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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.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded 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.)

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Vermont Governor Happy With Process On Marijuana Sales Legalization Bill Expected On His Desk Next Week

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The governor of Vermont said on Friday that he is impressed with how lawmakers approached negotiations over a marijuana sales legalization bill that will likely be sent to his desk next week, though he stopped short of committing to sign it.

Vermont legalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivation of two plants in 2018, but there are currently no regulations in place that allow for retail sales. Both chambers of the legislature previously approved the new commercialization bill, S. 54, and a bicameral conference committee worked to hash out differences in recent weeks. And shortly after they finalized a compromise version, it was sent to the House floor, where it was approved on Thursday.

The Senate is expected to take up the final measure next week. If approved there, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott (R).

The governor was asked during a press briefing whether he felt the legislation contains adequate public safety provisions that he’s requested.

“The bill hasn’t been my top priority. [It’s] obviously a priority for the legislature and legislative leadership,” he said. “And so it’s been passed [by the House]. I will give great credit to those who I don’t believe had any thoughts of me and some of my concerns, but they’ve done so. They’ve moved forward.”

He drew a contrast to a climate change bill that he indicated was not thoughtfully constructed to take his input into account and which he vetoed.

“I reflect on the Global Warming Solutions Act and the difference between the two bills, and them addressing the concerns I had with the regulation of marijuana—regulation and taxation bill—versus the Global Warming Solutions Act. It’s a stark difference,” he said.

Watch the governor discuss the marijuana tax-and-regulate bill, starting around 1:13:05 into the audio below:

Scott said he was encouraged by how the conference committee navigated the marijuana bill and reached compromises.

“They created a panel, and maybe advocated some of their position there, but it’s coming back,” he said, referring to a new cannabis regulatory body that would be created by the legislation. “Any suggestions by the marijuana panel that they put into their bill is going to come back to the legislature, and they’re going to vote on it, and they’re going to consider that. I mean, that’s the way to do things.”

“They’ve come a long ways. I’ll be considering that over the next—when we do receive the bill, we haven’t received it yet. But I’ll consider that,” Scott said. “And again, they’ve come a long ways and we’ll see what happens.”

It’s been an open question whether the governor will ultimately sign off on the tax-and-regulate bill given that he vetoed an early version of a non-commercial marijuana legalization bill. He reluctantly approved a revised version after legislators agreed to include a number of provisions he requested.

An outstanding concern for Scott in this latest bill is how to mitigate the risk of impaired driving. He wants police to be able to conduct roadside saliva tests for THC—despite the shaky science about its efficacy and civil rights concerns. In conference, the panel compromised on allowing saliva testing, but officers would have to get a warrant and the tests couldn’t be conducted at roadside.

“I’ve never been philosophically opposed to a retail market, I just have concerns about that,” the governor told WCAX in a separate new interview. If marijuana sales are legalized, Scott said it will be important to “make sure we’re doing this the right way with our eyes wide open and that we’re protecting the citizens of Vermont.”

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D), who is running against the incumbent governor, has been a strong advocate for establishing a regulated cannabis market in the state. He told the local news outlet that the “hybrid” compromise on saliva testing “doesn’t cross the line for me,” despite his general reservations about the practice.

Under the proposed cannabis sales bill, marijuana would be subject to a 14 percent excise tax, in addition to the state’s six percent sales tax.

S. 54 also contains some social equity provisions such as prioritizing marijuana business licenses for minorities, women and people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. An independent regulatory commission would additionally be tasked with promoting small business participation in the market.

A new Cannabis Control Commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for retailers, growers, manufacturers, wholesalers and labs. The body would also take over regulation of the state’s existing medical cannabis industry from the Department of Public Safety .

A 30 percent THC limit would be imposed on cannabis flower, while oils could contain up to 60 percent THC. Flavored vape cartridges would be banned.

Local jurisdictions would have to proactively opt in to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area. Municipalities would also be able to establish their own regulations and municipal licensing requirements.

A timeline for the legislation states that it would formally take effect on October 1, 2020—but regulators would then have to make a series of determinations about rules and licensing before retail sales would launch. Dispensary licenses would have to be issued on or before October 1, 2022.

A fiscal analysis on the final bill projects that Vermont will generate between $13.3 million and $24.2 million in annual cannabis tax revenue by Fiscal Year 2025. Licensing fees will lead to additional funds for the state, but the regulatory board created by the legislation will set those levels at a later date. For now, the Joint Fiscal Office estimates the fees could lead to another $650,000 in revenue every year. Municipalities hosting marijuana businesses will also be able to levy additional local fees.

Previously, Scott expressed interest in using new cannabis tax revenues to fund an after-school program he’s pursuing.

Outside of the cannabis sales legalization bill, the House approved separate legislation this month that would provide for automatic expungements of marijuana convictions and allow people to possess and grow more cannabis without the threat of jail time than is currently allowed. The Senate could give approval to the latest version next week, setting it up to also head to Scott’s desk.

Majority Of Republicans Support Marijuana Legalization Bill That Democrats In Congress Delayed Vote On

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Hemp Farmers Now Eligible For USDA Coronavirus Relief Program

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Friday that it is expanding its coronavirus relief program for farmers—and this time around, hemp cultivators are eligible for benefits.

In May, USDA said it would be making $19 billion available for agriculture producers to assist them amid the pandemic. But it excluded hemp and several other crops, stating that they don’t qualify because they didn’t experience a five percent or greater price decline from January to April. Industry stakeholders contested that point, arguing that there’s insufficient data to establish that given how young the newly legal market is. They said they were suffering just like other sectors.

It seems the department got that message and chose to accommodate the industry. A new round of funding through USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) includes a payment category for “flat-rate crops” that lists hemp as eligible.

“Crops that either do not meet the 5-percent price decline trigger or do not have data available to calculate a price change will have payments calculated based on eligible 2020 acres multiplied by $15 per acre,” USDA said in a notice. “These crops include alfalfa, extra long staple (ELS) cotton, oats, peanuts, rice, hemp, millet, mustard, safflower, sesame, triticale, rapeseed, and several others.”

Jonathan Miller, general counsel at the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “thrilled” to see USDA take this step, though some stakeholders are saying that the calculation the department is using to determine benefits under the program “might not be as generous as for some other crops.”

“This is a very significant development for the industry,” he said. “We just want to be sure that our farmers are treated fairly just like other farmers.”

The office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has championed the industry and helped advance the crop’s legalization, highlighted the policy change.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture also touted the news.

In April, Congress approved a COVID-19 package that made hemp businesses eligible for federal disaster relief through the Small Business Administration (SBA).

For the past two years since hemp was federally legalized through the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA has been hard at work developing regulations and reaching out to the industry to ensure that the market has the resources to thrive.

This month, for example, it reopened a 30-day public comment period on its proposed rules for the crop in order to gain additional feedback on a number of provisions that stakeholders had expressed concern about. SBA recently asked USDA to extend that comment window. The department’s rule for hemp, when finalized, is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.

In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last month wrote to Perdue, similarly asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot program in the meantime.

As it stands, the earlier pilot program is set to expire on October 31. The senators aren’t alone in requesting an extension, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA last month.

Perdue has said on several occasions that DEA influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.

As all of this rulemaking continues, USDA has been systematically approving hemp plans from states and tribes. Utah is the latest state to have its proposal approved.

Majority Of Republicans Support Marijuana Legalization Bill That Democrats In Congress Delayed Vote On

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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Majority Of Republicans Support Marijuana Legalization Bill That Democrats In Congress Delayed Vote On

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A majority of U.S. voters across party lines support the passage of a comprehensive federal marijuana legalization bill that was expected to receive a House floor vote before being postponed on Thursday, according to a new poll.

The survey found that 59 percent of Americans—including 53 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats—favor the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would federally deschedule cannabis and promote social equity.

Despite that bipartisan support, certain moderate Democratic lawmakers convinced House leadership that holding a vote on the bill next week, as was initially expected, could damage them politically heading into the election. They felt that advancing the reform legislation before passing another coronavirus relief bill looked bad for them—a position that advocates say is nonsensical given the widespread popularity of the issue.

This is the second time Data for Progress and the Justice Collaborative Institute asked Americans about drug policy reform and the MORE Act specifically. Their last poll, which was conducted in May, showed that 62 percent of respondents backed the bill. Support also transcended party lines in the earlier survey, with 60 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats agreeing it should be passed.

“The decision to push back a vote on the MORE Act not only calls Democrats’ prioritization of racial and criminal justice into question, but it also shows a complete disregard for the will of the majority of the American people who are ready for reform,” the Justice Collaborative said in a press release. “Failing to pass legislation decriminalizing marijuana use could be an electoral risk come November.”

While the House won’t take up the MORE Act next week as initially anticipated, leadership has given the bill’s supporters an “ironclad commitment” that it will get a floor vote in the fall, according to Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA). That will likely take place after the election.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said that “the MORE Act remains a critical component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism and advancing criminal justice reform, and we are committed to bringing it to the Floor for a vote before the end of the year.”

The new poll—which involved interviews with 1,212 likely voters from September 11-14—also looked at support for more broad drug policy issues. For example, 60 percent said that “we should treat drug use as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue.”

Sixty-seven percent of voters said the federal government should respect the rights of states to set their own marijuana policies. That support was also bipartisan, with 63 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats agreeing with the sentiment.

A majority of voters said police shouldn’t be arresting people for possessing cannabis for personal use (59 percent) or selling small quantities of marijuana (55 percent).

Finally, the poll asked people whether they feel that “legalized marijuana has become too corporate and it is only benefiting wealthy investors.” Half said they did feel that way, 26 percent said they disagreed and 23 percent said they didn’t know.

Interestingly, Republicans were more likely to say the industry is being corporatized (57 percent) than Democrats (48 percent).

The survey findings underscore the evolving political reality of drug policy reform: it’s popular with most Americans and it’s increasingly bipartisan. But it also reveals the splintering between public sentiment and congressional action, as evidenced in part by the MORE Act vote postponement. That select centrist Democratic members felt the optics of passing the popular bill would derail their reelection campaigns seems to highlight the disconnect.

Congressional Research Service Highlights Four Consequences Of Federal Marijuana Prohibition

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