Wednesday is the deadline to submit comments on a draft Senate bill to federally legalize marijuana, and feedback has flooded in from a broad array of advocates and industry stakeholders.
While legalization proponents have widely celebrated the introduction of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), they have some suggestions for improvement—principally as it concerns issues of social equity, licensing, tax policy and interstate commerce.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are the lead sponsors of the legislation, and after releasing a draft version of the measure in July, they opened a public comment to receive input on what will be a revised measure the senators plan to formally introduce.
Pro-reform organizations like NORML, Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) and Hemp Roundtable made their voices heard—and while they generally applauded the senators’ work to end federal cannabis prohibition, they had some recommendations for revisions. Prohibitionist groups also weighed in with thoughts about the proposal can be changed to better reflect their concerns with the overall policy of legalization.
Here’s an overview of the public comment that the senators have received on their marijuana legalization bill:
Marijuana Justice Coalition
The Marijuana Justice Coalition—which counts among its membership the ACLU, Center for American Progress, Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch, Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, MoveOn, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union—sent a joint letter on the legalization proposal.
It said that the “regulatory approach taken by the CAOA is generally modeled on the federal approach taken to regulate alcohol and tobacco,” and while the draft measure “includes critical elements to end federal criminalization and to undo and repair many of the harms resulting from criminalization, it seeks to regulate cannabis like a vice, meaning a consumer product with potential harms to public health and huge economic potential.”
The coalition recommended “an approach [to reform] that does not just include reparative justice, health equity, and community reinvestment as a subset of a larger policy reform, but rather an approach where these components are the primary goal.”
“As we move forward, it is necessary that the Senate work alongside the House, as well as the Marijuana Justice Coalition and other key stakeholders, to ensure we build a bill that is greater than the sum of our parts. We encourage the Senate to hold a hearing on the issue of federal cannabis reform this year in order to inform our work on this bill moving forward.”
The consumer-focused group’s comments largely center on the need to help repair the harms of prohibition for those who have been criminalized over cannabis, ensure that there are regulations in place to prevent the corporate consolidation of the industry and protect the infrastructure of existing state markets.
The organization also surveyed advocates and included its findings in its comment letter. Seventy-three percent of respondents said including provisions to expunge past records is either very or somewhat important to them, for example. And 68 percent said the legislation should end drug testing for cannabis.
“For too long, the criminalization of cannabis has been a tool used to disrupt communities and foster distrust of law enforcement,” the letter says. “It is our sincere hope that your team will be successful in collaborating with your colleagues and other good-faith stakeholders to ensure that the impending shift in federal policy takes great strides toward rectifying this situation by advancing comprehensive reform that is centered in science, evidence, and rational thought.”
Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, added that the “CAOA draft represents a thoughtful path forward toward ending federal marijuana criminalization.”
Marijuana Policy Project (MPP)
MPP stressed in its letter that while federal legalization is necessary, the rollout should be thoughtful and gradual, giving deference to states so as to avoid jeopardizing efforts to promote equity in the industry.
“While we are enthusiastic about the goals of the CAO Act Discussion Draft, we believe the regulatory aspects need significant clarification and revision to avoid unintended consequences,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for MPP, wrote. “Our two major areas of concern are: the possible upending of state licensing and regulatory systems—driving sales underground—and the impact on medical cannabis access, including for those under the age of 21.”
The group also called for more robust provisions to provide relief for those impacted by marijuana criminalization and dedicate more tax revenue to communities hardest hit by prohibition.
MPP additionally proposed policies aimed at protecting medical cannabis patients and dispensaries, including by eliminating any federal tax on medical marijuana.
“The vast majority of Americans support legalizing cannabis for adults,” O’Keefe wrote. “Congress must work to swiftly end federal cannabis prohibition through an approach that starts with a framework of deference to states and includes a slow transition, avoids burdens that will drive the market for cannabis products back underground, and stops destroying lives—disproportionately those of Black and Brown Americans—over a plant that is safer than alcohol.”
National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA)
NCIA said that it solicited feedback on the draft legalization bill from stakeholders large and small to inform its comments.
It discussed testing standards for cannabis products, interagency regulatory coordination, access to federal aid for marijuana businesses, the need to allow states to set retail sales limits and more.
