The nation’s top health official indicated on Wednesday that the Biden administration will not block the establishment safe injection sites where people could use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment as a means of curtailing the overdose epidemic—but it will ultimately be up to the Justice Department to follow through, with a brief due in a key court case next week.
As the administration rolls out a new plan to address the health crisis—which will involve more modest harm reduction reforms like providing fentanyl testing and syringe access—Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra says safe consumption facilities aren’t off the table.
The comments come at a pivotal time, as the federal government is actively in court facing a legal challenge over the overdose prevention centers, with a pivotal brief due soon. The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear a case about the legality of these harm reduction centers, but advocates hoping to establish such a facility in Philadelphia are still pursuing the case at a lower federal court level, where the administration will have to make its position clear next week.
The Justice Department, rather than HHS, will be answering on behalf of the government in the case. But Becerra’s new comments signal that the administration is aware of—and sympathetic to—arguments in favor of providing people with harm reduction services.
“We are literally trying to give users a lifeline,” Becerra told NPR, adding that the federal agency is not going to intervene in state efforts to create safe injection facilities. “We’re not going to say ‘but you can’t do these other type of supervised consumption programs that you think work or that evidence shows work,'” he said.
“We are willing to go places where our opinions and our tendencies have not allowed us to go [before],” he said. “If you can’t prevent someone from becoming a user, then at least prevent them from harming themselves to the point of death.”
When The Washington Post separately asked Becerra whether the administration would clear the way for supervised consumption facilities, he said that while the ultimate legal decision is outside his “lane,” officials are “looking for every way to do that.”
“We probably will support the efforts of states that are using evidence-based practices and therapies,” he told the newspaper.
It’s not necessarily an endorsement of the progressive harm reduction strategy, which advocates argue could help mitigate overdose deaths while also providing people with substance misuse disorders access to treatment resources.
And an HHS spokesperson later sought to walk back Becerra’s remarks somewhat.
“HHS does not have a position on supervised consumption sites,” they said in a statement to NPR. “The issue is a matter of ongoing litigation. The secretary was simply stressing that HHS supports various forms of harm reduction for people who use drugs.”
Nonetheless, Becerra’s comments are a notable remark from a top administration official that may signal where the federal government ultimately comes down on the still-controversial policy.
What’s more, HHS as part of its rollout of the new overall overdose prevention program, put the origins of the drug war in no uncertain terms.
It said in a timeline on federal drug policy that the “federal government’s declaration of the War on Drugs instituted racially biased efforts to criminalize and control drug use” in the 1970s. And the “strategy disproportionately targeted Black people living in urban areas.”
While Becerra’s latest comments on harm reduction and his department’s acknowledgement of the racist origins of the drug war are encouraging to advocates, groups like the Drug Policy Alliance continue to push for broader reforms like decriminalization—policy changes that activists say could help destigmatize addiction and push people toward treatment resources.
President Joe Biden, for his part, has not personally weighed in on safe injection facilities. He’s said he doesn’t feel people should be incarcerated over low-level drug offenses, but allowing these centers would be a major development in the harm reduction movement.
Becerra, for his part, demonstrated a track record of supporting marijuana law reform while previously serving as California attorney general and as a member of Congress.
And for what it’s worth, a coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—previously filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the Philadelphia-based safe injection case, which was brought about by the nonprofit organization Safehouse.
As California’s attorney general, Becerra joined counterparts from other states in signing onto a previous amicus brief when the Safehouse case was before a federal appeals court.
“The opioid epidemic has devastated communities throughout our nation. Safe injection sites aim to increase public health and safety by providing comprehensive services to victims of the opioid epidemic, while reducing the public nuisance of drug use in public spaces,” he said at the time. “Safe injection sites like Safehouse are an innovative tool to combat the opioid epidemic and drug dependency while reducing overdose death and transmission of diseases. California has always been a trailblazer, and we’re committed to doing what it takes to keep our communities healthy and safe.”
Again, however, HHS won’t be speaking for the administration in the Safehouse case in federal court. That will be left to the Justice Department, whose stance on the issue is less clear at this point. The department declined to take the option to file a brief at the Supreme Court level, though the option of staying quiet is not available now that the case is back in a lower court.
