While pro-cannabis policies are not moving fast in Washington, DC there have been recent positive developments in Congress and the White House.
While Democrats in the United States Congress seem eager to move significant cannabis reform despite their razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate, President Joe Biden has been reluctant to support more than decriminalization at best.
However, his choice of Dr. Rahul Gupta as White House Drug Czar is significant that Gupta has significant experience setting up West Virginia’s medical cannabis program. As the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, he worked hard to promote their program.
“As a physician, I have seen firsthand the heartbreaking toll of addiction and overdose in all our communities, but I have also seen how we can save lives if we understand the individuals behind the statistics and meet them where they are with high-quality, evidence-based care and services,” Gupta said regarding the nature of drugs and addiction.
Some ardent drug reform advocates are unhappy that as WV Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) Commissioner, Gupta approved ending a syringe access program to help stop the spread of HIV.
The appointment of Gupta is good news since noted cannabis opponent former Congressman Patrick Kennedy sought the position.
While Kennedy represented Rhode Island in Congress, he had since moved to South Jersey, where his wife Amy ran for Congress last year in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Jeff Van Drew, who switched from being a Democrat to a Republican.
Kennedy was forced to give up his seat in the House after he became known for driving intoxicated. He has since remade himself as a mental health lobbyist. Kennedy is now the leader of the lobbying group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which successfully delayed cannabis reform efforts in New Jersey with the support of State Senator Ron Rice (D-Essex).
The U.S. Cannabis Council compromised of a range of cannabis companies and organizations, among others, opposed his nomination.
Gupta will head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Noted cannabis opponent Kevin Sabet of SAM previously held the office and supported Kennedy’s efforts. Unfortunately, he does not seem daunted by Gupta’s appointment.
“Rahul has a strong public health background, but he also knows how to work with law enforcement and other stakeholders,” Sabet said. “He has a record of convening different constituencies, which will serve him well in this role. It’s a strong selection.”
Notably, Gupta is the first doctor to serve as the White House Drug Czar. The office was previously equivalent of a Cabinet Secretary in the vein of the Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) Administrator, but former President Barack Obama demoted it during his tenure.
Surgeon General Makes Positive Cannabis Remarks
In addition to Gupta, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently said on CNN that arresting individuals for cannabis crimes has little value.
“We need to let science guide us,” he said in response to a question on legalization efforts in Congress.
Science has not guided American policy since 1937 when cannabis was outlawed largely due to racism and greed (which you can read more about in my book Cannabis 101!)
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has only allowed scientists to study a mediocre type of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi, which is much worse than street or dispensary cannabis in terms of its benefits. Even that has been difficult. However, Congress is trying to change that as part of the infrastructure bill. An initial draft of the bill was released Sunday.
Murthy had offered support to cannabis before when as Surgeon General under Obama when he said cannabis might have medical benefits. However, he also said cannabis reform on the state level might have been moving too fast in 2018.
If Biden surrounds himself with advisors more inclined to look favorable on cannabis, with Schumer and Congress pushing cannabis reform, it is more likely his view could change.
But Biden does not seem eager to evolve too far on cannabis. In March, he fired five White House staffers who were foolish enough to tell the federal government under the Drug Warrior Biden they consumed cannabis.
The Pro-Cannabis Policies of Congress
Congress has been more active than the White House on pro-cannabis policies since 2019, when it passed the SAFE Banking Act. That bill died before it could be signed to law in the last session of Congress, so the House passed it again this year right before 4/20.
The most significant effort in cannabis policy is the decriminalization effort championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). They unveiled the draft in mid-July but did not plan to introduce it until after the summer recess of Congress’ input had been gathered. Other cannabis bills moving in Congress in addition to the main bill face their own issues.
The House of Representatives went into recess for the summer last week before passing an amendment to protect the state cannabis markets. Congress has passed this annual spending bill every year since 2017 to protect them from the wrath of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The amendment is known as the Blumenauer-McClintock-Norton-Lee amendment after Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) (co-Chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC). The amendment passed in the House in 2019 and 2020 but was removed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
In addition, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced a bill to restrict the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from taking disciplinary actions against doctors for making medical cannabis recommendations.
However, the Democrats’ thin margin makes the passage of significant pro-cannabis policies hard. While the House of Representatives has been in Democratic control since 2019 and favors cannabis reform, the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris often breaking ties in favor of the Democrats.