This morning, on Jan. 15, the House Subcommittee on Health of the Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing covering six different marijuana-related pieces of legislation currently on Capitol Hill.
The hearing, titled “Cannabis Policies for the New Decade,” featured a panel of speakers who testified before the House of Representatives committee about the federal government’s potential to study, allow, and regulate the use of cannabis. It was the committee’s first-ever hearing on cannabis, despite it being the oldest committee in Congress.
“After years of working to advance cannabis reform in Congress, this critical hearing is an important milestone where another major congressional committee focused time and attention on our movement,” said Cannabis Caucus Co-Chair Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, in a statement. “It was important to hear a number of senior members of Congress affirming the change that is taking place at the state level and affirming the contradictions that are created by the federal government being out of step and out of touch. It’s past time for Congress to catch up with the American people.”
The panel included Matthew J. Strait, senior policy advisor in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Diversion Control Division, which is focused on preventing, detecting and investigating the diversion of controlled pharmaceuticals. It also included Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director for regulatory programs at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora D. Volkow, who will be a familiar face for those who have watched past congressional hearings on cannabis.
The bills covered by the Jan. 15 committee meeting included:
H.R. 171, the “Legitimate Use of Medicinal Marihuana Act“
H.R. 601, the “Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2019“
H.R. 1151, the “Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act“
H.R. 2843, the “Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act”
H.R. 3797, the “Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2019“
H.R. 3884, the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019” or the “MORE Act of 2019”
Advocates from all aspects of the cannabis industry had been keeping an eye on the calendar for the hearing, which ended up lasting over three hours. However, many of them were disappointed with what they heard.
“At a time when nearly 70 percent of all Americans want to end our failed federal policy of blanket cannabis criminalization, it is unfortunate to see so many participants at this hearing advocating largely for business as usual,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri.
Altieri pointed out that most Americans now have to access legal cannabis, so they should now be reasonably questioning why federal regulators continued to use dated talking points.
“The fact of the matter is that legalization and regulation work,” Altieri said. “Eleven states regulate the adult use of marijuana and 33 states provide for medical cannabis access. The time for federal policy to reflect this political and cultural reality is now, Congress should promptly approve the MORE Act and put the failed legacy of marijuana criminalization behind us.”
We asked Altieri what it felt like to watch the three federal agencies that currently play a big role in the cannabis research bottleneck talk about the need for more research.
“It was borderline painful to watch a multi-hour hearing where the very people in control of greenlighting further marijuana research bemoaned the lack of marijuana research,” Altieri replied. “Not only is there generally not a lack of research available, with around 32,000 peer-reviewed studies available on PubMed, but if the witnesses testifying truly wanted more information they could begin opening the doors to further study tomorrow.”
Prior to the hearing, the National Cannabis Roundtable, Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce, Cannabis Trade Federation, Minority Cannabis Business Association and National Cannabis Industry Association sent the committee a letter.
The letter outlined a series of policies the groups are in favor of, including federal oversight, the descheduling of cannabis, the removal of barriers to cannabis research, limiting minor access to cannabis, social equity in the cannabis industry, and more.
MCBA’s Policy Committee Chair, Khurshid Khoja, further explained why today’s hearing was so important.
“MCBA members represent small businesses from those communities most disenfranchised by discriminatory enforcement of past state laws prohibiting cannabis,” Khoja said. “MCBA’s proposed model policies and laws have served as frameworks for effective implementation of social equity at the state and local level, and we invite members of Congress to evaluate these proposals in tandem with efforts to deschedule cannabis.”
A Few Positive Moments from the Hearing
Yes, the hearing certainly featured three federal agencies parroting the talking points they’ve been using for years around the research they’re holding up, but some members of the committee had their moments.
The formerly anti-pot Congressman Joe Kennedy setup this fascinating line of questioning around descheduling. First, he asked Volklow if descheduling marijuana would make it easier to research. She tried to talk in circles, but he kept questioning her until she relented and admitted moving cannabis to Schedule II would in fact make it easier to research. Generally, it was a surprising day from a guy whose family has funded the national effort to keep marijuana criminalized.
Also, Congressman Tim Griffin from Virginia asked Strait, the DEA representative, about the absolute mess that is their licensing process to authorize cultivators of research-grade marijuana.
“Will the DEA move expeditiously on getting people permits?” Griffin asked.
Strait claimed the agency has been working expeditiously, it just didn’t seem like it to the committee. He also noted the people who applied in 2017 got refunded their money if they applied again in 2019.
Finally, Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan had one of the funnier takes.
“I was the keynote speaker at Hash Bash this past year. Yes, you should laugh. My staff told me I couldn’t,” she told the panel of feds admitting she didn’t know how it got scheduled. But she said she learned a lot from scientists she ran into.
She went on to explain the reason why she and her colleagues kept asking the same questions about why we can’t have more cannabis research, if everyone is saying we need more cannabis research: “Because we don’t understand what the answers are.”
Dingell added, “Every one of us has a story from our district that somehow someway there is a problem and we’re in the biggest catch-22 that you can ever see or imagine. So you’ve gotta help us figure out how we’re going to get out of this.”
TELL US, why do you think the federal government hasn’t made pot legal yet?