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Cannabis, Congress & The Crawl to Legalization

Discover the Four Bills that Could Impact the Future of the Industry

With close to 50% of U.S. citizens now supporting national marijuana legalization, it’s no surprise that 2018 has been a busy year for lawmakers and advocates alike.

nullIn the first half of 2018 alone, more than 20 States introduced or promulgated cannabis legalization initiatives, including voter-lead ballots in Oklahoma, Michigan, and Utah, as well as the nation’s first legislature-led legalization initiative in Vermont.

On the decriminalization front, 11 States introduced bills calling for the elimination of jail time for simple possession offenses, with active decriminalization bills persisting in both New Jersey and Wisconsin.

Lastly, in what has been one of the country’s longest standing and most universally supported platforms for cannabis reform, 14 State legislatures debated comprehensive medical use programs in 2018, including southern-block opposition stalwarts North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

In short, cannabis reform at the state level continues to look promising.

And yet, there is a glaringly obvious elephant in the room: When exactly will we see a comprehensive legalization initiative at the federal level?

While the federal level has traditionally been a mixed bag of both passionate opposition and strong support, cannabis reform has become increasingly polarized in recent years with the rise of the presidency of Donald Trump.

Although Trump recently provided cannabis advocates with a degree of hope in signaling his support for state-driven legalization initiatives, he continues to employ an ardent oppositionist in Attorney General Jeff Sessions (i.e., the man who rejected the “Cole Memo”).

Given the Executive Branch's confusing and often contradictory approach to cannabis reform, it’s difficult to predict how President Trump’s luke-warm legalization endorsement will eventually manifest. However, with a number of new, exciting, and bipartisan initiatives having recently emerged from the Legislative Branch, it is clear that the nation’s top lawmakers are not waiting around to find out.

This post will briefly review four congressional initiatives and their potential impact on cannabis reform.

Let’s take a look.

#1 - The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act

In late June, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) surprised both his colleagues and legalization advocates by introducing a new bill aimed at decriminalizing and regulating cannabis at the federal level: The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act (i.e., MFOA).

SchumerA longtime opponent of recreational use, the Senate minority leader’s comprehensive bill looks to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, in effect decriminalizing the drug at the federal level. Although states would retain autonomy in determining how to treat marijuana possession under their own laws, the bill would not prevent the federal government from engaging in anti-trafficking activities to prevent cannabis transfers from recreational to non-recreational states. The bill also preserves the federal government’s ability to regulate marijuana advertising (think tobacco), so that advertisers cannot specifically target children.

According to Senator Schumer, the bill would also result in significant benefits for public safety, public health, and for small business owners. The bill would set aside funds to facilitate the expungement or sealing of criminal records (i.e., $100 million over five years), while also providing $750 million in research funds to study the effects of cannabis consumption on the body.

It’s worth noting that although de-scheduling cannabis at the federal level would essentially make it legal, the Senator and the bills co-sponsors (including Tim Kaine, Tammy Duckworth, and Bernie Sanders) have avoided using the word “legalization” to describe the potential impact of the proposed legislation. With Republicans yet to publicly show support, Senator Schumer will have to significantly increase his bipartisan efforts to have any hope of getting it passed.

#2 - The Marijuana Justice Act


Focusing on racial disparity and reparative justice, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act (i.e., MJA) to the Senate in the summer of 2017. This was followed up six months later by the introduction of a House version of the bill authored by Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), marking the first time that companion de-scheduling legislation is simultaneously active in both chambers of Congress.Cory BookerThe MJA aims to not only remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (similar to the MFOA described above), but also provide a comprehensive program of reparative justice for individuals unfairly impacted by cannabis enforcement. It mandates the federal expungement of convictions for possession offenses (as opposed to the state-only expungement of the MFOA), allows individuals currently serving time for possession offenses to petition for resentencing, and creates a community reinvestment fund of $500 million to help revive those communities most negatively affected by the War on Drugs.Although similar in many ways to MFOA, the MJA is seen by cannabis advocates as a more comprehensive approach to federal level decriminalization. Whereas the MFOA mainly focuses on the economic realities of legalization, the MJA has deep-rooted social concerns aimed at addressing the federal government's dismal history of marijuana enforcement. And while the bill is co-sponsored by a multitude of high-powered Democratic Senators (i.e., Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren), the MJA—much like its MFOA counterpart—has yet to gain widespread bipartisan support.Considering many of the MJA’s sponsoring Senators are viewed as potential nominees for the Democratic Primary, the bill is likely to become a focal point of the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the November elections.NOTE: As of August 2017, the bill had been read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

#3 - The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018

Given the infighting that has come to define Capitol Hill politics in recent years, Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN) and Phil Roe (R-TN) achieved a rare triumph of bipartisan politics in May when they introduced the VA Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2018.


Looking to remove barriers to marijuana testing at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the act surprised pundits and advocates alike in becoming the first ever standalone marijuana bill to make it through a congressional committee.

Not only would the bill facilitate research on “at least three different strains of cannabis with significant variants in phenotypic traits and various ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol in chemical composition,” but it would force VA officials to send regular reports every 180 days to Congress so lawmakers could more easily track progress.

While the VA is already allowed to participate in cannabis research under current law, its leadership has been reluctant to do so in the past. The new bill puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the VA by clarifying that it is “well within the authority of the VA” to engage in research and development. With many returning veterans dealing with the daily impact of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, advocates view the passage of the bill as a significant step forward in providing veterans with opioid, stimulant, and tranquilizer alternatives.

While it is worth noting that the scope of the bill is relatively narrow, it could prove to be a major breakthrough in not only cannabis research, but bipartisan cooperation on cannabis reform.

NOTE: Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) introduced a companion bill in the Senate in May. As of that time, it had been read twice and referred to the Committee on Veterans Affairs.

#4 - The Strengthening of the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act of 2018



Concluding our review of need-to-know cannabis legislation, we turn to the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act of 2018 (i.e., STATES Act).

Introduced by Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in early July, the STATES Act represents another promising step forward in bipartisan cannabis politics.

Although similar in many aspects to the prior pieces of legislation introduced by Senators 

Booker and Schumer (especially in its aim to amend the Controlled Substances Act), the STATES Act appears to have garnered significant bipartisan support due to its ability to fill in the gaps existing between the social justice-focused MJA, and the economic-minded MFOA.

Not only would the STATES Act protect state-legal cannabis businesses by making it impossible to federally prosecute individuals and businesses in compliance with state law, but the bill also includes a provision to allow licensed marijuana businesses access to banking services - a longtime goal of Senator Warren and a huge step forward for a largely cash-only industry.

Reform advocates are fairly optimistic of the bill’s chances of passing, particularly given an alleged promise of support from President Trump - one that came in response to Senator Gardner’s refusal to hold a Senate vote on key Justice Department nominees, itself a response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rejection of the Cole Memo. If passed, the bill is likely to have far-reaching benefits for the financial framework of the cannabis industry, including tax deductions and financing.

NOTE: As of July 2018, the bill had been read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. A House version of the bill was introduced in July by Representative David P. Joyce (R-OH).

Final Take

With nearly 50 cannabis-related bills having been introduced in this 2017-2018 congressional session, the list above is by no means inclusive. However, as the MFOA, MJA, VA Cannabis Research Act, and the STATES Act represent the most robust and publically and politically supported bills to date, cannabis reform advocates and businesses alike should pay close attention to the upcoming congressional elections and the post-election aftermath.











































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