Doctors testifying about the opioid epidemic on Capitol Hill on Tuesday made clear that marijuana has medical potential as an alternative pain treatment option and that federal prohibition is inhibiting cannabis research.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing to discuss how to manage the nation’s opioid crisis, and medical marijuana was a point of particular interest raised by several lawmakers.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the panel, asked Dr. Andrew Coop of the Maryland School of Pharmacy what he considered “the most promising, non-addictive painkiller treatments or medicines that are coming down the road.”
“The drugs that are coming—I mentioned cannabinoids,” Coop said. “I know that’s a controversial topic, but this is great—”
The senator cut in to ask why it was controversial and Coop said it was because cannabis remains federally illegal. He clarified for Alexander that he was referring to “medical marijuana” when he brought up cannabinoids.
“Medical marijuana, yes,” Coop said. “I think that has great potential.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) later said that while he didn’t have time during his allotted five minutes to ask about marijuana, he wanted Coop to “instruct us as to the path forward on cannabis research.”
The next senator to bring up cannabis was Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV). She said her state’s medical marijuana program “has reduced the prescriptions for high-potency painkillers” and asked Coop whether cannabis could serve as “a non-addictive approach or alternative to chronic pain—just another tool in the toolbox.”
“I, first of all, think it has great potential to be another tool in the toolbox,” he said. However, “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a one-size-fits-all magic bullet because pain is different in different people.”
“In terms of how to move the research forward in medical marijuana, one of the issues has been because of the usual legal status in the United States, research has been limited,” he said. “There’s no consistency between the different types of marijuana, the studies done. We need good, consistent, well-designed clinical studies with good, consistent material so that we can fully assess the impact, and don’t get me wrong, also the potential drawbacks.”
David Mangone, director of government affairs for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said in a press release that it was “great to see witnesses and senators alike discuss the potential of medical cannabis as a tool in combating the opioid crisis,” but that “we need real action from from our lawmakers to change federal laws.”
Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) was the last to raise marijuana at the hearing. He emphasized that while lawmakers sometimes approach their questioning in hearings with an agenda in mind, “this is not one of those” situations. He wanted to hear from the three other witnesses who hadn’t testified on the topic.
Cindy Steinberg, national director of policy and advocate at the U.S. Pain Foundation, said “cannabis has helped a number of people living with pain” and that it’s “another option” in the toolbox for pain patients. She stressed that marijuana’s legal status make it hard to standardize cannabis treatment.
“Doctors need to be the one prescribing it, but they don’t know what they’re doing with it,” she said. “They’re not trained with it either. Without having a really good research base, we’re just flying blind.”
So what’s preventing that research, Jones asked?
“The fact that it’s not legal,” Steinberg said.
While Mayo Clinic physician Halena Gazelka said she wasn’t convinced that cannabis isn’t addictive, she agreed that “the impediment has been that it’s a Schedule I substance and it’s not permissibly prescribed by providers.”
“But I do think that there may be some significant areas where this may be very useful,” she said. “I have some palliative medicine patients using it for nausea, appetite, pain, and I think it can be helpful.”
Finally, Anuradha Rao-Patel, a physician representing the health insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, said “the limitations such as the fact that it is illegal in some states as well as on a federal level makes research [on marijuana] difficult.”
“From a physician’s standpoint, I think there is some potential to the utility of medical marijuana for the treatment of chronic pain,” she said. “I’ll say, putting on my other hat as an insurer, that we obviously only cover procedures and drugs that are [Food and Drug Administration]-approved, so we would obviously need some clinical evidence and support to be able to cover these kinds of medications.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the “questions from senators proved there is a need for a hearing devoted exclusively to cannabis as an alternative to opioids.”
“Of course, such a hearing may expose a truth some of them don’t want to hear,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Push VA To Allow Medical Marijuana Access For Veterans ‘As Soon As Possible’
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must urgently institute a policy change to ensure that military veterans can access cannabis for therapeutic use, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers said in a new letter.
