Pot’s future in congress is murky. Here’s what lawmakers are saying
This week, congressional reporter Jarrell Dillard takes a look at Washington’s latest cannabis battles. For now lawmakers remain deadlocked. Here’s what's at stake.
Hurry up and wait
Federal lawmakers have a lot on their plate when it comes to cannabis — from financial rules to marijuana’s rising potency. In the near term, the industry isn’t expecting much.
But that doesn’t mean legislators have forgotten about marijuana, with discussions on a number of initiatives and topics percolating in the halls of Congress. As progress drags on, there’s a lot on the line for a fast-growing industry that’s still outlawed on the federal level and is barred from most banking services.
The rising potency of cannabis products is one area that has gained increased attention in recent weeks. The level of THC, which is marijuana’s key psychoactive ingredient, jumped to 15% in 2021 up from 4% in 1995, according to a 2022 National Institute on Drug Abuse report. This, along with new studies on pot’s adverse health effects, is raising concerns.
Federal lawmakers are mulling how — and when — to address the potency issue, which has alarmed state regulators. Anti-pot activists such as Kevin Sabet, head of the Smart Approaches to Marijuana, are stirring up the debate. His group opposes the SAFE Banking Act, a key industry-backed legislation that would give companies greater access to the financial system. Sabet is also calling for rules to limit THC content.
“Today’s ultra-high potency THC-laced products are associated with depression, suicidality, IQ loss and most recently psychosis and schizophrenia, especially for young people,” Sabet said in a statement, adding that more potent products will drive higher usage.
Representatives Earl Blumenauer and David Joyce, the House sponsors of SAFE Banking, told Bloomberg News recently that they recognize concerns about the potency of cannabis, but they said it’s an issue for individual states to handle for now.
“At some point, when we have a national program that’s legal, it’s appropriate to think about putting some guardrails on,” Blumenauer said. “But that’s a little ahead of ourselves.”
Earlier this month, the Senate held its first hearing on SAFE Banking, which has been approved in the House seven times but has never passed the Senate. The bill’s sponsors, Senators Jeff Merkley and Steve Daines, argue the industry needs access to the financial system, since not having it forces legal businesses to operate mainly with cash. That makes them vulnerable to robbery and creates a greater opportunity for financial crimes such as money laundering and tax fraud.
SAFE still faces an uphill battle during the current congressional session, however. House Financial Services Chair Patrick McHenry, whose committee has jurisdiction over the measure, opposes the bill. And it’s still not clear if all senators that caucus with Democrats would vote in favor. Even if they all do, it would need at least 9 Republican supporters to pass. It currently has seven Republican co-sponsors with an eighth supporter, Senator Susan Collins. She hasn’t signed onto the bill, but told Bloomberg News recently she would support it.
“I am very concerned about the legalization of marijuana because I think its impact, particularly on developing brains, has been underestimated and the research is increasingly showing that,” Collins said. “But having said that, the fact is it is legal in many states and to require a business to operate essentially on cash is an invitation to many problems including theft and tax evasion.”
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has expressed support for the bill, and if the Banking Committee sends it to the full Senate for consideration, he said he’d bring it up for a vote. Schumer expects criminal justice provisions, such as expunging criminal records for certain low-level marijuana offenses, to be added.
Beyond SAFE, Joyce also has a bill with House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries that would task federal regulators with developing a regulatory and revenue framework to ensure safe production and consumption of cannabis in the case the drug is legalized federally. For now, full legalization still lacks support in Congress.
Then there’s the Farm Bill, which Congress passes every five years to dictate the nation’s agricultural and nutritional policies. It’s up for reauthorization this year. This is important because the 2018 bill, which allowed for the cultivation of hemp, introduced a loophole that paved the way for Delta-8, an intoxicating cannabis derivative that has been flagged as containing dangerous contaminants.
It’s unclear whether that loophole will be addressed. The House and Senate committees on agriculture take the lead on drafting the legislation, and lawmakers have begun talks on what provisions will be included in the more-than $1 trillion bill.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said recently that lawmakers are in early discussions on hemp provisions, but they’re mostly looking at it from an industrial hemp and research standpoint. Stabenow said that she is unsure whether the safety and enforcement of hemp products fall under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committee.
“We actually have limited scope as it relates to growers and so on,” she said.
Senator John Boozman, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that he recognizes that Delta-8 is a “huge problem” in his home state of Arkansas and regulatory authorities need to implement rules. But he said he hadn’t discussed using the Farm Bill as a vehicle to address it.
Authorization for the current Farm Bill expires Sept. 30, and lawmakers have met with President Joe Biden recently to discuss priorities. There are concerns, however, that the ongoing impasse on the debt ceiling could potentially delay the bill.