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Addiction Medicine Doctors Group With Prohibitionist Roots Embraces Federal Marijuana Reforms

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A medical association focused on combatting drug addiction that has historically resisted marijuana reform efforts and aligned itself with prohibitionists has adopted a new policy position in favor of protecting people who use cannabis in compliance with state laws from being punished by the federal government. It’s also backing the rescheduling of medical marijuana.

“Our nation’s historically punitive approach to cannabis possession and use has caused harms related to arrest and incarceration, which disproportionately impact low-income communities and persons of color, contributing to racial injustice,” the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) said in its new statement.

ASAM made 24 specific marijuana-related recommendations following a board of directors vote that was formalized this month. While some of the proposals are consistent with the organization’s prior policy stances, its embrace of specific federal reforms stands out.

One provision even appears to come close to endorsing the aims of bipartisan legislation—the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act—that is vehemently opposed by prohibitionist groups that the addiction doctors association has closely partnered with in the past.

In fact, the language of the ASAM recommendation closely mirrors a summary of the bill that was included in a press release from its sponsor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), last year.

ASAM:
Amend federal law “so that—as long as states and tribes comply with substantial public health protections—its provisions no longer apply to any person acting in compliance with state or tribal laws relating to the manufacture, production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of cannabis for non-medical purposes.”

Warren:
Amend federal law “so that—as long as states and tribal nations comply with a few basic protections—its provisions no longer apply to any person acting in compliance with State or tribal laws relating to the manufacture, production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marijuana.”

The language is identical, but for the replacement of Warren’s “a few basic protections” with “substantial public health protections” (which are undefined) and using “cannabis for non-medical purposes” instead of “marijuana.”

When it comes to its separate medical cannabis rescheduling recommendation, ASAM doesn’t specify which classification it feels marijuana should be placed under after being removed from its current Schedule I status; rather, it simply states that it should be changed “to promote more clinical research and [Food and Drug Administration] oversight typical of other medications.”

ASAM, which was founded in 1954 and says it represents more than 6,000 physicians, clinicians and associated professionals in the field of addiction medicine, has previously adopted policy positions focused promoting research into cannabis—and it’s supported congressional legislation to that end. But the new recommendations are notable given the direct call for changes to the drug’s classification under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and carve-outs to protect people following state marijuana laws.

In 2014, the group’s then-president, Stuart Gitlow, signed a letter circulated by prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) that asked federal officials to resist pressure to reschedule cannabis under the CSA.

Whereas that letter argued that “rescheduling marijuana is not necessary to facilitate research,” the new ASAM position statement cites the reclassification move as a step needed to “promote more clinical research.”

Gitlow also signed onto a separate SAM letter opposing the Obama administration’s 2013 move to direct federal prosecutors to generally not interfere with state marijuana legalization laws—the aim of the STATES Act that the group’s new position paper adopts language from.

That same year, he sent a letter on ASAM letterhead to senators saying that the organization “supports the enforcement of federal laws that discourage the growth and distribution of marijuana.”

Gitlow, after leaving the organization’s presidency, went so far as to cheer then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s revocation of the Obama-era cannabis policy in 2018.

But ASAM’s new leadership is singing a different tune.

“Today’s public policy statement recognizes that our country’s historically punitive approach to cannabis use has caused significant harms—especially to persons of color, who are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for cannabis possession and use,” Paul H. Earley, president of ASAM, said in a press release. “We must safeguard against the potential harms of cannabis use such as cannabis use disorder, while also recognizing that criminalization is not a constructive way to promote public health.”

While the new ASAM policy position clearly acknowledges the medical uses of cannabis and suggests enacting federal policy changes to accommodate it, the group didn’t always do so.

In 2011, its then-president, Louis E. Baxter, said, “We do not recognize this as a ‘medication,’ having not gone through an official FDA-approval process”—making sure to use scare quotes around “medication.”

In 2012 ASAM published a white paper urging physicians to oppose local reform initiatives, but as more states legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, the group appeared to start taking a more public health-focused stance with its policy positions. For example, in 2015, it adopted a pro-decriminalization position, suggesting that people face civil penalties instead of incarceration for simple possession—though it also said that penalty should be coupled with “mandated referral to clinical assessment, educational activities, and, when indicated, formal treatment for addiction or other substance-related disorders.”

The new policy stance, in contrast, says that under decriminalization, “civil fines and fees should be eliminated whenever possible.” It also suggests a “range of non-mandatory civil penalties to enforce restrictions such as age, place of use, quantity limits” such as referral for clinical assessments or education, but that “there should be no mandatory minimum penalties, which disproportionately punish people of limited means.”

