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The Debate Over How, Not Whether, Congress Should Legalize Marijuana Is Heating Up

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With a congressional committee set to hold a first-ever hearing on ending federal marijuana prohibition on Wednesday, debate among legalization advocates over which piece of cannabis reform legislation would be the most effective and politically achievable is intensifying.

A key part of that conversation concerns the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from federal enforcement actions.

Advocates broadly agree that passage of the STATES Act would represent a momentous development in the reform movement, providing protections for many marijuana consumers and businesses in legal states. But questions remain about what specifically the legislation would accomplish and whether it goes far enough.

Moreover, there’s disagreement about whether lawmakers and activists should invest their political capital and efforts into the bill when several others on the table—such as the Marijuana Justice Act (MJA), the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act and others—would make broader changes to federal drug policy and include social equity provisions that are increasingly seen as vital components of any reform agenda.

It’s a complicated situation that will likely spark discussion at Wednesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee. The panel has released few advance details about the meeting’s scope, but its title alone—”Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform”—indicates that the debate will go beyond merely whether to legalize and instead delve into specifics on charting the best path beyond prohibition.

A staffer for the committee said in a press advisory on Tuesday that the hearing “will not focus exclusively on any one aspect of marijuana laws or any particular legislative proposal.” Rather, it “will address the breadth of the issue and inform future legislative efforts.”

“For the first time in recent history, the Judiciary Committee is going to be having a candid conversation about what reform should look like and how federal criminalization impacts the existing tension between state-legal programs and what changes in federal policy will impact and influence future reform efforts made at the state level to end the practice of otherwise law-abiding adults being put into handcuffs or discriminated against and treated like second-class citizens,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

For some advocates, the path to ending prohibition doesn’t lead to the STATES Act. Instead, it leads to more comprehensive reform legislation Ă  la the MJA, a bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) that would not only remove cannabis from the CSA altogether—something STATES doesn’t do—but also provide for record expungements and penalize individual states that carry out cannabis prohibition in a discriminatory manner by withholding certain federal funds.

Booker, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, cosponsored last year’s version of the STATES Act. But he withheld his signature from this latest version, stating that he would no longer consider marijuana reform proposals that don’t address social equity concerns.

The path could also lead to legislation from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), whose Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act would deschedule marijuana and apportion some tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to a grant program aimed at incentivizing participation in the industry by individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition. It would also set aside funding to support the expungement of cannabis convictions.

A less-talked-about bill from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another 2020 presidential contender, would also remove cannabis from the CSA—and with Rep. Don Young (R-AK) as an original sponsor, it’s uniquely bipartisan descheduling legislation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) is also said to be crafting a far-reaching marijuana bill that is expected to include social equity provisions, though details are scarce and advocates expect it will be filed sometime in the wake of this week’s hearing.

The STATES Act, by comparison, is a modest reform proposal that social justice activists have argued is inadequate, especially as momentum builds across the country for wide-ranging measures that place an emphasis on equity.

That momentum was on full display on Tuesday, as 10 leading civil rights and criminal justice reform groups including the ACLU announced that they’d formed a coalition in order to advocate for comprehensive marijuana legislation. Among other things, the Marijuana Justice Coalition said that any reform plan should involve descheduling cannabis, expunging the records of those with past marijuana convictions and investing revenue from legal sales into communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.

However, proponents of passing the STATES Act—including Cannabis Trade Federation CEO Neal Levine, who will testify as the minority party’s witness at the Judiciary hearing on Wednesday—aren’t arguing that Congress shouldn’t pursue bills like the MJA. Rather, he says, it’s a matter of timing and political calculus about what kind of reform is achievable and can help stop many ongoing harms of prohibition in the short term.

Levine, who previously served as the director of state campaigns and policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that his organization and its allies have a strategy in place proven to get positive cannabis reform legislation enacted: “We passed as much as we could as fast as we could and we built upon it,” he said, referring to incremental cannabis bills that were passed in states and were later expanded through more far-reaching reforms. “That is our general strategy.”

And for the time being, the bill that stands the best odds of getting enacted into law is the STATES Act, he argues. There’s “not a lot of political will to go far beyond” that bill in the Senate today, and Levine said that if it does pass, it wouldn’t take the wind out of the sails of broader reform legislation—it will add to it.

“What we want to see is the full end of prohibition with full expungements. Period,” Levine said. “If we took a whip count of the U.S. Senate and we found that the Marijuana Justice Act had 60 votes and a credible path, we’d be all in on the Marijuana Justice Act. We want to see prohibition end.”

