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(D-OR), who has worked for decades to end marijuana prohibition, said that those “long overdue efforts to reform our outdated cannabis laws are finally resonating in Congress.”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.
Massachusetts Lawmakers Discuss Drug Decriminalization And Safe Injection Sites At Hearing
Massachusetts lawmakers on Monday heard testimony on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program for safe injection facilities where people could use illicit substances in a medically supervised environment to prevent overdose deaths and facilitate treatment.
The state legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery held a hearing on the harm reduction proposals, with experts and people personally impacted by substance misuse advocating for new approaches to drugs that destigmatize addiction and offer people resources outside of a criminal justice context.
The decriminalization bill would replace criminal penalties for the possession of any controlled substance with a civil fine of up to $50. To avoid the fine, individuals could enroll in a “needs screening to identify health and other service needs, including but not limited to services that may address any problematic substance use and mental health conditions, lack of employment, housing, or food, and any need for civil legal services.”
For the safe injection site legislation, the state would establish a 10-year pilot program where at least two facilities would “utilize harm reduction tools, including clinical monitoring of the consumption of pre-obtained controlled substances in the presence of trained staff, for the purpose of reducing the risks of disease transmission and preventing overdose deaths.”
A separate, less far-reaching bill that was added to the agenda in a late addition would direct the Department of Public Health to simply “evaluate the feasibility” of safe consumption sites and then report back to lawmakers by July 31, 2022..
The joint committee listened to academics, health professionals, lawmakers discuss the reform proposals but did not take immediate action on any of the legislation. It’s unclear when the bills will be taken up again for further consideration.
“By every metric, the war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure,” Rep. Mike Connolly (D) said. “In the United States and here in Massachusetts, the criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of mass incarceration. We know that black people have been incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than white people, and there’s no question that the criminalization of substance use issues has contributed to these terrible disparities.”
Connolly is also the sponsor of legislation that received a Joint Judiciary Committee hearing in July on studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
Officials with at least one Massachusetts city, Somerville, said that there are plans in the work to launch a safe injection facility in the jurisdiction. And they want to see the statewide bill pass to provide additional protections against being federally penalized.
“State legislation, wielding its constitutionally granted powers to enact laws for public health and safety, has the ability to greatly minimize these risks through legislation authorizing a pilot of safe consumption sites,” Hannah Pappenheim, assistant city solicitor at the City of Somerville, said. “In addition, state legislation would also minimize the risk of costly—but more importantly, lengthy—litigation.”
The official noted that a separate, Pennsylvania-based case on the legality of safe injection sites has been ongoing in federal courts for years at this point.
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—recently filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the case.
Xavier Bacerra, the Biden administration’s secretary of health and human services, was among eight top state law enforcement officials who filed an earlier amicus brief in support of the Philadelphia-based Safehouse’s safe injection site plan when he served as California’s attorney general.
“State legislation paves the way for a more expedient process in Somerville, and of course elsewhere in the Commonwealth,” Pappenheim said.
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone (D) said at Monday’s hearing that “it’s important for Massachusetts to finally lead—not just compiling, but implementing a strategy that reduces harm and save lives.” He conceded that he previously opposed the concept of allowing safe consumption sites; but his personal experience knowing people in his immediate family who suffered from addiction—as well as his own review of the scientific literature on harm reduction alternatives to criminalization—led him to embrace the reforms.
Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.
The governor of neighboring Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Oamshri Amarasingham, deputy legislative director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, voiced support for both reform proposals at Monday’s hearing and told WGBH that establishing a safe injection site pilot program “is one piece of that puzzle” that is “critically important and that’s had great success in other countries.”
The ACLU has long supported shifting to a #PublicHealth approach to drug policy rather than a criminal one…
— ACLU Massachusetts (@ACLU_Mass) September 27, 2021
Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis commissioner who now heads the Parabola Center, juxtaposed how laws handle substances like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine differently from currently illegal drugs.
“What separates that from when we have these illicit drugs, where handcuffs and cages are involved, and what led that to be? The reason has nothing to do with science, or evidence or the relative dangers of those drugs,” she said. “The reason is because—and this is well-documented—those drugs could be scapegoated and blamed on their association with indigenous and Indian and Mexican and Chinese and other cultures, and then used to target communities of color, particularly black and Latino people nationally and here in Massachusetts.”
At the same time that Massachusetts legislators are looking into harm reduction and broad drug decriminalization, local activists in the state have also been pursuing psychedelics reform.
Three Massachusetts cities—Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge—have each passed resolutions to deprioritize enforcement of laws against the possession, use and distribution of a wide range of psychedelics and other drugs. The Easthampton City Council is also exploring a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of entheogenic substances, with a meeting set for Friday.
Marijuana Arrests Dropped Sharply In 2020 As Both COVID And Legalization Spread, FBI Data Shows
Marijuana arrests declined significantly in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, newly released FBI data shows.
There were 1,155,610 drug-related arrests overall last year, with cannabis sales and possession busts accounting for just over 30 percent (or 350,150) of those cases. The vast majority were for marijuana possession alone.
The agency’s data shows that there was a cannabis arrest every 90 seconds in the country in 2020, and there was a drug-related arrest every 27 seconds.
While these figures still highlight the rampant, ongoing criminalization of cannabis in states across the U.S., it’s a substantial deescalation compared to 2019, when FBI reported a total of 545,601 marijuana arrests. That amounted to a cannabis bust every 58 seconds.
