A bipartisan group of members of Congress is pushing the Trump administration to consider medical marijuana as a safer alternative to opioids.
“As you know, our country is grappling with an opioid epidemic that is now taking 91 lives every single day,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Acting Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Eric D. Hargan. “Recent studies published by qualified academic researchers suggest that marijuana may prove to be a useful alternative treatment for chronic pain instead of harmful, addictive prescription opioids, and that marijuana may reduce the overall number of opioid overdose deaths.”
After citing a number of studies demonstrating cannabis’s efficacy and that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid issues, the House members lay out a series of questions they want answered:
The evidence that marijuana may have a positive therapeutic warrants additional attention from the federal government. We request that you provide answers to the following questions:
1. Please describe in detail what the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is doing to fill the gap in our knowledge about the use, uptake, and effectiveness of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for pain treatment in states where it is legal.
a. Please describe in detail any federal efforts to conduct research the impact of state medical and recreational marijuana laws on opioid overdose deaths.
b. Please also describe in detail efforts by other federal agencies under the jurisdiction of HHS.
2. Please describe in detail what HHS and other federal agencies are doing to work with states that have implemented medical marijuana laws to collect data on the impact of these laws on opioid overdose deaths.
3. Is HHS committed to implementing evidence-based policies regarding the use of medical marijuana as an alternative pain treatment in an effort to promote public health?
4. Is HHS committed to making any research on the therapeutic benefits of marijuana available to states including as a more benign alternative to opioids for pain management, so that they can implement evidence-based policies to address the opioid epidemic?
5. Please describe in detail any ongoing efforts to share this research on marijuana’s potential as an alternative pain treatment to addictive and dangerous prescription medications with other federal agencies, including but not limited to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Department of Justice.
“We should not ignore any information that suggests there may be a tool available to fight the opioid epidemic that we are not using to the fullest extent,” the legislators conclude in the letter, which is dated Tuesday. “While it is clear that more research is necessary, it is equally clear that medical marijuana is an alternative pain treatment that merits the attention of the federal government.”
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) posted a series of tweets about the issue on Thursday evening.
As the opioid epidemic continues to ravage communities across the country, we must pursue every available path to prevent, treat, and ultimately end America’s reliance on these highly addictive drugs.
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) December 7, 2017
With 91 lives lost every single day to the opioid epidemic, Acting Secretary Hargan should immediately authorize additional research into medical marijuana as an alternative treatment to urgently address this opioid crisis.
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) December 7, 2017
The letter comes amid increasingly prominent discussion about marijuana’s potential to reduce opioid overdoses. The federal government’s top health research official was asked about the topic in two separate Senate hearings this week.
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sent questions about marijuana and opioids to Alex Azar, President Trump’s nominee for HHS secretary.
See the full text of the House lawmakers’ new letter below:
GOP Congressman Files Bill To Protect Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana From Losing Benefits
A Republican congressman has filed the second piece of marijuana reform legislation to be introduced so far in the new 117th Congress—this one aimed at ensuring that military veterans aren’t penalized for using medical cannabis in compliance with state law.
The proposal from Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL), who filed a more expansive version of the measure last year, would also codify that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are allowed to discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.
VA doctors are currently permitted to discuss cannabis with patients and document their usage in medical records, and those veteran patients are already shielded by agency policy from losing their benefits for marijuana use—but the new bill would enshrine these policies into federal statute so they could not be administratively changed in the future.
That said, the version Steube introduced last year contained a notable provision that further allowed VA physicians to formally fill out written recommendations for marijuana.
But that language was omitted from this year’s bill, which could create barriers to access given that most state medical cannabis programs require a written recommendation, meaning many veterans would have to outsource their healthcare to a non-VA provider in order to qualify for legal access to marijuana.
Carson Steelman, communications director in Steube’s office, told Marijuana Moment that removing that component was politically necessary to advance the previous version through a House committee last year as an amendment to another bill.
“This bill was able to pass through markup with the removal of that portion,” he said. “Many members had concerns regarding it so in order to move this bill swiftly this Congress, we introduced it without that portion.”
Doug Distaso, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, applauded Steube for the overall bill, saying that “we consistently see, on a daily basis, a denial of veteran benefits ranging from medical prescriptions to VA loans, solely because a veteran is participating in a state-approved marijuana program or working in the cannabis industry.”
“However, we are disappointed that specific language on Veterans Affairs provider-issued cannabis recommendations was removed from this bill, since these are the providers upon whom veterans rely for full, integrated treatment and care—including cannabis,” he told Marijuana Moment.
But while the absence of language around discussing and recommending medical marijuana isn’t ideal from advocates’ perspective, the bill would still be a modest step for veterans, making it so VA could not move to deny them benefits for using cannabis in accordance with state law.
The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act had 19 cosponsors last session, including eight Republicans and 11 Democrats.
This is the second piece of marijuana reform legislation that’s been introduced so far in the new Congress, both of which are sponsored by Steube. His first bill would simply require that cannabis be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act—a move that the congressman said would free up research into the plant.
That proposal is identical to legislation he filed last year.
While rescheduling is backed by President Joe Biden, who remains opposed to adult-use legalization, it’s not the reform that advocates are getting behind. There are high hopes that a more comprehensive completely remove marijuana from the CSA—while promoting social equity—will move through the 117th Congress.
A bill to accomplish that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives last year, but it died in the GOP-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats have control of both chambers, activists are waiting for the legislation to be taken back up with a better chance of making it to Biden’s desk.
That bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—was sponsored by now-Vice President Kamala Harris, though she’s indicated that she would not necessarily push the president to adopt a pro-legalization position.
Read the text of the veterans-focused marijuana bill below:
Anti-Marijuana Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill In North Dakota To Avoid Activist Ballot Measure
North Dakota’s secretary of state on Friday approved the format of a proposed marijuana initiative, clearing the way for activists to collect signatures to place it on the 2022 ballot. Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker is pushing a cannabis legalization bill he introduced even though he does not support the underling policy change.
Rather, Rep. Jason Dockter (R) said he recognizes the seeming inevitability of legal marijuana reaching the state as more neighboring jurisdictions enact reform and as activists gain momentum for their agenda. If the state is going to enact legalization, he wants the legislature to dictate what that program looks like instead of leaving it in the hands of advocacy groups.
Dockter’s House Bill 1420 would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use, but home cultivation would not be allowed.
Licensed cultivation facilities that provide cannabis products to retailers “may grow an amount of marijuana sufficient to meet the demands of the public.”
Under the proposal, legal cannabis sales would begin on February 1, 2022.
The bill is being supported by the pro-reform campaign Legalize ND. The group placed a legalization measure on the 2018 ballot that was defeated by voters. They tried to qualify another initiative last year but signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.
It’s not clear if they will now still pursue previously announced plans for 2022 in light of the new bill, which they said they are “proud of” and is the result of engaging lawmakers in more than six months’ worth of conversations.
Meanwhile, a separate activist group has already filed its own 2022 legal marijuana measure that would make it so adults could possess marijuana and grow up to 12 plants (up to six of which could be mature). Secretary of State Al Jaeger said on Friday that the group can begin working to gather the 26,904 valid signatures from registered voters they will need to place the measure on the ballot.
“I am glad the North Dakota legislature is coming to the realization that legalization will move forward with or without them,” Jody Vetter, chairwoman for that effort, the ND for Freedom of Cannabis Act, told Marijuana Moment.
She added that while the Dockter’s bill is “a step in the right direction toward ending prohibition, there are concerns,” pointing to the lack of legal home cultivation and remaining criminal charges for certain cannabis-related activity.
“Criminal charges surrounding possession should only apply if someone is found to be selling cannabis without proper license or contributing to minors,” Vetter said. “We are moving forward with the ND For Freedom of Cannabis Act. Home growing is essential for any legal program and an overwhelming majority of North Dakotans are ready to stop criminally charging citizens for simply possessing cannabis.”
Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the national Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that “though this isn’t an ideal legalization bill, it’s a significant testament to the strength of our movement that legalization opponents are now preemptively filing their own legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults.”
“These lawmakers are aware that a majority of their constituents support legalization, and you have to give them some credit for acknowledging that,” he said.
The bill contains a number of restrictions on labeling and advertising, as well as penalties for impaired driving. A health council would be tasked with developing further regulations on issues such as the allowable amount of THC in edibles and testing standards.
“I’m not for [legalization] at all, but I understand that it’s coming, and we have to address the issue,” Dockter told Inforum. “I’m trying something different in government—we’re trying to be proactive and not be reactive.”
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said that he’s not “a marijuana person,” but he acknowledged that cannabis legalization is coming. While he would have previously been inclined to oppose Dockter’s bill, Pollert said voter approval of a legalization initiative in South Dakota has given him pause, adding that the legislature should “take a long, hard look” at the policy change.
Neighboring Montana also moved to legalize marijuana for adult use during the November election, adding to the regional pressure to get on board. Canada, which also borders the state, has a national legal cannabis market.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.
Aside from the new broad legalization legislation, state lawmakers also recently introduced a separate bill to significantly expand the decriminalization of marijuana possession in the state. The proposal, which was filed last week, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.
Read the North Dakota cannabis legalization bill below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Bill To Allow Medical Marijuana Use At Hotels And Airbnbs Filed In Missouri
Hotels, Airbnbs and other lodging facilities in Missouri would be allowed to let medical marijuana patients consume cannabis on their properties under a recently filed bill.
The legislation, titled the “Reduction of Illegal Public Consumption by Allowing for Compassionate Access to Medical Marijuana Act,” would require the state Department of Health and Senior Services to create a new “medical marijuana lodging establishment” license for the facilities. They would have to submit an application and a $50 fee to the agency in order to obtain the new approval.
Once licensed, lodging facilities would have to follow certain rules such as confirming that guests are registered medical cannabis patients, posting signage that says marijuana can be consumed on the property and ensuring that consumption areas are at least 25 feet away from sections where its prohibited.
Places that knowingly permit cannabis to be used without a license would be subject to a $1,000 fine for a first offense, $2,000 for a second, $5,000 for a third and the suspension of their business license for a fourth.
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Theoretically, if this bill is approved, it could promote tourism in the state, as it specifically allows hotels and other facilities to accept out-of-state medical cannabis certifications for guests.
There’s a similar policy on the books in Colorado, where a bill providing for social consumption site licenses was signed last year.
In a new related study, researchers took a look at the prevalence of Airbnbs allowing marijuana consumptions in Denver and found that it’s surprisingly common—much more so than for tobacco use.
“A substantial number of Airbnb listings in Denver, Colorado permit cannabis use and venues permitting cannabis use may be more likely to also permit tobacco smoking,” the abstract says.
About one-in-four facilities included details about their marijuana policy in the listing, and 76 percent of those permitted cannabis use while 31 percent let guests use tobacco.
The focus of the study, published this month in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, was to analyze indoor clear air issues related to marijuana at Airbnbs. It concluded that the facilities should “consider including cannabis use in house rules in jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis to help guests identify spaces with clean air.”
Missouri’s marijuana laws might not be as progressive as Colorado’s, but a Republican lawmaker did file a joint resolution last month that calls for adult-use legalization to be placed before voters on the 2022 ballot.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.