The House vote on the Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2018, or H.R. 5634, on Thursday held significant symbolic weight: here was a Republican Congress with a staunchly conservative, law-and-order committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, advancing a bill supportive of cannabis.
The cannabis-related bill passed by the House Judiciary Committee is a modest measure, meant to facilitate more research into the medical benefits of the plant by allowing more research institutions to get involved — a process thus far stymied, according to a bipartisan group of congress members, by the Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The measure also would allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to refer patients to cannabis-related trials.
In addition to the Judiciary Committee’s unprecedented move to push the measure forward, Democrats collectively articulated what may become a defining parameter for bipartisan cannabis legislation: criminal justice reform and battling the effects of America’s drug wars.
While they didn’t succeed, Democrats pushed bill sponsor Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, and the rest of the committee to strip language from the measure that bars those with a felony or drug-related misdemeanor from working with cannabis.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, and Goodlatte made a deal to work behind the scenes to improve the provision before it moves forward to the next step in the US House process: the Rules Committee, chaired by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who has not been willing to advance cannabis-related measures through his committee in the past.
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Goodlatte indicated that the measure would need his and other Democrats’ support to have a chance at passage in a deeply divided and fractious House of Representatives. “If we can bring this to the floor soon, I’d like to bring it to the floor soon, but in either case we’ll have to have an agreement on it, or it’s simply not going to get there,” he said.
Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler, D-New York, and Cohen said they were outraged by the provision that banned those with past felonies or drug-related misdemeanors from working on cannabis research, echoing comments made in a letter signed by criminal justice advocacy groups including the Drug Policy Alliance, American Civil Liberties Union, Cut50, and others. The letter, circulated before the hearing, was addressed to Goodlatte and Nadler, the committee’s highest-ranking Democrat.
“As we roll back the antiquated, failed criminal justice policies, we are increasingly concerned about doing so in a way that neglects the disparate harms of prohibition and fails to acknowledge the collateral consequences of criminalization,” the letter read.
Cohen initially offered an amendment that would strip the misdemeanor prohibition but later withdrew it after Goodlatte promised to work with him on a criminal justice compromise. Goodlatte said he mostly agreed that those with simple possession convictions should be allowed to work in cannabis research efforts.
But Goodlatte also wants to bar those with more serious criminal records from working with cannabis. “It’s fully appropriate we set a firm standard for those who are supposed to be growing and manufacturing research grade marijuana,” he said.
Cohen said the bill shows those wrongly swept up in America’s war on drugs would continue to have a “big ‘M’ on [their] chest” through GOP members’ insistence on provisions like barring people with convictions from having any role on a cannabis research farm. “This is a scarlet letter that should not be on a person forever,” he said of drug convictions. “And because somebody smoked marijuana it means they’re one of tens of … millions of Americans. There’s probably a third to more of people in this room who have sometimes smoked marijuana.”
“These restrictions are sweeping, unwarranted, and unjust,” Nadler said in his opening statement.
Gaetz, though, wanted to see the bill move along, even though he said the provision wasn’t important to him personally. “It actually came from the industry,” Gaetz said, of the provision. “People in the industry are increasingly concerned as they work on high end, high tech therapies, that the industry may look to outsiders and even to policymakers, like just a bunch of people who wandered out of their drum circle or their hacky sack endeavor. So people in the industry wanted to raise the bar to legitimize the research work that they’re doing.”
National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) lobbyist Michael Correia told Cannabis Wire Thursday that NCIA does not support the provision and did not ask for its inclusion.
Asked about where the language came from, Gaetz spokesman Devin Murphy told Cannabis Wire he wasn’t sure.
“In drafting this bill, we reviewed ‘best practices’ and hiring standards from a variety of cannabis companies, medical and recreational alike, so it’s impossible to say that the provision came from any one particular source or group,” Murphy wrote. “Mr. Gaetz is amenable to changing this section in any way that balances valid security concerns with non-punitive hiring practices.”
Before the hearing, Correia had told Cannabis Wire that the medical research bill being considered by the House Judiciary Committee was a smaller legislative achievement. The Department of Justice already has the authority to allow for more medical-grade cannabis to be grown and used for research, though it has refused to take up applications that have come in to do so. Still, Correia said the vote was an important display of how things have changed in Congress. “It’s Judiciary, and they’ve never marked up a cannabis bill. And so that’s historic,” he said. “And the fact that Goodlatte is on this. It’s the narrative that we’re growing our base we’re growing our supporters. Every time we move the chains I’m happy. It’s Republicans moving a cannabis-related bill.”
Queen Adesuyi, a Drug Policy Alliance policy coordinator who helped write and circulate the letter written to Goodlatte, called the hearing an “interesting and powerful” discussion on where the conversation should be when it comes to cannabis legalization efforts. “Though we want the immediate end of prohibition of marijuana, we cannot ethically support a process that is not intentional about repairing the harms of drug over-enforcement and the inclusion of the people most impacted by criminalization,” she wrote Cannabis Wire in an email.
“We hope that Goodlatte and Gaetz hold true to their word [to work on the bill] and we hope that Democrats continue to hold the line in favor of second chances and eliminating counterproductive barriers placed on people who have served their time.”
Goodlatte, a surprising ally on any cannabis-related bill, indicated during his opening remarks that he was swayed by the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of the cannabis-based drug Epidiolex for seizures.
“The science derived from this research could improve the lives of citizens and even save lives,” Goodlatte said. “We should not be afraid of science.”