The U.S. House panel that oversees federal drug enforcement is scheduled to vote this week on a bill to dramatically expand opportunities for research on the medical benefits of marijuana.
Sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and 40 bipartisan cosponsors, the Medical Cannabis Research Act would require that the federal government issue more licenses to grow marijuana to be used in scientific studies, among other changes.
For the past half century, a farm at the University of Mississippi has been the sole legal source of cannabis for research. But scientists have often complained that it is difficult to obtain product from the facility and that it is often of low quality.
“The federal government should not stand in the way of collaboration that can help people live better lives,” Gaetz said in a phone interview about the proposed expansion, which will go before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
If enacted, the proposal will “increase the amount of research-grade cannabis available to unlock cures,” the congressman said. “This will be the first time that a cannabis reform bill will make it through the Judiciary Committee during Republican control of the Congress, ever.”
In a text message, Gaetz said he expects only “technical amendments” to the legislation during its committee markup on Thursday.
But drug policy reform advocates who otherwise strongly support expanding marijuana research said they have serious concerns with some of the bill’s provisions. Namely, they don’t like that it bars people with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from being affiliated with research cultivation operations. They also take objection to a separate section that requires manufacturers to have letters of good standing from local law enforcement agencies, many of which have historically opposed cannabis reform.
While legalization supporters have sometimes been willing to accept compromises to advance less-than-ideal reform legislation, the issue of preventing people who have been caught up in the war on drugs from joining the legal industry has increasingly become a major concern for racial and social justice advocates who point out that marijuana prohibition has been enforced in a manner that has disproportionately impacted African Americans and other people of color.
“Precedent is the biggest concern,” Michael Collins, interim director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, said in a phone interview. “If the committee is already on the record saying we ban people from participating in this sector of this industry, that’s going to possibly win the day going forward.”
“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,” he said, adding that the restrictive provisions are “egregious, unnecessary and representative of an outdated approach to public policy.”
Gaetz, for his part, doesn’t necessarily disagree.
“I would go a lot further,” he said. “If I was king for a day, marijuana doctrine would look different than this bill.”
But the concessions were necessary to get fellow GOP lawmakers on board, he argued. “For many of my Republican colleagues, the most difficult marijuana reform vote to take is the first one. I’m trying to create the most comfortable setting for marijuana skeptics to do something right by their constituents, and that process can yield imperfect legislation that is directionally correct.”
To that end, key to the bill’s advancement was surprising support from Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who has historically opposed marijuana reform but became an original cosponsor of Gaetz’s proposal.
Collins, of the Drug Policy Alliance, argued that removing the restrictions wouldn’t impede the bill’s chances of passing.
“The provisions are overly cautious and unnecessary given what the committee has voted on in the past,” he said, referring to broader criminal justice reform legislation aimed at giving people second chances after serving prison terms.
“We would like to get behind this bill, but with these provisions it’s going to be very difficult,” he said, adding that he thinks the bans might actually make the legislation less likely to pass because criminal justice reform advocates who otherwise wouldn’t care about a marijuana research bill are now concerned about it.
Meanwhile, it is likely that the committee will have to grapple with at least one amendment to strip the language on Thursday.
“If they keep this in I think they’re going to lose support,” Collins said.
After this story was first published, Gaetz tweeted that concerned advocates “make fair points,” but that it would be “a shame if disagreement on such a small thing” prevented the reform legislation from passing.
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
Other advocates raised separate concerns about the bill’s implementation, even if it is enacted.
“The Medical Cannabis Research Act would, in theory, dramatically expand access to medical grade cannabis for researchers for scientific purposes,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “While the bill is imperfect as it would rely on known prohibitionist Attorney General Jeff Sessions to oversee an overly restrictive permitting process, its passage would be a step in the right direction to lay the foundation for future research into marijuana’s most beneficial properties.”