Levine will make that case on Wednesday. An excerpt of his written testimony that was released on Tuesday reads:

“We have a long way to go with respect to reversing the harms caused by marijuana prohibition and need to begin the process as soon as possible. The question before this Subcommittee and before Congress is whether there is a willingness to advance a bill to the President’s desk that will immediately address nearly all of the issues I have raised. With strong bipartisan support for legislation like the STATES Act, it is possible during the current session of Congress to take major steps toward respecting state cannabis laws, protecting workers, and advancing a more secure, vibrant, and equitable cannabis industry. We hope that Congress will take advantage of the opportunity.”

Other advocates are concerned that with only so much time left on the congressional calendar, and an uncertain Capitol Hill and White House situation going forward after next year’s elections, they may only get one bite at the apple to change federal cannabis laws for the foreseeable future—and the STATES Act isn’t the bite they hope to savor.

The STATES Act is, by most measures, one of the most practical pieces of marijuana reform legislation that stands any chance of being enacted in the 116th Congress. It has a states’ rights focus that has engendered bipartisan support, with notable Republicans signed on as original cosponsors for both the House and Senate versions. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH) are behind the bill, and both can exercise influence in their respective chambers to get it out the gate and onto the president’s desk.

That leads into another significant factor: President Donald Trump has said that he “really” supports the STATES Act. Following conversations with Trump on the issue, Gardner said he was left with the impression that there is “an ally in the president on this” and that he’d be inclined to sign the bipartisan bill.

The Colorado senator’s advocacy for the legislation could also open an essential window for advancement in the Senate, which is overseen by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a vocal proponent of hemp but a staunch opponent to the crop’s “illicit cousin” marijuana. McConnell might be compelled to bring the bill to a floor vote if he’s thinking strategically about how to minimize Gardner’s 2020 reelection risks in Colorado by giving him a win to bring home to voters who want the federal government out of the way of their state’s cannabis laws.

While it is far from certain that McConnell will end up allowing the STATES Act to advance under his watch, it seems much more unlikely that the Senate leader would be willing to give that courtesy to even more wide-ranging legislation focused on social equity.

The STATES Act also received an unexpected tacit endorsement in April: Attorney General William Barr said that while he does not support legalization, he would prefer for the modest reform legislation to pass rather than maintain the status quo of conflicting state and federal laws.

Levine said that getting the STATES Act passed wouldn’t represent the finish line for the reform movement. It would be a critical step forward, to be sure, but not the end game. He’s of the mindset that the bill would be a battle won in the war against prohibition, and it would demonstrate momentum that would bolster efforts to enact further legislation that addresses related issues like social equity.

Strekal said that Wednesday’s historic hearing—and particularly the Republican minority’s choice of Levine as their sole witness—shows “the evolution and the paradigm shift that has been made over just the last few years, where the new floor is the STATES Act and a bipartisan compromise is somewhere between the STATES Act and something along the lines of the Marijuana Justice Act.”

There are some concerns about just how far the STATES Act’s protections would extend, though. Without explicitly descheduling cannabis, the plant would remain a federally controlled substance in any states that haven’t legalized it, potentially resulting in enforcement complications.

Would the legislation offer protections for immigrants seeking citizenship and who work in a state-legal market, which is currently grounds for having naturalization applications rejected under federal immigration policy?

One could argue that it would, as the STATES Act specifies that conduct described in the legislation—including the manufacturing, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration or delivery of marijuana in states where it’s legal—”shall not be unlawful.” But because the federal government would still regard cannabis as illicit under the CSA and the bill doesn’t provide specific protections for immigrants, some question what practical impact, if any, the STATES Act would have.

“The STATES Act will not protect immigrants who work in the legitimate marijuana industry from the current severe immigration penalties,” the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) concluded in a May memo. “These penalties also will apply to their spouses and minor children.”

(See the full ILRC memo on the STATES Act embedded below.)

“In contrast, bills that remove marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance will protect against all the above consequences,” ILRC wrote. “They will remove severe immigration penalties from employees of the legitimate marijuana industry and their families. They will remove those penalties from people who use marijuana in accord with, or in violation of, state law.”

Without specific language addressing the immigration issue, it’s within reason to assume that it may be a matter taken up in court. And considering the difficulties that many immigrants face in securing effective legal representation, there are worries that the STATES Act alone wouldn’t be enough to protect them.

By contrast, CTF’s Steve Fox argued in a call-to-action email in April that the existing language and the protections if offers generally to those working in the state-legal cannabis market demonstrates that lawmakers can “help remedy this problem by passing the STATES Act.”

