Democrats Call on Congress to Tackle Cannabis Reform in 2022

Congressional Democrats are targeting next year for a major overhaul of the nation’s cannabis laws.

In a memo sent last week, Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, urged colleagues to build on the successes of 2021 hailed as a “a transformative year for cannabis reform, in which five new states—New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, Connecticut—legalized adult-use cannabis, and Alabama became the 37th state to legalize medical cannabis.”

“A wealth of policy ideas targeted at ending cannabis prohibition on the federal level have also been introduced on Capitol Hill,” they wrote in the memo, sent on Thursday of last week. “This growing bipartisan momentum for cannabis reform shows Congress is primed for progress in 2022, and we are closer than ever to bringing our cannabis policies and laws in line with the American people.”

Blumenauer and Lee outlined a series of policy priorities for the party to tackle in 2022, including a bill to legalize pot on the federal level. 

The bill, known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, is one of several marijuana proposals offered up by Democrats that has yet to gain passage on Capitol Hill.

Described by Blumenauer and Lee as “the most comprehensive cannabis reform bill to be developed and considered by Congress to date,” the MORE Act would “decriminalize and deschedule cannabis, to provide for reinvestment in certain persons adversely impacted by the War on Drugs, to provide for expungement of certain cannabis offenses and for other purposes.”

The bill, introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), was most recently reported out of the Judiciary Committee in September, and the memo said that Blumenauer and Lee “are vigorously working to see that it gets a vote in the House soon.”

Blumenauer and Lee also highlighted the SAFE Banking Act, which would eliminate legal barriers that prevent the cannabis industry from accessing certain financial services.

The bill has passed the House of Representatives several times, most recently in April, and the memo from Blumenauer and Lee described it as a way to address “the pressing public safety need caused as result of cannabis businesses being forced to operate in all cash, would allow state and tribal legal cannabis-related businesses to access financial services.”

They noted that “polls show bipartisan public support for rationalizing drug policy is at an all-time high, with Gallup now reporting 68 percent of Americans, and a majority of Republicans, support legalizing marijuana.”

Democrats will be under considerable pressure to get something meaningful done on cannabis reform next year, with the 2022 midterms on the horizon and Republicans in prime position to win back the majority.

The memo from Blumenauer and Lee made it clear that the clock is ticking for a party that appeared eager to embrace legalization after the 2020 election.

As we enter another election year, it’s more important than ever to seize the moment and heed the calls of the American public,” the memo said. “We are poised to take bold action to end the failed War on Drugs once and for all.”

On the other side of the capitol, Senate Democrats appear ready, as well. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in an interview earlier this year the party “will move forward” on legalization, pointing to the wave of pot-related reforms implemented at the state level.

“In 2018, I was the first member of the Democratic leadership to come out in support of ending the federal prohibition. I’m sure you ask, “Well what changed?” Well, my thinking evolved. When a few of the early states—Oregon and Colorado—wanted to legalize, all the opponents talked about the parade of horribles: Crime would go up. Drug use would go up. Everything bad would happen,” Schumer said. 

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VA Committee Recommends Medical Cannabis Research Bill to House

On November 4, the House Veterans Affairs Committee passed a bill that would allow the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to study medical cannabis as a treatment option for military veterans.

Sponsored by Representative Lou Correa and Peter Meijer, HR-2916, also called the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2021, instructs the VA to study medical cannabis research. “This bill requires the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct clinical trials of the effects of medical-grade cannabis on the health outcomes of covered veterans diagnosed with chronic pain and those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Covered veterans are those who are enrolled in the VA health care system,” the bill summary reads.

The bill also states that the trials must include both a control group and an experimental group that include a balanced representation of the veteran community (similar size, structure and demographics). Most importantly, any veteran who chooses to participate in these trials would not have to worry about their VA benefits or eligibility.

At the November 4 meeting, Chairman Mark Takano spoke briefly about HR-2916. “Veterans and veteran service organizations have told us that they overwhelmingly support medical cannabis research at VA. So many veterans already use cannabis to ease their suffering. Veterans can purchase medical cannabis in 36 states and recreational cannabis in 19 states,” Takano said.

