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), cites feedback from federal health agencies, which have said that existing restrictions on cannabis have inhibited research. One problem in particular is that there’s only one federally authorized manufacturer of research-grade marijuana.
While the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said that it is in the process of approving additional manufacturers, it’s been more than three years since they first announced that applications for more growers would be accepted and, more recently, the agency said it would have to develop alternative rules to approve proposals that have been submitted.
“At the same time, the status quo does not address a barrier to research raised by both [the National Institutes of Health] and [the Food and Drug Administration],” the lawmakers wrote in the new letter. That barrier is a ban on researchers being able to obtain marijuana from dispensaries.
“Both agencies recommended that researchers should be able to obtain cannabis from state-legal sources,” the letter states.
Today, @SenBrianSchatz and I sent a bipartisan letter to AG Barr, urging the DEA to amend current policies to improve research on cannabis.
It’s time to bring our drug research policies into the 21st century.https://t.co/bfpPUhUvQf
— Rep. Harley Rouda (@RepHarley) December 6, 2019
Further, the lawmakers said that there are “problems in industry development of licensed drugs with data from products obtained from third-parties, such as the University of Mississippi.”
“In many states, cannabis law and regulations already provide for licensing of industrial manufacturing activities, and products are available for medical use in those states, but not for research leading to FDA licensure,” they wrote.
“There is a need for a greater diversity of cannabis products so that research on benefits and risks reflects the realities of what consumers and patients are using. NIH and FDA have strongly recommended streamlining the process for conducting research and product development activities with cannabis and other Schedule I substances, and that the DEA take action to assure that interpretations of processes and policies are universally applied in local DEA jurisdictions.”
The lack of chemical diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply has been repeatedly pointed out. One study found that the research-grade cannabis is more similar to hemp than marijuana in commercial markets.
To resolve the research issues, the coalition made two recommendations: 1) to amend internal policy “so as to allow researchers with Schedule I licenses to obtain cannabis-derived products from state authorized dispensaries for research purposes” and 2) issue guidance clarifying that hemp researchers do not need a DEA license to obtain and study hemp because it was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.
The letter requests a response from DEA by December 20.
A total of 21 members of Congress signed the letter, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), along with Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA) Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA).
“Our nation’s cannabis research laws are archaic,” Rouda said in a press release. “Forty-seven states have legalized some form of cannabis consumption—we must ensure our federal agencies and other licensed institutions can comprehensively study the benefits and risks of cannabis products.”
“I thank Senator Schatz, and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, for joining me to make this common-sense request,” he said. “It’s time to bring our drug research policies into the 21st century.”
Attorney General William Barr received a similar letter from lawmakers about the need to expand the number of federally authorized marijuana cultivators in April.
Read the lawmakers’ full letter on expanding marijuana research below:
Oregon Activists Begin Signature Gathering For 2020 Drug Decriminalization Initiative
Oregon activists have begun collecting signatures for a statewide initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs.
Three months after petitioners quietly submitted the proposed ballot measure—titled the “Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act” (DATRA)—the signature gathering process has started, with organizers deployed to Portland to raise support.
A long road lies before the activists, who need to collect 112,020 valid signatures from voters in order to qualify for the 2020 ballot. Funding and polling will decide whether they mount a full push for the decriminalization measure in the months to come.
To that end, their efforts are being helped by David Bronner, CEO of the soap company Dr. Bronner’s, who told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he will be investing $250,000 in the decriminalization campaign. An additional $500,000 will go to a separate Oregon initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which backed Oregon’s successful marijuana legalization initiative in 2014, is also supporting this new effort to make low-level drug possession an infraction punishable by a $100 fine with no jail time, rather than a misdemeanor. It remains to be seen how involved in the campaign DPA will be, however.
Peter Zuckerman, a chief petitioner for the decriminalization initiative, told OregonLive on Thursday that it’s not guaranteed that the campaign will proceed and that much rides on how much money the group can raise, whether there’s public support for the reform move and how staff recruitment comes together.
He said the main thrust of the measure is to take a “health-based approach to drug addiction rather than a criminal justice-based approach.”
