Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced on Monday that she’s forming an exploratory committee ahead of a likely 2020 presidential run, making her the first major potential contender to take formal legal steps toward launching a bid for the Democratic nomination in what’s expected to be a crowded primary.
Every person in America should be able to work hard, play by the same set of rules, & take care of themselves & the people they love. That’s what I’m fighting for, & that’s why I’m launching an exploratory committee for president. I need you with me: https://t.co/BNl2I1m8OX pic.twitter.com/uXXtp94EvY
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) December 31, 2018
While Warren is widely known as an advocate for consumer protections and Wall Street regulation, she’s also developed a reputation as a champion for modernizing marijuana laws. As such she has an A grade from NORML. That wasn’t always the case, as the senator was previously somewhat dismissive of cannabis reform attitudes, and declined to endorse her home state of Massachusetts’s legalization ballot measure ahead of Election Day 2016—but her position quickly evolved as public opinion on the issue shifted demonstrably in favor of reform, particularly among Democratic primary voters.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Warren is the lead sponsor of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which she filed in partnership with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in June. The legislation would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from federal interference and is also aimed at addresses banking access issues for the cannabis industry.
The senator has co-sponsored at least six other major pieces of cannabis reform legislation. That includes two wide-ranging bills from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): the CARERS Act, which was designed to protect medical marijuana patients from federal enforcement efforts and stimulate research into the plant, and the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove marijuana from the CSA and direct federal courts to expunge the criminal records of those previously convicted of a cannabis-related offense. The latter bill also goes beyond the regular “states’ rights” mantra long expressed by reformers on Capitol Hill by actually withholding funding from states that maintain discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws.
Warren also signed onto a marijuana descheduling bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and another that would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans. Additionally, she co-sponsored two bills aimed at providing banking access to marijuana businesses: the SAFE Banking Act in 2017 and the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act in 2015.
Warren has not had the opportunity to vote on any marijuana bills or amendments during her time in the Senate.
In March 2017, Warren signed a letter expressing concern about remarks from then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who hinted at a federal crackdown on legal cannabis states. The letter encouraged the Justice Department to allow states to operate legal cannabis systems without fear of federal intervention.
In November 2017, the senator wrote a letter to Trump’s then-nominee to head up the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar. In the letter, she said the administration should consider legalizing cannabis as a means to combat the opioid epidemic, citing research indicating the legal states experience lower rates of opioid overdoses compared to non-legal states.
And in January 2018, she sent a letter with a bipartisan coalition co-signers imploring Trump to direct former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reinstate the Cole memo, an Obama-era document providing guidance on federal marijuana enforcement. Doing so would “create a pathway to more comprehensive marijuana policy that respects state interests and prerogatives,” the lawmakers wrote.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
The federal government needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana. States should make their own decisions about enforcing marijuana laws.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) April 20, 2018
“Outdated federal marijuana laws have perpetuated our broken criminal justice system, created barriers to research, and hindered economic development,” Warren said in a press release when filing the STATES Act. “States like Massachusetts have put a lot of work into implementing common sense marijuana regulations – and they have the right to enforce their own marijuana policies. The federal government needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana.”
No one should go to jail for a joint. But more Americans are arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined. And black Americans are nearly 4x more likely to be arrested for it than whites. My new bill will help put an end to this two-tiered justice system.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) June 7, 2018
“Forcing legitimate marijuana businesses to operate a cash-only business is dangerous,” she said in a press release about cannabis banking legislation. “It creates unnecessary public safety issues for communities and business owners. The SAFE Banking Act is a common sense bill that would advance state efforts to regulate the sale of marijuana and support businesses working to establish reliable business operations.”
“Another option to tackle the opioid crisis is to invest in more research on alternative pain therapies, including physical therapy and new drugs that don’t have abuse potential,” Warren said during a 2016 hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “Medical marijuana might also be a viable alternative, but the truth is we just don’t know,” she said, noting the barriers to research that exist due to federal prohibition.
Medical marijuana might be a viable alternative to opioids for pain treatment, but truthfully, there's a lot we just don't know.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 25, 2016
I'll keep pushing our federal agencies to reschedule marijuana as part of crafting a rational research & public health strategy.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) August 11, 2016
When @realdonaldtrump ran for president he said marijuana policies should be left up to states. He should stick to his word and let states implement their own regulations – upending them only creates confusion, and puts our public health & safety at risk. https://t.co/pFNvbWzdr2
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 25, 2018
Yesterday, marijuana became available for legal purchase in Massachusetts. There’s been so much progress at the state level. Now it’s time to end the federal ban on marijuana. I have a bipartisan plan to do that: https://t.co/fckXEKrTNp
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) November 21, 2018
“The best studies suggest that African Americans and whites use marijuana at the same rates, but African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested for [it] than whites,” she said during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire. How about we legalize marijuana and get rid of all those cases?”
