Congresswoman Dina Titus voted for the marijuana legalization measure on Nevada’s ballot a year ago. Since then, she has been fighting on Capitol Hill to get the federal government to respect the decision she and a majority of her constituents made to end prohibition.
The Las Vegas Democrat has sponsored or signed onto bills and amendments that would protect state laws from Justice Department interference, allow marijuana businesses to use banks and let military veterans access medical cannabis recommendations through government doctors, among others.
Those measures haven’t advanced, however, because of roadblocks thrown up by Congressional Republican leadership.
But even though the GOP-controlled House Rules Committee won’t allow floor votes on marijuana amendments, and Speaker Paul Ryan hasn’t done anything to help, Titus said in an interview that cannabis isn’t just an issue for Democrats.
“This was not partisan,” she says of the measures she has supported. “It was heavily Democratic but we had Republicans supporting these amendments. I think if they came to the floor they would pass.”
Indeed, large bipartisan majorities approved floor amendments to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference in 2014 and 2015, but since then House leadership has consistently prevented votes.
Titus says that “Republicans aren’t going to buck their leadership and sign a discharge petition” to circumvent committees and force measures to the floor, but she is hopeful that shifting poll results on legalization and the growing number of changing state laws will make Congress come around soon.
“We’re going to keep on beating the drum, and I think you reach a tipping point because every cycle there are more initiatives and more efforts by state legislatures to legalize marijuana in some fashion. It’s over half of the states that have it now,” she says. “So when public opinion shifts…and more states make it legal, then the Republicans are going to have to respond.”
Titus believes it is important that she tailor her pitch when trying to convince fellow members of Congress to support cannabis legislation.
“You make the argument based on who you’re talking to,” she says. “Some believe it’s a criminal justice issue. Others believe it’s a states’ rights issue. Others see it as a medical opportunity issue. You’ve got a few who are just old stoned hippies who want to do it.”
For her part, Titus says that in addition to representing the views of her constituents, she has focused so much of her time on cannabis law reform because of people she knows who are impacted by current policy.
“I have many, many veterans in southern Nevada, and I have seen the problem of opioid addiction and I think that medical marijuana is a viable option,” she says. “And I’ve heard the stories of families of children with epilepsy who say this is the only way their children can get relief from having episodes. You hear stories like that, you think, ‘We’re missing the boat if we’re not looking at all the possibilities.'”
The congresswoman has also built relationships with marijuana business operators that she represents in her district.
“A lot of people in Las Vegas who are my constituents are in this business, and I have visited a number of the dispensaries,” she says. “There are not little head shops on the corner with black lights and pictures of Che Guevara. There are very professional operations. They’ve got agronomists, they’ve got scientists. They are respectable places with high security. They improve the neighborhood. They don’t bring it down.”
Titus thinks Nevada officials have done a good job implementing what voters approved, partially because the state has previously been a pioneer in regulating formerly prohibited activity, namely gambling.
“I think that’s pretty well shaken out,” she says. “This is a whole new area for us, but we have experience regulating something that’s kind of unusual because of our gaming and I think we were able to adjust to it pretty well.”
But for now, there’s no overlap between the state’s cannabis and gaming industries, largely because regulators for the latter have prohibited casinos from entering the marijuana trade.
“It won’t happen until federal legislation happens, because gaming is so tightly regulated and they’re not going to take any chances of losing a license or having the feds step into the gaming world because of marijuana,” Titus says. “It’s kind of like the banks that don’t want to do business with marijuana companies because of federal regulation. So it’s going to take not just becoming mainstream or not just becoming legalized at the state level, but federal action before that happens.”
One area where Titus does see opportunity for advancement without Congressional action is improving military veterans’ access to medical cannabis. Under current Department of Veterans Affairs policy, government doctors are not allowed to fill out medical marijuana recommendation forms, even in states where it is legal.
It’s “a crying shame,” she says.
Despite some victories on the House floor and in a Senate committee, efforts to force a change at the VA haven’t been enacted into law. But VA Sec. David Shulkin could change the policy himself, if he wanted to.
“I’m very disappointed in the VA not moving this forward,” she says. “I think they should do it without legislation.”
The issue is particularly important in light of increased attention being paid to opioid addiction and overdoses. “The veterans who want to try [marijuana] have to use it on their own, pay for it out of their own pockets and who knows how it interacts with other things that are being prescribed,” Titus says. “The opioid crisis, I think, has been perpetuated by the VA because it’s so much easier to give somebody a pill than it is just to deal with some of the demons that they may face or some of the real physical problems. Veterans come back now not with just one injury but maybe 10, 12 injuries because of the new science on the battlefield.”
On broader marijuana enforcement issues, despite concerning comments from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Trump administration officials, there have been no formal policy changes announced this year.
“We’re just in limbo,” Titus says. “That can be as bad as knowing what you have to face even if it’s something you don’t like.”
The congresswoman remains optimistic about shifting tides on marijuana issues, however, and in particular is impressed by how the legalization movement and the industry it has created have stepped up their game.
“The groups that represent different aspects of the medical marijuana and recreational marijuana industry are getting much more energized, much more mobilized, much more professional in their lobbying efforts,” she says. “I think you’re going to see that start to increase.”
Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration.
Marijuana Isn’t Addictive, Former A.G. Eric Holder Says
The nation’s former top law enforcement officer is not worried that the legalization of marijuana will lead to addiction.
“I’ve never seen any scientific evidence that points you to concerns about addiction through the use of marijuana,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in an interview published on Friday by NY1.
