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What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Part 3: The Medical Bills

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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This article continues the bill-by-bill review begun in the August 1st article on cannabis reform legislation proposed in the 115th Congress. In the next article and final piece in this series, we will examine the banking and tax reform bills related to cannabis.

Medical Cannabis Reform Bills 

S. 1008 – Therapeutic Hemp Medical Act of 2017

HR. 2273 – Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act of 2017

Policy: These bills would amend the CSA to end federal prohibition over all CBD products and all hemp plants with THC content levels of below 0.3%. In other words, people and businesses would be free to grow hemp and/or manufacture CBD products without any fear of federal prosecution. These products would most likely then fall under the regulation of other federal and/or state agencies, but the bills do not specify what agencies they might be or what controls might be put in place.

Impact: The impacts from these bills nationwide have the potential to be massive. Hemp is a plant that can be put to highly effective use in many different industries, from textiles and construction to foodstuffs and seafaring. The efficiency of its growth and the breadth of its utility will make it a highly valuable commodity and a competitor with many other raw materials. For state-legal cannabis businesses, the legalization of CBD and hemp at the federal level could fundamentally change the market for those products. States that legalized cannabis already have provisions in place dealing with hemp and CBD—sometimes alongside their cannabis laws, sometimes handled by a separate state agency—and they could either leave those as they are or open up those markets to interstate activity. In states that have not legalized, CBD and hemp are typically included in the state’s definition of cannabis, and therefore they will remain illegal under state law unless further action is taken. Most likely, if federal prohibition ends on hemp and CBD, state prohibition will follow suit. Because legalization at the federal level will allow for interstate commerce in hemp and CBD, expect the emergence of a nationwide market, driven by online sales and interstate marketing, and developing independently from a cannabis industry still constrained to in-state activities.

Procedural Status:

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

S. 1008

  • Introduced: May 2, 2017 by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 7 Republican, 4 Democrat
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Judiciary

 HR. 2273

  • Introduced: May 1, 2017 by Representative Scott Perry (R-PA)
  • Cosponsors: 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health
    • Financial Services

S. 1276 – Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act

Policy: This bill would accomplish two objectives: First, it would open channels for researchers to access and experiment with cannabis and cannabis extracts. Second, it would initiate the process at the end of which the Attorney General must make a determination as to which Schedule of the CSA is most appropriate for cannabidiol (CBD).

Impact: The impact on this legislation to state-legal cannabis businesses is rather remote—in both time and practice. The research access provisions will certainly create an uptick in medical and psychological research activity, the outcomes of which will add to our knowledge of how consuming cannabis in different forms and amounts effects the brain and body. This type of government-regulated research takes many years to process and complete, as both bureaucratic and scientific standards must be met. As for initiating the re/de-scheduling review process for CBD, this is a direct response to the 2016 denial by the DEA to re/de-schedule cannabis. That determination, published in the Federal Registrar on August 12, 2016, was made following a comprehensive study of the medical benefits and harms of cannabis conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although such an in-depth study and its resulting negative determination pronounced so recently would normally rule out the chances of success for another re/de-scheduling attempt so soon after, the DEA did leave the door open with its statement that it “did not focus its evaluation on particular strains of marijuana or components or derivatives of marijuana.” It is just this door that S. 1276 seeks to exploit. By focusing the re/de-scheduling process on CBD specifically, the presumption is that the outcome of the scientific CBD studies would have a far better chance at satisfying the re/de-scheduling criteria set forth in the CSA. If such a determination was made, then the impact would come in two potential varieties. One, CBD would be rescheduled and become available for medical use according to FDA rules applicable to other prescription drugs. Two, CBD would be descheduled and would fall under the prerogative of the states, in which case the above analysis for S. 1008 and HR. 2273 would pertain.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Photo: Daniel Torok

Procedural Status:

S. 1276

  • Introduced: May 25, 2017 by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
  • Cosponsors: 3 Republican, 2 Democrat
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Judiciary

S. 1374 – Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2017

HR. 2920 – Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2017

HR. 715 – Compassionate Access Act of 2017

HR. 714 – Legitimate Use of Medical Marijuana Act (LUMMA) of 2017

Policy: All four of these bills would make an exception to the CSA for state medical cannabis laws. Federal prohibition, in other words, would end for medical cannabis in those states that have legalized, and it would be left to those states to devise how it would be regulated. In states that have not legalized, both state and federal prohibition would remain. The companion CARERS Acts in the House and Senate, along with HR. 714, would also amend FDA rules to widen access to cannabis for research purposes.

Impact: The impact of these bills on the rules for state-legal medical cannabis businesses would be relatively minor in terms of functionality. This is so because they leave not only the determination to legalize up to the states, but they leave the design of the regulatory system up to the states as well. In other areas, however, big changes will be seen that benefit the industry: banking will open up for state medical businesses, and so will the opportunity to write-off ordinary business expenses. Investment risks over legality will end, making for easier access to capital. 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. Enactment of any of these bills would be a big win for medical cannabis.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) Photo: David Shinbone, Flickr

Procedural Status:

S. 1374

  • Introduced: June 15, 2017 by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)
  • Cosponsors: None
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Judiciary

HR. 2920

  • Introduced: June 15, 2017 by Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republicans
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health
    • Veterans’ Affairs
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR. 715

  • Introduced: January 27, 2017 by Representative Morgan H. Griffith (R-VA)
  • Cosponsors: 2 Republicans, 1 Democrat
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations

HR. 714

  • Introduced: January 27, 2017 by Representative Morgan H. Griffith
  • Cosponsors: 1 Democrat
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR. 2020 – To Provide for the Rescheduling of Marijuana into Schedule III of the CSA

Policy: As its wordy title indicates, this bill would bypass the schedule review process and by legislative fiat move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III of the CSA.

Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL)

Impact: Businesses handling drugs in Schedule III must register with the DEA and comply with DEA record keeping and security requirements. Doctors would be permitted to prescribe cannabis products. Importing/exporting will become available by permit, which would bring state businesses into competition with foreign cannabis firms. The biggest impact will be that cannabis sold pursuant to federal law will have to undergo the FDA’s New Drug Application process conducted by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, the largest of the FDA’s five centers. This includes clinical testing and a comprehensive chemical/pharmacological review. The drug would then be subject to FDA regulation for marketing and labelling. For states that wanted to maintain their legal medical cannabis systems, a conflict would remain because cannabis cultivators and dispensaries could operate in compliance with state law while simultaneously failing to meet new FDA and DEA requirements. States will then have a choice: bring state laws into line with federal laws, creating all of the advantages of federal legality discussed above, yet causing major disruptions to the industry; or retain the status quo, allowing the industry to grow as is with all of the in-state advantages but without the advantages of federal legalization. This all would of course leave behind recreational cannabis which would remain in the legal gray zone.

  • Introduced: April 4, 2017 by Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL)
  • Cosponsors:
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health
    • Judiciary

HR. 331 – States’ Medical Marijuana Property Right Protection Act

Policy: Section 881(a)(7) of the CSA subjects to federal forfeiture all property involved with cannabis activities. This bill would make an exception to that provision for all property in compliance with state medical cannabis laws.

Impact: Although not legalizing medical cannabis, this bill would be a strong step in the direction of legitimizing state-legal medical cannabis businesses. As a result of the property forfeiture clause of the CSA, two impediments faced by the medical cannabis industry is that investors are hesitant to invest and land lords are hesitant to lease or otherwise engage the medical cannabis market. By eliminating the risk of such property loss due to the federal-state conflict, this bill would have the very welcomed impact of easing access to capital and expanding opportunities for land use.

  • Introduced: January31, 2017 by Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA)
  • Cosponsors:
  • Referred to the House Committee on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

What Does The Constitution Have To Say About Cannabis Legalization?

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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With the Trump Administration sending mixed signals on legal cannabis, and with Congress beginning to ramp up efforts for reform, in order for industry stakeholders to best understand where we are headed, it will be helpful to remember how we got here. As readers may be aware, the current status of federal cannabis law can be traced back to the legislative prong of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. His Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) made it a federal crime for anyone to use or possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the U.S. Current federal cannabis policy, on the other hand, complicates the matter, and can be traced back to a memorandum issued in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole Memo instructed U.S. attorneys general in states that have legalized marijuana to use their limited resources in prosecuting CSA offenses only if they violated specific federal enforcement priorities. The highest of these priorities include diverting legal marijuana business revenues to illegal drug operations, transporting marijuana over state lines, making marijuana accessible to minors, and growing marijuana on federal lands. The problem is that the Cole Memo is only a policy, it is not law; and so not only can the current administration unilaterally change it whenever it wants, but state-legal cannabis businesses, their employees and customers are breaking federal law every single day!

Former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole
Photo: Shane T. McCoy

This is a very unusual situation to be in for both the states and the feds, and it raises two basic constitutional questions: What gives the feds the right to make cannabis illegal everywhere in the U.S.? And how can states simply defy the prohibition?

The first question was in fact answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 when two California women (Diane Monson and Angel Raich), both with very serious illnesses, sued the federal government for confiscating their state-legal medical cannabis. The feds defended their actions by claiming that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave them the authority to march into California, march into the homes of these women, and enforce the CSA. Diane and Angel argued that the Commerce Clause only gives the feds the authority over interstate commerce; and since their cannabis was grown by themselves, used by themselves, never bought or sold, or transported out of the state, it was therefore wholly intrastate cannabis and had nothing at all to do with interstate commerce. The Court sided with the feds, ruling that even though the cannabis was intrastate, when you take all intrastate cannabis activity like that and add it together, it will have a substantial impact on the interstate cannabis market. Because of that connection it was ‘necessary and proper’ for the feds to enact the CSA and enforce it anywhere in the country they wanted. Although there is still much debate over this ruling, it remains the law of the land to this day.

United States Constitution
Photo: National Archive

Fast forward to 2014. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado claiming that by legalizing marijuana, Colorado was violating federal law under the CSA. Because federal law overrides state law when they conflict, then Colorado’s cannabis laws must be struck down, or so they argued. In response Colorado took a very interesting position that built on the hard realities of the cannabis market. It is best to explain it in four parts. First, they cited the fact that the federal government lacked the resources to enforce the CSA, a claim which the feds have admitted to themselves. Second, Colorado pointed to a constitutional doctrine called ‘anti-commandeering’, which says that they have no obligation to criminalize cannabis at all. If the feds want to make it a federal crime, that is one thing; but that does not mean CO must make it a state crime as well. Third, Colorado said that by regulating cannabis as extensively and strictly as they have done, they are reducing the amount of cannabis activity compared to not regulating it at all. Taken together, this means that because Colorado does not have to criminalize cannabis, and because the federal government cannot enforce their own criminalization, then Colorado is actually helping out the feds by regulating the drug instead of allowing for a free-for-all under state law.

The Congressional Cannabis Caucus Announced

In March of 2016 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in full or issue an opinion, which had the effect of giving a default victory to Colorado. Among political and legal commentators the speculation is that enough justices on the Court either agreed with the logic of Colorado’s position or wanted to wait for this federal-state controversy to be worked out by Congress. Because it was only a default victory, the constitutional status of the legal cannabis industry remains on unprecedented and unstable ground. The Controlled Substances Act has not yet been found to preempt state law, so cannabis businesses are still able to operate legally in their state. But because the CSA still applies to everyone, they do so at the whim of the Trump Administration’s policy preferences. The confusion that this presents has put cannabis businesses in many difficult situations, and it serves as the legal backdrop for such familiar problems as access to banking and contract enforcement.

Currently, legislative and judicial fixes are in motion. Related cannabis litigation is pending in federal court at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. And a Cannabis Caucus has formed in the U.S. Congress to address the shortcomings of the CSA. In the coming articles we will explore both of these routes to reform, the likelihoods of various possible outcomes, and the impact they will have on the legal cannabis industry.


Editor’s Note: For readers interested in learning more about this topic click here for Brian’s research article published by the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law