ASAM, while stopping short of embracing any form of legal and regulated cannabis system—saying it has “concerns regarding commercial models of legalization”—is also calling for “automatic expungement for past minor cannabis-related convictions, so that hundreds of thousands of people—disproportionately people of color—do not remain marginalized for prior offenses.”

The group also has suggestions for states that enact marijuana legalization, such as restricting advertising, mandating plain packaging for cannabis products, conducting quality control testing, limiting potency, allowing localities to regulate businesses and earmarking tax revenue for treatment and prevention efforts.

The new ASAM document also calls for FDA regulation of medical cannabis products, while saying that doctors who recommend unregulated medical marijuana preparations to patients should report it to prescription drug monitoring programs. The group also suggests that in most cases “pregnant women should have a choice whether or not to provide consent for cannabis testing including during labor and delivery.”

Again, however, the most significant recommendation from ASAM concerns federal protections for people who comply with state marijuana laws. It’s a position not shared by major prohibitionist groups like SAM that have routinely promoted ASAM’s onetime ardent anti-cannabis policies.

SAM removed some mentions of ASAM’s prior position from its website since the addiction group’s new stance was adopted this month.

SAM President Kevin Sabet played down the addiction doctors group’s policy announcement when contacted by Marijuana Moment, saying it won’t change the “longtime partnership” between the two organizations and arguing that ASAM’s “new position is in large part consistent with SAM’s positions of non-criminal penalties and public health practices.”

“ASAM calls for the non-enforcement of the CSA in states that adopt significant public health guidelines—but no state has done that, and no current federal marijuana bills being proposed provide for this,” he said. “In fact, a member of the ASAM writing committee told us that if states do not follow these guidelines, the ‘federal government can go after them, not for allowing marijuana but for doing it in dangerous and non acceptable way.'”

Sabet, who did not name the writing committee member he quoted, said his group was in the process of uploading ASAM’s new guidance to its website and that he sees “very little inconsistency between the positions of ASAM and SAM.”

While SAM has historically led efforts to opposed the rescheduling of marijuana, including the letter that ASAM’s former president signed, several years ago it pivoted to calling for the creation of a new special federal category for marijuana in order to bolster research. “Rescheduling is not necessary to do research,” Sabet said in his statement to Marijuana Moment, but conceded that “it would simply make it easier to do.”

Despite SAM’s efforts to frame the new ASAM’s policy as being in line with its own advocacy for largely maintaining the status quo of federal marijuana prohibition, the health group is clear that large-scale changes are needed even as it maintains concerns about commercialization and addiction.

“Our current approach to cannabis use has not only caused confusion about the health harms and potential benefits of cannabis use, but it has caused real harm, both to health of those using poorly regulated cannabis products and to the overall wellbeing of those arrested or incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses,” Earley, ASAM’s president, said. “Without opening the floodgates to a for-profit, commercial cannabis industry to flourish, our country must change course and adopt evidence-based cannabis policies that protect and promote public health, including the ones we recommend today.”

Read ASAM’s full report and recommendations for cannabis policy below:

ASAM 2020 Public Policy Sta… by Marijuana Moment

Montana Voters Poised To Legalize Marijuana, New Poll Shows

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New Jersey Prosecutors Must Suspend Marijuana Possession Cases, State Attorney General Says

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The New Jersey attorney general on Wednesday told prosecutors to adjourn most marijuana possession cases until at least January 25, 2021 following voter approval of a referendum to legalize cannabis for adult use this month.

While the initiative amends the state Constitution to legalize marijuana for those 21 and older, lawmakers must still pass enabling legislation to create a regulatory framework for cannabis sales. The day after the election, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) had issued initial guidance to prosecutors encouraging them to use discretion when it comes to marijuana offenses that will soon be codified as legal.

But this latest announcement expands on that memo, ordering prosecutors to pause cases involving a wide range of low-level cannabis possession offenses.

“Fairness demands that we suspend prosecution of marijuana possession-related cases while we await direction from the Legislature on the parameters for decriminalization of marijuana and legalization of regulated adult-use cannabis,” Grewal said. “It simply does not make sense or serve justice to proceed with prosecutions on charges that may be foreclosed soon through legislative action.”

The attorney general’s office listed seven specific laws that will be impacted by the temporary policy change, including those penalizing possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and being under the influence of marijuana.

“Notably, today’s guidance does not affect the prosecution of cases charging distribution of marijuana or possession of marijuana with intent to distribute,” a press release from his office says.

