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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.”

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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.)

Culture

Postal Service Unveils ‘Drug Free USA Forever’ Stamp Commemorating 1980s Anti-Drug Program

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The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is rolling out a new stamp design that pays tribute to 1980s-era drug prevention programs and promotes a “drug-free USA.”

The stamps, which will go on sale starting in October 2020, were announced at the conclusion of this year’s Red Ribbon Week last month, an annual occurrence first launched under the Reagan administration.

“This Drug Free USA Forever stamp will help further raise awareness about the dangers of drug abuse, and the toll it is taking on families and communities around our country,” Robert Duncan, chairman of the USPS Board of Governors, said in a press release. “The Postal Service is glad to do its part in marking Red Ribbon Week, and renewing our commitment to helping these efforts to educate youth about the dangers of illegal drugs.”

Via USPS.

USPS explained that Red Ribbon Week originated after a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent was tortured and killed in Mexico while investigating drug traffickers in 1985.

“I am very pleased that the U.S. Postal Service will issue a stamp affirming our commitment to a drug-free America,” DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said. “This stamp will help raise awareness of the fight against drug addiction and honor those who have dedicated their lives to that cause.”

A description of the design states that the stamp “features a white star with lines of red, light blue and blue radiating from one side of each of the star’s five points, suggesting the unity necessary at all levels to effectively address drug abuse.”

USPS isn’t applying anti-drug messaging to the cannabis component CBD anymore, however. In September, the agency clarified that hemp-derived CBD products can be mailed under certain circumstances since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.

For those with mailing needs who aren’t interested in supporting the notion of a “Drug Free USA,” USPS does have another stamp that recognizes the 50-year anniversary of the drug-fueled 1969 counterculture music festival Woodstock.

Via USPS.

The stamp “features an image of a dove along with the words ‘3 DAYS OF PEACE AND MUSIC,’ evoking the original promotional poster for the festival,” USPS says.

Another option is a John Lennon Forever stamp, celebrating the iconic Beatles member and marijuana enthusiast who famously got “high with a little help” from his friends.

Via USPS.

“Still beloved around the world, Lennon’s music remains an anchor of pop radio and continues to speak for truth and peace,” USPS wrote.

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Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

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New Congressional Resolution Calls For Marijuana Legalization And Drug Expungements

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Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) released a congressional resolution on Thursday that calls for a fundamental reshaping of the criminal justice system, in part by legalizing marijuana and expunging all drug-related convictions.

The congresswoman’s “People’s Justice Guarantee” resolution outlines “a bold, new vision for justice in the American criminal legal system” that’s designed to “transform the U.S. criminal legal system to one that meets America’s foundational yet unfilled promise of justice for all.”

The ultimate goal of the measure is to reduce mass incarceration in the country through a series of reform steps that includes ending for-profit prisons, decriminalizing certain non-violent offenses, imposing caps on criminal sentences, abolishing the death penalty, expanding access to mental health services in prisons and reinvesting in communities that have been most impacted by “tough of crime” criminal policies.

Some have characterized the resolution as the “Green New Deal” of criminal justice reform, comparable in scope and ambition to the climate change plan championed by fellow “Squad” member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Drug policy reform isn’t the main feature of the resolution, but it does call for “decriminalizing addiction, homelessness, poverty, HIV status, and disabilities, including mental health diagnosis, by legalizing marijuana and overdose prevention sites, declining to criminally prosecute low-level offenses such as loitering and theft of necessity goods, and expunging the records of individuals for all drug-related offenses.”

Interestingly, an earlier draft of the measure reportedly contained language specifying that law enforcement should “use civil citations instead of arrests for drug possession,” according to a paraphrase by a reporter with The Appeal who reviewed the document but later updated her story to reflect the version that was actually filed. A call for an 80 percent reduction in the prison population was also removed from the text.

It’s not clear if the provision on “decriminalizing addiction” in the final resolution would involve all drug possession offenses, or why Pressley apparently decided to scale back the scope of the measure from the draft her staff circulated to reporters. Marijuana Moment reached out to the congresswoman’s office for clarification but a representative was not immediately available.

