Lawmakers Press Obama on Marijuana Reform

May 26, 2016
In The News

A bipartisan group of members of Congress is stepping up pressure on President Obama to take administrative action on marijuana policy reform before he leaves office early next year.

“During the next few months you have a rare opportunity to move the country forward in a way that will save lives, reallocate precious federal resources, and create an atmosphere in which new jobs and small businesses will be able to thrive,” the 14 U.S. House members wrote in a letter to Obama.

Specifically, the lawmakers are asking the administration to:

  • Move marijuana to Schedule III or lower of the Controlled Substances Act, or deschedule it altogether;
  • License more growers of cannabis for research purposes;
  • Allow Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) doctors to complete medical marijuana recommendation forms;
  • Extend protections for secondary and tertiary businesses that serve the medical marijuana industry and
  • Ensure that the Justice Department better respects Congressionally-enacted legislation preventing it from interfering with state medical cannabis laws.

“Some 300 million people live in a state or jurisdiction that allows some form of legal use of marijuana, and that number will likely grow by the end of the year,” the legislators write. “Numerous scientists and health care professionals have exposed the absurdity of cannabis being grouped in Schedule I with substances such as LSD and heroin. The status quo is entirely unjustified, and only serves to hurt our communities, waste taxpayer dollars, fuel organized crime, bog down our criminal justice system, and prevent states from making decisions that should be left up to them.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said in a letter last month that it will soon issue a ruling on pending petitions to reclassify marijuana. Rescheduling would remove barriers to scientific research, allow marijuana business to be taxed more fairly, protect federal employees from being fired for use and solve other issues.

But the lawmakers point out that even if cannabis is rescheduled, other problems will remain.

“We would like to caution against adopting the assumption that rescheduling alone is the panacea to the difficulties currently facing businesses, practitioners, and consumers,” they write. “As such, we implore your Administration to investigate additional reforms that may be made administratively.”

First, the lawmakers want the Obama administration to increase the number of growers who can cultivate marijuana for scientific research.

Since 1968, the only legal source of cannabis for studies in the country has been University of Mississippi, which operates under a license from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Scientists have complained that it is difficult to obtain marijuana from the facility and that even when their applications are granted, the product is often of poor quality. Other facilities have applied for licenses, but DEA has shot them down, even overruling recommendations from the agency’s own administrative law judge. DEA says that international drug treaties bar the granting of more licenses, but earlier this month the State Department said that the DEA’s interpretation is incorrect, and even NIDA has said the monopoly is unnecessary.

The members of Congress also want the administration to ease military veterans’ access to medical cannabis.

Last week both the House and Senate voted to force the V.A. to start allowing its doctors to complete medical marijuana recommendations for veterans in states where it is legal. The legislation still needs to get over a few procedural hurdles before it officially becomes law, but the legislators write that Obama should direct the V.A. to begin increasing veterans’ access to cannabis now.

Next, the lawmakers are pushing the president to extend protections his administration’s Treasury and Justice departments have made for banks that do business with state-legal marijuana sellers.

“While the guidance was certainly welcomed, we are concerned that it does not extend to secondary and tertiary businesses (e.g. those who rent space to medical marijuana businesses, or those who manufacture light bulbs that are used to grow marijuana), causing an unnecessary chilling effect on the industry,” they write. “State-legal medical marijuana businesses, including the businesses that serve them, do not fall into that category and should not be treated as such. Therefore, we respectfully request that your Administration issue further guidance that extends to secondary and tertiary businesses.”

Finally, the House members want the president to make sure his Justice Department is respecting a federal funding provision that seeks to prevent its agencies from spending money to interfere with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws.

The measure has been passed by strong bipartisan majorities on the House floor and subsequently signed into law for the past two years. But Justice officials have narrowly interpreted the provision to only prevent them from going after state officials who are implementing laws and not provide any protection to the state-legal businesses that operate under the policies. Courts, however, have disagreed. “In order to respect this Congressional directive and the admonition of the federal judiciary, we ask that you bring your Administration into unambiguous compliance with this provision of law,” the lawmakers write.

The first name on the letter’s list of signatories is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican of California who earlier this week became the first member of Congress in recent history to admit to using marijuana while serving in office.

Also signing on are Reps. Jared Polis (CO), Earl Blumenauer (OR), Tel Lieu (CA), Barbara Lee (CA), Mark Pocan (WI), Dina Titus (NV), Sam Farr (CA), John Conyers (MI), Eric Swalwell (CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Steve Cohen (TN), Denny Heck (WA) and Ed Perlmutter (CO), all Democrats.

In a press release announcing the letter, Lieu said he hoped increasing public support for marijuana law reform would spur action by the White House.

“It is far overdue for the Obama Administration to bring an end to a draconian marijuana policy,” he said. “Forty-one states have legalized medical cannabis to varying degrees, and four states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized marijuana. As other states look to legalize this fall, including California, it makes zero sense for marijuana to still be placed on Schedule I, a group which includes dangerous substances such as heroin and LSD. With a majority of the American public now embracing legalization, I hope the federal government will follow their lead.”