In a sign of marijuana law reform’s growing political traction, major candidates in gubernatorial elections in states across the country are making legalization, decriminalization and medical cannabis centerpieces of their campaigns.
This is especially true of Democratic candidates, perhaps a reflection of the fact that polls show that their party’s voters are generally much more likely to support marijuana policy reform than are Republicans. But some GOP contenders are also calling for changes to cannabis laws.
There are two gubernatorial races taking place in 2017 — in New Jersey and Virginia — and the Democratic nominees in both have repeatedly pushed for big marijuana law reforms, with their Republican opponents expressing openness to more moderate changes.
And, candidates in several of the many 2018 governors races are already talking about cannabis.
First, a look at the two 2017 races:
In New Jersey, Democratic nominee Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, called for legalization during his primary election night victory speech in June.
“The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana,” he said. “And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just.” He also pledged in the speech to end mass incarceration and “eliminate prisons for profit.”
Murphy’s campaign website says that if elected he will “legalize marijuana so police can focus resources on violent crimes.”
He has also tweeted about the issue several times.
Murphy’s Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadago, doesn’t support legalization, but has called for decriminalization and expansion of the state’s existing medical cannabis program.
“I have personal experience about what exactly happens to somebody who drives while they’re high, which is why I would oppose legalization of marijuana,” she said during a primary debate earlier this year.
“Having said that, however, I completely agree that we should decriminalize it,” she continued. “Because no one should suffer because of the color of their skin or because of their social background or because they were picked up with a small quantity.”
The lieutenant governor also suggested she supports adding new qualifying conditions for medical cannabis. Saying she wants to “streamline” the program, Guadago argued the state should “make it easier for people that have doctors’ notes to get it.”
Current Gov. Chris Christie (R) is one of the nation’s most ardent marijuana law reform opponents in elected office. During the course of his failed 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign he repeatedly pledged that if elected he would vigorously enforce federal prohibition in legalization states, and has been seen as perhaps the sole roadblock to further reform in the Garden State.
State legislative leaders in New Jersey have indicated that they are ready to pass a marijuana legalization bill shortly after a new governor is seated early next year.
In Virginia, Democratic nominee Ralph Northam, currently the state’s lieutenant governor, has made a push to decriminalize cannabis a central part of his campaign messaging, often putting the issue in stark racial justice terms.
“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color,” Northam wrote in a blog post. “One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana. African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”
A medical doctor, Northam also wrote that he’s become “increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana,” suggesting he’d sign a comprehensive medical cannabis bill into law.
His campaign even launched an ad about how he helped at least one of his own patients access medical cannabis oil.
As Haley's doctor, Ralph knew that access to medical marijuana was one of her best chances at a better life. pic.twitter.com/03WaKSYWLc
This week, the Democrat penned a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission, which is currently undertaking an examination of potential decriminalization.
“Virginia spends $67 million on marijuana enforcement – enough to open up another 13,000 pre-K spots for children,” he wrote. “African Americans are nearly 3 times as likely to get arrested for simple possession of marijuana and sentencing guidelines that include jail time can all too often begin a dangerous cycle of recidivism.”
Northam also pushed decriminalization and medical cannabis in a recent debate with his opponent, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.
Gillespie does not support making changes to the state’s marijuana laws at this time but his spokesman said he is “exploring reforms to make sure that penalties align appropriately to the offense committed.”
And, in a Facebook Live chat he said he hasn’t “reached any final conclusions” about medical cannabis but is studying it “very carefully” and is “going to have a policy that I’m going to announce this summer on it.”
“I think there has been a growing case for tightly regulated, strictly regulated medicinal marijuana,” he said.
Unlike Murphy in New Jersey, Northam wouldn’t necessarily find a state legislature that is willing to work with him to pass bold marijuana reforms if he is elected.
The Virginia House of Delegates has a strong Republican majority and, while the partisan divide in the Senate is much narrower, the GOP currently controls that body as well. Marijuana decriminalization legislation was introduced this year, but did not advance. Lawmakers did, however, pass bills to remove the threat of automatic driver’s license suspension for marijuana possession and to allow for in-state production of CBD medical cannabis oil.
Next week, we’ll have a separate post looking at several 2018 candidates who are already making marijuana law reform central to their efforts to get elected to governors’ mansions.
The nation’s leading veterinarians organization is joining the movement to revise marijuana’s status under federal law.
In a little-noticed development, members of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA) approved a resolution at its conference last month urging the organization’s board of directors to “investigate working with other research organizations and medical stakeholders to reclassify cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 to facilitate research opportunities for veterinary and human medical uses.”
The organization, which was founded in 1863 and represents more than 89,000 veterinarians across the U.S., is also being encouraged by its members to develop and distribute literature on marijuana’s legal status, research on its medical uses and “the signs, symptoms, and treatment of cannabis toxicosis in animals.”
