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Biden Approaches Trifecta of Cannabis Reform Wish List

Joe Biden passes bill for cannabis research
Scientists researching cannabis. PHOTO Blue Planet Studio

Politics

Biden Approaches Trifecta of Cannabis Reform Wish List

Historic actions giving the cannabis industry access to financial services, expungement of convictions for possession and allowing medical research are done or nearly done.

Perhaps President Joe Biden is being swept along by the tide of history—or is shrewd enough to propitiously read the prevailing cultural climate. But thanks to his signature (or pledge thereof), the cannabis community is on the cusp of three major breakthroughs.

Expungement and Financial Access

After a long career of ambiguity on the cannabis question, in October Biden encouraged advocates by announcing pardons for all federal offenses of simple cannabis possession—and calling on governors to follow suit on the state level (where it would have far more practical effect, since the big majority of such cases are under state law).

Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Dave Joyce (R-OH) followed through on this move with a bill to incentivize state and local governments to expunge the criminal records of small-scale cannabis offenders. The Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act would appropriate $20 million dollars to the Justice Department for assisting states and localities in reviewing and expunging cannabis convictions. 

This would appear to face slim odds in the lame-duck Congress, where the Democrats will maintain their razor-thin majority in the Senate but cede the House to similarly narrow GOP control pursuant to last month’s mid-term elections. Senate Republicans have six times killed the Secure & Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow cannabis businesses operating in conformity with state law to access financial services, including the federal banking system. 

But now there is an initiative afoot to combine the two measures as a “SAFE Plus” bill. The idea has the support of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. On Oct. 31, Schumer told Yahoo! Finance that Congress is “very close to passing cannabis banking and expungement legislation,” after he’d made progress in swaying “a bunch of Republican senators.”

And there have indeed been signs of GOP intransigence starting to bend on these questions—the current version of the SAFE Banking Act was introduced in March by Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican. In announcing the bill, Daines said: “My bipartisan bill will provide needed certainty for legal Montana cannabis businesses and give them the ability to freely use banks, credit unions and other financial institutions without the fear of punishment. This, in turn, will help increase public safety, reduce crime, support Montana small businesses, create jobs and boost local economies. A win-win for all.”

Politico now reports that in the countdown to the new Congress, which takes over in January, the Department of Justice has been meeting with staffers from the offices of Republican senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Chuck Grassley of Iowa to discuss concerns about the SAFE Banking Act. A DoJ memo on the matter, requested by Senate Republicans and released last week by Punchbowl News, states that some of the bill’s language “could significantly complicate law enforcement investigations and prosecutions.”

There is hope that if accommodations with the DoJ can be worked out and Republican fears allayed, SAFE Plus can be on Biden’s desk by year’s end—with his signature practically a foregone conclusion. A spokesperson for Sen. Daines told Cannabis Now: “Discussions are ongoing and we’re trying hard to get SAFE passed into law this year.”

Widening Medical Research

On Dec. 2 President Biden signed legislation getting the federal government out of the way of medical research into cannabis, and encouraging the development of new commercial drugs derived from the plant.  The bipartisan Medical Marijuana & Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act was jointly introduced in the Senate by Grassley, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI), and won unanimous consent in the upper chamber.

A breakdown by legal analysis Beveridge & Diamond notes that the new law has three major measures. It provides a mechanism for the scientific study of cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD) for medical purposes; it opens a pathway for the FDA to approve commercial production of drugs containing or derived from cannabis; and it protects doctors, who may now discuss with their patients the potential benefits or harms of using cannabis and cannabis derivatives.  

Passage of the law is raising high hopes for prompt Congressional action on SAFE Plus. 

Last-Minute Setback

Chuck Schumer was mustering support to get SAFE Plus included as a rider in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. He won support for this plan from Senate Republicans including Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Rand Paul of Kentucky. But that effort appears to have collapsed last week, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor to excoriate the plan.

“The Senate has once again dodged its responsibilities,” House Cannabis Caucus co-chair Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Politico. “But it’s not over until the final minutes of this session.”

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