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.”
Banks Accepted Significantly More Marijuana Businesses In 2019, Federal Data Shows
Banks and credit unions have been accepting significantly more marijuana businesses in 2019, according to new federal data.
At the end of the last quarter of 2018, there were 438 banks and 113 credit unions actively servicing cannabis businesses. By March 2019, those numbers grew to 493 and 140, respectively.
That data comes from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which tracks financial services for the marijuana industry by analyzing suspicious activity reports, or SARs, that institutions file in accordance with cannabis banking guidance issued by the Obama administration in 2014.
While banks run the risk of being penalized by financial regulators by accepting cannabis business accounts because their products are still federally controlled substances, an increasing number of them are willing to take that chance. The latest update of quarterly numbers, posted late last month, comes as bipartisan legislation that would protect banks that service state-legal markets advances toward the House floor for a vote.
“As of 31 March 2019, FinCEN has received a total of 81,725 SARs using the key phrases associated with [marijuana related businesses],” the federal agency wrote.
FinCEN also breaks down the types of SARs the banks and credit unions reported for marijuana businesses.
The vast majority (61,036) were considered “marijuana limited,” a term that refers to cannabis businesses that appear to be operating in compliance with state law and meet the agency’s standard for being serviceable under existing federal guidelines.
About 6,000 were defined as “marijuana priority,” which means they “may raise one or more of the red flags” under federal guidelines or they “may not be fully compliant with the appropriate state’s regulations” and are thus under investigation while the banks continue to service the businesses.
Finally, about 20,000 were marked as “marijuana termination.” That means has the cannabis business has violated at least one federal enforcement priority or state regulation and so “the financial institution has decided to terminate its relationship with” the business.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would do a lot to resolve uncertainty in the banking sector as it concerns marijuana. The bill cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March and is expected to get a full House floor vote next month.
Advocates argue that providing for the lawful banking of cannabis businesses would increase financial transparency, mitigate public safety risks associated with operating on a largely cash basis and simplify the tax process.
The legislation enjoys broad support outside of Congress as well. Twenty U.S. governors recently signed a letter encouraging its passage, as did banking associations representing all 50 states, a coalition of state attorneys general and another comprised of state treasurers.
Meanwhile, an annual spending bill that covers the Treasury Department and includes temporary language protecting banks from being punished for working with cannabis businesses is on the House floor this week.
Analysis: Breaking Down Congress’s Vote To Protect Legal Marijuana States From Federal Enforcement
In one of the most significant legislative victories in the history of the marijuana reform movement, an amendment blocking the Department of Justice from interfering in state-legal cannabis programs was approved for the first time in the U.S. House of Representatives last week.
In a 267-165 vote, the measure passed handily, drawing support from all but eight Democrats and nearly a quarter of the Republican caucus. The amendment’s passage seems to affirm what advocates have suspected—that broad reform is within arm’s reach in the 116th Congress.
But a closer look at the vote tally reveals subtle trends, dissents, individual vote flips and developments that paint a fuller picture of the state of marijuana politics in the Democratic-controlled chamber.
First, a top-level look: the last time this amendment was up for consideration in 2015, it came nine flipped votes short of passing, with a final tally of 206-222. It gained 61 “yes” votes in that time, which is a reflection of evolving public opinion on the issue and was also likely influenced by the fact that several sizable states such as California, Michigan and Illinois have since opted to legalize cannabis, putting pressure on lawmakers to embrace a policy that protects their constituents from federal harassment.
State Action Makes A Difference
Geographic changes in the vote tally can be seen in the images below, courtesy of GovTrack.us. Blue represents Democrats and red represents Republicans, with dark shading indicating “yes” votes and lighter shading standing for “no” votes.
Among states that legalized adult-use marijuana subsequent to the prior amendment’s consideration, here’s how the the number of “yes” votes for the measure grew:
- California: 40 vs. 46
- Illinois: 10 vs. 14
- Massachusetts: 6 vs. 9
- Maine: 1 vs. 2
- Michigan: 6 vs. 10
- Nevada: 2 vs. 3
- Vermont: 1 vs. 1
But not all of the growth came from states that have recently enacted legalization. All told, 20 individual members who were present for the prior amendment’s consideration switched their vote from “nay” to “aye” since 2015.
