With the House and Senate heading into a month-long August recess this week, it’s a good time to look back at what lawmakers have accomplished so far this year when it comes to marijuana reform: It is unquestionable that the 116th Congress is the most cannabis-friendly Congress in history.
Seven months into the session, there have already been seven hearings on cannabis, a marijuana banking bill passed a key committee and the full House adopted a far-reaching amendment to block federal interference in state legalization laws. And those are just the highlights.
„Congress has never moved this far, this fast on marijuana policy, period,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in an interview.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who has worked for decades to end marijuana prohibition, said that those „long overdue efforts to reform our outdated cannabis laws are finally resonating in Congress.”
„Bills to address policy failures in cannabis banking, veterans access, decriminalization and restorative justice have started moving through the legislative process,” he said.
Here’s a comprehensive rundown of the immense amount of cannabis progress made on Capitol Hill in 2019:
Votes On Marijuana Legislation
In June, the House of Representatives voted 267 to 165 to approve a measure for the first time that prevents the Department of Justice from spending money to intervene in the implementation of state and territory marijuana policies.
The body also approved, via an uncontested voice vote, a similar measure shielding the cannabis laws of Indian tribes as well as another adding the U.S. Virgin Islands to an existing law covering local medical marijuana programs. An additional amendment the House tacked onto the same bill directs the Food and Drug Administration to establish a process for regulating CBD in foods and dietary supplements.
Separate appropriations legislation that cleared the House in June contained language upon introduction to prohibit the Treasury Department from punishing banks for maintaining accounts for state-legal cannabis businesses. That legislation also deletes a longstanding rider that has blocked Washington, D.C. from spending its own local tax dollars to legalize and regulate marijuana sales. No lawmaker from either party attempted to completely strip the banking language or add the D.C. ban back in.
The Senate has not yet taken up its versions of these spending bills, so it remains to be seen if the chamber will support similar amendments during committee markups or floor consideration. In cases where the body does not adopt identical proposals, it will be up to bicameral conference committees to determine what makes it into final legislation sent to President Trump’s desk.
In July, the House passed via voice vote an amendment to end a Department of Veterans Affairs policy that denies home loans to military veterans because they work in the marijuana industry. The underlying bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also contains a separate measure added in committee that would let military branches grant reenlistment waivers to personnel if they used marijuana once, or were convicted of a misdemeanor cannabis offense, while off duty. The Senate version of NDAA doesn’t have these marijuana riders, so it will come down to a conference committee to decide if they are included in the finished package.
In March, the House Financial Services Committee voted 45 to 15 to approve a bill to let banks service marijuana businesses without being punished by federal regulators.
Much of the progress on cannabis legislation so far this year is due to the fact that Democrats won control of the House and thereby replaced former Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX)—who lost his own reelection bid—with new Chairman James McGovern (D-MA). The panel is responsible for preparing legislation for floor action and, among other things, decides which amendments are allowed to be voted on by the full body. Under Sessions’s control, the GOP majority blocked every proposed cannabis measure from advancing for the past several years. McGovern has allowed nearly all marijuana amendments to be considered on the floor, with the exception of one that had technical issues in violation of House rules.
It is worth noting that it hasn’t been all legislative victories for drug reform activists this year on Capitol Hill. A measure that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) filed to remove roadblocks to research on the medical benefits of psilocybin, MDMA and other psychedelics was soundly defeated on the House floor, with a number of Democratic leaders joining the GOP in voting against it. And Blumenauer withdrew his own amendment to let Department of Veterans Affairs doctors issue medical cannabis recommendations after the administration pushed back against it. Planned committee votes on other veterans-focused marijuana legislation were canceled and haven’t yet been rescheduled.
And while supporters had anticipated a House floor vote on the cannabis banking bill prior to the August recess, that did not happen, and expectations have now shifted toward action in the fall.
Hearings On Cannabis Issues
An unprecedented number of hearings have already been held on Capitol Hill this year to zero in on specific issues caused by the growing gap between federal and state cannabis laws.
The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee held a hearing on financial services access for marijuana businesses on July 23—a surprise to advocates following the earlier refusal of Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) to commit to considering the issue while cannabis remains federally banned. While the event was poorly attended by panel Republicans, it at least signals the GOP-controlled body’s willingness to discuss key reforms. It is unknown if or when the committee will vote on pending marijuana banking legislation that is currently cosponsored by nearly a third of all senators.
The Senate Agriculture Committee convened a July 25 hearing on federal officials' efforts to implement the legalization of hemp that was part of the 2018 Farm Bill signed into law by President Trump late last year. Among those who testified were representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
On the House side, the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security gathered on July 10 for a hearing on the need to end cannabis prohibition at which every witness—including the one called by the panel’s minority Republicans—supported far-reaching federal marijuana reform. Lawmakers from both parties also broadly voiced support for ending or scaling back prohibition, with most disagreement centering on how to achieve change instead of whether changes are needed.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee held two hearings this year at which legislators discussed proposals to increase military veterans' access to medical cannabis. During a full panel session in June as well as a separate earlier meeting of the Subcommittee on Health, a key focus was on bipartisan proposals to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to at least study medical marijuana.
Also in June, the House Small Business Committee discussed challenges facing firms in the cannabis industry, including a lack of access to federally backed low-interest loans.
In February, the House Financial Services Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions Subcommittee convened to discuss banking access issues for marijuana businesses, a hearing that preceded full committee passage of legislation on the issue.
