Republican Congressman Reintroduces Bill To Move Cannabis to Schedule III

As many advocates are pushing for decriminalization and completely descheduling cannabis at the federal level, one Republican congressman is pushing to simply downgrade cannabis from schedule I to schedule III, which would allow for research to move forward at a faster pace and provide several other perks.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-Florida) reintroduced a bill as H.R. 610 or the Marijuana 1-to-3 Act on Jan. 27, about four years after filing a similar bill previously, along with seven other bills, according to a press release

The bill would direct the Attorney General of the United States to amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to move cannabis from schedule I to schedule III of the Act—within 60 days of the bill’s enactment.

The bill doesn’t go as far as others that would end the federal prohibition of cannabis via decriminalization or other routes. However, the bill would protect federal employees who consume cannabis, as only Schedule I or II substances are prohibited. It would also free cannabis businesses affected by Tax Code 280E, and make research a lot more feasible.

Rep. Steube filed a similar bill on Sept. 12, 2019, the Marijuana 1-to-3 Act of 2019, which would also downgrade cannabis from schedule 1 to allow for more possibilities in research.

“As marijuana is legalized for medical and recreational use across the United States, it is important that we study the effects of the substance and the potential impacts it can have on various populations,” Congressman Steube said in 2019. “By rescheduling marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule III controlled substance, the opportunities for research and study are drastically expanded. With this rescheduling, researchers can now access federal funds to research this substance and determine its medical value.”

The congressman acknowledged that research on cannabis is currently hampered under current conditions.

“We hear every day about the positive health benefits of marijuana. Whether it’s young children with seizure disorders, or veterans suffering from chronic pain, it is clear that there are medical benefits to marijuana and I think it’s time we remove the bureaucratic red tape that prevents us from thoroughly studying this substance,” continued Steube.

The discordant nature of state cannabis laws versus federal law makes such a bill a step, albeit rather small, in the right direction.

President Joe Biden directed an administrative review into the possibilities of rescheduling cannabis under the CSA. 

Rep. Steube’s other bills which were announced at the same time as the Marijuana 1-to-3 Act include one that would strip Disney of copyright protections and specifically target what he calls “big tech” and “woke” organizations, per the announcement. 

“The Republican majority in the 118th Congress is working to make our government accountable to the people,” said Rep. Steube. “I am reintroducing eight bills that will remove special privileges for Big Tech and woke organizations, cut taxes for Americans and prevent their money from being spent on cruel dog testing, and hold our government accountable while improving efficiency!” 

Rep. Streube also takes a controversial stance on other matters such as transgender rights, and pushed to allow guns in airports and add mandatory-minimum sentences for drug trafficking. His 2017 bill would have pushed for stricter sentences for the sale, manufacture, and delivery of cannabis and other drugs. 

On Jan. 27 the bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce, as well as the Committee on the Judiciary, for a period to be determined by the Speaker.

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Cory Booker Says Mitch McConnell Is Blocking Cannabis Bills

Democratic U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey says that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is opposed to marijuana policy reform and is blocking cannabis bills from being approved by his Republican colleagues. Booker said that McConnell’s opposition is preventing the passage of marijuana legislation in the upper chamber of Congress before the end of the year, after which control of the House of Representatives will switch to the GOP. 

Cannabis policy reform advocates had hoped to be able to pass meaningful reforms during the current lame-duck session of Congress before control of the House Representatives passes to the Republican Party. But Booker said that McConnell’s opposition to reforms including restorative justice for those harmed by decades of marijuana prohibition and a bill that would allow the legal cannabis industry access to banking services is influencing the stand taken by other GOP senators.

“They’re dead set on anything in marijuana,” Booker told NJ Advance Media. “That to me is the obstacle.”

The Republican party will take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the new session of Congress next year after gaining a slight majority in last month’s midterm elections. Cannabis policy reform is not likely to be a legislative priority for GOP leaders, who have been less enthusiastic about marijuana legalization than their Democratic counterparts. If cannabis policy reform advocates do not pass a bill before the end of the year, the change in House leadership makes progress on the issue a long shot for at least the next two years.

