A powerful U.S. House panel that oversees federal drug enforcement efforts approved a bill on Thursday to require the Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to begin issuing more licenses to grow marijuana for research.
Prior to the vote, a bitter dispute broke out over a provision of the legislation that prevents anyone with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from being affiliated with cannabis research cultivation operations.
“There is no legitimate health or public safety justification for the inclusion of this language and we urge you to strike this unnecessary, punitive ban on individuals with previous drug law violations,” reads a letter sent to the committee’s leaders on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, #cut50, the Drug Policy Alliance and other groups. “To help lower recidivism rates and improve public safety, we should be making it easier for people with records to obtain jobs, not more difficult.”
Legalization supporters scrambled this week to build support to amend the bill accordingly, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)—who has long opposed marijuana reform but is a cosponsor of the research legislation—refused to go along with a compromise that would have stripped the restrictions on people with drug misdemeanors while maintaining the ban on those with felony convictions, Capitol Hill staffers and advocates said.
As a result, some drug policy reformers who otherwise strongly support expanding marijuana research balked on the bill, urging lawmakers to vote no.
The legislation as introduced “unfortunately and unjustly expands the collateral consequences of criminal convictions,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the top Democrat on the panel, said at the start of an hour-long debate before the vote.
Citing the racially disproportionate manner in which drug laws have been enforced, he said the restrictions in the bill would “compound this injustice by preventing the very people who have been harmed from participating” in research.
But Goodlatte argued that it is “wholly appropriate that we set a firm standard for those who are supposed to be growing and manufacturing research-grade marijuana.”
During the committee markup, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) offered an amendment to remove the words “drug-related misdemeanor” from the provision in question, but ultimately withdrew the proposal instead of forcing a vote after Goodlatte made a commitment to work to revise the restrictions before the bill goes to the House floor. The chairman indicated that he would “probably not object” to a carve-out for people with drug possession convictions.
The overall bill, the Medical Cannabis Research Act, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), was then approved by a voice vote.
“While there are many varying opinions on the issue of marijuana, one thing we all can agree on is that we need qualified researchers to study the science to determine if there are any potential medicinal benefits to chemicals derived from cannabis,” Goodlatte said in a statement.
We must ensure that an adequate and uninterrupted supply of research-grade cannabis is available to safe harbor provisions for research facilities. I am proud to lead the efforts to unlock cures through important scientific research.
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) September 13, 2018
Earlier in the week Gaetz tweeted that “both sides make fair points” about the drug conviction language, but the issue “isn’t important” to him.
“What a shame if disagreement on such a small thing kept us from making University/Hospital/Hospice/VA/MedSchool #MedicalMarijuana research collaboration legal with the vibrant, innovative commercial cannabis industry,” he wrote.
This isn’t important 2 me. Both sides make fair points. But what a shame if disagreement on such a small thing kept us from making University/Hospital/Hospice/VA/MedSchool #MedicalMarijuana research collaboration legal with the vibrant, innovative commercial cannabis industry. https://t.co/i3GB8s1ZMn
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) September 10, 2018
During the committee hearing on Thursday, Gaetz said that the restriction wasn’t included in initial drafts of the bill and its addition was suggested by people in the marijuana industry who “wanted to raise the bar” and not have “people who wandered out of their drug circle or hacky sack endeavor” leading cannabis research.
Morgan Fox, communications director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a text message that his organization “absolutely did not suggest that and does not support that restriction.”
It is unclear who did suggest it.
While a number of Judiciary Committee Democrats spoke up to say that they could not support the legislation as written, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) said that he was willing to vote to advance it in the hopes of it being amended later.
Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), who is not a member of the panel, praised its passage in a tweet, as did Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), who sits on the committee.
Today the Judiciary Committee passed the Medical Cannabis Research Act. This bipartisan bill I've cosponsored is a small step in removing barriers to federal research, including at our VA facilities. There's more work to do, but this is a commonsense bill that should become law.
— Dina Titus (@repdinatitus) September 13, 2018
Glad to see that HR 5635, The Medical Cannabis Research Act, was adopted by voice in @HouseJudiciary today. This bill wisely regulates medical marijuana research and helps our veterans by allowing the VA to discuss potential medical marijuana trials with them.
— Congressman Ken Buck (@RepKenBuck) September 13, 2018
Legalization advocates, mindful of growing political momentum for marijuana policy reform, said they have moved past the time when they were willing to make major concessions in order to move incremental legislation.
