During the 2018 Republican primary election season, Mike Braun stood out among the candidates for U.S. Senate by being the least offensive to Republican voters favoring federal cannabis reform. Whereas then U.S. Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita waxed poetic on the gateway “theory” and the notion that legalizing anything with THC during the middle of a nationwide epidemic of opioid fatalities would be the worst thing anyone could do, over the course of several debates Braun honed in on a simple position statement: states should be allowed to decide if they want to implement a medical cannabis program. While in one debate Messer alluded to a similar stance, saying that the federal government should not be so vast as to decide this issue unilaterally, Braun didn’t add any “extra” statements opposing reform, and Messer certainly had no track record of trying to eliminate the federal government’s role in this issue during his eight years in Congress. Braun won the three-way primary election.
Upon his successful campaign against Joe Donnelly and Lucy Brenton during the general election, Senator-elect Braun held open office hours at public locations in the Indianapolis area before the 116th Congress began in January. Indiana NORML board members Jack Cain and Neal Smith, along with other constituents and cannabis advocates, attended one of these public events to pitch cannabis reform to Braun before he officially started his term.
“I must admit I was impressed,” said Jack Cain, Indiana NORML’s Vice Chairman. “He was very straightforward and not evasive at all. He supports medical cannabis and thinks it is only a matter of time before it gets legalized nationally.” Braun also said he would be interested in looking at federal legislation once the new Congress started, and his office was clearly expecting communication from constituents on this issue when they made “marijuana” a standalone topic in the drop-down menu that constituents can use when emailing him through his Senate website.
Since starting his term, Senator Braun’s office has sent out a number of responses to constituent communications regarding federal cannabis reform, although none of them have indicated that he is willing to cosponsor or otherwise support any particular pieces of legislation. Chad Padgett, an Indiana resident who used cannabis to help himself wean off opioids and treat his pancreatitis (you can read more about his story here), wrote to Senator Braun about federal cannabis reform. Braun responded with the following letter:
“Thank you for contacting my office regarding marijuana legalization. I appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.
Historically, states have been the main driver to legalize marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana to some degree, while only ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized for recreational use. While a 2017 study by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that cannabinoid products can be an effective treatment for various medical conditions, it also found that smoking cannabis can cause respiratory disease and may also lead to psychotic disorders. Accordingly, more research is needed to fully understand this drug.
Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. In fact, it is classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I substances are defined by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. In 2013, however, President Obama’s Justice Department (DOJ) issued a memo stating that it would no pursue federal marijuana charges in states where marijuana was legal and effectively regulated. This remained the DOJ’s policy until 2018, when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the memo, announcing the DOJ would allow individual federal prosecutors to decide if they will pursue marijuana charges. However, it is still unclear how the new Attorney General, William Barr, will govern with respect to state marijuana policy. As legislators, we must remain mindful of the potential benefits and adverse effects relating to marijuana use. I appreciate your thoughts and will take them into account should the topic be brought before the Senate floor.
Thank you for contacting me. It is an honor to serve as your U.S. Senator from Indiana. Please keep in touch with me on issues of concern to you. You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook for real-time updates on my activities in the U.S. Senate. If I may ever be of service, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
Richard LeMasters, a Navy veteran who served from 1980 to 1983, wrote to Senator Braun about PTSD and cannabis. LeMasters has service-related PTSD as well as kidney disease, arthritis, and on top of all that is also a cancer survivor. Braun’s office responded with a statement on the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act (S. 179). The VA bill is a piece of legislation with limited scope: it would authorize and encourage the Veterans Administration to perform clinical trials into the efficacy of cannabis for conditions commonly diagnosed in the veteran community. This is the same bill which former Senator Joe Donnelly cosponsored near the end of his final term in the U.S. Senate during the 115th Congress.
Here is the response in full:
“One of the federal government’s most important responsibilities is to protect those who fight to defend the United States. As a result, it is important to keep the Veterans Health Administration at the cutting edge and provide our veterans with the best care possible as our understanding of medicine develops. One potential advancement is medicinal cannabis. Cannabinoid products with low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, for example, have been found to have some therapeutic value in treating chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, muscle stiffness in MS patients, and childhood epilepsy. While two such drug have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for therapeutic use, the science is not settled on medicinal cannabis and – as a result- marijuana remains a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I Substances are defined by the US Drug Enforcement Agency as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
Earlier this year, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019 was introduced in the Senate and referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The Act calls for the VA to conduct a double-blind randomized clinical trial to determine the effects of medical cannabis on health outcomes of veterans suffering from chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder. While I do not serve on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I appreciate your thoughts and will be sure to take them into account should the Senate consider implementation of the Act.”
So far, Braun’s letters to constituents have offered little in the way of clear position statements, and instead substitutes any description or commitment to actions he could be taking currently (co-sponsoring legislation, introducing legislation) with a guarantee to keep constituent thoughts in mind should any such legislation make it to the Senate floor for consideration. While legislators might have more influence on legislation within the jurisdiction of the committees to which they have been assigned, there are still additional actions that can be taken to help move bills from committee assignments to the floor for a vote. A Congressperson adding their name as a co-sponsor of a bill, regardless of which committee it landed in, is one such important tool that legislators can use to promote a bill that they support and help it advance further through the legislative process.
With Republican leadership in the Senate unfavorable to cannabis reform, the importance of rank and file senators speaking up on this issue and signing on to legislation is crucial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently embraced the issue of agricultural hemp and was instrumental in allowing hemp legalization to be passed through the Senate by way of the Farm Bill, is still opposed to considering any change in how the federal government treats the “illicit cousin” of hemp, but while both of Indiana’s two U.S. Senators are of the same party as McConnell, there’s no reason for them to wait for leadership to give the go-ahead to support ending the federal prohibition of cannabis.
During the general election, Braun participated in a candidate forum alongside Joe Donnelly that was hosted by the African American Coalition (AACI). “When you get me there, you’re going to get results because I have a proven track record of it,” he told the audience when responding to a panelist question about bipartisanship. “Joe [Donnelly] and many people that go there get cozy with the surroundings, lay back, listen to leadership too much; in his case Chuck Schumer, in my case Mitch McConnell. You will not get that out of me.” With his promise to not simply defer to the priorities of Republican leadership, Senator Braun should have no hesitation working to give Hoosiers and Hoosier legislators what they want: ending the federal prohibition of cannabis so that states can regulate it as they see fit while also removing barriers to clinical research.
While we are only four months deep into the 116th Congress, Senator Braun should begin proactively reviewing cannabis legislation and then throw his weight behind a bill that would, at minimum, remove cannabis entirely from the Controlled Substances Act. In a recent scientific poll conducted by Ball State, 81% of Hoosiers agreed that Indiana should at least implement a medical cannabis program in the state, while only 16% said they did not believe it should be legal at all. While removing cannabis from the C.S.A. would not automatically legalize it for medical or personal use in any state, it would free Indiana legislators to more easily fulfill the wishes of the vast majority of their constituents in Indiana.
Hoosiers wishing to persuade Braun to take action on this issue can do so through a number of methods, including using the contact form on his website, calling a staff member at the D.C. office or one of several Indiana offices, or speaking with a staffer at one of Senator Braun’s mobile office hours held in towns throughout the state. For tips on effective advocacy at the federal level, check out this resource from Representative Earl Blumenauer’s office.