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.
As More States Legalize, DEA Chops Down Fewer Marijuana Plants, Federal Data Shows
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized far fewer marijuana plants in 2018 compared to the previous year but made significantly more cannabis-related arrests, according to federal data released this month.
More than 2.8 million indoor and outdoor marijuana plants were seized last year as part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That marks a 17 percent decline from 2017 levels.
NORML first noted the DEA report, which also shows that marijuana-related arrests the agency was involved with increased by about 20 percent in a year. And while the overall number of plants that were seized dropped, DEA said that the value of the assets totaled about $52 million—more than twice as much as it reported the previous year.
State-level legalization efforts appear to have played a role in the declining number of plant seizures, particularly those cultivated outdoors. In the same year that retail cannabis sales started in California, DEA confiscated almost 40 percent fewer outdoor plants in the state compared to 2017.
That data point is consistent with recent research showing that legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of illicit cannabis grows in national forests, which are often targets for DEA enforcement action.
It’s not clear why there was a significant uptick in marijuana-related arrests, but those increases generally did not occur in states where legal cannabis systems were recently implemented.
For example, arrests in Kansas, where marijuana is strictly prohibited, increased by more than 3,500 percent—from 15 to 544—from 2017 to 2018. Louisiana likewise experienced a 168 percent increase in cannabis arrests.
The data covers federal law enforcement actions and does not include those of local police agencies that did not partner with the agency.
Year-over-year decreases in cannabis seizures through DEA’s eradication program have been viewed by advocates as evidence that state-level legalization systems effectively displace the illicit market, removing the incentive to illegally cultivate cannabis.
Similarly, a separate recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showed that federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking dropped precipitously in 2018—another sign demonstrating that state-level legalization is disrupting the illicit market, advocates argue.
NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment that “federal eradication programs are a holdover from a bygone era.”
“At a time when roughly one-quarter of the country resides in a jurisdiction where adult marijuana use is legal, and when members of Congress are openly discussing removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is time for these federal anti-marijuana efforts to be put out to pasture and for federal agencies to take positions that more closely comport with cannabis’ rapidly changing cultural status in America,” he said.
DEA has also faced criticism of its cannabis eradication efforts from a non-partisan federal watchdog agency last year for failing to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners funded through the program.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report that DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals.”
At the same time that DEA is seizing fewer plants grown illicitly, it’s also setting higher goals for federally authorized cannabis cultivation for research purposes. In 2019, the agency said it hoped to grow approximately 5,400 pounds of marijuana to meet research demand, which is more than double its quota for 2018.
Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access
In one of the clearest signs of marijuana reform’s growing momentum on Capitol Hill, a Republican-controlled Senate committee has scheduled a hearing for next week that will examine cannabis businesses’ lack of access to banking services.
The formal discussion in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Tuesday comes as legislation aimed at resolving the marijuana industry’s financial services problems is gaining momentum. A House cannabis banking bill that cleared that chamber’s Financial Services Committee with a bipartisan vote in March now has 206 cosponsors—nearly half the body—while companion Senate legislation has 32 out of 100 senators signed on.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congressman Files Marijuana Bill After Leaving Republican Party
In one of his first legislative acts since leaving the Republican Party earlier this month amid a feud with the president, Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) filed a bill on Monday that would let states set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because bipartisan legislation that would accomplish the same goal has already been filed this Congress.
But unlike the nearly identical Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, Amash’s new bill excludes one provision that would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the effects of cannabis legalization on road safety and issue a report on its findings within a year of the law’s enactment.
That language states that the GAO must study “traffic crashes, fatalities, and injuries” in legal cannabis states, actions taken by those states to “address marihuana-impaired driving,” testing standards being used to detect impaired driving and federal initiatives “aiming to assist States that have legalized marihuana with traffic safety.”
Given Amash’s libertarian leanings, it stands to reason that he opposes spending government dollars to conduct the research and simply supports the broader states’ rights intent of the original legislation.
That would also put him at odds with social justice advocates who feel that the STATES Act itself doesn’t go far enough and are pushing for more comprehensive legislation that includes additional provisions addressing social equity and restorative justice for people harmed by drug law enforcement.
Members of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee heard that debate play out during a historic hearing on ending federal marijuana prohibition last week.
A newly formed coalition of civil rights and drug reform organizations, including the ACLU, is also insisting on passing wide-ranging legislation to deschedule cannabis entirely that also invests in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
Amash is a long-standing critic of the war on drugs and earlier this year signed on as a cosponsor of a separate bill that would federally deschedule marijuana. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, filed that legislation, which is also silent on social equity provisions.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 8, 2019
Gabbard also introduced a separate bill that would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies to study the impacts of legalization. True to form, Amash declined to add his name to that measure as well.
Read the text of Amash’s new cannabis bill below:
Photo courtesy of Kyle Jaeger.