“Given your demonstrated focus on engaging with the people most directly impacted by cannabis policy reform, we hope the breadth and depth of our feedback will enable you to enact sound legislation which fosters the growth of a thriving and equitable legal cannabis industry,” the organization said. “NCIA is committed to creating a vibrant legal industry that can sustain thousands of well-paying jobs while responsibly serving adult consumers and medical patients who rely on cannabis for relief.”
“That this bill looks to create restorative justice and to consider the complexities of how communities were negatively and disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition is of the utmost importance, and is greatly appreciated. In order to achieve this, we are encouraged that this discussion draft will result in the continued dialogue that is necessary to ensure that individual states do not continue to perpetuate illicit markets.”
U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC)
USCC, like other organizations, told the senators that it feels the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) should be the primary regulators for the cannabis industry.
It also noted that the complexity and diversity of marijuana production in states requires “a new model of taxation, at rates that do not fuel the illicit market.”
Further, USCC said that federal legislation should account for legal obstacles in state markets and ensure that there’s a more gradual, transitionary process after a given state legalizes marijuana before being subject to federal rules that could disrupt social equity goals.
“We are fully aligned with the sponsors’ goals and applaud their leadership and careful consideration,” Steven Hawkins, CEO of USCC, said in a statement. “Cannabis prohibition in America is coming to an end, and the draft legislative text provides a road map for transitioning to a more just, equitable and prosperous future, particularly for emerging and social equity businesses and those directly impacted by cannabis prohibition.”
“At the end of the day, the detailed policy conversations taking place around the CAO Act should not distract from its historic nature. We support the leadership and vision of the sponsors and look forward to ongoing discussions and engagement to advance this vital legislation.”
Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP)
SSDP said that the drug war “has inflicted incalculable harm on marginalized communities—particularly communities of color,” and that war” weaponized cannabis over the last 50 years with disgustingly successful results.”
The organization said it appreciates the senators’ work to correct these issues, but it did offer some proposed revisions, including preventing the criminalization of people under 21 for marijuana. It further recommended eliminating restrictive language on who could qualify for federal relief after legalization is enacted.
“While fueling the public health crisis of mass incarceration, marijuana prohibition targeted the foundation of [marginalized] communities, leaving countless youth without guidance, an incalculable amount of economic loss, and millions of families suffering the loss of loved ones,” SSDP said in its comments. “The time has long since past to put this nightmare to an end.”
Americans for Safe Access (ASA)
ASA, which focuses on access for medical cannabis patients, touched on a number of prompts that the senators said they were especially interested in, such as appropriate ways to measure potency, agency responsibilities for regulating the marijuana market and the composition of a federal advisory board on cannabis.
Much of the group’s comment letter centers are ensuring that patient access to cannabis is not negatively impacted by federal regulations.
The organization also made recommendations for the legislation to address the denial of federally assisted housing to people who use cannabis in compliance with state laws and encourage the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to “develop a cannabis physician education curriculum for VA and civilian physicians.”
American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp (ATACH)
ATACH said that one of its primary concerns is giving regulatory authority over cannabis to Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it advised the senators to consider the possible role of TTB within the market.
Michael Bronstein, president of ATACH, further explained that the comments address “the need for increased recognition and understanding of the interaction with existing state-level regulatory frameworks, the treatment of hemp and CBD, and taxation policy.”
Like several other organizations, ATACH said the rollout process for federal regulations should be gradual to prevent undue burdens on existing state markets.
“ATACH is thankful for the dedication of the sponsors for taking these historic next steps and appreciates the opportunity to continue the dialogue regarding appropriate federal rates and tax structure, and how they interact with existing state and local taxes,” Bronstein said.
Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR)
“The draft bill represents a pivotal moment for the cannabis industry and an opportunity for stakeholders to inform a pathway towards responsible federal cannabis regulation that is rooted in science, evidence and data, ensures public health and safety standards, and secures fair market access including for small and minority-owned businesses,” CPEAR, which comprised largely up of alcohol and tobacco companies, said.
The group submitted comments that include recommendations on developing regulations that curb the illicit market, respecting state cannabis markets and providing “meaningful economic opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses.”
