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CBD Industry Caught Between Regulators & Law Enforcement

By Gregory S. Kaufman
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The consumer-facing CBD industry operates in a regulatory gray zone even as it grows in prominence. Illegal to market as an unapproved drug, dietary supplement or food additive under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, nevertheless, the CBD industry has flourished with ingestible products widely available. With the increased consumer interest in CBD, headwinds in the form of mislabeled or contaminated products and unsubstantiated therapeutic claims, combined with regulatory uncertainty, continue to be a drag on legitimate market participants and consumer perception of CBD products. The regulation of hemp-derived CBD falls under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its charge to protect the public health. Despite having jurisdiction to regulate CBD products, the FDA has done little to bring regulatory certainty to the CBD marketplace. However, the FDA, with the assistance of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), recently took important steps that can be described as “getting their ducks in a row” for the eventual regulation of hemp-derived CBD in consumer products. Always looming is the threat of criminal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) by the Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for plants and products not meeting the definition of hemp.

Prior to July 2020, the FDA’s regulation of the CBD industry was limited to a public hearing, data collection, an update report to Congress on evaluating the use of CBD in consumer products, and issuing warning letters to those marketing products for treatment of serious diseases and conditions. The FDA recognizes that regulatory uncertainty does not benefit the Agency, the industry or consumers and, therefore, is evaluating a potential lawful pathway for the marketing of CBD products. In furtherance of this effort, the FDA took several recent actions, including:

  • Producing a CBD Testing Report to Congress1
  • Providing draft guidance on Quality Considerations for Clinical Research2
  • Sending a CBD Enforcement Policy to the Office of Management and Budget for pre-release review and guidance3

FDAlogoNot to be overlooked, the NIST announced a program to help testing laboratories accurately measure compounds, including delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD, in marijuana, hemp and cannabis products, the goal being to increase accuracy in product labeling and to assist labs in identifying THC concentrations in order to differentiate between legal hemp and federally illegal marijuana. These actions appear to be important and necessary steps towards a still be to determined federal regulatory framework for CBD products. Unfortunately, a seemingly innocent interim final rule issued by the DEA on August 21, 2020 (Interim Final Rule), may prove to be devastating to hemp processors and the CBD industry as a whole.4 While the DEA describes its actions as merely conforming DEA regulations with changes to the CSA resulting from the 2018 Farm Bill, those actions may make it exceedingly difficult for hemp to be processed for cannabinoid extraction without violating the CSA in the process.

  1. FDA Report to Congress “Sampling Study of the Current Cannabidiol Marketplace to Determine the Extent That Products are Mislabeled or Adulterated

On July 8, 2020, the FDA produced a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations detailing the results of a sampling study to determine the extent to which CBD products in the marketplace are mislabeled or adulterated. The study confirmed what the FDA, Congress and the marketplace already knew – that in this regulatory vacuum, there are legitimate concerns about the characteristics of consumer CBD products. These concerns include whether products contain the CBD content as described in the label, whether products contain other cannabinoids (including THC) and whether products were contaminated with heavy metals or pesticides. With these concerns in mind, the FDA tested 147 CBD and hemp products purchased online for the presence of eleven cannabinoids, including determinations of total CBD and total THC, and certain heavy metals. The key tests results included the following:

  • 94% contained CBD
  • 2 products that listed CBD on the label did not contain CBD
  • 18% contained less than 80% of the amount of CBD indicated
  • 45% contained within 20% of the amount listed
  • 37% contained more than 20% of the amount of CBD indicated
  • 49% contained THC or THCA at levels above the lowest concentration that can be detected
  • Heavy metals were virtually nonexistent in the samples
The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Due to the limited sample size, the FDA indicated its intention to conduct a long-term study of randomly selected products across brands, product categories and distribution channels with an emphasis on more commercially popular products. In furtherance of this effort, on August 13, 2020, the FDA published a notice soliciting submissions for a contract to help study CBD by “collecting samples and assessing the quantities of CBD and related cannabinoids, as well as potential associated contaminants such as toxic elements, pesticides, industrial chemicals, processing solvents and microbial contaminants, in foods and cosmetics through surveys of these commodities.”5

Even though this report was not voluntarily produced by the FDA, rather it was required by Congress’ Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, it importantly solidified a basis for the need for regulation. With less than half of the products tested falling within the 20% labeling margin of error, this suggests rampant and intentionally inaccurate labeling and/or significant variability in the laboratory testing for cannabinoids.

