Even as the majority of Americans have embraced legalizing marijuana either for medicinal or recreational use, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have remained staunch opponents of weed. Now led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, they’ve done everything they can to maintain the nation’s dysfunctional marijuana regulatory system, one that’s pitted the majority of states against the federal government’s continued prohibition of pot. On Thursday, however, things changed at the Capitol, as the powerful House Judiciary Committee unanimously took a historic, bipartisan step to unwind a small, but significant, part of the federal government’s anti-marijuana regime.
The committee passed a first-ever bill to ease some of the restrictions that have prevented marijuana from being widely studied for medicinal benefits. If it passes both chambers of Congress, the Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2018 would require Sessions to approve at least two new applications to grow and study marijuana, which the legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), told Rolling Stone is a major milestone for his party.
“I think that the hardest vote for Republicans to take on marijuana is their first one,” Gaetz told Rolling Stone at the Capitol after his bill passed out of committee. “And so if we can create the broadest area of consensus to democratize access to research, I think, it will get us all thinking a lot more like adults going forward.”
Currently, only the University of Mississippi has a federal license to grow marijuana for research purposes, and their weed has been derided as a joke when compared to the pot many Americans now consume legally, because it’s more reminiscent of what was smoked in the sixties than the highly concentrated stuff that’s become the norm today. Gaetz’s legislation also forces the Justice Department to at least rule positively or negatively on 23 other pending applications to study marijuana.
For Gaetz and other marijuana proponents at the Capitol, the bill is intended to get the federal government to play the same role it does in approving prescription drugs for mass consumption.
“It’s unfortunate to put patients in the uncomfortable position to test various strains and dosages, instead of having the smartest people in the world collaborating to determine how cannabis can or cannot be helpful based on people’s symptoms,” Gaetz says.
As for the many marijuana opponents at the Capitol, they argue the legislation willsupport their claim that marijuana is dangerous. Still, now that 31 states and the District of Columbia have legalized either recreational or medicinal marijuana, there seems to be a growing consensus to at least study the plant.
“While there are many varying opinions on the issue of marijuana, one thing we all can agree on is that we need qualified researchers to study the science to determine if there are any potential medicinal benefits to chemicals derived from cannabis,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said in a statement.
With previously staunch marijuana opponents like Goodlatte, who is retiring after this term, now embracing research into marijuana, supporters see their efforts in the marble halls of the Capitol, and on the ground across the nation, finally pay off.
“I think what you see is people that have traditionally stood in the way of progress on marijuana issues are finally yielding to the intense pressure from rank and file members on the Democratic and Republican side, which really stems from the grassroots at the state level saying, ‘It’s about time for Congress to act,’” Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), who is running for governor, tells Rolling Stone.
Still, marijuana advocacy groups don’t like that the compromise bill gave law enforcement agencies final approval on the new licenses or that the legislation bans people with past weed-related convictions from playing a part in the research. But elected pot-proponents are still cheering.
“While I would support opening it up to people who had marijuana related convictions, I don’t think that will stand in the way of the vast number of graduate students and PhD students and subjects that don’t have arrest records,” Polis said. “So in the name of scientific progress it was a compromise that we were willing to accept.”
All of these components are making even former marijuana foes slide up to the table. Back in 1996 Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) opposed his state’s ballot measure leagalizing widespread access to medical marijuana. But he supported this new bill in the Judiciary Committee, in part, because he says his fellow Californians still haven’t been given good scientific data from the federal government.
“When we passed medical marijuana years ago, we passed it without any science and with random claims,” Issa tells Rolling Stone. “We allowed it to be dispensed by medical professionals, which actually did not mean doctors. We do need to get to sound science on the health risk of marijuana and its derivatives and on the benefits.”
The new legislation also allows the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct their own clinical studies of marijuana, which veterans have resoundingly asked for.
“That’s something that is really the Judiciary Committee against the Pharma industry, because the only people we can find that object, that must object, are those who in fact have other drug solutions that aren’t as herbal,” Issa continued.
As for the legislation’s future, the its main GOP sponsor, Rep. Gaetz of Florida, tells Rolling Stone he thinks his party should vote on the bill ahead of November.
“I would think that before the election it might be a good idea for the Republican Congress to take action on something that has the approval of over 80 percent of the Americans,” Gaetz says. “There’s something about the sound of your own gallows being built that tends to focus the mind, and as we’re potentially heading into the minority it might be good for our members in swing districts to show an embrace of science.”