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(D-OR), who has worked for decades to end marijuana prohibition, said that those “long overdue efforts to reform our outdated cannabis laws are finally resonating in Congress.”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.
DEA’s Hemp Rule On THC Content Misinterprets Congressional Intent, Senators Say
A pair of senators representing Oregon sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Thursday to demand changes to the agency’s proposed hemp regulations.
This is the second congressional request DEA has received on the subject this week, with a group of nine House members similarly imploring a revision of a rule concerning hemp extractions on Tuesday.
DEA released an interim final rule (IFR) for the crop in August, and it said the regulations were simply meant to comply with the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives. But stakeholders and advocates have expressed serious concerns about certain proposals, arguing that they could put processors at risk of violating federal law and hamper the industry’s growth.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said in the new letter that despite DEA’s claim that its IFR is only about compliance, the proposal “does significantly more.”
“The IFR treats hemp as a Schedule I controlled substance at any point its THC content exceeds 0.3% THC,” they said. “However, when Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, we understood that intermediate stages of hemp processing can cause hemp extracts to temporarily exceed 0.3% THC, which is why we defined hemp based on its delta-9 THC level.”
“In effect, the IFR criminalizes the intermediate steps of hemp processing, which is wholly inconsistent with Congress’s clearly stated purpose and the text of the 2018 Farm Bill,” the letter states.
In other words, while Congress intended to legalize hemp extracts, businesses that produce the materials could find themselves inadvertently breaking the law and be subject to enforcement action if THC levels temporarily increase beyond 0.3 percent.
A public comment period on DEA’s proposed rules closed on Tuesday. It saw more than 3,300 submissions, many of which focused on issues with the “work in progress” hemp THC issue.
Another issue identified by more than 1,000 commenters concerns delta-8 THC. The most widely known cannabinoid is delta-9 THC, the main component responsible for creating an intoxicating effect, but delta-8 THC from hemp is also psychoactive and is an object of growing interest within the market.
Because DEA’s proposed regulations state that all “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain schedule I controlled substances,” some feel that would directly impact the burgeoning cannabinoid, as its converted from CBD through the use of a catalyst—and that could be interpreted as a synthetic production process.
In any case, it’s not clear whether DEA deliberately crafted either of these rules with the intent of criminalizing certain hemp producers—but stakeholders and advocates aren’t taking any chances.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which also closed this month.
USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.
Read the letter from Wyden and Merkley on DEA’s hemp proposal below:
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
USDA Releases, Then Rescinds, Hemp Loan Notice Following Congressional Action
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released—and then promptly rescinded—a notice on providing federal loans for hemp processors.
After the crop was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA announced that regulations were being developed to offer direct and guaranteed loans to the industry. The federal agency unveiled those guidelines in April and then issued a new notice this month notifying applicants about the policy change ahead of the planned expiration of the earlier 2014 hemp pilot program.
The next day, however, it posted an “obsoleting notice” invalidating the prior document.
The new guidance “was developed with the understanding that operators would no longer be authorized to produce hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill Pilot Program,” USDA said. However, because Congress approved a continuing resolution that extends the program until September 30, 2021, the loan policies are not currently applicable.
That pilot program extension came at the behest of numerous stakeholders, advocates and lawmakers who have been pushing USDA to make a series of changes to its proposed hemp regulations. As those rules are being reviewed and finalized, they said it was necessary to keep the 2014 program in place.
The president signed the continuing resolution late last month, so it’s not clear why the notice on loan policy changes was released weeks later, which then necessitated a follow-up recision. But in any case, it’s another example of the fluidity and challenges of rulemaking for the non-intoxicating cannabis crop following its legalization.
It stands to reason that the loan processes outlined in the now-invalid notice will likely be consistent with what’s ultimately released next year, assuming the pilot program does expire then.
The primary rule change concerns licensing requirements for borrowers. After the 2014 regulations are no longer in effect, hemp loan applicants must be licensed under a USDA-approved state or tribal hemp program, or under the agency’s basic regulations if the jurisdiction the business operates in has not submitted its own rules.
