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.”
GOP Congressman Falsely Claims Marijuana Can Be Legally Consumed In Public In ‘Many States’
A Republican congressman wrongly claimed that marijuana can be legally consumed in public in “many states” in a Twitter post on Friday.
Following a House vote in favor of anti-vaping legislation that also included a ban on menthol cigarettes, Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) argued that the bill is an example of government overreach and that it would not prevent youth from using vaping products.
“Now, Democrats propose making possession of a menthol cigarette a violation of federal law when smoking a marijuana joint in public is legal in many states,” he wrote in his tweet. “Instead, we need to focus on real healthcare issues like surprise billing, the opioid epidemic and curbing coronavirus.”
Now, Democrats propose making possession of a menthol cigarette a violation of federal law when smoking a marijuana joint in public is legal in many states. Instead, we need to focus on real healthcare issues like surprise billing, the opioid epidemic and curbing coronavirus.
— Rep. Andy Barr (@RepAndyBarr) February 28, 2020
The claim about laws governing public cannabis consumption is likely to raise eyebrows among reform advocates familiar with state-legal marijuana programs.
It’s not the case that “many states” allow individuals to smoke in public areas. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly prohibited activities in legalization measures.
“Rep. Barr is anti-freedom and pro-false hysteria when it comes to cannabis,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Sadly, his desire to continue to see hundreds of thousands of Americans be arrested and incarcerated due to minor marijuana charges is held far too many of his colleagues in Congress.”
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that Barr’s “facts and priorities are wrong.”
“No legalization state allows public smoking of cannabis (other than in adult-only locations in some cases), and almost all medical cannabis states forbid it,” she said. “Marijuana isn’t associated with increased mortality, while cigarettes are associated with more than 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. Why is Rep. Barr maligning and voting against the safer substance, and working to keep it illegal?”
Here are some examples of public consumption policies in legal cannabis states.
Alaska: For adults over 21 years of age, the law permits “consumption of marijuana, except that nothing in this chapter shall permit the consumption of marijuana in public.”
California: “You can consume cannabis on private property but you cannot consume, smoke, eat, or vape cannabis in public places.”
Colorado: “Using marijuana in any way—smoking, eating or vaping—isn’t allowed in public places.”
Illinois: “There is no public consumption allowed for cannabis. Smoking or consuming weed is illegal in motor vehicles and public spaces, including your front porch.”
Massachusetts: “You can’t use marijuana in any form (smoking, vaping, edibles, etc.) in public or on federal land.”
Nevada: “Adults 21 years and older can legally consume marijuana, but with restrictions on where it can be consumed: You cannot use marijuana in any public place.”
Oregon: “Recreational marijuana cannot be sold or smoked in public.”
Put simply, the notion that public consumption of marijuana is widespread is a false narrative. A standout exception is Oklahoma, where medical cannabis patients are able to consume wherever tobacco is permitted. That said, Barr’s assertion that public marijuana smoking is legal in “many states” is patently false.
That the congressman is perpetuating that narrative isn’t especially surprising, however. Barr is no fan on cannabis, voting against spending bill amendments preventing the Justice Department from using its fund to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs as well as a separate measure last year that would’ve extended protections to all state cannabis programs.
That said, Barr isn’t alone in his opposition to the menthol cigarette ban that cleared the House on Friday. Several Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the measure in committee and on the floor. But their reasoning was generally that the targeted ban would lead to overpolicing of minority communities.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
VA Notice About Researching Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans Deleted Shortly After Posting
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will soon release a notice announcing that it is seeking information about the potential of marijuana and its components to treat medical conditions that commonly afflict military veterans.
A post describing the request was briefly uploaded to a government website this week, though it’s since been deleted—but not before Marijuana Moment downloaded a copy. A representative said in response to an e-mailed query that the document was “rescinded for edits” and a revised version will be published “at a future date.”
