This past July, the US House of Representatives revealed its massive spending bill for Fiscal Year 2021 to fund federal agencies. It included several provisions for cannabis reform policies in several different areas; access to banking services, the expansion of cannabis research, protections from interference by the federal government regarding medical cannabis programs, hemp and CBD regulation and more. In this article I will provide the specifics on each cannabis related provision of the bills. I will also report on cannabis reform laws that did not make it into the funding bills.
The provisions were introduced in subcommittees and it is important to recognize that they are subject to change during the markup. However, this development signals that lawmakers are serious about passing cannabis reform policies. According to Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, this can be construed as a strong indication that Congress intends to vote on standalone cannabis legislation in the not too distant future.
The fact that the majority of medical cannabis dispensaries deal with large amounts of cash has been problematic since the inception of medical cannabis sales. They are much more prone to inside thefts, break ins and robberies. Cannabis companies have been asking for access to banking and financial services for many years. In 2019, the House passed a standalone banking bill, the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE) which provided strong legal protections for financial institutions. It was approved again as part of a coronavirus bill but unfortunately, the Senate has failed to vote on the bill.
The House lawmakers are determined to pass cannabis banking legislation and they have added a spending rider which is a much weakened version of the original bill. In this latest edition, the Treasury Department would be unable to punish banks directly for working with state-legal firms. However, the Justice Department could still prosecute both banks and businesses.
In 2019, in a bipartisan collaboration, Representatives Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) tried and failed to include protections for cannabis research at public colleges and universities in the spending bill.
A provision in the 2021 bill would do just that. It protects the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education from losing funding for researching the cannabis plant or its applications.
Justin Strekal viewed this provision as an extremely important step towards bringing “certainty and legitimacy to the emerging educational efforts regarding cannabis and its properties.” He lamented that the federal government has for so many years purposefully stopped cannabis scientists from engaging in the most basic of research.
Legalization of Commercial Recreational Cannabis Sales in D.C.
Through a voter initiative in 2014, the possession of small amounts of recreational cannabis and home cultivation was legalized in the District of Columbia. However, for years, a Congressional budget rider has remained in place which has prevented the legalization and regulation of commercial sales.
The Financial Services and General Government spending bill would finally remove that budget rider. BTW, Mayor Bowser attempted to legalize recreation sales again in 2019, but Congress voted it down. It is interesting to note that the House removed Mayor Browser’s rider in the 2020 spending bill but the Senate version retained it.
Hemp and CBD Regulation
- Department of Justice spending bill contains a rider protecting state hemp research program established under the 2014 Farm Bill
- House spending bill introduced last month appropriated $16.5 million for the supervision of commercial state hemp programs through the Department of Agriculture. This bill also includes Rural Development and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) funding to create a process for regulating CBD products.
The Protection of Legal State Medical Cannabis Laws
Another Department of Justice (DOJ) funded spending bill introduced in July extends the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment which was initially passed in 2014. This amendment was originally sponsored by former California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and former California Rep. Sam Farr. It protects state medical cannabis programs from interference by the DOJ by denying the agency the use of federal funds.
Despite the amendment’s passage into law in 2014, cannabis advocates are still forced to fight every year for its inclusion as an amendment in the spending bill. This year is only the second time that the amendment has been included in the body of the spending bill which bodes well for its permanent future inclusion.
The amendment does not apply to recreational cannabis laws in legal states, despite repeated efforts of advocates to include it. In 2019, the House approved a floor amendment protecting recreational cannabis programs enacted in legal states and by Indian tribes. The Senate removed the rider from the final legislation before it was signed into law.
No Federal Funds for Legalization Advocacy
In 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced an amendment to remove language which would prevent schools receiving federal funds from advocating for legalization of drugs or any substances on the Schedule I list of the Controlled Substances Act. (CSA) She advocated for the study of psychedelic drugs but her amendment was defeated in a floor vote.
Unfortunately, there are no new bills this year that would protect public institutions receiving federal funds which advocate for cannabis legalization.
Military Veterans Barred from VA Access To Cannabis
Military veterans have been fighting for years for the right to receive medical cannabis in legal states through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Sadly, this year’s newest spending bill excludes VA doctors from recommending it. Advocates of military veterans may try to reverse this omission by adding it back into the bill. Both branches of Congress have passed different versions of this provision but not one has made it into law.
It is important to understand that the bills introduced last month are by no means final. The next step is the appropriations process which is a convoluted undertaking. The abovementioned bills are making their way through the House subcommittees and will most likely go through significant changes through the full Appropriations Committee. The next step is a vote on the House floor and then on to the Senate.
Whatever the outcome, it is clear that many lawmakers are open to consider making sweeping cannabis reform laws and many are committed to making that happen.
marijuanamoment.net, House Includes Marijuana Protections For States, Banks and Universities in Funding Bills, July 7, 2020, Ben Adlin