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.
Hawaii Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Joint Committee Hearing
Two Hawaii Senate committees approved a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in a joint hearing on Tuesday.
The vote comes two weeks after the full House passed the amended legislation, which makes possession of three grams or less of cannabis a civil offense instead of a crime punishable by jail time. As approved by that full chamber, a first the offense was punishable by a $200 fine under the bill, but the Senate committees lowered it to $30 instead.
While the quantity of marijuana is significantly less than in other states have decriminalized, the development was welcomed by reform advocates in the state.
“[W]e embrace the move from criminalization that the bill still represents, and particularly applaud the provisions to dismiss pending charges and expunge convictions related to cannabis offenses,” the reform organization Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said in written testimony. “While we support full-scale legalization of adult use cannabis, this bill then also begins to reverse the brutal impact of the decades’ long, needless criminalization of this substance.”
The Senate Committee on Judiciary adopted the House recommendation without objection and advanced the bill. The Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs didn’t immediately have a quorum during the joint hearing, so that panel didn’t formally take its vote until later in the day.
Besides decriminalizing low-level cannabis possession, the legislation would provide for the expungement of prior convictions cocerning three grams or less.
It would also establish a marijuana evaluation task force to “examine other states’ laws, penalties, and outcomes pertaining to marijuana use, other than marijuana use for medical purposes, and make recommendations on amending marijuana use penalties and outcomes in the State.”
Advocates are cautiously optimistic that Gov. David Ige (D) will sign the bill if it arrives on his desk. While he’s expressed concerns about adult-use legalization, he put his name on decriminalization legislation as a state senator in 2013.
On that note, a separate legalization proposal that advanced further than similar legislation has ever gone in Hawaii after it was approved by a Senate committee last month did not receive consideration in another panel before the deadline to proceed through the legislative process, which effectively killed the bill.
Elsewhere, New Mexico lawmakers sent a more wide-ranging decriminalization bill to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) over the weekend. The pro-legalization governor is expected to sign the legislation.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
First Congressional Marijuana Vote Of 2019 Officially Scheduled For Next Week
A bipartisan bill designed to protect banks that service the marijuana industry from being penalized by federal regulators will get a vote in a key congressional committee next week.
The legislation, which was discussed during the first cannabis-related hearing of the 116th Congress last month, will go before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday.
Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) Denny Heck (D-WA), Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Warren Davidson (R-OH) are the chief sponsors of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. It was formally filed earlier this month, and currently has 138 cosponsors—more than a quarter of the House.
After no action for 6 years, #SAFEBanking has received its first hearing and will see its first vote next week. Glad to have the support of 138+ cosponsors as we work to address the #cannabis banking issue and get cash off our streets. https://t.co/jylk1udqVQ
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) March 19, 2019
“For six years, Congress has failed to act on the issue of cannabis banking, putting thousands of employees, businesses and communities at risk,” Perlmutter said in a statement emailed to Marijuana Moment. “However, the issue is finally receiving the attention it deserves with the first-ever congressional hearing and now a scheduled committee vote.”
‘Among the cosponsors is the chair of the committee herself, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who spoke about addressing banking issues in the cannabis industry shortly before assuming the position. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA), have also signed onto the legislation—demonstrating its support among powerful Democratic leaders of the House.
All of this sets the stage for a potentially game-changing vote, as Republican leadership during the last Congress consistently blocked marijuana-related bills from even being considered. With Democrats in control and leading lawmakers embracing the legislation, it stands a good chance of heading to the full House and then on to the Senate.
Resolving banking problems for marijuana companies was one of several legislative goals that Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) outlined in a blueprint to end federal marijuana prohibition he sent to his party’s leaders last year.
“The banking issue is just one aspect of the failed policy of federal marijuana criminalization. In order to truly bring the marijuana industry out of the shadows, actions need to be taken by Congress to amend this, and many others, outdated and discriminatory practices,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said in a statement. “This will certainly not be the last hearing of this Congress to discuss marijuana prohibition and we expect a full hearing on prohibition to be scheduled in the months to come.”
There were several changes made to the banking bill since it was last introduced in the 115th Congress. For example, the legislation clarifies that protections are extended to financial institutions that work with ancillary cannabis business—not just those that directly sell marijuana or marijuana products.
“[P]roceeds from a transaction conducted by a cannabis-related legitimate business shall not be considered as proceeds from an unlawful activity solely because the transaction was conducted by a cannabis-related legitimate business,” the bill states.
It also calls on the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council to implement “uniform guidance and examination procedures for depository institutions that provide financial services to cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
There have been widespread calls to tackle the banking problem, including from members of Congress and representatives of cannabis businesses. With this vote, it seems those calls are at least starting to be answered.
Meanwhile, Nadler has signaled that his Judiciary Committee may also take up broader marijuana legislation soon.
“With 97.7 percent of the U.S. population living in a state where voters have legalized some form of adult recreational, medical or limited-medical use of marijuana, congressional inaction is no longer an option,” Perlmutter said. “And with broad, bipartisan support in the House, I look forward to the SAFE Banking Act continuing to move forward in the Financial Services Committee and on the floor of the House.”
This story has been updated to include statements from Perlmutter and NORML.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Feds Ramp Up Calls For Research Into Marijuana Treatment For Chronic Pain
A federal health agency is seeking the public’s help in identifying studies that explore the potential benefits and harms of using marijuana instead of opioids for chronic pain treatment.
In three separate notices published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) said it is in the process of reviewing existing research on chronic pain—specifically alternatives to opioid-based painkillers—and requested “supplemental evidence and data submissions” from the public.
The agency provided guidelines for what exactly it was interested in learning. One notice called for studies on the “comparative effectiveness” of using non-opioid therapies, “including marijuana,” instead of opioids. The studies should explore differences in “outcomes related to pain, function, and quality of life.” The filing also includes a prompt for evidence about utilizing cannabis in tandem with opioids, including how the harms of the prescription pain medications vary for patients who also use marijuana.
In another notice, AHRQ, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said it wants help completing its review of non-invasive and non-pharmacologic chronic pain treatments such as exercise, mindfulness, acupuncture—and yes, medical marijuana. The request specified that the agency is interested in research on “any formulation” of cannabis.
Finally, a third notice included marijuana in a list of non-opioid pharmacologic treatment options that AHRQ is interested in exploring. The public is encouraged to submit studies and data on the risk of “overdose, misuse, dependence, withdrawals due to adverse events, and serious adverse events” for medical cannabis, as well as more conventional oral and topical treatments.
Altogether, the package of solicitations demonstrates that while marijuana remains a Schedule I drug (meaning the federal government does not recognize it as having medical value), there are federal agencies that are compelled by the prospect that cannabis effectively treats pain without the risks posed by opioids.
And there are any number of studies that AHRQ might want to take into consideration. For example, there are surveys that show patients often use marijuana as a substitute for opioid painkillers and other pharmaceuticals, as well as several comprehensive studies indicating that states with legal cannabis access experience lower opioid overdose rates and have fewer opioid prescriptions compared to non-legal states.
The deadline to submit studies and data for all of the new notices is April 18.
These are the latest in a series of notices that AHRQ and other federal agencies have published in recent months. Last year, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health hosted a workshop that specifically addressed barriers to cannabis research while the substance remains federally prohibited.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.