The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on Thursday that warns about the risks of using marijuana, particularly for pregnant women and adolescents. But it also contains misleading statements about the cannabis legalization movement.
The advisory, the publication of which will be partially funded by a $100,000 donation out of President Donald Trump’s salary, states that no amount of cannabis is safe and emphasizes that THC potency of marijuana products has increased, which Surgeon General Jerome Adams claimed puts consumers at risk of “physical dependence, addiction, and other negative consequences.”
— HHS.gov (@HHSGov) August 29, 2019
“There is a false perception that marijuana is not as harmful as other drugs,” Adams said in a press release. “I want to be very clear—no amount of marijuana use during pregnancy or adolescence is known to be safe.”
“I, Surgeon General VADM Jerome Adams, am emphasizing the importance of protecting our Nation from the health risks of marijuana use in adolescence and during pregnancy. Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.”
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) August 29, 2019
While the notice doesn’t explicitly say that states should not legalize marijuana, it contends that the movement to end prohibition and the “normalization of its use” has caused youth to perceive the drug as less harmful.
“In addition, high school students’ perception of the harm from regular marijuana use has been steadily declining over the last decade,” it states. “During this same period, a number of states have legalized adult use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, while it remains legal under federal law. The legalization movement may be impacting youth perception of harm from marijuana.”
Missing from the report, however, is an acknowledgment that the federal government’s own data shows that despite shifting attitudes about cannabis, adolescent marijuana consumption has actually declined in the years since states began legalizing for recreational use.
“Marijuana’s increasingly widespread availability in multiple and highly potent forms, coupled with a false and dangerous perception of safety among youth, merits a nationwide call to action,” the advisory states.
“Today’s advisory serves as an important reminder of the health risks marijuana use poses, especially when it comes to young people and pregnant women,” White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Jim Carroll said. “While laws in some states have changed, the scientific evidence increasingly shows the harmful effects of marijuana use.”
“We are focused on making sure all Americans are aware of the dangers of marijuana use and the impact it has on developing minds,” he said. “The White House continues to make record investments to support community coalitions across the country that are dedicated to preventing youth substance use before it begins.”
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said cannabis is “a dangerous drug, especially for young people and pregnant women.”
— ADM Brett P. Giroir (@HHS_ASH) August 29, 2019
“This historic Surgeon General’s advisory is focused on the risks marijuana poses for these populations, which have been well-established by scientific evidence,” he said. “As indicated by President Trump’s generous donation of his salary to support this advisory, the Trump Administration is committed to fighting substance abuse of all kinds, and that means continuing research, education, and prevention efforts around the risks of marijuana use.”
Today's @Surgeon_General Advisory has a clear message: No amount of #marijuana use during pregnancy or adolescence is known to be safe. @POTUS’s salary donation will fund a campaign to educate the public about marijuana's dangers for the developing brain: https://t.co/xSmQo9jcgr pic.twitter.com/c8kphrtp9k
— Secretary Alex Azar (@SecAzar) August 29, 2019
Adams and Azar discussed the advisory during a press conference on Thursday, where the HHS head also said marijuana is “linked to risk for and early onset of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia.”
Thank you @SecAzar, I am proud to stand with you to sound a national alarm about the harmful effects of #marijuana use on the developing brain with my new Surgeon General’s Advisory. #MJBrainEffects pic.twitter.com/x2G36sAMoX
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) August 29, 2019
Even while expressing concern about the potential harms of marijuana, Azar emphasized that the administration supports expanding research into the plant’s effects—something that the Justice Department is also encouraging by announcing this week that it is taking steps to approve additional cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
“We want to make sure that research can be conducted effectively, and we know there are significant barriers to the conduct of research,” Azar said. “We want to open that up for much more research, and that is a priority of this administration.”
To be sure, many reform advocates share concerns about potential risks associated with marijuana use by young people and vulnerable populations. That’s why states that have adopted legalization models expressly prohibiting people under 21 from purchasing cannabis and certain legal states like California require labels to warn adults about consuming while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Legalization supporters point out that if marijuana weren’t prohibited at the federal level, the Surgeon General could hypothetically mandate that cannabis product packaging contain warnings similar to those required for tobacco products.