The new memo specifies that “in cases where there are other pending charges in addition to the marijuana possession-related offenses enumerated above, prosecutors shall use their discretion to either postpone the case in its entirety or seek dismissal, without prejudice, of the above-enumerated marijuana possession-related charge(s) and proceed with prosecution of the remaining charges.”

In the previous guidance released earlier this month, Grewal recognized that there may be some confusion among residents about the implications of the legalization referendum’s passage so police and prosecutors “should exercise discretion” in pursuing marijuana cases, as outlined under earlier 2018 guidance that he issued.

A municipal prosecutor recently argued in a memo sent to colleagues across the state that voters’ approval of the legalization referendum, as well as the attorney general’s earlier directive this month, means that many current cannabis cases should not be pursued.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D), who previously pressed the attorney general to issue guidance to suspend arrests and court cases for possession of marijuana, praised the new move on prosecutions.

“Now that the people of NJ have spoken no one should be subject to facing criminal charges for minimal amounts of this substance,” he said in a tweet.

Enabling legislation to set rules for the state’s cannabis market was introduced just days after the referendum vote, and it’s already advancing at the committee level.

Most recently, the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legalization bills, albeit in differing forms that will have to be resolved. Planed floor votes for this week have been canceled as leaders hold bicameral negotiations on outstanding details.

Meanwhile, the Senate recently approved a separate marijuana decriminalization bill and the Assembly was supposed to vote on it as well, but that was also pushed back amid disagreement about an amendment to lower penalties for psilocybin, and has yet to be rescheduled.

In anticipation of the legislature’s approval of a legalization bill, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) recently named an official to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission that will oversee the legal marijuana market.

Republican Lawmakers And Celebrities Push Trump To Free Marijuana Prisoners Before Leaving Office

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Republican Lawmakers And Celebrities Push Trump To Free Marijuana Prisoners Before Leaving Office

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A group of celebrities, Republican officials and civil rights advocates sent a letter to President Trump on Wednesday, urging him to pardon or commute the sentences of people in federal prison for nonviolent federal marijuana offenses.

The letter, which organizers said they adapted from an earlier request after discussing the previous proposal with the office of Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, states that the signatories “strongly believe that justice necessitates the exercise of executive clemency in these cases.”

Unlike the last version, the new letter comes with an attachment—at the request of Kushner’s office, advocates said—of a specific list of 24 people who are currently behind bars for cannabis offenses, including several who are serving life sentences.

Weldon Angelos, who himself was convicted over cannabis and handed a mandatory minimum sentence before a court cut his sentence and released him, personally delivered the first version of the letter to the White House in March. He told Marijuana Moment that Kushner’s office then reached out to his organization, Mission Green, to request that, in addition to redelivering the request, advocates include a list of incarcerated people who they feel are especially entitled to presidentially granted relief.

Those two dozen currently incarcerated individuals include people like Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California. These inmates shouldn’t have to wait for Congress to get around to enacting federal policy change, and the president should use executive action to pardon them, the letter states.

“You have expressed support for the States’ right to implement their own cannabis laws, especially for medicinal purposes,” the signatories, including former NBA star Kevin Garnett, wrote. “And while there are a number of proposals being introduced in Congress to finally put an end to cannabis prohibition, they tend to lack any real avenue of relief for those who are serving time for selling cannabis.”

“Given the timidity of this proposed legislation, the gridlock in Congress, and the imperative of freedom, clemency is the right tool to fix this problem,” it continues. “You and you alone have the power to call out a grand hypocrisy of prior administrations. While cannabis became a thriving, legal market and enriched many, your predecessors ignored the people who were—and are—serving long federal terms for doing the same thing.”

Leaders in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives announced that they plan to vote on a far-reaching bill to federally legalize marijuana next month, but the Republican Senate has shown no signs it intends to follow suit.

Among the more than 50 signatories of the new letter is Alice Johnson, who appeared at the Republican National Convention and whose story was featured in Trump campaign ads after her drug sentence was commuted by the president.

Republican state lawmakers from Kansas, Maine and Missouri also signed on, as did a former U.S. attorney, actor Danny Trejo, the New Haven, Connecticut police chief and former New Mexico governor and presidential candidate Gary Johnson. They were joined by representatives of groups like #cut50, Marijuana Policy Project and Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

So far during his administration, Trump has granted 27 pardons and 11 commutations. But the advocates behind this letter, including members of the CAN-DO Foundation, which partnered with Mission Green, expect to see a ramping up of clemency from the executive office in the coming weeks, as is traditional during the final weeks of a presidency.

Kushner and the White House press office did not immediately reply to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment for this story.