  1. NIST Program to Help Laboratories Accurately Measure Compounds in Hemp, Marijuana and Cannabis Products

 Proper labeling of cannabinoid content requires reliable and accurate measurement of the compounds found in hemp, marijuana and cannabis products. As part of NIST’s Cannabis Quality Assurance Program, NIST intends to help labs produce consistent measurement results for product testing and to allow forensic labs to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.6 As succinctly stated by a NIST research chemist, “When you walk into a store or dispensary and see a label that says 10% CBD, you want to know that you can trust that number.” Recognizing the lack of standards due to cannabis being a Schedule I drug for decades, NIST intends to produce standardized methods and reference materials the help labs achieve high-quality measurements.

NIST’s efforts to provide labs with the tools needed to accurately measure cannabis compounds will serve as an important building block for future regulation of CBD by the FDA. Achieving nationwide consistency in measurements will make future FDA regulations addressing CBD content in products achievable and meaningful.

  1. FDA Industry Guidance on Quality Considerations for Clinical Research on Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds

On July 21, the FDA released draft guidance to the industry addressing quality considerations for clinical research of cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds related to the development of drugs. These recommendations are limited to the development of human drugs and do not apply to other FDA-regulated products, including food additives and dietary supplements. However, by indicating that cannabis with .3% or less of THC can be used for clinical research and discussing testing methodologies for cannabis botanical raw material, intermediaries and finished drug products, the FDA is potentially signaling to the consumer-facing CBD industry how the industry should be calculating percentage THC throughout the product formulation process.

While testing of botanical raw material is guided by the USDA Interim Final Rule on Hemp Production,7 the FDA warns that manufacturing processes may generate intermediaries or accumulated by-products that exceed the .3% THC threshold and may be considered by the DEA to be Schedule I controlled substances. This could be the case even if the raw material and finished product do not exceed .3% THC. The FDA’s guidance may eventually become the standard applied to regulated CBD products in a form other than as a drug. However, through its guidance, the FDA is warning the CBD industry that the DEA may also have a significant and potentially destructive role to play in the manufacturing process for CBD products.

  1. FDA Submits CBD Enforcement Policy Guidance to the White House

On July 22, 2020, the FDA submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget a “Cannabidiol Enforcement Policy – Draft Guidance for Industry” for its review. The contents of the document are not known outside of the Executive Branch and there is no guarantee as to when, or even if, it will be released. Nevertheless, given the FDA’s interest in a legal pathway forward for CBD products, the submission is looked upon as a positive step forward. With this guidance, it is important to remember that the FDA’s primary concern is the safety of the consuming public and it continues to collect data on the effects of ingestible CBD on the human body.

It is doubtful that this guidance will place CBD products in the dietary supplement category given the legal constraints on the FDA and the lack of safety data available to the FDA. The guidance likely does not draw distinctions among products using CBD isolate (as found in Epidiolex), full or broad spectrum hemp extract, despite the FDA’s expressed interest in the differences between these compositions.8 Instead, the FDA is more likely to establish guardrails for CBD ingestible products without authorizing their marketing. These could include encouragement of Good Manufacturing Practices, accuracy in labeling, elimination of heavy metal and pesticide contamination, and more vigorous enforcement against marketing involving the making of disease claims. The FDA is not expected to prescribe dosage standards, but may suggest a maximum daily intake of CBD for individuals along the lines of the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency guideline of a maximum of 70 mg of CBD per day.9

Identifying concerns in the current marketplace; promoting accuracy in testing; highlighting the line between FDA regulation and DEA enforcement; and proposing guidance to the industry all appear to be signs of substantial progress on forging a regulatory path for ingestible CBD products.