VA’s Clinical Science Research and Development Service wrote in the filing that it is interested in establishing a research program designed to “examine the potential for medical marijuana and cannabinoids to treat disorders and diseases prevalent in our Veteran population.”
In a request for white papers on the topic, the department said it’s especially interested in identifying potential medical uses for cannabis to treat neuropathic pain and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Unrelieved neuropathic pain experienced by Veterans after spinal cord or peripheral nerve injury contributes to depression, anxiety, disrupted sleep, and overall decreased quality of life,” VA said. “PTSD, also highly prevalent in Veterans, is a mental health problem often co-morbid with chronic pain.”
“A large percentage of Veterans who seek relief from these conditions, resort to smoking marijuana or use unregulated dietary cannabis supplements, etc,” it continued. “It is therefore imperative to determine which cannabinoid compounds are truly effective, for which symptoms, in which populations, as well as the associated risks.”
VA said it is committed to researching and developing evidence-based treatment options for veterans, and that’s what the program is meant to address.
“Without the needed evidence base for medical marijuana, this will not be a treatment choice within VA,” the department wrote. “We hope to support a series of clinical trials, which in case of positive outcomes, will generate robust data to support the use of cannabinoid(s) for pain and/or PTSD (or one or more of its symptoms).”
The department plans to conduct clinical trials if the evidence indicates that medical cannabis can be useful. It touted the “cadre of experienced clinical investigators, a highly participatory research population, and mechanisms in place to support every aspect of clinical research.”
White papers submitted to VA under the now-deleted solicitation must contain four components: 1) the “formulation and route of administration of the cannabinoid preparation,” 2) their ability to manufacture and supply those preparations, 3) the investigational new drug registration for compounds that aren’t already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and 4) evidence about the product’s efficacy in treating pain, PTSD and other conditions.
As drafted, the notice gives a deadline of March 15 to submit the requested one-page white papers, though it’s not clear if that will change when the updated notice is released.
Additionally, VA said it plans to collaborate with industry partners for “further understanding and development of evidence-based treatments such as medical marijuana and cannabinoids” and on April 27, will hold an “Industry Day” to discuss the “goals of the program.”
The department is “particularly interested in obtaining information about cannabinoid drugs availability, likelihood of their approval by the FDA (if not yet approved), and the data supporting their use for pain and PTSD treatment in Veterans,” the notice says.
Members of Congress and veterans advocates discussed the need for alternative treatment options, including medical cannabis, during a joint committee hearing earlier this week.
At the same time, bipartisan legislators are asking their colleagues to cosponsor a bill that would require VA to conduct research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana for veterans. That legislation already has 104 House cosponsors.
Read VA’s since-rescinded notice on medical marijuana research below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
House Democrats Block Amendment To Restrict Marijuana Products In Anti-Vaping Bill
House Democrats pushed back against a Republican attempt to include a flavored marijuana vaping ban in a broader anti-vaping bill that passed the chamber on Friday, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to prohibit products that are already illegal under federal law.
Instead, several lawmakers argued that Congress should enact separate cannabis reform legislation that could include provisions designed to protect public health and reduce the appeal of marijuana to youth.
The issue first came up during a House Rules Committee hearing on Wednesday, with Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) introducing an amendment to “include a prohibition against flavored marijuana products” such that they would be “treated in the same manner as flavored tobacco products” under the bill.
While the congressman argued that language of the legislation implicitly already provides for such a ban, he said it was important to clarify to send a message to young people that they can’t vape products containing nicotine or THC.
“Let it not be said in 2029 that we had a chance and we felt maybe we were getting to it in 2020,” he said. “Let’s just go ahead and do it. Let’s say you can’t sell flavored marijuana THC vaping products. My amendment makes that clear.”
Watch the conversation below:
Democratic members said they shared Griffith’s concern about underage use of flavored cannabis vaping products. However, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) pushed back and said the proposal is not germane because marijuana remains illegal under federal law and so regulating these products requires separate congressional action.
