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.
People With Marijuana Convictions Should Know About National Expungement Week
Marijuana legalization is a solid first step, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to resolve socioeconomic and racial inequities brought about by the war on drugs.
Hence, we now have National Expungement Week. The first-of-its-kind campaign, supported by a coalition of cannabis and social justice organizations called the Equity First Alliance, is taking place from October 20-27.
The organizations will offer “expungement and other forms of legal relief to some of the 77 million Americans with convictions on their records,” according to the campaign website. “These convictions can restrict access to housing, employment, education, public assistance, and voting rights long after sentences have been served.”
In an open letter, the alliance also said it was “largely unsupported by the cannabis industry and by the traditional funders of equity work.” While a main argument in support of legalization is that it would help to repair drug war damages, which have disproportionately affected communities of color, the laws and markets created by the successful movement haven’t necessarily lived up to its name, the alliance wrote.
To that end, the campaign has organized events across the country—from Los Angeles to Boston—to provide legal services to those whose criminal records are able to be reduced or expunged. You can check out the full list of events here.
The alliance’s agenda touches on numerous reform policies, including using marijuana tax revenue to fund communities that have been impacted by prohibition, implementing social equity programs, ensuring corporate responsibility for businesses that profit off cannabis and providing affordable medical cannabis for low-income patients, among other policies.
“We believe that we have a short but vital window of opportunity to change the course of the cannabis industry—and by doing so, we can prevent further harms to the most impacted communities and create a model of reparative economic and criminal justice.”
Adam Vine, co-founder of Cafe-Free Cannabis and an organizer with the campaign, told Marijuana Moment that the campaign is necessary “because millions of Americans have been harmed by the war on drugs and continue to face collateral consequences for convictions that may have happened years ago.”
“These consequences restrict people’s access to employment, housing, education, and social services, so our coalition decided to do something about it,” he said. “We are coordinating these events to provide free legal relief and to say that as states move towards cannabis legalization, expungement needs to be the first priority.”
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Chris Christie Finally Recognizes Marijuana Legalization As States’ Rights Issue
Famously anti-marijuana former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) isn’t jumping on the pro-legalization train any time soon—but new comments suggest he might be softening his opposition a smidge, recognizing marijuana reform as a states’ rights issue.
Speaking at Politicon on Saturday, Christie took a question about his cannabis stance from YouTuber Kyle Kulinski, who asked him to weigh in on studies showing that states with legal marijuana programs experience lower rates of opioid addiction and overdoses compared to non-legal states. He was quick to dismiss the research, contending that other studies show the “exact opposite.”
“I just don’t believe when we’re in the midst of a drug addiction crisis that we need to legalize another drug,” Christie said, echoing comments he’s made as chair of President Donald Trump’s opioids committee.
Then he pivoted, acknowledging that some will push back on his anti-legalization position by pointing out that alcohol is legal. “I get that,” he said, “but I wasn’t here when we legalized alcohol.”
Kulinski seized on that point and asked the former governor if he’d vote to ban alcohol.
“No, I wouldn’t ban it. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, and that’s a big, important argument about marijuana because once you legalize this, that toothpaste never goes back in the tube.”
Christie stood out among other Republican and Democratic contenders during his 2016 presidential run by maintaining that in addition to personally opposing legalization, he’d crack down on legal cannabis states and enforce federal laws nationwide if elected.
“If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it,” Christie said in 2015. “As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.”
So it came as something of a surprise when the former governor went on to say in the Politicon appearance that “states have the right to do what they want to do on this,” signaling a modest shift in his anti-marijuana rhetoric. States should have that right even though, as Christie put it, “broad legalization of marijuana won’t, in my view, alleviate or even minimize the opioid crisis.”
It’s unclear what’s behind the apparent shift from hardline prohibitionist to wary federalist, but who knows… maybe Christie experienced an epiphany at a Melissa Etheridge concert he attended earlier this month.
Etheridge, who recently spoke with Marijuana Moment about her cannabis advocacy and use of the drug for medicinal purposes, reacted to a tweet showing Christie at one of her recent performances, where he reportedly knew every word of her songs and sang along.
— Melissa Etheridge (@metheridge) October 6, 2018
Christie, for his part, replied that he “enjoyed every minute of a great performance and a truly wonderful group of fans.”
And enjoyed every minute of a great performance and a truly wonderful group of fans https://t.co/TQdJ8fzkTM
— Governor Christie (@GovChristie) October 6, 2018
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Marijuana Support Grows: Two Out Of Three Americans Back Legalization, Gallup Says
Two-thirds of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, the highest percentage ever in Gallup’s ongoing decades-long series of national polls on the topic.
The new survey released on Monday shows that U.S. adults back ending cannabis prohibition by a supermajority margin of 66 percent to 32 percent. That’s more than a two-to-one ratio.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.