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Trump Administration to Study Marijuana and Driving

The U.S. government will conduct a study this year examining “marijuana as a causal factor in traffic crashes” under legislation President Obama signed into law last month.

As part of the review, the Department of Transportation will look at methods for detecting marijuana-impaired driving, including ways to differentiate the cause of driving impairment between alcohol and cannabis.

The department is directed to issue a report within one year making recommendations on a possible impairment standard for driving under the influence of marijuana, similar to the 0.08% blood alcohol content limit that is used to legally define intoxication in U.S. states.

The report will also include recommendations on “effective and efficient methods for training law enforcement personnel, including drug recognition experts, to detect or measure the level of impairment of a motor vehicle operator who is under the influence of marijuana by the use of technology or otherwise.”

President-Elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao, a former labor secretary under President George W. Bush, to lead his administration’s Transportation Department. The marijuana views of Chao, who is married to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), are unknown.

The newly-enacted legislation also directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to work with the White House drug czar’s office and other agencies to launch a public awareness campaign on “the dangers of drug-impaired driving, including the dangers of driving while under the influence of heroin or prescription opioids.”

A previous NHTSA study released in 2015 found no evidence that marijuana use leads to increased risk of getting into an automobile accident.

“Marijuana users were about 25 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers with no evidence of marijuana use,” a fact sheet detailing the study’s findings said, but “other factors – such as age and gender – appear to account for the increased crash risk among marijuana users.”

In other words, “marijuana users are more likely to be involved in accidents, but that the increased risk may be due in part because marijuana users are more likely to be in groups at higher risk of crashes,” the NHTSA press release explained. “In particular, marijuana users are more likely to be young men – a group already at high risk.”

A number of U.S. states have already enacted so-called per se laws which treat drivers with a certain percentage of cannabinoids or marijuana metabolites in their blood as intoxicated.

But marijuana policy reform advocates have argued that the standards are arbitrary and unnecessarily criminalize people for their blood content even if they aren’t behaviorally impaired.

“[R]ecently adopted statewide per se limits and zero tolerant per se thresholds in the United States criminally prohibiting the operation of a motor vehicle by persons with the trace presence of cannabinoids or cannabinoid metabolites in their blood or urine are not based upon scientific evidence or consensus,” Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws wrote in a 2013 paper. “[T]he enforcement of these strict liability standards risks inappropriately convicting unimpaired subjects of traffic safety violations, including those persons who are consuming cannabis legally in accordance with other state statutes.”

The new federal provisions mandating additional study on marijuana and driving are part of a $305 billion highway funding bill that President Obama signed on December 4.

The relevant text mandating the study is below:

SEC. 4008. MARIJUANA-IMPAIRED DRIVING.
    (a) Study.--The Secretary, in consultation with the heads of other 
Federal agencies as appropriate, shall conduct a study on marijuana-
impaired driving.
    (b) Issues To Be Examined.--In conducting the study, the Secretary 
shall examine, at a minimum, the following:
            (1) Methods to detect marijuana-impaired driving, including 
        devices capable of measuring marijuana levels in motor vehicle 
        operators.
            (2) A review of impairment standard research for driving 
        under the influence of marijuana.
            (3) Methods to differentiate the cause of a driving 
        impairment between alcohol and marijuana.
            (4) State-based policies on marijuana-impaired driving.
            (5) The role and extent of marijuana impairment in motor 
        vehicle accidents.
    (c) Report.--
            (1) In general.--Not later than 1 year after the date of 
        enactment of this Act, the Secretary, in cooperation with other 
        Federal agencies as appropriate, shall submit to the Committee 
        on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of 
        Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and 
        Transportation of the Senate a report on the results of the 
        study.
            (2) Contents.--The report shall include, at a minimum, the 
        following:
                    (A) Findings.--The findings of the Secretary based 
                on the study, including, at a minimum, the following:
                          (i) An assessment of methodologies and 
                      technologies for measuring driver impairment 
                      resulting from the use of marijuana, including the 
                      use of marijuana in combination with alcohol.
                          (ii) A description and assessment of the role 
                      of marijuana as a causal factor in traffic crashes 
                      and the extent of the problem of marijuana-
                      impaired driving.
                          (iii) A description and assessment of current 
                      State laws relating to marijuana-impaired driving.
                          (iv) A determination whether an impairment 
                      standard for drivers under the influence of 
                      marijuana is feasible and could reduce vehicle 
                      accidents and save lives.
                    (B) Recommendations.--The recommendations of the 
                Secretary based on the study, including, at a minimum, 
                the following:
                          (i) Effective and efficient methods for 
                      training law enforcement personnel, including drug 
                      recognition experts, to detect or measure the 
                      level of impairment of a motor vehicle operator 
                      who is under the influence of marijuana by the use 
                      of technology or otherwise.
                          (ii) If feasible, an impairment standard for 
                      driving under the influence of marijuana.
                          (iii) Methodologies for increased data 
                      collection regarding the prevalence and effects of 
                      marijuana-impaired driving.
    (d) Marijuana Defined.--In this section, the term ``marijuana'' 
includes all substances containing tetrahydrocannabinol.