“While the bill’s consideration represents progress, it’s a drop in the ocean given what we need to do to end federal prohibition and repair the harms of the drug war,” Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance said in an interview earlier this week, adding that the restrictive provisions are “egregious, unnecessary and representative of an outdated approach to public policy.”
Others cannabis activists cheered the bill’s passage but questioned whether more research on marijuana was really needed before Congress moves to change its status under federal law.
“While this vote marks a step forward, it must also be acknowledged that despite existing barriers to research, ample studies already exist to contradict cannabis’ federal, schedule I status as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a press release. “More clinical research is welcome, but unfortunately science has never driven marijuana policy. If it did, the United States would already have a very different policy in place.”
For too long, Congress has faced a dilemma with cannabis-related legislation: we cannot reform cannabis law without researching its safety, its efficacy, and its medical uses — but we cannot perform this critical research without first reforming cannabis law.
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) September 13, 2018
Under current U.S. policy, a University of Mississippi farm has for the past 50 years been the only legal source of marijuana for studies. But researchers have often complained that it is too hard to get approval to use the facility’s cannabis products, and that they are often of low quality.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, in the closing months of the Obama presidency, moved to create a process for the federal government to issue additional research cultivation licenses. But the Justice Department under Sessions has blocked the DEA from acting on the more than two dozen applications that have been submitted.
Gaetz’s bill, if enacted into law, would force Sessions’s hand by requiring the granting of more licenses. It now heads to the House floor.
In addition to the requirement to issue additional cultivation licenses, the bill clarifies that Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors can discuss the medical marijuana with their patients and can refer them to participate in scientific studies on the drug’s effects.
The Judiciary Committee vote marks only the second time in history that a congressional panel has approved standalone cannabis reform legislation. Earlier this year, the House Veterans Affairs Committee passed a bill encouraging the VA to conduct research on the medical benefits of marijuana for military veterans.
Federal Agency Loosens Marijuana-Related Grant Funding Restrictions For Mental Health Treatment
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) loosened restrictions this week on grant funding for state health providers and other entities that allow patients to use medical marijuana for mental heath treatment.
The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs flagged the new policy change in a notice to SAMHSA grant recipients on Monday. It said that the federal agency has removed language from its terms and conditions that until now has prevented grant funds from going to any institution that “provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders.”
This restriction led the state department to issue a memo in June warning recipients and applicants about the possible withholding of funding.
Despite the recent change, SAMHSA is still continuing a narrower ban that says federal funds themselves “may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana.”
The broader prohibition, which has now been rescinded, prompted a notice last year from Maine’s Education Department, which said is was no longer eligible for certain federal funds to support mental health programs in schools because the state allows students to access medical marijuana.
It seems the federal agency is now being somewhat more permissive.
Here’s how SAMHSA’s updated marijuana restriction reads:
“SAMHSA grant funds may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory and public policy requirements); 21 U.S.C. 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana).”
The older, more broad prohibition read:
“Grant funds may not be used, directly or indirectly, to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. Treatment in this context includes the treatment of opioid use disorder. Grant funds also cannot be provided to any individual who or organization that provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. § 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to “ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory requirements.”); 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana). This prohibition does not apply to those providing such treatment in the context of clinical research permitted by the DEA and under an FDA-approved investigational new drug application where the article being evaluated is marijuana or a constituent thereof that is otherwise a banned controlled substance under federal law.”
The marijuana restrictions were first added to grant award terms for Fiscal Year 2020. The language was initially carried over to Fiscal Year 2021 but was more recently switched out for the narrower language by the federal agency.
In a January 2020 FAQ that the Pennsylvania department shared from SAMHSA this June, the federal agency responded to a prompt inquiring whether grant recipients can serve patients who are “very clear about their wish to remain on their medical marijuana for their mental or substance use disorder.”
“No. The organization cannot serve a patient who is on medical marijuana for a mental or substance use disorder and wishes to remain on such treatment,” it said. “SAMHSA promotes the use of evidence-based practices and there is no evidence for such a treatment; in fact, there is increasing evidence that marijuana can further exacerbate mental health symptoms.”
While the agency seemed adamant in enforcing that policy at the time, it appears to have had a change of heart and has since loosened the restriction.
