Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi touched a raw nerve in America’s culture wars when she stood up for a provision long sought by the cannabis industry as a condition in the Democrats’ coronavirus recovery package. It turned into a public spat with the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and won Pelosi much derision from conservatives.
A review of the facts reveals that, even if Pelosi did not play her cards impeccably, the provision isn’t so funny after all. And neither is the notion that cannabis is “essential” in this time of crisis.
Pelosi Plugs SAFE Banking Act
At issue is the Secure & Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which has now been folded into the Democrats’ recovery package. The SAFE Banking Act passed the House last September but faces a challenge in the Republican-controlled Senate. The measure would reform banking regulations impacting institutions that handle cannabis-related accounts – allowing cannabis businesses operating in conformity with state law to access financial services. A group of attorneys general from 38 states and territories penned an open letter urging Congress to pass the bill last year.
Under current federal law, financial institutions face stiff penalties for carrying out business with cannabis enterprises, as the 1970 Controlled Substance Act classes cannabis a Schedule 1 controlled substance, with no legitimate medical purpose.
At a July 31 press conference, Pelosi was challenged by a reporter, who said that the SAFE Banking Act was “not directly related to COVID.”
“I don’t agree with you that cannabis is not related to this,” Pelosi replied, according to a transcript from The Hill. “This is a therapy that has proven successful.”
With Congress notoriously deadlocked on the package, it was inevitable GOP leaders would seize on this remark as propaganda ammo.
The Democrats’ $3.4 trillion stimulus package, dubbed the Health & Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, was approved by the House in May. It notes that the controversial provision would allow “access to financial services to cannabis-related legitimate businesses and service providers,” while limiting the amount of cash handled by those businesses.
Senate Republicans have countered with a $1.1 trillion package, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection & Schools (HEALS) Act. As USA Today notes, it also includes some measures that are pretty extraneous to the COVID-19 crisis – such as approximately $1.8 billion in funding for a new FBI building at its current location in Washington, DC.
Cultural Conservatives Hit Back
McConnell (despite having shepherded through the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and hemp-derived CBD) wasted little time in pouncing on Pelosi’s comment.
“She said that, with respect to this virus, marijuana is ‘a therapy that has proven successful.’ You can’t make this up,” he said, according to C-SPAN footage transcribed by Marijuana Moment. He added with smug sarcasm: “I hope she shares her breakthrough with Dr. Fauci” – a reference to National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, leading figure on the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted: “Incredibly irresponsible – Pelosi just doubled down on her $3 trillion dollar cannabis legislation, falsely claiming that it’s a proven therapy for coronavirus. Hey Nancy, let’s focus on the pandemic. Not pot.”
The next to pounce was the anti-legalization lobbying group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which said that including the provision “makes no sense.”
“Numerous industries have been forced to completely shut down and have made great sacrifices to comply with shutdowns and limitations on their business operations. The marijuana industry has been a painfully obvious exception to this. This industry has used its lobbying arm to force state officials to keep their storefronts open, sued leaders who shut them down, and bragged incessantly about their revenues,” SAM President Kevin Sabet said, according to The Hill.
“Simply put, we cannot allow much-needed aid bills such as this to be loaded up with the wish lists of Big Pot,” he concluded. “Thankfully, due to conversations with key members of Congress and continued advocacy by SAM’s supporters, it is unlikely these provisions will make it to the president’s desk.”
But the National Cannabis Industry Association was just as quick with the counter-punch, stressing the importance of the industry’s ability to avoid handling cash during the pandemic.
“Given the nearly quarter of a million people employed by the cannabis industry and the potential dangers associated with being essential service providers during this pandemic, it is vital that these workers not be forced to deal with additional risks created by cash-only transactions. We strongly urge the House to pass this legislation and hope the Senate will seriously consider the health and safety impacts caused by lack of access to banking,” an NCAI official was quoted by The Hill.
Cannabis and COVID-19: What the Science Says
Pelosi admittedly committed a tactical error in implying (although not actually stating) that cannabis has “proven successful” in treating COVID-19. The Food & Drug Administration has already sent warning letters to companies making claims about the benefits of CBD products in treating coronavirus, according to USA Today.
However, granting Pelosi some wiggle room, we can note that cannabis has other therapeutic properties that become more critical in times of crisis – such as stress relief. This may be evidenced by booming sales in states that have legalized, in spite of record levels of unemployment.
But cannabinoids may indeed hold therapeutic potential for COVID-19 – even if it has not yet been “proven.” CBS News reports that scientists at the University of Nebraska and Texas Biomedical Research Institute are recommending the study of CBD as a potential treatment for lung inflammation caused by COVID-19. The scholars put out their call last month in a peer-reviewed article in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity journal.
Emily Earlenbaugh of Mindful Cannabis Consulting explained to CBSN that the researchers’ hopes pin upon CBD’s ability to affect cytokines—proteins involved in cell signaling and especially critical in inflammation and immune response. In COVID-19 patients, the immune system can overreact and release too many cytokines, creating a so-called “cytokine storm.”
“Cytokines will normally help to create inflammation to fight off infections,” Earlenbaugh said. “But in these extreme cases, you see so much cytokines being released into the system that it creates a cytokine storm. You might see high fever, inflammation, severe fatigue and nausea, and in serious cases, it can lead to death through organ failure.”
Research has already shown CBD’s effectiveness in inhibiting production of one cytokine, known as IL-6.
An overview of the research by Project CBD notes that British medical journal The Lancet has drawn attention to “accumulating evidence” that indicates “patients with severe COVID-19 might have a cytokine storm syndrome.” A report in Science Daily cites findings that this syndrome may have been behind many of the 50 million deaths associated with the 1918-20 “Spanish flu” pandemic. A 2015 study in Mediators of Inflammation journal found CBD inhibited IL-6 cytokine production in asthma patients.
In an analysis for Project CBD, Dr. Matthew Elmes, director of new product development for California cannabis company Care By Design, saw a possible role for CBD in treating COVID-19, but warned that “clickbait headlines” risked delegitimizing the entire enterprise before the research is in.
“Unvetted science is fueling COVID-19 misinformation,” Elmes wrote. “More than ever, we need the critical eye of scientists during the peer-review process to help vet the bullsh*t.”
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