Takano continued, “We simply must equip VA and its healthcare providers with scientific guidance about the potential impacts, benefits and/or dangers of cannabis use to treat chronic pain and PTSD. Now VA tells us that it is monitoring smaller research projects on cannabis outside VA. This really is not sufficient. The bill directs VA to bring the important methodological rigor with a clinical trial framework to bear on these important questions. We owe our veterans no less.”

Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks proposed an amendment at the meeting in response. She proposed the replacement of HR-2916 with her own bill, HR-2932, which she calls the Veterans Cannabis Analysis Research and Effectiveness, or Veterans Care Act. Although she acknowledges that her and Correa’s bill share some goals, she believes Correa’s bill is not the ideal way to assist veterans. “…his bill takes an overly prescriptive approach to requiring the VA conduct research on medical marijuana,” she began. “I am sure that it is well-intentioned. However, what that would do is unfairly tie the hands of the VA researchers who are responsible for designing and conducting these studies and undermine their work to such an extent as to render it meaningless.”

“That is why my amendment, in the nature of a substitute, would replace the text of Congressman Correa’s bill, with the text of my bill which would also require VA to conduct research regarding medical marijuana but would also give VA researchers the flexibility to design that research for themselves,” Miller-Meeks continued. “This would help ensure that politics plays no role in the results of this research and that scientists and researchers, not politicians, inform the VA’s work on medicinal marijuana research so that it yields the best and most useful research results for veterans.”

Chairman Mark Takano stated that, “Unfortunately, I cannot support your amendment which would give VA far more leeway in determining how to study the possible use of cannabis and treating pain and PTSD and veterans,” Takano said. “With all due respect, VA could be doing that level of research now and simply has chosen not to. VA’s Office of Research and Development can absolutely handle a clinical trial. It already conducts many of them. And it’s time to bring the scientific weight of that gold standard approach to the issue of cannabis use.”

There was continued discussion on Miller-Meek’s bill by Ranking Member Mike Bost, but ultimately her bill was not agreed to by the committee. The committee did, however, agree to recommend HR-2916 to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

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Recreational Cannabis Law in Washington, D.C. May Soon Be Operational

Congress may be on the verge of removing a crucial impediment that has kept Washington, D.C. from implementing the recreational marijuana law it passed years ago.

The appropriations bill introduced by Democrats in the United States Senate on Monday evening did not contain the so-called “Harris Rider” that has prevented the District of Columbia from enjoying legal weed, despite voters there passing a legalization proposal all the way back in 2014.

Written by Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland, “the budget rider written by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) has prevented D.C. from commercializing the drug and has been added into every appropriations bill since [it was passed by D.C. voters],” the Washington Post explained, noting that Congress “has oversight over all D.C. laws.” 

The appropriations bills, unveiled by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, were greeted warmly by legalization advocates. 

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser likewise approved of the move.

“The Senate appropriations bill is a critical step in recognizing that in a democracy, D.C. residents should be governed by D.C. values,” Bowser’s office said in a statement, as quoted by NBC Washington. “As we continue on the path to D.C. statehood, I want to thank Senate Appropriations Committee Chair, Senator Patrick Leahy, our good friend and Subcommittee Chair, Senator Chris Van Hollen, and, of course, our champion on the Hill, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, for recognizing and advancing the will of D.C. voters. We urge Congress to pass a final spending bill that similarly removes all anti-Home Rule riders, allowing D.C. to spend our local funds as we see fit.”

Pro-marijuana activist Adam Eidinger told the station that it has “been a seven-year struggle to get to this point, to remove this rider, and Democrats have been helpful.”

“We have to move forward, and the Congress helped us last night—actually did something for D.C. last night,” Eidinger said.

Republicans, however, were less than enthused. In a statement, Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Richard Shelby cited the removal of the rider as a source of the GOP’s opposition.

“Chairman Leahy’s decision to unilaterally unveil partisan spending bills is a significant step in the wrong direction. This one-sided process has resulted in bills that spend in excess of the Democrats’ own budget resolution and fail to give equal consideration to our nation’s defense. Their bills are filled with poison pills and problematic authorizing provisions, and they remove important legacy riders on topics like terrorism, abortion, and immigration that for years have enjoyed broad support on both sides of the aisle,” Shelby said.

Leahy said that the robust legislative package makes “important investments in our nation’s infrastructure, our environment, and the middle class, including historic increases to promote affordable housing, educate our nation’s children, combat climate change, and improve healthcare.” 

