Marijuana reform advocates scored two victories on Tuesday after a key congressional committee approved a spending bill that included a cannabis banking provision and excluded another rider that previously impeded legalization in the nation’s capital. The moves came in spite of impassioned objections from a handful of Republican lawmakers.
For the first time ever, the House Appropriations Committee passed spending legislation that would provide protections for banks that service marijuana businesses. And a longstanding provision prohibiting Washington, D.C. from using its own local tax dollars to implement a legal cannabis sales system was not included in the bill.
The banking provision states that no funds distributed through the legislation “may be used to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, a producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana, marijuana products, or marijuana proceeds” in a jurisdiction where it’s legal.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) introduced an amendment at the meeting that would have limited the banking protection to the medical cannabis market only, but following extensive pushback from a bipartisan coalition of members, he ultimately withdrew the amendment before forcing a losing vote.
The congressman said that he supports medical cannabis, which voters in his state legalized last year, but felt providing a safeguard for businesses operating in compliance with broader state recreational marijuana laws sends the wrong message from the federal government. He went so far as to say that he didn’t mind if these businesses and their employees are at risk of robberies because they’re operating on a largely cash basis.
“I guess I’m just willing to say a company that’s selling recreational marijuana to our youth and to others, I don’t really care if they have a threat of cash sitting in their basement, if they’re paying their employees in cash,” Stewart said. “I don’t want to make life easier for them. I want to make it more difficult.”
Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL), Tom Graves (R-GA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) and David Joyce (R-OH) all voiced opposition to the amendment.
Graves and McCollum argued that excluding the adult-use market from the banking provision would create even more confusion and uncertainty in the financial sector. How would banks be able to differentiate revenue derived from medical versus recreational cannabis sales at shops that sell both, they asked, for example.
“This really isn’t about the issue of medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. The issue is more about states’ rights, quite frankly,” Graves said. “It’s really, really important in my viewpoint that we eliminate some gray space—that we make sure that the rules are defined.”
“It becomes very complicated very fast,” McCollum said of the proposed amendment. “What we want to have is transparency, accountability and confidence in our tax system and our banking system.”
Reps. Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Andy Harris (R-MD) said they supported the amendment, with both focusing on marijuana’s legal status under federal law and warning that approving the provision would encourage more usage.
“Bottom line is what we’re going to do here today is send a message: Is recreational marijuana a thing that the federal government should be promoting?” Harris said.
“There is no state where it’s legal under federal law. It is a gateway drug,” he said. “This is a huge money-making industry. This is Big Cannabis.”
While more financial institutions have been willing to accept cannabis business accounts, many banks still fear being penalized by federal regulators given the lack of clarity on the issue. In 2014, a similar amendment addressing the issue was approved in a House floor vote but it was never enacted into law. The Appropriations Committee rejected a marijuana banking amendment after it was introduced before the panel last year.
Bipartisan legislation that cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March would resolve the problem, but that bill represents a permanent fix whereas this appropriations provision must be annually renewed.
The standalone Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is expected to go before the full House in coming weeks. It currently has 206 cosponsors—nearly half of the chamber.
“Today’s small victories demonstrate an appetite for greater protections of the reform movements progress,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Our staying power is undeniable in the effort to end federal prohibition and criminalization.”
Reform advocates secured another victory with the bill’s passage: A provision that has blocked the District of Columbia from spending local taxpayer dollars to legalize and regulate cannabis was excluded from the legislation.
Earlier years’ versions of the bill stipulated that D.C. couldn’t use appropriated funds “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 or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.”
Voters in Washington, D.C. legalized marijuana possession and cultivation in 2014, but the congressional provision left lawmakers with their hands tied when it came to regulating the plant.
Harris, who first introduced the provision, was expected to introduce an amendment get his language back into the spending legislation during Tuesday’s committee markup, but instead focused on introducing amendments to block the decriminalization of sex work in D.C. and creating regulatory exceptions for private schools in the District, while declining to mention the cannabis provision. The panel rejected both of his D.C. proposals.
“The man who has unapologetically been offering up this rider and fighting for it for years didn’t even bother to introduce the amendment,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance. “He knew it was going to lose and lose badly. His waving white flag gives us optimism on our ability to secure this win and free D.C. to implement legalization through a racial justice lens the way D.C. residents intended.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the cannabis rider’s removal from the bill is “a win for the voters of the District, and although it may be low hanging fruit, it sure tastes sweet.”