Writing to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Wednesday, the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus urged the official to consider “a change in policy to allow access to medical cannabis fro VA patients” and to “act swiftly and implement this change as soon as possible.”
The lawmakers pointed to surveys showing high rates of opioid addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the veteran community.
“Research has shown that cannabis can be safe and effective in targeted pain-management. Additionally, cannabis has proven benefits in managing PTSD and other health issues, including multiple sclerosis (MS) and seizure disorders,” the letter states. “Despite its efficacy, antiquated bureaucratic red-tape continues to deny veterans these life-altering treatments.”
“Congress and several administrations have enacted various well-intentioned intervention attempts, however, over twenty veterans continue to die by suicide each day—it is past time we stop barring access from these innovative therapies. We therefore respectfully urge you to ensure no veteran can be denied medically prescribed cannabis treatments.”
The letter comes weeks after McDonough participated in a Veterans Day Q&A where he said that VA officials are “looking at” the possibility of an internal policy change and have discussed it with the White House and Department of Justice. The secretary also talked about being personally moved by stories from veterans who’ve found relief using medical marijuana.
“We’re trying to explore what more we can do,” he said at the time. “And I’ve talked to our friends in the rest of the federal government, including the Department of Justice, on what we can do on this, and with the White House.”
The Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs—Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), David Joyce (R-OH), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK)—want McDonough to speed up the policy change process.
“America’s veterans have risked life and limb to preserve our freedoms, so we must not allow the unnecessary politicization of medical cannabis to hinder their lifesaving therapies,” they wrote. “We stand ready to work with you and your administration in advancing these necessary treatments.”
While congressional lawmakers are working to advance legislation to end marijuana prohibition, McDonough’s department has resisted even modest proposals meant to promote veteran access and clinical research into the medical value of cannabis.
One such research bill was approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this month, despite testimony from the department opposing the reform. VA’s David Carroll told lawmakers that the legislation was overly prescriptive and argued that the department is already conducting robust research into marijuana.
Some had held out hope that VA would back the reform this session after the sponsor, Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA), said that he’d had a conversation with McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans.
On the Senate side, a coalition of lawmakers recently filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would federally legalize medical cannabis for military veterans who comply with a state program where they live. VA doctors would also be explicitly allowed to issue marijuana recommendations.
Read the letter to the VA secretary on marijuana access below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Biden Treasury Secretary Says ‘Of Course’ Marijuana Banking Would Make IRS’s Job Easier
The secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department said on Wednesday that freeing up banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses would “of course” make the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) job of collecting taxes easier.
At a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) referenced recent comments from an IRS official about the “special type of collection challenge the IRS undertakes regarding tax collection from cannabis-related businesses forced to operate in cash only.”
“Do you agree if these business were simply allowed to access the banking system and didn’t have to transact business only in cash it would make the IRS job easier?” Perlmutter asked Secretary Janet Yellen.
“Yes, of course it would,” she replied matter-of-factly.
HAPPENING NOW: @SecYellen agrees allowing cannabis businesses to access the banking system would help the IRS do their job and enable them to better collect taxes from the industry. #SAFEBanking https://t.co/w23GdFPQFy
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) December 1, 2021
The congressman also talked about his bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—which has passed the House in some form five times now and would resolve the issue by protecting financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses.
Numerous financial, labor and insurance associations, as well as key lawmakers, are pushing the Senate to attach the measure to must-pass defense spending legislation, as the House already has. Bipartisan members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as senators representing Colorado, made the same request in recent letters.
While Yellen’s response was quick, it’s yet another example of a federal official recognizing the untenability of the status quo.
Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary under the Trump administration, repeatedly addressed the issue, saying the current policy conflict creates “significant problems” for IRS and financial regulators. It “creates significant risk in the communities for collecting this amount of cash. It’s problematic,” he said last year.
IRS, for its part, said in September that it expects the cannabis market to continue to grow, and it offered some tips to businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.
With respect to the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan coalition of two dozen governors recently implored congressional leaders to finally enact marijuana banking reform through the large-scale defense legislation.
