With the House and Senate heading into a month-long August recess this week, it’s a good time to look back at what lawmakers have accomplished so far this year when it comes to marijuana reform: It is unquestionable that the 116th Congress is the most cannabis-friendly Congress in history.
Seven months into the session, there have already been seven hearings on cannabis, a marijuana banking bill passed a key committee and the full House adopted a far-reaching amendment to block federal interference in state legalization laws. And those are just the highlights.
“Congress has never moved this far, this fast on marijuana policy, period,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in an interview.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who has worked for decades to end marijuana prohibition, said that those “long overdue efforts to reform our outdated cannabis laws are finally resonating in Congress.”
“Bills to address policy failures in cannabis banking, veterans access, decriminalization and restorative justice have started moving through the legislative process,” he said.
Here’s a comprehensive rundown of the immense amount of cannabis progress made on Capitol Hill in 2019:
Votes On Marijuana Legislation
In June, the House of Representatives voted 267 to 165 to approve a measure for the first time that prevents the Department of Justice from spending money to intervene in the implementation of state and territory marijuana policies.
The body also approved, via an uncontested voice vote, a similar measure shielding the cannabis laws of Indian tribes as well as another adding the U.S. Virgin Islands to an existing law covering local medical marijuana programs. An additional amendment the House tacked onto the same bill directs the Food and Drug Administration to establish a process for regulating CBD in foods and dietary supplements.
Separate appropriations legislation that cleared the House in June contained language upon introduction to prohibit the Treasury Department from punishing banks for maintaining accounts for state-legal cannabis businesses. That legislation also deletes a longstanding rider that has blocked Washington, D.C. from spending its own local tax dollars to legalize and regulate marijuana sales. No lawmaker from either party attempted to completely strip the banking language or add the D.C. ban back in.
The Senate has not yet taken up its versions of these spending bills, so it remains to be seen if the chamber will support similar amendments during committee markups or floor consideration. In cases where the body does not adopt identical proposals, it will be up to bicameral conference committees to determine what makes it into final legislation sent to President Trump’s desk.
In July, the House passed via voice vote an amendment to end a Department of Veterans Affairs policy that denies home loans to military veterans because they work in the marijuana industry. The underlying bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also contains a separate measure added in committee that would let military branches grant reenlistment waivers to personnel if they used marijuana once, or were convicted of a misdemeanor cannabis offense, while off duty. The Senate version of NDAA doesn’t have these marijuana riders, so it will come down to a conference committee to decide if they are included in the finished package.
In March, the House Financial Services Committee voted 45 to 15 to approve a bill to let banks service marijuana businesses without being punished by federal regulators.
Much of the progress on cannabis legislation so far this year is due to the fact that Democrats won control of the House and thereby replaced former Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX)—who lost his own reelection bid—with new Chairman James McGovern (D-MA). The panel is responsible for preparing legislation for floor action and, among other things, decides which amendments are allowed to be voted on by the full body. Under Sessions’s control, the GOP majority blocked every proposed cannabis measure from advancing for the past several years. McGovern has allowed nearly all marijuana amendments to be considered on the floor, with the exception of one that had technical issues in violation of House rules.
It is worth noting that it hasn’t been all legislative victories for drug reform activists this year on Capitol Hill. A measure that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) filed to remove roadblocks to research on the medical benefits of psilocybin, MDMA and other psychedelics was soundly defeated on the House floor, with a number of Democratic leaders joining the GOP in voting against it. And Blumenauer withdrew his own amendment to let Department of Veterans Affairs doctors issue medical cannabis recommendations after the administration pushed back against it. Planned committee votes on other veterans-focused marijuana legislation were canceled and haven’t yet been rescheduled.
And while supporters had anticipated a House floor vote on the cannabis banking bill prior to the August recess, that did not happen, and expectations have now shifted toward action in the fall.
Hearings On Cannabis Issues
An unprecedented number of hearings have already been held on Capitol Hill this year to zero in on specific issues caused by the growing gap between federal and state cannabis laws.
The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee held a hearing on financial services access for marijuana businesses on July 23—a surprise to advocates following the earlier refusal of Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) to commit to considering the issue while cannabis remains federally banned. While the event was poorly attended by panel Republicans, it at least signals the GOP-controlled body’s willingness to discuss key reforms. It is unknown if or when the committee will vote on pending marijuana banking legislation that is currently cosponsored by nearly a third of all senators.