  1. The DEA’s Interim Final Rule Addressing Derivatives and Extracts Could Have a Devastating Impact on the Cannabinoid Industry

The seemingly benign Interim Final Rule published by the DEA in August with the stated intent of aligning DEA regulations with the changes to the CSA caused by the 2018 Farm Bill’s definition of hemp could cut the legs out from under the hemp-derived CBD industry.10 Claiming it has “no discretion with respect to these amendments,” the DEA rule states that “a cannabis derivative, extract, or product that exceeds the 0.3% delta-9 THC limit is a schedule I controlled substance, even if the plant from which it was derived contained 0.3% or less delta-9 THC on a dry weight basis.”11 Under this interpretation of the 2018 Farm Bill language and the CSA, it is unclear whether processors of hemp for cannabinoid extraction would be in possession of a controlled substance if, at any time, a derivative or extract contains more than 0.3% delta-9 THC even though the derivative or extract may be in that state temporarily and/or eventually falls below the 0.3% threshold when included in the final product. It would not be unusual for extracts created in the extraction process to exceed 0.3% delta-9 THC in the course of processing cannabinoids from hemp.

The implications of the rule may have a chilling effect on those involved in, or providing services to, hemp processors. It is known, as revealed by the Secretary of the USDA to Congress, that the DEA does not look favorably on the legalization of hemp and development of the hemp industry. The DEA’s position is that the rule merely incorporates amendments to the CSA caused by the 2018 Farm Bill’s definition of hemp into DEA’s regulations. In doing so, the DEA made explicit its interpretation of the Farm Bill’s hemp provisions that it presumably has held since the language became operative. What is not known is whether this changes the DEA’s appetite for enforcing the law under its stated interpretation, which to date it has refrained from doing. Nevertheless, the industry is likely to respond in two ways. First, by submitting comments to the Interim Final Rule, which will be accepted for a 60-day period, beginning on August 21, 2020. Anyone concerned about the implications of this rule should submit comments by the deadline. Second, by the filing of a legal challenge to the rulemaking on grounds that the rule does not correctly reflect Congressional intent in legalizing hemp and, consequently, the rulemaking process violated the Administrative Procedure Act. If both fail to mitigate harm caused to the CBD industry, the industry will have to look to Congress for relief. In the meantime, if the hemp processing industry is disrupted by this rule, cannabis processors holding licenses in legal states may be looked upon to meet the supply needs of the CBD product manufacturers.

The Interim Final Rule also addresses synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols, finding them to be Schedule I controlled substances regardless of the delta-9 THC content. This part of the rule could impact the growing market for products containing delta-8 THC. While naturally occurring in hemp in small quantities, delta-8 THC is typically produced by chemically converting CBD, thereby likely making the resulting delta-8 THC to be considered synthetically derived.

The hemp-derived cannabinoid industry continues to suffer from a “one step forward, two steps back” syndrome. The USDA’s highly anticipated Interim Final Rule on hemp production (released Oct. 31, 2019) immediately caused consternation in the CBD industry, and continues to, due to certain restrictive provisions in the rule. Disapproval in the rule is evident by the number of states deciding to operate under their pilot programs for the 2020 growing season, rather than under the conditions of the Interim Final Rule.12 With signs of real progress by the FDA on regulating the CBD products industry, yet another interim final rule could undercut the all-important processing portion of the cannabinoid supply chain by injecting the threat of criminality where there is no intent by processors to violate the law. It is not a stretch to suggest that both the USDA and FDA are being significantly influenced by the DEA. The DEA’s Interim Final Rule is just another troubling example of the legal-illegal dichotomy of cannabis that continues to plague the CBD industry.