SEC. 4009. INCREASING PUBLIC AWARENESS OF THE DANGERS OF DRUG-IMPAIRED DRIVING.
    (a) Additional Actions.--The Administrator of the National Highway 
Traffic Safety Administration, in consultation with the White House 
Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Secretary of Health and 
Human Services, State highway safety offices, and other interested 
parties, as determined by the Administrator, shall identify and carry 
out additional actions that should be undertaken by the Administration 
to assist States in their efforts to increase public awareness of the 
dangers of drug-impaired driving, including the dangers of driving while 
under the influence of heroin or prescription opioids.
    (b) Report.--Not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of 
this Act, the Administrator shall submit to the Committee on Commerce, 
Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on 
Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives a 
report that describes the additional actions undertaken by the 
Administration pursuant to subsection (a).

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

 

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Marijuana Legalization Activist Could Lead Trump’s FDA

Marijuana law reform advocates finally got some potentially good news out of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team this week following a series of ardent legalization opponents being named to Cabinet-level positions.

Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday that Jim O’Neill, a marijuana legalization proponent, is being considered to lead the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Trump administration.

If O’Neill is formally appointed and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate as commissioner of food and drugs, it could bode extremely well for future efforts to reform federal marijuana laws.

The FDA is responsible for conducting the scientific analyses of cannabis’s harms and medical benefits that rescheduling rulings are based on. Before the most recent denial of a rescheduling petition by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in August, FDA concluded that marijuana has a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use in treatment.”

But there is in fact a lot of scientific research showing marijuana to be medically beneficial and relatively safe. Presumably, under O’Neill’s leadership, FDA would more seriously consider and weigh that literature before making future reclassification recommendations.

O’Neill, a close associate of tech financier and Trump transition team member Peter Thiel, has been active in the movement to reform marijuana laws. For example, he was a founding member of the board of directors of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, a California-based legalization advocacy organization.

(Full disclosure: The author of this article served alongside O’Neill on the CCPR board.)

On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana policies. But he has already named several ardent cannabis law reform opponents to his Cabinet.

For example, he selected U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who recently said “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” to be attorney general. He picked Congressman Tom Price of Georgia, who has regularly voted against medical cannabis amendments, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. And this week Trump signaled that Gen. John Kelly, another critic of legalization, would lead the Department of Homeland Security. He also tapped Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who led a federal lawsuit against neighboring Colorado’s marijuana law, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

With O’Neill at FDA, however, marijuana law reformers would have a key ally in position to help shape the Trump administration’s position on cannabis policy.

O’Neill, who is not a medical professional, previously served in the Department of Health and Human Services under the George W. Bush administration. According to Bloomberg, he is a proponent of a concept called “progressive approval” for drugs, through which substances could be available on the market as soon as they are deemed safe for use even if there isn’t clear data showing them to be effective in treating any particular condition.

“We should reform FDA so there is approving drugs after their sponsors have demonstrated safety — and let people start using them, at their own risk, but not much risk of safety,” he said in a 2014 speech. “Let’s prove efficacy after they’ve been legalized.”