Angelos said that he hasn’t received confirmation on timing, but he expects Trump to announce additional pardons and commutations as early as the Thanksgiving holiday.

“It’s ridiculous that we currently have a billionaire in the cannabis industry, yet we are keeping select individuals in prison for doing the exact same thing. This is just another example of a wasteful and destructive criminal justice system,” he said in a press release. “I firmly believe President Trump will strongly consider fixing some of the most egregious sentences that we have brought to his attention.”

“He’s the first president on modern history to commute a number of sentences in his first few years in office,” he added. “Traditionally, pardons and commutations happen at the end of a presidency, and so this pattern gives us some comfort that we will get justice for some of them.”

It’s not clear how Trump will react to the request for a round of cannabis-specific clemency.

His reelection campaign worked to frame him as the criminal justice reform candidate, but he hasn’t proactively championed marijuana reform, has made several anti-legalization administration hires and issued signing statements stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore long-standing congressional riders that prohibit the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical cannabis programs.

Also, despite his pledged support for medical marijuana and states’ rights, the president evidently holds some negative views toward cannabis consumption, as evidenced in a 2018 recording in which he said that using it makes people “lose IQ points.”

Read the letter to Trump about marijuana clemency below:

Letter to President Trump -… by Marijuana Moment

Marijuana Legalization Is Inevitable In New York, Especially After New Jersey Vote, Top Senator Says

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New Jersey Prosecutor Urges Colleagues To Stop Pursuing Most Marijuana Cases While Legalization Bill Advances

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A municipal prosecutor in New Jersey is arguing in a memo sent to colleagues across the state that voters’ approval of a marijuana legalization referendum this month, and subsequent guidance from the attorney general, means that many current cannabis cases should not be pursued.

In a two-page message to other top law enforcement officials that was shared with Marijuana Moment, Jon-Henry Barr, the municipal prosecutor for the Township of Clark, said that he appreciated that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) released guidance stipulating that police and prosecutors “should exercise discretion” in pursuing marijuana cases.

But voters made clear on Election Day that they no longer want to see adults 21 and older to be convicted for simple possession, he said, and they also lack control over lawmakers’ timeline for passing enabling legislation that would codify that policy statewide.

“New Jersey’s municipal prosecutors can look to the text of the State Constitution and interpretive caselaw for more guidance about what should be done with pending cases,” Barr, who is a past president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutor’s Association and is a member of the pro-reform group Law Enforcement Action Partnership, wrote. “The primary duty of a lawyer engaged in public prosecution is not to convict, but to see that justice is done.”

The attorney general’s reminder that prosecutors have discretion in cannabis cases is important, but it still leaves questions about how exactly they should proceed in the interim while lawmakers work on implementing regulations for a legal marijuana market, he said.

“In light of the global pandemic and the statewide referendum, are the interests of justice served by continuing to prosecute low level marijuana cases?” he asked. “I conclude that no reasonable argument can be made to claim that the interests of justice are accomplished by maintaining the prosecution of most current cases. However, that does not mean that all cases should simply be summarily dismissed.”

In terms of what types of cases could continue to be subject to prosecution, Barr said the referendum simply applied to low-level possession for those 21 and older. Underage possession, distribution and possession with the intent to distribute should all still be pursued on a case by case basis, at least while the legislature works to enact specific regulations.

While the attorney general in 2018 issued previous initial guidance encouraging discretion in marijuana cases, Barr said the referendum vote demonstrates that “public policy in New Jersey has now shifted significantly further, and it is my thoughtfully considered, carefully researched, and well-reasoned position that most, but not all, current marijuana cases should not be prosecuted.”

“I again maintain that this memo fully respects and complies with the direction provided thus far by the attorney general of New Jersey, and complete deference to his directives will continue,” he said.

Enabling legislation to set rules for the state’s cannabis market was introduced just days after the referendum vote, and it’s already advancing at the committee level.

Most recently, the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legalization bills, albeit in differing forms that will have to be resolved. Planed floor votes for this week have been canceled as leaders hold bicameral negotiations on outstanding details.

Meanwhile, the Senate recently approved a separate marijuana decriminalization bill and the Assembly was supposed to vote on it as well, but that was also pushed back amid disagreement about an amendment to lower penalties for psilocybin, and has yet to be rescheduled.

In anticipation of the legislature’s approval of a legalization bill, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) recently named an official to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission that will oversee the legal marijuana market.

Read the memo to prosecutors on marijuana enforcement discretion below: 

Memo on marijuana prosecuti… by Marijuana Moment

Connecticut Lawmakers Will Put Marijuana Legalization On The Ballot If Legislature Rejects Bill

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