A group of small marijuana business owners also recently made the case that the incremental banking policy change could actually help support social equity efforts.
Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a recent Marijuana Moment op-ed that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications now.
Federal data shows that many financial institutions remain hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients, however, which is likely due to the fact that the plant is a strictly controlled substance under federal law.
Texas Activists Turn In Signatures To Put Marijuana Decriminalization On Austin’s 2022 Ballot
Texas activists on Wednesday turned in signatures to place a marijuana decriminalization initiative on Austin’s 2022 ballot.
Ground Game Texas, a progressive organization that was established earlier this year, submitted more than 30,000 signatures to qualify the local measure to go before voters in the May 7 election next year.
While Austin, as well as other Texas cities like Dallas, have already independently enacted law enforcement policy changes aimed at reducing arrests for cannabis-related offenses by issuing citations and summons, the Austin Freedom Act of 2021 would take the reform a step further.
The initiative seeks to end arrests and citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession within Texas’s capital city. Also, it says police cannot issue citations for residue or paraphernalia in lieu of a possession charge.
The City Clerk will now verify that we submitted at least 20,000 valid signatures.
After that, the City Council will have the opportunity to adopt the new law directly, or place it on the May 7, 2022 “uniform election.”
— GroundGameTX (@GroundGameTX) December 1, 2021
“Thanks to the tireless efforts of on-the-ground organizers from Ground Game Texas and partner organizations, Austin residents will soon have the ability to make lasting change to our antiquated and racist criminal justice laws,” Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas, said in a press release. “With successful campaigns like these, Ground Game Texas will continue to empower and excite communities around progressive change—and deliver for the marginalized communities that too often get left behind.”
The measure would further prohibit the use of city funds to request or test cannabis to determine whether it meets the state’s definition of a lawful product. Hemp is legal in the state, creating complications for law enforcement, as they are now tasked with determining if seized cannabis products are in compliance with state statute.
Under the initiative, the execution of no-knock warrants would also be prohibited in the city—a policy that generated significant national attention last year after it led to Kentucky officers entering Breonna Taylor’s apartment and fatally shooting her in a botched drug raid.
Activists were joined by Austin City Council members Greg Casar and Vanessa Fuentes for Wednesday’s signature turn in.
Game Ground Texas previously attempted to place the measure on this year’s ballot, but they did not meet the signature turn-in deadline and shifted their attention to 2022.
This is huge news, a significant milestone for us in building long-term progressive organizing infrastructure to last beyond electoral cycles in TX.
Tremendously grateful to the organizers, volunteers, and staff who made this possible.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you! https://t.co/0rAG3ibq1M
— Julie Oliver (@JulieOliverTX) November 30, 2021
While the measure is now set to appear on the May ballot, it’s also possible that the Austin City Council could independently move to adopt the ordinance prior to the election.
“Austinites continue to work towards reducing the decades of negative impacts prohibition has caused by any means available,” Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During the interim, local actions like this create pressure for more action during the next legislative session. With a majority of Texans supporting the creation of a regulated cannabis market, it is important to continue pushing this conversation forward.”
Elsewhere in the state, activists in San Marcos launched a campaign in September to put marijuana decriminalization on the November ballot next year.
Ground Game Texas told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it is also planning to place a cannabis decriminalization measure before voters in Killeen next fall.
There is no statewide, citizen-led initiative process that would enable advocates to put an issue like decriminalization or legalization on the Texas ballot. But at the local level, there are limited cases where activists can leverage home rule laws that allow for policy changes.
A recent poll found that a strong majority of Texans—including most Republicans—support even broader reform to legalize marijuana for adult use.
The survey from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University found that 67 percent of Texas residents back the broad reform. Fifty-one percent of participants who identified as Republican said they back legalization.
In Texas, drug policy reform did advance in the legislature in the latest session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
Advocates remain disappointed, however, that lawmakers were unable to pass more expansive cannabis bills—including a decriminalization proposal that cleared the House but saw no action in the Senate.
The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018.
Another Texas poll that was released over the summer found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use.”
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.