“Almost no activity is entirely without risk, which is exactly why marijuana should be legalized and regulated for adult use,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “While marijuana still remains objectively less harmful to the consumer than currently legal alcohol, tobacco and many pharmaceuticals, it should still be consumed responsibly.”
“Our current model of prohibition represents the utter lack of control over any aspect of marijuana or the marijuana market,” he said. “If he truly has concerns, the surgeon general’s time would be better spent advocating for a structure for regulation under which we can educate Americans about the actual harms and benefits of cannabis through public education campaigns and product labelling, instead of his current fear-mongering.”
David Nathan, a physician and board president of the pro-legalization group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR), told Marijuana Moment that “DFCR physicians share Dr. Adams’ concern about the potential risks of cannabis use by adolescents and pregnant women” but that the group wishes he “shared our concern for the poverty that results from the economic impact of 600,000 cannabis possession arrests every year, as poverty is by far the greatest obstacle to health care access in the United States.”
“Cannabis is less harmful than many legal drugs and is non-lethal in overdose, yet millions of lives have been destroyed by its prohibition, especially in communities of color,” Nathan said. “The vilification of cannabis by the US government isn’t based in science. It is rooted in a misguided morality around adults who choose to use the drug.”
“To prevent access by minors, and to ensure proper labeling about the lack of data around use in pregnancy, the cannabis industry should be regulated rather than prohibited. We must stop using a sledgehammer to kill a weed and enact policies that optimize public health and social justice.”
Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who sits on DFCR’s honorary board, shares that perspective. Elders supports legalization and said in 2017 that the “unjust prohibition of marijuana has done more damage to public health than has marijuana itself.”
The advisory calls for “[s]cience-based messaging campaigns and targeted prevention programming” in order to “ensure that risks are clearly communicated and amplified by local, state, and national organizations.”
“Further research is needed to understand all the impacts of THC on the developing brain, but we know enough now to warrant concern and action,” the notice states, again without acknowledging the role federal prohibition has played in inhibiting such research. “Everyone has a role in protecting our young people from the risks of marijuana.”
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, whose president teased the surgeon general’s announcement in a tweet earlier this week, said in a press release that they “look forward to working with HHS and other federal government officials to help raise awareness to the harmful health impacts of marijuana commercialization and use.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.
Photo courtesy of Twitter/Surgeon General.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Circulate Letter Urging FDA To Back Off CBD Companies
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers are circulating a sign-on letter asking colleagues to join them in urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to back off companies that are selling CBD products in a responsible manner.
The “Dear Colleague” letter, which is being led by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and James Comer (R-KY), emphasizes that hemp and CBD were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill and argues that the lack of regulations for such products is creating industry uncertainty that’s inhibiting economic opportunities.
The letter was first reported by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, which is asking its supporters to encourage their representatives to sign on.
FDA has said it is in the process of developing rules for the non-intoxicating compound, including a potential alternative regulatory pathway allowing for CBD to be added to the food supply and as dietary supplements. That could take years, however, as former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has noted.
In the meantime, the agency is being selective about enforcement action against companies that make unsanctioned claims about their products while also maintaining that all businesses selling CBD food items are violating the law.
The lawmakers aren’t satisfied. They described FDA’s regulatory timeframe as “untenable,” particularly because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to release its rules for hemp “any day now,” and an official revealed this month that its draft regulations are currently undergoing final White House and Department of Justice review.
The members of Congress added that FDA’s current approach to CBD has “created significant regulatory and legal uncertainty for participants in this quickly evolving industry.”
“Given the widespread availability of CBD products, growing consumer demand, and the expected surge in the hemp farming in the near future, it’s critical that FDA act quickly to provide legal and regulatory clarity to support this new economic opportunity,” they wrote.