The presence of the Harris Rider has “created a pot paradox in which it’s fine to possess it but not to buy it or sell it—in turn allowing gray-market sellers to continue proliferating while preventing D.C. from benefiting from the tax revenue boost that comes with regulating recreational sales,” the Washington Post said.

The move by Leahy is the latest sign that Democrats on Capitol Hill are ready to embrace legalization. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said earlier this year that Democrats are eager to pursue such legislation, and he pointed to the changing attitudes toward pot as a factor.

“In 2018, I was the first member of the Democratic leadership to come out in support of ending the federal prohibition. I’m sure you ask, “Well what changed?” Well, my thinking evolved. When a few of the early states—Oregon and Colorado—wanted to legalize, all the opponents talked about the parade of horribles: Crime would go up. Drug use would go up. Everything bad would happen,” Schumer told Politico. “The legalization of states worked out remarkably well. They were a great success. The parade of horribles never came about, and people got more freedom. And people in those states seem very happy.”

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U.S. House Approves SAFE Banking Act as Part of Military Spending Bill in Historic Vote

The U.S. House approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act on Thursday in a bipartisan 316-113 vote as part of the latest National Defense Authorization Act, a military spending bill. It’s the fifth time the legislation has been approved in the House as a standalone bill or an amendment as part of larger legislation.

Since statewide cannabis reform has been enacted over the past four decades, cannabis businesses still are not fully tolerated, most evidently in federal restrictions, such as the way banking is restricted.

Representative Ed Perlmutter re-introduced the bill, as promised, saying that it would allow cannabis businesses to access the banking system—like any other industry—and would bring more money into the economy and offer the opportunity to create good-paying jobs. 

On September 21, the House Rules Committee approved the SAFE Banking Act as they sifted through over 800 amendments filed for the $778 billion FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to determine which ones will get a floor vote. As Representative Perlmutter sits in the Rules Committee, the move suggests he has influence.

Currently, The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Guidance from the Department of the Treasury provides informal guidance on banking with cannabis businesses, but still nothing to immunize a financial institution from federal prosecution—only an act of Congress can do that.

Bloomberg reported that the SAFE Banking Act would be a boon for cannabis companies—which up until now have been forced to do business in cash thanks to federal banking restrictions. Cannabis-adjacent companies that provide financial services agreed.

“Passage of the SAFE Banking Act is a historic, significant step forward for the cannabis industry, which deserves more legitimacy and access to banking, insurance and other services just like any other mainstream industry. This legislation will open up much-needed access to financial institutions and loans for cannabis industry entrepreneurs,” said Ryan Hale, Chief Sales Officer of Operational Security Solutions (OSS). “Meanwhile, as the sheep dogs for the industry in security, we know that many compliance issues will remain as long as cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug and passage of the SAFE Banking Act will only mean more regulation for the industry.”

The bill would protect banks that cater to state-licensed cannabis business from facing punishment from federal regulators. As of December 2020, the U.S. Treasury found that 515 banks and 169 credit unions already provide such services.

NORML sent leaders in Congress a letter in support of its inclusion as part of the NDAA. NORML Political Director Justin Strekal applauded the legislation cautiously:

“It is critical to balance the need to accomplish comprehensive reform at the federal level and make every effort possible in the immediate term to support the successful state-level programs to ensure safe and efficient consumer access to quality cannabis that is cost-competitive with the unregulated market,” Strekal said. “For those reasons, we support the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any piece of legislation that is going to be enacted into law.”

Advocates speculated that the SAFE Banking Act might have a better chance of success than a standalone bill, because of its bipartisan support and because Senators don’t want any minor bill holding up the “must-pass” NDAA.

Leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Cory Booker have been somewhat hesitant to support the bill without seeking broader reform. Both see more comprehensive cannabis reform such as the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA).

“As someone who has been working inside the banking industry for most of my career, I’ve seen firsthand the many challenges banks face when trying to serve cannabis businesses,” said Andrew Montgomery, Founder and CEO of HD Compliance. Montgomery is a seasoned banking professional with more than 25 years as a senior executive in the industry. 

