It’s Here: the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act Will be Introduced in Congress

One year ago, three Democrats kicked off a national conversation about how federally-legal cannabis should be regulated and released a “discussion draft” of their comprehensive plan. On Thursday, that plan, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, will be formally introduced in Congress. 

The bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden, would end the federal criminalization of cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. 

“For far too long, the federal prohibition on cannabis and the War on Drugs has been a war on people, and particularly people of color,” Schumer said in a statement, adding that the CAO Act “will be a catalyst for change” by “expunging the criminal records of those with low-level cannabis offenses, providing millions with a new lease on life.”

The bill set to be introduced today reflects the roughly 1,800 public comments that came in before the window closed in September. (While many organizations released their own comments, the Senators won’t be releasing the full list of comments to the public. We’ve asked.)  The trio has also been working with “various committees” on changes, they said.

Meanwhile, a sort of GOP response to the Act was introduced in November. Rep. Nancy Mace’s States Reform Act, which has the backing of the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity, is lighter on equity provisions and on taxation and regulation, as Cannabis Wire has reported

Considering the makeup of Congress could change after the midterms in November, with Republicans poised to take control of at least one chamber, Republican support for cannabis reform will be more important than ever. Ultimately, as Cannabis Wire recently reported, the party in power will determine the shape of legalization: will it prioritize equity and social justice, for example, or business?

Congress — and Republican members of Congress, in particular — has so far been slow to move on cannabis reforms. Today, the majority of Americans live in a state where cannabis is legal for medical or adult use (or both), and the latest national polling shows more than 60% support for legalization for adult use. 

“I’d ask my colleagues in the to think long and hard about what keeping the federal government stuck in yesteryear means for public health and safety,” Wyden said in a statement. “By failing to act, the federal government is empowering the illicit cannabis market, it’s ruining lives and propping up deeply rooted racism in our criminal justice system, it’s holding back small cannabis businesses from growing and creating jobs in their communities. Cannabis legalization is here, and Congress needs to get with the program.”

Several noteworthy changes were made ahead of the bill’s introduction in response to public comment. The Senators released a summary of the changes.

The two areas that got a “significant” number of comments were impaired driving and drug testing of federal workers. Today, there is no national standard for cannabis impairment on the road like there is for alcohol. And, the existing research is mixed on how exactly cannabis affects drivers. The introduced legislation notably calls for research on cannabis-impaired driving that can inform the establishment of a national standard. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation would work together on these efforts.

When it comes to drug testing federal workers, the Senators note that the introduced draft, like the discussion draft, allows for “testing certain individuals related to commercial transportation,” like truck drivers. They also make clear that the bill allows for testing of “law enforcement officers, or federal employees determined to have significant involvement in national security, the protection of life and property, public health, and safety.”

The introduced bill also establishes a grant program aimed at helping local police departments with hiring more officers, investigators and “community outreach specialists to combat illicit cannabis production.”

On the regulatory front, the bill would create a Center for Cannabis Products within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate much of the cannabis industry, from production, distribution and sales to labeling and “other manufacturing and retail elements.” 

It would also build a bridge for the existing state-legal industry. The Act states that the cannabis industry “will be able to continue to market cannabis products that are also food, provided all applicable FDA requirements for food are met,” the summary of changes notes.

“In addition,” it continues, “the legislation establishes transition periods for cannabis products and medical cannabis already regulated by states in order to ensure the continued availability of such products during the transition to the FDA regulatory framework.” 

The introduced bill includes the creation of a 22-member Cannabis Products Advisory Committee, which would be created within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to “advise federal agencies on regulatory matters related to cannabis and cannabis products.” The committee would include members of the cannabis industry, regulators, and people representing labor unions, safety, and public health. 

Like regulation, research is another area where federal legislation and policy could afford to hit the fast-forward button after years of federal prohibition. Stakeholders, the Senators wrote in the summary of amendments, have “emphasized the lack of rigorous research on cannabis and its health effects, many of which have stemmed from the current scheduling of cannabis and limitations on the cannabis available for research.” 

The introduced Act directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research on cannabis and to establish “entities to coordinate research across NIH and the federal government at large,” while directing HHS to “increase the availability and diversity of cannabis products for research purposes.” 

“It is critical that policymakers and the public have a clear understanding of the public health challenges and opportunities with respect to cannabis,” the Senators wrote in a summary of the amended legislation. “The introduced bill seeks to make up for lost time in cannabis research by robustly funding these efforts.” 

Also on the research front, the introduced legislation requires the Secretary of Education to give research “priority to minority-serving institutions,” including Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And, it requires the Department of Veterans Administration to conduct clinical trials on cannabis and chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder, two common conditions that veterans experience. 

The bill also creates an Opportunity Trust Fund that is supported by a federal excise tax on cannabis. The Fund would provide support in the forms of, for example, grants and loans to individuals and communities most impacted by the drug war.

One change noted in the summary: “In order to accelerate the availability of funds, the introduced bill specifies funding levels for each program as a direct appropriation from the Treasury General Fund and requires the Secretary of the Treasury to reimburse the General Fund from revenues in the CAOA Opportunity Trust Fund.”

Another grant program created by the bill, this one to be overseen by the Department of Labor, focuses on workers rights by providing “funding for public or private nonprofit organizations to educate workers and employers in the cannabis industry of their rights under federal, State, and local civil rights, labor, and employment laws and connect and refer workers to additional services to assist them in pursuing their rights.” 

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