In the closing months of the Obama administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) moved to create a process to license additional cannabis cultivators, which resulted in applications from more than two dozen entities. But the Trump administration’s Department of Justice has since blocked DEA from acting on the proposals.
Lawmakers have sent a series of letters to Sessions about the blockade.
Sessions said at a Senate hearing last year that adding additional cannabis cultivators would be “healthy.” And at a separate hearing this spring, the attorney general testified that action on the applications would be taken “soon.” But nothing has yet been announced.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a review by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded that the plan to license more growers violated United Nations drug treaties. But the State Department under the Obama administration said in 2016 that allowing additional cultivators would not go against the international agreements.
The Gaetz bill would take the decision out of the Justice Department’s hands by issuing a directive from Congress to grant more licenses on a specific timetable.
Separately from the cultivation licenses, the legislation would also clarify that Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are allowed to discuss the medical use of cannabis with their military veteran patients and can refer them to participate in scientific studies on marijuana. It would not, however, overturn an internal VA ban prohibiting its physicians from issuing recommendations for veterans to receive medical cannabis in accordance with state laws.
In May, the House Veterans Affairs Committee became the first congressional committee to ever approve a standalone marijuana reform bill when it passed legislation encouraging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct research on the medical benefits of cannabis.
That bill has not yet been scheduled for House floor action.
Last month, the DEA moved to dramatically expand the amount of marijuana than can be legally grown in the U.S. for research purposes next year, perhaps anticipating the licensing of additional cultivators.
Meanwhile, Gaetz, who is a close ally of the White House, wasn’t willing in the phone interview to reveal much about cannabis conversations he has had with President Trump.
But he did say that he thinks Trump was serious when he said on the 2016 campaign trail that he supports medical cannabis. And, he blamed the lack of progress in federal marijuana reform since the president took office on his broader feud with Sessions.
“I believe that we’d be making a lot more progress in the marijuana reform movement if there weren’t such chilled relations between the White House and the Department of Justice,” Gaetz said. “In a way, the marijuana reform movement is an inadvertent casualty of the Trump-Sessions eroded relationship.”
Four Governors Talk Marijuana Reform During Major Speeches In A Single Day
Governors in at least four states talked about their goals for marijuana reform during separate speeches on Tuesday.
The day kicked off with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) offering details on planned cannabis legalization legislation in a State of the State speech outlining his annual budget proposal.
“Legalize adult-use cannabis,” Cuomo, who previously called marijuana a “gateway drug,” said. “Stop the disproportionate impact on communities of color and let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”
His plan involves imposing a 20 percent state tax and 2 percent county tax on cannabis transfers from wholesalers to retailers. The plan would also tax cultivators $1 per gram on dry flower and a $0.25 per gram on trim.
Across the border, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) dedicated a significant portion of his State of the State address to marijuana policy.
Legalizing adult-use marijuana will allow us to benefit from creating an entirely new and legal industry, much as we did last year with sports betting. We can do it in a smart way that ensures fairness for minority-owned businesses and minority communities. #StateoftheStateNJ
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) January 15, 2019
The governor started by touting medical cannabis expansion in the state, which has “given more of our veterans have access to medical marijuana to treat their [post-traumatic stress disorder] so they can get their lives back, and go to work or school.” He then pivoted to the broader benefits of full legalization.
Today, more of our veterans have access to medical marijuana to treat their PTSD, so they can get their lives back, and go to work or school. We thank our veterans for their service, and may God bless them all.#StateoftheStateNJ
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) January 15, 2019
“By legalizing adult-use marijuana—first and foremost—we can reverse the inequality and unfairness left from years of failed drug policies and shift public safety resources to where they can do the most good,” Murphy said. “We must ensure that those with a past mark on their records because of a low-level offense can have that stain removed, so they can move forward to get a stable job or an education.”
Legal marijuana “will also allow us to broadly benefit from creating an entirely new and legal industry, much as we did last year with sports betting,” he said. “We are learning from the states that went before us on what not to do, but we are also seeing the positive economic impacts.”