A SAMHSA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the new rules took effect on Sunday, but played down their significance.
“This Aug. 1 clarification simply made clearer what was already in place: SAMHSA funds should not be used to procure a federally prohibited substance,” he said in an email.
While it is true that the revised provision, as was the case in the prior language, states that federal funds cannot be used to pay for marijuana, the spokesperson avoided commenting on the new deletion of the broader prohibition on grants going to entities that otherwise allow patients to use medical cannabis to treat substance use or mental disorders.
After SAMHSA announced in 2019 that its marijuana policy would impact organizations applying for its two main opioid treatment programs and another that provides funding to combat alcoholism and substance misuse, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Oregon Health Authority issued notices on the impact of the rule.
Read the Pennsylvania department’s notice on the SAMHSA marijuana policy change below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Mexican Lawmakers Could Finally Legalize Marijuana Sales Next Month (Op-Ed)
The legislature missed repeated deadlines, and then the Supreme Court moved to allow homegrow. What’s next?
By Zara Snapp, Filter
Mexico has never seemed so close and yet so far from fully regulating the adult-use cannabis market.
A first Supreme Court resolution determined in 2015 that the absolute prohibition of cannabis for personal use was unconstitutional because it violates the right to the free development of personality. To reach jurisprudence in Mexico, five consecutive cases, with the same or more votes each time, must be won before the Supreme Court. This was achieved in October 2018, which detonated a legislative mandate that within 90 days, the Senate should modify the articles in the General Health Law that were deemed unconstitutional.
The first deadline came and went without the Senate modifying the articles; so the Senate requested an extension, which was granted. The second deadline to legislate expired on April 30, 2020—but another extension was provided because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At first, it looked like the third time was the charm. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the Federal Law to Regulate and Control Cannabis in November 2020 and passed it to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, for review and approval. Since the deadline of December 15, 2020, was fast approaching, the Chamber asked for its own extension. The Supreme Court granted it (until April 20, 2021) and the bill underwent significant changes before being approved by the Chamber on March 10, and so sent back to the Senate.
The Senate certainly had enough time to review and either reject or accept the changes made by the lower house. That would have made this a shorter story. However, the Senate had other plans. Rather than approve the bill or request an additional extension, it simply did not do anything. June’s national midterm elections were approaching, and political calculations were made. The legislative process came to a standstill.
Since the Senate did not approve the bill by the deadline, the Supreme Court basically did what it had mandated Congress to do. It activated a mechanism to guarantee rights that had only been undertaken once before in Mexican history: the General Declaration of Unconstitutionality (GDU).
On June 28, the Supreme Court approved, with a qualified majority of eight of the 11 Ministers, that two articles in the General Health Law must be modified to permit adults to cultivate cannabis for personal use in their homes.
These changes were officially published on July 15, with specific instructions to the Health Secretary to approve authorizations for any adult who applies.
The GDU has certain restrictions attached, including that this is only for personal use and cannot be used to justify any commercialization of cannabis or cannabis-derived products. Adults cannot consume in front of minors, or other adults who have not expressly given their permission. Nor can they operate heavy machinery or drive while under the effects.
With the GDU, the judicial process concludes. However, the Supreme Court was clear in its final recommendations: Congress can and should legislate to clear up inconsistencies and generate a legal framework for cannabis users.
Whether the Senate decides to take up the matter again in September when it returns to its legislative session will depend largely on its political whim. The body no longer has a deadline to meet; however, there are growing calls from society to regulate the market beyond home-grow, as well as several legal contradictions that obviously need to be harmonized.
The General Health Law has now been modified and the health secretary must approve permits or authorizations for adults to cultivate in their homes. But the Federal Criminal Code has not changed—it still penalizes those same activities with sanctions ranging from 10 months to three years or more in prison.
The Supreme Court decision ignores the need for a comprehensive regulation that would allow the state to apply taxes to commercial activities, which are currently still criminalized with penal sanctions. It also overlooks the urgency of an amnesty program for the thousands of people currently incarcerated on low-level cannabis charges, or hampered by criminal records for such charges.
The Senate should now revisit the bill it initially passed. It should maintain the positive aspects of the bill, which would improve things well beyond the scope of the Supreme Court decision. These include provision for cannabis associations (permitting up to four plants per person for up to 20 members), for home-grow without the need to request authorization, and for a regulated market with a social justice perspective—allocating 40 percent (or more!) of cultivation licenses to communities harmed by prohibition and imposing restrictions on large companies.
