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Senate Marijuana Hearing Highlights How Schedule I Status Blocks Research

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A major focus of a U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control hearing on the health impacts of marijuana turned out to be how cannabis’s current federal classification makes it harder for researchers to shed light on those effects.

The Wednesday event—titled “Marijuana and America’s Health: Questions and Issues for Policy Makers”—featured testimony from Surgeon General Jerome Adams and National Institute On Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow.

Panel co-chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has long opposed broad marijuana reform but acknowledged in her opening remarks that the substance is “much more complex than I thought” and revealed that she has personally witnessed the medical benefits of cannabis for people dealing with chemotherapy.

“I know that for a fact from family issues,” she said.

And while she expressed serious concerns during the hearing about marijuana’s potentially harmful effects, particularly on young people, she also said that the drug’s current restrictive status under the Controlled Substances Act impedes scientific studies.

“Much of what we know about marijuana is anecdotal,” she said, which is “problematic for us in terms of making policy.”

“That’s due in part to the fact that marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug makes it difficult to research,” the senator added, pointing to legislation she has filed that would lift some barriers to investigations. “It’s my belief that science should inform our policy.”

Co-chair Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) suggested that he’s open to working with across-the-aisle colleague on the legislation, but also voiced concerns about legalization.

“We lack definitive evidence on the short- and long-term health implications of marijuana use,” he said. “There seems to be a lot of folk myths and other idiosyncratic ideas that really haven’t gone through the sort of peer review that most scientific evidence has to go through in order to be accepted by policymakers.”

Watch the Senate marijuana hearing below:

Volkow laid out a number of concerns about marijuana’s impact but also testified that its Schedule I status impedes and slows down research.

“DEA registration can take, if you’re lucky, one year to obtain,” she said. “That delays the process enormously.”

She also criticized the fact that there is currently only one legal source in the U.S. for scientists to obtain cannabis to use in studies. “The process is very slow” to get marijuana from the facility, which is at the University of Mississippi.

Another problem she pointed out is that researchers cannot legally study the cannabis products that consumers in a growing number of states are actually purchasing from licensed retailers.

“We are interested in understanding what people are taking out there,” she said. “We cannot fund research that relates to products that are actually being bought through these dispensaries because it’s illegal.”

Adams, who in August issued a warning the public about marijuana use by adolescents and pregnant women, said during his testimony that legalization is a “poorly-informed national public health experiment” but agreed that “we need to make it easier to do research.”

Cornyn compared claims about cannabis’s medical benefits to decades-old ads about tobacco, saying that there are “some parallels perhaps here in the way we are wading into this debate.”

Adams agreed. “We’ve seen this play before,” he said. “Many of the indications people are using marijuana for are unproven. We are overstating the benefits and in my view we are downplaying the risks.”

In a Senate floor speech on Tuesday in which he previewed the hearing, the senator made similar remarks.

“There’s no shortage of people who claim that marijuana has endless health benefits and can help patients struggling from everything from epilepsy to anxiety to cancer treatments,” he said. “This reminds me of some of the advertising we saw from the tobacco industry years ago where they actually claimed public health benefits from smoking tobacco, which we know as a matter of fact were false and that tobacco contains nicotine, an addictive drug, and is implicated with cancers of different kinds.”

In August, Cornyn said that he wanted to hold a hearing focused on cannabis’s health effects before the Senate moves to consider a proposal to allow state-legal businesses to access banking services. A bill to do so passed the House of Representatives last month and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) says he’d like to advance similar legislation by the end of the year, though he has indicated he wants some changes to the version approved by the other chamber.

Feinstein cosponsored a bill to let states set their own cannabis laws without federal interference during the course of her reelection campaign last year, but has not yet signed onto a new version filed in the current Congress.

A second panel at the hearing featured Robert Fitzgerald of the University of California at San Diego, Staci Gruber of Harvard Medical School, Sean Hennessy of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Madeline Meier of Arizona State University.

Cornyn—who at one point revealed he has a friend who feeds his dogs CBD-infused food—said that the caucus may issue a white paper based on what was discussed at the hearing.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) made a brief appearance and mentioned the need to improve military veterans’ access to medical cannabis.

“In too many cases they’re becoming addicted to medications prescribed to them,” she said. “They have given so much to their country.”

Federal Court Dismisses Suit Against DEA Over Marijuana Growing Applications

This story was updated to include quotes from the hearing.