Republican Representative Brian Mast of Florida, the co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said that cannabis policy reform is consistent with traditional Republican values, but McConnell has failed to take a leadership role on the issue.

“It’s not something that he’s historically been interested in moving or seems to be interested in moving right now,” said Mast. “He should. Just as much as Republicans have been out there arguing states’ rights over Roe v. Wade for the last several months, this is just as much of an issue.”

Hopes For Reform Hinge On SAFE Banking Act

Cannabis policy reform is currently largely focused on the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would ease access to traditional financial services for regulated marijuana businesses. Provisions of the bill have been passed by the House of Representatives seven times since 2019, but the measure has failed to gain the approval of the Senate. Most recently, language from the SAFE Banking Act was included in the House version of an annual defense spending bill, but the cannabis provisions were left out of the version released last week.

For the Republicans, bipartisan negotiations on cannabis policy reform are being led by Senator Steve Daines, with the goal of drafting a bill that includes restorative justice provisions championed by Booker while gaining the support of enough GOP senators to be approved in the Senate, where 60 votes from the nearly evenly split body of 100 lawmakers are needed to advance most legislation. 

“The senator is doing everything he can to get this bipartisan bill across the finish line this year for the sake of public safety,” said Rachel Dumke, a spokeswoman for Daines’ office.

But Booker thinks that opposition to marijuana policy reform from McConnell, who has been a leader in hemp legalization, is making his fellow Republicans hesitant to support the SAFE Banking Act or a comprehensive legalization bill.

“The caucus is clearly divided but the people in power in their caucus are clearly against doing anything on marijuana,” Booker said.

Cannabis advocate Justin Strekal, the founder of the marijuana policy reform political action committee BOWL PAC, said that he is hopeful that provisions of the SAFE Banking Act can be attached to an upcoming must-pass omnibus spending bill currently being negotiated in Congress. If the cannabis policy reform measures are part of a larger bill, which would fund the federal government through September of next year, Republican senators could vote for the bill without being forced to openly “defy Mitch McConnell in front of him,” Strekal said. 

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Congressional Panel Holds Key Cannabis Legalization Hearing

A US House of Representatives subcommittee last week held a hearing to explore the legalization of marijuana with testimony from a slate of witnesses who support ending the federal prohibition on cannabis. The congressional cannabis hearing, which included discussion on topics including the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, was held by the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on November 15. Subcommittee chair Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, began the hearing with a bold statement on the path he believes the nation should take to reform cannabis policy.

“Cannabis must be decriminalized at the federal level as a matter of basic justice in the country and, I would say, to vindicate the anti-prohibition principle that’s in our Constitution,” Raskin said in his opening statement. “We tried prohibition of liquor, and all it did was lead to the growth of organized crime in the country. The war against marijuana has ruined so many lives in our country. We can do a lot better by treating all of these as public health questions and regulatory questions rather than questions of crime and putting people behind bars.”

Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, is the sponsor of the States Reform Act, a bill that would legalize and tax marijuana at the federal level. At last week’s hearing, she shared her personal experience with the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in an address to the panel. 

“It cut my anxiety,” the congresswoman said, as quoted by Marijuana Moment. “I was able to sleep better. And I stayed alive. If I can make it, anybody can, and this plant literally saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be today had I not had that kind of experience that I can share with millions of Americans today. The only place that cannabis is really controversial today is here on the Capitol.”

An 11-page memo published before the congressional cannabis hearing noted that the meeting would be a bipartisan examination of the potential benefits of federal cannabis decriminalization, including criminal justice reform, access to therapeutic cannabis for military veterans and increased access to the banking industry for regulated cannabis businesses.

Hearing Witnesses Call For Cannabis Legalization

The hearing, dubbed “Developments in State Cannabis Laws and Bipartisan Cannabis Reforms at the Federal Level,” included testimony from a group of witnesses who support ending marijuana prohibition, including politicians, cannabis policy reform activists and cannabis industry representatives. Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), called on Congress to respect the will of the people as expressed through the legalization of cannabis at the state level.

