Three dozen members of the House of Representatives introduced a resolution on Tuesday calling for an inquiry into the possible impeachment of Attorney General William Barr because he “abused the power of his office” to improperly investigate marijuana businesses and allegedly engaged in other unlawful conduct.
The resolution, which is being led by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), states that the attorney general “has taken deliberate actions that violate the rights of the American people, assault the principle of impartial administration of justice, and undermine the constitutional structure of separation of powers across three co-equal branches of Government.”
It says that Barr “abused the power of his office to initiate pretextual antitrust investigations into ‘unpopular’ American corporations in the cannabis, automobile, and technology industries.”
That allegation comes from a Justice Department whistleblower who publicly revealed this month that 10 antitrust investigations targeting cannabis companies were launched at the direction of the attorney general, who was said to have made the decision based on his personal animus for the industry.
“He’s using antitrust not for the purpose of helping consumers and businesses that might be disadvantaged by monopoly, but doing it as a vehicle for his social policies, which is unheard of,” Cohen told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview, referring to the attorney general.
The whistleblower didn’t see “any practices that are antitrust in nature, but they said the problem was on the fifth floor, which is where Barr’s office resides and apparently he doesn’t like marijuana so he went after them,” the lawmaker said.
This measure calls upon @HouseJudiciary to open an inquiry into AG Barr under the same House rules applied during the #ImpeachmentInquiry into President Trump last year. Congress is a co-equal branch of government and must hold #BillBarr accountable.https://t.co/S0nVTp4K2y
— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) June 30, 2020
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, the whistleblower argued that there wasn’t an appropriate basis for the investigations, which at one point accounted for one-third of Justice Department Antitrust Division cases.
The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, to which the complaint was referred, ultimately concluded that no rules had been violated in ordering the investigations, regardless of the allegation about Barr’s prejudice. That said, the matter is also separately being looked into by the inspector general, according to a June memo.
“I think it’s just unfortunate what they’re doing,” Cohen said of the memo.
While the new resolution states that other unrelated “investigations misused the resources Congress appropriated for the Department of Justice to harass and intimidate companies based on President Donald J. Trump’s whims and without a proper legal predicate for such investigations,” the whistleblower specified that the marijuana-specific inquiries were connected to Barr’s alleged bias, not the president’s.
However, he did make clear that department resources were wasted and questioned the factual basis for the investigations. All told, across six of the 10 investigations for which data are available, 5,965,000 documents were produced by the cannabis companies under inquiry. A small fraction were actually reviewed by Justice Department personnel.
“Attorney General Barr has undermined our judicial system and perverted the rule of law,” Cohen said in a press release. “Barr obstructs justice by favoring the President’s friends and political allies. He abuses his power by using the Department of Justice to harass, intimidate and attack disfavored Americans and the President’s political opponents. My oath to support and defend the Constitution compels me to confront this corruption.”
He and the measure’s 35 cosponsors are asking for the Judiciary Committee to explore the potential for impeachment proceedings for the attorney general. Those cosponsors include Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and Maxine Waters (D-CA).
“It is outrageous that Attorney General Barr has allegedly politicized the Justice Department while continuing to put his own personal beliefs before those of the American people,” Blumenauer said in a press release. “His egregious disregard for his oath to serve without bias warrants an investigation into his misconduct, at the very least. I’m going to continue working with my colleagues in Congress to hold him accountable. America deserves better than this corrupt administration.”
Of course, the marijuana allegations represent just one part of a broader rationale for a congressional inquiry. The lawmakers also criticized the nation’s top law enforcement official for his role in directing the disassembly of protestors in Washington, D.C., his move to clear former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn of criminal charges and the controversial firing on a federal judge, among other matters.
Cohen also talked to Marijuana Moment about a point he made during last week’s Judiciary Committee hearing on the Barr allegations about how cannabis criminalization fosters distrust between communities of color and police, as black and brown people are significantly more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense compared to white people despite comparable rates of consumption.
