A key congressional committee advanced a series of marijuana-related amendments on Tuesday, including a rider seeking to block the Department of Justice (DOJ) from interfering in all state-legal cannabis programs. The measures, which also include proposals shielding tribal marijuana laws and allowing military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations from government doctors, will now move to the House floor for consideration.
More than a dozen drug policy amendments came before the House Rules Committee, with the panel approving several for potential attachment to a large-scale bill funding parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2020.
Reform advocates were most interested in ensuring that the proposal seeking to prohibit DOJ agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from using funds to intervene in state-legal marijuana activities advanced. The committee didn’t disappoint, ruling it in order for a vote by the full House.
Advocates are optimistic that the measure, sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), will be approved because a similar amendment came just nine flipped votes short of passage on the House floor in 2015. Since then, the number of states with legalization has more than doubled, meaning that there are a lot more lawmakers who now represent constituents who would be covered by the proposal’s protections than was the case at the time of the prior vote.
State medical cannabis laws are currently shielded from Department of Justice interference under a similar but narrower spending rider than has been enacted and extended annually since 2014.
Blumenauer’s broader amendment seeking to expand protections to local laws allowing recreational marijuana use and sales is cosponsored by Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC).
In an interview with Marijuana Moment, the Oregon congressman was reluctant to predict a specific number of votes for the measure on the floor, but did note that he was confident of its passage and said the tally would be “an indication of where we’re going with the overall reform effort.”
A big week ahead for cannabis reform. With every committee hearing and amendment introduced, we are one step closer to ending the senseless prohibition of cannabis and the failed war on drugs.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) June 19, 2019
If the House does approve the measure when the bill comes to the floor, expected later this week, it would not necessarily be enacted into law, as the Senate has not yet begun its consideration of companion spending legislation.
Another amendment cleared for floor consideration would allow Indian tribes to implement their own marijuana policies without the threat of Justice Department intervention. That measure is sponsored by Blumenauer and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first two Native American women ever elected to Congress.
Blumenauer said he is “optimistic” about that proposal’s chances on the floor.
Another key amendment cleared for a vote would let Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to military veterans in states where it is legal. In years past, both the House and Senate have approved similar measures, but the rider has never been enacted into law.
Other proposals advancing toward votes by the full House include ones focused on CBD regulations, adding a U.S. territory to the list of jurisdictions protected by an existing medical cannabis rider and shifting money away from DEA and toward drug treatment.
These amendments were cleared for floor action:
STATES AND TERRITORIES: Blocks DOJ from interfering with marijuana laws in states, territories and Washington, D.C.
USVI: Adds U.S. Virgin Islands to list of jurisdictions shielded from DOJ medical cannabis interference.
TRIBES: Blocks DOJ from interfering with tribal marijuana laws.
VETERANS: Blocks VA from punishing doctors for recommending medical cannabis in states that have legalized or from denying benefits to veterans for participating in medical cannabis programs.
CBD: Directs FDA to set a safe CBD level for foods and dietary supplements.
TREATMENT FUNDING: Moves $5 million from DEA to an opioid treatment program.
While the Rules Committee had made it a practice to block all marijuana amendments under the leadership of then-Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) during the last several years of Republican House control, new Chairman James McGovern (D-MA) has pledged to let cannabis measures advance under the chamber’s Democratic majority.
“I’m not going to block marijuana amendments,” he said shortly after his party took back control of the House in last year’s midterm elections. “People ought to bring them to the floor, they should be debated and people ought to vote the way they feel appropriate.”
Last week, when considering a separate funding bill, McGovern’s panel advanced an amendment put forth by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortz (D-NY) aimed at removing roadblocks to research on Schedule I drugs like marijuana, psilocybin and MDMA, but it went on to be soundly defeated on the House floor.
The committee, citing procedural issues, blocked a separate measure on the earlier spending legislation from Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) aimed at shielding colleges and universities from being punished by the Department of Education for allowing medical cannabis on campus.
Several amendments filed on the current appropriations bill before the committee on Tuesday were withdrawn by their sponsors before the panel could make a decision about floor consideration, in some cases because they had similar measures they decided to press forward with.
These amendments were withdrawn by sponsors:
SAFE CONSUMPTION SITES: Blocks DOJ from preventing states and localities from establishing and implementing safe consumption sites for illegal drugs.
TRIBES: Blocks DOJ from interfering with tribal medical cannabis laws.
TRIBES: Blocks DOJ from interfering with tribal marijuana laws in states that have legalized.
