Over her eight years in Congress, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) quickly established herself as a leading advocate for marijuana and hemp reform by introducing numerous pieces of cannabis legislation and actively working to build bipartisan support around the issue.
And while the congresswoman will be retiring after this session, she’s made clear she plans to keep pushing legislative reform until her last day on Capitol Hill—and beyond. Last month, for example, she filed an amendment to allow military service members to use hemp-derived CBD at a time when multiple branches are expanding their ban. The House approved the measure, and now it remains to be seen if it can survive bicameral negotiations with the Senate.
A military veteran herself, Gabbard says the non-intoxicating cannabinoid represents a promising alternative treatment for those on the front lines and argued, contrary to military leaders, that it can actually improve readiness. And while it remains to be seen whether her measure will make it to the president’s desk, she says moving leadership in that direction will be a priority in the weeks ahead.
Marijuana Moment caught up with the congresswoman, who made legalization a centerpiece of her 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, in a phone interview. She discussed her amendment, the evolving politics of cannabis reform, former presidential primary opponent Joe Biden’s opposition to marijuana legalization and more.
Marijuana Moment’s Patreon supporters can listen to the audio recording of our conversation with Gabbard. In addition to the topics covered in this publicly available writeup of the interview, the congresswoman also talks about whether she has plans to join the cannabis industry after leaving Congress and reacts to the Democratic National Committee’s refusal to endorse legalization.
The exclusive audio clip is available for supporters who help make our cannabis journalism possible with monthly pledges of $10 or more.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: I wanted to start by asking about your CBD amendment. What motivated that, and have you heard from service members about the need for this legislation?
Tulsi Gabbard: I have, and it really came about as a result of the changes that were included in the 2018 Farm Bill that really opened a lot of doors of opportunity for more research and more products to come into the market that can help people with day-to-day ailments that, as a service member, I’m very well aware are common occurrences.
Being able to have other options of alternative forms of treatment other than, ‘Hey, just take another Motrin or prescription drug X, Y or Z’ is something that can actually increase our service members’ health and wellbeing and, ultimately, their readiness to be able to do their job.
MM: It was interesting to see just days after the House approved the measure, the Navy announced it was expanding its CBD ban, prohibiting members from using even products like hemp-infused shampoos and conditioners. What do you make of that?
TG: It seemed really strange and, frankly, almost silly. I don’t know what instigated that change, and I’m not going to make any assumptions. But, you know, it just speaks, to me, a very backward way of viewing these products and the changes that are being made in both state and federal law as it relates to CBD and hemp products.
MM: Do you have any thoughts about the prospects of advancing the amendment through the House-Senate conference committee? Are you talking to leadership about that process?
TG: It’s something we’re working on currently. I think it’s too early to say, but conference can be a place where great things go to die unfortunately so we’re trying to do as much work as we can, both with senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee—those who anticipate being in the conference committee—as well as the leadership to make sure that this and a few other key amendments that we included in the House bill actually stay in the bill.
MM: Looking back at your time in Congress, what would you say about the way its evolved on this issue?
TG: It has been interesting over my eight years in Congress to see how this issue at the very beginning of my first term in office was something that, you know, you could tell the people who were for and against. It was mostly partisan, but also just based on people saying things like, “I don’t want my kids to smoke pot” and therefore voting against any legislation that had anything to do with whether it was decriminalization as a whole or taking it off the [Controlled Substances Act] or even saying, “Hey, for states where it’s legal, we should allow people to use our banking system.”
But it’s changed, I feel, too slowly, but it is changing over the years to where we’ve built support, as we saw even recently in some amendments to the appropriations bill to people who are saying, “Hey look, this is a states’ right issue.” Those who may have been opposed traditionally are recognizing that, in states where this is legal, we should be supporting the state’s decision in that. And frankly, others who, whether through personal experience or through actually doing research, are seeing that there just are so many fear-based myths that have perpetuated opposition, where there’s actually some incredible game-changing research being done both from a medical perspective as well as from an economic opportunity perspective, as we’ve seen in Kentucky obviously.
