A top-ranking Democratic senator called into question the therapeutic value of marijuana on Tuesday while also making a broader point about how the federal drug classification system inhibits medical research.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) made the comments during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the opioid epidemic and federal moves to restrict powerful fentanyl analogues.
Before getting into his views on the potential consequences of permanently placing those opioids in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Durbin, the Senate Democratic whip, took a hit at medical cannabis.
“My state just decided in the last few days to make marijuana legal in my state for recreational purposes, starting January 1,” he said, referencing the passage of a cannabis legalization bill through the Illinois legislature last week. “We’ve had medical marijuana. I’ve been to one of those clinics. It was almost a laughing matter.”
“The medical claims they make about marijuana go way beyond anything that’s been proven,” he said. “There are no clinical trials going on.”
Watch Durbin’s medical cannabis comments around 1:00:00 into the video below:
Durbin’s views on medical cannabis and marijuana reform in general are at odds with those expressed by many of his Democratic colleagues—not to mention a majority of voters. He said earlier this year that he opposed criminalizing cannabis use, but he cautioned against the other “extreme” of legalizing the plant.
Legalization advocates took issue with Durbin’s characterization of medical cannabis.
“Senator Durbin’s comments surrounding the efficacy and therapeutic benefits of cannabis are ignorant at best and cruel at worst,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “There are over 30,000 peer-reviewed studies hosted on pubmed.gov on the effects of cannabis, including many showing declines in cases of opioid abuse and overdose fatalities.”
“If Mr. Durbin is serious about addressing the opioid crisis, then he ought not to disparage the role or lives saved that legal marijuana can play,” Stekal said.
Michael Liszewski, principal of The Enact Group, a lobbying and consulting firm that focuses on cannabis, told Marijuana Moment he agrees that the “Schedule I status has prevented more robust medical cannabis research,” but that “it’s disappointing that Senator Durbin is characterizing it as a ‘laughing matter.'”
“To imply that patients need to look sick enough in order to obtain relief from medical cannabis ignores at least two points: First, many ailments that are treated by medical cannabis are not readily visible to observers, such as Crohn’s, lupus, and PTSD (all of which are qualifying conditions in Illinois). And second, it ignores the very real possibility that these individuals look healthy because their medical cannabis therapy is providing them with benefit.”
David Mangone, director of government affairs and counsel at Americans for Safe Access, also criticized the lawmaker’s remarks.
“Senator Durbin’s comments about the medical cannabis program in Illinois are an insult to the thousands of people in his state’s program who use cannabis as a life-saving medicine,” he told Marijuana moment.
“Ignoring the fact that there are nearly 400 [National Institutes of Health] supervised clinical trials on cannabis either underway or recruiting participants, and comparing cannabis to fentanyl analogues, is disingenuous, ill-informed, and dangerous for public policy,” Mangone said.
While the senator was dismissive of medical cannabis at the hearing, arguing that we “are not establishing whether marijuana is in fact medically appropriate in so many circumstances where they claim they are,” he also said that the Schedule I status of cannabis is the reason, in his view, that evidence about its therapeutic benefits of cannabis is insufficient.
“Why don’t they [research cannabis]? Because we’ve moved marijuana to Schedule I—the same place we’re about to move all fentanyl analogues,” he said.
“Under a blanket Schedule I framework, which is being asked for today, we could imperil research into more powerful naloxone—a stronger and better treatment to save lives of those who have used fentanyl analogues,” he added. “Is that what we want to do? I don’t think so.”
Liszewski said there “simply was no need for the senator to slander medical cannabis therapy while making his valid point about how Schedule I status harms medical research.”
Durbin later questioned the Drug Enforcement Administration’s opioid production quota, stating that there’s no need to manufacture such a high volume of prescription painkillers. In one of his closing remarks, he made a play on a Reagan-era anti-drug message.
It’s time to say no,” he said. “Just say no—to pharma when they want that kind of production.”
Though the senator made his thoughts on the scheduling system clear, he’s so far declined to sign on to legislation that would amend the issue, by rescheduling or descheduling cannabis. In fact, Durbin has only cosponsored two marijuana-focused bills over the course of his 36 years in Congress to date.
One would have required the DEA to conduct clinical trials on cannabidiol (CBD) and later determine whether the compound should be a controlled substance. The other would have allowed defendants in federal court cases to introduce evidence showing that any marijuana activity was in compliance with a state medical cannabis law.
Notably, during his time in the House, Durbin cosponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which included provisions that expanded the criminalization of drugs as well as a section tied to the problem he complained about at Tuesday’s hearing. That provision amended the CSA “to provide that controlled substance analogues shall be treated as a schedule I substance.”
“I appreciate Senator Durbin’s comments about limiting federal research,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “I’d feel even better about it if he channeled that energy and interest by putting his name on legislation to fix the problem”
Photo courtesy of Senate Judiciary Committee.
Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances One Step In South Dakota
South Dakota’s attorney general filed an official explanation of a proposed ballot measure to legalize marijuana on Friday.
While separate organizations are working to get a medical cannabis-focused initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot, activists behind this measure are hoping to incorporate recreational legalization, medical marijuana reform and hemp into one package.
Adult-use legalization would be accomplished through a constitutional amendment under the initiative, which would separately require the legislature to pass legislation creating rules for medical cannabis and hemp.
