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Sen. Al Franken Is Evolving On Marijuana

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For the second time in as many days, U.S. Sen. Al Franken just added his name to a marijuana bill.

On Tuesday, the Democratic lawmaker from Minnesota became the fifth cosponsor of legislation to allow cannabis cultivators and sellers operating in accordance with state laws to be taxed just like any other business.

The day before, he signed onto a bill that would allow those businesses to access financial services from banks.

Earlier this month, the former “Saturday Night Live” star was one of six senators to introduce a broad bipartisan bill that would amend federal laws so states can enact and implement their own medical cannabis laws without federal interference.

The leadership on marijuana issues is a far cry from when Franken said on a BuzzFeed podcast last year (in response to a question I submitted) that he was “not the guy to ask” about cannabis policy.

In his answer then, he did acknowledge that he should probably study up on the issue because the state he represents is one of more than two dozen that allows medical marijuana. “I should know more,” the senator said, jokingly adding, “or it’s not important or somewhere in between.”

A month later, Franken added his name to an earlier, now-expired version of the comprehensive medical marijuana bill that he is an original cosponsor of in the new 115th Congress. But he never did add his name to the 114th Congress’s versions of the cannabis taxation and banking legislation.

Now, the senator is on a bit of a marijuana bill cosponsorship spree, and some observers think it’s good politics — in addition to good policy — at a time when Franken’s name is being floated as a possible 2020 presidential candidate.

“With clear public support in favor of outright legalization, presidential aspirants now recognize that marijuana reform is something that can no longer be ignored,” Justin Strekal of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said in an interview.

Quinnipiac University poll released in April found that 60% of U.S. voters — and 72% of Democrats — support legalizing marijuana.

When it comes to medical cannabis, 94% of all voters and 96% of Democrats are on board. Just 13% of Democrats and 21% of voters overall want the federal government to interfere with state marijuana laws.

Other potential Democratic presidential candidates such as fellow Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have increasingly taken on leadership roles in the fight for marijuana law reform.

Franken, who discussed his past marijuana, cocaine and LSD use in a book he published earlier this year, also joined four other senators in writing a July letter asking U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to go after state-legal industrial hemp growers.

But Strekal, of NORML, wants Franken to do even more, saying, until he “puts his name on a bill that outright deschedules cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, I remain uninspired.”

In July, Booker filed legislation to do just that, and more. And in the last Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a 2016 presidential candidate, filed cannabis descheduling legislation.

This story was first published by Forbes.

Photo courtesy of John Taylor.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

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VA Notice About Researching Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans Deleted Shortly After Posting

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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: 

VA Request For Medical Mari… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

House Democrats Block Amendment To Restrict Marijuana Products In Anti-Vaping Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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House Democrats Block Amendment To Restrict Marijuana Products In Anti-Vaping Bill

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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.

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.”

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.

Banning CBD Products Would Be ‘A Fool’s Game,’ FDA Chief Admits

Image by Lindsay Fox from Pixabay.

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Banning CBD Products Would Be ‘A Fool’s Game,’ FDA Chief Admits

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Products containing cannabidiol (CBD) are here to stay, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn acknowledged on Wednesday, calling it “a fool’s game” to attempt to pull the products off the market.

“People are using these products,” Hahn, a cancer doctor, said in his first public speech on CBD since taking office as commissioner in December. “We’re not going to be able to say you can’t use these products. It’s a fool’s game to try to even approach that.”

Hemp and its derivatives have been federally legal in the U.S. since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, but policies governing the marketing of CBD have been murkier. FDA is still in the process of developing rules to allow businesses to sell the cannabis compound in foods or nutritional supplements—a process that Hahn’s predecessor, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, has said could take years without congressional action.

Hahn’s latest comments suggest that while FDA may not be happy with CBD’s explosion onto the consumer market, the agency at least isn’t planning an immediate, industry-wide crackdown.

“We have to be open to the fact that there might be some value in these products, and certainly Americans think that’s the case,” the FDA chief said. “But we want to get them information to help them make the right decisions.”

The commissioner was addressing the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture at its winter policy conference in Arlington, Virginia.

Since Congress began lifting restrictions on hemp cultivation in 2014, all but three states have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate hemp production, and states such as Kentucky have embraced hemp as a promising commercial crop.

After Hahn was nominated to lead the FDA last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pressed him on the need to establish a regulatory framework for CBD products.

“Like many Kentuckians who are taking advantage of hemp’s legalization,” McConnnell said at the time, “I am eager for FDA’s plans to create certainty for CBD products.”

Last week, however, the agency missed a deadline outlined in a report attached to an annual spending bill to provide an update on the development of enforcement guidelines around CBD products. “We haven’t received the report yet,” House Appropriations Committee Communications Director Evan Hollander told Marijuana Moment in an email. “That’s not surprising; agencies typically submit these very late.”

Meanwhile, Congress is taking separate steps to allow and regulate hemp-derived CBD. Bipartisan legislation filed last month would allow the cannabinoid to be marketed and sold as a dietary supplement.

While regulations for CBD have yet to be finalized, the government’s enforcement actions have been infrequent and sometimes unpredictable. The FDA has said it’s using its enforcement discretion to target businesses making outlandish, unsupported claims about CBD’s health benefits.

Also at Wednesday’s agriculture event, a USDA undersecretary announced that the agency would be delaying a requirement for hemp testing laboratories to register with the DEA. On Thursday, USDA issued a notice clarifying it would temporarily suspend enforcement of that rule as well as one on the disposal of crops with too much THC.

USDA Touts Hemp Industry’s Growth But Says Challenges Remain

Photo by Kimzy Nanney.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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