“It’s a street crime. There are dealers, but most individuals get busted on the street smoking a joint and that’s when police and African Americans come in contact,” he said. “African Americans are anywhere from six or seven to 10 times as likely to get arrested for smoking marijuana as caucasians, and yet there’s no indication that they necessarily smoke at any greater numbers. It’s a breeding ground for this discontent because anybody that gets busted for smoking marijuana is going to have a chip on their shoulder towards the law enforcement, towards society and towards the structure, the establishment, that allows such to happen.”
Advocates and lawmakers have made similar arguments in recent weeks as Congress has debated policing reform amid the civil unrest that’s emanated from recent police killings of black Americans. They’ve said that policing reform should be coupled with a conversation about changing marijuana policies to mitigate unnecessary law enforcement interactions.
The congressman said the issue reminds him of the 1995 song “Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody” by John Prime.
“When I hear that song, I kind of think about people smoking marijuana,” he said. “‘Ain’t hurtin’ nobody, ain’t hurtin’ no one.'”
While no lawmakers ultimately filed cannabis amendments to the House-passed policing bill, there’s still time left in this Congress to take up standalone marijuana legislation. Cohen said it’s “possible” the House will take up the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act before the end of session, but he raised doubts about its prospects in the Senate.
“It’s certainly gotten to be more bipartisan in the House,” he said. “The Senate is a little slower to respond on some of these things, and this is one where they’ve been slower to respond. And [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)] is good on hemp, but that’s about as far as he goes.”
Read the text of the resolution to launch in impeachment inquiry into the attorney general below:
Congress Votes To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries
The House of Representatives approved legislation on Wednesday aimed at finally letting researchers study marijuana purchased from businesses in state-legal markets instead of only letting them use government-grown cannabis, as is the case under current law.
The intent of the provision, tucked into a 2,000-plus-page infrastructure bill, is to allow the interstate distribution of such products even to scientists in jurisdictions that have not yet legalized marijuana.
While the main components of the INVEST in America Act concern funding for highway and transportation projects, the legislation as introduced also contains a separate section that would require legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider methods of educating people about and discouraging impaired driving from cannabis.
Several lawmakers filed additional cannabis-related amendments in committee. Most were either withdrawn, defeated or never formally debated, but a wide-ranging marijuana measure that was recently filed by the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was successfully attached.
The provision calls for the Department of Transportation to consult with the attorney general and Department of Health and Human Services to develop a report with recommendations on providing researchers with access to “samples and strains of marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully being offered to patients or consumers” in legal states.
The report should also explore “establishing a national clearinghouse to collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research,” and that would include cannabis from state-legal markets. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), sponsor of the main bill as well as the manager’s amendment the new marijuana language is part of, further wants the report to outline ways to provide researchers in states that haven’t legalized marijuana with access to cannabis from such a clearinghouse to study impaired driving.
Finally, the measure states that the report, which would be due two years after the bill’s enactment, should analyze “statutory and regulatory barriers to the conduct of scientific research and the establishment of a national clearinghouse for purposes of facilitating research on marijuana-impaired driving.”
Some of these components deal directly with transportation, but others seem to address broader issues in cannabis research that advocates and scientists have repeatedly identified as problematic. As it stands, researchers can only access marijuana from a single federally authorized manufacturing facility, and the quality of the products it produces has been criticized. At least one study found that its marijuana is chemically closer to hemp than what’s actually available to consumers in commercial markets.
The Drug Enforcement Administration is taking steps on its own to increase the number of licensed cannabis cultivation facilities beyond the current sole source at the University of Mississippi, but the process has seen long delays. A public comment period on its most recent proposal ended in May. However, even if the federal government does license additional research cultivation facilities, that still wouldn’t resolve the problem of scientists’ lack of access to marijuana from state marketplaces.