The Senate Agriculture Committee convened a July 25 hearing on federal officials’ efforts to implement the legalization of hemp that was part of the 2018 Farm Bill signed into law by President Trump late last year. Among those who testified were representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
On the House side, the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security gathered on July 10 for a hearing on the need to end cannabis prohibition at which every witness—including the one called by the panel’s minority Republicans—supported far-reaching federal marijuana reform. Lawmakers from both parties also broadly voiced support for ending or scaling back prohibition, with most disagreement centering on how to achieve change instead of whether changes are needed.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held two hearings this year at which legislators discussed proposals to increase military veterans’ access to medical cannabis. During a full panel session in June as well as a separate earlier meeting of the Subcommittee on Health, a key focus was on bipartisan proposals to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to at least study medical marijuana.
Also in June, the House Small Business Committee discussed challenges facing firms in the cannabis industry, including a lack of access to federally backed low-interest loans.
In February, the House Financial Services Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions Subcommittee convened to discuss banking access issues for marijuana businesses, a hearing that preceded full committee passage of legislation on the issue.
Marijuana Bills From Key Sponsors
No fewer than 61 individual cannabis-focused bills have been filed in the first seven months of the 116th Congress, and that doesn’t count a number of broader large-scale bills that happen to contain cannabis provisions. Beyond the sheer volume of legislation—already nearly the most in any single two-year Congress despite the fact that barely a quarter of the current one has so far elapsed—the names of the lead sponsors signal how seriously cannabis reform is now being taken on Capitol Hill
From committee chairs to presidential candidates, many of the most serious players in the House and Senate are stepping up to play leadership roles in the fight to reform federal marijuana laws.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who strongly influences crime and drug policy as House Judiciary Committee chair, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a presidential contender, teamed up to file companion bills that would not only federally legalize marijuana but invest in programs aimed at repairing some of the damage of the war on drugs.
House Small Business Committee Chair Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) introduced legislation to let marijuana firms utilize loans and other programs from the Small Business Administration and to increase the cannabis industry’s access to insurance coverage.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) filed bills to deschedule cannabis and set aside funding to support expunging prior convictions.
Every Democratic senator and representative currently running for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination has signed onto far-reaching cannabis legislation, with some taking extra initiative as the lead sponsors of bills.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), for example, filed a proposal called the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and punish states with discriminatory prohibition enforcement by withholding certain federal funds. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is a lead sponsor of bipartisan legislation to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from the CSA. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) filed bills to deschedule marijuana and to research hemp’s potential uses for everything from products for public school lunches to clearing contaminants from nuclear sites.
Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MI) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), as well as Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH)—all also presidential candidates—have signed onto cannabis reform proposals.
While Democrats have been much more likely to introduce or cosponsor marijuana reform bills so far this Congress, some measures have garnered significant bipartisan support.
Legislation to let banks serve cannabis businesses without fear of being punished by federal regulators, for example, has 206 House cosponsors—nearly half the chamber’s entire membership—including 26 Republicans. A companion Senate bill has 31 lawmakers signed on, including five GOP senators. And Warren’s bill, known as the STATES Act, also has five Republican cosponsors, with the companion House version touting 19 GOP signers.
Report Language On Cannabis
Beyond advancing legislation containing marijuana reform provisions, the House Appropriations Committee has included language directing federal agencies to take action on cannabis issues in several reports attached to spending bills this year.
In a document corresponding to legislation to fund the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, the panel expressed concern that cannabis’s current federal classification impedes science, writing that “restrictions associated with Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act effectively limit the amount and type of research that can be conducted on certain Schedule I drugs, especially marijuana or its component chemicals and new synthetic drugs and analogs.”
“At a time when we need as much information as possible about these drugs to find antidotes for their harmful effects, we should be lowering regulatory and other barriers to conducting this research,” the panel said, directing the National Institute on Drug Abuse to “provide a short report on the barriers to research that result from the classification of drugs and compounds as Schedule I substances.”
A separate report for legislation funding the Department of Justice urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to “expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for use in medical research,” expressing frustration that the federal government has so far not acted on more than two dozen pending proposals to grow cannabis for scientific studies.
A document attached to the Financial Services and General Government spending bill encourages the Office of Personnel Management to “review its policies and guidelines regarding hiring and firing of individuals who use marijuana in states where that individual’s private use of marijuana is not prohibited under the law of the State.”
“These policies should reflect updated changes to the law on marijuana usage and clearly state the impact of marijuana usage on Federal employment,” the report says.
Legislation on Agriculture, Rural Development and Food and Drug Administration funding has an attached report urging federal officials to issue hemp legalization regulations “as soon as possible” and identify “lawful federal regulatory pathways for CBD foods and dietary supplements if such pathways are consistent with protection of the public health.”