TRIBES: Blocks DOJ from interfering with tribal medical cannabis laws in states that have legalized.
VETERANS: Blocks DOJ from punishing VA doctors or employees for recommending medical cannabis in states that have legalized.
STATES AND TERRITORIES: Blocks DOJ from interfering with state marijuana and those in Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories.
Though advocates are backing several pieces of standalone marijuana legislation, reform proposals are increasingly being pursued through the appropriations process. Several recent committee reports have called for the expedition of policies to regulate CBD, implement hemp regulations, lift barriers to marijuana research, prevent impaired driving and protect veteran benefits for those using cannabis in compliance with state law.
The House Appropriations Committee also advised the federal government to consider updating its policy concerning employees who use marijuana in accordance with state law.
Last week, the same panel approved a spending bill that includes language providing protections for banks that service state-legal marijuana business while also removing a longstanding rider that has blocked Washington, D.C. from using its own local tax dollars to legalize and regulate cannabis sales.
And cannabis reform activity is heating up in Congress beyond appropriations.
On Wednesday, the House Small Business Committee will hold a hearing on issues facing small businesses in the marijuana industry. And on Thursday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will consider several bills focused on medical cannabis and military veterans.
Meanwhile, a standalone bill to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banks was cleared by the House Financial Services Committee in March. Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment that he anticipates a floor vote on that legislation next month.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
GOP Congressman Withdraws Amendment To Block D.C. Psychedelics Decriminalization
A GOP congressman filed an amendment to a spending bill on Wednesday, seeking to undermine a local Washington, D.C. ballot initiative to deprioritize enforcement of laws against a broad class of psychedelics.
But while Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) made the case that his proposed measure represented a reasonable compromise—making it so only psilocybin mushrooms would be low police priorities and only if a doctor recommended them for medical reasons—he ultimately withdrew the amendment rather than force a vote.
“This amendment deals with Initiative 81…which would make the use of hallucinogenic drugs a low priority for enforcement in the District of Columbia,” Harris said in his opening remarks before the House Appropriations Committee.
The congressman added that he’s particularly concerned about the scope of the ballot measure, acknowledging that “there is limited data that psilocybin may be useful in some circumstances” but asserting that the same can’t be said of the other entheogenic substances such as mescaline that would be covered under the activist-driven initiative.
Watch the debate over Harris’s D.C. psychedelics amendment below:
It should be noted that while activists behind the initiative submitted their signatures last week and believe they have more than enough to qualify for the November ballot in the nation’s capital, the Board of Elections has yet to certify them. Harris acknowledged that but said “I suspect it might be [qualified for the ballot] by the time” the spending bill goes to a bicameral House and Senate conference committee that will finalize the Fiscal Year 2021 Financial Services and General Government bill for delivery to the president’s desk later this year.
It’s not clear if he was signaling that he planned to reintroduce his amendment, which also stipulates that driving under the influence of psychedelics would be prosecutable, on the House floor or if he plans to work to get a senator to tack it onto that chamber’s version of the legislation, which deals with funding for D.C.
“I think the District of Columbia is different from other cities because we have people coming in from all over the country—and we certainly, I would hope, don’t want to be known as the drug capital of the world,” he said.
There was some debate on the measure by the panel. House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee Chairman Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) voiced opposition while the subcommittee ranking member, Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke in favor of the proposal.
“If the district residents want to make mushrooms a lower priority and focus limited law enforcement resources on other issues, that is their prerogative,” Quigley said. “Congress has allowed jurisdictions in California and Colorado to exercise their sovereign right to set policy on mushrooms, the District of Columbia too should be allowed to use their local funds to support their local needs and their priorities.”
Graves argued that “we all can agree that policies that increase the availability of psychedelic drugs in our nation’s capital, that’s dangerous.”
“As the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, it should be a place where Americans come to see their government at work, for history, maybe go to a Braves-Nats game—it shouldn’t be a destination for illegal drugs,” he said.
McCollum said the amendment serves as another example of Congress attempting to impose excess regulations on D.C. and argued in favor of statehood for the district.
“Now we’re not even allowing the District of Columbia to move forward and decide whether or not this is a good idea,” she said. “I oppose the amendment.”
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) celebrated the amendment’s withdrawal with a taunt on Twitter, saying, “Regular #homerule offender @RepAndyHarrisMD tried to bar DC from using its own funds to enact a proposed ballot initiative on entheogenic plants + fungi or any similar law, but then withdrew it before the committee could defeat it.”
