With the November general election approaching and Congress looking to wrap up legislative work for the year in December, it is a good time to assess the status of cannabis reform. The 2019-2020 congressional session has certainly provided some hope for the future of federal cannabis reform, with the 2019 House passage of the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1595) and a 2020 vote still likely on the MORE Act (HR 3884) in the post-election lame duck session. We also saw successful efforts to maintain and expand protection of state cannabis models through amendments to annual appropriations bills.
Not only were state medical cannabis programs protected by language in the annual Commerce Justice Science appropriations bill, House appropriators also added language from the SAFE Banking Act to the annual Financial Services appropriations bill. If approved by the Senate this language would prohibit federal funding from being used to penalize banks for extending services to state-compliant cannabis businesses. And finally we saw House Energy & Commerce Committee approval of legislation (HR 3797), designed to remove existing federal obstacles to cannabis research.
These notable successes demonstrate the incredible hard work of advocates in securing support for these important policy advancements, and the increased attention among members of Congress on cannabis issues. However, these successes must be viewed in the context of the full scope of federal activity during the 116th Congress. For example, there were more than 50 bills and resolutions related to cannabis policy reform introduced during this congressional session, but only a handful of which secured traction to move forward. Bills left on the table include important bipartisan legislation like HR 712 – VA Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2019, which currently has over 100 House cosponsors.
We also have to acknowledge that nearly all progress has occurred in the House, with the Senate refusing to take up any House-passed cannabis measures this session. Without Senate engagement on these bills federal cannabis reform legislation cannot move forward! The success of federal cannabis policy reform also depends on engagement from the executive branch through federal departments and agencies like the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as from the judicial branch through the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unfortunately federal executive departments and agencies have resisted progress on cannabis over the past nearly four years, and the Supreme Court has so far been unwilling to take on cases related to the cannabis industry, despite 47 states having organized cannabis policy regimes. Just this month the Supreme Court rejected 2 petitions relating to cannabis. One on behalf of five medical cannabis patients and caregivers challenging the federal scheduling of cannabis and another on how federal labor laws affect cannabis business employees operating under state cannabis programs.
So despite laudable progress, there is also a great deal of work to be done to expand the national discussion on cannabis policy reform and improve the legal environment for cannabis patients, caregivers, physicians and researchers. As you prepare for the November elections, we encourage you to make a plan for voting so that you are registered and prepared to participate in your local voting process.
Educate yourself on the candidates and issues that will affect your life. On your Secretary of State’s website, as well as on your county registrar of voters website, you can find information on statewide candidates and issues on the ballot this November that require your attention. After all, it is not just the presidential election before you, but also U.S. senators, members of Congress, governors, state legislatures, county supervisors, city councils, judges, and representatives of law enforcement such as county sheriffs. And beyond the candidates there are also state and local issues, such as statewide cannabis access or local ordinances that seek to authorize cannabis access.
Despite the responsibility of weighing these choices and planning for your participation as a voter there is no need to feel overwhelmed. There are plenty of great resources available to help us all make voting decisions and inform our elected leaders about what is important. Get started by going to safeaccessnow.org/vote.