Medical Marijuana Bill Gains Backing of Key Republican in House

By Billy House | April 25, 2018 8:47AM ET

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte has agreed to co-sponsor a Florida Republican’s bipartisan bill to make medical marijuana research easier, his office confirmed on Wednesday.

That backing by the conservative Virginia Republican potentially bolsters the bill’s chances in the House. Representative Matt Gaetz started circulating a handout Tuesday night explaining his Medical Cannabis Research Act, with Goodlatte listed as a co-sponsor.

"I can confirm that the chairman will co-sponsor," said Kathryn Rexrode, a spokesman for Goodlatte, who is not running for re-election, in an email.

A spokesman for Gaetz said the measure was to be introduced on Wednesday or Thursday, with its sponsors set to hold a news conference on Thursday.

The legislation is being introduced as the legalization of marijuana has gained broader acceptance in the U.S. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump endorsed allowing states decide how to regulate the drug, aiding the marijuana industry.

A few days before that, another prominent Republican, former House Speaker John Boehner, joined the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a company that cultivates, processes and dispenses cannabis in 11 states.

At the same time, however, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been trying to make it easier for federal prosecutors to enforce U.S. marijuana laws in states that had legalized the substance.

A draft of the legislation was also obtained Tuesday by Bloomberg News -- as well as a separate summary Gaetz was circulating outside the House chamber.

That summary listed current co-sponsors as Goodlatte and fellow Republicans Dana Rohrabacher of California and Karen Handel of Georgia; as well as Democrats Alcee Hastings and Darren Soto of Florida; Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.

’Safe Harbor’

The measure, as described would increase the number of federally approved manufacturers of cannabis for research purposes, and it would also provide a "safe harbor" for researchers and patients in clinical trials so that institutions such as universities would not risk losing federal funding.

The bill makes it clear that the Department of Veterans Affairs could refer patients for clinical trials, and eligible researchers at the VA could perform research on medical cannabis.

Clear standards on federally approved growers would be imposed. At the same time, the measure was described as fostering innovation, making it easier for industry leaders to work with researchers to develop new scientific breakthroughs.

Even so, the chances that most of Gaetz’s Republican colleagues will help him pass the bill in an election year are slim. And the odds of Sessions reversing course are also long.

Marijuana policy has become a significant topic of debate in recent months, after Sessions in January rescinded an Obama-era policy that had discouraged federal prosecutors from pursuing marijuana-related criminal cases in states where the drug had been legalized.

Sixty-four percent of Americans, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, believe marijuana should be legal, according to an October Gallup poll. That’s the highest percentage since the group began asking about the topic in 1969, when approval was 12 percent.

Asked if he’s talked to the attorney general about his new bill, Gaetz said he has not. He joked of Sessions, "doesn’t call or visit me anymore."

Gaetz is among House conservatives who have been criticizing the Justice Department in unrelated battles over providing Congress documents tied to the FBI’s handing of its investigations of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and the Russia inquiry led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump offered qualified support for legalization while on the presidential campaign trail, saying that medical marijuana “should happen” and that laws regarding recreational usage should be left in the hands of the states.

Trump made his assurances this month after Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a state that has legalized marijuana, had held up Justice Department nominees.