Young to co-chair Congressional Cannabis Caucus

Republicans and Democrats now have cannabis as a bipartisan tie that binds.

On Feb. 16, a group of U.S. House representatives from several Western states announced the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

The group is spearheaded by two Republicans and two Democrats: Alaska Rep. Don Young, California’s Dana Rohrabacher, Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, and Jared Polis of Colorado.

“People are suffering,” Rohrabacher said. “The law is wrong. We have a bipartisan caucus, and we’re going to change it.”

The conflict between federal and state laws inspired the caucus, with one overarching objective: have federal law enforcement respect state laws that have legalized cannabis in some form.

At the federal level, cannabis is still listed as a Schedule I controlled substance, the most restricted group. Meanwhile, eight states have legalized recreational use and and 29 states have legalized medical cannabis.

Following the November 2016 election, 95 percent of Americans now live in states or territories that permit adult use or medical cannabis or CBD oils. One-fifth live in a state with legal recreational use.

“I’ve been deeply concerned about the gap between where the public is, what is rational policy, and what federal policy is,” said Blumenauer.

The congressmen said the caucus grew out of an informal cannabis working group formed in 2013. After the November 2016 election cycle saw eight more states pass either recreational or medical cannabis legalization measures, they said the issue became bigger on Congress’ radar.

They underscored several main issues to address, namely research, access for veterans and medical users, and business needs.

Federal finance laws bar marijuana businesses — a $5 billion industry in 2016 — from routine tools such as banking access.

Young, who said he has never used cannabis, said the banking issue needs a solution for commerce to continue.

“I’m also interested in the banking part of it,” Young said. “As they do this business, they can run it as a business. I think that’s crucially important to make it work correctly.”

The Republican Party has to date had little involvement with cannabis legislation, but the issue now seems to stitch the two parties together. Only days earlier, Young and Polis had a bitter House Rules Committee exchange regarding Young’s bill to overturn a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service final rule that gives the federal government authority over game management in the state.

Polis clarified at the Cannabis Caucus rollout that he indeed called Young’s bill a “puppy killer.”

The two Republican caucus members, Young and Rohrabacher, emphasized that cannabis law reform should be in line with Republican beliefs, not counter with them. Traditionally conservative ideals like individual freedom, limited government, constitutionalism should synch up with cannabis’s state-by-state trend.

“Our Founding Fathers meant criminal justice to be at the local and state level,” Rohrabacher said. “Our founding fathers did not want the federal government to be involved in that kind of thing at all. We’re going to have battles in which the Republicans will be saying ‘we’re going to leave this up to the states.’ Republicans are being held to live up to their own values and principles.”

“I think we can make a lot of progress this session and next session,” said Young.

Marijuana legalization advocates have feared newly minted U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will bring a federal hammer down on cannabis businesses, but the caucus appears to think the fears are overblown.

“On the campaign trail President Trump indicated he would defer to states,” Polis said.

He and the others emphasized that regardless of Session’s past or personal views, he exists only to enforce the administration’s policies.

“At the end of the day,” Young said, “Congress is the one that passes laws.”

Each of the Congressmen have been marijuana supporters from one angle or another, sponsoring or supporting a slew of cannabis-related bills between them.

Young has long been an advocate for state’s ability to “determine the nature of criminal activity within their own jurisdictions.” He does not make an exception for cannabis.

In a May 2016 forum, Young said marijuana legalization was “is very frankly dear to my heart, because I do believe in states’ rights and individual rights,” and that, “Either you’re for states’ rights or you’re against it. You can’t have it both ways.”

Young introduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act in March with Tennessee Democrat Rep. Steve Cohen in 2015, one of several pieces of legislation with bipartisan support in the House — eight Republican and eight Democrat co-sponsors — that would let banks and credit unions service marijuana businesses in legalized states without fear of the feds.

Young and Cohen’s bill and others would also make cannabis a Schedule II drug, lift other federal restrictions and allow Veterans Administration doctors to prescribe medicinal marijuana.

Rohrabacher successfully passed an act that prohibited federal funds from being used to prosecute marijuana businesses in states where they are legal.

Blumenauer described marijuana policy as “failed” and calls for Washington D.C. to “to face the facts surrounding marijuana” as states continue adjusting laws. He has introduced, cosponsored or supported a slew of bills that would do everything from expunge marijuana-related criminal records to descheduling cannabis from the Controlled Substances list.

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
02/16/2017 - 4:31pm