The ACLU, Color of Change and National Immigrant Law Center are among several civil rights groups that have endorsed the resolution, which was created in concert with advocates from the National Immigration Law Center, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Immigrant Defense Project, UndocuBlack Network and others.

“You cannot have a government for and by the people if it is not represented by all of the people,” Pressley said in a press release. “For far too long, those closest to the pain have not been closest to the power, resulting in a racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed criminal legal system.”

“The People’s Justice Guarantee is the product of a symbiotic partnership with over 20 grassroots organizations and people impacted by the discriminatory policies of our legal system,” she said. “Our resolution calls for a bold transformation of the status quo—devoted to dismantling injustices so that the system is smaller, safer, less punitive, and more humane.”

While the freshman congresswoman declined to endorse a 2016 marijuana legalization measure that was ultimately approved by Massachusetts voters, she’s since positioned herself as a champion for reform, including by voting against an amendment barring people with drug convictions from working in child care services with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

She also voted in favor of amendments to protect all state marijuana programs from federal intervention and another introduced by Ocasio-Cortez to remove a budget rider that she argued inhibited research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

In addition, Pressley has cosponsored bills concerning marijuana descheduling, research on the benefits of medical cannabis for military veterans and banking access by state-legal businesses.

Read the full text of Pressley’s justice reform resolution below: 

Pressley_The People’s J… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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Support For Marijuana Legalization Increased Again In 2019, Pew Poll Finds

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Support for legalizing marijuana grew again this year, with just over two-thirds of Americans in favor of the policy, according to a Pew Research Center poll that was released on Thursday.

The survey, which involved phone interviews with about 9,900 adults from September 3-15, found that 67 percent of respondents think cannabis should be legal. That’s five percentage points higher than Pew’s last poll on the issue in 2018, and it closely reflects the percent support for legalization that Gallup reported (66 percent) in a survey released last month.

According to the results of a new question Pew asked for the first time that gave respondents multiple policy options to choose from, 91 percent of Americans said that marijuana should be legal for either medical or recreational purposes: Fifty nine percent said both forms should be legal and 32 percent said it should only be legal for medical use.

Just 8 percent want cannabis to remain illegal across the board.

That’s a notable finding, as some prohibitionists have argued that polls showing growing support for broad legalization are misleading because people would be less inclined to voice support for outright legalization if given more options. In fact, a sizable majority remains in favor of full legalization, according to Pew.

The poll also affirms that marijuana reform is an increasingly bipartisan issue, with a majority of Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP (55 percent) saying cannabis should be legal, compared to 78 percent of Democrats and those who lean toward the party.

Last year, the survey showed that only 45 percent of Republicans favored legalization, versus 69 percent of Democrats. Unlike the prior Pew poll, however, this latest version combines responses from party members and individuals who said they lean toward one party or the other. The previous survey distinguished those two groups and reported support separately.

“The percentage of the public who favors adult-use marijuana legalization has skyrocketed over the past three decades and shows no signs of abating,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said. “As more and more states have moved forward with their own marijuana liberalization policies in recent years, public support has only grown stronger. At a time when the political divide is larger than ever, the issue of marijuana legalization is one of the few policy issues upon which most Americans agree.”

There is majority support in the new survey for ending cannabis prohibition among both men and women, and across racial demographics.

Expect the upward trend in support to continue. The only age group where there isn’t majority support for legalizing marijuana is the Silent Generation (35 percent). Boomers and Generation X support the policy, 63 percent and 65 percent, respectively. But an overwhelming majority of Millennials (76 percent) back legalization.

The partisan gap for that generation is significantly narrower than the overall divide, with 71 percent of Millennial Republicans and 78 percent of Millennial Democrats saying cannabis should be legal.

 

“Two-thirds of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legal, reflecting a steady increase over the past decade,” Pew said. “The share of U.S. adults who oppose legalization has fallen from 52 percent in 2010 to 32 percent today.”

“The growth in public support for legal marijuana has come as a growing number of jurisdictions have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes,” the report states.

As Pew noted, numerous Democratic presidential candidates are in favor of cannabis legalization—with the notable exception of former Vice President Joe Biden—and the survey results suggest it’s a valuable policy position to have both in primaries and general elections.

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This story was updated to include comment from NORML.

Photo courtesy of 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.
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