“We are upset by the suggestion that hard-working cannabis industry employees lack good moral character simply for working in our industry,” Fox wrote in the message urging supporters to contact lawmakers about the STATES Act. “It is even worse that some employees may be denied citizenship for this work.”

Separately, some have raised questions about what the STATES Act would do to resolve banking issues in the cannabis industry.

The bill does note that “proceeds from any transaction in compliance with this Act and the amendments made by this Act shall not be deemed to be the proceeds of an unlawful transaction,” but there are still questions about how it would impact banks that operate in multiple states and transfer cash between branches, including those situated in jurisdictions that still prohibit marijuana.

It’s possible that some of these potential limitations will be discussed at Wednesday’s hearing. But don’t expect the STATES Act to be the only object of legislative interest. Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that all signs point toward a conversation centered on social equity and racial justice—something that the STATES Act doesn’t address.

“I get that impression from the hearing, the way it’s structured, the witnesses they’ve called,” Collins said. “[Democratic] leadership in the House is not open to moving the STATES Act, otherwise the hearing would be different and the witnesses would be different. Some Republicans are open to STATES Act in the House, but it doesn’t have a path” in the Senate.

Levine said he sees the fate of the STATES Act in the Senate differently. The path might be precarious, but it’s achievable, he said.

While the two advocacy camps hold differing views on the best next step toward advancing cannabis reform, one possibility would be to try a dual approach, pushing the STATES Act to a vote in the Senate while the House weighs a broader bill like the MJA. Such activity could open dialogue between the chambers about potential compromises, or at least push social equity provisions closer to the forefront of the conversation.

Collins said that, in his view, “there’s recognition that we can do better than STATES” among Democrats. And if there’s not a clear path for the legislation to get passed and on the president’s desk, it’s in the party’s interest to take up bills that do include provisions focusing on social and racial justice—that do more than protect business interests in legal states and also acknowledge and seek to repair the damages of the war on drugs.

(Full disclosure: CTF, DPA and NORML, or their staffers, have all sponsored or supported Marijuana Moment through Patreon pledges.)

Read the full ILRC memo on marijuana bills and immigration below:

Marijuana Immigration STATES Act by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Congress Schedules Hearing To Discuss Ending Marijuana Prohibition

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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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Federal Agency Loosens Marijuana-Related Grant Funding Restrictions For Mental Health Treatment

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The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) loosened restrictions this week on grant funding for state health providers and other entities that allow patients to use medical marijuana for mental heath treatment.

The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs flagged the new policy change in a notice to SAMHSA grant recipients on Monday. It said that the federal agency has removed language from its terms and conditions that until now has prevented grant funds from going to any institution that “provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders.”

This restriction led the state department to issue a memo in June warning recipients and applicants about the possible withholding of funding.

Despite the recent change, SAMHSA is still continuing a narrower ban that says federal funds themselves “may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana.”

The broader prohibition, which has now been rescinded, prompted a notice last year from Maine’s Education Department, which said is was no longer eligible for certain federal funds to support mental health programs in schools because the state allows students to access medical marijuana.

It seems the federal agency is now being somewhat more permissive.

Here’s how SAMHSA’s updated marijuana restriction reads:

“SAMHSA grant funds may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory and public policy requirements); 21 U.S.C. 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana).”

The older, more broad prohibition read:

“Grant funds may not be used, directly or indirectly, to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. Treatment in this context includes the treatment of opioid use disorder. Grant funds also cannot be provided to any individual who or organization that provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. § 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to “ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory requirements.”); 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana). This prohibition does not apply to those providing such treatment in the context of clinical research permitted by the DEA and under an FDA-approved investigational new drug application where the article being evaluated is marijuana or a constituent thereof that is otherwise a banned controlled substance under federal law.”

The marijuana restrictions were first added to grant award terms for Fiscal Year 2020. The language was initially carried over to Fiscal Year 2021 but was more recently switched out for the narrower language by the federal agency.

In a January 2020 FAQ that the Pennsylvania department shared from SAMHSA this June, the federal agency responded to a prompt inquiring whether grant recipients can serve patients who are “very clear about their wish to remain on their medical marijuana for their mental or substance use disorder.”

“No. The organization cannot serve a patient who is on medical marijuana for a mental or substance use disorder and wishes to remain on such treatment,” it said. “SAMHSA promotes the use of evidence-based practices and there is no evidence for such a treatment; in fact, there is increasing evidence that marijuana can further exacerbate mental health symptoms.”