The proposal caught the attention of Oregon’s teachers’ union, which said that it supports decriminalizing drug possession but wrote in a comment submitted to the secretary of state in October that it was not taking an official position because it’s concerned about another provision that would shift cannabis tax revenue away from schools.
DATRA would make it so most of that revenue would be used to fund addiction treatment programs.
At the same time that activists are collecting signatures and weighing whether to move ahead with the broad decriminalization initiative, another advocacy group is pushing for a measure to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use, allowing individuals to receive treatment with the psychedelic fungus at licensed health facilities. The group launched its signature drive in September.
Advocates in Portland are also hoping to advance a local measure to decriminalize psilocybin and other psychedelics such as ayahuasca and ibogaine.
Bronner wrote in a blog post that the decriminalization and therapeutic psilocybin legalization campaigns are “already coordinating closely and conserving resources on the statewide signature drive.”
He told Marijuana Moment that “we see this as the perfect one two punch in Oregon, legalizing psilocybin therapy that has so much promise for treating drug addiction, at the same time Oregon shifts to a treatment not jail approach.”
“And 100 percent confident it’s coming together,” he said.
All of this comes amid a national movement to decriminalize psychedelics, with activists in almost 100 cities across the U.S. considering pushing for reduced penalties for substances such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. Decriminalize Nature, which is aiding in and tracking these efforts, is also receiving donations from Bronner, he said.
Decriminalization is also gaining traction on the national stage, with two presidential candidates—South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—voicing support for the policy change. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, another candidate, recently said that he’s open to broad decriminalization, while entrepreneur Andrew Yang backs decriminalizing opioids.
North Dakota Activists Submit Measure To Legalize Marijuana In 2020
North Dakota activists submitted a measure to legalize marijuana for adult use to state officials on Thursday, an organizer confirmed to Marijuana Moment.
Legalize ND, the group behind the proposed statutory initiative, delivered the measure to the secretary of state’s office. It’s expected to be validated within days, after which point petitions will be distributed to collect signatures in support of qualifying for the 2020 ballot.
It’s been about a year since organizers began working on the measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis for personal use. The proposal is more narrowly tailored than a legalization initiative from the same organization that voters rejected in 2018, however.
The previous version didn’t include any restrictions on cultivation or possession, and it didn’t involve a licensing scheme. By contrast, the new measure would prohibit home cultivation, limit possession to two ounces, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
“One of the largest complaints from last time was the mantra of ‘poorly written,'” Legalize ND’s David Owen told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “They targeted the lack of legal experience from our team and they targeted a lack of ‘qualified lawyers’ to be drafting language that would go into the state’s statutory law.”
But he said he’s confident the campaign will be successful this time around, in part because they spent months drafting the language with the North Dakota Legislative Council.
Asked what he’d say to voters still on the fence about legalization, Owen replied that it would depend on what their initial concerns were:
“If it’s a concern over home grow, well it’s simple, we don’t have that anymore. If it’s a concern of people having too much, we have a reasonable possession limit now—in their eyes, I still think possession limits are fundamentally arbitrary, but they wanted a possession limit so we have that now. If people go, ‘well what about the quality of the language?’ I can point to how it’s literally written by Legislative Council, so either every attorney who works for the state of North Dakota is incompetent or this is well written.”
In order to qualify for next year’s ballot, the group must collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6, 2020.
“I think the most important thing isn’t what it would do, but what it would stop from happening,” Owen told local radio station KFGO on Wednesday. “We currently have a system where people are unable to find a job because of a criminal record, we have a system where people are continuing to get marijuana charges and lose their housing, we have families being separated because of parents losing custody over their children for marijuana charges. That all stops when this is legalized.”
Listen to Owen’s radio interview about the new marijuana ballot measure below:
Internal polling that received outside funding, which Owen said cannot be publicly released because of the wishes of the donor, shows the initiative is “slightly ahead” among voters.
In an earlier interview with Marijuana Moment in February, Owen said that it’s “very probable that we can do it” this time around, but much of that depended on the extent to which opposition campaigns are involved and how much funding outside groups are able to offer.
Currently, North Dakota has a medical cannabis program, and the governor signed legislation in May decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.