References

  1.  U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Report to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Sampling Study of the Current Cannabidiol Marketplace to Determine the Extent That Products are Mislabeled or Adulterated (July 2020).
  2. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds Quality Considerations for Clinical Research: Guidance for Industry(July 2020).
  3. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Cannabidiol Enforcement Policy: Draft Guidance for Industry (July 2020).
  4. Implementation of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, 85 FR 51639 (Aug. 21, 2020) (to be codified at 21 C.F.R. §§ 1308, 1312).
  5. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Collection and Analysis of Products Containing CBD and Cannabinoids, Notice ID RFQ_75F40120R00020 (Aug. 13, 2020).
  6. Nat’l Inst. of Standards and Tech., NIST to Help Labs Achieve Accurate THC, CBD Measurements (July 21, 2020).
  7. Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115-334, title X, 10113 (codified at 7 U.S.C. §§ 1639o-1639s).
  8. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Report to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Cannabidiol (CBD), p. 14 (March 2020).
  9. U.K. Food Standards Agency, Food Standards Agency Sets Deadline for the CBD Industry and Provides Safety Advice to Consumers (Feb. 2020) at https://www.food.gov.uk/news-alerts/news/food-standards-agency-sets-deadline-for-the-cbd-industry-and-provides-safety-advice-to-consumers.
  10. See supra n. 4.
  11. Id.
  12. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Status of State and Tribal Hemp Production Plans for USDA Approval (as of Aug. 26, 2020).

MORE Act Passes House Judiciary Committee

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to a press release published by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the House Judiciary Committee approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act by a 24-10 vote. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced The MORE Act (HR 2884), which now has 55 cosponsors. This marks the first time in history that a congressional committee approved a bill to legalize cannabis.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (Image credit: Ralph Alswang)

“Today’s vote marks a turning point for federal cannabis policy, and is truly a sign that prohibition’s days are numbered,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA. “Thanks to the diligent efforts of advocates and lawmakers from across the political spectrum, we’ve seen more progress in this Congress than ever before.”

A little bit of background on the bill: The MORE Act, if passed, would decriminalize cannabis completely on a federal level. It would remove it from the Controlled Substances Act, not reschedule it. If the bill were to pass, it would expunge all prior federal cannabis convictions. The bill provides for the establishment of the “Cannabis Justice Office,” which would develop a. program for reinvesting resources in those communities most affected by the war on drugs. That program would be funded by a 5% tax on cannabis commerce in states that have legal regulatory frameworks.

The bill also would allow the Small Business Administration to provide loans, grants and other support to cannabis-related businesses, as well as support state equity licensing programs. Through the bill, physicians in the Veteran Affairs system would be given permission to recommend medical cannabis to patients as well.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

“Supermajority public support for legalization, increasing recognition of the devastating impacts of prohibition on marginalized communities and people of color, and the undeniable success of state cannabis programs throughout the country are all helping to build momentum for comprehensive change in the foreseeable future,” says Smith.

According to NCIA, there was a recent amendment to the MORE Act that includes language from the Realizing Equitable & Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades (RESPECT) Resolution introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). That resolution is based on the white paper that NCIA’s Policy Council published back in March of 2019.

“There is still much work to be done, including the establishment of sound federal regulations for cannabis products,” says Smith. “This vote brings us one step closer to ending the disaster that is prohibition and repairing the harms it has caused while we continue the discussion in Congress about how to best regulate cannabis at the federal level. We urge lawmakers to move forward with this necessary bill without delay.”

What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Part 2: A Bill-By-Bill Review

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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Since the first session of the 115th Congress convened on January 3, 2017, twenty-four cannabis reform bills have been introduced, fifteen in the House and nine in the Senate. All of them address in varying ways the puzzles that have emerged as more and more states legalize cannabis in the face of federal prohibition. Some are narrow, some are broad, some are for medical cannabis only, some for recreational too, some have more bipartisan support than others, but all indicate in some manner the direction federal reform will eventually take.

H.R.1227 – Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017

Understanding the content and status of these bills and what they would mean for the industry if/when they are enacted, will help stakeholders anticipate changes that we know are bound to drop, and therefore be better prepared to adapt to them when they do.

Generally lacking in the journalism on cannabis is coverage and analysis of federal proposals deep enough to provide a useable understanding of the policies they stand to codify. As CIJ is dedicated to providing just such useable information to industry-insiders, this bill-by-bill review fills the gap.