The committee also included a passage in the report attached to a bill funding the Department of Veterans Affairs decrying the “Department’s denial of home loan guarantees to Veterans solely on the basis of the Veteran’s documented income being derived from state-legalized cannabis activities” and directing it to provide an update on efforts to “prioritize investments in research on the efficacy and safety of cannabis usage among the Veteran population for medicinal purposes.”
There’s still nearly a year and a half left to go in the 116th Congress, and legalization advocates are hopeful that far-reaching reforms can pass one or both chambers, potentially making it to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law.
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that things are “off to a great start in the House,” calling the Judiciary Committee hearing and the introduction of its chairman’s bill “highlights” so far.
“But there is so much more to be done before we can celebrate undoing the horror that is marijuana prohibition,” he added.
Most immediately, activists will be watching to see if the House moves to pass cannabis banking legislation and potentially Judiciary Chair Nadler’s comprehensive marijuana reform bill when Congress returns from the August recess this fall.
Blumenauer, the pro-legalization congressman, said that he hopes the body will consider Nadler’s descheduling legislation “before the end of the year.”
“This is our blueprint in action, and I expect our momentum to continue,” he said, referring to a memo he issued to Democratic leaders last year laying out a committee-by-committee process through which the the party could build support toward ending cannabis prohibition in 2019.
On the other side of the Capitol, it remains to be seen whether the Senate Banking Committee will take up that chamber’s version of the cannabis financial services proposal following the hearing the panel held in July, or whether broader reforms such as the STATES Act or other marijuana legislation will be allowed to advance under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
While bill introductions, hearings and report language are undoubtedly positive steps forward—especially in a quantity never before seen on Capitol Hill—they in and of themselves don’t change any laws, get anyone out of jail or repair the harms of the drug war.
Strekal, of NORML, said that “lawmakers are increasingly playing catch up with their constituents.”
“It’s our job as advocates to ensure that, as these elected officials evolve, they navigate their positions towards sound public policy, not simple political expediency,” he said.
But even if no other marijuana action were to happen on Capitol Hill this or next year—as unlikely as that would be—it is clear that the 116th Congress has already been the most marijuana friendly in history.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.
GOP Congressman Falsely Claims Marijuana Can Be Legally Consumed In Public In ‘Many States’
A Republican congressman wrongly claimed that marijuana can be legally consumed in public in “many states” in a Twitter post on Friday.
Following a House vote in favor of anti-vaping legislation that also included a ban on menthol cigarettes, Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) argued that the bill is an example of government overreach and that it would not prevent youth from using vaping products.
“Now, Democrats propose making possession of a menthol cigarette a violation of federal law when smoking a marijuana joint in public is legal in many states,” he wrote in his tweet. “Instead, we need to focus on real healthcare issues like surprise billing, the opioid epidemic and curbing coronavirus.”
Now, Democrats propose making possession of a menthol cigarette a violation of federal law when smoking a marijuana joint in public is legal in many states. Instead, we need to focus on real healthcare issues like surprise billing, the opioid epidemic and curbing coronavirus.
— Rep. Andy Barr (@RepAndyBarr) February 28, 2020
The claim about laws governing public cannabis consumption is likely to raise eyebrows among reform advocates familiar with state-legal marijuana programs.
It’s not the case that “many states” allow individuals to smoke in public areas. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly prohibited activities in legalization measures.
“Rep. Barr is anti-freedom and pro-false hysteria when it comes to cannabis,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Sadly, his desire to continue to see hundreds of thousands of Americans be arrested and incarcerated due to minor marijuana charges is held far too many of his colleagues in Congress.”
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that Barr’s “facts and priorities are wrong.”
“No legalization state allows public smoking of cannabis (other than in adult-only locations in some cases), and almost all medical cannabis states forbid it,” she said. “Marijuana isn’t associated with increased mortality, while cigarettes are associated with more than 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. Why is Rep. Barr maligning and voting against the safer substance, and working to keep it illegal?”
Here are some examples of public consumption policies in legal cannabis states.
Alaska: For adults over 21 years of age, the law permits “consumption of marijuana, except that nothing in this chapter shall permit the consumption of marijuana in public.”
California: “You can consume cannabis on private property but you cannot consume, smoke, eat, or vape cannabis in public places.”
Colorado: “Using marijuana in any way—smoking, eating or vaping—isn’t allowed in public places.”
Illinois: “There is no public consumption allowed for cannabis. Smoking or consuming weed is illegal in motor vehicles and public spaces, including your front porch.”
Massachusetts: “You can’t use marijuana in any form (smoking, vaping, edibles, etc.) in public or on federal land.”