“Cannabis holds an important place in American history and society today as much as it will have an important place in the future,” CPEAR said. “It is critical that any attempt to craft and implement federal guidelines is done so with a holistic approach, led by science and data, but considerate of criminal justice, social equity, and public health. CPEAR appreciates the opportunity to be a resource to the Sponsoring Offices as this legislative effort continues to evolve.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D)
Last week, Polis sent his letter to the Senate sponsors of the reform bill that urged them to pass incremental cannabis banking and tax reform first before moving forward with the comprehensive legislation to end prohibition.
The governor said he’s supportive of CAOA—but he insisted that there are more modest and practical steps that should be taken first to support state-legal markets and protect businesses.
“I am thrilled that you are bringing forward a long-term, comprehensive solution that deschedules cannabis while enhancing social equity pathways,” he wrote. “I hope that you will first focus your efforts on the two biggest barriers to the success of the cannabis industry: banking and IRS Code Section 280E.”
That latter statute has precluded state-legal marijuana businesses from making federal tax deductions that are available to other traditional industries.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D)
The attorney general of Colorado last week sent a letter asking congressional leaders to ensure that small marijuana businesses are protected from being overtaken by Big Tobacco and other major industries as federal cannabis reform legislation advances.
Weiser wrote that his state is “heartened” to see efforts on Capitol Hill to end federal cannabis prohibition and create a regulatory framework that still empowers states to make their own policy decisions. But he expressed concerns about large corporations potentially gobbling up the industry if preventative steps aren’t taken.
Ensuring that small businesses are empowered to participate in the marijuana industry is a major priority, the attorney general argued. And, therefore, the official said a national market should be rolled out in thoughtful way to prevent large corporations from overtaking the industry.
“If a national market is not rolled-out carefully and in stages, large companies, particularly existing tobacco-focused companies, will be able to move into new markets immediately, displacing and pushing out smaller players,” he wrote.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
The hemp advocacy group provided senators with some tips for how it thinks CAOA could be improved. It provided five recommendations to that end:
- Open an additional pathway for the sale of hemp extracts like CBD as food and beverage additives.
- Expand protections from just CBD to all non-intoxicating hemp derivatives and cannabinoids.
- Allow all forms of safety evaluations permitted by law to be used, not just limit manufacturers to new dietary ingredient notifications (NDINs).
- Provide a more comprehensive process of determining potential daily serving limits.
- Ensure separate regulatory pathways for non-intoxicating hemp and intoxicating cannabis products
“The legislative prospects of the CAOA are still uncertain, but as legislation makes its way through both houses of Congress, we are working very hard to make sure that the details are reflective of the best interests of the hemp and CBD industries,” the group said.
The Parabola Center
The Parabola Center, a newly formed group that is working to inform legalization legislation federally and at the state-level with the intent of promoting social justice-centered reforms, has been actively monitoring reform efforts in Congress. And it previously recommended changes to a House legalization bill that cleared the chamber last session and has been reintroduced this year.
In its comment letter to the senators, the organization emphasized the importance of creating “a legal cannabis sector that lifts us out of a long history of systemic racial and economic oppression stemming from prohibition and into a fair, open, and competitive market that is part of a new framework focused on justice and restorative practices.”
Parabola expressed concern over the rapid consolidation of state-legal marijuana industries, and it said that members have observed “large current operators jockeying to dominate the market in various states and regions.”
It said that, as written, CAOA could thwart progress states have made toward promoting social equity in the marketplace. But there are steps that can be taken to avoid that issue.
“Our goal is to avoid irreversible market consolidation, and instead create a gradual approach to national legalization that favors an ecosystem of small businesses over a handful of excessively large ones. In short, our proposed changes to CAOA allow regulating agencies to collect data, monitor states, and develop expertise. That knowledge and expertise should then be used to create fair and equitable rules for everyone – and in the meantime prevent the formation of corporate oligopolies in the cannabis sector and closely-related ancillary industries.”
Some of the principal recommendations that Parabola shared with the senators include 1) take more concrete steps to incentive states to maintain equitable markets by, for example, tying federal funding to “defined justice benchmarks,” 2) outline a more gradual path for interstate commerce and 3) prohibit vertical integration and ensure that anti-competition provisions are included in the legislation and 4) prevent large tobacco companies from participating in the marijuana industry.
Marijuana prohibitionists have also weighed in on the legalization proposal.
Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM)
“While we applaud Senate Majority Leader Schumer, as well as Senators Booker and Wyden, for their focus on exploring ways to mitigate the harms that have been perpetuated on vulnerable communities, full commercial legalization of today’s highly potent marijuana will only deepen these harms,” Kevin Sabet, president of SAM, argued.
“Decriminalization of minor marijuana possession and expungement of previous records was a key part of President Joe Biden’s platform and should be the path forward, but we cannot let the interests of the for-profit marijuana industry and its investors cloud the discussion,” he said. “Much as we have done with COVID, we must heed the science and be cautious with normalizing and promoting marijuana use.”
SAM said in its letter that while it would prefer not to federally legalize cannabis, its scientific advisory board has several recommendations if comprehensive reform is to be enacted. It wants a 10-15 percent cap on THC concentrations in marijuana products, a ban or significant restrictions on advertising and a prohibition on “flavored or child-friendly products.” There is some common ground on one proposal: both SAM and several advocacy organizations feel that Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol should be prevented from monopolizing the market.
Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA)
In a call-to-action campaign, CADCA encouraged members to submit a pre-written letter to the senators that expresses concern about the commercialization of cannabis.
The letter says that the “CAOA purports to be about decriminalizing marijuana,” but it would “totally legalize the cultivation, production, distribution and sale of marijuana, thus totally commercializing a new addictive and harmful substance.”
It’s unclear how long after the comment period ends that the bill will be finalized, formally filed and referred to committee. But Schumer has said on multiple occasions that he intends to bring the proposal to the floor “soon.”
As introduced, the legislation would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge prior convictions, allow people to petition for resentencing, maintain the authority of states to set their own marijuana policies and remove collateral consequences like immigration-related penalties for people who’ve been criminalized over the plant.
The bill would also impose a federal tax on marijuana products and put some of that revenue toward grant programs meant to support people from communities most impacted by prohibition who want to participate in the industry.
Further, the legislation would transfer regulatory authority over cannabis from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to FDA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the TTB.
There have been some serious questions about whether the three senators will be able to muster the 60 votes needed to pass the legislation in their chamber. Even with a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, there are some members of Schumer’s own party who’ve expressed concerns about the comprehensive reform.
President Joe Biden’s position on cannabis presents another complication. Minutes after the senators unveiled the bill, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked at a briefing about the administration’s position on the legislation and said “nothing has changed” with respect to Biden’s opposition to adult-use legalization.
In the days following the introduction of CAOA, Booker had repeatedly stressed that he wants to see this legislation pass before allowing incremental reform to advance such as a bipartisan bill to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The senator recently vowed to “lay myself down” to block any other senators who seek to pass marijuana banking legislation before the body approves comprehensive cannabis reform, igniting the controversy.
He’s taken some criticism from stakeholders on that position—though he later clarified that he simply feels that holding off on voting on the banking reform as a “sweetener” could encourage his colleagues to support more comprehensive legislation.
House Officially Passes Defense Bill With Marijuana Banking Protections, But Key Senators May Block Path Ahead
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a large-scale defense spending bill that includes an amendment to shield banks that works with state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Now advocates and industry stakeholders are left wondering: what’s the fate of the reform in the Senate? And can it make it to the president’s desk?
New comments from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)—who’s helping lead the charge to advance comprehensive marijuana legalization and who has been severely critical of efforts to enact banking reform first—signal that the path to pass the incremental policy change through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could be in jeopardy in the Senate. Other key senators have also expressed skepticism about the reform’s prospects through this process.
For supporters, things may have been more simple if the Senate had moved to include cannabis banking reform in its own version, but the text of NDAA released by Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday does not contain that language. That means the matter will need to be settled in a bicameral conference committee after the full Senate formally passes its bill. At that point, negotiators from both chambers will work to resolve differences between their separate proposals.
Already, there’s pushback from key senators to including the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in the NDAA that’s ultimately sent to President Joe Biden. That’s not especially surprising considering that leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has insisted on passing comprehensive justice-focused marijuana legalization first rather than advance an incremental reform on banking. But recent statements do raise questions about the prospects of enacting the reform through the defense bill.
It’s not that the SAFE Banking Act is partisan or especially controversial on its face; it’s a matter of legislative priorities for certain senators and a question of germaneness in NDAA. As of Tuesday, when the reform amendment was officially attached to the House version of the bill, it has now passed five times in the chamber, usually along largely bipartisan lines.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, spoke with Marijuana Moment about the process moving forward in a phone interview on Wednesday. He was optimistic about the measure’s prospects with NDAA as the vehicle, though he conceded that he hadn’t spoken with Schumer or other key senators who are actively finalizing legalization legislation that they hope to see move first.