All twenty-four bills fit rather neatly into one of three categories: De-scheduling/State Control Reform, Medical Cannabis Reform and Banking/Tax Reform. This second article in the series will look at the first category, and the next article will wrap up the last two.

De-Scheduling/State Control Reform

HR 1227 – Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017

Policy: The bill proposes two major changes to the CSA. The first is to strike cannabis from the statute, essentially leaving the regulation or prohibition of it up to each state. The second is to insert into the CSA a provision that makes it a federal offense to transport cannabis from one state to another in any way that violates state law. In other words, if a state wished to continue prohibiting cannabis, it would be both a federal and state crime for anyone to transport cannabis into that state. Likewise, if a state wished to legalize and regulate cannabis, but wanted to prevent out-of-state cannabis from entering, the transportation provision would permit that state to do so.

Impact: Industries in states that have already legalized cannabis will structurally remain the same. Banking will open up for these state businesses, and so will the opportunity to write-off ordinary business expenses. Questions about contract enforcement and risks of federal prosecution will become moot, and when state regulatory bodies make decisions on how to govern the industry, they will no longer have to concern themselves with U.S. DOJ enforcement and/or prosecutorial policies. The big potential change will be seen if two or more contiguous states that have legalized cannabis decide to permit transport of the drug between their states. Markets will expand, opening access to new customers and challenges from new competitors. Licensees may also have the option to venue shop, and we could see states themselves competing with one another to attract cannabis business with the carrot of favorable regulations.

Representative Thomas Garett (R-VA)
Photo: C-SPAN

One possible pitfall to keep in mind is that this legislation could violate something in constitutional law known as the Dormant Commerce Clause—a topic CIJ will cover should it surface.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on February 27, 2017 by Representative Thomas Garett (R-VA)
  • Cosponsors: 4 Republican, 11 Democrat, 1 At-Large
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR 2528 – Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act of 2017

Policy: This bill would add to the CSA a provision specifically declaring no congressional intent to preempt state cannabis laws.

Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO)
Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr

Impact: HR 2528 would rule out the potential for a judicial resolution to the federalism controversy. Most legal challenges to state legalization regimes have relied on a theory of Supremacy Clause preemption. Most notably was the 2014 case initiated by Oklahoma and Nebraska against Colorado, which you can find broken down here. Although the Supreme Court denied to hear that case, the issue is outstanding and remains an important factor, if not the central factor, in cannabis cases currently pending in federal court. Under this reform, state cannabis laws would be safe from invalidation, but it is less clear whether a mere anti-preemption clause would strip the federal government of its other powers under the CSA, or alter in any way the current status of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance. Questions arising under such uncertainty would likely have to go through long and hotly contested litigation before we have concrete answers. So although this proposal would resolve the ticklish issue of preemption, it leaves unaddressed the many other conundrums posed by federal-state divergence.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on May 18, 2017 by Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR 1841 – Regulate Marihuana Like Alcohol Act

Policy: This bill sets to accomplish a number of different reforms: remove cannabis from CSA; allow for import and export except into states that wish to prohibit cannabis altogether and/or prohibit its importation into the state; decriminalize cannabis use on national forest land; require a permit from the Secretary of the Treasury to import cannabis and to engage in any cannabis business activity; mandate businesses that obtain a Treasury permit to also comply with all State laws (so if state wants to continue to prohibit, they may); share jurisdiction over the administration and enforcement of the new federal laws between the DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabaco, Firearms and Explosives which is to be renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, Firearms and Explosives.