“Please join us in signing this bipartisan letter to Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless urging the agency to adopt a risk-based policy of enforcement discretion that targets bad actors while eliminating uncertainty for responsible industry stakeholders and consumers. Additionally, we are requesting that FDA to issue an interim final rule to regulate CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”
In the letter to Sharpless that Pingree and Comer are asking fellow lawmakers to sign, they laid out two requests for FDA.
First, the agency should “promptly issue guidance announcing a policy of enforcement discretion that maintains FDA’s current risk-based enforcement approach towards hemp-derived CBD products.” And second, it should “consider issuing an interim final rule, pending issuance of a permanent final rule, to establish a clear regulatory framework for CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”
The lawmakers added that they appreciate that FDA has pursued “enforcement actions against the worst offenders,” but that “it can do so while eliminating regulatory uncertainty for farmers, retailers, and consumers.”
“Without a formal enforcement discretion policy, anyone participating in the growing marketplace for legal hemp-derived products will continue to face significant legal and regulatory uncertainty,” they wrote.
Though issuing guidance on a “policy of enforcement discretion” wouldn’t be a codified law allowing companies to market CBD in the food supply, it would demonstrate to the industry that some protections are in place while FDA continues to navigate the rulemaking process.
Lawmakers have until Tuesday to sign the letter to FDA.
Read the Dear Colleague invitation and CBD letter to FDA below:
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A Full House Floor Vote This Month
A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service marijuana businesses will get a House floor vote by the end of the month, the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed to Marijuana Moment on Friday.
House leadership announced the decision to Democratic lawmakers at a closed-door meeting on Thursday.
“Mr. Hoyer said at the Whip meeting yesterday that he intends to move it this month,” a Hoyer staffer said in an email. “We’re discussing it with Members, but it hasn’t been scheduled just yet.”
Prior to confirmation from Hoyer’s office, four sources initially described the development to Marijuana Moment, with some saying the vote would be made under suspension of the rules—a procedure that is generally reserved for non-controversial legislation.
Voting on suspension would require two-thirds of the chamber (290 members) to vote in favor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in order for it to pass. The bill, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March, currently has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans.
No amendments would be allowed to be added on the floor under the suspension process.
Problems could arise if lawmakers aren’t able to rally additional votes from conservative members or if there’s pushback over the strategy from progressive lawmakers, though it is unlikely Democratic leadership would advance the bill if they didn’t believe they have the votes for passage.
While interest in resolving the banking issue is generally bipartisan, it’s within reason to assume that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle might have wanted the opportunity to offer provisions such as extending protections to hemp businesses or adding language promoting social equity policies. That said, it is possible that leadership could file an entirely new piece of legislation that is similar to the SAFE Banking Act but contains modified provisions negotiated with key members and use that as the vehicle for floor action.
Many expected cannabis banking legislation to receive a floor vote before the August recess, but that did not come to fruition.
In any case, the development comes as the Senate Banking Committee is also preparing to hold a vote on marijuana banking legislation, with Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) announcing on Thursday that his panel is “working to try to get a bill ready.” He didn’t offer a timeline, however, other than saying he hoped to advance the legislation by the end of the year.
While sources told Marijuana Moment that Hoyer made his decision to allow cannabis banking vote following an earlier Wednesday meeting on the issue, it is likely that building momentum in the GOP-controlled Senate added to pressure on the House to act so that Democrats wouldn’t be seen as lagging behind Republicans on cannabis reform, an issue the party has sought to take political ownership of.
Following Crapo’s statement on advancing the banking legislation, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told Marijuana Moment that he welcomes the senator’s “commitment to resolve the banking conflicts that have been created by the misalignment in state and federal law on the issue of cannabis.”
“I remain focused on passing the SAFE Banking Act out of the House and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate as they take up the SAFE Banking Act or work to develop and pass similar legislation,” he said.
Banking access is largely seen as one of the most achievable pieces of cannabis legislation that stands to pass this Congress. Advocates and reform-minded lawmakers view it as one of the first steps on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition.