The moves come amid dual trends surrounding a growing interest in cannabis’s potential to provide relief to dogs, cats and other animals suffering from pain and a rise in media reports about accidental pet ingestion of marijuana products.
AMVA members are concerned that cannabis’s current classification under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act — a category that is supposed to be reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no medical value — has blocked research into its effects.
“As the national association, we at least need to write a letter and ask the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to approve the research,” Dr. Richard Sullivan said before assembled AMVA delegates at the conference. “Clients are asking us, and it’s our obligation morally and ethically to address these cases. We need the research, and we need our national association to represent us at FDA and get things moving … and get some action done, soon.”
Dr. Michael Ames pointed out that while a growing number of states allow medical or recreational marijuana use by humans, those policies are silent when it comes to veterinary applications for cannabis.
“So while it may be legal for you to use yourself, it’s not legal to prescribe it to animals,” he told fellow AMVA members.
Despite the extra hurdles that Schedule I imposes for research on marijuana, there are at least some studies investigating its potential to help animals.
Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, for example, is currently conducting trials on cannabis’s effects on osteoarthritis and epilepsy in dogs.
“The anecdotal treatments are that it has the great potential to be beneficial,” AMVA President Dr. Micael Topper said. “We’ve seen great potential benefits in human use. Animal systems are a little different, so that’s why we really need to test it.”
The American Medical Association asked the federal government to reconsider marijuana’s Schedule I status in 2009.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rejected petitions to reschedule cannabis last August.
The federal agency in charge of conducting research on the effects of marijuana and other drugs is significantly paring back rhetoric about cannabis’s supposed potential to cause addiction and overdose.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) quietly made several significant changes to its main webpage about marijuana last week, a MassRoots review shows.
While an earlier version of the page uploaded in February used the phrase “marijuana addiction” three times, that changed on Wednesday. That’s when NIDA edited the page to instead use the term “marijuana use disorder.”
And whereas the older text simply stated that “30 percent” of people who use marijuana may develop overuse issues, the new copy broadens that to read “between 9 and 30 percent,” reflecting varied findings on the matter among different studies.
The earlier version of the page defines a drug overdose as when a person “uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death.”
The new edit seems to narrow the definition to include only instances in which a person “uses enough of the drug to produce life-threatening symptoms or death.”
The new version then says: “There are no reports of teens or adults dying from marijuana alone.”
While the older page states: “There are no reports of teens or adults fatally overdosing (dying) on marijuana alone.”
Whereas the older page used phrases like, “A marijuana overdose doesn’t lead to death,” the revised version more simply states, “There aren’t any reports of teens and adults dying from using marijuana alone.”
An earlier section titled, “How can a marijuana overdose be treated?” was completely deleted from the new page.
Taken together, the shift seems to reflect a narrowing of the definition of overdose to include only life-threatening situations and a desire by NIDA to avoid usage of the word in relation to marijuana.
What Does It Mean?
The changes are subtle, but they hint at the shifting conversation around marijuana, which a growing majority of Americans now believe should be legal. While NIDA didn’t say why it made the edits, it seems likely that the agency is concerned that using overly scary rhetoric like “addiction” and “overdose” — terms that many people believe should not be associated with marijuana — could cause the target audience to not take the rest of its advice on cannabis’s health effects seriously.
The new edit also downplays talk about marijuana’s role as a potential “gateway” to the use of other drugs. While even the older page made sure to note that “the majority of people who use marijuana don’t go on to use other ‘harder’ drugs,” it singled out cannabis use alone as “likely to come before use of other drugs.”
But the new version throws other, legal drugs into the mix, and now reads:
“Use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are likely to come before use of other drugs.”
The new update also adds sociological context that was missing from the earlier version:
“It’s also important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use and addiction.”
In the edit, NIDA is also more clearly stating that scientific research doesn’t support claims that smoking marijuana leads to lung cancer.
“Researchers still don’t know whether people who smoke marijuana have a higher risk for lung cancer.”
“Researchers so far haven’t found a higher risk for lung cancer in people who smoke marijuana.”
[Underlined emphasis added.]
Separately, the addition of a few words in another section undercuts prohibitionists’ claims that legalization itself has led to dramatic increases in marijuana potency and that the trend is harmful across the board.
“The amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily, creating more harmful effects.”
“The amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily in recent decades, creating more harmful effects in some people.”
[Underlined emphasis added.]
In another small but notable change that reflects the targeted public audience’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of marijuana, the page now refers to cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, whereas the February version only mentioned the former.
And whereas the earlier webpage used the outdated term “contact high” to describe the potential effects of secondhand marijuana smoke, the phrase “passive exposure” is now used instead.
This isn’t the first time that NIDA has updated its website to reflect shifting evidence and attitudes about marijuana.