Safehouse was set to launch the safe consumption site in Philadelphia before being blocked by a legal challenge from the Trump administration. It filed a petition with the nation’s highest court in August to hear the case.
But while the Supreme Court declined to take action—and the Biden administration passed up its voluntary opportunity to weigh in at this stage, which may well have influenced the justices’ decision—activists say the battle will continue at a lower federal court level, where they activists intend to submit multiple arguments related to religious freedom and interstate commerce protections.
The Biden administration will be compelled to file a response in that court by November 5.
Depending on the outcome of the case, advocates and lawmakers across the country may be emboldened to pursue the harm reduction policy.
The governor of Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.
A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), was approved in the state Senate in April, but further action has been delayed until 2022.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Push VA To Allow Medical Marijuana Access For Veterans ‘As Soon As Possible’
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must urgently institute a policy change to ensure that military veterans can access cannabis for therapeutic use, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers said in a new letter.
Writing to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Wednesday, the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus urged the official to consider “a change in policy to allow access to medical cannabis fro VA patients” and to “act swiftly and implement this change as soon as possible.”
The lawmakers pointed to surveys showing high rates of opioid addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the veteran community.
“Research has shown that cannabis can be safe and effective in targeted pain-management. Additionally, cannabis has proven benefits in managing PTSD and other health issues, including multiple sclerosis (MS) and seizure disorders,” the letter states. “Despite its efficacy, antiquated bureaucratic red-tape continues to deny veterans these life-altering treatments.”
“Congress and several administrations have enacted various well-intentioned intervention attempts, however, over twenty veterans continue to die by suicide each day—it is past time we stop barring access from these innovative therapies. We therefore respectfully urge you to ensure no veteran can be denied medically prescribed cannabis treatments.”
The letter comes weeks after McDonough participated in a Veterans Day Q&A where he said that VA officials are “looking at” the possibility of an internal policy change and have discussed it with the White House and Department of Justice. The secretary also talked about being personally moved by stories from veterans who’ve found relief using medical marijuana.
“We’re trying to explore what more we can do,” he said at the time. “And I’ve talked to our friends in the rest of the federal government, including the Department of Justice, on what we can do on this, and with the White House.”
The Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs—Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), David Joyce (R-OH), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK)—want McDonough to speed up the policy change process.
“America’s veterans have risked life and limb to preserve our freedoms, so we must not allow the unnecessary politicization of medical cannabis to hinder their lifesaving therapies,” they wrote. “We stand ready to work with you and your administration in advancing these necessary treatments.”
While congressional lawmakers are working to advance legislation to end marijuana prohibition, McDonough’s department has resisted even modest proposals meant to promote veteran access and clinical research into the medical value of cannabis.
One such research bill was approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this month, despite testimony from the department opposing the reform. VA’s David Carroll told lawmakers that the legislation was overly prescriptive and argued that the department is already conducting robust research into marijuana.
Some had held out hope that VA would back the reform this session after the sponsor, Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA), said that he’d had a conversation with McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans.
On the Senate side, a coalition of lawmakers recently filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would federally legalize medical cannabis for military veterans who comply with a state program where they live. VA doctors would also be explicitly allowed to issue marijuana recommendations.
Read the letter to the VA secretary on marijuana access below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Biden Treasury Secretary Says ‘Of Course’ Marijuana Banking Would Make IRS’s Job Easier
The secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department said on Wednesday that freeing up banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses would “of course” make the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) job of collecting taxes easier.
At a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) referenced recent comments from an IRS official about the “special type of collection challenge the IRS undertakes regarding tax collection from cannabis-related businesses forced to operate in cash only.”
“Do you agree if these business were simply allowed to access the banking system and didn’t have to transact business only in cash it would make the IRS job easier?” Perlmutter asked Secretary Janet Yellen.
“Yes, of course it would,” she replied matter-of-factly.
HAPPENING NOW: @SecYellen agrees allowing cannabis businesses to access the banking system would help the IRS do their job and enable them to better collect taxes from the industry. #SAFEBanking https://t.co/w23GdFPQFy
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) December 1, 2021
The congressman also talked about his bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—which has passed the House in some form five times now and would resolve the issue by protecting financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses.
