With a new majority in the House of Representatives, congressional Democrats are feeling emboldened to pursue far-reaching changes to federal marijuana laws.
But in doing so, they are largely setting aside the one legislative avenue that has previously been successfully used to achieve cannabis reform—at least so far.
As a result of House rules that generally allow more open amendment procedures on annual spending bills—a process known as appropriations—marijuana reform supporters have often pushed to attach cannabis proposals to such legislation while standalone proposals on the issue have been stalled without hearings or votes. Since 2014, for example, Congress has enacted riders blocking the Justice Department from interfering with state medical cannabis laws.
But now that Democrats—who generally back marijuana legalization more strongly than most of their Republican colleagues do—control one of the two congressional chambers, they so far seem to be setting aside the appropriations path and are instead focusing on taking up individual cannabis reform bills in various authorizing committees.
Despite a request last week from a bipartisan group of lawmakers to include language protecting universities that study cannabis from federal penalties, Democratic leaders did not include the provision in a Fiscal Year 2020 education spending bill released this week.
Similarly, long-sought language that would allow doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to recommend cannabis to military veterans is absent from appropriations legislation to fund the VA that was approved by a subcommittee on Wednesday.
But is ignoring appropriations—the only avenue through which lawmakers have changed federal cannabis policy to date—prudent? There are some mixed feelings among reform advocates.
On the one hand, passing standalone marijuana legislation would represent a permanent fix that wouldn’t need to be renewed year after year. Cannabis-related riders in appropriations legislation expire annually, creating consistent uncertainty for the industry, consumers and other stakeholders.
And as Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Tuesday, the Democratic majority this Congress is positioned to move bold marijuana reforms through authorizing committees and then onto the floor for votes.
The House Financial Services Committee, for example, has already approved a bipartisan cannabis banking bill that would protect financial institutions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Historically, advocates have pursued appropriations amendments on the topic—though both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees rejected those efforts last year.
Blumenauer also repeatedly tried getting VA medical cannabis language passed through appropriations, but while its language has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the past, it ultimately failed to make it into law. An earlier version approved by the House was also nixed from final legislation.
However, a standalone proposal on the topic was one of three veterans-focused marijuana bills taken up on Tuesday by the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health.
Blumenauer pointed to the hearing as evidence that pursuing progress through authorizing committees is where the focus should be now.
Attaching riders to spending bills is “a strategy for being in the minority,” the congressman said. “I think the Democratic majority, we can do better, and we always knew that even if we were able to be successful and hold it [in appropriations legislation], it’s only temporary.”
The congressman said that his personal approach has evolved and he will focus on following a process he laid out in a “blueprint” to end federal marijuana prohibition last year. That means putting pressure on individual committees to hold hearings and votes on relevant cannabis bills, advancing them to the floor and incrementally affecting permanent change as part of a build up to eventually passing legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition.
But Blumenauer said he has no problem if “people pick up the banner and want to run parallel efforts” through appropriations.
After all, that process delivered the rider protecting medical marijuana states each year since 2014, and advocates could use the 2020 version of Commerce-Justice-Science spending legislation that the measure is attached to for the purposes of pursuing broader protections for state laws allowing recreational marijuana use and sales. That bill, and several others that have in the past been targets for cannabis amendments, have yet to be drafted and will be released in the coming weeks.
The medical cannabis language itself is seen as nearly certain to be included going forward, because appropriations riders, once approved, have a tendency to be continued into future years.
On that note, in the education funding bill released this week, Democrats included a section that dates back to 1996 that prohibits universities from using federal dollars to promote “the legalization of any drug or other substance” in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
Legalization advocates say they want the Democratic majority to simultaneously pursue achievable appropriations wins while at the same time seeking broader, permanent reforms.
“While the appropriations process is not the preferred method of governing, the fact that increased protections for state-legal cannabis consumers and patients were not included in the bills released so far is concerning,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Especially when it comes to protecting veterans, who are increasingly turning to medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids to mitigate their chronic pain, PTSD and other combat-related conditions.”
Michael Collins, director of national affairs a at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “disappointing that Dems didn’t take the opportunity to advance these issues in the base bill.”
“I hope Committee members will take steps to rectify these issues as the bills move through the legislative process,” he said.
Don Murphy of the Marijuana Policy Project suggested that “there may be a beneficial reason” to have the appropriations bills free of cannabis language from the outset, referring to the fact that it could lead to proactive votes to insert the provisions in committee or on the House floor. Doing so would publicly demonstrate momentum for reform.
“You can do it in the back room or in the light of day,” he said. “A win is a win.”
Of course, no matter what strategy Democrats ultimately employ, any House-passed marijuana legislation will still have to win the support of the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans. The prospect of passing cannabis legislation in that chamber is less certain, though advocates are hopeful that at least some amount of reform could survive the conference committee process through which the chambers’ differing versions of bills are merged into final proposals to send to the president.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.
The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.
Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.
There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.
The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.
The JSC on the Cannabis Control Bill will report to the @TTParliament by February 29, 2020. Trinidad & Tobago's government only required a simple, however, the bill received the support of the country's opposition in its amended form, the context here: https://t.co/o6ibF39KRS
— Clydeen Seeorne McDonald 🇹🇹 (@ClydeenMcDonald) December 12, 2019
Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.
“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”
“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”
The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”
“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”
“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”
The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.
New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot
New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.
The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.
"If we are successful in placing this question on the ballot next year, the voters will make the final decision," says @JoeDanielsen17 on today's public hearing on legislation that would allow voters to decide to amend the State constitution to legalize adult-use cannabis pic.twitter.com/1Mlt8gcrzg
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.
The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.
“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.
In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.
“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.
Assembly Panel Hosts Public Hearing on @AnnetteQuijano, @jamelholley, @AswTimberlake and @AswMcKnight Measure Amend State Constitution to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis: https://t.co/IfEf98LO43 pic.twitter.com/h6gfT9CDwQ
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.
Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) December 12, 2019
In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.
As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications
A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.
It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.
It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.
But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”
“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”
The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”
“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”
The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.
The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.
“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”
“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.
Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.
One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.
DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.
Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.