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Mormon GOP Senator Pushes Medical Marijuana As Opioid Alternative

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A conservative Republican U.S. senator spoke about the “possible benefits of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids” on the Senate floor on Wednesday afternoon, and introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at expanding cannabis research.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has represented Utah in Congress since 1977, has historically not been a champion of marijuana law reform, and continues to oppose full recreational legalization.

But in a floor speech he said that “in our zeal to enforce the law, we too often blind ourselves to the medicinal benefits of natural substances like cannabis.”

“While I certainly do not support the use of marijuana for recreational purposes, the evidence shows that cannabis possesses medicinal properties that can truly change people’s lives for the better,” the senator said. “And I believe, Mr. President, that we would be remiss if we threw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Hatch’s new bill, the Marijuana Effective Drug Study (MEDS) Act of 2017 would ease researchers’ access to marijuana for studies on its medical benefits and would require the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to develop recommendations for good manufacturing practices for growing and producing cannabis for research.

In a pun-filled statement about the legislation, Hatch said it is “high time to address research into medical marijuana,” adding:

“Our country has experimented with a variety of state solutions without properly delving into the weeds on the effectiveness, safety, dosing, administration and quality of medical marijuana. All the while, the federal government strains to enforce regulations that sometimes do more harm than good. To be blunt, we need to remove the administrative barriers preventing legitimate research into medical marijuana, which is why I’ve decided to roll out the MEDS Act.”

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chris Coons (D-DE), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) are initial cosponsors of the bill.

In his floor remarks, Hatch spotlighted impediments to research that currently exist because of marijuana’s status under federal law.

“We lack the science to support use of medical marijuana products like CBD oils not because researchers are unwilling to do the work, but because of bureaucratic red tape and over-regulation,” he said. “Under current law, those who want to complete research on the benefits of medical marijuana must engage in a complex application process and interact with several federal agencies. These regulatory acrobatics can take researchers over a year, if not more, to complete. And the longer researchers have to wait, the longer patients have to suffer.”

Cannabis is currently classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. That’s the most restrictive category, and is supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value and a high potential for abuse. Researchers have long complained that the classification creates additional hurdles that don’t exist for studies on other substances.

The Senate Appropriations Committee issued a report last week expressing concern about Schedule I’s research roadblocks.

There are several other pending marijuana bills in the Senate that would change federal laws to allow protections to people who use medical cannabis legally in accordance with state laws, but Hatch has not yet added his name as cosponsor of any of them. One such comprehensive bill has three Republican and three Democratic cosponsors.

Activists in Hatch’s home state of Utah are currently collecting signatures to qualify a medical cannabis ballot initiative for 2018. A recent poll found that 79% of the state’s likely voters support the concept.

Hatch is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is opposing the pending Utah ballot initiative.

“We believe that society is best served by requiring marijuana to go through further research and the FDA approval process that all other drugs must go through before they are prescribed to patients,” the Church said in a statement earlier this year.

While Hatch hasn’t revealed his position on the ballot measure, he did speak of a young Utah constituent who suffers from seizures and could benefit from medical cannabis.

“This poor family is seeking help, yearning for a way for their child to live a safe and healthy life,” he said. “Compounds found in marijuana could significantly mitigate the severity of my friend’s seizures and even help him lead a normal life. But current regulations prevent the development of any such treatment from going forward. So this young man is left to suffer.”

But despite Hatch’s support for research and acknowledgment of marijuana’s medical benefits, he isn’t exactly a fan of how many state laws regulate the drug.

“If we make medical marijuana accessible to those who really need it, we should not increase access to recreational marijuana, nor should we do anything to promote the industry that has developed around marijuana dispensaries,” he said, adding:

“Mr. President, the recreational marijuana industry has its fair share of budding entrepreneurs. But these men and women are in no way qualified to issue prescriptions or give any medical advice whatsoever to people suffering from chronic conditions. Only experienced medical professionals who have undergone years of education and formal training are qualified to consult patients seeking a marijuana-derived treatment. Only licensed professionals know how to accurately diagnose illnesses and use approved medical treatments to safely treat disease.”

The senator also expressed discomfort with the smoking of medical cannabis, saying he believes that “treatment options should focus on non-combustive forms of marijuana.”

Hatch introduced a similar marijuana research bill last year, but did not so clearly endorse cannabis’s medical potential in the related press release as he did in his floor remarks this time.

A growing body of research suggests that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid addiction and overdose rates.

This story was first published on Forbes.

Politics

New Zealand Voters Get Chance To Legalize Marijuana By 2020

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New Zealand could be the first country in the world to legalize marijuana by a nationwide voter referendum.

That’s the result of a new minority coalition government agreement announced on Thursday.

As a condition of helping to install Labour Party head Jacinda Ardern as the country’s next prime minster and pass some of her legislation, the Green Party extracted a promise from the incoming government to let New Zealand voters decide whether to legalize cannabis at the ballot box by 2020.

A Global First

Uruguay has already legalized marijuana, and Canada’s government is working to end prohibition by next summer. In both of those nations, however, the cannabis changes are a result of acts of elected officials.

In the U.S., voters in a growing number of states have enacted legalization ballot measures, but the country has no national voter initiative or referendum process.

That means New Zealand voters could be the first in the world to legalize cannabis throughout an entire country at the ballot box. (In 2008, voters in Switzerland strongly rejected a marijuana legalization referendum.)

That is, if the new government stays in power and upholds the “confidence and supply” deal it made with the Greens.