“No” to “yes” votes:
- Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA)
- Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH)
- Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY)
- Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO)
- Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN)
- Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI)
- Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH)
- Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA)
- Rep. William Keating (D-MA)
- Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA)
- Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL)
- Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MD)
- Rep. Tom Reed II (R-NY)
- Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA)
- Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL)
- Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)
- Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY)
- Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX)
- Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX)
- Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR)
Meanwhile, seven members flipped their votes in the opposite direction.
“Yes” to “no” votes:
- Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)
- Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL)
- Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL)
- Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC)
- Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA)
- Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA)
- Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO)
Support And Opposition Across Party Lines
The measure enjoyed some bipartisan support, but while a sizable bloc of members joined the “aye” side, there were actually four fewer total Republicans who voted in favor of the amendment this round as compared to 2015. Why? The shift is partially related to loss of marijuana-friendly GOP members in the 2018 midterm election. For example, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Mike Coffman (R-CO) each voted in favor of the 2015 amendment and otherwise championed cannabis reform to some extent, but lost reelection bids last year.
Plus there are those noted above who actually supported the measure last time but voted against it this year.
Perhaps some members took issue with the broader language of the new version, which extended protections to Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories, unlike the prior amendment, which lined up more squarely with Republican “states’ rights” views.
Another explanation could come down to partisanship. GOP Congressman Tom McClintock of California was the lead sponsor of the 2015 version, when Republicans controlled the House, whereas Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) took the helm this year, with McClintock as a cosponsor. With dozens of amendments to consider in a row in floor voting blocks of just two minutes each, it’s within reason to assume that some lawmakers approached some votes along party lines, leading some Republicans to vote for the prior measure led by their caucus-mate in 2015 after a quick glance.
An even simpler answer to the question of why there were fewer Republican “aye” vote this time is that there are just fewer GOP members in the chamber to begin with in light of Democrats’ electoral success in last year’s midterms in which they readily won control of the chamber.
Regardless, the 267-vote win is remarkable. More members voted for this amendment than they did for a narrower measure that simply prevented Justice Department interference in state medical cannabis programs in 2015. That tally was 242-186.
After the amendment was adopted, questions remained about the eight Democratic members who voted against the measure, given that marijuana reform is widely popular, especially among the party’s voters.
The most noteworthy Democratic “nay” vote came from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, who has historically been opposed to many cannabis reform measures. She was joined by Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Sharice Davids (D-KS), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Conor Lamb (D-PA), Collin Peterson (D-MN), Tom Suozzi (D-NY) and Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ) in opposing the measure.
But overall, Democratic members sent a forceful message about where the party stands on the issue. Leadership sent a “yes” recommendation in a whip email distributed before the vote, and presidential candidates and even some who’ve historically been reluctant to back cannabis reform joined hands to push the measure forward.
Presidential hopefuls Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) voted for it. (Other contenders Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) were absent for the vote as well as others taking place on Thursday.)
Leadership votes in favor of the amendment include Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY); Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY); Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY); Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD); Deputy Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NJ) and Majority Whip Jim Cylburn (D-SC).
Every Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the measure—another positive sign as lawmakers continue to pursue various pieces of marijuana legislation that will likely have to pass through the panel.
Curiously, however, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), minority ranking member on the Judiciary who’s advocated for a separate bill to let states set their own cannabis policies, voted against the amendment. That said, McClintock and other GOP members of the panel—Reps. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), Ken Buck (R-CO), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) and Gregory Steube (R-FL)—voted for the measure, indicating that broad legislation to reform federal cannabis laws could sail through the Judiciary Committee with solid bipartisan support.
On the Democratic side, Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), who have historically been hostile to cannabis reform, also voted for the measure this time around.