“We are seeing the blueprint in action and moving forward on critical legislation to protect state legal cannabis banking,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment, referring to a memo he sent to House leadership last year outlining a committee-by-committee process for passing incremental cannabis bills leading up to major legislation to end federal prohibition. “Earlier this summer, the House passed protections for state and tribal cannabis laws. In the most cannabis friendly Congress in history, we need to keep up this momentum. There is still much to be done.”
There has been some disagreement within advocacy circles about whether it’s prudent to pass legislation viewed as primarily favorable to the industry before advancing comprehensive legislation that deschedules cannabis and takes steps to repair the harms of prohibition enforcement.
“It is our hope that after the successful passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, we will be able to advance legislation that ends the federal criminalization of cannabis once and for all,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Now is our time to demonstrate that marijuana law reform is both good policy and good politics.”
“We will not stop until otherwise law-abiding Americans are no longer discriminated against or criminalized due to the past or future choice to consume cannabis,” he said.
Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “delighted that the U.S. House of Representatives is on the brink of passing a landmark piece of cannabis policy legislation that modernizes our antiquated banking laws to reflect the will of the people.”
“This is welcomed and long overdue news for the over 200,000 employees that work in the industry, cannabis businesses, and for public safety in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “Once the SAFE Banking Act passes the U.S. House, we call on the U.S. Senate to move quickly to protect our businesses and our workers.”
Pressure has been building all year from stakeholders and policymakers alike to get the legislation passed. Endorsements aren’t just coming from reform groups, either; 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and bipartisan governors of 20 states have also voiced support for the SAFE Banking Act.
Earlier this month, the head of the American Bankers Association predicted that the bill would be passed in the House “as early as September.”
This story was updated to add comment from Perlmutter and Hoyer’s office.
New ‘Marijuana 1-to-3 Act’ Would Reclassify Cannabis Under Federal Law
Another bill to reschedule marijuana was filed in Congress on Thursday.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introduced the legislation, which is titled the “Marijuana 1-to-3 Act.” True to its name, the bill would simply require the attorney general to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act, with the aim of increasing research on the drug’s effects.
“As marijuana is legalized for medical and recreational use across the United States, it is important that we study the effects of the substance and the potential impacts it can have on various populations,” Steube said in a press release. “By rescheduling marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule III controlled substance, the opportunities for research and study are drastically expanded.
Today, I introduced a bill to reschedule marijuana from a schedule I to a schedule III controlled substance. The Marijuana 1-to-3 Act will allow additional research to be done on the benefits of marijuana by removing bureaucratic red tape. https://t.co/w45WAKHBr9
— Congressman Greg Steube (@RepGregSteube) September 12, 2019
“With this rescheduling, researchers can now access federal funds to research this substance and determine its medical value,” he said.
The press release came hours after a bipartisan pair of lawmakers introduced separate legislation to reschedule marijuana, also to Schedule III.
That bill contained additional provisions that would require federal agencies to develop research agendas for marijuana within one year of its enactment and also establish a system whereby universities could be designated as “Centers of Excellence in Cannabis Research” if they conducted comprehensive studies on issues related to marijuana.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is a sponsor of the broader research bill, is also cosponsoring Steube’s more focused rescheduling proposal.
It’s not clear why Steube chose to file his own reclassification bill or whether the other legislation’s additional provisions were a factor.
The congressman’s two-page bill states that “the Attorney General of the United States shall, by order not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this section, transfer marijuana…from schedule I of such Act to schedule III of such Act.”
“We hear every day about the positive health benefits of marijuana,” Steube said. “Whether it’s young children with seizure disorders, or veterans suffering from chronic pain, it is clear that there are medical benefits to marijuana and I think it’s time we remove the bureaucratic red tape that prevents us from thoroughly studying this substance.”
While he emphasized that the intent of his legislation is to encourage research into marijuana, placing cannabis in Schedule III would also have implications for marijuana businesses, who are currently ineligible for federal tax deductions under an Internal Revenue Code section that applies to anyone “trafficking in controlled substances” in Schedule I or II.
Read the full text of the bill below:
Photo by Ndispensable.