Representative Jared Polis (D-CO)
Photo: Joshua Lawton, Flickr

Impact: If enacted, this bill will have many of the same impacts as the abovementioned HR 1227- Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017. The IMPACT section for that bill will also pertain to this bill, with the following exception: by requiring a permit to operate a cannabis business from the Department of Treasury, the bill would add a layer of regulation on top of state law. Treasury Permits would be conditioned on permitees complying “with all other Federal laws relating to production, sale and consumption of marijuana.” Although §302 of the bill limits Treasury’s discretion in denying applications to only certain, enumerated disqualifying factors, the “other Federal laws” the bill refers to could embody any number of policy and jurisdictional preferences either enacted by the Congress or promulgated by the executive agencies charged with administration. At the current stage of speculation the best we can say is that descheduling cannabis under this bill would be a benefit to the industry, but out of all of the present proposals the provisions authorizing federal regulation present the greatest uncertainty for the shape the future of the industry might take.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on March 30, 2017 by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican, 14 Democrat
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
    • Energy and Commerce
    • Ways and Means
    • Agriculture
      • Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry
    • Natural Resources
      • Subcommittee on Federal Lands

HR 975

Statute: Adds one sentence to the CSA that excludes its application to any person acting in compliance with State cannabis laws.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Impact: The bill would have the same impact as the above HR 1227 – Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017, with the only exception that the transportation provision in HR 1227 makes it clear that states will be permitted to prohibit the importation of cannabis from other states if they want to. This bill, without speaking directly to the matter of interstate importation, could leave the question open-ended until resolved through judicial interpretation.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on February 7, 2017 by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
  • Cosponsors: 8 Republican, 12 Democrat, 2 At-Large
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

Legislative Update

On Tuesday, August 1st, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the twenty-fourth cannabis reform bill. The bill has yet to be assigned a number or referred to committee, but it is called the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017, and makes some interesting contributions to the lineup of reform proposals.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Photo: Nick Fisher, Flickr

For legalization purposes, the bill both removes cannabis from the CSA and removes prohibitions on importing and exporting. The above analysis for descheduling and import/export would apply to Booker’s bill in the same way. The interesting twist thrown in is how criminal and racial justice objectives are linked to incentives for states to legalize. The ultimate decision to legalize or not in a given state will continue to be the prerogative of each state, but the catch is that if a state does not legalize cannabis and the number of arrests for cannabis offenses in that state disproportionately impacts minority or low-income citizens, then the federal government will pull funding it provides to that state for criminal justice-related programs. This could push more states who would otherwise not legalize onto the reform bandwagon. Such states will have to pit how much they value federal funds against how much they value criminalizing cannabis. If the former outweighs the latter, policy logic will dictate that they legalize. Updates on this bill, and movement on any others, will be tracked by CIJ.

For the next piece in this series, we will review the bills currently pending in Congress that cover medical cannabis reform and banking/tax reform. Stay tuned for the latest on what’s happening around Capitol Hill and in federal cannabis policy circles.

What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Cannabis Reform Proposals and the 115th Congress

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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As CIJ readers are probably aware, last month Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017—the annual budget, in other words. Lying within this 1,665-page document is Section 537, which for one year restricts the Department of Justice from using any funds to prevent states from implementing their medical cannabis laws. Medical cannabis businesses and patients can take some solace in this restriction. Last summer, the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting in San Francisco, confirmed that this appropriations rider prevents federal prosecutors from bringing suit against medical cannabis businesses and users operating in compliance with state law. Two problems remain glaring, however: one, the protection only applies to medical cannabis activity, not recreational; and two, it is only guaranteed to last for one fiscal year.

To be sure, for the 115th Congress to address the profusion of issues emerging from the nationwide legalization movement, they must do something more. Various reform proposals have in fact been introduced during the current congressional session, and in order to fully digest where they stand and what they have the potential to accomplish, it will help to make sure that we know how they fit within federal legislative procedure.

Catching Up to Speed with the Legislative Process 

How A Bill Becomes A Law
Photo: Mary-Frances Main

Whenever confronting a question about government and politics, it is never a bad idea to start at the source of authority. In America, that source is of course the Constitution, and in Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2, We The People have given to Congress the power to “determine the rules of its proceedings”.  When we remember back to the School House Rock cartoon for How A Bill Becomes A Law, the majority of political maneuvering behind the basic process taught in the cartoon actually happens according to these ‘rules’ or ‘resolutions’. In fact, at the beginning of each new Congress (every two years) each chamber, and each committee and subcommittee within each chamber, votes on the rules that will govern how they are to go about their legislative business. Traditionally, the rules from the previous Congress are carried over by this vote with only minor tweaks. On top of that, both parties in each chamber have their own internal rules and procedures for setting their policy agenda, directing political strategy, and determining which members will be nominated to certain leadership positions and committee posts. Playing the game of politics according to this layer cake of rules is a necessary part of the work of a legislator, and is often as important a factor in how our country is actually governed as is who wins election to office and what substantive provisions are formally enacted into law. So for the purposes of understanding federal cannabis reform, let’s take a quick look into the procedural status of the relevant legislation and who is in a position to influence what happens to it; then, when reviewing the policies they stand to codify, we will also understand the legislative landscape they must navigate.

Rep. Rohrabacher launches the Cannabis Caucus, Photo via Earl Blumenauer/YouTube

A good place to start is February 16, 2017 when Republican Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Don Young (R-AK) along with Democratic Congressmen Earl Blumenaur (D-OR) and Jared Polis (D-CO) launched the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. Under House and Senate rules, such a caucus must formally register with the House Committee on Administration as a Congressional Member Organization (CMO), disclosing its officers and members and declaring its purpose. These CMOs are sometimes referred to by different names: caucuses, conferences, coalitions, task forces, etc. The best known of these are the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses and the House and Senate Republican Conferences. By setting party policy, driving legislative strategy, promoting party cohesion and rewarding party loyalty, these largest of CMOs dominate partisan activity on Capitol Hill. Smaller CMOs, on the other hand, advance only specific interests and often cross the partisan divide. The Cannabis Caucus, for instance, was formed to catalyze a federal response to the nationwide legalization movement, and its “Path to Marijuana Reform” is a large part of the spate of bills that have been dropped into the congressional hopper over the past six months.

All in all there are twenty cannabis reform bills currently pending in Congress. In the House, all but two of the fourteen bills there have been referred to either the Energy & Commerce Committee or the Judiciary Committee, and all but one of the six in the Senate have been referred to either the Finance or Judiciary Committees.

A Note on Committees & Procedure

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), is on the Ways and Means Committee
Photo: Michael Campbell

Under House and Senate rules, bills are referred to committees by matching the former’s subject matter to the latter’s jurisdiction. In the House, the Speaker may attach time limits for committee action, refer a bill or portions of a bill to multiple committees and determine the sequence in which they are to be considered. The Speaker may also convene an ad hoc committee to consider a bill, and “make such other provision as may be considered appropriate.” As can be gleaned, the Speakership holds substantial procedural powers, and is in fact the only congressional leadership position created by the Constitution. The Senate’s counterpart, the majority leader, has in comparison less discretion in moving along legislative business.

At the next step, both the House and Senate grant each committee the authority to make their own rules on how they are to consider bills. Once referred, committee chairs generally decide to further refer a bill to a subcommittee, hold hearings, subpoena evidence and witnesses, call ‘markup’ sessions to propose and debate amendments, and finally to schedule a vote to report bills back to the chamber floor. If a committee chair wishes to kill a bill, these procedural powers provide wide, though not absolute, authority to do so. Jockeying for a chairmanship is therefore big game in the life of a legislator. Ultimately, members are nominated and elected to their respective committees and chairs according to the rules of their parties’ caucus or conference, and upon a vote of approval on the floor. Seniority is only one factor in these votes, and so because nothing is predetermined, these intraparty contests can explain a great deal about member behavior.

With that background to help triangulate Capitol Hill politics, we should now be better equipped to look into the cannabis bills pending before the 115th Congress, the committees to which they have been referred, and their procedural status. Stay tuned for the next article in this series when we will begin our bill-by-bill review.

Congress Passes Budget With Protections for Medical Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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On May 1st, Congress reached a bipartisan deal to keep the government open and funded through September 30th, 2017. Congress approved the appropriations bill that sets the government’s spending with an important section in it relating to cannabis. Section 537 on page 230 states that the Department of Justice cannot use funds to interfere with states’ legal medical cannabis programs.