MassRoots reported earlier this year that NIDA edited its page about medical cannabis to note several studies indicating that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid overdose and addiction rates.
Separately, the agency edited another marijuana page on its site to read as slightly more open to the idea that cannabis has medical benefits.
Congress will consider a large federal spending bill in September, and a number of lawmakers are working to attach marijuana amendments to it.
See below for a first look at those proposals, many of which appear likely to pass — if House Republican leadership doesn’t stop them from being considered in the first place.
(For more background information, including the success of similar amendments in the past as well as context on why GOP leaders have recently been blocking cannabis measures from being voted on, see this MassRoots piece from earlier this week.)
SEC.__. None of the funds made available under this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, Guam, or Puerto Rico, to prevent any such State or jurisdiction from implementing a law that authorizes the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.
Sponsors: Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Don Young (R-AK), Jared Polis (D-CO), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), David Joyce (R-OH), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Dina Titus (D-NV), Mike Coffman (R-CO) and Jason Lewis (R-MN).
SEC. __. 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 Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana on non-Federal lands within their respective jurisdictions.
Sponsors: Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Justin Amash (R-MI), Mike Coffman (R-CO), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Denny Heck (D-WA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Mark Sanford (R-SC), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Don Young (R-AK).
SEC.__. None of the funds made available under this Act may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or the District of Columbia, to prohibit or penalize a financial institution from providing financial services to an entity solely because the entity is a manufacturer, producer, or person that participates in any business or organized activity that involved handling marijuana or marijuana products and engages in such activity pursuant to a law established by a State or a unit of local government.
Sponsors: Reps. Denny Heck (D-WA), Don Young (R-AK), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Dina Titus (D-NV).
SEC.__. None of the funds made available under this Act may be used to modify the guidance issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network titled “BSA Expectations Regarding Marijuana-Related Businesses” (FIN-2014-G001; published on February 14, 2014).
Sponsors: Reps. Denny Heck (D-WA), Don Young (R-AK), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Dina Titus (D-NV).
SEC.__. None of the funds made available under this Act may be used to revoke the guidance issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network titled “BSA Expectations Regarding Marijuana-Related Businesses” (FIN-2014-G001; published on February 14, 2014).
Sponsors: Reps. Denny Heck (D-WA), Don Young (R-AK), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Dina Titus (D-NV).
SEC.__. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to pay the salaries or expenses of personnel to fail to act on any application by an agency or department to grow marijuana for research purposes if all other requirements of law with respect to such application are met.
SEC.__. None of the funds made available under this Act to the Department of Justice may be used to prevent or delay the approval of an application, which complies with all applicable requirements, submitted to the Attorney General to possess, distribute, or manufacture a schedule I controlled substance, including marihuana, for the purposes of conducting research, for a substance that is legal for medicinal use pursuant to State law in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
SEC.__. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to prevent a State from implementing its own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of industrial hemp, as defined in section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Public Law 113-79).
Sponsors: Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR),Jared Polis (D-CO), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Darren Soto (D-FL) and James Comer (R-KY).
There are several other amendments to increase funding for drug treatment and interdiction and responses to opioid overdoses.
The House Rules Committee will meet in early September to determine which amendments will be allowed votes on the floor. Current federal funding levels and policy riders are set to expire on September 30, but it is anticipated that Congress will enact a short-term extension, perhaps through the end of the year, as lawmakers continue work on appropriations legislation for Fiscal Year 2018.
One day after President Trump addressed its national convention, the largest military veterans organization in the country is calling on his administration to allow government doctors to recommend medical marijuana through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.).
“More than half the states in the union have passed medical marijuana laws to date,” reads a resolution adopted Thursday by the American Legion, which has more more than 2.4 million members. “The American Legion urge the United States government to permit VA medical providers to be able to discuss with veterans the use of marijuana for medical purposes and recommend it in those states where medical marijuana laws exist.”
Under a current internal V.A. administrative directive, federal policy is “to prohibit V.A. providers from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a Veteran’s participation in a State marijuana program.” That policy technically expired on January 31, 2016, but it remains in effect in practice until the department institutes a new one replacing it.
Last month, Veterans Affairs Sec. David Shulkin announced that a new directive is in the final stages of internal review. While it is not known what exactly it will say, he wrote in a letter to a member of Congress that it would “maintain the same policy” as the prior one.
Shulkin has on several occasions indicated that he sees marijuana’s medical potential but feels constrained by current federal laws.
During a briefing at the White House in May, Shulkin said that state medical cannabis laws may be generating “some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful, and we’re interested in looking at that and learning from that.” But “until time the federal law changes,” he added, “we are not able to be able to prescribe medical marijuana for conditions that may be helpful.”