Earlier in the hearing, he suggested that his House-passed cannabis banking bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—could serve as a vehicle to address the body’s concerns.
“We have to start addressing it because we have 47 states that now are allowing some level of marijuana use when the statute under the Controlled Substance Act clearly makes it illegal,” the congressman said. “There’s a bill sitting in the Senate called the SAFE Banking Act that may get back here at some point, and we could put some testing and regulatory components on it.”
Watch this exchange below:
Is a flavored marijuana vaping ban even necessary?
Also during the hearing, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) pressed Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) about the lack of specificity in the bill as it concerns marijuana vaping products. Woodall said he wanted that aspect addressed before he leaves office in nine months.
“It strikes me…more than strange that banana crush [nicotine vaping products] will no longer be available to adults in my district. But banana strawberry cream, which is an illegal [marijuana] product today, will continue to be available at 180 retailers near you,” Woodall said. “I don’t know how I take that message into my high schools and say that we’re going to reduce drug dependency in the months and years ahead.”
Watch the conversation below:
Pallone said he appreciates Woodall’s concern that flavored vaping products can mislead consumers about what they’re actually putting into their bodies and that he “would tend to think that the same problem would exist” for flavored marijuana products. However, he said there’s a distinction to be made.
“Most people tell me that nicotine is much more toxic and much more dangerous to your health than marijuana so maybe we shouldn’t have restrictions on marijuana at all and maybe we shouldn’t have any restrictions on flavored marijuana because the marijuana doesn’t have the same health problems that nicotine has,” he said. “Maybe I should say, assuming that marijuana is dangerous then maybe the flavored should be. But it’s not as dangerous.”
“The reality is that we know that nicotine is much more dangerous than marijuana so maybe the flavors masking it is not as serious a problem as it would be for nicotine,” he said.
Griffith’s amendment was blocked from floor consideration in a party-line vote of 3-6 by the panel, but the conversation around flavored marijuana products continued on Friday on the House floor.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) brought a poster board showing pictures of flavored cannabis vaping products and lamented that they are not explicitly included in the anti-vaping bill.
“If you want to do something about kids—if you want to do something about lung disease—then we need to do something about marijuana and the oils it gets mixed with that this bill does not address,” he said.
But Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) pointed out that if Republicans are interested in ensuring that such marijuana products are properly regulated, the substance needs to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act to provide Congress with the means to enact regulations.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer counters by pointing to marijuana's schedule I status, saying federal regulation of flavored cannabis would be like trying to regulate "flavored heroin." Plugs the MORE Act to deschedule marijuana. https://t.co/w4Jpudt137
— Emily Kopp (@emilyakopp) February 28, 2020
Imposing regulations on marijuana while it’s still federally prohibited is “like regulating flavored heroin,” he said. The congressman added that a bill to deschedule marijuana called the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would give lawmakers the tools to protect public health.
“The challenge that we have now is to be able to move forward—to be able to protect young people and the public,” Blumenauer said. “Cannabis is a red herring. If we tax and regulate it, then we can deal with the products they’re talking about. But unless and until we bring it—as two-thirds of the states have done—to actually tax and regulate it, we can’t deal with that. It doesn’t matter.”
We have a crisis of youth vaping. And we’ve seen a disturbing number of lung injuries & deaths tied to the oil used in marijuana vaping. Unfortunately #HR2339 before us today does nothing to impact either. Instead, it's a partisan publicity stunt by big government liberal elites. pic.twitter.com/AUx8ZMar0L
— Richard Hudson (@RepRichHudson) February 28, 2020
Not all Democrats were on board with the anti-vaping bill.
It was a tight 213-195 vote in the House on Friday. Top Democratic leaders are faced challenges as they worked to get the broader legislation approved. Some members of the party have expressed opposition over policies to ban flavored tobacco, including menthol, which they argue would lead to overpolicing of minority communities.
Image by Lindsay Fox from Pixabay.