As the midterm elections approach, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would probably prefer to be able to tout progress on enacting marijuana legalization—but instead, he’s currently left with the Senate passage of a modest cannabis research bill as among “historic achievements” made during the Biden administration.
In a statement released on Thursday, the leader touted the “productive and bipartisan” work that the Senate has done under Democratic leadership.
“To even do small things in the Senate is tough,” he said. “To pass major pieces of bipartisan legislation in the longest evenly divided Senate in history is a testament to Democrats’ persistence and hard work to deliver for the American people.”
While the press statement largely focuses on touting major achievements such as the Inflation Reduction Act, and infrastructure bill and aid to Ukraine, among other more well-known pieces of legislation, it also includes mention of the cannabis study reform.
Under a section of the statement titled “Fighting Back Against Hate, Crime and Oppression,” Schumer briefly mentioned that the “Senate passed legislation to streamline research of marijuana,” referencing legislation from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that cleared the chamber in April.
Missing from the list of achievements, of course, is Schumer’s own comprehensive legalization bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) that was filed last month after more than a year of work on the legislation.
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Even if there was sufficient time to bring the bill to the floor before the November elections, few believe it has enough support—even among the Democratic caucus—to pass, and the growing expectation is that lawmakers will be pursuing a separate package of more incremental cannabis reforms like marijuana banking and federal expungements.
According to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a prime sponsor of CAOA, recently said that the so-called “SAFE Banking Plus” bill that’s in the works would likely be filed following the elections during the lame duck session.
In the meantime, Senate Democrats have the bipartisan marijuana research bill as the main example of cannabis reform progress since President Joe Biden took office and Democrats reclaimed the majority in the Senate.
That specific legislation hasn’t been enacted into law, though. But there are hopes that a slightly revised version that was introduced last month could reach the president’s desk in due time. It already cleared the House just days after its filing, and sources say the Senate is expected to act shortly.
If it makes it through the chamber and gets to Biden, it would mark the first piece of standalone marijuana reform legislation to ever become law.
A separate but similar House-passed cannabis research bill was taken into consideration when crafting the “Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act.” But as sponsor Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) acknowledged, the revised legislation required “compromise” with the Senate, including the omission of provisions in his original bill to allow scientists to access cannabis from dispensaries for studies.
Under the new legislation, the U.S. attorney general would be given a 60-day deadline to either approve a given application or request supplemental information from the marijuana research applicant. It would also create a more efficient pathway for researchers who request larger quantities of cannabis.
Further, the bill would encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop cannabis-derived medicines. One way it proposed doing so is by allowing accredited medical and osteopathic schools, practitioners, research institutions, and manufacturers with a Schedule I registration to cultivate their own cannabis for research purposes.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would get a mandate to approve applications to be manufacturers of marijuana-derived, FDA-approved drugs under the bill. Manufacturers would also be allowed to import cannabis materials to facilitate research into the plant’s therapeutic potential.
Another section would require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to look at the health benefits and risks of marijuana as well as policies that are inhibiting research into cannabis that’s grown in legal states and provide recommendations on overcoming those barriers.
The bill further states that it “shall not be a violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) for a State-licensed physician to discuss” the risk and benefits of marijuana and cannabis-derived products with patients.
A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis found that the proposal would reduce direct spending by less than $500,000 and would have a “negligible net change in the deficit.”
In the new statement on Senate Democratic accomplishments, Schumer did also reference a large-scale infrastructure legislation that Biden signed late last year. But he didn’t specifically talk about a marijuana provision of the bill aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal businesses instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.
In any case, the infrastructure provision and research bill still fall far short of legalization, which Schumer previously pledged to bring to the floor if Democrats gained a Senate majority. But even with months of work to build bipartisan support for the proposal, there are strong doubts that it could reach the required 60-vote threshold to pass in the Senate.
The House, on the other hand, has passed a separate legalization bill twice at this point, most recently in April.
Now eyes are turned to the yet-to-be-introduced SAFE Banking Plus bill, which may incorporate certain provisions of CAOA but is not anticipated to include the key component of federal marijuana descheduling.
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