He continued, “Though this is not the first time that lawmakers have added a seemingly unrelated bill to a broader bill that is likely to pass without increased scrutiny, we must remember that the SAFE Banking Act has already been passed four times in the House, two of them were associated with COVID-19 economic relief bills. The Senate failed to act on each of those bills. However, burying it in the Defense Authorization Act may give cover to GOP senators that want to support SAFE Banking and allow Senator Cory Booker to oppose the bill. This very well could be a back door way of passing this needed legislation.”

While some leaders argued about the appropriateness of including the SAFE Banking Act in a military spending bill, veteran support for cannabis is high. NORML, for instance, clarified that the spending bill was indeed an “appropriate vehicle” for cannabis reform. According to the American Legion, nearly one in four veterans currently consumes cannabis for medical reasons.

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New Marijuana Legalization Proposal Unveiled

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and fellow Democrats in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday unveiled a much-anticipated draft proposal to legalize cannabis at the federal level. The proposal, which is a discussion draft of a bill titled the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, was introduced by Schumer and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker at a Capitol Hill press conference.

If the legislation is passed into law, marijuana would be removed from the nation’s list of regulated drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, and instead be regulated and taxed like alcohol and tobacco. The measure also includes social equity provisions that will expunge low-level marijuana convictions and dedicate cannabis taxes to communities negatively impacted by the War on Drugs.

“For decades, young men and young women, disproportionately young Black and Hispanic men and women, have been arrested and jailed for carrying even a small amount of marijuana in their pocket, a charge that often came with exorbitant penalties and a serious criminal record because of the overcriminalization of marijuana, and it followed them for the remainder of their lives,” Schumer told reporters.

Key Provisions of the Legislation

  • Under the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, the U.S. Attorney General would be directed to remove marijuana from the list of drugs regulated under Controlled Substances Act within 60 days of the legislation’s effective date. Government regulators would also create a new definition of “cannabis” under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act and develop a regulatory requirement for cannabis, similar to rules that govern other substances such as tobacco. The definition of cannabis would exclude hemp, which was legalized by the 2018 Farm Bill.
  • The authority to regulate cannabis would be transferred from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The FDA would be “recognized as the primary federal regulatory authority with respect to the manufacture and marketing of cannabis products, including requirements related to minimum national good manufacturing practice, product standards, registration and listing, and labeling information related to ingredients and directions for use,” according to a 30-page summary of the draft bill, which totals 163 pages. 
  • The bill also assesses a federal excise tax on cannabis products, with rates beginning at 10% and increasing to 25% five years after the measure is signed into law. Collecting taxes would be the responsibility of the TTB, with a portion of the revenue raised dedicated to supporting communities impacted by the War on Drugs. Federal judicial districts would be required to expunge the records of nonviolent federal cannabis offenders and those currently serving sentences for marijuana crimes would be eligible for a resentencing review hearing.
  • The legislation establishes three grant programs, including one that would fund nonprofits to provide services including job training, reentry services, and legal aid to individuals impacted by cannabis prohibition. The second grant program provides funding to state and local governments to make Small Business Administration loans to cannabis businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs. The final grant program would provide funding for state and local governments to establish cannabis business licensing programs that minimize barriers for those impacted by the War on Drugs.

“For decades, our federal government has waged a War on Drugs that has unfairly impacted low-income communities and communities of color,” Booker said in a statement. “While red and blue states across the country continue to legalize marijuana, the federal government continues to lag woefully behind. It is time for Congress to end the federal marijuana prohibition and reinvest in communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs.”

Although the bill would legalize cannabis at the federal level, states would make the decision on marijuana policy for their jurisdictions. Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for use by adults, and 37 have laws permitting the use of medical marijuana. 

Proposal Receives Swift Response

Following the release of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act draft, which has been promised by Schumer for months, cannabis policy reform groups and representatives of the legal cannabis industry were quick to weigh in on the proposal. Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that the “days of federal prohibition are numbered.” 

“These actions by Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Senators Booker and Wyden reflect the fact that the supermajority of Americans are demanding that Congress take action to end the cruel and senseless policy of federal prohibition,” Altieri said in a statement from the group. “It is time for legislators to comport federal law with the laws of the growing number of states that have legalized the plant, and it is time for lawmakers to facilitate a federal structure that allows for cannabis commerce so that responsible consumers can obtain high-quality, low-cost cannabis grown right here in America without fear of arrest and incarceration.”