“I think the fifth time is the charm,” he said. “I mean, obviously, we still have to do some work to make sure that it remains part of the NDAA as the House and the Senate go to conference. So we still have work to do with the Senate to make sure that it remains part of it. But I think that it will.”
“I mean, the fact that it deals with cartels and national security, on top of the need for the public safety piece of this thing, I think that we’ll be able to convince the conference committee and the conferees generally to keep it in,” he said. “But we still have work to do.”
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Some advocates have expressed support for enacting the achievable banking policy change while working to build support for more comprehensive reform.
“Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would improve public safety and business efficiency in the 36 states that currently permit some form of retail marijuana sales,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “The Senate should ensure this provision remains in the final version of this funding package and enact it swiftly.”
“The SAFE Banking Act is only the first step toward making sure that state-legal marijuana markets operate safely and efficiently,” he said. “The sad reality is that those who own or patronize these currently unbanked businesses would still be recognized as criminals in the eyes of the federal government and by federal law. This situation can only be rectified by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances.”
Schumer and certain other senators, meanwhile, have insisted the banking issue should be tackled by holistically ending marijuana prohibition. They argue that it is inappropriate to pass what is seen as an industry-focused reform that helps businesses and investors while leaving unaddressed the harms of decades of racially disparate prohibition enforcement that should be addressed with equity-focused legalization.
Booker, who is helping Schumer alongside Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) to produce a final legalization bill has said he would proactively work to block any senators who attempt to get marijuana banking reform passed before enacting social justice-focused legalization legislation.
And Booker told Politico on Wednesday that cannabis banking is “something that should not be included” in NDAA.
Senate likes to send NDAA amendments to a vote by unanimous consent. If one senator raises an objection to an NDAA Amendment, it can kill or stall it. Booker wouldn’t discuss his plans but said has “a lot of options as an individual senator” should the amendment be proposed.
— Natalie Fertig (@natsfert) September 22, 2021
“It undermines the ability to get comprehensive marijuana reform and the kind of things that are harder to get done like expungement of people’s records,” he said, echoing a point that Schumer made in an interview with Marijuana Moment in April. And a spokesperson for the majority leader affirmed that his position has not changed in light of the House development.
Should a senator propose a floor amendment to the chamber’s version of the defense bill to incorporate SAFE Banking, Booker left open the possibility of standing in its way.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), sponsor of the standalone Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act, also declined to say whether he would push to attach the reform to NDAA and told Politico he’d “love to see if we can even do the more comprehensive [reform]—that’d be even better.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI), meanwhile, told Roll Call that the issue hasn’t been discussed by members of his panel. And bipartisan supporters of the reform—including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Rand Paul (R-KY)—told the outlet they weren’t certain that the Senate would pursue marijuana banking through NDAA.
Schatz also said that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “doesn’t like” the marijuana banking proposal, and so “he’s going to have to consult with the Republicans in his conference who are in favor of this reform, but so far he’s been blocking it.”
Based on these comments, it seems increasingly clear that the effort to enact SAFE Banking through the must-pass defense bill faces a tough road ahead. And despite bipartisan support for the proposal on its own, it’s an open question as to whether the negotiators in committees of jurisdiction will be able to reach a consensus.
At an initial meeting of the House Rules Committee about NDAA on Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), who is managing the bill for the chamber, acknowledged that while some members might consider certain amendments “superfluous” to defense spending matters, the annual legislation has been used as a vehicle to advance non-germane legislation in the past. He added, though, that doing so has historically required the issues at hand to have broad bipartisan support in order to survive the House-Senate conference committee process.
He didn’t specifically cite the cannabis banking proposal, but Perlmutter himself said earlier in the hearing that “whether something is superfluous is always in the eyes of the beholder,” signaling that he feels his measure’s germaneness in this context is up for interpretation.
Smith said that “whatever superfluous items the Rules Committee decides to put in order and get attached to this bill, we go to conference, and in conference, we work in a bipartisan fashion.”
But beyond Smith and Reed, it will also be up to leading members of key committees that handle banking issues to decide whether the measure gets a ride to the president’s desk in NDAA.