“Massachusetts’ new industry is creating an estimated 19,000 new jobs. And, in Colorado, legalization fostered an industry that has an annual statewide economic impact measured at $2.4 billion, with 18,000 new jobs created in research, agriculture, processing, and retail. We can do that here, and in a smart way that ensures fairness and equity for minority-owned businesses and minority communities.”
Let’s start 2019 by finishing what we began in 2018 – putting the minimum wage on a clear and responsible path to $15 an hour, and legalizing adult-use marijuana.
We must remember that when we talk about policy we are talking about people, not politics. #StateoftheStateNJ
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) January 15, 2019
In New Mexico, newly sworn-in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) reiterated her pledge to make opioid addiction a qualifying condition for medical cannabis in the state.
She said she will “direct my Health Department to adopt the longstanding recommendation from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board” to add the condition as a means to reduce opioid abuse.
I will direct my Health Department to adopt the longstanding recommendation from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to include opioid addiction as a qualifying condition. #StateOfTheStateNM
— Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (@GovMLG) January 15, 2019
And in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) talked about his recently launched Marijuana Justice Initiative, which allows individuals with a simple possession marijuana conviction going back to 1998 to apply for an expedited pardon. An estimated 3,500 Washington residents qualify for a pardon under the program.
“We are going to write an even brighter chapter of our Washington story,” Inslee said during his State of the State address. “We’re the state offering to pardon thousands of people with misdemeanor marijuana convictions.”
If there were any questions about whether marijuana was going to be a hot political topic in 2019, these and a flurry of other recent speeches from governors across the country should put those doubts to rest.
Besides the four who spoke about marijuana in major addresses on Tuesday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) again committed to fully legalizing cannabis during his inaugural address on Monday. And last week, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) said in his State of the State speech that the lack of action on medical cannabis was “hurting” patients, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) advocated for decriminalization in his State of the Commonwealth address and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) touted hemp and legal marijuana during his State of the State address.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
Trump Attorney General Nominee Won’t Go After Legal Marijuana Businesses And Urges Congress To Act
At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, attorney general nominee William Barr said he would not go after marijuana companies that have operated in compliance with earlier Justice Department guidance that was rescinded last year by his predecessor, Jeff Sessions.
He also encouraged Congress to address the conflict between federal and state cannabis policies.
“My approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations and the reliant interests that have arisen as a result of the Cole memorandum,” Barr said, referring to a memo on federal marijuana enforcement priorities that Sessions revoked in early 2018. “However, I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked Barr what he would do to address the issue and whether he felt it was “appropriate to use federal resources to target marijuana businesses that are in compliance with state law.”
“I’m not going to go after companies that have relied on Cole memorandum,” Barr replied. “However, we either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself because I think it’s a mistake to back off marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach—if we want states to have their own laws—then let’s get there and get there in the right way.
William Barr to @CoryBooker: We either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself, 'cause I think it's a mistake to back off on marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws…" (cont.) pic.twitter.com/EgogMltZsu
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 15, 2019
Booker, who has sponsored a bill to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and penalize states where marijuana enforcement is disproportionate, said he was glad to hear Barr’s comment on not taking action against state-legal marijuana businesses.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also pressed Barr about his stance on federal marijuana enforcement. She asked whether the nominee intended to use the limited federal funds at his disposal to go after cannabis businesses in compliance with state law.
HARRIS: You do not intend to use fed resources to enforce fed marijuana law in states that have legalized?
BARR: “That’s right. But I think i’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we are going to have a federal system.” pic.twitter.com/owWekY9PqP
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 15, 2019
“No, I thought I answered that by saying that to the extent that people are complying with the state laws—distribution and production and so forth—we’re not going to go after that,” Barr said. That said, “I think it’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we’re going to have a federal system or whether it’s going to be essential federal law. This is breeding disrespect for the federal law.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who has sponsored broad marijuana reform legislation that last year earned an endorsement from President Trump, said he is “encouraged” by Barr’s statements.