New Zealand’s Incoming Prime Minister On Marijuana

Labour’s 37-year-old Ardern personally supports medical cannabis and says that she doesn’t “think people should be locked in prison” for marijuana but that achieving that outcome doesn’t necessarily “require decriminalisation.”

Now, as part of her new coalition government’s deal, New Zealanders will have a chance to push even further by voting in favor of legalizing cannabis.

In a press conference after the new governing deal was announced, Ardern said she would be “seeking advice” as to the exact timing of the marijuana referendum.

It is also not clear whether it will be strictly binding or simply an advisory measure, though the new leader indicated she’s leaning toward giving voters the power to directly legalize cannabis themselves.

“That might be a conversation we have as an executive,” she said. “I think if you go to the New Zealand public on an issue like that and it’s confidence vote, then we really should place some weight on the public of New Zealand’s view.”

As to her own views on cannabis, Ardern said that the country’s current policy, which is “a justice-based approach to cannabis in this country, isn’t working. We can do better.”

But the incoming prime minister also has “concerns about young people accessing a product which can clearly do harm and damage to them.”

Broader Drug Reforms In Play

In addition to the marijuana referendum pledge, the Greens were able to get Labour to agree to broader, if vaguely articulated, drug policy reforms. According to an email sent to party supporters, the deal would:

“Increase funding for alcohol and drug addiction services and ensure drug use is treated as a health issue, and have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election.”

The Greens also extracted concessions on climate policy and education, and will also have ministerial posts as part of the agreement with Labour.

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Sessions: Expanding Marijuana Cultivation For Research Is “Healthy”

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is no fan of legalizing marijuana, but he indicated on Wednesday that he supports letting more people grow it for research purposes.

“I think it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply,” he said, alluding to the fact that all cannabis used for research in the U.S. is grown at a single farm at the University of Mississippi.

Sessions, testifying at an oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was responding to a question from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) about press reports that the Department of Justice is stymying efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to grant additional licenses to cultivate cannabis for medical research.

Last year the DEA enacted a new policy intended to license more research cultivation facilities, a move that came on the same day the agency rejected petitions to reschedule marijuana.

Researchers have long argued that it is difficult to access cannabis from the Mississippi farm, which has maintained a monopoly on the legal supply of marijuana since 1968, and that the product is often of low quality.

The DEA has reportedly received at least 25 applications to participate in the new licensing program but has not acted on any of them. According to the Washington Post, that is because top Justice Department officials have stepped in to prevent the agency from acting.

Hatch, who recently introduced legislation to remove roadblocks to studies on marijuana’s medical benefits, told Sessions that he is concerned about the reports that the Justice Department might be impeding expanding research.

Sessions responded that while he agrees it would be “healthy” to add new cultivation facilities, he is concerned about the cost of needed DEA oversight of any new grow sites.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

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Pro-Legalization Congressman To Target Anti-Cannabis Lawmakers

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One of Congress’s leading champions for marijuana law reform is going beyond just trying to pass legislation to push back against federal prohibition and is now actively working to defeat fellow lawmakers who are standing in the way of those bills.

“I’ve been working to try and give you a better Congress,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said at a cannabis industry event on Tuesday night. “One of the other things we are doing is not just helping friends, but to help people who are against us find something else to do with their time.”

His first target is Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX). As chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, Sessions, who is not related to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has played a key role in preventing marijuana legislation from advancing.

In that capacity, Sessions has blocked a number of cannabis measures from even being considered on the House floor, including ones to protect state laws from federal interference, facilitate marijuana businesses’ access to banking services and allow Washington, D.C. to set its own legalization policies.

Perhaps Sessions’s most egregious move, in the eyes of advocates, was when he disallowed a vote on a measure to let military veterans get medical cannabis recommendations through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We’re going to be putting up some billboards in Pete Sessions’s district. It’s going to feature a veteran and ask the question why Pete Sessions doesn’t want him to have access to his medicine,” Blumenauer said. “We’re going to make the point that there are consequences. This is not a free vote. People are going to take a position one way or another. And if they are going to be part of an effort to deny people access to medicine that can be transformational…this is going to be part of the political landscape this year.”

Video captured by activist and journalist Russ Belville.

Blumenauer will pay for the billboards using funds from a new political action committee, called the Cannabis Fund, that he recently founded. In addition to going after marijuana reform opponents, the congressman said that the PAC will also proactively work to elect candidates who support cannabis issues on the federal, state and local levels.

“I don’t care where they are, who they are, what the district is,” he said. “There is part of the agenda that you care about that they ought to be able to support.”

Blumenauer was speaking at a National Cannabis Industry Association event in Portland, Oregon, an area he represents in Congress.

In the speech, he referred to one marijuana law reform opponent who no longer has a job on Capitol Hill. Last year, then-Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) spoke out against efforts to increase medical cannabis access for military veterans.

“I don’t think we have too few high veterans out there,” he said at the time.

Blumenauer argued that partially as a result of those “disparaging comments not just about medical marijuana but our veterans who need and depend upon it,” Kirk is now “now ex-Senator Kirk.”

Looking ahead, when it comes to his PAC’s first target of Sessions, Blumenauer said the billboards and other efforts should “make his life interesting.”

Later in the speech to the gathered cannabis industry leaders, Blumenauer said that the marijuana business will be “bigger than the NFL in five to ten years,” and decried how the league is “still is suspending people who self-medicate with medical marijuana to deal with the punishment that they go through” on football fields.

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