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A Key Senate Committee Is Becoming Less Marijuana-Friendly

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For the past several years, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has been more responsible for marijuana reform victories in Congress than any other panel of lawmakers.

Bipartisan measures to protect state medical cannabis laws, allow medical marijuana for military veterans and shield state industrial hemp research programs from the feds have all advanced there.

Those wins have been especially valuable for legalization supporters because in the other chamber, the House Rules Committee has blocked cannabis-related amendments from advancing to the floor over the same period of time.

But in recent weeks the Senate committee, which handles funding levels and spending riders covering federal agencies, has begun to make a number of anti-cannabis moves.

Last week, for example, it prevented a measure to allow marijuana businesses to access banks from advancing by a vote of 21-10. Nearly identical amendments were approved by the committee in 2015 and 2016, but this time several Democrats who position themselves as supporters of cannabis law reform spoke out against the proposal on procedural grounds.

Earlier this month the panel released a report incorrectly alleging an increase in impaired driving in states that have reformed their cannabis laws.

In a separate report this month the committee expressed concern about illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands, singling out states with legalization.

And now, in a new development that hasn’t yet been reported elsewhere, the committee is making moves to block Washington, D.C. from further legalizing marijuana.

“No funds available for obligation or expenditure by the District of Columbia government under any authority may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes,” reads a provision of the Financial Services and General Government funding bill approved by the committee on Thursday.

Unlike the House Appropriations Committee, which has consistently moved to block cannabis reform in the nation’s capital, the Senate panel for the past several years has kept its version of funding bill free of marijuana-related D.C. riders (though the spending bans have been enacted into law anyway because the House language has prevailed in bicameral conference committees that reconcile both chambers’ bills into final legislation).

Now that the Senate committee has moved to adopt the D.C. cannabis prohibition as well, its continuance into Fiscal Year 2019 is a virtual certainty, meaning that local officials will not be able to spend locally raised funds adding a system of taxed and regulated marijuana sales to the city’s existing law that allows low-level possession and home cultivation.

“I am disappointed that the committee chose to depart from their past practice of not including anti-D.C. riders,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said in a press release. “I will be fighting here in the House and Senate to strike all anti-D.C. riders and prevent any new riders from being included in the final spending bill.”

Also, committee report attached to the new funding bill also goes out of its way to wag its finger at Indian tribes that might be considering entering the marijuana industry.

“The Committee expects the CDFI Fund to ensure no funding is allocated to tribes to support marijuana production, manufacturing, or distribution and report to the Committee on any Tribe who engages in such activities and receives funding appropriated by this act,” the report says, referring to the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which focuses on economic revitalization in distressed communities.

None of this is to say that the Senate panel has defeated all recent marijuana reform measures. For example, this month it opted to continue protecting states where medical marijuana is legal from federal interference and approved an amendment that would allow Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to veterans. And last month, it directed the Department of Agriculture to set aside half a million dollars to build a hemp seedbank.

Significantly, the language protecting state medical cannabis laws was included in the initial Justice Department bill as introduced by Republican leaders for the first time, whereas its enactment in past years has required a specific votes on amendments to add it.

But, in other ways noted above, the committee has clearly become less friendly to marijuana law reform efforts in recent months, and one major factor is its new chairman.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) ascended to the top position on the panel in April, following the retirement of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). While Cochran was not exactly a champion of cannabis legalization, he left advocates with the sense that he just didn’t care much about the issue by allowing amendments to be voted on without applying significant behind-the-scenes pressure.

Shelby, on the other hand, who for years served alongside U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in representing Alabama in the Senate, has made it clear that he doesn’t like the idea of attaching policy riders — marijuana or otherwise — to spending bills.

“Chairman Shelby was very anti-amendments this year,” Michael Liszewski of the Enact Group, told Marijuana Moment. “If you watched this year’s hearings, you probably noticed a decrease in the number of amendments offered. That’s because Shelby made it clear that he had very little tolerance for legislating through approps.”