While the agency seemed adamant in enforcing that policy at the time, it appears to have had a change of heart and has since loosened the restriction.

A SAMHSA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the new rules took effect on Sunday, but played down their significance.

“This Aug. 1 clarification simply made clearer what was already in place: SAMHSA funds should not be used to procure a federally prohibited substance,” he said in an email.

While it is true that the revised provision, as was the case in the prior language, states that federal funds cannot be used to pay for marijuana, the spokesperson avoided commenting on the new deletion of the broader prohibition on grants going to entities that otherwise allow patients to use medical cannabis to treat substance use or mental disorders.

After SAMHSA announced in 2019 that its marijuana policy would impact organizations applying for its two main opioid treatment programs and another that provides funding to combat alcoholism and substance misuse, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Oregon Health Authority issued notices on the impact of the rule.

Read the Pennsylvania department’s notice on the SAMHSA marijuana policy change below: 

Pennsylvania SAMHSA marijuana by Marijuana Moment

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Mexican Lawmakers Could Finally Legalize Marijuana Sales Next Month (Op-Ed)

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The legislature missed repeated deadlines, and then the Supreme Court moved to allow homegrow. What’s next?

By Zara Snapp, Filter

Mexico has never seemed so close and yet so far from fully regulating the adult-use cannabis market.

A first Supreme Court resolution determined in 2015 that the absolute prohibition of cannabis for personal use was unconstitutional because it violates the right to the free development of personality. To reach jurisprudence in Mexico, five consecutive cases, with the same or more votes each time, must be won before the Supreme Court. This was achieved in October 2018, which detonated a legislative mandate that within 90 days, the Senate should modify the articles in the General Health Law that were deemed unconstitutional.

The first deadline came and went without the Senate modifying the articles; so the Senate requested an extension, which was granted. The second deadline to legislate expired on April 30, 2020—but another extension was provided because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At first, it looked like the third time was the charm. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the Federal Law to Regulate and Control Cannabis in November 2020 and passed it to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, for review and approval. Since the deadline of December 15, 2020, was fast approaching, the Chamber asked for its own extension. The Supreme Court granted it (until April 20, 2021) and the bill underwent significant changes before being approved by the Chamber on March 10, and so sent back to the Senate.

The Senate certainly had enough time to review and either reject or accept the changes made by the lower house. That would have made this a shorter story. However, the Senate had other plans. Rather than approve the bill or request an additional extension, it simply did not do anything. June’s national midterm elections were approaching, and political calculations were made. The legislative process came to a standstill.

Since the Senate did not approve the bill by the deadline, the Supreme Court basically did what it had mandated Congress to do. It activated a mechanism to guarantee rights that had only been undertaken once before in Mexican history: the General Declaration of Unconstitutionality (GDU).

On June 28, the Supreme Court approved, with a qualified majority of eight of the 11 Ministers, that two articles in the General Health Law must be modified to permit adults to cultivate cannabis for personal use in their homes.

These changes were officially published on July 15, with specific instructions to the Health Secretary to approve authorizations for any adult who applies.

The GDU has certain restrictions attached, including that this is only for personal use and cannot be used to justify any commercialization of cannabis or cannabis-derived products. Adults cannot consume in front of minors, or other adults who have not expressly given their permission. Nor can they operate heavy machinery or drive while under the effects.

With the GDU, the judicial process concludes. However, the Supreme Court was clear in its final recommendations: Congress can and should legislate to clear up inconsistencies and generate a legal framework for cannabis users.

Whether the Senate decides to take up the matter again in September when it returns to its legislative session will depend largely on its political whim. The body no longer has a deadline to meet; however, there are growing calls from society to regulate the market beyond home-grow, as well as several legal contradictions that obviously need to be harmonized.

The General Health Law has now been modified and the health secretary must approve permits or authorizations for adults to cultivate in their homes. But the Federal Criminal Code has not changed—it still penalizes those same activities with sanctions ranging from 10 months to three years or more in prison.

The Supreme Court decision ignores the need for a comprehensive regulation that would allow the state to apply taxes to commercial activities, which are currently still criminalized with penal sanctions. It also overlooks the urgency of an amnesty program for the thousands of people currently incarcerated on low-level cannabis charges, or hampered by criminal records for such charges.

