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.”
Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress To Delay Marijuana Banking Vote
A coalition of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance is urging congressional Democratic leaders to delay a planned vote on a marijuana banking bill next week until more far-reaching legislation ending federal cannabis prohibition advances first.
“We are concerned that if the House approves this bill, it will undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country’s marijuana laws,” the groups wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a letter on Tuesday.
Hoyer’s office confirmed to Marijuana Moment last week that the House planned to vote on the cannabis financial services legislation by the end of the month.
“The Congress has a unique opportunity to address the myriad injustices created by this nation’s marijuana laws. For decades, people of color have suffered under harsh and racially-biased marijuana laws,” the groups, which also include Center for American Progress, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and JustLeadershipUSA, wrote. “The banking bill does not address marijuana reform holistically. Instead, it narrowly addresses the issues of banking and improved access to financial services, measures that would benefit the marijuana industry, not communities who have felt the brunt of prohibition.”
The letter is the most public sign yet of a dispute that has been brewing among advocates in the marijuana policy reform movement, with some seeing a successful vote on banking legislation as demonstrating momentum for broader reform and others expressing concern that the financial services proposal primarily helps the industry and could take the wind out of the sails of a full-scale push to end prohibition.
Advocates who want broader reform have focused on a bill that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed this summer that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and invest money into programs aimed at repairing the harms of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially disproportionate manner.
“Individuals and communities who are still suffering from the destabilizing collateral consequences of prohibition need reform and should not be second in line behind the industry,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “We need to ensure that the sequencing of federal marijuana bills, especially under House Democratic Leadership, is well thought out and done in a way that centers the millions directly impacted by overenforcement. We want to avoid the banking bill becoming Congress’ only bite at the apple for cannabis reform this session.”
Nadler’s bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, has been referred by House leadership to eight committees, none of which—including his own—have scheduled a vote on it. The financial services legislation—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—cleared a committee with a bipartisan vote in March and has been waiting on the House calendar for floor action for months.
“It’s a difference in tactics, not desired outcomes,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal, who supports going forward with the banking vote next week, told Marijuana Moment. “It’s our hope that the SAFE Banking vote demonstrates which members of Congress are willing to recognize the successes of state level reforms as we continue to move the MORE Act through the committee process.”
Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, took a similar view.
“The SAFE Banking Act is a necessary reform that would represent a major step toward more sensible cannabis laws, and it’s looking increasingly likely that it can actually pass soon,” he said. “We have an opportunity to end policies that actively endanger people, hurt small businesses, and stymie equitable participation in the cannabis industry. Banking reform is certainly not the end of the road, and the industry is committed to working in support of far more comprehensive reforms that more fully address the harms caused by prohibition. Passage of this legislation will only add momentum to those efforts.”
But the groups signing the new letter disagree.
“Marijuana legislation must first address the equity and criminal justice reform consequences of prohibition,” they wrote to Pelosi and Hoyer.
“To be clear, we recognize the challenges facing marijuana businesses that lack access to financial services. However, we believe it is a mistake to move this issue forward while many of the other consequences of marijuana prohibition remain unresolved,” they wrote in urging the House not to vote on cannabis financial services legislation next week. “The banking bill does not solve the underlying problems of marijuana prohibition – namely, that many people of color have been saddled with criminal records for a substance that is now legal in many states, and that communities have been shut out of the emerging and booming marijuana industry.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said last week that he plans a vote on the marijuana banking bill in his panel by the end of the year. That chamber’s version of the legislation got its 33rd senator signed on this week, meaning that it now has the proactive support of a third of the body’s membership.
Because House leaders plan to bring the marijuana banking bill to the floor under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, any Democratic votes lost as a result of the groups’ opposition could jeopardize the legislation. The SAFE Banking Act currently has 207 lawmakers signed on, whereas 290 votes are needed to approve a bill under suspension.
“Since the start of the 116th Congress, we have expressed concern to House Leadership, the House Financial Services Committee, and member offices, that if the banking bill moved to the Floor before broader reform, it would jeopardize comprehensive marijuana reform,” the concerned groups wrote in their letter. “Therefore, we have pushed for a conversation among advocates, Committee leadership, and House Leadership to formulate a plan for moving marijuana legislation in a way that is comprehensive and does not result in carve-outs for the industry and leave behind impacted communities.”
