The U.S. House’s top Republican on criminal justice issues is calling on the new Democratic majority to pass legislation to let states legalize marijuana without federal interference.
“The legal status of cannabis in the United States is in disarray. It is incumbent on Congress to clarify these issues and reform our federal laws,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter to the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), on Wednesday.
“More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medicinal and/or recreational use of cannabis. Other states have opted to decriminalize cannabis possession, or to legalize the consumption of certain cannabis-derived extracts. Some states still prohibit cannabis use of any kind,” Collins wrote, along with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who co-signed the letter. “Given that the substance is still a Schedule I drug under federal law, this conflicting patchwork of state and federal laws has created a unique set of legal challenges.”
The Republican lawmakers are endorsing the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, a bill to shield state cannabis laws from federal intervention.
“We believe this Committee and this Congress must act to clarify the rights and responsibilities, relative to cannabis, of individuals, physicians, businesses, medical patients, and law enforcement officials,” they wrote. “We support the STATES Act, which was recently re-introduced in the 116th Congress, and we urge you to promptly hold a legislative hearing on legislative solutions that will resolve the confusion surrounding the legality of cannabis in the United States.”
The STATES Act was introduced in both the House and Senate on Thursday. If enacted, it would block the federal government from punishing people for actions that are in compliance with state laws “relating to the manufacture, production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration or delivery” of marijuana.
President Trump voiced support for a previous version of the cannabis bill filed last year by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), which garnered nine other Senate cosponsors by the end of 2018. A companion House version had 45 members signed on.
Advocates are increasingly hopeful that the new legislation, or similar far-reaching marijuana reforms, are achievable this year.
Already, the House Financial Services Committee moved last month to approve a bill to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banks with a bipartisan vote of 45 to 15.
And Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the chairman of the powerful Rules Committee predicted in an interview last week that the House will pass legislation like the STATES Act “within the next several weeks.”
The road to passage of the bill on the floor begins in the Judiciary Committee, hence the GOP lawmakers’ letter to Nadler.
Support from a top Republican like Collins adds to pressure on Democrats to prioritize moving marijuana reforms, which are supported by a growing majority of voters, according to polls. Meanwhile, all of the Democratic party’s major presidential candidates have endorsed legalization.
The support for the STATES Act marks a shift for Collins, who was the lead sponsor of criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by President Trump late last year but has opposed most marijuana reforms that have come before the House since he joined Congress in 2013.
In 2015, for example, he voted against a floor amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with state marijuana laws as well as narrower proposals covering only medical cannabis programs that year and in 2014.
And whereas the STATES Act would ease the issue of marijuana businesses’ access to banks, Collins also opposed a 2014 amendment to shield financial services providers from being punished for working with the cannabis industry.
Between 2014 and 2016, he voted three times to oppose amendments that would allow military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations from their Department of Veterans Affairs doctors. And while Collins opposed two hemp amendments in 2014, he did back two similar measures in 2015. He also supported a 2015 amendment to shield people from being punished by the Justice Department for activity in compliance with state laws allowing limited access to CBD medical cannabis preparations.
The endorsement of far-reaching cannabis legislation by Collins, who has never before proactively signed his name onto a marijuana reform bill as a cosponsor, marks perhaps one of the biggest and most important conversions on Capitol Hill yet for legalization supporters.
A staffer for Collins said in January that he would be “unlikely to support” a move by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who worked with the Georgia Republican on the successful criminal justice reform legislation called the First Step Act, to include language descheduling marijuana in a followup sentencing reform bill tentatively called the Next Step Act.
While the legislation Collins is endorsing wouldn’t technically remove marijuana from the schedules of the Controlled Substances Act, it would specifically exempt anyone following a state cannabis law from being punished under the law.
“The STATES Act is a bipartisan solution to the biggest issue facing the cannabis industry today, which is the conflict between federal and state law and all of the negative repercussions that come with it,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said. “Rep. Collins is highly respected on both sides of the aisle, a true constitutional conservative and comes from a state with no industry.”
“If he can get behind the STATES Act, that only reinforces what we’ve been saying: this is the only piece of legislation that ends the untenable conflict between federal and state law that has a chance to pass into law during this Congress,” Levine said.
For his part, Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said earlier this year that his committee might be taking up the issue of marijuana “fairly soon.” Although he did not cosponsor last Congress’s version of the STATES Act, he has signed onto other legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition in years past.
