Marijuana Reform Garnering Cautious Bipartisan Congressional Support

National cannabis policy is more about politics than science and has been for decades. That is as true today as when Richard Nixon pushed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to punish anti-war liberals and black civil rights workers. Many modern cannabis activists have focused their attention on the White House and Justice Department, either of whom could legalize cannabis with a single memo or executive order. Given the unpredictability of the President’s actions and priorities, there is no knowing whether that might ultimately be successful or a complete waste of effort.

Just two and one-half miles down Pennsylvania Avenue, legislators on Capitol Hill are filling the void of leadership at the White House with ideas of their own. Congressional members and their staff are intimately aware of President Trump’s seeming inability to make strategic political choices. His stagnation has opened the opportunity for new leadership to propose bold moves forward for cannabis, and many other policy areas that have too long been ignored. The following are just a few of the new policy initiatives currently under congressional consideration.

The following are just a few of the new policy initiatives currently under congressional consideration. If you have an opinion about these bills or federal cannabis policy, please call your representatives and let them know!

Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment:

Although Jeff Sessions, the sitting Attorney General, has expressed opposition to marijuana reform efforts, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to once again protect state medical marijuana laws. On Thursday, July 27, 2017, the Senate Appropriations Committee re-approved the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment (RFA). The RFA is a budget amendment that restricts the Department of Justice from using funds to prevent states from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana. The RFA not only supports the legitimization of medical marijuana but also preserves individual states’ rights for creating their own marijuana regulatory frameworks.

The Committee approved the RFA through a voice vote, which suggests that it was not controversial among the panel’s members. The committee’s Republican majority has historically taken a hard stance on drug policy, signaling a possible shift in Republican cannabis policy.

Everything considered, with the overwhelming number of states legalizing at least the medicinal use of cannabis, approval of the RFA not only helps maintain new avenues for patients in need but also helps lay a foundation for recreational use by allowing states to develop their own marijuana regulations.

Industrial Hemp Farming Act

Congressmen James Comer (R-KY), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and Jared Polis (D-CO), introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, a bipartisan bill that would exclude industrial hemp from the statutory definition of “marijuana” in the Controlled Substances Act.

This bill would treat hemp similar to other crops, such as sugarcane or wheat. Its sponsors hope to provide new opportunities for American farmers and manufacturers, particularly in rural areas, by incentivizing increased commercialization of hemp crops.

Moreover, Rep. Polis argues that the mass commercialization of hemp would provide a “[s]ustainable alternative to plastics and and other environmentally harmful product[s],” and could be “[u]sed in everything from construction materials to paper to lotions and even ice crea[m].”

Marijuana Justice Act

Senatoror Corey Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017 to reform marijuana policy and correct some of the historical injustices caused by the War on Drugs. First, the bill will remove marijuana from the US Controlled Substances Act, terminating federal cannabis criminalization. Second, states are incentivized to address racial disparities in state-level marijuana arrests. Third, the bill hopes to promote expungement of federal marijuana possession convictions. Fourth, the bill will enable federal prisoners incarcerated for marijuana related offenses to petition the court for resentencing. Finally, the bill creates a community reinvestment fund in order to mitigate the effects of the failed War on Drugs.

Although the probability of the Marijuana Justice Act passing is low, the Act is one of the most progressive marijuana legalization proposals a federal legislator has ever introduced. As such, it reflects the changing perception in the federal arena regarding cannabis policy.

The bill currently lacks any co-sponsors and is unlikely to gain significant support from Republican leadership. Without bipartisan support, it is unlikely to advance to a full vote of the Senate, but its submission by such a high-profile politician may signal that the Democratic leadership may be willing to pass a similar law if they win back control of Congress in the 2018 or 2020 elections.

House Oversight Committee Calls for Research into Rescheduling Marijuana

Last week, the House Oversight Committee, led by Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), met with and aggressively questioned the acting White House Drug Policy Office Director, Richard Baum.
During that meeting, Rep. Gowdy, a member of the Tea Party movement, pushed Mr. Baum to conduct the necessary research into whether Marijuana should be a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substance Act. Rep. Gowdy specifically did not advocate for marijuana legalization, he urged an investigation into the appropriateness of marijuana’s current Schedule 1 status, which limits research that can be conducted on marijuana’s potential medical benefits. Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA)  joined Rep. Gowdy during the meeting and stated, “[t]here was no empirical evidence to justify putting marijuana 50 years ago as a schedule 1 dru[g].”

 

In summary, although recent efforts for marijuana reform may not all lead to immediate regulatory changes, the recent bipartisan efforts in Congress show a general change in attitude towards marijuana policy on Capitol Hill. Legislators in both parties seem to finally realize that more than 60% of Americans favor relaxing our federal cannabis laws. Furthermore, marijuana friendly policy reform efforts, such as defunding the DOJ’s ability to go after medicinal use, enabling industrial hemp cultivation and manufacturing, and drug rescheduling, don’t show signs of letting up. As a result, we will likely begin seeing more pro marijuana policy changes actually take root.

Regardless of what AG Sessions and President Trump may want, it appears that many in Congress want to either preserve the status quo or remove barriers to ease cannabis use and possession. Keep an eye on Congress as these pro marijuana policy changes actually take root.