Photo elements courtesy of rawpixel and Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

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AOC Blasts Biden’s ‘Reagan-Era’ Marijuana Talking Points

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Former Vice President Joe Biden’s suggestion that cannabis could be a gateway drug was “risky” and a “Reagan-era talking point,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said in an interview with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.

While the congresswoman said she acknowledged that “there are folks, when it comes to the marijuana issue, that have a wide range of opinions within the Democratic party,” she also feels that “we have moved on as a country” on the need to end cannabis prohibition.

“These are Reagan-era talking points that were behind one of the worst and most shameful phases of American policy, which is mass incarceration,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referencing the former Republican president’s anti-drug crusade that largely relied on fear-mongering and campaigns such as “Just Say No.”

“That rhetoric is rhetoric of mass incarceration. The only thing that marijuana, due to the failures of U.S. policy, is a gateway to is our mass incarceration system.”

“That needs to end, marijuana needs to be legalized, drugs need to be decriminalized for consumption,” she said. “These are very simple issues of public health.”

The congresswoman first voiced support for decriminalizing all drugs in a tweet on Sunday; she previously called for decriminalizing the consumption of psychedelics alone in a video taped for activists at a drug policy reform conference earlier this month.

Biden, who played a central role in enacting punitive drug laws during his time in the Senate, has been sharply rebuked by reform advocates after he said on Saturday that “there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not [cannabis] is a gateway drug” and that he wanted to see more debate on the issue “before I legalize it nationally.”

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), both presidential candidates, also seemed to criticize Biden, implicitly contrasting his comments with their respective plans to end federal marijuana prohibition. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang told CNN that he thinks “Joe actually will end up evolving on this issue over time if he sees the same evidence that I have.”

Ocasio-Cortez, in the new interview with Marijuana Moment, said she feels as if “any person who has had, like me, family, friends, neighbors that have been stopped, frisked, incarcerated and trapped in this system would know how risky of a statement that is,” referring to Biden’s “gateway drug” comments.

She also weighed in on the debate over what kind of marijuana reform legislation should be pursued in Congress, as the House Judiciary Committee prepares to mark up legislation from Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) that would federally deschedule cannabis and address social equity issues.

While some have voiced concerns that pursuing a wide-ranging legalization bill—as opposed to something more narrowly tailored and states’ rights-focused—will slow down the reform process given the current makeup of the Senate, the congresswoman said that with “matters of justice, it’s not about slowing it down, it’s about doing it right.”

“The problem is that if we don’t pass a bill with the social elements inside it then we compound on the racial wealth gap, we compound on the same folks who got rich off of private prisons are going to turn around, invest those profits into legal marijuana and we’re going to have the same economic discrimination that we had,” she said.

“If we just pass the financial piece, it’s just going to be another Wall Street market that’s going to exploit people so we can’t go down that road,” she added, referencing a House-passed bill that would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.

Marijuana Legalization Will Get A Floor Vote This Congress, Key Chairman Predicts

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Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed For 2020 After Democrats Reclaim Legislature

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A Virginia lawmaker prefiled a bill on Monday for the 2020 session that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana—a piece of reform legislation that stands a much better chance of passing after voters elected Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature earlier this month.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) introduced the proposal, which would make possession of up to one ounce of cannabis punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty. Currently, simple possession carries up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.

Decriminalization was among the campaign promises made by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who also called for the policy change in his State of the State address in January, but reform efforts have stalled to date in the Republican-controlled legislature.

The governor said earlier this month that decriminalization is a 2020priority for his administration, a goal that now appears much more achievable since Democrats have reclaimed control of both the House of Delegates and Senate.

“The new majority creates a real pathway for the passage of decriminalization in the 2020 General Assembly,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “SB2 is a common sense approach to a policy supported by three out of four Virginians.”

Here’s how the bill would amend the state’s law on cannabis possession:  

“Any person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be confined in jail not more than 30 days and fined not subject to a civil penalty of no more than $500, either or both; any person, upon a second or subsequent conviction of a violation of this section, is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor $50. Any civil penalties collected pursuant to this section shall be deposited into the Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund.”

Additionally, the legislation would make it so that only individuals who’ve committed criminal violations, or juveniles who’ve committed civil violations, would be subject to penalties such as a suspended sentence, substance abuse screening or driver’s license suspension.

“The bill also allows a person to petition for expungement of convictions and deferred disposition dismissals for marijuana possession when all court costs and fines and orders of restitution have been paid,” a summary states.

While it’s yet to be seen whether the new legislature will pursue broader reform such as adult-use legalization or an expansion of the state’s limited medical cannabis program, recent polling indicates that Virginians are ready to move ahead. Sixty-one percent of Virginia residents favor recreational legalization, according to a survey released in September.