Nevada: “Adults 21 years and older can legally consume marijuana, but with restrictions on where it can be consumed: You cannot use marijuana in any public place.”
Oregon: “Recreational marijuana cannot be sold or smoked in public.”
Put simply, the notion that public consumption of marijuana is widespread is a false narrative. A standout exception is Oklahoma, where medical cannabis patients are able to consume wherever tobacco is permitted. That said, Barr’s assertion that public marijuana smoking is legal in “many states” is patently false.
That the congressman is perpetuating that narrative isn’t especially surprising, however. Barr is no fan on cannabis, voting against spending bill amendments preventing the Justice Department from using its fund to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs as well as a separate measure last year that would’ve extended protections to all state cannabis programs.
That said, Barr isn’t alone in his opposition to the menthol cigarette ban that cleared the House on Friday. Several Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the measure in committee and on the floor. But their reasoning was generally that the targeted ban would lead to overpolicing of minority communities.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
VA Notice About Researching Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans Deleted Shortly After Posting
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will soon release a notice announcing that it is seeking information about the potential of marijuana and its components to treat medical conditions that commonly afflict military veterans.
A post describing the request was briefly uploaded to a government website this week, though it’s since been deleted—but not before Marijuana Moment downloaded a copy. A representative said in response to an e-mailed query that the document was “rescinded for edits” and a revised version will be published “at a future date.”
VA’s Clinical Science Research and Development Service wrote in the filing that it is interested in establishing a research program designed to “examine the potential for medical marijuana and cannabinoids to treat disorders and diseases prevalent in our Veteran population.”
In a request for white papers on the topic, the department said it’s especially interested in identifying potential medical uses for cannabis to treat neuropathic pain and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Unrelieved neuropathic pain experienced by Veterans after spinal cord or peripheral nerve injury contributes to depression, anxiety, disrupted sleep, and overall decreased quality of life,” VA said. “PTSD, also highly prevalent in Veterans, is a mental health problem often co-morbid with chronic pain.”
“A large percentage of Veterans who seek relief from these conditions, resort to smoking marijuana or use unregulated dietary cannabis supplements, etc,” it continued. “It is therefore imperative to determine which cannabinoid compounds are truly effective, for which symptoms, in which populations, as well as the associated risks.”
VA said it is committed to researching and developing evidence-based treatment options for veterans, and that’s what the program is meant to address.
“Without the needed evidence base for medical marijuana, this will not be a treatment choice within VA,” the department wrote. “We hope to support a series of clinical trials, which in case of positive outcomes, will generate robust data to support the use of cannabinoid(s) for pain and/or PTSD (or one or more of its symptoms).”
The department plans to conduct clinical trials if the evidence indicates that medical cannabis can be useful. It touted the “cadre of experienced clinical investigators, a highly participatory research population, and mechanisms in place to support every aspect of clinical research.”
White papers submitted to VA under the now-deleted solicitation must contain four components: 1) the “formulation and route of administration of the cannabinoid preparation,” 2) their ability to manufacture and supply those preparations, 3) the investigational new drug registration for compounds that aren’t already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and 4) evidence about the product’s efficacy in treating pain, PTSD and other conditions.
As drafted, the notice gives a deadline of March 15 to submit the requested one-page white papers, though it’s not clear if that will change when the updated notice is released.
Additionally, VA said it plans to collaborate with industry partners for “further understanding and development of evidence-based treatments such as medical marijuana and cannabinoids” and on April 27, will hold an “Industry Day” to discuss the “goals of the program.”
The department is “particularly interested in obtaining information about cannabinoid drugs availability, likelihood of their approval by the FDA (if not yet approved), and the data supporting their use for pain and PTSD treatment in Veterans,” the notice says.
Members of Congress and veterans advocates discussed the need for alternative treatment options, including medical cannabis, during a joint committee hearing earlier this week.
At the same time, bipartisan legislators are asking their colleagues to cosponsor a bill that would require VA to conduct research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana for veterans. That legislation already has 104 House cosponsors.
Read VA’s since-rescinded notice on medical marijuana research below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
House Democrats Block Amendment To Restrict Marijuana Products In Anti-Vaping Bill
House Democrats pushed back against a Republican attempt to include a flavored marijuana vaping ban in a broader anti-vaping bill that passed the chamber on Friday, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to prohibit products that are already illegal under federal law.
Instead, several lawmakers argued that Congress should enact separate cannabis reform legislation that could include provisions designed to protect public health and reduce the appeal of marijuana to youth.
The issue first came up during a House Rules Committee hearing on Wednesday, with Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) introducing an amendment to “include a prohibition against flavored marijuana products” such that they would be “treated in the same manner as flavored tobacco products” under the bill.