That prompted Harris to reply that the “process of educating Congress about how dangerous this initiative is has begun. DC has enough of a drug abuse problem without becoming the drug capital of the country.”
The process of educating Congress about how dangerous this initiative is has begun. DC has enough of a drug abuse problem without becoming the drug capital of the country. "Warrioronthehill" should be fighting AGAINST drug use, not FOR it.
— Rep. Andy Harris, MD (@RepAndyHarrisMD) July 15, 2020
Harris’s office didn’t respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment about whether he withdrew the amendment because he sensed he didn’t have the votes to pass it in committee.
In his closing remarks at the markup, the congressman said that his measure “is more than just mushrooms. That’s my whole point.”
“Mushrooms is psilocybin—that has a medical use. This includes mescaline, peyote, three other substances [that] have no medical use at all,” he said.
Melissa Lavasani, who proposed the D.C. ballot measure and is part of the Decriminalize Nature D.C. group working to pass it, said in a press release that “our campaign is about helping D.C. residents by enacting common sense reforms to police priorities that ensure that those using healing plant and fungi medicines are not law enforcement targets.”
This isn’t Harris’s first go at pushing for legislation that leverages Congress’s control over the D.C. budget to interfere in local drug policy issues.
Harris has been a consistent opponent of cannabis reform, repeatedly backing a long-standing congressional rider that bars D.C. from using its tax dollars to implement a legal marijuana marketplace. Last year, however, it was not included in the annual spending bill as introduced by House Democratic leaders and the congressmen didn’t attempt to introduce an amendment to reinsert it. It was included in the Senate version and was included in the final enacted bill following conference committee negotiations, however.
The Drug Policy Alliance sent a letter to committee leadership in advance of Wednesday’s hearing, urging them to oppose any attempts to interfere in D.C.’s ability to vote on the psychedelics reform initiative.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
Colorado Marijuana Regulators Propose ‘Franchise’ Business Model For Equity Applicants
Colorado marijuana regulators are looking for feedback on a proposal to create a franchise cannabis business model to promote equitable participation in the industry by people from communities harmed by the war on drugs.
When legislators initially approved a bill to create an accelerator program for marijuana businesses, it was only designed to give eligible entrepreneurs an opportunity to share a cannabis facility with an existing company. But following stakeholder meetings, regulators laid out a proposal to let those entrepreneurs functionally serve as franchises of current larger marijuana businesses, operating out of separate facilities but sharing branding, advertising and intellectual property under certain conditions.
“The Division contemplates certain components of this alternative ‘separate premises’ model will be similar to a franchisor-franchisee business relationship,” the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division said in a notice last month.
In order to participate under the new model, the division said it would require a series of disclosures, including initial investments from both parties, terms of any financial arrangements and obligations for the licensee such as non-compete requirements.
Additional requirements could still be developed. For example, the department is considering whether franchisees should be offered reduced or waived rent to use facilities owned by existing businesses that agree to be “endorsement holders.” Regulators are also contemplating limitations for the amount of money a franchise can charge an accelerator licensee as a fee for use of their facilities, as well as liability rules.
“Available incentives for accelerator-endorsed licensees to support the ‘separate premises’ model may also include fee reductions resulting from increased financial assistance and no-cost rent arrangements, and reduced accelerator-endorsed licensee liability,” the division said.
Beyond potentially collecting fees from licensees, the benefit of becoming an endorsement holder under this separate premises model seems to be that they get to indirectly expand their business and exposure while supporting entrepreneurs who might not have the immediate resources to break into the industry.
That said, some advocates are weary of the proposed based on past experience.
“While accelerator programs sound good on paper, they so often create terrible long term power dynamics for smaller businesses that we can not endorse this approach,” Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment.
“Any relationship that puts a small business owner at the whim of a larger conglomerate makes us concerned that the power dynamic there does not favor the smaller business, who will now have their operation tied to the success of the larger entity,” he said. “We instead encourage any business to invest in grant based programs that allow for smaller businesses to operate on their own premises and to run their business how they see fit.”
At the same time, Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment that the proposal “looks like it could create a lot of opportunities for people to get into the industry without having large amounts of capital and could generally lower the barriers of entry significantly.”
“Judging from the comments in the feedback solicitation, it appears that the possibility of predatory or unfair franchise relationships is at the front of the Marijuana Enforcement Division’s priorities and it intends to make it very difficult for endorsement licensees to exploit accelerator licensees,” he said. “However, we’ve learned from the shortcomings and abuses in other equity programs around the country that it is important to continually monitor and assess these programs to ensure their effectiveness.”