He also suggested in an interview last year that he might support legalizing drugs beyond marijuana. “Certainly the softer drugs like marijuana, there’s no good reason at all that they cannot be legalized and regulated properly,” he said, distinctly using the plural term “drugs.”
Gaetz, who coauthored the new letter with Collins, is one of a handful of congressional Republicans who have played an especially active role in pushing his party to evolve on cannabis issues. A bill he sponsored to increase research on medical cannabis was approved by the Judiciary Committee last year when the House was under GOP control.
State Treasurers Group Endorses Marijuana Banking Legislation
A group representing state treasurers and finance officials is formally calling on Congress to pass legislation allowing marijuana businesses to more readily store their profits in banks.
The National Association of State Treasurers adopted a resolution on Friday announcing that the organization “supports common sense federal laws and regulations to provide essential banking services to state legalized cannabis businesses, promote public safety and financial transparency, and facilitate local, state and federal tax and fee collection.”
The measure, which makes clear that the group “takes no position as to whether cannabis should be legalized under the laws of the United States or of any state,” highlights the public safety issues caused by current federal policy, which makes many financial services providers reluctant to work with the marijuana industry.
“Lacking banking services, many legal cannabis businesses operate solely in cash,” it says. “Cash-based systems are inefficient, expensive, and opaque, making illicit activity more difficult to track and posing a significant risk to public safety by increasing the likelihood of violent crime.”
The status quo also causes headaches for regulators, the group argues.
“Whereas, unbanked cannabis businesses are unable to write checks, make and receive electronic payments, utilize payroll providers, accept debit or credit cards, or pay taxes through a financial institution, tax collection is more difficult and burdensome for both businesses and governments, and the potential for tax fraud is substantially increased,” the resolution states.
The group’s endorsement, which was led by Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read and Utah Treasurer Damschen, follows a letter on the issue that 17 state treasurers signed earlier this month.
“This was an ongoing, thoughtful conversation the Association has been having for the last two years,” Read told Marijuana Moment. “The majority of states have legalized medical or recreational cannabis, and need to have safe banking options for these businesses. I hope that Congress will recognize that this public safety issue is bi-partisan and will create safer communities.”
The move by treasurers’ organization also comes after the National Association of Attorneys General, which represents the top law enforcement officials at the state level, issued a similar endorsement.
Legislation to protect banks from being punished by federal regulators for working with marijuana businesses is gaining momentum in Congress.
In March, the House Financial Services Committee approved a cannabis banking bill in a bipartisan vote of 45 to 15. The legislation, which is awaiting a vote on the House floor, now has 182 cosponsors. A companion Senate bill has 28 senators signed on.
In the meantime, the National Association of State Treasurers is urging the Trump administration to keep in place Obama-era guidance meant to provide some level of clarity and comfort to banks interested in working with the cannabis industry.
“NAST supports financial law enforcement authorities’ consistent interpretation of the FinCEN guidance and, barring changes to federal law, the continued application of the guidance to allow some financial institutions to offer banking services to the state legalized cannabis industry,” the resolution says.
Texas Senate Committee Approves House-Passed Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill
Even as the Senate stonewalls a handful of bills aimed at lessening criminal penalties for possession of marijuana, an upper chamber committee on Friday advanced legislation that aims to vastly expand who has access to medical cannabis in the state.
As filed, state Rep. Stephanie Klick’s House Bill 3703 would add multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and spasticity to the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for cannabis oil. The progress on her bill comes four years after Klick authored legislation that narrowly opened up the state to the sale of the medicine.
The bill requires approval by the full Senate chamber before it can return to the Texas House, where lawmakers have already approved two bills to drastically expand the Compassionate Use Program, which currently only allows the sale of cannabis oil to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements. But according to the Senate sponsor of the bill, the legislation is likely to pass the upper chamber — despite leadership once expressing aversion to relaxing the existing state program.
Several who testified before the Senate committee pleaded with the panel to advance the bill, sharing personal stories of how using cannabis oil has helped them treat a bevy of medical ailments. Lawmakers from both parties were receptive to the emotional testimony and, after more than an hour of discussion, voted unanimously to send the legislation to the full Senate.
