New developments in D.C. this past month suggest the federal government’s stringent position on medical marijuana continues to erode. Additionally, the last bastion of states yet to legalize medical marijuana might be coming around to the idea, as evidenced by two new bills introduced in Kentucky and Tennessee to initiate medical marijuana programs.
Let’s walk through these budding developments in the field of an industry that may soon truly grow from sea-to-shining-sea.
The D.C. Developments
At the federal level, Senator Brian Schantz (D-Hawaii) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-California) introduced companion bills to allow U.S. Veterans to use, and physicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to recommend, medical marijuana in the 33 states that have medical marijuana laws and programs. This law would also direct the VA to study how medical marijuana could be used to treat chronic pain and expressly provides that “medical marijuana … may serve as a less harmful alternative to opioids in treating veterans.”
The foundation for this statement is grounded in the following findings cited in the bill:
- Nearly 60% of Veterans returning from serving in the Armed Forces in the Middle East, and more than 50% of older Veterans using the healthcare system of the VA, are living with some sort of chronic pain.
- In 2011, Veterans were twice as likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than non-Veterans.
- States with medical marijuana laws have a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical marijuana laws.
The bill also allocates $5,000,000 for a study on the relationship between: (1) state-approved medical marijuana treatment programs, (2) the access of Veterans to such programs, and (3) a reduction in opioid abuse amongst Veterans.
In another major step, a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee heard testimony on the difficulty legal marijuana businesses have opening and maintaining bank accounts. The hearing also included a discussion of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (the SAFE Act), banking legislation that is supported by the banking industry. The SAFE Act purports to allow marijuana businesses that operate in states with existing regulatory structures to access the banking system legally under federal law. Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association commented that the banking issue is “a real public safety-hazard,” because “employees walk around with large sums of cash to pay utility [and other] bills.” Past congressional representatives had filed a similar bill but failed to get a hearing so this hearing is considered a significant step for the industry.
In Tennessee, State Senator Janice Bowling introduced the “Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act” (TMCA) to allow Tennesseans suffering from various conditions to use medical marijuana. Tennessee is one of only 17 states that does not have a medical marijuana law on the books, so legislators might be seeing green this session (or hearing from their constituents if they decline to pass legislation on medical marijuana for another year). Similar to the federal legislation discussed above allowing Veterans to access medical marijuana, the TMCA states that “… the general assembly recognizes that peer-reviewed medical studies have established a statistical correlation between reduced opioid-use overdoses in states with medical cannabis programs.” In light of these findings, it seems as though more and more states with opioid-related problems are open to any options with the potential to reverse the rising tide of the epidemic – even if those options mean a turn to the “devil’s lettuce.”
Green Grass in the Blue Grass?
Green grass in the Blue Grass State is also a real possibility soon. Governor Matt Bevin said last week that “[t]here is incredible medicinal value associated with cannabis” after recalling his 14-year-old nephew’s hard-fought battle with cancer. He expressed disdain at the fact that the only options patients have in that situation are “…pharmaceutical drugs that can come with such horrific side effects.” Interestingly, Bevin also stated that he is not interested in the State making money off it. Torching a common argument made in support of legalizing medical marijuana, Bevin said, “we should not be trying to financially capitalize on the medical needs of anyone in our population. If we’re going to do this, it should be treated the same as every other drug – taxed no more or no less. To say that we’re going to do this as a way to raise money is wrong.”
If 33 states with laws legalizing marijuana in some form did not already demonstrate a broader acceptance of this industry, new federal and state bills pushing for further marijuana reform show the scales continue to tip in favor of the plant’s use.