And, he appears to be making deals with Democrats to accomplish his goal of reducing the number of policy riders on appropriations legislation.

That’s the conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from an exchange between Shelby and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who has been a champion of marijuana law reform efforts in the committee, that could be faintly heard on the committee’s audio feed just moments after the Vermont Democrat helped lead the charge to kill the cannabis banking measure last week:

SHELBY: “Thank you, Pat.”

LEAHY: “I told you I would.”

While Leahy said during a debate before the vote to table the measure that he objected to its advancement on procedural grounds concerning the alleged inappropriateness of legislating policy on spending bills, the fact is that Leahy himself is more responsible than any other senator for the continuance of the separate rider preventing Justice Department interference in state medical cannabis laws, so his public argument seems at least a little disingenuous.

Advocates who did not wish to be quoted for this story speculated that Democrats may have extracted some concessions on immigration policy in exchange for not pushing the marijuana banking rider, but that could not be immediately confirmed.

Another key change on the appropriations panel is the fact that Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), a vocal cannabis opponent, recently became chair of its Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, which handles Washington, D.C.

His ascendancy to the subcommittee chairmanship likely explains the panel’s inclusion of anti-marijuana language in the relevant funding bill for the first time in years. (Of note, however, the Senate bill covering D.C. doesn’t contain language from the House version of the legislation that would add a new restriction on the use of funds to support opening safe consumption facilities where people could consume illegal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals.)

Justin Strekal of NORML told Marijuana Moment in an interview that the committee’s seeming shift away from support for marijuana law reform in recent weeks may, perhaps counterintuitively, have to do with cannabis legalization’s growing political support.

“We’ve gained more momentum,” he said, referring to the fact that numerous lawmakers — including party leaders like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — are embracing legislation that would provide more permanent fixes to the federal-state cannabis law gap than annual appropriations riders can.

“The stark realities are much crisper now,” he said. “Every amendment that tinkers with [cannabis enforcement] is still dancing around the fact that we still live under a regime of complete prohibition.”

“It’s increasingly going to be more difficult to get lawmakers to be OK with cutesy little fixes when the need for comprehensive reform is crystalizing.”

But in order to enact broader solutions, it’s going to take movement by committees that set federal drug policy and enact authorizations for relevant federal agencies.

Unfortunately, those panels — the House and Senate Judiciary Committees — at least for now, are controlled by ardent legalization opponents. But with a midterm election coming up that observers believe could reverse party control of one or both chambers, anything can happen in 2019.

If you value staying updated on cannabis news, please start a monthly Patreon pledge to support Marijuana Moment!

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Culture

Border Patrol Reflects On Feds’ Friendlier Historical Approach To Marijuana

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Canada’s decision to legalize marijuana nationwide has stoked concerns that its citizens traveling across the U.S. border will risk temporary detention or even permanent visitation bans if they fess up having ever consumed cannabis, or even working in the industry.

Enforcement officials have told reporters that there’s no travel policy change in light of Canada’s end of prohibition, emphasizing that it remains illegal to bring cannabis across the border under federal law. Violating the policy “could potentially result in seizure, fines, and apprehension,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a recent statement.

But let’s take you back to a simpler time, courtesy of CBP.

“Did You Know… Marijuana Was Once a Legal Cross-Border Import?”

That’s the title of a 2015 blog post published by the federal agency—which seems to have gone mostly unnoticed until now—recalls how cannabis was historically recognized as a legal import by the government.

“One hundred years ago, the federal government was not overly concerned with marijuana, the common name for the Cannabis sativa L. plant,” the feds’ post reads.

Through the mid-1930s, the plant flew under the government’s radar, despite the fact that “several state governments and other countries had banned the drug.”

“The U.S. government hesitated, in part because therapeutic uses of Cannabis were still being explored and American industry profited from commercial applications of hemp fiber, seeds and oil.”

