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.
Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances One Step In South Dakota
South Dakota’s attorney general filed an official explanation of a proposed ballot measure to legalize marijuana on Friday.
While separate organizations are working to get a medical cannabis-focused initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot, activists behind this measure are hoping to incorporate recreational legalization, medical marijuana reform and hemp into one package.
Adult-use legalization would be accomplished through a constitutional amendment under the initiative, which would separately require the legislature to pass legislation creating rules for medical cannabis and hemp.
South Dakota Attorney General releases explanation on proposed constitutional amendment to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana; to require passage of laws regarding hemp as well as laws regarding marijuana for medical use. Read it here: https://t.co/k33buSKjIJ pic.twitter.com/pEG0RxbDj9
— SD Attorney General (@SDAttorneyGen) August 16, 2019
“The constitutional amendment legalizes the possession, use, transport, and distribution of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia by people age 21 and older. Individuals may possess or distribute one ounce or less of marijuana,” Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg (R) wrote. “Marijuana plants and marijuana produced from those plants may also be possessed under certain conditions.”
The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be responsible for issuing licenses for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Individual jurisdictions would be able to opt out of allowing such facilities in their areas.
“The Department must enact rules to implement and enforce this amendment,” the explanation states. “The amendment requires the Legislature to pass laws regarding medical use of marijuana. The amendment does not legalize hemp; it requires the Legislature to pass laws regulating the cultivation, processing, and sale of hemp.”
The initiative calls for a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana sales. That revenue would be used to fund the Department of Revenue’s implementation and regulation of the legal cannabis system, with remaining tax dollars going toward public education and the state general fund.
Ravnsborg said that judicial clarification of the amendment “may be necessary” and notes that marijuana “remains illegal under Federal law.”
The attorney general issued a similar explanation of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical cannabis earlier this month.
This latest move comes one day after advocacy organization New Approach South Dakota announced that their medical marijuana initiative was certified, enabling them to begin the signature gathering process.
Several other cannabis initiatives are in the process of being certified in the state, according to the attorney general’s website. In order to place constitutional amendments on the ballot, activists must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters.
South Dakota is one of the last remaining states in the U.S. that has not legalized marijuana for any purposes.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Elizabeth Warren’s Plan For Indian Tribes Includes Marijuana Legalization
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unveiled a plan on Friday that’s aimed at holding the federal government accountable for following through on its obligations to Native American tribes, and that includes ensuring that tribal marijuana programs are protected against federal intervention.
The plan emphasized Warren’s support for a bill she filed earlier this year that “would protect cannabis laws and policies that tribal nations adopted for themselves.”
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, who has faced criticism over claims of Native American heritage, pointed to federal reports showing that tribal programs generally have not received adequate funding and said it is imperative that legislation be enacted to “provide resources for housing, education, health care, self-determination, and public safety” for those communities.
To that end, Warren is planning to introduce a bill called the “Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act” alongside Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Before filing, however, the lawmakers are soliciting input on how best to draft the legislation, and are accepting written testimony until September 30.
While the proposed legislation itself doesn’t currently include marijuana-specific provisions, a press release and blog post on the topic address the senator’s sponsorship of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would allow tribal communities and states to set their own cannabis policies without Justice Department interference.
In order to provide economic opportunities to Native people, that “requires streamlining and removing unnecessary administrative barriers that impede economic growth on Tribal lands, respecting tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses, and promoting forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new and emerging economic opportunities.”
“For example, while not every tribe is interested in the economic opportunities associated with changing laws around marijuana, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important opportunity for economic development,” Warren’s campaign blog post states.
“I support full marijuana legalization, and have also introduced and worked on a bipartisan basis to advance the STATES Act, a proposal that would at a minimum safeguard the ability of states, territories, and Tribal Nations, to make their own marijuana policies,” she wrote.
.@RepDebHaaland & I invite feedback about this proposal & look forward to working closely with tribal nations & citizens, experts, & other stakeholders to advance legislation in Congress that honors the United States’ promises to Native peoples. https://t.co/qc1fkBGb3I
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) August 16, 2019
A separate press release on Warren’s Senate website also touts her support for the STATES Act, saying she “worked hard to ensure” that it included tribal protections.
“It’s beyond time to make good on America’s responsibilities to Native peoples, and that is why I’m working with Congresswoman Haaland to draft legislation that will ensure the federal government lives up to its obligations and will empower tribal governments to address the needs of their citizens,” Warren said of the overall tribal plan. “We look forward to working closely with tribal nations to advance legislation that honors the United States’ promises to Native peoples.”
In an email blast to her campaign list, Warren included “a set of additional ideas to uphold the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations with Tribal Nations and to empower Native communities,” which includes her marijuana proposal:
“New economic opportunities: We also need to respect tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses and promote forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new economic opportunities. For example, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important economic opportunity. I support full marijuana legalization and have advanced the STATES Act, a proposal that would safeguard the ability of Tribal Nations to make their own marijuana policies.”
There’s increased interest in ensuring that Native populations receive the same benefits and protections as states as it concerns cannabis legislation.
In June, the House passed a spending bill that included a rider stipulating that Native American marijuana programs couldn’t be infringed upon by the Justice Department. And a GOP representative filed a bill in March that would provide similar protections.
FBI Seeks Tips On Marijuana Industry Corruption
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is actively seeking tips on public corruption related to the marijuana industry, it announced on Thursday.
“States require licenses to grow and sell the drug—opening the possibility for public officials to become susceptible to bribes in exchange for those licenses,” FBI Public Affairs Specialist Mollie Halpern said on a short podcast the bureau released. “The corruption is more prevalent in western states where the licensing is decentralized—meaning the level of corruption can span from the highest to the lowest level of public officials.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)