Stakeholders can fill out an online form to submit input on the proposal. A hearing to finalize the rulemaking is tentatively set for July 30.
At the same time, the division is also working on the implementation of a bill that defines who qualifies as a social equity cannabis business applicant for the accelerator program. Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed that legislation, which also gives him authority to streamline pardons for prior marijuana convictions, last month.
The division is scheduled to hold a separate hearing on implementing the new bill on July 28.
Photo courtesy of Kimberly Lawson.
Psychedelic Therapists Petition Government For Permission To Dose Themselves In Order To Better Treat Patients
As a group of terminally ill patients in Canada awaits word from the minister of health on whether they can legally access psychedelic mushrooms for end-of-life care, their team of clinicians has tacked on an additional request: The therapists want to be able to dose themselves, too.
The group behind the request, Victoria, B.C.–based TheraPsil, a nonprofit that aims to expand access to psilocybin-based psychotherapy in Canada, says the additional step of providing safe access for therapists will ensure they gain firsthand experience into the psilocybin’s effects and its applications to psychotherapy.
“The fundamental reason to expose therapists to their own experiences with psychedelics is that, unless you have visited these realms, you are unlikely to understand their importance.”
“Part of ensuring a very high-quality psychedelic treatment for patients is to ensure high-quality training for therapists,” Spencer Hawkswell, TheraPsil’s executive director, told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “It’s greatly beneficial if therapists have had psychedelic therapy themselves.”
Few people, he offered by analogy, “would advise going to a sex therapist who’s never had sex before.”
TheraPsil, founded by clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Bruce Tobin, has been fighting for expanded access to psilocybin end-of-life care for years. In 2017, the group first filed a petition to exempt patients with certain terminal conditions from Canada’s ban on psilocybin. It was reportedly the first time a therapist had asked the Canadian government for such an exemption.
It wasn’t until this past January that TheraPsil finally heard back, Hawkswell said. “After three years of back-and-forth, they got back to us and said, ‘We’re going to be rejecting this application.’” The agency said there was no obvious medical necessity for the psychedelics.
TheraPsil was undaunted. “They say there’s no necessity,” Hawkswell said. “Maybe it’s because they haven’t met that person yet.”
In April, the group helped four more people with terminal illnesses file petitions with Health Canada and Health Minister Patty Hajdu seeking exemptions that will allow them to access psilocybin. In an interview with Marijuana Moment, Hawkswell said patients had gone months so far without a word from Hajdu, who with a stroke of a pen could allow the patients to access the drug.
“What we are working on right now is ramping up our messaging,” Hawkswell said. “We are going to try everything we can to get to the minister to make sure she sees these patients and responds to them.”
Dear @PattyHajdu, today marks the 75th day that palliative Canadians have been waiting on a reply from YOU re: their section 56 exemptions for compassionate access to #psilocybin. In the words of Dr. Bruce Tobin, TheraPsil's founder: "Please, do not make them wait any longer" pic.twitter.com/JRITGwtcMR
— TheraPsil (@TheraPsil) July 6, 2020
Efforts to allow TheraPsil’s clinicians to use psilocybin themselves are more recent. Dr. Sean O’Sullivan, an emergency room physician and psychotherapist who serves on TheraPsil’s board of directors, said the exemptions are necessary so that therapists can be better trained and more familiar with how psychedelics work in a therapeutic setting.
“The fundamental reason to expose therapists to their own experiences with psychedelics is that, unless you have visited these realms, you are unlikely to understand their importance,” O’Sullivan told Marijuana Moment. “The point is to allow therapists to understand the field they’re plowing in.”
Therapists need to be alert and able to recognize how psychedelic experiences manifest themselves in therapy, O’Sullivan said. Patients might bring up material having to do with their own birth, a traumatic experience or interactions with otherworldly beings. “If you’re not attuned to this possibility, not aware of this possibility, then it’s just going to slide by you,” he said.
“It’s a bit like describing Beethoven’s Fifth,” O’Sullivan added. “You can describe it all you like, but at some point you have to play the music.”
As psychedelic therapy is more widely sought by patients, O’Sullivan said, demand for qualified therapists is likely to go up. “We are expecting that as we get more permission for patients to access psilocybin at the end of life,” he said, “that there will be an increase in demand for therapists that have had that psychedelic experience.”