Borrowers who are not licensed to grow hemp will be considered in non-monetary default and any losses will not be covered. For direct and guaranteed loans, hemp businesses must have a contract with USDA’s Farm Service Agency laying out termination policies and their ability to repay the loans.
As of this month, USDA has approved a total of 69 state and tribal hemp regulatory proposals—mostly recently for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Illinois and Oklahoma were among a group of states that USDA had asked to revise and resubmit their initial proposals in August.
While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.
USDA closed an extended public comment period on its proposed hemp regulations earlier this month. Its initial round saw more than 4,600 submissions, but it said last month that it was reopening the feedback period in response to intense pushback from stakeholders on its original proposal.
The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) said last month that the new 30-day comment window is too short and asked USDA to push it back, and it also issued a series of recommended changes to the interim final rule on hemp, which it says threaten to “stifle” the industry and benefit big firms over smaller companies.
All told, it appears that USDA is taking seriously the feedback it’s received and may be willing to make certain accommodations on these particular policies. The department’s rule for hemp is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.
In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote to Perdue in August, asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 pilot program in the meantime.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) also called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.
The senators weren’t alone in requesting an extension of the 2014 pilot program that was ultimately enacted legislatively, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA in August.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.
While USDA previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, that decision was reversed last month. While the department initially said it would not even reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.
Meanwhile, USDA announced last week that it is planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the industry.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
New York Will Legalize Marijuana ‘Soon’ To Aid Economic Recovery From COVID, Governor Cuomo Says
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently said that legalizing marijuana represents a key way the state can recover economically from the coronavirus pandemic.
During a virtual event last week to promote his new book on the state’s COVID-19 response, the governor was asked when New York will legalize cannabis for adult use.
“Soon, because now we need the money,” he said, according to a recording that was obtained by USA Today Network. “I’ve tried to get it done the last couple years.”
“There are a lot of reasons to get it done, but one of the benefits is it also brings in revenue, and all states—but especially this state—we need revenue and we’re going to be searching the cupboards for revenue,” he said in remarks that will be released in full in a podcast in the coming weeks by Sixth & I, which hosted the event. “And I think that is going to put marijuana over the top.”
Cuomo has included legalization in his last two budget proposals, but negotiations between his office and the legislature fell through both times, with sticking points such as how cannabis tax revenue will be allocated preventing a deal from being reached.
A top adviser of his said earlier this month that the plan is to try again to legalize cannabis in New York in early 2021.
“We’re working on this. We’re going to reintroduce this in our budget in January,” he said. “We think we can get it done by April 1.”
Cuomo was similarly asked about legalization as a means to offset the budget deficit caused by the pandemic in May.
While he said it’s the federal government’s “obligation as part of managing this national pandemic that they provide financial relief to state and local governments,” he added that “I support legalization of marijuana passage. I’ve worked very hard to pass it.”
“I believe we will, but we didn’t get it done this last session because it’s a complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way,” he said.
Cuomo indicated in April that he thought the legislative session was “effectively over” for the year and raised doubts that lawmakers could pass cannabis reform vote remotely via video conferencing amid social distancing measures.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) made similar comments when asked about the policy in April, though she seemed to signal that she laid partial blame for the failure to enact reform on the governor prioritizing other issues during the pandemic.
In June, a senator said the legislature should include cannabis legalization in a criminal justice reform package, making the case that the policy change is a necessary step especially amid debates over policing reform. That didn’t come to pass, however.
The New York State Association of Counties said in a report released last month that legalizing marijuana for adult use “will provide the state and counties with resources for public health education and technical assistance” to combat the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the state Senate has approved several modest marijuana reform bills in recent months.
The chamber passed a bill in July that broadens the pool of people eligible to have their low-level marijuana convictions automatically expunged. That was preceded by a Senate vote in favor of legislation to prevent tenants from being evicted solely because of their legal use of medical marijuana.
Thanks to a bill expanding cannabis decriminalization in the state that the governor signed last year, the New York State Unified Court System made an announcement last month outlining steps that people can take to clear their records for prior marijuana convictions.
Locally, a local law enacted in New York City this summer bans pre-employment drug testing for marijuana for most positions. It was finalized in July following regulators’ approval of certain exemptions.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.