Ben Kovler, CEO of cannabis multistate operator Green Thumb Industries, noted that the cannabis legalization bill recognizes cannabis as a legitimate business sector and would allow cannabis companies long-sought access to capital markets and banking services.

“Cannabis continues to be disproportionately weaponized against communities of color, and we are thrilled that the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act has proposed expungement and community reinvestment measures to address the damage perpetuated by the failed War on Drugs,” Kovler said in an email. “While the bill leaves some questions unanswered, we believe it provides a tangible pathway to true federal legalization.”

Schumer acknowledged to reporters that he does not yet have the support necessary for the bill to gain approval in the Senate, saying the proposal is intended to begin the conversation on marijuana legalization. In May, a new version of a separate cannabis legalization bill that was approved by the House of Representatives last year was reintroduced in the lower chamber of Congress.

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The MORE Act Aims to Legalize Cannabis

The drive to legalize cannabis at the federal level continues with the reintroduction of a bill to remove marijuana from the nation’s list of controlled substances and invest in communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. The measure, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act), was introduced on May 28 by Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York and five of his Democratic colleagues.

Nadler, who serves as the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, originally introduced the bill last year. The measure was passed with overwhelming support in the House in December but failed to receive action in the Senate under the leadership of then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“Since I introduced the MORE Act last Congress, numerous states across the nation, including my home state of New York, have moved to legalize marijuana. Our federal laws must keep up with this pace,” Nadler said in a statement. “I’m proud to reintroduce the MORE Act to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, remove the needless burden of marijuana convictions on so many Americans, and invest in communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs.”

Social Equity Key to Bill

Under the MORE Act, cannabis would be removed from the list of drugs regulated by the Controlled Substances Act, criminal penalties for federal cannabis offenses would be eliminated, and past federal cannabis convictions would be expunged. The bill also establishes a 5% percent tax on retail cannabis sales, which would climb to 8% over three years. Revenue raised by the tax would be invested in communities that were harmed under federal marijuana prohibition policies that lasted decades.

“This bill will not only put an end to harmful federal cannabis policies that have ruined countless lives, it will seek to reverse the damage by providing true equity and opportunity for those looking to access this booming industry. We are on our way toward true justice,” said Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a co-sponsor of the legislation and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

An Opportunity Trust Fund created by the MORE Act would provide job training, re-entry services for formerly incarcerated individuals, and health education programs for communities impacted by the War on Drugs. In a change to the previous version of the bill called for by social equity advocates, those with prior felony convictions would no longer be barred from participation in the cannabis industry.

Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York said that the “failed war on drugs began almost fifty years ago when Richard Nixon declared drug abuse public enemy number one. Since then, marijuana use has been socially accepted behavior in some neighborhoods and criminal conduct in others. Too often, the dividing line between these neighborhoods has been race. The MORE Act will help right these wrongs and bring to life the principle of liberty and justice for all.”

Additionally, an Office of Cannabis Justice would be established to implement the social equity provisions of the bill, encourage cannabis research, and ensure that federal benefits and services are not denied cannabis users. The Small Business Association would be tasked with creating a Cannabis Restorative Opportunity Program to develop cannabis licensing programs that limit barriers to participation in the industry.

Amazon on Board 

Following the reintroduction of the MORE Act, Amazon, the nation’s second-largest private employer, announced that it was eliminating cannabis drug testing for applicants for most of its U.S. jobs. Amazon CEO Dave Clark said in a blog post that the company would also lobby for passage of legislation to end the federal prohibition of cannabis.

“And because we know that this issue is bigger than Amazon, our public policy team will be actively supporting The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act) — federal legislation that would legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and invest in impacted communities,” Clark wrote. “We hope that other employers will join us, and that policymakers will act swiftly to pass this law.”

Nadler’s bill also has the support of cannabis policy reform advocacy organizations, including the Marijuana Policy Project. Tahir Johnson, the group’s director of social equity and inclusion, commented on the impact that cannabis prohibition has had on communities of color.

“Cannabis prohibition and its ensuing over-policing, unequal enforcement, and criminalization stripped millions of Black and Latinx people of their vote, access to education, employment, and housing, creating cycles of poverty and marginalization in their communities,” Johnson said. “The MORE Act promises to address many of the harms caused by prohibition using an equity and justice-centered framework that allows the communities most harmed to access the health and economic benefits of the cannabis industry. This is the approach to legalization that our country needs.”

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