That all changed in the decades to come—first with the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which imposed taxes and regulations on cannabis imports, cultivation, distribution and possession, and then with full prohibition under the Nixon administration.

Up until that point, the Customs Agency Service (later rebranded as CBP) didn’t put too much stock in pot. Just before the Marihuana Tax Act passed, the agency described its cannabis policy here:

“Marihuana may be cultivated or grown wild in almost any locality. Inasmuch as this drug is so readily obtained in the United States, it is not believed to be the subject of much organized smuggling from other countries.”

It seems like pretty basic supply and demand, but federal prohibition changed the equation. Suddenly, marijuana wasn’t “so readily obtained” in the country—and even simple possession carried serious criminal penalties—so the legal supply dried up. In the absence of legal access, criminal organizations swooped in to meet the demand for marijuana in the United States.

Ergo…

“Today, however, marijuana trafficking is a major concern of CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Administration,” CBP wrote. “Well over 3 million pounds of ‘pot’ were confiscated at our borders in 2011, making an impact on this multibillion-dollar illegal enterprise.”

The more you know!

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Here Are The DEA’s Newest Slang Terms for Marijuana: ‘Shoes,’ ‘My Brother’ And More

Photo courtesy of Gerald Nino, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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Why Congressional Democrats Deleted Their Anti-Marijuana Tweet

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A Democratic organization tasked with regaining the party’s control of the U.S. House of Representatives tweeted a bizarre anti-marijuana attack on a politically vulnerable Republican congressman this week, but the group meekly walked back the comments after being called out about it…by me and some of the lawmakers it represents.

It started with a tweet, posted on Monday by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

“GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher…has a ‘cult-like fixation on marijuana,'” the supposedly progressive group tweeted, quoting an article from conservative magazine National Review bashing the California congressman.

“It’s why [Democratic opponent] @HarleyRouda needs your help flipping this seat Clinton won from #RedToBlue,” the party organ added.

I was immediately struck by the tweet when I saw it minutes after it was posted. The vast majority of Democratic voters support marijuana legalization, as do all of the party’s U.S. senators who are thought to be weighing 2020 presidential campaigns.

Whenever Rohrbacher’s amendment to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference has reached the House floor, the overwhelming majority of Democratic lawmakers have consistently voted for it.

“There are a lot of reasons why Democrats and progressives would wish for Rohrabacher to lose his reelection fight, aside from the fact that ‘flipping this seat from red to blue’ could make the difference in determining which party controls the House come January. But marijuana is not one of them,” I wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed on Thursday.

“The Democratic committee could have highlighted Rohrabacher’s position that homeowners should have the right to refuse to sell property to gay people — something mentioned by National Review in the same sentence as that cannabis quip. Or his position on climate change. Or healthcare.

“Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has cosponsored many marijuana measures with Rohrabacher, told me in an emailed statement that the campaign committee’s tweet was ‘stupid,’ adding that he expressed those sentiments directly to the organization itself.”

Hours after the publication of my piece, DCCC has deleted the offending tweet, without comment.

In addition to Blumenauer’s public blasting of the organization’s tweet in my op-ed, at least one other Democratic congressman raised the issue during the party’s House Steering and Policy Committee on Thursday, a lawmaker who was in the room, but wished not to be named, told me.

“Pure bad karma and politics,” the legislator said, of the DCC tweet.

Indeed, beyond just Democrats, a growing majority of voters overall, as well independents and even Republicans specifically now support legalization.

California’s 2016 legal cannabis measure won by a significant margin in Rohrabacher’s district, so it’s somewhat of a mystery as to why Democrats thought attacking him over his leadership on the issue was a smart strategy to win back the seat.

Rohrabacher himself seemed to revel in the Democrats’ stepping in it and having to walk back their attack.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz chimed in, too.

One fun note that I didn’t have space to include in my LA Times op-ed is the fact that DCCC’s own chairman, Congressman Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), himself voted three times on the House floor in favor of Rohrabacher’s medical cannabis amendment and even backed a broader measure from Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) that would have protected state recreational marijuana laws from federal interference.