The comments by the former A.G. call into question cannabis’s current status as a Schedule I drug. That category is supposed to be reserved only for substances with no medical value and a high potential for abuse. In fact, it would mean that marijuana should be moved to at least Schedule III, where drugs with “moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence” are categorized.
Although Holder did not move to reclassify cannabis when he had the power to do so as attorney general, he did specifically endorse such a change just months after leaving office.
“I certainly think it ought to be rescheduled,” he said in a 2015 interview with PBS.
And he still feels the same way.
“We need to move marijuana from Schedule I, so research can be done,” Holder said in the new NY1 interview. “It is classified now on the same level as heroin is, and clearly that is inappropriate.”
While he did nothing to officially recategorize marijuana as attorney general — and continually passed the buck to Congress when asked about the issue — Holder’s Justice Department did issue guidance, known as the Cole Memo, which generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal interference.
Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that memo earlier this year.
In the new interview, Holder said he thinks the federal government should continue letting states implement their own legalization laws.
“Let those be laboratories to see where we want to be,” he said. “I think if you allow the states to experiment we’ll ultimately come to a national consensus about what it is we ought to do with regard to marijuana.”
He also spoke about unfair enforcement of cannabis criminalization.
“One of the things that I am concerned about, though, is the racial disparity you see in the enforcement of marijuana laws,” he said. “You see African Americans, Latinos using marijuana at just about the same rates as whites, and yet seeing rates of arrest four, five times as great as it is for whites. That is something that I think is extremely troubling.”
Photo courtesy of US Embassy New Zealand.
Congressional Committee Protects Medical Marijuana From Jeff Sessions
A powerful congressional panel voted on Thursday to continue shielding medical marijuana patients and providers who comply with state laws from prosecution by the federal government.
While the provision has been federal law since 2014, when it was first attached to legislation that funds the U.S. Department of Justice, its continuance has been in question because of recent efforts by Republican leadership to prevent votes on cannabis amendments. But in a stunning bipartisan move, the House Appropriations Committee voted to add the provision as a rider to legislation funding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s department for Fiscal Year 2019.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congressional Republicans Block Votes On Hemp Amendments
In the latest development in a series of anti-cannabis moves, congressional Republican leadership has blocked consideration of several industrial hemp amendments.
Supporters were seeking to attach the measures to the large-scale Farm Bill, which sets food and agriculture policy for the country, but the House Rules Committee on Wednesday decided that the proposals cannot be considered on the floor.
The anti-cannabis chairman of the panel did, however, reveal that a broader deal for industrial hemp might be in the works.
One of the measures the committee killed, submitted by Reps. James Comer (R-KY) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), along with a bipartisan list of cosponsors, would have legalized hemp and made it eligible for crop insurance.
“Hemp is a crop with a long and rich history in our country,” Comer said in introducing his amendment before the committee. “It was grown by many of our founding fathers.”
Comer, who is a former Kentucky agriculture commissioner, said his state’s existing industrial hemp research program, which is authorized under a previous Farm Bill enacted in 2014, “has been a great success.”
He also spoke about the economic potential of the plant. “Times are tough in rural america,” he said. “For rural Kentuckians, industrial hemp has provided a new crop and business opportunity.”
But in a party-line move, the committee voted 8 to 3 to reject a motion to add Comer’s amendment to the list of proposals approved for floor consideration.
Another hemp amendment, filed by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Jared Polis (D-CO), would have removed hemp from the list of federally banned substances.
A third proposal, submitted by Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), sought to create “a safe harbor for financial institutions that provide services to hemp legitimate businesses” that operate under state-authorized research programs.
“There is a proud history in American and in Kentucky [for hemp] as an agriculture product,” Barr said when testifying for his amendment, noting that it can be used in over 25,000 products.
Under current law, banks that work with legitimate hemp companies “fear reprisal from federal regulators,” Barr said, arguing that his proposed measure would protect financial institutions “from unnecessary interference from bank examiners and regulators” and give producers rights that “every other American crop enjoys.”
The committee did not hold specific votes on those two measures.
Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) has made a consistent practice of blocking cannabis measures from advancing over the past several years.
Sessions, seemingly mistakenly, told Comer during the Wednesday hearing that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has “a clause…that industrial hemp should be declassified under their Schedule I drugs, which they concur, which is the position you hold, too.”
A hemp lobbyist told Marijuana Moment in an email that he had not heard of the DEA taking a pro-hemp position.
Polis, who as a Rules Committee member made the unsuccessful motion to let the full House vote on Comer’s amendment, argued that hemp is a “common sense area” that enjoys bipartisan support. The measure, he said, would simply “treat industrial hemp as the agricultural commodity that it is.”
While Sessions and other GOP panel members were not swayed, the chairman did hint just before the vote that there may still be hope for hemp reform, saying that the issue would be “determined by an agreement that would be reached” with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
McConnell last month filed a hemp legalization bill, which Comer’s amendment closely modeled. Fully a fifth of the Senate is now signed on as cosponsoring that legislation, and the majority leader has already announced plans to attach his hemp language to the version of the Farm Bill being considered by the Senate this month.
While it is unclear what exactly Sessions was suggesting when he referred to an “agreement” with McConnell, it may have been a reference to the conference committee process that will merge the House and Senate’s respective versions of the Farm Bill into a single proposal after each chamber passes its legislation. If McConnell succeeds in attaching hemp legalization to the Senate bill, it would then be up for consideration as part of the final legislation sent to President Trump for signing into law.
In 2014, McConnell successfully inserted a provision to prevent federal interference in hemp research programs in that year’s version of the Farm Bill.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.