In another campaign stop Warren said she “voted in favor of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts” and that she believes “we should legalize it nationally.”
Warren’s 2018 Senate reelection website included a marijuana petition as a list-building tactic.
“Our current marijuana policies are unjust and they don’t make sense. That’s why I’m fighting for reform,” it says. “Add your name to join the fight.”
Her current presidential campaign website highlights her work on marijuana in a few places.
One page meant to push back against the idea that she is “too partisan to get things done” touts her “bipartisan bill to end the federal ban on marijuana – allowing states, territories, and tribes to set their own policies on legalization, decriminalization, and medical marijuana.”
“There’s a lot more to do to reform our marijuana laws, but letting states make their own choices would be a powerfully important start – and it’s something Democrats and Republicans agree on,” the site says.
Another page addressing issues related to her heritage and criticisms of how she has framed it cites Warren’s legislation as a way to “ensure that our country’s cannabis policies don’t leave Indian Country behind.”
“For many Native tribes, cannabis represents an important opportunity for economic development, and for some it has cultural or medicinal importance,” the site says. “Elizabeth introduced the STATES Act with Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner to safeguard the ability of states, territories, and tribes to decide how to enforce their own marijuana policies. The STATES Act – and especially its important tribal provisions – has received strong support from Indian Country.”
Another page says that “it’s not equal justice when a kid with an ounce of pot can get thrown in jail while a bank executive who launders money for a drug cartel can get a bonus.”
“We need criminal justice reform and we need it now,” the site says. “That means ending racial disparities in our justice system. It means banning private prisons. It means embracing community policing and demilitarizing our local police forces. It means comprehensive sentencing reform and rewriting our laws to decriminalize marijuana.”
The senator hasn’t always been receptive to broad reform:
Warren tried to use the pro-legalization stance of former Massachusetts Rep. Dan Winslow (R) against him as he sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2013. She said, “I advise everyone to pay very close attention to Dan Winslow’s platform. He has a 100 percent ranking from the gun lobby and he’s for the legalization of marijuana. He wants us armed and stoned.”
She also angered some cannabis reform advocates by staying on the sidelines of Massachusetts’s 2016 legalization ballot campaign, coming only so close as to say she “would be open to the possibility of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts” prior to Election Day.
But that didn’t stop her from later falsely stating that she actually endorsed the measure.
“Yes, I did,” she said earlier this year. “Oh, I did.”
While the senator later clarified that she voted in favor of the measure in the privacy of the voting booth, that explanation fell far short of what Bay State advocates were hoping to see from their progressive senator.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Warren said in an interview last year that she has never smoked marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Warren Presidency
Warren’s evolution on cannabis issues over the past two years has transformed her into one of Congress’s leading advocates for ending federal prohibition, a stance she would be expected to take with her into the Oval Office if she’s elected.
Marijuana Banking Bill Would Save Federal Money, Congressional Budget Office Says
The federal government would save money if a bipartisan bill to give marijuana businesses access to banks is approved, according to a report released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on Friday.
The legislation, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in a bipartisan vote of 45 to 15 in March, would change federal law to protect financial institutions that service the cannabis industry from being penalized by regulators. That reform would set off a chain of events, beginning with a likely increase in the number of banks accepting deposits from those businesses, CBO reasoned.
Assuming the bill takes effect near the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the office estimates that starting in 2022, banks would see a $1.2 billion increase in deposits, and credit union deposits would grow by $200 million. By 2029, the amounts “would rise to $2.1 billion and $350 million, respectively.”
Because those deposits would have to be insured through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), the CBO took into account the possibility that individual financial institutions will fail, and the estimated cost of resolving those failures is $5 million.
That said, those direct spending costs would be “offset by assessments levied on insured financial institutions,” which would amount to about $9 million.
“As a result, CBO estimates, H.R. 1595 would decrease net direct spending by $4 million over the 2019-2029 period,” the office reported.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the bill’s chief sponsor, told Marijuana Moment that its enactment would have benefits beyond fiscal savings.
“Getting cash off our streets and making our communities safer will come at no cost to the federal government and actually save money while providing a much-needed long-term banking solution for legitimate marijuana businesses across the country,” he said.
