The U.S. Capitol dome is silhouetted by the sunrise. (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press file)

How Congress is getting serious about cannabis amid White House uncertainty

Cannabis Caucus taking charge: In time of Trump and pending arrival of AG Sessions, some marijuana-backing members of Congress are hopeful for progress

There’s optimism brewing on Capitol Hill that Congress could maintain or even accelerate marijuana legalization’s momentum in the face of rising concerns that the industry could be snuffed out federally.

Members of a newly formed bipartisan “Cannabis Caucus” are preparing to introduce a slew of legislation — including resurrecting bills from sessions’ past — and aiming to develop a united front to further congressional action on cannabis. And weeks before the official launch of the caucus, they say support is building, even amid a backdrop of uncertainty for the industry under the watch of prospective Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“This Congress is going to be a little better than last Congress, and last Congress was better than the one before that,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, in an interview with The Cannabist. “It’s very interesting watching the momentum build.”

The co-chairs of the caucus, announced in December, include founding member Blumenauer; Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado; Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California; and Rep. Don Young, Alaska. Blumenauer said the group is working to broaden the participation among other congressional members.

“I’m more hopeful than ever before that we can move legislation like the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act,” Polis said, referencing legislation introduced in 2015 to remove marijuana entirely from the Controlled Substances Act, decriminalize the substance and open the doors to a nationally regulated recreational industry under the oversight of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Polis’ 2015 bill is one of 25 marijuana-related measures introduced in the past two years that likely will be revived in the coming months, Blumenauer said.

As of Monday, three of those bills have been introduced in the current session:

  • H.R. 331 – States’ Medical Marijuana Property Rights Protection Act (sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California): Prevents civil asset forfeiture for property owners of state-sanctioned medical marijuana facilities.
  • H.R. 714 – Legitimate Use of Medicinal Marihuana Act, or LUMMA (sponsored by Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia): Moves marijuana to Schedule II on the Controlled Substances Act and provides that no provision of the CSA or Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act could prohibit the prescription/recommendation, use, transport, possession, manufacture or distribution under state law in states with medical marijuana regulations.
  • H.R. 715 – Compassionate Access Act (sponsored by Griffith): To provide for “the rescheduling of marihuana, the medicinal use of marihuana in accordance with state law and the exclusion of cannabidiol from the definition of marihuana, and for other purposes.” The bill, which includes language on research, also would not allow CBD to be treated as a controlled substance.

Blumenauer said another key plan of action will be passing amendments similar to the Rohrabacher-Farr Medical Marijuana Amendment, which restricted U.S. Department of Justice funds from being used to interfere with state-based legal operations.

Marijuana-friendly members had to do that during the Obama administration and they’re going to have to do the same during the Trump administration, he added.

It can be argued that greater uncertainty for the cannabis industry exists in the latter, however. While President Donald Trump had indicated on the campaign trail that he valued states’ rights and would not interfere in the business of legal recreational or medical marijuana states, the prospective attorney general has expressed negative views toward cannabis users and legalization in the recent past.

“This is a struggle and will continue to be, but this is something where I honestly don’t think the new administration, which has probably enough controversy on its hands, is going to knowingly pick a fight with what, almost without exception, was approved by local voters,” Blumenauer said.

The playing field was widened significantly last year, when public opinion on marijuana legalization reached record levels and eight of nine statewide marijuana legalization measures passed during the 2016 election, Blumenauer said.

The legalization train has left the station, he said.

“It’s easier for people to embrace much of what we’re doing legislatively,” he said, adding that it’s mere “housekeeping” to address issues such as breaking down barriers to research and allowing state-legal businesses to deduct their operating expenses.

It may be easier, but it’s not a sure thing, Blumenauer said. Some legislators are not rushing to embrace legalization in recreational or medical form, he added.

Sessions, when asked about marijuana during his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing, did not indicate what direction he might go on the issue, stating that he “won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” but added that enforcement direction “is a problem of resources for the federal government.”

He later said that:

“I think one obvious concern is that the United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act. If that something is not desired any longer, Congress should pass the law to change the rule.

“It’s not so much the attorney general’s job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we’re able.”

Polis said he’s worried about Sessions’ approach to the industry, given his past statements; but he noted that, ultimately, Sessions will work for Trump and “we need to make the case directly to Trump” about the marijuana industry’s economic and job-creation benefits as well as investing and research opportunities.

“Until (the underlying federal law is addressed), the industry exists really at the discretion of the president and the attorney general, and it’s a dangerous place to be,” Polis said.

Reps. Rohrabacher and Young were not immediately available for comment.