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.
Santa Cruz Will Consider Decriminalizing Psychedelics This Week
Santa Cruz, California could be the latest in a wave of cities to decriminalize psychedelics, with a City Council hearing on the proposal scheduled for Tuesday.
The city vice mayor, Justin Cummings, recently introduced the resolution, which would make possession, use and cultivation of entheogenic substances such as psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.
“Plants and fungi with psychedelic properties have been used for thousands of years by indigenous communities for spiritual and medical practices and many are considered illegal in our country,” Cummings told Marijuana Moment in an email. “As we begin to better understand the health benefits of these plants and fungi, we need to not treat the people who use and research these plants and fungi as criminals, and lower barriers for research, clinical treatment, and personal.”
“Santa Cruz has a number of organizations that conduct research on use of psychedelics to improve mental health and we as a community want to support these efforts,” he added.
The full City Council will hear a presentation from the advocacy group Decriminalize Santa Cruz and discuss the resolution on Tuesday. After that point, the measure will be referred to the Public Safety Commission for further consideration.
Text of the resolution emphasizes the medical potential of psychedelics and the ritualistic consumption of the substances throughout history.
If approved, that would mean the City Council “supports the possession, use, and/or cultivation of entheogenic psychoactive plants and fungi for personal adult use and clinical research and psychoactive practices, and declares that the investigation and arrest of individuals involved with the adult possession, use, or cultivation of entheogenic psychoactive plants and fungi listed on the federal schedule one list for personal use be among the lowest priorities for the city of Santa Cruz.”
The measure recommends that the use of psychedelics for medical or spiritual purposes “be done in consultation with, and under the supervision of trained/medical professionals.”
Additionally, it calls on the city manager to order Santa Cruz’s state and federal lobbyists to “work in support of decriminalizing all entheogenic psychoactive plants, and plant and fungi-based compounds listed in the Federal Controlled Substances Act.”
Psychedelics reform is moving ahead in jurisdictions throughout the U.S., with Denver becoming the first city to decriminalize so-called magic mushrooms in May. Oakland’s City Council followed suit, unanimously approving a resolution that expanding the decriminalization to a wide range of entheogenic substances.
Advocates are also working to advance decriminalization in Portland, Chicago, Berkeley and Dallas.
Meanwhile, California activists are pushing two separate statewide psychedelics initiatives: one that would decriminalize psilocybin across the board and another more recently filed measure that calls for broad legalization and commercial sales. Oregon activists are collecting signatures for a 2020 proposal that would legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes.
On the federal level, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voiced support for decriminalizing psychedelics and promoting research into the substances in a video statement delivered at a Drug Policy Alliance conference last week.
Read text of the Santa Cruz psychedelic resolution below:
Sanders, Warren And Buttigieg Include Medical Marijuana In Veterans Day Plans
To commemorate Veterans Day, a number of presidential candidates are releasing plans focused on helping those who served the country in the military—and at least three major contenders are including marijuana-specific planks in their proposals.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for example, wants to ensure that doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) “have the option of appropriately prescribing medical marijuana to their patients.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Barbara Lee Honors Veterans Day With Call To Action On Marijuana Reform
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) marked Veterans Day by promoting a bill she introduced that would effectively legalize medical marijuana for military veterans.
In a press release and email blast for the national advocacy group NORML, the congresswoman discussed the need to expand access to cannabis for those who’ve served, stating that studies demonstrate the plant can treat symptoms of conditions that commonly afflict veterans such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Lee said that as the daughter of a veteran, the issue is particularly important for her.
“Congress must do more to ensure every veteran has a roof over their head, to ensure our veterans come home to a job that pays them a living wage, and to ensure our veterans have access to the health care services they deserve,” she said in the press release. “That includes improving veterans’ access to medical marijuana.”
“That’s why I introduced H.R. 1151, the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, to empower veterans and their doctors to make informed decisions about the use of medical marijuana without political interference,” she said. “The current federal prohibition on cannabis is harmful and counterproductive. Politicians should never stand between our veterans and their health care.”
The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act was introduced in February, and the House version currently has three cosponsors, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). The Senate companion version was filed by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and has two cosponsors, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who signed on last week.
In her email for NORML on Monday, Lee said that cannabis prohibition has disproportionately impacted communities of color, but the policy also “falls hard upon is our nation’s veterans.”
The congresswoman noted that medical cannabis is widely used by veterans, yet doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) aren’t allowed to fill out recommendations, even in states where it’s legal. That would change under her legislation, she said.
Politicians should never stand between our veterans and their health care. That's why I introduced the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act to empower veterans and their doctors to make informed decisions about the use of medical marijuana without political interference.
— Barbara Lee (@BLeeForCongress) November 11, 2019
“This year, we can and must succeed in passing this essential legislation and protecting the rights of veterans to access medical treatment and serving those who served us,” she wrote, linking to a page where people can send a letter in support of her bill to their own representatives.
“Prohibiting VA doctors from recommending cannabis to qualifying patients, while continuing to rely on pharmaceuticals drugs like opioids as a treatment, is both a dangerous and illogical policy,” she said. “We know medical marijuana can be an effective and safe treatment for veterans and it is time to stop making them seek private, out-of-network physicians to access it.”
“I sponsored the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act because I know it will create an immediate positive impact on the lives of our veterans. Once enacted, veterans will be able to access medical marijuana treatment without the added challenge of accessing a private, non-VA physician. Together, we can gather enough support to pass this legislation, but it will only happen if enough Americans stand up and demand it. Please tell your member of Congress to support the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act.”
VA under the Trump administration has resisted marijuana reform legislation, with officials from the department testifying in a committee hearing in April that it opposed several proposals, including one that would require VA to conduct research into the medical benefits of cannabis for veterans.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin, whose department also declined to take action on veterans cannabis issues, recently said that he’s in favor of increasing research into the plant’s therapeutic potential and blamed staff for misinforming him about what VA was capable of doing to that end while he was in office.
Lee, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, also discussed cannabis reform in a video statement that was broadcast at a Drug Policy Alliance conference in St. Louis on Saturday. She didn’t address veterans issues specifically but rather spoke about broader reform efforts to federally legalize marijuana.
“We all know that the federal prohibition on marijuana has led to the overcriminalization and mass incarceration, especially in black and brown communities,” she told activists in the taped message. “That is why we need to ensure that as the cannabis movement marches forward, it does so hand-in-hand with efforts to address these racial inequities head on.”
“I think we’re at a pivotal moment for the cannabis movement. There is so much excitement for the progress we’ve made and for where we are pushing to go,” the congresswoman said. “If we do this right—by ensuring that we address the legacy of the failed war on drugs and center our work in restorative justice—there is no stopping us.
“I wish you success for your conference and the work ahead,” she said. “Stay woke.”
Photo courtesy of Rep. Barbara Lee.