“We’re not going to pull one over on anybody here. We’re going to have to work with committees of jurisdiction—not just the chairs, but the ranking members as well—to come to some agreement on those before we go forward,” he said. “So if you see an item that you consider to be superfluous being added to the bill, don’t freak out.”
The chair’s comments about needing support from leaders of committees of jurisdiction raise questions about whether the amendment stands a chance in conference with the Senate following House approval. Not only did House Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC) vote against the standalone SAFE Banking Act this year and in 2019, but on the Senate side, even Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has been generally unenthusiastic about advancing the reform.
On the flip side, House Finance Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) is a supporter of the banking reform and brought it through her panel last Congress. Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA), for his part, has previously voiced support for advancing the SAFE Banking Act.
Perlmutter has said that he appreciates that Senate leadership is pushing for a more comprehensive end to federal marijuana prohibition—and he agrees with Booker that promoting social equity is an important objective—but he feels the SAFE Banking Act is urgently needed to address public safety issues resulting from the industry’s lack of access to traditional financial institutions.
Some of the strongest proponents for broad reform like Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) voted in favor of the SAFE Banking Act in April despite the body yet having taken up a legalization measure this session.
Mississippi Lawmakers Reach Deal On Medical Marijuana Legalization, Plan To Request Special Session
Lawmakers reached a deal on key provisions such as which agencies should be responsible for regulating the medical cannabis market.
By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today
Legislative negotiators and leaders have agreed on a draft of medical marijuana legislation, and are anticipated to ask Gov. Tate Reeves (R) as early as Friday to call the Legislature into special session, sources close to the negotiations said Thursday.
Legislative leaders on Thursday released some details of the proposal—which had been kept close to the vest for months—such as that cities and counties will be allowed to “opt out” of having medical marijuana cultivation or dispensaries, although local voters can override this.
Negotiations have dragged on throughout the summer on crafting a medical marijuana program to replace one passed by Mississippi voters in November but shot down in May by the state Supreme Court on a constitutional technicality.
House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) in a Thursday interview on a Supertalk radio show said he believed the House and Senate leadership and negotiators are “in agreement” on a draft bill, and he believes both chambers have the votes to pass such a measure. He said he planned to get together with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R), then barring any last minute glitches “inform the governor we are ready.”
Other sources close to the negotiations on Thursday told Mississippi Today they anticipate that request to the governor would happen as soon as Friday. Reeves has sole authority to call lawmakers into special session, and would set the date and parameters of a special session. Although legislative leaders have expressed interest in dealing with COVID-19 and other issues in a special session, Reeves has appeared unwilling but said he would call a session for medical marijuana, pending lawmakers are in agreement and he agrees with the measure.
Gunn in his radio interview on Thursday gave some particulars of the bill, but said “don’t hold me to it” and deferred to Rep. Lee Yancey, (R), the lead House negotiator on the measure. Yancey has worked with Sen. Kevin Blackwell, (R), the lead Senate negotiator. Blackwell could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
Yancey gave Mississippi Today some highlights of the draft bill, which would be subject to changes by the full Legislature. They include:
Cities and counties could opt out. Voters could opt back in. City councils or aldermen, or county boards of supervisors, within 60 days of passage of legislation, could opt out from allowing cultivation or dispensing of medical marijuana within their borders. However, voters could gather 1,500 signatures, or signatures of 20 percent of voters, whichever is less, and force a referendum on the issue. If such a referendum to allow it fails, voters could try again in two years, similar to state alcohol referenda. Yancey said that under the draft measure, “Once it’s in, it’s in,” meaning once approved, a locality could not come back and ban it.
“This gives businesses the certainty they need to get started,” Yancey said. “No licenses will be issued the first 60 days after passage for cultivation and processing, and licenses (for cannabis use) and dispensaries wouldn’t start until the 90th day.”
Smoking cannabis would be allowed. There had been debate on whether Mississippi’s program would allow smoking of cannabis by patients, as most states with programs allow, or prohibit it, as Alabama does with its recently approved program.