While the congressman argued that language of the legislation implicitly already provides for such a ban, he said it was important to clarify to send a message to young people that they can’t vape products containing nicotine or THC.
“Let it not be said in 2029 that we had a chance and we felt maybe we were getting to it in 2020,” he said. “Let’s just go ahead and do it. Let’s say you can’t sell flavored marijuana THC vaping products. My amendment makes that clear.”
Watch the conversation below:
Democratic members said they shared Griffith’s concern about underage use of flavored cannabis vaping products. However, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) pushed back and said the proposal is not germane because marijuana remains illegal under federal law and so regulating these products requires separate congressional action.
Earlier in the hearing, he suggested that his House-passed cannabis banking bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—could serve as a vehicle to address the body’s concerns.
“We have to start addressing it because we have 47 states that now are allowing some level of marijuana use when the statute under the Controlled Substance Act clearly makes it illegal,” the congressman said. “There’s a bill sitting in the Senate called the SAFE Banking Act that may get back here at some point, and we could put some testing and regulatory components on it.”
Watch this exchange below:
Is a flavored marijuana vaping ban even necessary?
Also during the hearing, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) pressed Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) about the lack of specificity in the bill as it concerns marijuana vaping products. Woodall said he wanted that aspect addressed before he leaves office in nine months.
“It strikes me…more than strange that banana crush [nicotine vaping products] will no longer be available to adults in my district. But banana strawberry cream, which is an illegal [marijuana] product today, will continue to be available at 180 retailers near you,” Woodall said. “I don’t know how I take that message into my high schools and say that we’re going to reduce drug dependency in the months and years ahead.”
Watch the conversation below:
Pallone said he appreciates Woodall’s concern that flavored vaping products can mislead consumers about what they’re actually putting into their bodies and that he “would tend to think that the same problem would exist” for flavored marijuana products. However, he said there’s a distinction to be made.
“Most people tell me that nicotine is much more toxic and much more dangerous to your health than marijuana so maybe we shouldn’t have restrictions on marijuana at all and maybe we shouldn’t have any restrictions on flavored marijuana because the marijuana doesn’t have the same health problems that nicotine has,” he said. “Maybe I should say, assuming that marijuana is dangerous then maybe the flavored should be. But it’s not as dangerous.”
“The reality is that we know that nicotine is much more dangerous than marijuana so maybe the flavors masking it is not as serious a problem as it would be for nicotine,” he said.
Griffith’s amendment was blocked from floor consideration in a party-line vote of 3-6 by the panel, but the conversation around flavored marijuana products continued on Friday on the House floor.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) brought a poster board showing pictures of flavored cannabis vaping products and lamented that they are not explicitly included in the anti-vaping bill.
“If you want to do something about kids—if you want to do something about lung disease—then we need to do something about marijuana and the oils it gets mixed with that this bill does not address,” he said.
But Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) pointed out that if Republicans are interested in ensuring that such marijuana products are properly regulated, the substance needs to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act to provide Congress with the means to enact regulations.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer counters by pointing to marijuana's schedule I status, saying federal regulation of flavored cannabis would be like trying to regulate "flavored heroin." Plugs the MORE Act to deschedule marijuana. https://t.co/w4Jpudt137
— Emily Kopp (@emilyakopp) February 28, 2020
Imposing regulations on marijuana while it’s still federally prohibited is “like regulating flavored heroin,” he said. The congressman added that a bill to deschedule marijuana called the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would give lawmakers the tools to protect public health.
“The challenge that we have now is to be able to move forward—to be able to protect young people and the public,” Blumenauer said. “Cannabis is a red herring. If we tax and regulate it, then we can deal with the products they’re talking about. But unless and until we bring it—as two-thirds of the states have done—to actually tax and regulate it, we can’t deal with that. It doesn’t matter.”
We have a crisis of youth vaping. And we’ve seen a disturbing number of lung injuries & deaths tied to the oil used in marijuana vaping. Unfortunately #HR2339 before us today does nothing to impact either. Instead, it's a partisan publicity stunt by big government liberal elites. pic.twitter.com/AUx8ZMar0L
— Richard Hudson (@RepRichHudson) February 28, 2020
Not all Democrats were on board with the anti-vaping bill.
It was a tight 213-195 vote in the House on Friday. Top Democratic leaders are faced challenges as they worked to get the broader legislation approved. Some members of the party have expressed opposition over policies to ban flavored tobacco, including menthol, which they argue would lead to overpolicing of minority communities.
Image by Lindsay Fox from Pixabay.