In an appearance in June, he said, “From the federal government point of view, right now we are prohibited by law from doing research on it or prescribing it… We are not going to be out there doing that research or prescribing these different medicinal preparations unless the law is changed.”
In a separate June interview, he said that it is “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs or to prescribe medical marijuana, even in states where it’s legal,” adding, “if a law change at the federal level is appropriate, that could happen.”
It’s true, as Shulkin says, that federal law prevents doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs from prescribing medical cannabis. But no doctor in the country — V.A. or not — can do so, since prescription if a federally-regulated process. In the 29 states with comprehensive medical cannabis laws, physicians instead recommend it to patients.
Federal law doesn’t actually block V.A. doctors from filling out paperwork for veterans who wish to participate in those state programs; the only thing standing in the way is the department’s own internal policy, which the V.A. secretary can change.
Shulkin, who previously served as V.A.’s undersecretary of health in the Obama administration, wrote in a letter last year that he “wholeheartedly agree[s] that VA should do all it can to foster open communication between Veterans and their VA providers, including discussion about participation in state marijuana programs… I recognize that the disparity between Federal and state laws regarding the use of marijuana creates considerable uncertainty for patients, providers, and Federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel.”
While many veterans use medical cannabis to treat physical pain or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with their war wounds, they are currently forced to seek recommendations from outside doctors instead of from the V.A. physicians who know their medical histories. That process can be expensive, time-consuming and confusing for veterans.
The new American Legion resolution, adopted at the organization’s national convention in Reno, builds off a similar measure it approved last year calling on the federal government to reschedule cannabis.
“The American Legion urge Congress to amend legislation to remove Marijuana from schedule I and reclassify it in a category that, at a minimum, will recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value,” the earlier measure reads.
Earlier this year, top American Legion officials published an op-ed laying out the group’s case for reform.
“The opioid epidemic that continues to grip veterans is yet another reason to ease the federal government’s outdated attitude toward America’s marijuana supply. The Trump administration should lead a new effort to combat opioid abuse, and it should include the elimination of barriers to medical research on cannabis,” they wrote. “The result, potentially, could provide a non-addictive solution to the most common debilitating conditions our veterans — and others in society — face… Cannabis’ Schedule I listing is disingenuous given the fact that the federal government cannot produce any research or evidence justifying its classification – which significantly hampers medical research into the therapeutic aspects of the drug. It’s a classic Catch-22.”
The new resolution was approved by the American Legion’s Ohio department last month, and sailed through the national convention with little debate and only minor text changes in committee.
Also at the convention, attendees saw a presentation from Dr. Sue Sisley, who is conducting a large-scale trial on medical cannabis’s role in easing PTSD symptoms.
“This is a crucial next step for the American Legion after the first cannabis resolution passed last year. Enabling V.A. physicians to write medical cannabis recommendations for appropriate veteran patients is essential,” Sisley told MassRoots in an interview from the convention in Reno. “Veterans deserve safe access to lab tested cannabis in legal states.”
The powerful veterans group’s new call for increased medical cannabis access comes as Congress is considering the V.A.’s annual budget, through which some lawmakers are pushing the department to allow its physicians to issue medical marijuana recommendations.
Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 24 to 7 to approve an amendment to prevent the V.A. from spending money to enforce its existing ban preventing government doctors from filling out forms for veterans to qualify for state medical cannabis laws.
But while the full House of Representative voted 233 to 189 for a similar measure last year, Congressional leadership blocked a vote on the amendment in that chamber last month.
However, the veterans access issue isn’t necessarily dead for the year, even if Shulkin doesn’t make changes administratively through a new policy.
Advocates hope that because the provision preventing V.A. from enforcing the existing ban was inserted into the Senate’s version of the department’s funding legislation with such a strong bipartisan vote, the conference committee that later merges the two chambers’ bills together into a single proposal will adopt the language.
But a conference committee stripped the veterans cannabis provision out of last year’s bill even though it had been approved by strong bipartisan majorities in both chambers. This year, there won’t even be a House vote on the measure.
But the American Legion’s expanded position, given that it represents so many veterans and garners respect from federal officials — both Shulkin and Trump spoke at the convention this week — should provide a boost to efforts to convince Congressional leadership to allow the recommendation provision to become law this year.
“Year after year, we’ve never been able to pass the ‘veterans equal access amendment’ at the federal level,” Sisley said. “But with the full weight of the American Legion behind this next round of legislation, I know we can finally get this approved! I’m optimistic this will be a game-changer.”
Current funding for the federal government runs out on September 30, so decisions on provisions for Fiscal Year 2018 funding will likely be made soon, though there is a chance Congress will simply enact a short-term extension of current funding levels and policy riders to give itself more time to finalize legislation covering next year.
Congress could vote on several marijuana amendments next month, including proposals to allow cannabis businesses to access banks and to protect state laws from federal interference.