This is something that we should support more of the exploration of and the introduction into our everyday commerce and lives.
MM: Speaking of Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-CA) and other Republicans recently criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) over her defense of including cannabis banking language in your chamber’s latest COVID-19 relief bill. They argue it’s not germane. Do you feel its a relevant provision for this legislation?
TG: I think it’s relevant because, from the data I’ve seen, the numbers of people who’ve been going to their local dispensary has dramatically increased in the midst of this pandemic. By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get.
Marijuana Moment asked Gabbard about whether she has plans to work in the marijuana industry following her retirement from Congress early next year, as other lawmakers have done. She also reacted to the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of a cannabis legalization platform plank.
The congresswoman’s answers to those questions, and the full audio of our interview, are available exclusively for Marijuana Moment supporters pledging at least $10/month on Patreon.
MM: Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden remains opposed to legalizing marijuana. What message would you send to the former vice president about the importance of embracing the policy change?
TG: I would speak from personal experience—just the more information that I’ve learned, the more research that I have done, it shows how, number one, outdated our laws are as it relates to cannabis in particular and how much opportunity there is, again from a medical perspective as well as from an economic perspective, especially related to hemp, which is you know why I introduced the Hemp For Victory Act. There’s tremendous opportunity available. I would urge him to examine this information with the hopes that, with information, he would be willing to reconsider his position.
MM: A staffer to a committee chair told us recently that there are plans in the work to put House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) marijuana legalization bill on the floor for a vote in September. Have you heard anything about that?
TG: I have not, about the scheduling of it. I know that the chairman has been very committed to moving this forward and that we knew from the beginning that of any cannabis-related legislation, it would likely be something like this that would have the greatest chance of actually getting a vote on the House floor. So I’m hopeful.
MM: Are you optimistic about the prospect of legalization advancing in your state of Hawaii in the near future?
TG: I don’t know is the honest answer to that. This just shows that cannabis legislation is not limited to party lines because we’ve got a very strong Democratic legislature here in the state, obviously a Democratic governor, but there have been very strange responses, in my opinion, to some of the cannabis-related legislation. So it remains to be seen.
Just to add to that, one example that continues to perplex me is the data very clearly shown how, in states where there is some form of legal cannabis use in place, medicinal or otherwise, a direct correlation with the reduction of opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths. That’s an indisputable fact. However, even with bipartisan support, bicameral support, in the passage of legislation that would make opioid addiction eligible for medicinal marijuana use in our state, that bill was vetoed by our Democratic governor, claiming a lack of evidence and information and stating that, if proponents want to push this, they should go through the Department of Health bureaucracy to do so.
Things like that, frankly, scientifically it makes no sense. And in the way of people in a state like ours where just under, I think last time I checked, just under like 500,000 active opioid prescriptions in a state with a population of about 1.3 million people. There’s clearly an issue here, and by providing this, you give people an alternative form of treatment.
MM: Looking back at your eight years in Congress, what are you most proud of in terms of advancing cannabis reform?
TG: You know, I’ve introduced a number of pieces of legislation, amendments, provisions in larger bills throughout my time in Congress, and I appreciate having played a role in helping to build bipartisan support for some of the changes that we’ve actually seen take place.
It may sound like, “Well, that’s not much,” but when you work in a place where too many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are unwilling to have real dialogue and conversations with one another purely because of prejudging them based on their partisan affiliation, this is exactly the only way how we’ll actually make change around these and other important issues that impact all Americans, not just those of one party or another.
MM: Is there anything else you want to add?
What’s going to be interesting is whether the Pentagon, obviously, whether officially or unofficially weighs in on [the NDAA CBD and hemp amendment]. That is going to be an issue of contention with that. We’ll see.
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Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.