On the flip side, here are all 41 Republicans who bucked party leadership in voting in favor of the amendment:
- Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI)
- Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND)
- Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE)
- Rep. Troy Balderson (R-OH)
- Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO)
- Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY)
- Rep. James Comer (R-KY)
- Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL)
- Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-ID)
- Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)
- Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT)
- Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH)
- Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH)
- Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR)
- Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA)
- Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA)
- Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK)
- Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN)
- Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA)
- Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH)
- Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY)
- Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL)
- Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA)
- Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-MI)
- Rep. Dan Newhouse (WA)
- Rep. Amata Radewagen (R)
- Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY)
- Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA)
- Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC)
- Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA)
- Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL)
- Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX)
- Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ)
- Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)
- Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL)
- Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)
- Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR)
- Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL)
- Rep. Steve Watkins (R-KS)
- Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL)
- Rep. Don Young (R-AK)
Who Voted To Let The Feds Arrest Their Constituents?
While the increased number of votes in favor of the amendment seems to correspond, in part, with the rising number of states with legal marijuana programs, there were 17 members representing legal states who voted against protecting consumers who participate in their state’s cannabis system. Here’s a breakdown:
- Rep. Ken Calvert (R)
- Rep. Paul Cook (R)
- Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R)
- Rep. Devin Nunes (R)
- Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R)
- Rep. Doug Lamborn (R)
- Rep. Scott Tipton (R)
- Rep. Mike Bost (R)
- Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R)
- Rep. Darin LaHood (R)
- Rep. John Shimkus (R)
- Rep. Jack Bergman (R)
- Rep. Bill Huizenga (R)
- Rep. John Moolenarr (R)
- Rep. Tim Walberg (R)
- Rep. Mark Amodei (R)
- Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R)
Advocates walked away with a demonstrable win on Thursday but, as a final note, the roll call tally might well have been even larger if it weren’t for certain absentees. Besides Ryan and Swalwell, those members include Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) and Tom Emmer (R-MN)—all of whom voted in favor of the measure in 2015. There was just one member absent from the latest vote who voted against it last time.
Another indicator bodes well for the future of marijuana reform by demonstrating growing support from political newcomers is that among current members of Congress who weren’t in office during the 2015 vote, 98 voted in favor of the amendment while 50 voted against it.
Though advocates are celebrating the historic victory in the House, it remains to be seen whether the Republican-controlled Senate has an appetite for reform. That chamber’s Appropriations Committee is expected to begin its consideration of appropriations legislation that a similar amendment could potentially be attached to within the next few weeks.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Federal Transportation Official Says Marijuana Consumers Think They Drive Better While High
Federal research shows that marijuana consumers believe they drive better when they’re high, a leader of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said during a congressional hearing last week.
Appearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King testified that the department is combating impaired driving from cannabis, opioids and other drugs by issuing grants for law enforcement training and expanding public education campaigns on the issue.
Part of the reason public education is particularly necessary, she said, is because “most users of marijuana who have participated in market research we have developed are saying they believe they drive safer when they’re high because they’re very focused and they’re being very cautious.”
“We know from the driver simulator studies it’s not true,” she said. “We are doing everything we can, putting out more grant funds and supporting communities where the rubber hits the road to make sure we get ahead of the problem. And we educate consumers to make better decisions.”
NHTSA’s objective to that end is to debunk five myths: “That it’s safe to drive when under the use of a substance, that they’re not going to get stopped, that they’re not going to be arrested, not going to be prosecuted, not going to be convicted.”
But while King referenced simulator tests showing that people do not drive better under the influence of cannabis—and most advocates and opponents of legalization alike share the opinion that nobody should drive after consuming marijuana—a congressional report released in May found that the science isn’t quite so clear.
“Although laboratory studies have shown that marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance, studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage,” the Congressional Research Service report stated.
And several independent studies have found that legalization isn’t associated with an increase in traffic fatalities.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) asked whether NHTSA was focusing its research efforts on states that have legalized cannabis, such as his home state of Alaska.
“Yes, we have actually first traveled to Washington we later traveled to Denver in Colorado to have meetings and learn from them and learn best practices,” she said. “One of the things we find is the states that have been early legalizers of marijuana products like Washington and Colorado, they have a great deal to learn. Other states that were early medical marijuana adopters like the state of California also have something to share.”
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.