“We ask that you delay any vote on the banking bill until agreement has been reached around broader marijuana reform,” they said.
Read the full letter urging a delay on the marijuana banking vote below:
This story has been updated to include comment from Drug Policy Alliance and National Cannabis Industry Association.
Bernie Sanders Asks Campaign Rally Audience To Share Stories About Marijuana Arrests
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked an audience in South Carolina to share stories about marijuana possession convictions and then argued that those anecdotes help to demonstrate the case for national legalization.
During a campaign stop in the early primary state on Sunday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate asked people to raise their hands if they knew someone who’d been arrested for possessing cannabis. There was no shortage of hands raised.
“Holy God, whoa. That’s a lot of people,” Sanders said before asking for volunteers to go into detail.
“I got caught with about a joint and they took my license for a year and I lost my job,” an audience member said. “Ended up losing my house, and it went worse from there.”
The War on Drugs has been a disaster. It is time to legalize marijuana nationwide. pic.twitter.com/tehuM7xjxx
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 17, 2019
“Wow, this is for smoking a joint?” Sanders asked.
“Yeah, I had a little—like a dime bag in my car,” the person said.
Another person in attendance who appeared in the campaign video Sanders released on Tuesday said that she visited a guilty plea court and witnessed “three different men get put in at least two years of prison just for anywhere from two grams to eight grams of marijuana found on them.”
“That’s why all over this country states are doing the right thing and either decriminalizing or legalizing the possession of marijuana,” Sanders said to applause.
Since becoming the first major party presidential candidate to call for cannabis legalization in 2015, Sanders has continued to place an emphasis on the need for marijuana reform, with a focus on the racial injustices of prohibition.
Last month, he released a criminal justice reform plan that included proposals to legalize cannabis federally and also provide for safe injection sites to curb opioid overdoses.
But while Sanders has been a leading voice in the drug policy reform movement, he’s said twice in recent weeks that he’s not ready to embrace decriminalizing possession of drugs beside marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.
New York Gov. Cuomo Hints Marijuana Smoking Ban Could Be Part Of Next Legalization Push
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) seemed to suggest that he might want a ban on smoking marijuana included in legalization legislation when lawmakers take up the issue again next year.
During an interview with MSNBC on Sunday, the governor was asked whether the spike in apparent vaping-related lung injuries and deaths, which experts attribute to altered nicotine and cannabis oils primarily purchased on the illicit market, has made him reconsider pursuing legalization in the state.
“No,” he said, adding that his administration is “not in favor of smoking marijuana” and that there are “ways to get THC without smoking marijuana.”
“People are vaping THC, yes that is true,” Cuomo said. “We think that from a public health point of view, that is not something that we recommend and we think it’s dangerous—smoking of any kind.”
“You can legalize marijuana and sell THC in compounds that do not require you to smoke the marijuana, and we do not support smoking of marijuana,” he said. “There are compounds that have the THC, which is a compound in marijuana, that you don’t smoke.”
It’s not entirely clear if Cuomo plans to ask for a smoking ban the next time a legalization bill emerges or if he was simply outlining an administrative position advising against smoking. A spokesperson for his office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment by the time of publication.
But while there was no ban on marijuana smoking included in legalization legislation that he worked to pass earlier this year, it wouldn’t be entirely out of character given that he pushed for such a restriction as part of New York’s medical cannabis program in legislation enacted in 2014.
The logic behind that policy, according to Cuomo, was that it would prevent people from abusing the program. If he moved to incorporate a ban for adult-use legalization, however, it would presumably be a public health decision.
That could create problems when lawmakers return to the negotiating table. In California, flower and concentrates represent about 70 percent of the marijuana market, meaning any attempt to ban smokeable cannabis will likely be met with pushback from consumers, industry stakeholders and civil liberties-minded reform advocates.
Industry players seemed to have influence when Cuomo included a ban on home cultivation for personal use in his prior legalization proposal—something a major medical cannabis association recommended in a policy statement submitted to the governor.
For the time being, however, there don’t seem to be tangible plans to include a smoking ban in future cannabis legislation and it could be that the governor simply ends up pushing for public education campaigns discouraging the activity rather than keeping it illegal.
In July, he signed legislation broadening New York’s decriminalization law and creating a pathway for expungements for individuals with prior cannabis convictions.
Photo courtesy of MSNBC.