Cannabis users got coal from Congress in December – as lawmakers in both parties supported an anti-cannabis government funding bill – and with leaders of both parties starting the New Year consumed by impeachment, the outlook for any movement on federal decriminalization in 2020 is looking bleak.
Still, rank and file Democrats in the House are going through the motions. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Health held a hearing earlier this week to examine a slew of marijuana proposals that even the committee chair isn’t promising will ever see the light of day.
“I'm not saying that we're necessarily going to move anything, but we certainly would consider it – that was the purpose of the hearing,” Chair of the full Energy and Commerce Committee Frank Pallone told Wikileaf.
Voters in Pallone’s home state of New Jersey are slated to vote on a recreational marijuana referendum this November, which he says he supports even as the powerful chairman – who has Democratic Party leader’s ears – isn’t promising even a vote on any of the six bills Wednesday’s hearing focused on.
“I haven't, you know, we haven’t made any decision on that,” Pallone said.
That’s not good news for the many vocal cannabis proponents in Congress, let alone the hundreds of thousands of people spread across America now employed full time in this burgeoning industry, especially because the hearing highlighted opposition to marijuana remains strong among powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill. So even as a handful of Republicans asked for the hearing, that doesn’t mean the party’s elders have moved past their historical prohibitionist stances.
In fact, the top Republican of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, who represents a state that was early to legalize marijuana for recreational uses, made clear he opposes federal decriminalization, saying it’s “a step too far and is something I cannot support.”
Walden called for more research into marijuana, but so did the witnesses at the hearing from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) – all agencies that have fought and continue to fight marijuana normalization.
The hearing did showcase progress on some fronts, like some potential movement – even if glacially paced – from parts of the Trump administration on low hanging, though vital fruit, including expanding federally approved research on cannabis.
“We actually have a draft regulation in place,” DEA Senior Policy Advisor Matthew Strait said before telling lawmakers the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is already examining the agency’s proposal. “I can’t talk too much about it, but rest assured, we have submitted to OMB – it’s been drafted.”
But NIDA Director Nora Volkow tried to pour cold water on attempts to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, even trying to point out “unintended negative consequences” of such an action – an action that all of the administration officials present admitted to lawmakers the federal government has woefully under-researched.
That didn’t sit well with marijuana advocates.
"At a time when nearly 70 percent of all Americans want to end our failed federal policy of blanket cannabis criminalization, it is unfortunate to see so many participants at this hearing advocating largely for business as usual,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri released in a statement. “
The fact of the matter is that legalization and regulation work. Eleven states regulate the adult use of marijuana and 33 states provide for medical cannabis access. The time for federal policy to reflect this political and cultural reality is now.”
It wasn’t just advocates left frustrated by the administration’s perceived foot-dragging, even if they welcomed the subcommittee’s first ever hearing on the topic.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) labeled the current situation a “catch-22” for researchers because they’re currently forbidden from much testing “until they show cannabis has a medical use, but they can’t demonstrate cannabis has a medical use until they can conduct research.”
“It doesn’t make sense—at least to me,” she lamented.
Eshoo isn’t alone.
“Congress made a mistake, and every Congress since has not had honest hearings and honest dialogue and has not allowed—truly allowed—the researchers in this great country to do the true research that needs to be done for us to properly categorize cannabis in this country,” Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) said. “As a result of that, we have millions of individuals in this country who have been subjected to incarceration and a criminal record.”
But, even after House Democrats lost the biggest cannabis fights presented to them in 2019, one of marijuana’s biggest advocates on Capitol Hill – Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) who helped found the Congressional Cannabis Caucus – put on a happy face after the hearing.
“After years of working to advance cannabis reform in Congress, this critical hearing is an important milestone where another major congressional committee focused time and attention on our movement,” Blumenauer released in a statement.
“It was important to hear a number of senior members of Congress affirming the change that is taking place at the state level and affirming the contradictions that are created by the federal government being out of step and out of touch.”
Blumenauer’s praise of his colleagues for merely holding a hearing on a topic millions of Americans of all political stripes have now endorsed seems premature to many advocates though. Especially because the party’s power brokers don’t seem to be in any rush to right what most Democrats now call historical wrongs.
“Personally, I would support decriminalization,” Pallone said. “But, you know, I'm not speaking for myself. I mean, the hearing was to see, you know, whether we could develop a consensus and move the bill – any of the bills.”
Pallone doesn’t speak for himself. He’s one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s top generals on Capitol Hill. His silence on whether the party will move on decriminalization speaks louder than his personal support for decriminalization.
Members of the committee did say they plan to hold another hearing on the issue, but that isn’t good enough for the tens of thousands of Americans – the majority of whom are minorities – currently incarcerated for merely possessing cannabis. But it’s sure starting to feel like the status quo is good enough for many House Democrats; at least its party leaders.