The appropriations process—which has historically been the only vehicle through which Congress has enacted marijuana policy changes—is being leveraged to address a wide range of cannabis reform proposals this session.
Reports that have been released by the Appropriations Committee this year include calls for medical cannabis research expansion, implementing hemp regulations, establishing regulations for CBD, preventing impaired driving and protecting benefits for military benefits.
On Monday, the panel also published a report urging the federal government to reconsider its employment policies as it concerns federal workers who use cannabis in compliance with state law.
The same day, the House Rules Committee, another powerful panel, cleared an amendment for floor consideration that was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), eliminating a rider prohibiting the use of federal funds for “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.”
The purpose of the legislation is to remove barriers to research into the potential therapeutic use of such substances, including cannabis, psilocybin and MDMA, the congresswoman said.
But the panel declined to advance a separate amendment from Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) that would have barred the Department of Education from denying or limiting “any funding or assistance to institutions of higher education” where the use or possession of cannabis is permitted.
The committee chairman, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), told Marijuana Moment the amendment wasn’t made in order for procedural reasons and that he will “continue to welcome and encourage debate on marijuana policy.”
The spending bill covering the Treasury Department and funding for Washington, D.C. that was approved the the appropriations panel next heads to the Rules Committee, which will decide which further amendments, potentially including cannabis-related ones, can be considered on the floor.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
New York And Connecticut Governors Talk Marijuana Legalization On Fishing Trip
The governors of New York and Connecticut went fishing and talked about marijuana legalization on Tuesday.
The conversation comes after lawmakers in both states were unable to pass legalization legislation before their respective sessions’ ends this year, despite having the support of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D).
“We talked about policy issues like the marijuana issue, which is obviously also relevant to contiguous states,” Cuomo said at a press conference following the fishing trip. “What Connecticut does on marijuana is relevant to New York, what New York does is relevant to Connecticut so we talked about that and a lot of issues. So we had fun.”
Watch Cuomo’s marijuana comments at about 5:00 into the video below:
Cuomo had described legalization as a top legislative priority for 2019 and included it in his state budget proposal. But after months of negotiations with lawmakers, the plan fell through, due in part to disagreements about how to allocate tax revenue and whether to allow individual jurisdictions to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses.
The governor did sign legislation in July that expands the state’s marijuana decriminalization policy and provides a pathway for expungements of past marijuana convictions.
Over in Connecticut, Lamont campaigned on legalization during his election bid last year and described it as one of his administration’s “priorities” after he took office. But as with neighboring New York, the legislature failed to advance a legalization bill beside multiple successful committee votes and hearings throughout the year.
The specifics of what the governors talked about during their fishing expedition on Lake Ontario aren’t clear, but both are presumably gearing up for another round of legislative efforts marijuana over the coming year and could take lessons from each other as reform talks continue.
Another East Coast state, New Jersey, has also struggled to move legalization legislation forward, with lawmakers saying that the issue should be taken up by voters in 2020 rather than pushed through the legislature, though there has been discussion lately about another try at moving a bill before year’s end. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) did sign a decriminalization and expungements bill in May, however.
Photo courtesy of CBS 6.
GOP Congressman Will Meet Attorney General To Discuss Expanding Marijuana Research
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said on Monday that he will soon be speaking with the U.S. attorney general about expanding marijuana research.
The congressman, a close ally of President Trump, is a vocal proponent of medical cannabis and has argued that the federal drug scheduling system is hampering research into the plant’s therapeutic potential.
“I will be meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr in the coming weeks to discuss the Department of Justice’s approach to unlocking more research grants so that we can have American innovation applied to our health care in a way that can get people off of some of these devastating opioids and painkillers, and on to a more natural product,” he said following a radio town hall event.
Even under the framework of prohibition, the Justice Department is able to promote research by, for example, approving additional marijuana manufacturers—something the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said it would do three years ago.
Barr has voiced support for expanding the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers.
“I think we’re going to move forward on it,” the attorney general said in April. “I think it’s very important to get those additional suppliers.”
Earlier this year, Gaetz joined congressional colleagues in leading a letter addressed to Barr and the head of DEA expressing frustration that the Justice Department has declined to take action despite its pledges. The lawmakers implored DEA to “do whatever you can to speed up and improve the research application process.”
Gaetz also introduced legislation that would force DEA to approve additional facilities to produce research-grade cannabis. A version filed last year cleared the Judiciary Committee in a voice vote, and he reintroduced the bill in January but it has not yet been acted upon.