“Our nation’s federalist principles demand that the federal government respects voters’ decisions to legalize cannabis,” Armentano testified to the committee. “At a time of record public support for legalization and when the majority of states regulate cannabis use, it makes no sense from a political, fiscal or cultural perspective for Congress to try to put this genie back in the bottle or to continue to place its collective head in the sand. It’s time for the federal government to end its nearly century-long experiment with cannabis prohibition.”

Shane Pennington, an attorney with the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, said that the hearing is evidence that the movement to reform cannabis policy is making progress at the federal level.

“It’s encouraging to know that many lawmakers appreciate the absurdity and manifest injustice of federal cannabis prohibition,” Pennington wrote in an email to Cannabis Now. “Even better, they appear to understand that establishing a fair and effective cannabis regulatory regime at the federal level will require them to listen and learn from state regulators who are running effective regimes already and the communities who have suffered most from the War on Drugs.” 

The recent congressional cannabis hearing marks a new step in the efforts to kickstart the nation’s cannabis policy reform in the House of Representatives, which has taken the lead on ending marijuana prohibition in the US Congress. The House has passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to give regulated cannabis businesses access to the banking system six times, either as standalone legislation or as part of a broader bill. The chamber has also twice passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, legislation to remove cannabis from the nation’s list of controlled substances, most recently in April 2022, but the Senate has failed to act on the measures. However, cannabis policy reform is likely to become less of a priority next year when Republicans take control of the House after winning a slight majority of the chamber in the recent midterm elections.

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Rep. Pete Sessions Compares Weed Industry to Slavery

Republican U.S. Congressman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) faces universal backlash from officials and NORML leadership after making “shameful” remarks comparing the cannabis industry with slavery at a House Oversight Committee hearing on November 15 in Washington, D.C.

The Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee gathered for the hearing to discuss developments in state cannabis laws and bipartisan cannabis reform at the federal level. 

Specifically, the issues discussed involved pardoning people charged with possession and the difference between a pardon and an expungement regarding cannabis-related crimes. The topic of the day was supposed to be civil liberties, but Rep. Sessions managed to liken the cannabis industry to slavery.

“The product is being marketed. The product is being sold. The product has been advocated by people who were in it to make money,” Rep. Sessions said at the meeting. “Slavery made money also and was a terrible circumstance that this country and the world went through for many, many years.”

1819 News reports that the committee meeting—full of city, state, and federal officials—did not receive Rep. Sessions’ comments well.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin spoke out after hearing Rep. Sessions’ “offensive” comments earlier at the hearing. Woodfin spoke to the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee to join the conversation about pardon and expungements. But he couldn’t let Rep. Sessions’ comments slide.

“Words matter,” Woodfin said with conviction following Rep. Sessions’ remarks. “While I’m on record, I would just like to say to you directly, your committee members, that putting cannabis and slavery in the same category is patently offensive and flagrant.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) backed up Mayor Woodfin’s comments about the “peculiar analogy.”

“I think we can all disavow that, and we apologize that the lectern was used for that purpose at some moment today,” Raskin said.

The Cannabis Industry Reacts

The cannabis industry also took note of the careless remarks. “Today a sitting member of Congress equated the regulated cannabis industry with slavery,” NORML Political Director Morgan Fox tweeted. “Shameful. Texas, when are you going to send Pete Sessions packing?”

Politico called Rep. Sessions “Washington’s most powerful anti-pot official” in 2018. His storied history with fighting cannabis reform goes back a long way. Also, it’s not the first time Rep. Pete Sessions made questionable comments about cannabis, calling people in the business “merchants of addiction.”

“Marijuana is an addictive product, and the merchants of addiction make it that way,” Rep. Sessions said in 2018. “They make it to where our people, our young people, become addicted to marijuana and keep going.” Rep. Pete Session also linked traffic deaths with cannabis reform, blaming high-THC products.

Rep. Sessions’ comments linking the cannabis industry with slavery is especially ironic because there’s another thing people have likened to “modern slavery”: The U.S. prison system. The ACLU regularly reports that despite roughly equal usage rates—Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis. The ACLU also reports that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude—includes a loophole for prisoners who can be forced to work and are still forced to work. 