Democrats should be campaigning on, instead of attacking, marijuana law reform.

Unless they want to remain the minority party.

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Major Alcohol Association Endorses States’ Rights To Legalize Marijuana

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For the first time ever, a major alcohol association has come out in support of ending federal marijuana prohibition so that states can legalize cannabis without interference.

The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) announced “an official policy position in favor of a state’s right to establish a legal, well-regulated, adult-use cannabis marketplace,” in a press release on Thursday.

The announcement represented a significant departure from the association’s past statements on marijuana reform. Just two years ago, WSWA said in a sponsored advertisement that it was “neutral on the issue of legalization,” going on to caution congressional officials about the “dangers associated with the abuse and misuse of marijuana,” including drug-impaired driving.

Now the alcohol trade group is singing a different tune.

“The legal cannabis market continues to expand in the United States, generating $7.2 billion in economic activity in 2016,” Thursday’s press release reads. “WSWA believes that, similar to alcohol, the federal government should give states the power to legalize cannabis, but should ensure they meet an appropriate regulatory threshold.”

“Eight decades ago, Americans acknowledged that the Prohibition of alcohol was a failed policy. The state-based system of regulation, adopted after Prohibition, created a U.S. beverage alcohol market that is the safest, most competitive and best regulated in the world.” — WSWA Acting Executive Vice President for External Affairs Dawson Hobbs

WSWA went on to outline 13 policies it recommended for states that legalize recreational marijuana.

  • A minimum age of 21 for purchase, possession and use, along with penalties for providing cannabis to minors;
  • Establishment of Driving Under the Influence impaired driving standards;
  • Licensing of producers, processors, distributors and retailers; Policies to prevent vertical monopoly/integration;
  • Hours and days of sale parity with beverage alcohol;
  • Tax collection and enforcement; Measures to prevent diversion of cannabis to other states;
  • Restrictions on sale/common carrier delivery;
  • Labeling requirements that include potency and health requirements;
  • Testing of formulas to ensure product purity and consistency;
  • Advertising restrictions designed to discourage underage access and promote responsible consumption;
  • Restrictions on health claims on packaging;
  • Establishment of a designated agency overseeing cannabis industry regulation in each state;
  • Penalties for licensee violations on par with the state’s alcohol regulations;
  • and Regulations that ensure all products in market can be tracked/traced to source processor/producer.

So what changed from two years ago?

While the group’s sudden embrace of local cannabis legalization efforts might strike some as odd given the intrinsic, competitive dynamic that’s developed between alcohol and marijuana interests, one aspect of the press release reveals how the broader booze industry could stand to profit:

“Legalization should include regulations that set age restrictions on buyers, as well as license and regulate the supply chain of cannabis, including growers, distributors, retailers and testing laboratories.” [Emphasis added.]

In other words, marijuana legalization might take a bite out of alcohol sales—as recent studies have shown—but the cannabis industry has diverse roles for various players to fill. Ancillary operators such as distributors now working under the current three-tier model for alcohol could be used in states with legal, regulated marijuana markets.

Hobbs denied that the association was trying to help the alcohol industry cash in on legal cannabis during an interview with Fox Business on Thursday.

“No, what we’re talking about is just creating a pathway for states to have federal recognition of legalization by enacting appropriate regulation that creates a safe and reliable marketplace,” Hobbs argued. He also said that the association wouldn’t be lobbying Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take action on federal marijuana policy, but rather the group’s focus would be on Congress.

Marijuana Moment reached out to WSWA for comment, but a representative was not immediately available.

What remains to be seen is whether other alcohol associations will follow suit. After all, a handful of alcohol interests, including the Arizona Wine and Spirits Wholesale Association and the Boston Beer Company donated to campaigns opposing legalization efforts during the 2016 election.

With this latest development from a major alcohol association, it seems the industry is conceding: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Cuomo Administration Report Backs Marijuana Legalization In New York

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