When laying out the bill in front of the Senate committee Friday, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, introduced a reworked version of the measure which further expanded which Texans have access to the medicine. In addition to the conditions already outlined by Klick, those with other illnesses like seizure disorders, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, terminal cancer and autism would also be eligible to obtain the medicine. The version of the bill Campbell laid out also eliminated what she called an “onerous requirement” that those wanting access to the medicine get the approval of two licensed neurologists.
Under Campbell’s version of the bill, the Texas Department on Public Safety would still have oversight of the Compassionate Use Program. Her revised bill also keeps intact the 0.5% cap on the amount of the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC that medical cannabis products are legally allowed to contain.
“For many patients in the [Compassionate Use Program], participation in the program has been life altering,” Campbell said. “These people are our friends, our family, our neighbors. Members of our churches and in our communities have benefitted from this.”
Multiple Texans who either currently use the medicine, or felt they could benefit from access to it, spoke before the Senate committee.
“Before CBD, I had 200 seizures a day lasting 15 to 30 seconds,” said Brenham resident Julia Patterson. “It affected my grades and my social life. I couldn’t play sports. I couldn’t go to sleepovers. … After CBD oil, I’m now one year seizure free. I have my driver’s license and I’m finishing the school year with A’s.”
Still, there was a small show of opposition from a handful of parents and veterans who said they wished the legislation was more broad and included conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.
State Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat who filed a medical expansion bill this legislative session that never got hearing, raised questions about the potential shortfalls of Klick’s bill.
“What happens if the Legislature does not address PTSD in this bill? What do you think is going to be the impact?” Menéndez asked Keith Crook, a retired Air Force veteran who testified on the bill.
“I’m going to bury more of my friends because this medicine saved my life,” Crook responded. “And there are people who don’t have the ability to access it or will be refused access to it because of a law.
“I’m a criminal. I use everyday. But I’m just trying to stay alive and do the right thing.”
Nearing the end of the testimony, Campbell implied that it would take more than one legislative session before Texas further expanded the number of conditions who qualify for the medicine in order to prevent “unintended consequences.”
“Anybody who watches a football game is going to root for their team and be happy when they at least get a first down,” Campbell said. “We would like to be able to include so many more diagnoses. This is more certainly a more expanded list and we will keep working with this.”
The bill still faces several more hurdles before it can be signed into law. The bill will need approval from the full Senate and then the House will have to accept the Senate’s changes — or both chambers will need to reconcile their differences on the bill’s language in conference committee.
Its chances of passage look sunny in the upper chamber, however, though Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick previously said he was “wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.” During Friday’s hearing, Campbell said Patrick “helped craft” the reworked version of the legislation. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen also told Spectrum News this week he thinks the Senate will take concepts from both medical cannabis bills passed by the House earlier — one from Klick and the other from Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville — and “put them into one.”
Expanding the Compassionate Use Act has drawn the support of some politically powerful players since the last legislative session. In March, a new group lobbying for medical marijuana, Texans for Expanded Access to Medical Marijuana, emerged and has players with some serious clout in the Capitol — including Allen Blakemore, a top political consultant for Patrick.
The Republican Party of Texas also approved a plank last year asking the Legislature to “improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Presidential Candidate Jokes About Why Denver Decriminalized Psychedelic Mushrooms
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) joked on Thursday that Denver voters approved a measure to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms because they thought the state of Colorado was running low on marijuana.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate made the remark during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. The host asked Bennet if it was “true that magic mushrooms are going to be legal in Colorado.”
(The measure actually simply decriminalizes psilocybin mushrooms for adults, and only in the city of Denver.)
Bennet slapped his knee and quipped, “I think that our voters just voted to get Denver to do that, and I think they might’ve thought that we were out of marijuana all of a sudden.”
“And by the way, we’re not out of marijuana in Colorado,” he said.
“That’s what it says on the state flag now, right?” Meyers said.
“Yeah, exactly,” Bennet replied.
The senator, who previously served as the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, has cosponsored several wide-ranging cannabis bills in Congress, including legislation to federally deschedule marijuana and penalize states that enforce cannabis laws in a discriminatory way.
But before his state voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, Bennet stood opposed.
It’s not clear how he voted on Denver’s historic psilocybin initiative.
At least Bennet is aware of the measure and was willing to joke about it, though. Several of his colleagues who have worked on cannabis issues declined to weigh in on decriminalizing psychedelics when asked by Marijuana Moment recently.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Late Night with Seth Meyers.