A marijuana research bill approved by a key U.S. House committee last month would have a “negligible” effect on direct federal spending, according a new analysis from Congress’s official fiscal analyst.
The legislation would force the Department of Justice to begin issuing more licenses to growers of cannabis to be used in scientific research, an issue that has been a contentious one between the Trump administration and members of Congress, including Republicans.
But its fiscal impact would be slim, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said in a two-page cost estimate released on Wednesday.
In the closing months of the Obama administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) created a process to expand on the sole approved cultivator that has had a monopoly on the U.S. supply of marijuana for studies for half a century. But under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has refused to act on the more than two dozen applications filed through the new program by would-be legal growers.
The situation has led to a series of bipartisan sign-on letters and testy lines of questioning for Sessions during oversight hearings in both the House and Senate, culminating in the passage of the bill last month by the House Judiciary Committee to force the attorney general’s hand by requiring more licenses on a certain timetable.
The long-term projection is that “enacting the legislation would not increase net direct spending or on budget deficits in any of the four consecutive 10-year periods beginning in 2029,” CBO wrote in the new cost estimate about the bill.
Sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the proposal hasn’t yet been scheduled for a floor vote. But while CBO is required to evaluate all bills approved by most congressional committees, the score’s release is a reminder that it’s being taken more seriously than most of the hundreds of other pieces of cannabis-focused legislation that have been filed on Capitol Hill over the years.
“CBO estimates that only a few new manufacturers would be registered each year,” the office reasoned, citing unspecified “information” from the Department of Justice.
Another provision of the bill would direct DEA to work with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Food and Drug Administration to issue recommendations for good manufacturing practices for growing marijuana.
“The administrative costs associated with publishing such recommendations within 6 months of enactment would be less than $500,000 over the 2019-2023 period,” CBO found.
A third section would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to refer military veterans to participate in clinical trials on marijuana’s potential medical benefits and encourage VA itself to conduct research on cannabis, two activities for which the department currently has authority but has been reluctant to pursue without more clear direction from Congress.
“Because VA already has those authorities under current law, CBO estimates that implementing this section would have insignificant costs,” the office’s report says.
The low-cost findings are similar to a previous memo the office released after separate legislation to encourage VA to study medical cannabis became the first standalone marijuana reform bill ever approved by a congressional committee earlier this year when it was reported out favorably by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
In that case, CBO determined that the bill would “cost less than $500,000 over the 2019-2023 period, primarily to prepare and submit the necessary reports to the Congress” regarding updates on VA’s involvement in cannabis research.
The broader Gaetz legislation on research and cultivation licensing that the Judiciary Committee approved last month is only the second cannabis-focused bill to have cleared a congressional panel.
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) October 11, 2018
If enacted, “DOJ would collect registration fees of about $3,000 annually from each registrant,” CBO wrote in its new analysis. “Such fees are treated in the budget as reductions in direct spending, and DOJ is authorized to spend them without further appropriation.”
As a result, CBO also found that the bill would not “would not affect revenues” appreciably.
UN Committee Unexpectedly Withholds Marijuana Scheduling Recommendations
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) was expected to make recommendations about the international legal status of marijuana, which reform advocates hoped would include a call to deschedule the plant and free up member countries to pursue legalization.
But in a surprise twist, a representative from the organization announced that WHO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, would be temporarily withholding the results of its cannabis assessment, even as it released recommendations on an opioid painkiller and synthetic cannabinoids. The marijuana recommendations are now expected to come out in January.
Earlier this year, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) released a pre-review of marijuana that included several positive, evidentiary findings. Cannabis has never caused a fatal overdose, the committee said, and research demonstrates that ingredients in the plant can effectively treat pain and improve sleep, for example.
The pre-review results prompted a more in-depth critical review, one of the final stages before the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) makes a determination about whether marijuana should remain in the most restrictive international drug classification. But on Friday, as observers anxiously awaited that determination, WHO pumped the brakes. The committee said it needed more time “for clearance reasons,” according to the International Drug Policy Consortium.
The @WHO's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence met in November to discuss the scheduling of cannabis and related/other substances.
— IDPC (@IDPCnet) December 7, 2018
“This decision to withhold the results of the critical review of cannabis appears to be politically motivated,” Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and legalization advocate who has pushed for international reform, said in a press release.
“The WHO has been answering many questions about cannabis legalization, which is not within their mandate. I hope the WHO shows courage and stands behind their work on cannabis, findings we expect to be positive based upon recent WHO statements and their other actions today.”
Those other actions include recommending that the opioid painkiller tramadol should not be scheduled under international treaties out of concern that such restrictions would limit access and hurt patients. In August, the committee made a similar recommendation about pure cannabidiol, or CBD, a component of marijuana.
While the critical review of marijuana itself has been postponed, the committee’s recommendations for its international scheduling are still expected to go up for a vote in the CND in March. If the committee does decide to recommend that cannabis be removed from international control, that would have wide-ranging implications for the reform efforts around the world.