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Congress Passes Landmark Cannabis Research Bill

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved landmark legislation to expand medical marijuana research, marking the first time both chambers of Congress have passed a standalone cannabis bill. The measure, titled the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, received the approval of the House of Representatives during the summer and now heads to the desk of President Joseph Biden for his consideration.

Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the co-sponsor of the legislation in the House along with Maryland Republican Representative Andy Hariss, noted the significance of the legislation after the Senate vote on Wednesday.

“After working on the issue of cannabis reform for decades, finally the dam is starting to break. The passage of my Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act in the House and Senate represents a historic breakthrough in addressing the federal government’s failed and misguided prohibition of cannabis,” Blumenauer, the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement. “As we have seen in state after state, the public is tired of waiting for the federal government to catch up. More than 155 million Americans—nearly half of our nation’s population—now reside in states where adult-use of cannabis is legal.” 

In July, the bill was passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 325 to 95, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in a time of intense partisan division in Washington, D.C. Passage of the bill could signal a new era for marijuana policy in Congress, where other legislation including a bill to allow regulated cannabis businesses access to the banking system are awaiting Senate approval. In the Senate, where the legislation was passed by unanimous consent on Wednesday, the bill was sponsored by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii.

“For far too long, Congress has stood in the way of science and progress, creating barriers for researchers attempting to study cannabis and its benefits,” Blumenauer continued. “At a time when more than 155 million Americans reside where adult-use of cannabis is legal at the state or local level and there four million registered medical marijuana users with many more likely to self-medicate, it is essential that we are able fully study the impacts of cannabis use.”

Legislation Eases Restrictions on Marijuana Research

The bill is designed to ease federal restrictions on researching cannabis, which is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. The legislation streamlines the application process for the approval of marijuana-related scientific studies, making it easier for researchers to understand the potential medical benefits of cannabis. 

Under the legislation, the U.S. attorney general would be given a 60-day deadline to approve an application for marijuana research or submit a request for additional information to the research applicant. The bill also includes provisions to encourage the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to support the development of medicines derived from cannabis.

“There is substantial evidence that marijuana-derived medications can and are providing major health benefits. Our bill will make it easier to study how these medications can treat various conditions, resulting in more patients being able to easily access safe medications,” Feinstein said in a statement from the senator’s office. “We know that cannabidiol-derived medications can be effective for conditions like epilepsy. This bill will help refine current medical CBD practices and develop important new applications. After years of negotiation, I’m delighted that we’re finally enacting this bill that will result in critical research that could help millions.”

President Expected To Sign Bill

While campaigning for office in 2020, Biden called for easing the federal restrictions on cannabis research. And last month, he directed the “Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” In a statement, Schatz appeared to indicate that he expects the president to sign the cannabis research bill passed by Congress.

“The medical community agrees that we need more research to learn about marijuana’s potential health benefits, but our federal laws today are standing in the way of us finding those answers,” said Senator Schatz. “Our bill, which is now set to become law, will remove excessive barriers that make it difficult for researchers to study the effectiveness and safety of marijuana, and hopefully, give patients more treatment options.”

But not everyone is hailing the legislation as a step forward for cannabis policy reform. Shane Pennington, an attorney with the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, wrote in an email to High Times that the legislation “is a terrible terrible bill that will make research harder, not easier.” He explains the legislation unnecessarily complicates research into cannabidiol, among other issues.

“The bill imposes various DEA-registration requirements on entities seeking to handle CBD and/or ‘any [marijuana] derivative, extract, preparation, or compound.’ Under current law, however, neither CBD nor any non-marijuana cannabis ‘derivative, extract, preparation, or compound’ qualifies as a ‘controlled substance.’ Thus, as things stand today, you don’t need any special DEA registration to research them,” Pennington wrote on Substack. “By imposing registration requirements on these otherwise-non-controlled substances, this bill dramatically increases barriers to cannabis research.”