South Dakota Attorney General releases explanation on proposed constitutional amendment to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana; to require passage of laws regarding hemp as well as laws regarding marijuana for medical use. Read it here: https://t.co/k33buSKjIJ pic.twitter.com/pEG0RxbDj9
— SD Attorney General (@SDAttorneyGen) August 16, 2019
“The constitutional amendment legalizes the possession, use, transport, and distribution of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia by people age 21 and older. Individuals may possess or distribute one ounce or less of marijuana,” Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg (R) wrote. “Marijuana plants and marijuana produced from those plants may also be possessed under certain conditions.”
The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be responsible for issuing licenses for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Individual jurisdictions would be able to opt out of allowing such facilities in their areas.
“The Department must enact rules to implement and enforce this amendment,” the explanation states. “The amendment requires the Legislature to pass laws regarding medical use of marijuana. The amendment does not legalize hemp; it requires the Legislature to pass laws regulating the cultivation, processing, and sale of hemp.”
The initiative calls for a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana sales. That revenue would be used to fund the Department of Revenue’s implementation and regulation of the legal cannabis system, with remaining tax dollars going toward public education and the state general fund.
Ravnsborg said that judicial clarification of the amendment “may be necessary” and notes that marijuana “remains illegal under Federal law.”
The attorney general issued a similar explanation of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical cannabis earlier this month.
This latest move comes one day after advocacy organization New Approach South Dakota announced that their medical marijuana initiative was certified, enabling them to begin the signature gathering process.
Several other cannabis initiatives are in the process of being certified in the state, according to the attorney general’s website. In order to place constitutional amendments on the ballot, activists must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters.
South Dakota is one of the last remaining states in the U.S. that has not legalized marijuana for any purposes.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Elizabeth Warren’s Plan For Indian Tribes Includes Marijuana Legalization
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unveiled a plan on Friday that’s aimed at holding the federal government accountable for following through on its obligations to Native American tribes, and that includes ensuring that tribal marijuana programs are protected against federal intervention.
The plan emphasized Warren’s support for a bill she filed earlier this year that “would protect cannabis laws and policies that tribal nations adopted for themselves.”
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, who has faced criticism over claims of Native American heritage, pointed to federal reports showing that tribal programs generally have not received adequate funding and said it is imperative that legislation be enacted to “provide resources for housing, education, health care, self-determination, and public safety” for those communities.
To that end, Warren is planning to introduce a bill called the “Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act” alongside Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Before filing, however, the lawmakers are soliciting input on how best to draft the legislation, and are accepting written testimony until September 30.
While the proposed legislation itself doesn’t currently include marijuana-specific provisions, a press release and blog post on the topic address the senator’s sponsorship of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would allow tribal communities and states to set their own cannabis policies without Justice Department interference.
In order to provide economic opportunities to Native people, that “requires streamlining and removing unnecessary administrative barriers that impede economic growth on Tribal lands, respecting tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses, and promoting forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new and emerging economic opportunities.”
“For example, while not every tribe is interested in the economic opportunities associated with changing laws around marijuana, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important opportunity for economic development,” Warren’s campaign blog post states.
“I support full marijuana legalization, and have also introduced and worked on a bipartisan basis to advance the STATES Act, a proposal that would at a minimum safeguard the ability of states, territories, and Tribal Nations, to make their own marijuana policies,” she wrote.
.@RepDebHaaland & I invite feedback about this proposal & look forward to working closely with tribal nations & citizens, experts, & other stakeholders to advance legislation in Congress that honors the United States’ promises to Native peoples. https://t.co/qc1fkBGb3I
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) August 16, 2019
A separate press release on Warren’s Senate website also touts her support for the STATES Act, saying she “worked hard to ensure” that it included tribal protections.
“It’s beyond time to make good on America’s responsibilities to Native peoples, and that is why I’m working with Congresswoman Haaland to draft legislation that will ensure the federal government lives up to its obligations and will empower tribal governments to address the needs of their citizens,” Warren said of the overall tribal plan. “We look forward to working closely with tribal nations to advance legislation that honors the United States’ promises to Native peoples.”
In an email blast to her campaign list, Warren included “a set of additional ideas to uphold the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations with Tribal Nations and to empower Native communities,” which includes her marijuana proposal:
“New economic opportunities: We also need to respect tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses and promote forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new economic opportunities. For example, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important economic opportunity. I support full marijuana legalization and have advanced the STATES Act, a proposal that would safeguard the ability of Tribal Nations to make their own marijuana policies.”
There’s increased interest in ensuring that Native populations receive the same benefits and protections as states as it concerns cannabis legislation.
In June, the House passed a spending bill that included a rider stipulating that Native American marijuana programs couldn’t be infringed upon by the Justice Department. And a GOP representative filed a bill in March that would provide similar protections.
FBI Seeks Tips On Marijuana Industry Corruption
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is actively seeking tips on public corruption related to the marijuana industry, it announced on Thursday.
“States require licenses to grow and sell the drug—opening the possibility for public officials to become susceptible to bribes in exchange for those licenses,” FBI Public Affairs Specialist Mollie Halpern said on a short podcast the bureau released. “The corruption is more prevalent in western states where the licensing is decentralized—meaning the level of corruption can span from the highest to the lowest level of public officials.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)