“There is a growing awareness among the public, politicians, and especially among those within the scientific community that the current regulations unduly limiting researchers’ ability to access and clinically study real-world cannabis products is both illogical and counterproductive,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment. “It makes zero sense that tens of millions of Americans can now readily purchase and consume these products, but that scientists cannot access these same products for the purpose of studying their effects on human subjects in the course of a controlled trial.”
The other cannabis provision that was included in the base bill has not been well-received by reform advocates.
Under the legislation, a section of current law requiring that states establish highway safety programs would be amended to add a section stipulating that states “which have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana shall consider programs in addition to the programs…to educate drivers on the risks associated with marijuana-impaired driving and to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from individuals driving motor vehicles while impaired by marijuana.”
While advocates are supportive of measures to reduce impaired driving, some have raised issues with the implication that legalizing cannabis increases the risk of people driving while under the influence. Research isn’t settled on that subject.
A congressional research body said in a report last year that concerns expressed by lawmakers that cannabis legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.
Beside that contention, the legislation seems to neglect to take into account that cannabis-impaired driving isn’t exclusive to legal states and that public education could be beneficial across all states regardless of their individual marijuana policies.
Despite pushback from advocates, no lawmakers filed amendments to strike the language or revise it to apply to all states instead of just ones that have ended prohibition.
Hundreds of other amendments were filed on the legislation, both in the Transportation Committee and for potential floor action, with several others dealing with cannabis that didn’t make the cut.
That includes one calling for studies into the effects of cannabis on driving and the development of an “objective standard for measuring marijuana impairment.” Another would establish a grant program for research into marijuana-impaired driving. Both of those were withdrawn during the Transportation Committee hearing on the bill last month.
Another amendment contained a section that would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to “carry out a collaborative research effort to study the effect that marijuana has on driving and research ways to detect and reduce incidences of driving under the influence of marijuana.” It was defeated in a 25-35 vote.
There was also an amendment filed that called for the creation of a pilot program to promote education about the risks of impaired driving from prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The sponsor never ended up formally offering it.
In the House Rules Committee, which held a hearing last week to prepare the bill for floor action, an amendment was offered to make it so the Transportation Department would “establish a program to provide grants on a competitive basis to States to educate the public on the dangers of drug-impaired driving.” The measure wasn’t made in order, however.
The panel did advance another drug-related measure that would create “a pilot program to provide funding to states to incorporate wastewater testing for drugs at municipal wastewater treatment plants and to develop public health interventions to respond to the findings.”
“This would allow public health departments to monitor drug consumption and detect new drug use more quickly and in a more specific geographic region than methods currently in use while preserving individual privacy,” the text of the measure, which was approved by a voice vote in a bloc along with other amendments on the House floor, states.
The overall infrastructure bill was approved by a vote of 233-188. It’s not clear if the Senate will include cannabis provisions in any related legislation it takes up this year.
Read the text of the manager’s amendment on expanding marijuana research and access to state-legal cannabis products below:
SEC. 3014. REPORT ON MARIJUANA RESEARCH.
(a) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, shall submit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate, and make publicly available on the Department of Transportation website, a report and recommendations on—
(1) increasing and improving access, for scientific researchers studying impairment while driving under the influence of marijuana, to samples and strains of marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully being offered to patients or consumers in a State on a retail basis;
(2) establishing a national clearinghouse to collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research that includes marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully available to patients or consumers in a State on a retail basis;
(3) facilitating access, for scientific researchers located in States that have not legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use, to samples and strains of marijuana and products containing marijuana from such clearinghouse for purposes of research on marijuana-impaired driving; and
(4) identifying Federal statutory and regulatory barriers to the conduct of scientific research and the establishment of a national clearinghouse for purposes of facilitating research on marijuana-impaired driving.
(b) DEFINITION OF MARIJUANA.—In this section, the term ‘‘marijuana’’ has the meaning given such term in section 4008 of the FAST Act (Public Law 114–94).