Listen to Gaetz’s new cannabis comments, about 1:20 into the audio below:
DEA is facing two lawsuits regarding its approach to marijuana, including one that concerns the lack of diversity of research-grade cannabis since only one manufacture is currently authorized. The agency was ordered to respond to the suit by August 28.
Separately, a group of patients and advocates sued DEA over marijuana’s Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act, with a federal court directing the agency to “promptly” consider reclassifying cannabis.
Gaetz also spoke about the need to more broadly reform cannabis laws during the Monday remarks.
“The federal government listing marijuana as a Schedule I drug impairs financial transactions, it impairs research and it stops us from being able to unlock cures for some of America’s most vulnerable people,” the congressman said, adding that he’s a cosponsor of legislation that would deschedule marijuana that was introduced by Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
Gaetz, who is also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he is requesting that the panel hold a hearing on cannabis legislation. That’d mark the second such meeting after a Judiciary subcommittee convened last month to discuss paths to ending federal prohibition.
The congressman’s staff wasn’t able to provide Marijuana Moment with additional details regarding the meeting with Barr.
Photo courtesy of Meredith Geddings.
Elizabeth Warren’s Criminal Justice Plan Involves Legalizing Marijuana And Safe Injection Sites
Legalizing marijuana, granting clemency to people convicted of drug offenses and investing in harm reduction programs such as safe injection sites are part of a criminal justice reform plan that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released on Tuesday.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate stressed that the war on drugs has been carried out in a racially discriminatory manner, writing that it’s unfair that “a kid with an ounce of pot can get thrown in jail, while a bank executive who launders money for a drug cartel can get a bonus. It’s long past time for us to reform our system.”
“This failure [of the drug war] has been particularly harmful for communities of color, and we need a new approach,” she said. “It starts with legalizing marijuana and erasing past convictions, and then eliminating the remaining disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.”
What’s more, the drug war “has criminalized addiction, ripped apart families—and largely failed to curb drug use” when a more effective system would treat addiction as a public health issue.
Next, we have to rethink what we choose to criminalize. That starts with repealing the 1994 crime bill—the bulk of which needs to go—and legalizing marijuana. Overcriminalization has filled prisons and devastated communities—and it's time for it to end.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 20, 2019
That includes diverting people who’ve been convicted of non-violent drug offenses to treatment programs and providing evidence-based resources for people suffering from addiction. For example, Warren’s plan calls for safe injection sites where people can use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who can help prevent fatal overdoses and get people into treatment. She also said needle exchange programs and expanding access to buprenorphine would reduce the opioid crisis.
“Instead of locking up people for nonviolent marijuana crimes, I’ve proposed putting pharmaceutical executives on the hook to report suspicious orders for controlled substances that damage the lives of millions.”
She also called for the abolition of certain mandatory minimum sentences and said that “people who struggle with addiction should not be incarcerated because of their disease.”
“Mass incarceration has not reduced addiction rates or overdose deaths, because substance abuse disorder is a public health problem — and it’s long past time to treat it that way,” the plan says. “We know that diversion programs are both more humane and a better investment than incarceration — for every dollar we invest in treatment programs, we can save $12 in future crime and health care costs.”
“And rather than incarcerating individuals with substance abuse disorders, we should expand options that divert them into programs that provide real treatment.”
Like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Warren’s criminal justice reform proposal also mentions executive actions she could unilaterally take.
Specifically, she wrote that the Justice Department should not hold authority to make clemency recommendations and it should instead be left up to an independent clemency board so that those eligible for a pardons and commutations are more quickly identified.
The president can grant clemency and pardons herself. I'll empower a clemency board to make recommendations directly to the White House, identifying broad classes of potentially-deserving individuals for review, such as those serving mandatory minimums that should be abolished.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 20, 2019
“I’ll direct the board to identify broad classes of potentially-deserving individuals for review, including those who would have benefited from retroactivity under the First Step Act, individuals who are jailed under outdated or discriminatory drug laws, or those serving mandatory minimums that should be abolished,” she said.
The plan’s unveiling comes two days after Sanders released his criminal justice reform proposal, which also called for marijuana legalization and the implementation of harm reduction policies such as safe consumption facilities.
Buttigieg’s plan stands out from his fellow Democratic candidates in at least one regard: the mayor said drug possession should broadly be decriminalized.
Warren also released a separate plan for Indian tribes last week that involves protecting tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention.
Photo courtesy of Edward Kimmel.