“This CBO score should only increase the significant momentum in Congress behind passing the SAFE Banking Act,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment. “It is now apparent that we can help diminish a serious threat to public safety at no net cost to the federal government. We look forward to the bill passing through the House and hope the Senate will follow suit.”
There are some implementation costs to take into account, CBO says. The administrative costs are estimated to be $3 million. But the FDIC and NCUA are able to charge premiums on the financial institutions they regulate to cover much of those costs. The total net administrative costs would, therefore, be about $1 million.
The Federal Reserve would also have to spend funds to implement the bill, and that would reduce remittances to the Treasury Department. Those remittances are considered revenue, which is expected to decrease by about $1 million if the legislation is implemented.
Then there are costs related to other provisions of the bill. Financial regulators would have to update and issue new guidance, which would “cost less than $500,000 over the 2019-2024 period.”
The legislation also requires the Government Accountability Office to study barriers to entry in the marijuana industry and to financial services for minority- and women-owned cannabis businesses. The costs are estimated to be less than $500,000 annually from 2020 to 2024.
The CBO also estimated that enacting the legislation “would not increase on-budget deficits by more than $5 billion in any of the four consecutive 10-year periods beginning in 2030.”
The CBO outlined “several noteworthy areas of uncertainty” that could change the calculus.
1. New guidance from federal financial regulators could be more or less stringent than existing guidance implemented under the Obama administration, which could impact the amount of deposits banks and credit unions will receive.
2. Data on cannabis-related deposits is currently “limited,” as federal restrictions have forced marijuana businesses to operate on a largely cash basis. That means CBO’s estimates on the amount of deposits financial institutions will see could end up being “greater or smaller.”
3. If those estimates do end up being different, costs associated with the bank and credit union insurance funds “could be higher or lower depending on the amount of premium collections and capital deposits and on changes in the resolution costs for financial institutions.”
Sahar Ayinehsazian, an associate attorney at Vicente Sederberg LLP who specializes in cannabis banking, told Marijuana Moment that most of the figures lined up with her expectations. However, given that many marijuana businesses have gravitated toward credit unions rather than banks, she said the estimate increase in deposits to those financial institutions may well end up being larger.
“Looking at the chances of this legislation passing from an economic standpoint, I think [the CBO score is] good news,” she said.
Other advocates agreed that the CBO estimate should help efforts to advance the bill.
“For years, cannabis advocates have been preaching the net benefits SAFE Banking would have on consumers, patients, financial institutions, regulators and taxpayers. This CBO cost estimate confirms that,” Michael Correia, director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “The increase of insured deposits, coming from the added certainty this legislation brings, far outweighs the minor administrative costs to implement this bill.”
The House marijuana banking bill currently has 184 cosponsors, and a companion Senate version has 30 lawmakers signed on. The committee of jurisdiction in the upper chamber has not yet set a hearing or a vote, but pressure is increasing.
Banking associations from all 50 states urged the Senate to take up the legislation earlier this week. Other organizations that have called for a resolution to the cannabis banking dilemma include the National Association of Attorneys General, which has endorsed the bill, and the National Association of State Treasurers, representing state treasurers and finance officials, which adopted a resolution last week in favor of the legislation’s passage.
Want 4 million more reasons why members of Congress should support the #SAFEBankingAct, which would allow cannabis businesses to access the banking system in the 33 states where it’s legal? @USCBO says the legislation will save taxpayers $4M over 10 years.
— American Bankers Association (@ABABankers) May 24, 2019
The new analysis is just the third time that the CBO, which is mandated to score bills that pass full committees, has issued a report on the economic impact of standalone cannabis legislation. The agency scored two marijuana research bills that cleared committees last year.
This story was updated to include comment from Perlmutter and Correia.
Federal Small Business Administration Pressed On Supporting Marijuana Industry
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) pressed a federal official responsible for advocating for small businesses on Wednesday about whether existing laws and regulations are preventing the growth of state-legal marijuana markets.
The line of questioning comes as members of Congress are preparing legislation aimed at removing barriers to small business assistance for cannabis industry participants.
The senator said at a hearing of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee that her state’s legal industry is attracting small businesses and entrepreneurs who are selling millions of dollars of product each month. She asked Major Clark, acting chief counsel of the office of advocacy at the Small Business Administration (SBA), about the unique barriers these companies face under federal prohibition.
“Senator, that’s a difficult question,” Clark replied. “We have not actually studied the issue of marijuana in that regard, and we have not because the federal government has not yet legalized it.”
“We do, in conversations with a lot of businesses, get inquires as to what they can do and how they can do it. But to actually do an analysis of it, we have not yet done that,” he said. “I’m sure that as soon as the federal government decides to legalize this substance, we will begin to study its impact and the ability to use it in a more economical context within the state.”
