A Biden Administration Cabinet could be just as crucial to cannabis and hemp as any legislative effort from the House or Senate. Rumored appointees hold differing positions on cannabis, if any, but offer insight into the future of cannabis in the US.
As the U.S. moves into a post-election transition period, one aspect of understanding the Biden Administration’s potential effect on the cannabis and hemp sphere is his Cabinet, the heads of all fifteen executive departments in the government. Those immediately related to hemp and cannabis are the Department of Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget.
There are a few important things to note. First, that neither President-elect Biden nor Vice President-elect Harris have said anything concrete about Cabinet picks; all of this is speculation based on articles written by those with access to Washington insiders. The President-elect is not likely to announce his Cabinet picks until around Thanksgiving. As nothing yet is concrete, we will focus instead on some of the names that we have seen floated more than once and their associated Cabinet positions.
Additionally, the Senate still stands to be decided in January run-offs, which will also affect cannabis and hemp, as we discussed last week. While the Senate’s makeup should not factor into Biden’s Cabinet decisions, some in Washington believe that it will. If the Democrats take the Senate, the progressive wing of the party will apply pressure to install more progressive leaders.
Getting back to cannabis and hemp, here is where the chips may fall.
Secretary of Agriculture (USDA)
This one is especially important, as USDA has major influence over hemp policy, responsible for OK’ing state hemp plans and dishing out regulations.
Those in consideration include:
Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who according to Politico is Biden’s top pick at the moment. According to research around her 2018 Senate race, Heitkamp supports state’s rights regarding recreational cannabis and protecting state-legal medical operations. There is not much information on her position towards hemp. One should assume things will continue as normal if she heads USDA.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who chairs a House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition and has been a leading voice on food stamps and USDA’s science policies. She supports the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, as well as the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2019. According to Politico, she is a strong supporter of improving USDA’s conservation programs, leading a push during the 2018 farm bill deliberations to “protect water quality from agricultural runoff and improve soil health.”
House Democrat Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, although her vulnerable House may make Democrats pass her over. She voted Yes on the SAFE Banking Act and other pro-cannabis measures.
Also, The New York Times believes Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has “advocated increasing support for agricultural commodities, disaster programs, and federal crop insurance,” and has also been floated as Attorney General.
Attorney General (DOJ)
The Attorney General pick will obviously affect how the DEA deals with both the cannabis and hemp industries. It will also have a distinct effect on how drug convictions and rehabilitation are dealt with in the federal prison system, which is part of a larger question the Biden Administration will face: how to deal with drug convictions? It is important to note here that Biden, for a start, can simply reinstate the Cole Memo, which was issued in 2013 under President Obama to essentially protect state-legal cannabis businesses from federal overreach. In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had reversed the Cole Memo, to mixed responses from insiders and experts alike.
In consideration for Attorney General we have:
Doug Jones, current Alabama senator who just lost his re-election bid, and former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. In 2019, Jones voiced support for removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and leaving it up to the states to decide; this would both take responsibility off the Feds and also open up potential avenues for research. “Instead of continuing to incarcerate people, we should put our federal resources into higher-level drug trafficking and human trafficking,” Jones said. Jones also understands the potential upsides of hemp - in 2019, he wrote a bill alongside his colleague Senator Richard Shelby to “ease the loan process for farmers” entering the hemp industry.
Xavier Becerra, California’s current attorney general, former California congressman, and state House member. When then-AG Jeff Sessions reversed the Cole Memo, he geared up to protect California’s state-legal industry, and joined a bipartisan group of 34 attorneys general urging Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act.
Sally Yates, former acting attorney general and deputy attorney general and former U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. Like her colleagues, she was highly critical of Jeff Sessions’ decision to overturn the Cole Memo. Reading her response to Sessions’ decision, you can see she is open to reform: “Every dollar spent imprisoning a low-level nonviolent drug offender for longer than necessary is a dollar we don't have to investigate and prosecute serious threats, from child predators to terrorists. It's a dollar we don't have to support state and local law enforcement for cops on the street, who are the first lines of defense against violent crime.”
Administrator of the EPA
This one is less obvious, but the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs handles most of the regulatory issues surrounding pesticide use, which of course applies to hemp.
In consideration, allegedly, are the following:
Mary Nichols, Chair of the California Air Resources Board; former California Natural Resources secretary; former Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, has nothing on her record related specifically to cannabis or hemp.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has been a champion of legal cannabis since Washington legalized.
Heather McTeer Toney, former regional administrator of EPA’s Southeast region.
Besides Inslee’s support of cannabis, none of these potential leaders have stances that might affect hemp or cannabis.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA Commissioner
While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is technically the department related to the Cabinet, it overlooks the Food and Drug Administration, which sets policy related to one of our favorite products: CBD. HHS also oversees medical research. It is likely that the FDA’s commissioner will have a more immediate effect on the hemp and CBD industry, as well as any federally legal cannabis industry (if it gets legalized). The FDA commissioner is appointed by the President.
President-elect Biden is already facing major pressure to name an FDA commissioner immediately, for the administration to prepare itself to take on a brutal COVID winter. Currently, there is infighting between FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and HHS Secretary Alex Azar due to “disagreements over vaccine standards,” so it is safe to say that CBD will not be a priority, at least for the time being.
The names floated include Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Governor of New Mexico and former Congress member, Dr. Vivek Murthy, Dr. Mandy Cohen, and Dr. David Kessler. They are either positive or mum on cannabis and hemp issues, so it is doubtful that they will play any impedimentary role at HHS.