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Cannabis Legalization Hearing Held by Congressional Committee

The House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties announced on Nov. 8 that on Nov. 15 it would be holding a hearing to discuss cannabis legalization. The hearing’s official title was “Developments in State Cannabis Laws and Bipartisan Cannabis Reforms at the Federal Level,” and a joint memo was published on Nov. 12 to lay out the talking points of the discussion.

The hearing was led by Rep. Jamie Raskin (Chairman of the Subcommittee) and Rep. Nancy Mace (Ranking Member of the Subcommittee), and accompanied by questions from Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rep. Peter Anderson Sessions of Texas, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, Rep. Alexandria Occasion Cortez of New York, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives representing the District of Columbia), Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, and Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois.

Witness speakers included Randal Woodfin (Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama), Paul Armentano (Deputy Director of NORML), Andrew Freedman (Executive Director of Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation [CPEAR]), Eric Goepel (Founder and CEO of Veterans Cannabis Coalition), Keeda Haynes (Senior Legal Advisor of Free Hearts, who connected remotely), Amber Littlejohn (Senior Policy Advisor of Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce, and Jillian Snider (Policy Director of Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties).

The discussion covered a wide variety of facts revolving around cannabis legalization, the failed War on Drugs, how Biden’s October announcement to pardon federal cannabis convictions requires state action to help people, the treatment of veterans who seek relief with cannabis, the potential of hemp as a building material (and the legal challenges connected to this).

NORML’s Armentano provided many powerful facts and statements regarding legalization and how the cannabis industry has affected black and brown people. “By descheduling cannabis, tens of millions of Americans who reside in states where cannabis is legal in some form, as well as the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the state-licensed industry that services them, will no longer face needless hurdles and discrimination—such as a lack of access to financial services, loans, insurance, 2nd Amendment rights, tax deductions, certain professional security clearances, and other privileges,” Armentano said.

R Street Institute’s Snider added that the country’s approach to legalization is messy due to the varied levels of regulation. “Proposed federal legislation indicates increased support for alternatives to federal cannabis prohibition, and this increased support is critical to provide clarity on the overall legal status of cannabis, as the current situation presents inconsistency and a quasi-legal conundrum,” Snider said. “The substance may be legal in one state and decriminalized in another, but because it is still prohibited at the federal level, users or possessors of the substance are subject to criminal penalty.”

Toward the later portion of the hearing, Raskin asked Armentano about his hope that Congress can come together to make legalization a reality. “So Mr. Armentano, do you think Congress can catch up with where a majority of the states are now in terms of medical marijuana and decriminalization and legalization, as [Mayor Woodfin] said. Do you think Congress will actually be able to do it? I know this hearing is a promising sign, but what do you think are the chances of actually doing this, in this session of congress or the next?”

Armentano replied, explaining that historically prohibition has never worked, whether you examine the history of alcohol prohibition, or that of cannabis. “Well my business card doesn’t say prognosticator, but one would hope that members of congress see the need to act swiftly,” Armentano explained. “Look, to use your analogy with alcohol prohibition, the federal government got out of the alcohol prohibition business when 10 states chose to go down a different path. The majority of U.S. states have now chosen to go down a different path with cannabis and is untenable to keep this chasm going between where the states are on this policy and where the federal government is. At the end of the day the federal government needs to come to a way to comport federal policy with state policy, and that’s by descheduling.”

Mace and Raskin provided conclusory statements based on what they heard during the hearing, and what they hope it will lead to in the very near future.

Mace condemned an earlier reference comparing cannabis to slavery. She addressed data that shows how black and brown people are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis, and that its up to congress on both sides to address this issue. “I’m from South Carolina where the difference between rich and poor is often black and white, and cannabis is an area where we can work together on both sides of the aisle to prohibit more of those inequities from happening across our country and right the wrongs that have been going on for decades now,” Mace said. “And I would encourage my colleagues, Republican and Democrat on both sides of the aisle, to get on board with this issue. The American people are asking for it. Seventy percent of Americans support medical cannabis. Half, or more than half, support adult or recreational use across the country, whether they come from the red state of South Carolina to the blue state of California. East coast to west coast. Americans from all communities, all colors, all ages, support this issue. The only place it is controversial is here in the halls of the capital, and it’s wrong.”

