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Why Congressional Democrats Are Foregoing A Process Once Seen As Key To Marijuana Reform

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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.

Trump Administration Opposes Bills On Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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