“There are those who have certain debilitating conditions who need the effects of medical cannabis to take effect immediately,” Yancey said. “Ingesting a gummy or something like that could take 45 minutes to an hour. Whether it’s terrible seizures or pain and suffering or not being able to eat, there are those who need relief as immediately as possible… There are those who look at this from a bias of recreational use, but that’s not apples to apples, not fair. There are people who are suffering, who need the palliative relieve medical cannabis can provide, and our main goal is to allow people who are suffering terrible illnesses to get relief.”
Medical marijuana would be subject to sales tax and an excise. The state’s sales tax, currently at 7 percent, would be levied on medical marijuana, as well as a $15 an ounce excise. Yancey said the goal was to have a 5 percent excise, but that going rates for marijuana vary by potency and product, so the weight-based tax was the easiest way to get near that mark. Weight for edibles and other product would be based on the cannabis weight, not food or other product. Yancey said this tax rate would put Mississippi roughly in the middle of states with legalized medical cannabis.
“The going rate for mid-range (marijuana flower) is about $300 an ounce, so if you do the math, $15 an ounce would be around the 5%,” Yancey said. “If a product sold for lower, you would pay higher than that rate, if sold for more, you would pay less.”
Outdoor growing would not be allowed. Lawmakers during hearings this summer were told by officials from other states that regulating growing and safety of medical marijuana is easier with indoor growing facilities.
State Health Department would be in charge, with Department of Revenue, Agriculture Commission sharing some responsibilities. The Mississippi State Department of Health would oversee the state’s medical marijuana program, but the state’s taxing and agriculture agencies would share some regulatory duties. State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson has told lawmakers he will not participate in regulating medical marijuana because marijuana is still federally illegal. Gipson has threatened to sue if lawmakers try to force him to participate.
Yancey said the proposal would allow Gipson to subcontract growing regulations to someone else.
“For instance, if the Board of Pharmacy said it was interested in regulating the plants—like they do with compounding pharmacies—they could do it,” Yancey said. “In a sense Andy wouldn’t have to do it himself, he could farm it out, no pun intended.”
Preference would be given to in-state companies. Yancey said cultivators would be licensed in tiers—from “micro cultivators” to large ones, based on square footage of canopy space. Micro growers, under 2,000 square feet, would have to be “100 percent Mississippi resident participation.” Larger ones initially would have to have 35 percent Mississippi ownership, but that requirement would be repealed after one year. Yancey said this could help Mississippians be involved in the business, but help the state avoid lawsuits other states have faced from out-of-state growers. Yancey said there would be a similar setup for processors, based on amount of pounds of product they produce.
Potency would be regulated. Yancey said there would be THC potency limits of 30 percent on flower, 60 percent on concentrates and infused products. He said any product above 30 percent THC would have to have a warning label.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Feds Fund Study Into Whether Psilocybin Can Help People Quit Smoking Cigarettes
A top federal drug agency is funding a study into how psilocybin could help people quit smoking cigarettes—one of the latest examples of the government’s growing interest in psychedelic therapy.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently approved the grant, which will enable researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), New York University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham to explore how so-called magic mushrooms can help people curb their addiction to cigarettes.
Matthew Johnson, a professor at JHU who will be a lead investigator in the study, announced the grant funding on Monday. He said he believes that this is the “first grant from the US government in over a half century to directly study therapeutics of a classic psychedelic.”
The research initiative will be a “multi-center, high-risk clinical study” into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin in tobacco addiction. It would build on earlier research that’s indicated that the psychedelic could play a valuable role in substance misuse disorders.
“This is extremely encouraging. Public funding for psychedelic science is critical,” Peter Hendricks, a University of Alabama professor who will be involved in the study, told Truffle Report. “My hope is that this opens the door to further scientific inquiry, and ultimately, the advancement of a treatment paradigm that has the potential to alleviate suffering across the globe.”
Johnson at JHU has been proposing a pilot study into the medical value of psilocybin for this treatment since 2014, stressing in a paper for the Journal of Psychopharmacology at the time that “despite suggestive early findings on the therapeutic use of hallucinogens in the treatment of substance use disorders, rigorous follow-up has not been conducted.”
Now NIDA is putting money toward the research project. But the parameters of the study and the level of funding is unclear. Johnson didn’t reply to several requests for comment.
There’s a sense of urgency to invest in psychedelics research, especially given that a new federal survey identified a rise in the use of hallucinogenic among young adults at the same time that alcohol consumption is declining.
