The American Enterprise Institute, a D.C.-based center-right think tank, hosted a cannabis policy discussion on Wednesday focused on what happens after federal legalization arrives.
The event kicked off with a conversation between Amanda Kain, chief of staff for Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce, and Stan Veuger, a senior fellow at AEI.
Veuger gave some context before diving in with questions. The United States is teetering on the edge of a major cannabis policy shift after Pres. Joe Biden called for a review last October of how cannabis is classified at the federal level. The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services has since recommended that cannabis move from Schedule I, the most restrictive category, reserved for substances with no medical use and a high misuse potential, to III. The Drug Enforcement Administration must now decide whether to concur.
Meanwhile, the cannabis legislation landscape in Congress has become more complex. A wide spectrum of cannabis bills have been introduced over the past half decade or so, from comprehensive to narrow. One of those more narrow bills, the SAFER Banking Act, a bill that would open up banking services to the cannabis industry, has the best shot of momentum in this Congress. The bill passed out of the Senate Banking Committee in September, and Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already outlined his plans for the Senate floor. Meanwhile, chaos in the House looms large over further progress.
To say that it is near impossible to forecast the future of cannabis policy at the federal level would be an understatement, but Wednesday’s AEI event provided a lens into the conservative view of what could be done at the federal level now, to prepare. (As Cannabis Wire has previously reported, conservative groups are increasingly joining the cannabis conversation, such as Americans for Prosperity.)
Kain gave an overview of Joyce’s experiences before his time in Congress, which included time as a prosecutor for more than 25 years, and before that he was a public defender.
“He saw, very early on, that this was a waste of law enforcement resources, particularly when you’re talking about petty nonviolent crime, and that it was creating a lifetime of barriers for people who didn’t deserve to be in these positions,” Kain said, pointing to potential hurdles to securing housing or employment after a cannabis-related conviction, “two bedrocks to a stable, safe and prosperous community.”
Kain referenced the collateral damage of a cannabis industry without widespread banking access, noting how even plumbers who worked with cannabis businesses have had their accounts frozen.
Joyce, a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, views cannabis as a states’ rights issue, Kain said, adding that the federal government has a role to play when it comes to public safety. Kain went deeper, talking about states’ rights through the lens of the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, which would allocate funding for states pursuing expungements of cannabis offenses. The HOPE Act will be added, along with the Gun Rights and Marijuana (GRAM) Act, to the SAFER Banking Act, according to Schumer–a compromise between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.
“It’s a conservative approach. It’s written in a way that allows states to use it within the confines of their state laws and the unique situations there. So we don’t change any state law. We don’t have any federal mandates in it,” Kain said. “We’re letting the states say this is what we need because what Illinois needs is not what Ohio needs, which is not what Washington or California needs. And I think that’s really, really important when we’re looking at the criminal justice side of this.”
On the prediction front, Veuger asked Kain what she thought the HOPE Act’s chances were.
“Washington’s a funny place these days, if these past few weeks have taught us anything. So, I hesitate to make broad predictions there. I will say it has support across the political spectrum. We’ve heard some key members of the Senate voice their support for it. So I do feel good about it,” Kain said.
Kain then shifted to the Preparing Regulators Effectively for a Post-prohibition Adult-use Regulated Environment (PREPARE) Act, which would create a Commission on the Federal Regulation of Cannabis that would focus on figuring out a tenable path to federal cannabis regulation.
“To be frank,” Kain said, the PREPARE Act is “targeted at members who may not even necessarily support” federally regulated cannabis.
“As my boss likes to say, ‘you can either get on the bus or you can get hit by it.’ And right now we are going down a path of ending prohibition, which we would agree with, but we’re going down a path of ending it without, really, any concept of what it looks like when that happens,” Kain said.
A panel discussion followed, including: Paul Larkin, a senior legal research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank; Brian Miller, a nonresident fellow at AEI; and Sheri Orlowitz, founder of the Council for Federal Cannabis Regulation, a nonpartisan nonprofit. Veuger again moderated.
The panel discussion focused on criminal justice, prevention of youth consumption and cannabis-impaired driving, product regulation, and research. Panelists also discussed how, in hindsight, the federal government should have been moving back in 1996, when California legalized medical cannabis.
Larkin, from the Heritage Foundation, highlighted that the cannabis policy shift is happening without a federally-approved test for cannabis impairment, like with alcohol.
“It is a damn hard problem to figure out the right answer to because we can’t use the breathalyzers that we do for alcohol in the case of cannabis,” Larkin said. “We need to start that conversation now. Congress now has leverage and it won’t later.”
Miller, another fellow with AEI, called cannabis a “hot potato” subject, but emphasized that the conversation needs to happen now to protect consumers.
“We could and we should start to have those discussions to think about what product regulation for cannabis products would look like,” Miller said.
Orlowitz agreed, saying that there are cannabinoid products currently sold in places like gas stations and convenience stores that aren’t produced by licensed retailers who are testing their products.
“I think safety demands immediate action,” Orlowitz said. In the meantime, Ohio voters could make the Buckeye State number 24 to allow for adult use this Election Day, just two weeks away.
“The product regulation pathway should get started. And the states should continue to be doing what they were doing. And the federal government should be learning from the states now as the regulations are developed,” Orlowitz said.