Marijuana Bills From Key Sponsors
No fewer than 61 individual cannabis-focused bills have been filed in the first seven months of the 116th Congress, and that doesn’t count a number of broader large-scale bills that happen to contain cannabis provisions. Beyond the sheer volume of legislation—already nearly the most in any single two-year Congress despite the fact that barely a quarter of the current one has so far elapsed—the names of the lead sponsors signal how seriously cannabis reform is now being taken on Capitol Hill
From committee chairs to presidential candidates, many of the most serious players in the House and Senate are stepping up to play leadership roles in the fight to reform federal marijuana laws.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who strongly influences crime and drug policy as House Judiciary Committee chair, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a presidential contender, teamed up to file companion bills that would not only federally legalize marijuana but invest in programs aimed at repairing some of the damage of the war on drugs.
House Small Business Committee Chair Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) introduced legislation to let marijuana firms utilize loans and other programs from the Small Business Administration and to increase the cannabis industry’s access to insurance coverage.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) filed bills to deschedule cannabis and set aside funding to support expunging prior convictions.
Every Democratic senator and representative currently running for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination has signed onto far-reaching cannabis legislation, with some taking extra initiative as the lead sponsors of bills.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), for example, filed a proposal called the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and punish states with discriminatory prohibition enforcement by withholding certain federal funds. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is a lead sponsor of bipartisan legislation to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from the CSA. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) filed bills to deschedule marijuana and to research hemp’s potential uses for everything from products for public school lunches to clearing contaminants from nuclear sites.
Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MI) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), as well as Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH)—all also presidential candidates—have signed onto cannabis reform proposals.
While Democrats have been much more likely to introduce or cosponsor marijuana reform bills so far this Congress, some measures have garnered significant bipartisan support.
Legislation to let banks serve cannabis businesses without fear of being punished by federal regulators, for example, has 206 House cosponsors—nearly half the chamber’s entire membership—including 26 Republicans. A companion Senate bill has 31 lawmakers signed on, including five GOP senators. And Warren’s bill, known as the STATES Act, also has five Republican cosponsors, with the companion House version touting 19 GOP signers.
Report Language On Cannabis
Beyond advancing legislation containing marijuana reform provisions, the House Appropriations Committee has included language directing federal agencies to take action on cannabis issues in several reports attached to spending bills this year.
In a document corresponding to legislation to fund the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, the panel expressed concern that cannabis’s current federal classification impedes science, writing that „restrictions associated with Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act effectively limit the amount and type of research that can be conducted on certain Schedule I drugs, especially marijuana or its component chemicals and new synthetic drugs and analogs.”
“At a time when we need as much information as possible about these drugs to find antidotes for their harmful effects, we should be lowering regulatory and other barriers to conducting this research,” the panel said, directing the National Institute on Drug Abuse to “provide a short report on the barriers to research that result from the classification of drugs and compounds as Schedule I substances.”
A separate report for legislation funding the Department of Justice urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to „expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for use in medical research,” expressing frustration that the federal government has so far not acted on more than two dozen pending proposals to grow cannabis for scientific studies.
A document attached to the Financial Services and General Government spending bill encourages the Office of Personnel Management to „review its policies and guidelines regarding hiring and firing of individuals who use marijuana in states where that individual’s private use of marijuana is not prohibited under the law of the State.”
„These policies should reflect updated changes to the law on marijuana usage and clearly state the impact of marijuana usage on Federal employment,” the report says.
Legislation on Agriculture, Rural Development and Food and Drug Administration funding has an attached report urging federal officials to issue hemp legalization regulations „as soon as possible” and identify “lawful federal regulatory pathways for CBD foods and dietary supplements if such pathways are consistent with protection of the public health.”
The committee also included a passage in the report attached to a bill funding the Department of Veterans Affairs decrying the „Department’s denial of home loan guarantees to Veterans solely on the basis of the Veteran’s documented income being derived from state-legalized cannabis activities” and directing it to provide an update on efforts to „prioritize investments in research on the efficacy and safety of cannabis usage among the Veteran population for medicinal purposes.”
There’s still nearly a year and a half left to go in the 116th Congress, and legalization advocates are hopeful that far-reaching reforms can pass one or both chambers, potentially making it to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law.
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that things are „off to a great start in the House,” calling the Judiciary Committee hearing and the introduction of its chairman’s bill „highlights” so far.
„But there is so much more to be done before we can celebrate undoing the horror that is marijuana prohibition,” he added.
Most immediately, activists will be watching to see if the House moves to pass cannabis banking legislation and potentially Judiciary Chair Nadler’s comprehensive marijuana reform bill when Congress returns from the August recess this fall.
Blumenauer, the pro-legalization congressman, said that he hopes the body will consider Nadler’s descheduling legislation „before the end of the year.”
„This is our blueprint in action, and I expect our momentum to continue,” he said, referring to a memo he issued to Democratic leaders last year laying out a committee-by-committee process through which the the party could build support toward ending cannabis prohibition in 2019.
On the other side of the Capitol, it remains to be seen whether the Senate Banking Committee will take up that chamber’s version of the cannabis financial services proposal following the hearing the panel held in July, or whether broader reforms such as the STATES Act or other marijuana legislation will be allowed to advance under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
While bill introductions, hearings and report language are undoubtedly positive steps forward—especially in a quantity never before seen on Capitol Hill—they in and of themselves don’t change any laws, get anyone out of jail or repair the harms of the drug war.
Strekal, of NORML, said that „lawmakers are increasingly playing catch up with their constituents.”
„It’s our job as advocates to ensure that, as these elected officials evolve, they navigate their positions towards sound public policy, not simple political expediency,” he said.
But even if no other marijuana action were to happen on Capitol Hill this or next year—as unlikely as that would be— it is clear that the 116th Congress has already been the most marijuana friendly in history.