NIDA Director Nora Volkow told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that the increased media attention to psychedelics research, and the reform movement to loosen restrictions on these substances, is contributing to that trend.
“People start to discover the potential that these drugs have for therapeutics and the current trials that are ongoing,” she said. “This takes on a momentum because the ideal world of having a drug that can cure things very dramatically [is appealing].”
It makes sense that JHU would be take a lead role in the NIDA-backed research project.
Researchers at the university have been studying psychedelics for decades, and in 2019, it launched a first-of-its-kind psychedelics research center. The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research has focused primarily on potential therapeutic uses for psychedelics, such as smoking cessation and treatment for depression, Alzheimer’s disease, anorexia and opioid withdrawal.
Interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics is growing, and there are some early signals that the issue may even be bipartisan.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), a veteran who recently moderated a conversation with a top psychedelics reform advocate, recently filed an amendment to a defense bill that would have allowed the secretary of defense to approve grants for research into the medical value of certain psychedelics such as MDMA, psilocybin, ibogaine and 5–MeO–DMT for active duty military members with post-traumatic stress disorder. That measure wasn’t allowed a House floor vote to the large-scale legislation, however, but it’s another example of how the issue is gaining momentum at the highest levels of government.
A former Republican congresswoman also recently touted the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, sharing the story of how a close family friend was able to recover from alcoholism with the help of psilocybin.
The psychedelics reform movement is also continuing to grow.
Last week, California activists were cleared to begin collecting signatures for a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state.
Detroit could also become one of the next Michigan cities to decriminalize psychedelics, with the reform proposal making the local ballot for this November.
The Ann Arbor City Council has already elected to make enforcement of laws prohibition psychedelics like psilocybin, ayahuasca and DMT among the city’s lowest priorities—and lawmakers recently followed up by declaring September Entheogenic Plants and Fungi Awareness Month. Advocates have also introduced a reform resolution to the Grand Rapids City Council.
Oregon voters passed an initiative last November to legalize psilocybin therapy.
Washington, D.C. voters also approved a ballot measure last year to deprioritize enforcement of laws criminalizing psychedelics.
Meanwhile, Denver activists who successfully led a 2019 campaign to make the city the first in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin possession have their eyes set on broader reform, with plans in the works to end the criminalization of noncommercial gifting and communal use of the psychedelic.
Massachusetts cities that have enacted the policy change are: Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge. In July, state lawmakers heard testimony about a bill to create a task force charged with studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
The governor of Connecticut recently signed legislation recently that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
Texas also recently enacted a bill to require the state study the medical benefits of psychedelics for military veterans.
A New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to similarly research the medical value of psychedelics.
In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution in December that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.
The Aspen, Colorado City Council discussed the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and proposals to decriminalize such substances at a meeting in May. But members said, as it stands, enacting a reform would be more better handled at the state level while entheogens remain strictly federally controlled.
Seattle lawmakers also recently sent a letter to members of a local task force focused on the opioid overdose epidemic, imploring the group to investigate the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like ayahuasca and ibogaine in curbing addiction. In response, the task force issued a recommendation for the widespread decriminalization of all drugs. The group said psychedelics in particular could represent a promising treatment to address substance abuse disorders and mental health issues.
Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon activists are mounting a push to have local lawmakers pass a resolution decriminalizing the cultivation, gifting and ceremonial use of a wide range of psychedelics.
In a setback for advocates, the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted against a proposal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that would have removed a spending bill rider that advocates say has restricted federal funds for research into Schedule I drugs, including psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA and ibogaine. However, it picked up considerably more votes this round than when the congresswoman first introduced it in 2019.
Report provisions of separate, House-passed spending legislation also touch on the need to expand cannabis and psychedelics research. The panel urged NIDA to support expanded marijuana studies, for example. It further says that federal health agencies should pursue research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for military veterans suffering from a host of mental health conditions.
There was an attempt by a Republican congressman to attach language into a defense spending bill that would promote research into psychedelics therapy for active duty military members, but it was not made in order in the House Rules Committee this week.
When it comes to broader drug policy reform, Oregon voters also approved an initiative in November to decriminalize possession of all drugs. This year, the Maine House of Representatives passed a drug decriminalization bill, but it later died in the Senate.
In May, lawmakers in Congress filed the first-ever legislation to federally decriminalize possession of illicit substances.
Image courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.