Chairman Raskin concluded the hearing with his own statement, addressing the need for action from Congress. “Congress needs to catch up, and that’s what this hearing is about and that’s what I’ve learned today. If we knew our history better, if we all took the time to read into prohibition, we would see that America has been through this before. And it’s not that alcohol is like birthday cake, it’s not. We lose more than 100,000 people a year to alcohol-related illnesses, to alcohol-related fatalities on the highways, that needs to be regulated,” Raskin said.

“But the country had its experience with trying to criminalize alcohol. It didn’t work, and it caused much more severe problems and we know that is precisely the history we’re living through today, again, with marijuana, it needs to be regulated, it needs to be carefully controlled, but we should not be throwing people into prison for any period of time for one day because they smoke marijuana. It makes no sense. We should not be ruining people’s lives over this. I think the country has made its judgment, it’s time for Congress to catch up.”

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President Biden Sets Federal Cannabis Legalization in Motion

On drug policy, President Joe Biden is indisputably now one of the most consequential politicians in American history.

Demonized as one of the War on Drugs’ chief architects for sponsoring the 1994 crime bill that filled U.S. prisons with nonviolent drug offenders—a record that aged so badly even Vice President (and former prosecutor) Kamala Harris, attacked him on it—Biden on October 6 took the largest step of any US president toward legalizing cannabis.

In mid-afternoon tweets and a subsequent video, Biden borrowed a line drug-war reformists have been using for decades, calling current federal cannabis policy a “failed approach.” He announced pardons for “all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession,” and called on state governors to do the same for state charges (most cannabis arrests are for violations of state law).

He directed the Cabinet-level agencies overseeing federal health and criminal-justice policy to review cannabis’s classification under the Controlled Substances Act—currently Schedule I, “the same level as heroin—and more serious than fentanyl,” Biden observed. “It makes no sense.” He acknowledged “the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction.” And he hinted at more changes to come.

“Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives–for conduct that is legal in many states,” he said. “Today, we begin to right these wrongs.”

Critics pointed out that the announcement does nothing for most people in trouble for cannabis. There are only an estimated 6,000 people in the federal penal system for cannabis possession, and Biden’s pardon won’t be extended to people convicted of cultivation or sales.

Further, full legalization is still years away, and is at serious risk if the White House or Congress swing to the Republicans. It will almost certainly require action from a Congress that’s proven near deadlocked on the issue to date, according to legal experts contacted by Cannabis Now.

Cynics also pointed out the timing: October, a month out from crucial midterm elections, the perfect time for an empty publicity stunt that’s more posturing than policy.

But the historic moment is still here. Just by observing the federal government’s classification of cannabis is absurd and wrong and by directing Cabinet-level agencies to investigating changing it, Joe Biden has now done more on cannabis than any president since Richard Nixon. Period.

“Dank Brandon,” the president’s weed-smoking meme alter ego, has arrived in reality. 

More Than Words

“I wouldn’t call the announcement symbolic,” said Scott Bloomberg, a law professor at the University of Maine who researches cannabis policy.

Scholars such as Bloomberg and Vanderbilt University’s Robert Mikos have taken a dim view of the line pushed by some legalization advocates that a president could legalize or reschedule solely through executive action—at least not without triggering challenges in the courts.

Instead, what Biden has is the bully pulpit. What he can do—and what he appears to be doing—is give Congress cover to change federal drug policy by producing scientific and legal arguments justifying that action. If Health and Human Services issues an opinion that Schedule I, which classifies cannabis as addictive and medically useless, is inappropriate, and if the Justice Department produces its own opinion that enforcing federal cannabis policy is impossible on the aggregate and harmful when harsh penalties are applied, then Congress should have an even easier time rescheduling.

“The President can’t wave a magic wand and legalize marijuana overnight; he has to use the power that Congress gave to the Executive Branch in the [Controlled Substances Act],” he said. Further, “pardoning marijuana possession offenders is an incredibly important and impactful thing to do. Encouraging governors to do the same is also incredibly important, as most marijuana offenders are in state prison systems.”