I plan on speaking with him about taking a states' rights approach to regulating the legal marijuana industry in further detail in our meeting prior to his confirmation vote. 2/3
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 15, 2019
When it comes to Colorado’s legal marijuana industry, states’ rights must be protected. My bipartisan STATES Act respects the will of the people in each state and I will continue to fight to pass this landmark legislation. 3/3
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 15, 2019
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that “Barr’s comments on not going after state-legal marijuana are a welcome development, and a break with his predecessor.”
“He should now commit his department to working with Congress on a solution to the state vs. federal conflict, so that we can reform our outdated marijuana laws in a way that is consistent with racial justice values,” Collins said.
Other advocates saw the comments as positive, though one noted that Barr seems to personally opposed marijuana law reform even while he indicated he wouldn’t interfere with the implementation of state laws.
“While it is encouraging that William Barr committed to not enforce federal prohibition, his insistence that he believes in the policy of prohibition is a clear signal that the Department of Justice will continue to be led by an individual who refuses to acknowledge the successful implementation of reforms in states throughout the nation,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
Strekal said Barr’s pledge not to interfere in state-legal marijuana activities gives Congress “a clear mandate to take action and end the underlying policy of federal criminalization.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that Barr’s newly stated stance effectively “green lights the marijuana industry” in spite of concerns reform advocates expressed about the Trump administration after the 2016 presidential election. He said the exchange represented a “big win for marijuana policy reformers.”
“Senator Booker delivered for advocates and AG nominee Barr delivered for the industry.”
Also at the hearing, Booker questioned the nominee’s broader views on mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Barr defended his earlier call for increased incarceration in the 1990s, saying it was made in the context of historically high crime rates and was directed at chronic, violent offenders.
But he also agreed to commission a Justice Department study about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and recognized that harsh penalties for non-violent drug crimes have specifically “harmed the black community—the incarceration rate on the black community.”
Harris also challenged Barr to “take a look at the more recent perspective on the drug crisis that is afflicting our country.”
.@KamalaHarris: There's understanding that the war on drugs was an abject failure. America has an addiction crisis & putting the limited resources of our fed. govt. into locking up people who suffer from a public health crisis is probably not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars. pic.twitter.com/lxC9sNTIsk
— Legal Defense Fund (@NAACP_LDF) January 15, 2019
She said there’s “now an understanding that the war on drugs was an abject failure, that America frankly has a crisis of addiction and that putting the limited resources of our federal government into up locking people who suffer from a public health crisis is probably not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars.”
A few moments ago I reminded Attorney General nominee William Barr that the War on Drugs has been an abject failure.
America has an addiction crisis and we should be putting our resources toward combatting drug addiction, not locking people up.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 15, 2019
One of the last senators to question Barr during the first round, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), also brought up cannabis. He asked whether it was fair to characterize the nominee’s statements as essentially imploring Congress to settle the issue, regardless of where he personally stands on marijuana policy.
“That’s generally fair, yes,” Barr said.
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Barr, Booker, Gardner, Harris and Tillis, as well as marijuana policy reform advocates.
Photo courtesy of The Washington Post/YouTube.
New York Gov. Cuomo Releases Marijuana Legalization Details
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who only recently flipped from calling marijuana a “gateway drug” to endorsing its legalization, released details on Tuesday that shed light on exactly how he wants to end cannabis prohibition in 2019.
“Legalize adult-use cannabis,” Cuomo said in his State of the State speech. “Stop the disproportionate impact on communities of color and let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”
Under the plan, which the governor is including in his annual budget request to lawmakers, marijuana would be legal for adults over the age of 21.
