Republicans Show Their Cards, Cut Cannabis from Defense Bill

July 21, 2023 · MG Magazine

Numerous cannabis-related amendments with bipartisan support were stripped from the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by the Republican-led House Rules Committee before the bill could reach the floor for a vote. The GOP-friendly bill passed the House on a mostly party-line 219-210 vote.

The proposed amendments were focused on affording veterans, servicemembers, and private citizens who possess a national security clearance the right to use hemp and cannabis products in accordance with state and federal laws.

“It’s disappointing to see the committee reject these sensible, bipartisan amendments given the overwhelming support for cannabis reform throughout the country and the urgent need to allow our heroes who rely on the [Veterans Administration] for medical treatments the opportunity to find relief through cannabis, as so many other injured and ill Americans are able to do in consultation with their doctors in compliance with the laws on the books in more than three-quarters of the U.S. States,” said Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer at the trade group National Cannabis Industry Association.

One bipartisan amendment proposed by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dave Joyce (R-OH), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Brian Mast (R-FL) with support from the Congressional Cannabis Caucus would have allowed doctors working for the Department of Veteran Affairs to discuss cannabis with patients who reside in states where medical marijuana is permitted. Another introduced by Blumenauer, Joyce, and Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) would have required the Secretary of Defense to create reenlistment waivers for recruits following a positive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) toxicology test.

On the Democrat side, Rep. Robert Garcia (D-CA) proposed an amendment to eliminate funding used to revoke or deny security clearance to individuals solely on the basis of their lawful use of cannabis. An amendment proposed by eight Democrats would have expedited the waiver process for military recruits and applicants who’ve previously used legal cannabis.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced an amendment to the Senate version of the defense bill that would provide safe harbor for veterans to use medical cannabis in accordance with state laws. It also would force the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to support a two-year clinical study on the use of medical marijuana by veterans to manage pain and treat diseases and disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder. The partisan proposal is co-sponsored by Peter Welch (D-VT), Alex Padilla (D-CA), John Fetterman (D-PA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) , Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Cory Booker (D-NY), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). However, similar cannabis policy reform efforts in previous versions of the NDAA have been pulled before the bill reached the floor for a vote.

On the Republican side, an amendment proposed by Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) would have prevented the Department of Defense from prohibiting a member of the armed forces from possessing or consuming legal hemp and hemp-derived products that are in compliance with federal, state, and local laws. Rep Matt Gaetz (R-FL) proposed an amendment to remove cannabis testing from the enlistment and officer-commissioning processes.

The House Rules Committee is led by Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) and Vice Chair Michael Burgess (R-TX). It includes a total of nine Republican and four Democrat members representing 12 states. The Committee often is referred to as the traffic cop of Congress, with powers that include deciding if and when bills will be presented to the House of Representatives for a vote.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) issued a grade of C- to Cole, who has voted in favor of some cannabis-related bills including the 2019 Safe Banking Act, 2021 Safe Banking Act, and 2021 Medical Marijuana Research Act. Cole voted against the Veterans Equal Access Amendment in 2016 and the MORE Act in 2019 and 2021.

Burgess has either abstained or voted against eight of nine cannabis-related bills since 2015, prompting a grade of D- from NORML. Burgess voted in favor of the Medical Marijuana Research Act in 2022.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wields significant influence over the Rules Committee, including the responsibility of selecting nine of the thirteen members. Even though McCarthy voted in favor of the Medical Marijuana Research Act in 2021, he has voted against every other cannabis-related amendment since the McClintock/Polis Amendment to Protect Legalization in 2015.

“While incorrect, I think many Republicans are seeing these issues as primarily the concern of the opposing Democratic Party, which makes progress even more difficult in these hyper-partisan times,” said Smith. “Kevin McCarthy represents a state with a robust legal cannabis industry and has many enlisted and former military constituents in his Bakersfield district who rely on cannabis to heal the wounds of war, so it’s unconscionable that he hasn’t made this a higher priority.”

According to The Hill, the bill was “loaded up with conservative amendments, marking a big win for Speaker McCarthy.” The must-pass bill will be dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate due to GOP-sponsored culture-war amendments focusing on abortion, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and transgender rights.

“What we’ve seen is this bill has been transformed into an extremist manifesto,” House Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-MA) told CNN on Friday. “We know that this bill is going nowhere in the Senate, because it is disgusting and outrageous.”

The bill is headed to the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schuemer (D-NY) is expected to reject the House’s version.

“I think it’ll probably be a totally different bill when we get it back later this year,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) told The Hill. “I don’t know what Schumer will do, but I can’t imagine that he’ll go along with all of the amendments that were attached to the NDAA this week.” (Full Story)

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