The Good, Bad, and Ugly: Fixing the Federal Cannabis Reform Bill

FOCUS and AFDO have released a critical joint response to the CAOA.
FOCUS and AFDO have released a critical joint response to the CAOA. /

Federal legalization continues to loom on cannabis’s horizon, and the U.S. government is finally beginning to imagine what that might look like. 

Over the summer, a group of U.S. senators submitted the draft of a new bill, titled the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), with the ultimate goal of full legalization, equity, and uniform national standards for the plant. 

While the MORE Act has attempted (and failed) to do something like this a few times now, the proposed CAOA is one of the most comprehensive reform proposals for cannabis in federal history, and while it certainly isn’t perfect, it has propped open the door for long overdue discourse surrounding federal legalization and what we really need that to look like. 

What is the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act?

The CAOA draft is the result of a joint effort among Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR). 

Ultimately, the bill would both decriminalize and legalize cannabis at a federal level, removing the plant’s infamous, unfair, and unfounded Schedule I Drug classification once and for all. 

Some of the language in the draft feels like a huge relief for the cannabis community, like including restorative measures for communities negatively affected by the War on Drugs, automatic expungement for non-violent federal cannabis crimes, and an overall end to discrimination and stigma surrounding medical and/or adult-use cannabis consumers. 

However, other pieces of the proposal leave a little too much room for worry and risk, like a five-percent-per-year incremental tax structure, severe restrictions on investors, potency caps on product, and, most controversially, the potential exclusion of Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol from industry participation.

Although the bill isn’t entirely free of concern, the sponsoring offices have sought and remained open to any and all public commentary on the language, specifically from those within the cannabis industry. 

The Foundation of Cannabis United Standards (FOCUS), the nation’s leading authority on cannabis health and safety, has joined forces with the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) to craft a response to the CAOA’s proposal with one main goal: continuing the conversation.

How FOCUS is Joining Forces with AFDO to Mentor Cannabis Standards

Founded in 2014, FOCUS is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to cannabis standards development. Their mission is simple: to protect public health, consumer safety, and safeguard our environment by promoting integrity in cannabis. 

FOCUS is involved in regulatory affair advocacy, like helping states and countries implement their cannabis laws by understanding consensus standards. They also support the industry-facing side of the business with application writing, product walkthroughs, and certifications.

“An important distinction is that we’re not part of the cannabis industry – we are a service provider to the cannabis industry,” said FOCUS’s Director of Sales and Marketing, Brett Puffenbarger. 

“We pride ourselves on being a neutral third-party certification body focused on two things: health and safety.”

FOCUS is also heavily involved with AFDO, which predates the FDA for food and drug standards. The two organizations reviewed the CAOA and immediately decided on responding to it based on their experience and expertise.

“We asked ourselves, how can we give a comprehensive and total response based on how it’s proposed line by line? That’s how we approached it,” Puffenbarger told The Bluntness.

“Cannabis is a very loose term. We need language that addresses medical and adult-use, and we need to keep in mind the existing legislation that surrounds the industrial hemp side of things. Basically, we went straight through the draft and said, where are we going to be affected by this?”

Each member involved in the draft dissection took on a different part of the bill. Together, they reviewed every piece, crafted individual responses to each section, and then put it all together in an epic, all-encompassing response.

Important Concerns with the CAOA

One of the biggest issues with the draft is its lack of distinction. The language focuses on adult-use cannabis, largely excluding medical standards, which is potentially dangerous for patients.

The section that proposes a ban on any form of flavored or child-friendly products (like flavored vapes or candy edibles) sounds great on the surface, but when you take medical patients into consideration, it begins to crumble.

“I remember sitting at a rule-making session for Florida when they legalized, and we were discussing edibles,” Puffenbarger said.

The dad of a four-year-old autistic child spoke about how difficult it is to get a syringe safely near his child when he’s in the middle of a breakdown, when feeding him a chocolate or gummy bear is so much easier. 

“It’s almost an example of good initiative, bad judgment. Without specific frameworks in place for each segmentation of the industry, I fear we’re going to see the same issues we’ve seen as states rolled out their regulations,” Puffenbarger said. 

“In any other industry, if a product isn’t explicitly illegal, it’s legal. Cannabis is almost the opposite. If it doesn’t strictly say it’s legal, it’s not. That’s a very stark difference that I think needs to be considered.”

There’s also some concern surrounding the Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol exclusion in the draft – while there may be pros to this decision, it would also kick out companies who are already involved in alcohol and/or tobacco in a big way, like Pabst or Lagunitas.

The CAOA draft is a great start, but it’s left a lot of open-ended questions for industry stakeholders to weigh and consider. 

FOCUS isn’t advocating for or against any policy – instead, the organization wants to help start that dialogue between the federal government and interested and/or invested parties. 

What FOCUS and AFDO Expect From Their CAOA Response

The two organizations aren’t stopping at their response to the CAOA. Their next step will be to put together webinars and open discussion forums with one simple goal: a cohesive voice between the food and drug industries.

“We’ve never actually sat down with these other industries. We’re not seeing a joint press conference between Coca-Cola and a cannabis company to discuss the future,” Puffenbarger said.

“Our goal is to bridge that gap with AFDO. They represent a lot of those Fortune 500 companies that bring a lot of positive things to the table. So just like these senators have done by allowing open commentary, we would like to facilitate more industry commentary so we can take a larger, more cohesive message from us as a joint entity.”

This is definitely a collaboration that has never been done before. As cannabis has been forced to exist largely in the shadows for several decades, it’s never had a real seat at the mainstream table.

The CAOA can have a positive effect on that, provided it’s thought through from every angle – and in a way that benefits all industries involved, as well as the people who require safe access to cannabis products.

“I think this draft came with a healthy dose of good, a healthy dose of bad, and a healthy dose of ugly. We’ve seen the good legalization can do, like funding roads or educational programs,” Puffenbarger said.

“However, I don’t want restrictions to be at a level that continues to proliferate the black market, where we cannot have standards and quality controls. At the end of the day, that’s my main concern. I want a long-term, safe, sustainable industry.”

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