Watch the conversation about small business assistance for cannabis operators at 35:50 in the video below:
Rosen followed up to get Clark’s opinion about whether marijuana companies would benefit from some of the guidelines and resources the SBA offers to small businesses in other industries.
“These types of businesses can benefit from some of these types of things, but again, because this issue is an issue that has not reached the surface of being legalized, we have actually stayed away from trying to advise these businesses on these particular aspects,” he said.
Nevada’s cannabis industry cannot thrive without access to financial services. At yesterday’s @SmallBizCmte hearing, I asked what steps @SBAgov is taking to break down regulatory barriers for our nation’s legal marijuana businesses to ensure they can continue to grow. pic.twitter.com/lyfXGwpoRf
— Senator Jacky Rosen (@SenJackyRosen) May 24, 2019
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), chair of the committee, weighed in on the issue after the Rosen’s time expired, saying that he recognizes the difficulty that federal agencies face when it comes to regulating a controlled substance.
“It is a unique challenge dealing with a Schedule I drug on the federal side and to also know that some states, including my own, have said that they want to allow it,” Lankford said, referring to the medical cannabis law that Oklahoma voters approved in 2018. “And the federal government and the [Food and Drug Administration] continues to study it and say there’s no medicinal gain from this product.”
“It’s a Schedule I drug. I get it,” he said. “The science, and whether it is SBA or whoever it is continues to be able to deal with that.”
While lawmakers push to get marijuana businesses access to federally authorized financial services, industry advocates say that SBA-specific reform legislation may be on the horizon.
The day after Rosen questioned the SBA official about cannabis policy, Khurshid Khoja, a board member for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said at a press conference on Capitol Hill that a bill was being drafted to “essentially get SBA services for cannabis businesses and for cannabis businesses from disproportionately impacted communities.”
Watch the SBA reform discussion at about 32:15 in the video below:
“The House Small Business Committee is looking into the issue and is interested in holding a hearing and drafting legislation this summer that addresses these issues,” a cannabis policy lobbyist who didn’t wish to be named in order to discuss plans that are in development, told Marijuana Moment separately.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
GOP Congressman Exposes Flaws In VA Marijuana Research Projects
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) emphasized the importance conducting clinical trials on medical marijuana at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on Tuesday, a topic on which he has often focused.
He also criticized the catch-22 of VA cannabis research, arguing that while the department is able to conduct clinical trials on marijuana, it doesn’t effectively publicize those studies, leaving veterans who might be interested in participating in the dark.
The congressman started by asking whether Mike Colston, director of mental health policy and oversight at the Department of Defense, felt that giving veterans access to medical cannabis could reduce suicides.
Colston said “there’s far more research to be done” and that there’s “insufficient evidence for or against that position.”
Gaetz cited research showing reductions in opioid use in states that have loosened cannabis laws, and he questioned whether “the current offramp for opioid addiction,” which typically involves prescribing long-term opioids that are less potent and less prone to abuse, “is a more effective offramp than medical cannabis.”
“I just think those are the three evidence-based therapies right now that meet the medical bar,” Colston said, referring to bupenehprine, methadone and naltrexone. “Obviously more research can change that.”
That prompted Gaetz to expand on VA policy as it pertains to medical cannabis. He asked for confirmation that the department’s doctors cannot currently recommend marijuana to veterans in states where it’s legal.
They can’t do that because “there’s a federal law against it right now,” Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevention at the VA, claimed. (This has been a point of contention for legalization advocates, who argue that only the VA’s own internal administrative policies, and not an overarching federal law, blocks such recommendations.)
But VA officials can conduct clinical trials on marijuana, Franklin said.
“We have two ongoing research studies going on right now in this space,” she said. “I think we are open to research, yes.”
The congressman wanted to know if the VA publishes information about these studies and where to find it. The VA official wasn’t sure—and that was exactly Gaetz’s point.
“I don’t think anyone is clear, which is the source of my frustration because I think that there are a lot of these clinical trials that are seeking veterans,” he said. “The VA, due to a lack of clarity, won’t publicize that information or make it available, and then we’re unable to do the research that Captain Colston says is necessary to advance additional options for veterans trying to get off opioids and to stop them from killing themselves.”
Lawmakers have introduced legislation this session that would allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations and require the department to conduct clinical trials on the plant’s potential therapeutic benefits for veterans, among other cannabis and veterans-related bills.
But if the VA is mandated to research the plant, Gaetz wants the department to better publicize the studies so that would-be participants actually know about them.
Photo courtesy of YouTube.