The Senate should now revisit the bill it initially passed. It should maintain the positive aspects of the bill, which would improve things well beyond the scope of the Supreme Court decision. These include provision for cannabis associations (permitting up to four plants per person for up to 20 members), for home-grow without the need to request authorization, and for a regulated market with a social justice perspective—allocating 40 percent (or more!) of cultivation licenses to communities harmed by prohibition and imposing restrictions on large companies.

The Senate could also build upon the previous version of the bill by eliminating simple possession as a crime, by allowing the associations to operate immediately and guaranteeing the participation of small and medium companies through strong government support.

During the last three years, and before, civil society has closely accompanied the process of creating this legislation, providing the technical and political inputs needed to move forward in a way that could have great social benefits for Mexico.

By becoming the third country in the world to regulate adult cannabis use, after Uruguay and Canada, Mexico could transition from being one of the largest illegal producers to being the largest legal domestic market in the world. As well as economic benefits, this could have substantial impacts on how criminal justice funds are spent, freeing up law enforcement dollars to focus on high-impact crimes and changing the way the state has shown up in communities that cultivate cannabis.

Rather than eradicating crops, the government could accompany communities in gaining legal licenses, provide technical assistance and improve basic services. These positive externalities of regulation could signal a shift from a militarized state of war to a focus on rights, development and social justice.

Of course, this all depends on key political actors recognizing the benefits—and that requires political will. Mexico deserves better; however, it remains to be seen whether legislators will act.

This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.

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Oregon Governor Plans To Veto Bill To Regulate Kratom Sales That Advocates Say Would Protect Consumers

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The governor of Oregon has announced her intent to veto a bill that’s meant to create a regulatory framework for the sale and use of kratom for adults.

The Oregon Kratom Consumer Protection Act is bipartisan legislation that would make it so only people 21 and older could purchase the plant-based substance, which some use for its stimulating effects and which others found useful in treating opioid withdrawals.

Vendors would have to register with the state Department of Agriculture to sell kratom. The agency would be responsible for developing regulations on testing standards and labeling requirements. The bill would further prohibit the sale of contaminated or adulterated kratom products.

But while the House and Senate approved the legislation in June, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said on Sunday that she plans to veto it, in large part because she feels the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is better suited to regulate the products.

“Given there is currently no FDA-approved use for this product and there continues to be concern about the impacts of its use, I would entertain further legislation to limit youth access without the state agency regulatory function included in this bill,” the governor said.

This comes as a disappointment to advocates and regulators who share concerns about the risks of adulterated kratom but feel a regulatory framework could help mitigate those dangers and provide adults with a safe supply of products that have helped some overcome opioid addiction.

“Kratom has been consumed safely for centuries in Southeast Asia and Americans use it in the same way that coffee is used for increased focus and energy boosts. Many use kratom for pain management without the opioid side effects,” Rep. Bill Post (R), sponsor of the bill, wrote in an op-ed published in June. “The problem in Oregon is that adulterated products are being sold.”

“Kratom in its pure form is a natural product,” he said. “Adulterated kratom is a potentially dangerous product.”

Pete Candland, executive director of the American Kratom Association, said in written testimony on the bill in February that four other states—Utah, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada—have enacted similar legislation with positive results.

He said that “the number of adulterated kratom products spiked with dangerous drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and morphine in those states has significantly decreased” in those states.

Meanwhile, six states—Vermont, Alabama, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Rhode Island—have banned kratom sales altogether.

Candland said that number is actually a testament to the noncontroversial nature of the plant, as prohibition is only in effect in six states despite “a full-throated disinformation campaign on kratom by the FDA with outrageously untrue claims about kratom being the cause of hundreds of deaths.”

After failing to get kratom prohibited domestically, FDA recently opened a public comment period that’s meant to inform the U.S. position on how the substance should be scheduled under international statute.

“Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects,” FDA wrote in the notice. “Kratom is available in several different forms to include dried/crushed leaves, powder, capsules, tablets, liquids, and gum/ resin. Kratom is an increasingly popular drug of abuse and readily available on the recreational drug market in the United States.”

Responses to the notice will help inform the federal government’s stance on kratom scheduling in advance of an October meeting of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, where international officials will discuss whether to recommend the substance be globally scheduled.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a report to spending legislation that says federal health agencies have “contributed to the continued understanding of the health impacts of kratom, including its constituent compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.”

It also directed the Health and Human Services secretary to continue to refrain from recommending that kratom be controlled in Schedule I.

Late last year, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) asked the public to help identify research that specifically looks at the risks and benefits of cannabinoids and kratom.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year separately received more than one thousand comments concerning kratom as part of another public solicitation.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/ThorPorre.

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