New Jersey Voters Will Decide On Marijuana Legalization Next Year, Senate Leaders Say

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Marijuana Legalization Will Get A Floor Vote This Congress, Key Chairman Predicts

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The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said on Tuesday that he’s optimistic about the prospects for getting his comprehensive marijuana legalization bill out of committee and onto the floor by the end of this Congress.

During a press conference with lawmakers and advocates, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) also told Marijuana Moment that part of the reason he expects floor time is because he’s actively communicating with other committee chairs, requesting that they waive jurisdiction of the reform legislation to expedite its progress.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, introduced by Nadler, would federally deschedule cannabis and provide for expungements and reinvestments in communities most impacted by the war on drugs. The panel confirmed that members will mark up the legislation on Wednesday at 10:00 AM ET.

The chairman—as well as Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and the executive directors of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP)—spoke at the event.

Watch lawmakers discuss the federal marijuana legalization vote below: 

While the MORE Act has been referred to seven additional committees, Nadler told Marijuana Moment that his panel is “carrying on conversations” about getting other panels to waive jurisdiction.

“I don’t anticipate that to be a big problem,” he said. “We are looking forward to moving this to the floor at an appropriate time when we’ve done some more educational work and have the votes.”

“For too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past,” Lee, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said, adding that this bill is “rooted in equality, justice and fairness.”

Blumenauer said that the country has “seen more progress is the last 40 months than we’ve seen in the last 40 years” when it comes to marijuana policy.

“We shouldn’t settle any longer for incremental change,” he said. “We must commit to the restorative justice that’s in this.”

“This is the Congress that can end the failed prohibition of cannabis.”

Nadler said that he expects the bill to clear his panel with bipartisan support, predicting that more Republican members will sign onto the legislation as it advances.

To that end, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is so far the lone GOP cosponsor of the MORE Act, told Marijuana Moment that he’s “pleased to see historic steps being taken in the Judiciary Committee on the issue of cannabis.”

“The MORE Act is not perfect, but it advances the discussion on cannabis reform and allows the Congress to take much-needed action on this important issue,” the congressman, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said. “I look forward to participating in the discussion this week.”

Nadler left open the possibility that lawmakers could make compromises on the legislation later down the road, but he added that he doesn’t believe it will have to come to that, and that it would be a mistake to scale down the legislation at this early stage of the process.

“This will remove a stain on people’s record but really a stain on the United States of America,” Cohen said. He also joked that when Blumenauer described the bill as the “best piece of cannabis legislation” he’s seen, another way of putting it is that the MORE Act is the “Acapulco Gold of marijuana legislation,” referencing a variety of cannabis popular in the 1960s.

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of DPA, said that “marijuana prohibition has, for millions of black and brown people in the U.S., been the gateway to arrests, incarceration, loss of livelihoods and lives.”

“Those are concrete, real harms, that affect real people every day,” she said. “Continuing the status quo of prohibition is not just inaction: it means turning your back on those harms, and condemning hundreds of thousands every year to continuing that misery and oppression.”

“What is most important here [is] this will free up law enforcement resources to a great level,” Neill Franklin of LEAP said. “I hope that others realize what this will do for public safety coast-to-coast in this country.”

Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) tweeted support for the MORE Act during the press conference and said that “[a]s more states fully legalize cannabis, it’s time for Congress to decriminalize it.”

There’s been significant pressure from reform advocates to advance the legislation, especially since the full House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would protect banks servicing marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

Several reform groups, including the ACLU, wrote a letter to House leadership ahead of that vote asking for a delay, arguing that Congress must pass comprehensive legalization that addresses social equity concerns before moving ahead with legislation viewed as largely favorable to the industry.

Meanwhile, some feel that the House would be better off voting on a more limited, states’ rights-focused reform bill such as the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would simply carve out an exception in federal law allowing states to implement cannabis programs, because they believe it stands a better chance at passing in the GOP-controlled Senate.

While observers generally expect the MORE Act to pass out of committee as well as the House, there are still questions about what kind of amendments members might offer and how that will impact the vote.

In any case, Wednesday’s vote will be one of the most highly anticipated congressional developments in the cannabis reform movement, with members not just debating the end of federal prohibition—which happened in a House subcommittee in July—but actually voting on a bill that would accomplish that, and more.

Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C. This post was updated to include remarks from the press conference.

Key Congressional Committee Officially Schedules Vote On Marijuana Legalization Bill

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