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Arizona Marijuana Activists Turn In 420,000 Signatures To Qualify Legalization Measure For Ballot
Arizona activists behind an initiative to legalize marijuana have officially turned in what they say are more than enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Smart and Safe Arizona announced on Wednesday that they submitted 420,000 raw signatures to the secretary of state’s office—one day before the turn-in deadline. They need 237,645 valid signatures from registered voters to qualify.
This marks another drug policy reform success amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced campaigns in several other states to end due to social distancing and stay-at-home requirements.
Advocates joined with three separate campaigns in April to ask the state Supreme Court to order the secretary of state to allow electronic signature gathering, but the request was denied. Even so, the raw numbers signal the legalization effort is in a comfortable position to make the ballot once signatures are verified.
“Arizonans are ready to legalize cannabis and this is the right policy for our state,” Arizona Dispensary Association President Steve White said in a press release. “New jobs and revenue are even more critical, today, than when we embarked on this campaign last year.”
Hi friends! A whopping 420,000 (plus) of you helped us get here. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Next stop, November! pic.twitter.com/Opo8boV1Nh
— Smart & Safe AZ (@SmartandSafeAZ) July 1, 2020
The legalization petition would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. People could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
The measure also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program
Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.
The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.
If the measure does make the ballot, recent polling indicates that it will prevail. In a survey of likely voters, about two-thirds (65.5 percent) of respondents said they would support the proposed initiative.
A 2016 legalization proposal was rejected by Arizona voters. But in the four years since, more states have opted to legalize and public opinion has continued to shift in favor of reform.
Here’s a status update on other drug policy campaigns across the country:
Idaho activists behind a medical cannabis initiative are hoping that a federal judge’s recent ruling that would extend the signature turn-in deadline for a separate campaign will apply to them. The state has indicated it will appeal, but if things go in their favor, they could start collecting signatures, including electronically, next week.
The Oregon Secretary of State’s office announced on Tuesday that a campaign to decriminalize currently illicit drugs and expand substance misuse treatment has qualified for the ballot.
Another Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes has already turned in signatures that they feel will qualify them for the ballot, though those submissions must still be verified by the state.
Washington, D.C. activists are continuing to collect signatures for a proposed measure to make enforcement of laws against various entheogenic substances such as psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities. They’re receiving assistance from activists who flew in from across the country, including leadership behind Denver’s successful psilocybin decriminalization initiative last year.
A Nebraska campaign plans to submit signatures this week that they hope will be sufficient to qualify a medical cannabis measure for the ballot.
Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana initiatives—one to legalize the plant for adult use and another stipulating that individuals must be 21 or older to participate—for the November ballot. The state is currently validating those submissions.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
Mississippi activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
A campaign to legalize marijuana in Arkansas will not qualify for the ballot this year, a spokesperson told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.
Activists behind an initiative to decriminalize currently illicit drugs and expand access to treatment services in Washington State said last week that they will no longer be pursuing the ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they are seeking to enact the policy change through the legislature during the next session starting January 2021.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota activists ended their push to place a marijuana legalization measure on the 2020 ballot and will instead seek qualification for 2022.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Ohio Senate Votes To Expand Marijuana Decriminalization To Cover 200 Grams
The Ohio Senate has approved a bill to double the amount of marijuana that is decriminalized in the state and reduce criminal penalties for many other drug crimes.
Following months of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the measure cleared both a committee and the full body on Tuesday. The floor vote was 24–5.
While possession of small amounts of cannabis would still be illegal in Ohio, people caught with up to 200 grams of marijuana (about seven ounces) would face no arrest or jail time under the measure, SB 3. Instead, they’d receive a civil citation and pay a fine of $150.
“Among other criminal justice changes, SB 3 would reduce the sentences for several marijuana offenses, including by doubling the amount of marijuana that is decriminalized,” Karen O’Keefe, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policies, told Marijuana Moment.