Public opinion in Canada generally supports allowing access to psilocybin therapy for the terminally ill, TheraPsil says. A poll released by the group last month found that 59 percent of Canadians support legal access. Including respondents who said they were “ambivalent,” TheraPsil said, acceptance increased to 78 percent.
“What’s unreasonable is the political decision” to deny patients access to psilocybin, Hawkswell argued. “It’s not a scientific one, it’s not a democratic one. It’s political.”
Patients facing their imminent death often experience feelings and fears that psychedelics can help to ease, he said. Among them are demoralization, anxiety and depression. Existing treatment includes pharmaceuticals, talk therapy and occasionally inpatient treatment.
Psychedelics play a role in treatment by inducing what Hawkswell and others refer to as a “mystical experience”—a collection of psychoactive and sometimes spiritual events that accompany a psychedelic journey. The experience can reorient a person’s way of thinking, dissolving barriers between an individual and the world around them. For end-of-life patients, he explained, it can help them embrace that death “is natural—just as natural as being born.”
Practitioners note that psychedelic therapy doesn’t work the same way as many other pharmaceutical drugs, such as antidepressants or even medical marijuana. Patients usually take those substances under their own supervision and allow them to work in the background. With therapeutic use of psilocybin and other psychedelics, patients typically take the drug and undergo guided psychotherapy. Psychedelics’ unusual, sometimes disorienting effects are believed to allow patients to better approach and engage obstacles, then emerge with a fresh perspective.
Another psychedelic therapy group, Field Trip, which uses ketamine in therapy, describes the treatment on their website as a way “to press reset on your mental health.”
The emerging promise of psychedelics in recent years have caught the attention of academics, public policy reformers and even the U.S. government. Last month, the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced a $27 million project funded by the department of defense to research and develop psychedelics-inspired drugs.
That project’s researchers seem to believe they can separate psychedelics from what they describe as “disorienting” side effects, despite what Hawkswell and others say about the importance of a “mystical experience.”
“Although drugs like ketamine and potentially psilocybin have rapid antidepressant actions, their hallucinogenic, addictive, and disorienting side effects make their clinical use limited,” said Bryan L. Roth, a professor of pharmacology at UNC School of Medicine and the research team’s leader. The government partnership, UNC said, “aims to create new medications to effectively and rapidly treat depression, anxiety, and substance abuse without major side effects.”
In September of last year, Johns Hopkins University announced the launch of the nation’s first-ever psychedelic research center, a $17-million project to study the use of psychedelics to treat conditions such as opioid use disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meanwhile, activists in the United States have advocated for state- and local-level reforms to research, decriminalize and in some cases even legalize psychedelics themselves.
At the municipal level, Denver became the first U.S. city to enact such a reform, with voters in May 2019 approving a measure to effectively decriminalize possession of psilocybin mushrooms. Soon after, officials in Oakland, California, decriminalized possession of all plant- and fungi-based psychedelics. In January of this year, Oakland activists unveiled plans to allow go further and legalize the commercial sale of natural entheogenic substances. That same month in nearby Santa Cruz, the City Council effectively decriminalized psychedelics by voting to make the enforcement of laws against them among the city’s lowest enforcement priorities.
Reformers are now pushing for similar changes in other jurisdictions. In Washington, D.C. this month, Decriminalize Nature D.C. submitted signatures to qualify a measure for November’s ballot that would decriminalize all natural psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine.
Other reform efforts are ongoing in Oregon, where voters later this year will decide whether to legalize psilocybin therapy—the very therapy TheraPsil’s patients are pushing Canadian Health Minister Hajdu to allow. Oregon voters will also see a separate measure to decriminalize the possession of all drugs and expand access to treatment for problem use on their November ballot.
Lawmakers in Hawaii earlier this year approved a plan to study psilocybin mushrooms’ medical applications with the goal of eventually legalizing access.
In Canada, for now, psilocybin remains illegal. Hawkswell of TheraPsil, however, believes a constellation of other national policies—including medical marijuana, safe injection sites, and physician-assisted dying—support extending psilocybin access to patients in palliative care. And Canada already permits certain religious groups to use ayahuasca as religious sacrament, Hawkswell noted.
“At this point psilocybin is a reasonable medical choice for these individuals,” he told Marijuana Moment. “This is about the minister being compassionate and using her ministerial abilities to help give patients access to something that’s going to help them.”
Patients waiting to hear back from Hajdu’s office, he said, don’t have time to wait for lengthy, bureaucratic processes. “We’re not just going to keep waiting,” he told Marijuana Moment. “We do have a legal team prepared, but that’s all I’ll say.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman