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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.

WH Press Sec. Sean Spicer Hints at Trump Admin. Stance on Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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During a press conference on Thursday, February 23rd, White House press secretary Sean Spicer made a number of comments hinting at the Trump administration’s stance on legal cannabis. He identified a clear distinction that he makes between medical and recreational cannabis laws, while mentioning President Trump’s previous statements on medical cannabis. Roby Brock, a journalist at Arkansas news website Talk Business & Politics, asked a question about the state and federal conflict in cannabis laws. “The Obama administration chose not to strictly enforce those federal marijuana laws,” says Brock. “My question to you is with Jeff Sessions over at the Department of Justice as AG, what is going to be the Trump administration’s position on marijuana legalization where it is in a state-federal conflict like this?”

Sean Spicer replied with more of the same of his previous statements regarding the Trump administration’s stance on cannabis legalization. “There are two distinct issues here: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana,” says Spicer. “I think medical marijuana- I’ve said before that the president understands the pain and suffering that many people go through, who are facing especially terminal diseases and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them. And that’s one that congress, through a rider in 2011, I think put in the appropriations bill saying the Department of Justice wouldn’t be funded to go after them.” The rider in the appropriations bill he is referring to is the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment that became law in December of 2014, but must be renewed each fiscal year. That piece of legislation provides for exactly what he said- preventing the Justice Department from using funds for activity that might interfere with state’s legal medical cannabis programs. Regarding the actual conflict between federal and state laws, Spicer said “I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it,” referring to the Department of Justice enforcing the Controlled Substances Act.

Image via Youtube
Image via Youtube

Spicer went on to make some questionably ill-informed remarks, including linking recreational cannabis use to the opioid crisis. “There is a big difference between that [medical marijuana] and recreational marijuana,” says Spicer. “And I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people- there is still a federal law that we need to abide by… When it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.” Though those comments are unclear, it could suggest that Mr. Spicer believes in a possible link between recreational cannabis use and the opioid crisis, or at least grouping them in the same category. While there is not much evidence suggesting of the link he is referring to, a study published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, suggests a possible link between medical cannabis laws and the decrease in opioid overdoses.

Spicer continued to emphasize his distinction between medical and recreational use of cannabis. “I think there is a big difference between medical marijuana, which states where it is allowed, in accordance with the appropriations rider, have set forth a process to administer and regulate that usage versus recreational marijuana, and that is a very very different subject,” says Spicer. National Cannabis Industry Association executive director Aaron Smith issued a statement regarding Spicer’s comments.

aaronsmithncia
Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

“It would be a mistake for the Department of Justice to overthrow the will of the voters and state governments who have created carefully regulated adult-use marijuana programs,” says Smith. “It would represent a rejection of the values of economic growth, limited government, and respect for federalism that Republicans claim to embrace.” Smith says he was very disappointed when he heard press secretary Spicer relate cannabis to opioid addiction. “Science has discredited the idea that marijuana serves as any kind of gateway drug, and the addiction and death rates associated with opioids simply do not occur in any way with cannabis,” says Smith. In October 2016, NCIA published a report identifying cannabis as a possible solution to the opioid crisis.

Isaac Dietrich, chief executive officer of MassRoots.
Isaac Dietrich, chief executive officer of MassRoots.

Isaac Dietrich, chief executive officer of MassRoots, a social networking platform for medical cannabis, sees Spicer’s words having a direct impact on his business. “I have a feeling our stock is going to take a beating tomorrow, but that just creates an opportunity for investors who believe in the long-term trajectory of the cannabis market,” says Dietrich. He goes on to directly refute Spicer’s statements. “Colorado is one of the only states in the nation that is seeing a decline in opioid deaths — that’s not a coincidence,” says Dietrich. “Cannabis is a healthy alternative to pain pills and heroin, not a gateway to it.”

Press secretary Sean Spicer did not allow a reporter present at the press conference to ask a follow up question on the matter.