The Senate could also build upon the previous version of the bill by eliminating simple possession as a crime, by allowing the associations to operate immediately and guaranteeing the participation of small and medium companies through strong government support.
During the last three years, and before, civil society has closely accompanied the process of creating this legislation, providing the technical and political inputs needed to move forward in a way that could have great social benefits for Mexico.
By becoming the third country in the world to regulate adult cannabis use, after Uruguay and Canada, Mexico could transition from being one of the largest illegal producers to being the largest legal domestic market in the world. As well as economic benefits, this could have substantial impacts on how criminal justice funds are spent, freeing up law enforcement dollars to focus on high-impact crimes and changing the way the state has shown up in communities that cultivate cannabis.
Rather than eradicating crops, the government could accompany communities in gaining legal licenses, provide technical assistance and improve basic services. These positive externalities of regulation could signal a shift from a militarized state of war to a focus on rights, development and social justice.
Of course, this all depends on key political actors recognizing the benefits—and that requires political will. Mexico deserves better; however, it remains to be seen whether legislators will act.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.
Oregon Governor Plans To Veto Bill To Regulate Kratom Sales That Advocates Say Would Protect Consumers
The governor of Oregon has announced her intent to veto a bill that’s meant to create a regulatory framework for the sale and use of kratom for adults.
The Oregon Kratom Consumer Protection Act is bipartisan legislation that would make it so only people 21 and older could purchase the plant-based substance, which some use for its stimulating effects and which others found useful in treating opioid withdrawals.
Vendors would have to register with the state Department of Agriculture to sell kratom. The agency would be responsible for developing regulations on testing standards and labeling requirements. The bill would further prohibit the sale of contaminated or adulterated kratom products.
But while the House and Senate approved the legislation in June, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said on Sunday that she plans to veto it, in large part because she feels the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is better suited to regulate the products.
“Given there is currently no FDA-approved use for this product and there continues to be concern about the impacts of its use, I would entertain further legislation to limit youth access without the state agency regulatory function included in this bill,” the governor said.
This comes as a disappointment to advocates and regulators who share concerns about the risks of adulterated kratom but feel a regulatory framework could help mitigate those dangers and provide adults with a safe supply of products that have helped some overcome opioid addiction.
“Kratom has been consumed safely for centuries in Southeast Asia and Americans use it in the same way that coffee is used for increased focus and energy boosts. Many use kratom for pain management without the opioid side effects,” Rep. Bill Post (R), sponsor of the bill, wrote in an op-ed published in June. “The problem in Oregon is that adulterated products are being sold.”
“Kratom in its pure form is a natural product,” he said. “Adulterated kratom is a potentially dangerous product.”
Pete Candland, executive director of the American Kratom Association, said in written testimony on the bill in February that four other states—Utah, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada—have enacted similar legislation with positive results.
He said that “the number of adulterated kratom products spiked with dangerous drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and morphine in those states has significantly decreased” in those states.
Meanwhile, six states—Vermont, Alabama, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Rhode Island—have banned kratom sales altogether.
Candland said that number is actually a testament to the noncontroversial nature of the plant, as prohibition is only in effect in six states despite “a full-throated disinformation campaign on kratom by the FDA with outrageously untrue claims about kratom being the cause of hundreds of deaths.”
After failing to get kratom prohibited domestically, FDA recently opened a public comment period that’s meant to inform the U.S. position on how the substance should be scheduled under international statute.
“Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects,” FDA wrote in the notice. “Kratom is available in several different forms to include dried/crushed leaves, powder, capsules, tablets, liquids, and gum/ resin. Kratom is an increasingly popular drug of abuse and readily available on the recreational drug market in the United States.”
Responses to the notice will help inform the federal government’s stance on kratom scheduling in advance of an October meeting of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, where international officials will discuss whether to recommend the substance be globally scheduled.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a report to spending legislation that says federal health agencies have “contributed to the continued understanding of the health impacts of kratom, including its constituent compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.”
It also directed the Health and Human Services secretary to continue to refrain from recommending that kratom be controlled in Schedule I.
Late last year, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) asked the public to help identify research that specifically looks at the risks and benefits of cannabinoids and kratom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year separately received more than one thousand comments concerning kratom as part of another public solicitation.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/ThorPorre.