Cuomo is proposing a 20 percent state tax and 2 percent county tax on marijuana transfers from wholesalers to retailers, in addition to a $1 per gram tax on dry flower for cultivators, along with a $0.25 per gram tax on trim.
The governor said that legalization “will create the good union jobs that we need.”
Here it is: Gov. Cuomo’s plan to legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults. pic.twitter.com/2eRnLEGYnw
— WXXI News (@WXXINews) January 15, 2019
His administration estimates that the move will eventually generate roughly $300 million in annual tax revenue, though counties and large cities would be allowed to opt out of legal sales—something that could potentially impact revenue.
Speaking of revenue, funds would be earmarked for a state traffic safety committee, small business development, substance abuse services and other programs.
The proposal would create a new Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the marijuana industry and would prohibit cultivation license holders from also operating retail outlets.
The plan would also create a process to review and seal prior marijuana conviction records.
The governor is proposing to ban home cultivation of marijuana by recreational consumers, though the plan would allow medical cannabis patients and their caregivers to grow their own medicine.
Cuomo formally endorsed legalizing cannabis for the first time in a December speech in which he laid out his priorities for New York’s 2019 legislative session. It was the culmination of his evolution on cannabis issues over the course of the past year or so.
Earlier, in August, during the course of a contentious primary race with the pro-legalization actress Cynthia Nixon, the governor formed a working group to draft a legalization bill after a state Department of Health report, which he commissioned, found that the benefits of legal cannabis outweigh its potential consequences.
Today Cuomo announces his plan to legalize marijuana in NY.
Here’s what I’ll be looking for:
A plan to ensure the economic benefits go to communities harmed by the War on Drugs – not rich white men looking to make $$ off a product that’s sent thousands of POC to prison.
— Cynthia Nixon (@CynthiaNixon) January 15, 2019
Earlier this month, Cuomo reiterated the promise to enact legalization during his inaugural address at the start of his third term as governor.
The prospects for legalization are believed to have gotten a significant boost from the fact that Democrats took control of the state Senate in November’s midterm elections after years of being in the minority.
Senate Republicans, for their part, seem poised to accept the fact that legalization is on the way and are taking steps to focus their efforts on arguing how cannabis tax revenue is earmarked rather than trying to oppose the end of prohibition.
“If New York State legalizes marijuana, we will propose that all tax revenues from marijuana sales go to tax relief – not to fuel more spending,” the caucus wrote in a budget document of their own on Tuesday.
The Cuomo administration, for its part, released several lengthy documents outlining the governor’s marijuana proposal.
See below for excerpts of explanatory documents from the governor’s office:
“Enact the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act. The Executive Budget proposes to regulate and control the manufacture, wholesale, and retail production, distribution, transportation, and sale of cannabis, cannabis related products, medical cannabis, and hemp cannabis within the State of New York, for the purposes of fostering and promoting temperance in their consumption, to properly protect the public health, safety, and welfare, and to promote social equality.
“This bill would impose three taxes on the adult-use of marijuana. The first tax is imposed on the cultivation of cannabis at the rate of $1 per dry weight gram of cannabis flower and $0.25 per dry weight gram of cannabis trim. The second tax is imposed on the sale by a wholesaler to a retail dispensary at the rate of 20 percent of the invoice price. The third tax is imposed on the same sale by a wholesaler to a retail dispensary at the rate of 2 percent of the invoice price, but collected in trust for and on account of the county in which the retail dispensary is located.
“Revenues from the State cannabis taxes will be expended for the following purposes: administration of the regulated cannabis program, data gathering, monitoring and reporting, the governor’s traffic safety committee, small business development and loans, substance abuse, harm reduction and mental health treatment and prevention, public health education and intervention, research on cannabis uses and applications, program evaluation and improvements, and any other identified purpose recommended by the director of the Office of Cannabis Management and approved by the Director of the Budget.”
New York Marijuana Plan by on Scribd
More New York Marijuana Plan by on Scribd
The full legislative language is available here.