“This is the process that I think should take place, that should have taken place at least a decade ago,” added Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law and the executive director of the school’s Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.

And while President Biden may rightly be criticized by history for being slow to catch up with current science or even sound moral policy, politically speaking, this was probably the first opportunity, he added.

Congress needed to demonstrate that it couldn’t be trusted to pass meaningful legislation. Even relatively modest reforms like bills that would give cannabis businesses easier access to banks is hopelessly bottled up in an obstructionist Senate, where at least ten Republicans are needed to pass cannabis reform—and that’s if every Democrat is on board, which they are not.

In Berman’s view, Biden couldn’t realistically pursue championing cannabis reform before addressing issues that affect more Americans, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, runaway inflation and surging energy prices—issues also connected to international crises such as the unprovoked war in Ukraine and an increasingly tense nuclear standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Cannabis is just not first cut stuff,” Berman said. “I think he’s doing what he can.”

So Now What?

President Biden’s announcement was welcomed with open arms by the cannabis industry and its otherwise bearish investors as a rare example of good news in an otherwise dire period marked by enormous losses, cratering prices, a thriving illicit market and impossible state and federal taxes and regulations.

Stocks in publicly traded companies surged briefly Thursday on the news before settling down again on Friday. Press releases from c-suite types peppered reporters’ inboxes, praising Biden’s bold turn before turning the conversation back to material concerns like the stalled SAFE Banking Act. Which is to say: after Thursday’s high, Friday marked a return to earth and the difficult business of lawmaking along with a long list of unanswered questions.

The scheduling review could take six months to a year, by which time the Democratic Party may no longer be in control of Congress. The scheduling review could also likely produce recommendations cannabis advocates won’t like including separate schedules for CBD and high-THC products such as dabs, which could remain tightly controlled, suggested OSU’s Berman.

And the realities of actually legalizing cannabis—how to tax it, who to regulate it—are incredibly complex. These could take another presidential term to sort out, said Pat Oglesby, a former Congressional staffer and tax-policy expert who sat on California Governor Gavin Newsom’s blue-ribbon marijuana legalization panel.

“There hasn’t been much of a process” on legalization in Congress to date,” Oglesby said. “I think this is going to take a while, and if the Republicans win the House or the Senate, legalization is very likely out of the picture for the next two years.”

“This isn’t legalization, but it’s a big step. It’s showing the flag,” he added. “It’s a real sign to Congress that, look, it’s time to get moving.” And it’s the first sign from a president in many current voters’ lifetimes.

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Can Biden Legalize Cannabis without Congress?

Can the United States President Joe Biden legalize cannabis without authority from Congress? Technically, no. The US Constitution doesn’t allow it. But then again, the prohibition of cannabis is unconstitutional. Additionally, the US Constitution has never stopped presidential administrations in the past. Passing an “executive order” is a common way for presidents to act like […]

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Congressman Working To Secure Release of Brittney Griner From Russia

A Democratic congressman said this week that he has been in touch with the State Department regarding Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who has been detained in Russia for nearly a month over drug charges.

Representative Colin Allred of Texas said Wednesday that he has been trying to get to the bottom of Griner’s detention, which has emerged as a strange subplot in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. 

“My office has been in touch with the State Department, and we’re working with them to see what is the best way forward,” said Allred, as quoted by ESPN. “I know the administration is working hard to try and get access to her and try to be helpful here. But obviously, it’s also happening in the context of really strained relations. I do think that it’s really unusual that we’ve not been granted access to her from our embassy and our consular services.”

Griner was detained at a Moscow airport on February 17 after officials there found cannabis vape cartridges in her possession. The charge carries a potential prison sentence of up to 10 years.

In an announcement, the Russian Federal Customs Service did not identify Griner by name but said that it had detained a U.S. women’s basketball player who had won two Olympic gold medals. It also released a video of a woman who meets Griner’s description going through airport security. Russian authorities confirmed that the country detained Griner last weekend.

