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.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown Keeps Saying Mean Things About Marijuana Consumers
During his two stints as California governor—between 1975 and 1983, and 2011 and next January, when he is termed out and may finally retire from almost 50 years of public life—Jerry Brown has become known for several character traits.
He is frugal, to the point of parsimony. He is attentive to issues that are way out there. He is concerned about climate change. And he cannot stop making negative, non-germane non sequiturs about marijuana, his state’s biggest cash crop.
In 2014, he suggested that neither California nor the United States could be a great economic power if marijuana was legalized, thanks to the shiftiness of “the potheads.”
“The world’s pretty dangerous, very competitive,” he said during an appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press. “I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”
Giving his reasoning why he opposed marijuana legalization, he mused, “how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”
Now, in a New York Times profile published on Tuesday, while speaking on the subject of climate change, Brown reached deep into his pocket for a very off-topic cannabis-themed barb.
“We either do nothing and smoke marijuana because it’s legalized, or we put our shoulder to the plow and do everything we can,” he told the paper on a recent afternoon (one of 23 interviews he gave that same day, according to the Times). “I don’t know if I’m an optimist. I’m a realist.”
Links between recreational marijuana use and some vague “dumbing-down” of the populace are unfounded, and are reminiscent of the spurious, race-baiting tactics employed by former drug czar Harry Anslinger.
The source of Brown’s opprobrium towards marijuana is not immediately clear.
Before his election in 2010, Brown offered laconic yet incoherent reasoning for his adamant anti-legalization stance.
“You know, the number one drug on the street is marijuana. The cartels are increasingly taking over. This is a serious problem,” he told an interviewer with GQ.
(At the time, California had a thriving medical cannabis industry. Legalized marijuana was later found to compel drug-traffickers to exit trade in the drug and seek other forms of income.)
“I think it’s more prudent for California not to embrace a legalization strategy,” he added. “I don’t think fostering chemicals is a smart move.”
He declined to engage with the interviewer when asked if he’d support a policy of prohibiting alcohol.
Brown’s stance puts the 80-year-old at odds with most of his fellow California Democrats—chief among whom must be Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
After opposing marijuana legalization in 2010, Newsom quickly hopped on board the cannabis bandwagon following Colorado and Washington’s votes to end cannabis prohibition in 2012, and was the most prominent political backer of 2016’s Prop. 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in California.
Newsom briefly mounted a bid for California governor a decade ago before he was boxed out by the better-funded and better-prepared elder statesman.
In recent years, Brown did eventually sign into law a package of bills that set up a regulated and taxed commercial cannabis industry in the state. But his outdated Reefer Madness views about people who consume marijuana seem to persist, if this week’s Times interview is any indication.
Photo courtesy of Bob Tilden.
Legalizing Psilocybin Could Be The Next Frontier In Drug Policy Reform After Marijuana
Drug policy reform isn’t likely to end with marijuana legalization—and if you’re wondering what the next step in the broader movement could be, it’s worth looking into psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
Earlier this month, state- and city-level campaigns to change psilocybin laws made small advancements. Organizers in Denver submitted two initiatives to decriminalize the psychedelic compound, which would appear on a citywide ballot in May 2019 if both or either receive enough signatures.
And in Oregon, a measure that would legalize psilocybin-assisted treatment entered the signature gathering stage. That measure would appear on a state ballot in 2020 if the effort succeeds.
“We’re excited to gather signatures in support of establishing a community-based service framework, in which licensed providers, along with licensed producers of psilocybin mushrooms, can blaze new trails in Oregon in accordance with evolving practice standards,” psychotherapist Tom Eckert, who is a chief petitioner for the measure, said in a press release.
Though there’s still a lot of work to do on the marijuana reform front—and advocates haven’t exactly joined arms with the psilocybin movement yet—the efforts share several parallels. For example, both cannabis and psilocybin are federally banned as Schedule I drugs, meaning the government considers them to have a high potential for abuse and to be medically useless.
Research disputes that position for both substances. While an admittedly larger body of research has demonstrated various therapeutic benefits of marijuana, several studies have found compelling evidence that psilocybin can provide relief for individuals suffering from conditions such as depression and addiction—and research is ongoing.
“To be clear, there’s no scientific basis for psilocybin’s continued inclusion on Schedule I,” Angela Bacca, a strategist for the Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon, said. “It is imperative we change the law to match the reality and science because people are suffering who could otherwise benefit from this safe and uniquely effective service.”
Neither the Denver nor Oregon measures would create a legal retail system for psilocybin, as has been seen throughout the U.S. for marijuana. And in Denver, organizers submitted two separate decriminalization initiatives in order to test the waters, seeing if there’d be enough support to include cultivation in the language of their primary decriminalization measure.
If that initiative fails, the group Denver for Psilocybin will put their energy toward a similar initiative that simply decriminalizes low-level possession and personal use.
“It’s a natural right. It’s a human right,” Kevin Matthews, campaign director for Denver for Psilocybin, told Westword. “This one is our Hail Mary victory shot.”
Organizers in California recently attempted to get a psilocybin decriminalization initiative on the 2018 ballot, but that effort failed.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mädi.
Beto O’Rourke Slams Drug War And Police Killing Of Botham Jean At Dallas Event
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), who is running for U.S. Senate this year, spoke before an animated crowd at a Baptist church in Dallas on Friday, decrying the war on drugs and calling for the end of marijuana prohibition.
The candidate, who’s made a strong showing in his race against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), also commented on the recent killing of an unarmed black man, Botham Jean, at the hands of a Texas police officer.
“How can it be in this day and age—in this very year, in this community—that a young man, African American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?” O’Rourke asked. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what is released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen? How can that be just in this country?”
“How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers? That is not justice. That is not us. That can and must change. Are you with me on this?”
The audience responded with a resounding standing ovation.
See O’Rourke’s marijuana and criminal justice comments roughly 31 minutes into his Facebook video below:
O’Rourke spent several minutes outlining how the drug war disproportionately impacts communities of color despite the fact that white people use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate.
“It has kept people out of civic life in this country, it has kept them from their freedoms, it has kept them from democratic life in this country.”
Resolving racially discriminatory drug enforcement efforts starts with ending cannabis prohibition, O’Rourke said, noting that he co-sponsored congressional legislation that would do just that. But importantly, the second step is to expunge “the arrest records for anyone arrested for possession of marijuana so they can get on with their lives, live to their full potential, contribute to their maximum capacity.”
One of the congressman’s most salient points contrasted marijuana policies in Texas and fully legal states like California.
“Let me ask you this: in a country where the majority of the states in the union have already decided to make marijuana legal in one form or another—where people in California and Colorado and the Northwest are getting filthy rich legally selling marijuana today—who is going to be the last African American boy or man to rot behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in almost every other single part of the country?”
“Let’s lead the way on reforming our drug laws,” O’Rourke said. “Let’s end that war on drugs right now because it’s a war on people.”
Cruz has attempted to frame his opponent’s drug reform stance as dangerous, promoting misleading statements attributed to O’Rourke in campaign ads and arguing that he’d exacerbate the opioid epidemic if elected in November.
With opioids ravaging so many American communities, Congressman Beto O’Rourke's radical resolution to legalize all narcotics—including heroin and other deadly opioids—is looking worse and worse all the time: https://t.co/VdwaYMccMn #TXSen
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 1, 2018
Which message will ultimately more resonant with Texas voters is yet to be determined—but the race is looking close.
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Beto O’Rourke.