In the U.S., the federal government has routinely cited obligations under international treaties to which it is a party as reasons to continue to ban marijuana and its derivatives. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration said in May that CBD doesn’t meet the criteria for federal scheduling at all, but that international treaties obliged it to recommend rescheduling to Schedule V.
“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or if the international controls on CBD change in the future, this recommendation will need to be promptly revisited,” the agency said.
Where Trump’s Pick For Attorney General Stands On Drug Policy
President Donald Trump said on Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr to replace Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.
Barr, who previously served in the position under President George H. W. Bush’s administration, seems less openly hostile to marijuana compared to other potential nominees whose names were floated—like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who pledged to crack down on state-legal cannabis activity during his failed 2016 presidential bid.
That said, he developed a reputation as anti-drug while overseeing harsh enforcement policies under Bush.
….and one of the most highly respected lawyers and legal minds in the Country, he will be a great addition to our team. I look forward to having him join our very successful Administration!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018
The prospective nominee seems to share a worldview with the late president under whom he served. Bush called for “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” to combat drug use and dramatically increased the federal drug control budget to accomplish that goal. In 1992, Barr sanctioned a report that made the “case for more incarceration” as a means to reduce violent crime.
Barr wrote a letter explaining why he was releasing the report, which has now resurfaced as observers attempt to gauge how he will approach drug policy in the 21st century.
“[T]here is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets,” he wrote. “Of course, we cannot incapacitate these criminals unless we build sufficient prison and jail space to house them.”
“Revolving-door justice resulting from inadequate prison and jail space breeds disrespect for the law and places our citizens at risk, unnecessarily, of becoming victims of violent crime.”
He also wrote a letter to lawmakers in 2015 defending the criminal justice system—including mandatory minimum sentences—and encouraging Congress not to bring up a sentencing reform bill.
“It’s hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one,” Michael Collins, director of national drug affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. “Nominating Barr totally undermines Trump’s recent endorsement of sentencing reform.”
“The vast majority of Americans believe the war on drugs needs to be replaced with a health-centered approach. It is critically important that the next Attorney General be committed to defending basic rights and moving away from failed drug war policies. William Barr is a disastrous choice.”
Another window into Barr’s criminal justice perspective comes from 1989, when he wrote a Justice Department memo that authorized the FBI to apprehend suspected fugitives living in other countries and extradite them to the U.S. without first getting permission from the country. The intent of the memo seemed to be to enable the U.S. to more easily capture international drug traffickers.
In 2002, Barr compared drug trafficking to terrorism and described the drug war as the “biggest frustration” he faced under Bush. The administration “did a very good job putting in place the building blocks for intelligence building and international cooperation, but we never tightened the noose,” he said.
Interestingly, as The Washington Post reported, Barr would be heading up a department where his daughter, Mary Daly, also works. Daly is the director of opioid enforcement and prevention efforts in the deputy attorney general’s office, and she’s established herself as an advocate for tougher criminal enforcement aimed at driving out the opioid epidemic.
Today’s drug policy landscape is a lot different than it was in the early 1990s, though, and it’s yet to be seen how Barr, if confirmed by the Senate, will navigate conflicting state and federal marijuana laws. He’ll also be inheriting a Justice Department that no longer operates under an Obama-era policy of general non-intervention, after Sessions moved this year to rescind the so-called Cole memo that provided guidance on federal cannabis enforcement.
But for advocates, at least it’s not the guy who said “good people don’t smoke marijuana” anymore and it won’t be one who campaigned for president saying he’d enforce federal prohibition in legal states, either.
Marijuana Bills Are Already Being Pre-Filed For 2019 Legislative Sessions
If you thought 2018 was a big year for marijuana, gear up for 2019. Before the next legislative session has even started, lawmakers in at least four states have already pre-filed a wide range of cannabis reform bills.
In Missouri, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative during last month’s midterm election, a state lawmaker has already drafted a piece of legislation that would legalize cannabis for adult-use—though it would not establish a retail sales system. Instead, adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
At least one marijuana decriminalization bill will be on the table in Virginia next year. The legislation would reduce the penalty for simple possession from a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum of a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail to a civil penalty punishable by a $50 fine for first-time offenders, $100 for second-time offenders and $250 for subsequent offenses.
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Down in Texas, lawmakers in the state House and Senate have already pre-filed no fewer than 12 marijuana-related bills. The legislative proposals range from constitutional amendments to fully legalize and regulate cannabis to simple decriminalization policies to lessen penalties for low-level possession.
Finally, in Nevada, where cannabis is legal for adults, lawmakers have introduced a flurry of what are called “bill draft requests” that relate to marijuana. Proposals to revise cannabis tax policies, create a state bank that could potentially service the legal industry and regulate hemp cultivation—among several others—could be taken up by the state legislature next year.
While the pre-filing process has already started in most states, there’s still time and it’s possible that more cannabis legislation will be introduced for consideration in coming days and weeks prior to the formal start of 2019 legislative sessions.