“We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams and the WNBA and NBA,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said after the announcement last weekend. “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”

“The Russian criminal justice system is very different than ours, very opaque. We don’t have a lot of insight into where she is in that process right now. But she’s been held for three weeks now, and that’s extremely concerning,” he added.

A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Allred played football at Baylor University, the same school where the six-foot-nine Griner starred as a member of the women’s basketball team.

“Of course for me, there is a Baylor connection,” Allred said, as quoted by ESPN. “And also being on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and having recently visited Ukraine and being intimately involved with our response to the Russian aggression there. But also the fact that Brittney is a high-profile LGBTQ advocate and icon in many ways.”

Allred noted that it isn’t the first time an American has been imprisoned by Russian authorities. But Griner, one of the best women’s basketball players to ever play the game, is easily one of the most high-profile individuals to find herself in such a situation. She has played all nine seasons in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury, making seven all-star teams and winning a title in 2014. 

Since 2014, Griner, like many American women’s basketball players, has played in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason.

The timing is also striking, with Russia-U.S. relations deteriorating amid the former’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

“So this is not the first time in recent years that an American has been detained and then held either without reason or without a sufficient kind of explanation,” Allred said, as quoted by ESPN. “What’s obviously different here is that Brittney is an extremely high-profile athlete, and it’s happening during the course of a Russian-begun war in Ukraine, in which we are deeply opposed to what they’re doing.”

“This would normally be run through our embassy or consular services in the country,” he added. “It’s also true that we’re drawing down some of our embassy personnel in Moscow and the State Department has asked all Americans in Russian to leave. But I don’t think that’s going to impact the ability for them to advocate on her behalf.”

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Dems in Congress Opt to Keep Ban on Washington, D.C. Cannabis Sales

Congressional Democrats decided this week to maintain a prohibition on cannabis sales in Washington, D.C. despite previous suggestions that they were prepared to lift the ban and begin allowing legal sales. 

A drafted spending bill that was unveiled on Wednesday by House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, still included the so-called “Harris Rider,” which has precluded the District of Columbia from commercializing weed, despite the fact that D.C. voters legalized recreational pot use back in 2014. Tied up in this issue is the D.C. bid for statehood. 

Named for Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland, the rider has been a fixture of every appropriations bill since the passage of that legalization initiative. (The U.S. Congress oversees all laws in the District of Columbia.)

So while D.C. adults aged 21 and older have been able to legally possess cannabis for the last eight years, the dream of a regulated market in the nation’s capital has not been fully realized for cannabis users.

Politico explained that “D.C. residents are allowed to consume, grow and ‘gift’ cannabis products.” (“Gifting,” wherein a business sells other items and then “gifts,” the customer cannabis has been a popular work-around for pot sellers in jurisdictions where sales are still illegal.)

The development will be seen as a major disappointment for cannabis advocates, who have long targeted the elimination of the Harris Rider as a policy objective. 

As Politico noted, the inclusion of the rider “came as a surprise to some advocates because it was not included in funding packages put forth by the House and Senate,”  although “President Joe Biden’s proposed budget did include the controversial provision.”

A year ago, with Democrats officially taking back control of Congress and Biden sworn in as president, the outlook for cannabis reform looked bright. However, that hasn’t necessarily proven to be the case today. 

Senate Democrats released a version of their appropriations bill in October, which notably did not include the Harris Rider.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser applauded the omission.

“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 at the time. 

“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.”

Last week, more than 50 civil rights and cannabis advocacy groups urged Congress to remove the Harris Rider.

In a letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, among others, groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union noted that, because of its lack of statehood, D.C. “remains the only jurisdiction in the country that cannot regulate marijuana sales or fruitfully tap into the public health and safety benefits of legalization.”

“In one hand, Congress continues to make strides in advancing federal marijuana reform grounded in racial justice, while simultaneously being responsible for prohibiting the very jurisdiction that led the country in legalizing marijuana through this lens from being able to regulate it. This conflict and contradiction must end now,” Queen Adesuyi, Senior National Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.

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