Sen. Orrin G. Hatch is an unlikely advocate for a medical marijuana bill.
An 83-year-old Utah Republican and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hatch says he is staunchly against recreational drug use. But as the opioid epidemic continues to ravage states across the country, the Senate’s president pro tempore sees an opportunity in advancing the use of cannabis for pain management.
“I’m very unlikely,” Hatch said in an interview Tuesday about his position as an advocate for the issue. “I’m against illicit drug use and have always been very strong in these areas. But I’m also a pioneer in good medicine and how we can help doctors and scientists.”
In a pun-filled press release, Hatch touted the legislation — which aims to ease federal requirements and regulations on research involving marijuana — as a route to help “thousands of Americans suffering from a wide-range of diseases and disorders.”
Watch: Hatch Introduces Medical Marijuana Legislation
“To be blunt, we need to remove the administrative barriers preventing legitimate research into medical marijuana,” he said. “In a Washington at war with itself, I have high hopes that this bipartisan initiative can be a kumbaya moment for both parties.”
Blazing the way on health issues
Hatch’s position on medical marijuana is, at least at first glance, a perplexing one to take for one of the most visible representatives of the Mormon religion in the federal government.
The church sidestepped weighing in directly on Hatch’s legislation. But it believes any medical marijuana treatment option should go through the approval process at the Food and Drug Administration, according to church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
“This discussion raises legitimate questions regarding the benefits and risks of legalizing a drug that has not gone through the well-established and rigorous process to prove its effectiveness and safety,” Hawkins wrote in an email.
He added that the discussion is made more difficult because marijuana is currently considered an illegal drug under federal law.
Hatch, who is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he has not discussed the legislation with church officials, but said he was “pretty well up on what they think.”
“I have to make these decisions based upon what’s right for the people of Utah and the people of this country. And there’s no reason to be afraid of medical marijuana,” he said.
The legislation’s main co-sponsor, Sen. Brian Schatz, said Hatch’s support could come as a shock to some, given his background, but did not throw him for a loop.
“He never surprises me,” the Hawaii Democrat said. “It’s significant that he’s on board.”
Hatch’s advocacy on the issue begins to come into focus when his previous work is examined. Since entering office in 1977, Hatch has sponsored or supported 637 health-related bills, according to a tally provided by his office.
He was also an early pioneer on the issue of prescription drug abuse. Along with then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Hatch sponsored a bill in 2000 that allowed physicians to use buprenorphine to treat individuals addicted to opioids.
But Hatch landed in hot water earlier this week over his support for opioid-related legislation that led to a 2016 law. A Washington Post report said the law helped curb the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to investigate suspicious narcotic shipments by drug distribution companies.
Hatch’s office called the article “flawed,” and the senator himself took to the chamber floor Monday to blast it as an attack against Rep. Tom Marino, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“Let’s not pretend that DEA, both Houses of Congress, and the Obama White House all somehow wilted under Representative Marino’s nefarious influences,” he said. “I’m no patsy when it comes to drug abuse, prescription or otherwise, and neither are my colleagues.”
Marino on Tuesday withdrew his nomination for the position.
Sessions seeks to trash the stash
The Department of Justice since 2014 has been prohibited from using federal funding to block a state’s ability to implement its own laws addressing the use of medical marijuana.
But Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been lobbying Congress to revoke those protections, commonly referred to as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment — named for its initial sponsors, California Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, and Sam Farr, a Democrat.
“It would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” the former Alabama senator wrote to Republican and Democratic congressional leaders in a May letter.
The request drew ire from some lawmakers.
“Jeff Sessions is again showing he only values upholding states’ rights when he thinks the state is right,” Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the finance panel, said in a release. “Any attempt to waste taxpayer dollars by going after law-abiding citizens would run contrary to the science on marijuana, not to mention basic common sense.”
There are some early signs, however, that Sessions’ campaign against the provision could be gaining steam. The House Rules Committee last month refused to allow a floor vote on an amendment that would have included the Rohrabacher-Farr language in the chamber’s package of some fiscal 2018 spending bills.
Removing that protection for states would face an uphill battle in the Senate, where there is support among Republicans and Democrats alike for medical marijuana.
But some GOP senators still have concerns.
“There are some cultural shifts that are happening, but there’s also some very pragmatic things that I have a big issue with because several of the medical marijuana bills are actually recreational marijuana-lite,” Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said.
Hatch says the tide is turning on Republican views of medical marijuana and believes more of his colleagues are looking at the issue with an open mind.
“We’re all concerned, and we don’t want to move into a realm that really shouldn’t be moved in to,” he said.