Existing Ohio law already classifies possession of up to 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of marijuana as a “minor misdemeanor.” Offenses are penalized with citations and civil fines of $150. By law, officers are only supposed to arrest people for cannabis if they refuse to provide identification, won’t sign the citation or pose a health and safety risk, but critics note that those exceptions open the door to discriminatory police enforcement.
Under SB 3, simple possession would remain a minor misdemeanor, but the qualifying limits would increase. In addition to the new 200 gram cap for marijuana flower, the limit on hash would rise from 5 grams to 10 grams.
The bill states that citations for those offenses would not constitute a criminal record or need to be reported on “any inquiries contained in any application for employment, license, or other right or privilege.”
Anything over the decriminalized amount limits would still incur criminal penalties, such as arrest, possible jail time and a criminal record. SB 3 would, however, downgrade the criminal designations for greater amounts of cannabis.
For flower, 200 grams to 400 grams would be a fourth-degree misdemeanor under the bill, while 400 to 1,000 grams would be a first-degree misdemeanor. For hash, 10 grams to 20 grams would qualify as a fourth-degree misdemeanor, and 20 grams to 50 grams would be a first-degree misdemeanor.
Possession of other drugs would see downgrades under the bill, too, lessening many felony charges to misdemeanors. Judges in some circumstances would be able to pause criminal cases or even dismiss them entirely for defendants who complete drug treatment programs.
“We believe that we have found the appropriate mark in the sand,” one of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Sen. Sean O’Brien (D), told The Columbus Dispatch a day before the vote.
“I think the overarching goal of the bill is to take small amounts of possession that are clearly for personal use and make that a misdemeanor,” Senate President Larry Obhof (R) said. “That’s really been one of the bigger sticking points over the last year as we’ve considered this. What is really the right amount for personal use versus at what number do we then say, ‘You’re not really using this. You’re a trafficker.’ We’re trying to work that out.”
O’Keefe at Marijuana Policy Project applauded the Senate’s passage of the bill Tuesday but lamented that lawmakers still see cannabis as a police matter at all.
“While these are welcome reforms, Ohio lawmakers should listen to their constituents and legalize marijuana,” she told Marijuana Moment. “There is no need for any police-civilian interaction around simple possession of marijuana. Issuing fines for cannabis possession wastes governmental resources and opens the door to unequal policing and abusive encounters. Ohio should follow Michigan’s lead and legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana for adults.”
Advocates at the beginning of the year intended to put legalization on Ohio’s ballot this November, filing a formal initiative proposal in early March. The effort stalled, however, as the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting social distancing measures made signature gathering all but impossible.
Another group of activists, working to put marijuana decriminalization measures on 14 municipal ballots in Ohio, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to force state officials to allow electronic signature gathering during the pandemic, but the justices did not take up the case.
Ohio voters in 2015 roundly rejected a push to legalize marijuana for adult use, but some think that’s a poor indicator of the state’s interest in legalizing commercial cannabis. The 2015 measure drew criticism at the time even from traditional allies of reform, many of whom criticized the proposal’s licensing provisions that would give a near monopoly on cultivation to the same investors who had funded the ballot initiative.
“Ohio has once again shown that it is committed to bipartisan solutions to the state’s greatest problems, serving as an example for the rest of the country." @holly_harris on the passage of Senate Bill 3 out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. https://t.co/FsgkLYa1sK
— Justice Action Network (@USJusticeAction) June 30, 2020
Despite the slow progress on cannabis reform represented by Senate Bill 3, criminal justice reform advocates praised the bill’s passage by the Senate as a timely response to the issues facing American communities today. Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, said the measure “was not written in this moment, but it is the rare bill that is truly meeting the moment.”
“It will help reduce the prison population, leaving far fewer people at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Harris said. “It will save up to $75 million in critical taxpayer dollars as the state deals with a fiscal crisis, and it will eliminate unnecessary interactions with the criminal justice system for minor drug offenses as we work to improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel