The full U.S. House of Representatives hasn’t voted on any marijuana amendments since 2016, and it’s largely because of one man.
In his capacity as chairman of the House Rules Committee, Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX) has enormous power over which measures make it to the floor for consideration by his colleagues.
Despite continued efforts from a large group of bipartisan representatives, Sessions’s panel has consistently blocked all cannabis proposals from advancing over the course of nearly two years.
In wide-ranging comments at a federal event on Tuesday, Sessions revealed the extent to which he disapproves of marijuana use and misunderstands scientific research about its effects.
“If addiction is the problem and we have marketers of addiction that include marijuana — because all you have to do is go to any of the stores in Colorado and they can give you high to low to medium to chocolate — we ought to call for it what it is,” he said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “If it were nicotine, it would have been outlawed; well, it would have been handled differently. But this is a political issue.”
Saying he thinks there are “better alternatives [than marijuana to treat medical conditions],” Sessions’s view is that “we don’t have to go to that.”
And implying that marijuana use causes young people to do other drugs as well, he asked, “Where do they start? If it’s marijuana, we ought to stand up and be brave in the medical community to say this political direction is not right.”
Numerous studies have shown that cannabis has medical value for people suffering from a variety of conditions, and research has routinely debunked the so-called “gateway theory” about marijuana leading to use of other drugs.
Also at the event, hosted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Sessions claimed that the potency of marijuana has risen dramatically since he was a young man.
“I referred to marijuana as merchants, this is a merchants of addiction, they are making it more powerful and more powerful and more powerful,” he said, according to the Star-Telegram. “When I went to high school … in 1973, I graduated, marijuana, on average, is 300 times more powerful. That becomes an addictive element for a child to then go to the next thing.”
While studies have shown that the THC concentrations in cannabis have generally risen over the past several decades, the “300 times more powerful” figure isn’t supported by the research base. Taken at face value, the math would mean that cannabis plants are comprised of more than 100 percent THC, a physical impossibility.
Sessions Blocks All Marijuana Amendments
After years of trying and failing to pass cannabis amendments in Congress, reformers scored their first big federal legislative victory in 2014, when the House of Representatives passed a measure to block the Justice Department from interfering with state medical cannabis laws. The measure was enacted into law, and also approved the following year with an even bigger bipartisan margin of victory on the House floor.
In the two years that followed, representatives also approved measures to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banks and protect state industrial hemp research programs from federal intervention.
The last time the full House voted on marijuana, in May 2016, it approved a measure to allow military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors.
But the next month, Sessions’s Rules Committee began its cannabis blockade by preventing measures on marijuana banking and letting Washington, D.C. spend its own money to regulate cannabis from advancing.
Since then, the panel has consistently blocked any and all marijuana amendments from moving to the floor, including ones to extend the existing medical cannabis protections and to allow marijuana providers to take tax deductions that are available to businesses in other industries.
The committee has also shut down measures to extend the existing state medical cannabis protections to cover laws that allow for recreational marijuana use. In 2015, that amendment came just nine flipped votes short of passage on the floor. The number of states with legalization has more than doubled since the last vote on it, so the proposal would almost certainly pick up support now that many more members of Congress represent businesses and consumers who would be protected by it.
But Sessions’s blockade has ensured that his colleagues haven’t been given another opportunity to consider it again.
While the decision to stop letting the House vote on marijuana measures came at the same time as leaders began shutting down amendments on other issues deemed to be controversial, such as gun control and LGBT rights, Sessions’s new comments at the HHS event show he has a particular concern about cannabis policy changes.
Personal Experience Informs Sessions’s Anti-Marijuana Views
Last month, just before blocking a new version of the amendment to protect broad state marijuana laws from advancing, the Texas Republican spoke about his distaste for marijuana.
“I, as probably everybody in this rooms knows, have a strong opinion on drugs, illegal drugs, alcohol,” he said. “Marijuana is an addictive product, and the merchants of addiction make it that way. They make it for addiction. They make it to where our people, our young people, become addicted to marijuana and keep going.”
And his position seems to be informed by the experiences of people who are close to him.
At the HHS event this week, Sessions spoke about cases of two individuals:
“A dear friend of mine, David Siegel, a wealthy man, one of the wealthiest men in America, had an 18-year-old daughter who was in treatment, I believe for marijuana and maybe cocaine,” Sessions said. “She met a boy there and within three weeks after being out she was dead. She came back and did what she had been doing after being off it.”
Sessions later told of a Boy Scout he knew in Lake Highland, who went off to school at Texas A&M, and fell into heavy drug use started by smoking marijuana. “Never had smoked marijuana,” Sessions said. “At the end of the first year, he was well into it; the second year, he was into heroin. The drive for addiction with some of our children is insatiable. You just never know when you’re looking at a kid what drives them. But parents are desperate.”
Sessions, like all members of the House, is up for reelection this year. The Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races, currently rates the district as “Lean Republican.”
In the meantime, Sessions faces fellow Republican Paul Brown in a March 6 primary. Brown’s campaign website says the federal government “should not legislate…narcotics. Those should be legislated by states or localities if they are to be legislated at all.”
Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), one of the House’s leading advocates for marijuana policy reform, announced last year that his political action committee would pay to put up billboards in Sessions’s district criticizing his cannabis blockade.
The Texas congressman has no relation to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, also an ardent legalization opponent.
Marijuana Isn’t Addictive, Former A.G. Eric Holder Says
The nation’s former top law enforcement officer is not worried that the legalization of marijuana will lead to addiction.
“I’ve never seen any scientific evidence that points you to concerns about addiction through the use of marijuana,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in an interview published on Friday by NY1.
The comments by the former A.G. call into question cannabis’s current status as a Schedule I drug. That category is supposed to be reserved only for substances with no medical value and a high potential for abuse. In fact, it would mean that marijuana should be moved to at least Schedule III, where drugs with “moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence” are categorized.
Although Holder did not move to reclassify cannabis when he had the power to do so as attorney general, he did specifically endorse such a change just months after leaving office.
“I certainly think it ought to be rescheduled,” he said in a 2015 interview with PBS.
And he still feels the same way.
“We need to move marijuana from Schedule I, so research can be done,” Holder said in the new NY1 interview. “It is classified now on the same level as heroin is, and clearly that is inappropriate.”
While he did nothing to officially recategorize marijuana as attorney general — and continually passed the buck to Congress when asked about the issue — Holder’s Justice Department did issue guidance, known as the Cole Memo, which generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal interference.
Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that memo earlier this year.
In the new interview, Holder said he thinks the federal government should continue letting states implement their own legalization laws.
“Let those be laboratories to see where we want to be,” he said. “I think if you allow the states to experiment we’ll ultimately come to a national consensus about what it is we ought to do with regard to marijuana.”
He also spoke about unfair enforcement of cannabis criminalization.
“One of the things that I am concerned about, though, is the racial disparity you see in the enforcement of marijuana laws,” he said. “You see African Americans, Latinos using marijuana at just about the same rates as whites, and yet seeing rates of arrest four, five times as great as it is for whites. That is something that I think is extremely troubling.”
Photo courtesy of US Embassy New Zealand.
Congressional Committee Protects Medical Marijuana From Jeff Sessions
A powerful congressional panel voted on Thursday to continue shielding medical marijuana patients and providers who comply with state laws from prosecution by the federal government.
While the provision has been federal law since 2014, when it was first attached to legislation that funds the U.S. Department of Justice, its continuance has been in question because of recent efforts by Republican leadership to prevent votes on cannabis amendments. But in a stunning bipartisan move, the House Appropriations Committee voted to add the provision as a rider to legislation funding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s department for Fiscal Year 2019.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congressional Republicans Block Votes On Hemp Amendments
In the latest development in a series of anti-cannabis moves, congressional Republican leadership has blocked consideration of several industrial hemp amendments.
Supporters were seeking to attach the measures to the large-scale Farm Bill, which sets food and agriculture policy for the country, but the House Rules Committee on Wednesday decided that the proposals cannot be considered on the floor.
The anti-cannabis chairman of the panel did, however, reveal that a broader deal for industrial hemp might be in the works.
One of the measures the committee killed, submitted by Reps. James Comer (R-KY) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), along with a bipartisan list of cosponsors, would have legalized hemp and made it eligible for crop insurance.
“Hemp is a crop with a long and rich history in our country,” Comer said in introducing his amendment before the committee. “It was grown by many of our founding fathers.”
Comer, who is a former Kentucky agriculture commissioner, said his state’s existing industrial hemp research program, which is authorized under a previous Farm Bill enacted in 2014, “has been a great success.”
He also spoke about the economic potential of the plant. “Times are tough in rural america,” he said. “For rural Kentuckians, industrial hemp has provided a new crop and business opportunity.”
But in a party-line move, the committee voted 8 to 3 to reject a motion to add Comer’s amendment to the list of proposals approved for floor consideration.
Another hemp amendment, filed by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Jared Polis (D-CO), would have removed hemp from the list of federally banned substances.
A third proposal, submitted by Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), sought to create “a safe harbor for financial institutions that provide services to hemp legitimate businesses” that operate under state-authorized research programs.
“There is a proud history in American and in Kentucky [for hemp] as an agriculture product,” Barr said when testifying for his amendment, noting that it can be used in over 25,000 products.
Under current law, banks that work with legitimate hemp companies “fear reprisal from federal regulators,” Barr said, arguing that his proposed measure would protect financial institutions “from unnecessary interference from bank examiners and regulators” and give producers rights that “every other American crop enjoys.”
The committee did not hold specific votes on those two measures.
Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) has made a consistent practice of blocking cannabis measures from advancing over the past several years.
Sessions, seemingly mistakenly, told Comer during the Wednesday hearing that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has “a clause…that industrial hemp should be declassified under their Schedule I drugs, which they concur, which is the position you hold, too.”
A hemp lobbyist told Marijuana Moment in an email that he had not heard of the DEA taking a pro-hemp position.
Polis, who as a Rules Committee member made the unsuccessful motion to let the full House vote on Comer’s amendment, argued that hemp is a “common sense area” that enjoys bipartisan support. The measure, he said, would simply “treat industrial hemp as the agricultural commodity that it is.”
While Sessions and other GOP panel members were not swayed, the chairman did hint just before the vote that there may still be hope for hemp reform, saying that the issue would be “determined by an agreement that would be reached” with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
McConnell last month filed a hemp legalization bill, which Comer’s amendment closely modeled. Fully a fifth of the Senate is now signed on as cosponsoring that legislation, and the majority leader has already announced plans to attach his hemp language to the version of the Farm Bill being considered by the Senate this month.
While it is unclear what exactly Sessions was suggesting when he referred to an “agreement” with McConnell, it may have been a reference to the conference committee process that will merge the House and Senate’s respective versions of the Farm Bill into a single proposal after each chamber passes its legislation. If McConnell succeeds in attaching hemp legalization to the Senate bill, it would then be up for consideration as part of the final legislation sent to President Trump for signing into law.
In 2014, McConnell successfully inserted a provision to prevent federal interference in hemp research programs in that year’s version of the Farm Bill.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.