The U.S. House panel that oversees federal drug enforcement is scheduled to vote this week on a bill to dramatically expand opportunities for research on the medical benefits of marijuana.
Sponsored by Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and 40 bipartisan cosponsors, the Medical Cannabis Research Act would require that the federal government issue more licenses to grow marijuana to be used in scientific studies, among other changes.
For the past half century, a farm at the University of Mississippi has been the sole legal source of cannabis for research. But scientists have often complained that it is difficult to obtain product from the facility and that it is often of low quality.
“The federal government should not stand in the way of collaboration that can help people live better lives,” Gaetz said in a phone interview about the proposed expansion, which will go before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
If enacted, the proposal will “increase the amount of research-grade cannabis available to unlock cures,” the congressman said. “This will be the first time that a cannabis reform bill will make it through the Judiciary Committee during Republican control of the Congress, ever.”
In a text message, Gaetz said he expects only “technical amendments” to the legislation during its committee markup on Thursday.
But drug policy reform advocates who otherwise strongly support expanding marijuana research said they have serious concerns with some of the bill’s provisions. Namely, they don’t like that it bars people with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from being affiliated with research cultivation operations. They also take objection to a separate section that requires manufacturers to have letters of good standing from local law enforcement agencies, many of which have historically opposed cannabis reform.
While legalization supporters have sometimes been willing to accept compromises to advance less-than-ideal reform legislation, the issue of preventing people who have been caught up in the war on drugs from joining the legal industry has increasingly become a major concern for racial and social justice advocates who point out that marijuana prohibition has been enforced in a manner that has disproportionately impacted African Americans and other people of color.
“Precedent is the biggest concern,” Michael Collins, interim director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, said in a phone interview. “If the committee is already on the record saying we ban people from participating in this sector of this industry, that’s going to possibly win the day going forward.”
“While the bill’s consideration represents progress, it’s a drop in the ocean given what we need to do to end federal prohibition and repair the harms of the drug war,” he said, adding that the restrictive provisions are “egregious, unnecessary and representative of an outdated approach to public policy.”
Gaetz, for his part, doesn’t necessarily disagree.
“I would go a lot further,” he said. “If I was king for a day, marijuana doctrine would look different than this bill.”
But the concessions were necessary to get fellow GOP lawmakers on board, he argued. “For many of my Republican colleagues, the most difficult marijuana reform vote to take is the first one. I’m trying to create the most comfortable setting for marijuana skeptics to do something right by their constituents, and that process can yield imperfect legislation that is directionally correct.”
To that end, key to the bill’s advancement was surprising support from Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who has historically opposed marijuana reform but became an original cosponsor of Gaetz’s proposal.
Collins, of the Drug Policy Alliance, argued that removing the restrictions wouldn’t impede the bill’s chances of passing.
“The provisions are overly cautious and unnecessary given what the committee has voted on in the past,” he said, referring to broader criminal justice reform legislation aimed at giving people second chances after serving prison terms.
“We would like to get behind this bill, but with these provisions it’s going to be very difficult,” he said, adding that he thinks the bans might actually make the legislation less likely to pass because criminal justice reform advocates who otherwise wouldn’t care about a marijuana research bill are now concerned about it.
Meanwhile, it is likely that the committee will have to grapple with at least one amendment to strip the language on Thursday.
“If they keep this in I think they’re going to lose support,” Collins said.
After this story was first published, Gaetz tweeted that concerned advocates “make fair points,” but that it would be “a shame if disagreement on such a small thing” prevented the reform legislation from passing.
Other advocates raised separate concerns about the bill’s implementation, even if it is enacted.
“The Medical Cannabis Research Act would, in theory, dramatically expand access to medical grade cannabis for researchers for scientific purposes,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “While the bill is imperfect as it would rely on known prohibitionist Attorney General Jeff Sessions to oversee an overly restrictive permitting process, its passage would be a step in the right direction to lay the foundation for future research into marijuana’s most beneficial properties.”
In the closing months of the Obama administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) moved to create a process to license additional cannabis cultivators, which resulted in applications from more than two dozen entities. But the Trump administration’s Department of Justice has since blocked DEA from acting on the proposals.
Lawmakers have sent a series of letters to Sessions about the blockade.
Sessions said at a Senate hearing last year that adding additional cannabis cultivators would be “healthy.” And at a separate hearing this spring, the attorney general testified that action on the applications would be taken “soon.” But nothing has yet been announced.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a review by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded that the plan to license more growers violated United Nations drug treaties. But the State Department under the Obama administration said in 2016 that allowing additional cultivators would not go against the international agreements.
The Gaetz bill would take the decision out of the Justice Department’s hands by issuing a directive from Congress to grant more licenses on a specific timetable.
Separately from the cultivation licenses, the legislation would also clarify that Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are allowed to discuss the medical use of cannabis with their military veteran patients and can refer them to participate in scientific studies on marijuana. It would not, however, overturn an internal VA ban prohibiting its physicians from issuing recommendations for veterans to receive medical cannabis in accordance with state laws.
In May, the House Veterans Affairs Committee became the first congressional committee to ever approve a standalone marijuana reform bill when it passed legislation encouraging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct research on the medical benefits of cannabis.
That bill has not yet been scheduled for House floor action.
Last month, the DEA moved to dramatically expand the amount of marijuana than can be legally grown in the U.S. for research purposes next year, perhaps anticipating the licensing of additional cultivators.
Meanwhile, Gaetz, who is a close ally of the White House, wasn’t willing in the phone interview to reveal much about cannabis conversations he has had with President Trump.
But he did say that he thinks Trump was serious when he said on the 2016 campaign trail that he supports medical cannabis. And, he blamed the lack of progress in federal marijuana reform since the president took office on his broader feud with Sessions.
“I believe that we’d be making a lot more progress in the marijuana reform movement if there weren’t such chilled relations between the White House and the Department of Justice,” Gaetz said. “In a way, the marijuana reform movement is an inadvertent casualty of the Trump-Sessions eroded relationship.”