Put another way, there was a 36 percent decrease in cannabis cases from 2019 to 2020. And while the federal agency doesn’t attempt to explain the statistical shift, there are a number of factors that could help explain it.
One of the more obvious societal changes during that timeframe is the COVID-19 health crisis, which involved social distancing requirements and generally discouraged people from being out in public where they might be at higher risk of being arrested for simple possession.
But advocates have also pointed out that the marijuana reform movement could be playing a role. Illinois’s adult-use cannabis law took effect at the beginning of 2020, for example. Hawaii, New Mexico and North Dakota also enacted decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2019, and Virginia followed suit the next year.
In Arizona, limited cannabis possession was legalized for adults starting on November 30, 2020 following voter approval of a reform initiative earlier that month.
“As more states move toward the sensible policy of legalizing and regulating cannabis, we are seeing a decline in the arrest of non-violent marijuana consumers nationwide,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana Moment. “The fight for legalization is a fight for justice. While these numbers represent a historic decline in arrests, even one person being put into handcuffs for the simple possession of marijuana is too many.”
Despite the decline in cannabis busts, the new data shows that American law enforcement still carried out more arrests for marijuana alone last year than for murder, rape, robbery, burglary, fraud and embezzlement combined.
It should be noted that not all local police participate in FBI’s reporting program, so these figures are not holistic and are estimates the agency makes based on those that do submit data.
The country had seen a consistent decline in cannabis arrests for roughly a decade prior to 2016, when those cases started to rise up until 2019.
Observers expect to see the downward trend in cannabis busts continue as more states move to end prohibition and law enforcement deprioritizes marijuana-relate cases. In New York, for example, police received new guidance this year stipulating that adults 21 and older can possess certain amounts of marijuana and consume it in places where tobacco use is permitted.
That directive alone seems to have led to a dramatic decrease in cannabis arrests in New York City.
Federal marijuana trafficking cases also continued to decline in 2020 as more states have moved to legalize, an analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) that was released in June found.
Federal prosecutions of drug-related crimes overall increased in 2019, but cases involving marijuana dropped by more than a quarter, according to an end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in December.
A study released by the Cato Institute in 2018 found that “state-level marijuana legalization has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”
New York Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Will Create ‘Thousands’ Of Jobs And Touts Regulatory Appointments
The governor of New York says marijuana legalization will generate “thousands and thousands of jobs” in the state, and she’s touting her recent actions to make regulatory appointments for the industry to get implementation underway.
At the Business Council of New York State’s annual meeting on Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) talked about the state’s business ethic and the importance of supporting markets of all sizes, including cannabis companies.
“We do want to go big or go home, and I want to help you get there,” she said. “I need you to survive because you’re the identity of New York that people create jobs and opportunities. You are who we are as New Yorkers. Your success means the success of this entire state.”
“So count me in as an ally—someone who’s going to be there for you, who will fight for you to make sure that we do not lose out to any competition, whether it’s in the space of cannabis, where I believe there’s thousands and thousands of jobs and new industries, to be created that were not even focused on,” Hochul said.
The governor has made a point of emphasizing her support for adult-use legalization and standing up the industry since replacing former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who resigned amid a sexual misconduct scandal last month.
At Friday’s meeting, she said, “I had to unleash this opportunity that had been stifled for the first five months [after legalization was signed into law] because a few appointments hadn’t been made. Got that done.”
Hochul named two additional Cannabis Control Board members last week, which followed the Senate confirmation of previous appointees earlier this month. The newly named regulators do not require confirmation by lawmakers.
According to The New York Post, the governor reportedly recently dismissed Norman Birenbaum, director of cannabis programs under Cuomo, whom advocates had opposed becoming the head of the new Office of Cannabis Management.
Under New York’s legalization law, the independent Office of Cannabis Management within the New York State Liquor Authority was established and will be responsible for regulating the recreational cannabis market as well as the existing medical marijuana and hemp programs. It will be overseen by a five-member Cannabis Control Board.
Three members have now been appointed by the governor, and the Senate and Assembly have also appointed one member each.
As it stands, adults 21 and older can possess up to three ounces of cannabis or 24 grams of concentrates in New York—and they can also smoke marijuana in public anywhere tobacco can be smoked—but there aren’t any shops open for business yet.
The first recreational marijuana retailers in New York may actually be located on Indian territory, with one tribe officially opening applications for prospective licensees earlier this month.
In July, a New York senator filed a bill to create a provisional marijuana licensing category so that farmers could begin cultivating and selling cannabis ahead of the formal rollout of the adult-use program. The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee.
Because the implementation process has been drawn out, however, one GOP senator wants to give local jurisdictions another year to decide whether they will opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area—a proposal that advocates say is unnecessary and would create undue complications for the industry.
Under the law as enacted, municipalities must determine whether they will opt out of permitting marijuana retailers or social consumption sites by December 31, 2021. Sen. George Borrello (R) introduced legislation earlier this month that would push that deadline back one year.
Legalization activists aren’t buying the argument, however.
Adding pressure to get the market up and running is the fact that regulators in neighboring New Jersey recently released rules for its adult-use marijuana program, which is being implemented after voters approved a legalization referendum last year.
For the first year of cannabis sales, the state is expected to see just $20 million in tax and fee collections. That will be part of an estimated $26.7 billion in new revenues that New York is expected to generate in fiscal year 2021-2022 under a budget that the legislature passed in April.
Meanwhile, a New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to research the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.