The bill uses similar language to The Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, a bill that was originally introduced in 2013 to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money on enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in states with legal medical cannabis programs. This new appropriations bill, with the language in section 537, effectively achieves the same thing. “None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States of… to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana,” reads the bill. The language includes a mention of the 40 or so states and territories with some form of medical cannabis program, legislation or bill.

The language of section 537 (second half)

This means that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is relatively powerless to go on a sort of ‘crackdown’ on medical cannabis programs. Given Sessions’ previous comments and general views on cannabis, this should put cannabis industry stakeholders at ease for the time being. Of course, this budget is only for the 2017 fiscal year, so come September, the same or similar language needs to be included in the next appropriations bill. With Jeff Sessions’ task force still investigating federal cannabis policy, it is still very possible we could get a clear policy decision in the near future.

“We are encouraged that the Federal Government and NIDA are recognizing the true and powerful medical benefits that cannabis provides, especially in the war against devastating opiate-based drug addiction, abuse and death,” says Sally Vander Veer, President of Medicine Man Denver. “We have seen anecdotal evidence of this as reported by our patients/customers (and the beneficial effects of cannabis in numerous other conditions) since we opened our doors in 2010. Our hope is that this acknowledgment will open the door to additional research, eventually leading to legal and safe access to cannabis medicine for all Americans.”

The following section also includes a protection of industrial hemp research, as defined in the Agricultural Act of 2014, which basically means universities and institutions can research it. SEC. 538. “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used in contravention of section 7606 (‘‘Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research’’) of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Public Law 113–79) by the Department of Justice or the Drug Enforcement Administration.” With all of the uncertainty and inconsistent comments coming out of the Trump administration, at least we have a sense of security in the medical cannabis community through the summer.

Jeff Sessions’ Stance on Cannabis: Uphold Federal Law

By Aaron G. Biros
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President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for Attorney General back in November. For Sessions to become a member of the cabinet and head of the Department of Justice, the Senate must approve the nomination during a confirmation hearing, taking place today in Washington D.C.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

According to CNN’s coverage of the events, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) mentioned the Obama Administration’s tolerance of states with legal cannabis. “There are federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana, the sale of marijuana, the production of marijuana, that apply regardless of whether a state has independently criminalized the drug,” says Senator Lee. He then asks if Obama’s actions were indicative of a breach of “the understanding that we [Congress] are the lawmaking body.”

Sessions replied to that by saying that as federal law stands, cannabis is illegal. He says if keeping cannabis illegal is “not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.” He adds that it’s not the AG’s job to enforce or not enforce certain laws. “We should do our job and enforce laws as effectively as we’re able,” says Sessions.

In April of 2016 according to USA Today, Sen. Jeff Sessions was quoted saying “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions has a history of making inflammatory remarks, including racist statements. He has also previously mentioned his proud support for the War on Drugs.

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Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

Sessions’ comments during the exchange today shed some much-needed light on his stance toward legal cannabis. National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith issued a statement on Sessions’ comments made today. In the statement, Smith sounds optimistic regarding Sessions’ comments. “In today’s hearing, Sen. Sessions indicated that the Justice Department’s current guidelines for marijuana policy enforcement are ‘truly valuable’ in setting departmental priorities,” says Smith. “That belief, along with the support for state sovereignty on cannabis policy expressed by President-elect Trump and his team, should lead Sen. Sessions to maintain the current federal policy of respect for state-legal, regulated cannabis programs if he is confirmed as Attorney General.”

“Sen. Sessions also highlighted the conflict created by a Congress that has failed to reflect the will of the voters on cannabis policy,” says Smith. “Voters in 28 states, representing approximately 60% of the nation’s population, have now chosen some form of legal, regulated cannabis program. National polling shows that 60% of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized. It’s time for federal lawmakers to represent the clear choices of their constituents.” Given the Republican support for state sovereignty and Sessions’ comments on Congressional lawmaking, Smith is hopeful that if Sessions becomes the new Attorney General, he will respect states with legal cannabis programs.