Medical cannabis advocates are hopeful that O’Neill would apply his consumer freedom philosophy to natural, plant-based medicines in addition to synthetic pharmaceuticals. Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access told Marijuana.com that FDA’s current approval process for botanicals is “unworkable” and that as a result, very few have been approved.

“O’Neill’s appointment could lead to an overhaul of rules pertaining to botanical medicine, which could create a much friendlier environment for research and approval of cannabis and other botanicals,” he said.

But alluding to possible conflicts that could arise if marijuana’s status under the Controlled Substances Act is changed and it becomes legally available with doctors’ prescriptions, Liszewski said it would remain a key question as to whether existing state-legal cannabis businesses would be protected from harassment by the Justice Department.

“It’s important that whatever positive reforms are made at FDA under the Trump administration should not justify a crackdown on state medical cannabis programs by other parts of the federal government,” he said.

At this point, however, O’Neill’s name is only being informally floated in the press, and the Trump transition team has not officially signaled intent to place him in the FDA post. If he is formally nominated early next year, he would sit for a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions before facing a vote by the full body.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

 

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Congressional Republicans Vow To Block Marijuana Amendments

Don’t count on there being any marijuana votes in the U.S. House next year.

That’s the message that Republican leadership in Congress is sending after blocking a number of cannabis amendments from reaching the House floor earlier this year.

“The chairman has taken a stand against all amendments that are deemed poison pills and that would imperil passage of the final bill,” Caroline Boothe, spokeswoman for House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX), told Marijuana.com in an email on Monday.

The Rules Committee is responsible for deciding which submitted amendments are allowed to be considered on the House floor.

In recent years, Congressional leadership has taken up spending bills under relatively open rules whereby almost any amendment could be debated and voted on as long as it was germane to the overall legislation. But due to unrelated disputes over gay rights, gun policy and the right of transgender people to access public bathrooms, House Republicans began locking down the amendment process earlier this year so that only certain approved amendments can come to the floor.

While marijuana law reformers have been able to pass amendments in recent years — such as a rider preventing the Department of Justice from interfering with state medical cannabis laws — the new approach has impeded efforts to demonstrate that there is majority support in Congress for scaling back prohibition.

Earlier this year, for example, the Rules Committee blocked House floor votes on amendments concerning marijuana businesses’ access to banking services and Washington, D.C.’s ability to spend its own money legalizing and regulating cannabis sales. The committee also prevented two measures to expand medical marijuana research from being considered.

But despite Boothe’s reference to “poison pills,” the House approved a version of the banking amendment in 2014 by a vote of 231 – 192, and the overall bill was later passed as well. Similarly, the measure to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference was approved with strong bipartisan House votes in 2014 and 2015, and the overall spending bills were also passed once the marijuana measures were attached.

Boothe did not respond to a request for clarification about her boss’s position on the broadly popular medical marijuana measure.

The restricted amendment rules put in place this year left marijuana law reformers much less confident about the ability to enact and extend their legislation, which must be approved each year because appropriations measures only apply to specific fiscal years.

But until now, it was not known that there is in effect a blanket ban on measures concerning cannabis policy.

The notion of an outright prohibition on any marijuana amendments was first reported Monday by Politico Magazine. Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY), who has sponsored industrial hemp measures, told the magazine that the new operating procedure is “an affront to regular order” and “a travesty to our democracy.”

As a result of the inability to take marijuana votes on the House floor, reformers must increasingly rely on the Senate to include cannabis language in its versions of appropriations bills. If efforts succeed there, it is left up to conference committees of members from both chambers to decide whether to include marijuana language in the final enacted versions of spending bills.

Current spending levels for the federal government — along with the state medical marijuana protections that are current law — expire this Friday. It is expected that Congress will pass a short-term measure before then extending funding and policy riders until next spring.

But Sessions, who has been selected to continue chairing the Rules Committee for the next Congress, seems poised to continue the policy of blocking marijuana amendments from coming to the House floor. That, combined with uncertainty about how the incoming Trump administration will handle marijuana, leaves advocates in a precarious position even at a time when a growing number of states are ending prohibition.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

 

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