Numerous financial, labor and insurance associations, as well as key lawmakers, are pushing the Senate to attach the measure to must-pass defense spending legislation, as the House already has. Bipartisan members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as senators representing Colorado, made the same request in recent letters.
While Yellen’s response was quick, it’s yet another example of a federal official recognizing the untenability of the status quo.
Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary under the Trump administration, repeatedly addressed the issue, saying the current policy conflict creates “significant problems” for IRS and financial regulators. It “creates significant risk in the communities for collecting this amount of cash. It’s problematic,” he said last year.
IRS, for its part, said in September that it expects the cannabis market to continue to grow, and it offered some tips to businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.
With respect to the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan coalition of two dozen governors recently implored congressional leaders to finally enact marijuana banking reform through the large-scale defense legislation.
A group of small marijuana business owners also recently made the case that the incremental banking policy change could actually help support social equity efforts.
Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a recent Marijuana Moment op-ed that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications now.
Federal data shows that many financial institutions remain hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients, however, which is likely due to the fact that the plant is a strictly controlled substance under federal law.
Texas Activists Turn In Signatures To Put Marijuana Decriminalization On Austin’s 2022 Ballot
Texas activists on Wednesday turned in signatures to place a marijuana decriminalization initiative on Austin’s 2022 ballot.
Ground Game Texas, a progressive organization that was established earlier this year, submitted more than 30,000 signatures to qualify the local measure to go before voters in the May 7 election next year.
While Austin, as well as other Texas cities like Dallas, have already independently enacted law enforcement policy changes aimed at reducing arrests for cannabis-related offenses by issuing citations and summons, the Austin Freedom Act of 2021 would take the reform a step further.
The initiative seeks to end arrests and citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession within Texas’s capital city. Also, it says police cannot issue citations for residue or paraphernalia in lieu of a possession charge.
The City Clerk will now verify that we submitted at least 20,000 valid signatures.
After that, the City Council will have the opportunity to adopt the new law directly, or place it on the May 7, 2022 “uniform election.”
— GroundGameTX (@GroundGameTX) December 1, 2021
“Thanks to the tireless efforts of on-the-ground organizers from Ground Game Texas and partner organizations, Austin residents will soon have the ability to make lasting change to our antiquated and racist criminal justice laws,” Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas, said in a press release. “With successful campaigns like these, Ground Game Texas will continue to empower and excite communities around progressive change—and deliver for the marginalized communities that too often get left behind.”
The measure would further prohibit the use of city funds to request or test cannabis to determine whether it meets the state’s definition of a lawful product. Hemp is legal in the state, creating complications for law enforcement, as they are now tasked with determining if seized cannabis products are in compliance with state statute.
Under the initiative, the execution of no-knock warrants would also be prohibited in the city—a policy that generated significant national attention last year after it led to Kentucky officers entering Breonna Taylor’s apartment and fatally shooting her in a botched drug raid.
Activists were joined by Austin City Council members Greg Casar and Vanessa Fuentes for Wednesday’s signature turn in.
Game Ground Texas previously attempted to place the measure on this year’s ballot, but they did not meet the signature turn-in deadline and shifted their attention to 2022.
This is huge news, a significant milestone for us in building long-term progressive organizing infrastructure to last beyond electoral cycles in TX.
Tremendously grateful to the organizers, volunteers, and staff who made this possible.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you! https://t.co/0rAG3ibq1M
— Julie Oliver (@JulieOliverTX) November 30, 2021
While the measure is now set to appear on the May ballot, it’s also possible that the Austin City Council could independently move to adopt the ordinance prior to the election.
“Austinites continue to work towards reducing the decades of negative impacts prohibition has caused by any means available,” Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During the interim, local actions like this create pressure for more action during the next legislative session. With a majority of Texans supporting the creation of a regulated cannabis market, it is important to continue pushing this conversation forward.”
Elsewhere in the state, activists in San Marcos launched a campaign in September to put marijuana decriminalization on the November ballot next year.
Ground Game Texas told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it is also planning to place a cannabis decriminalization measure before voters in Killeen next fall.
There is no statewide, citizen-led initiative process that would enable advocates to put an issue like decriminalization or legalization on the Texas ballot. But at the local level, there are limited cases where activists can leverage home rule laws that allow for policy changes.
A recent poll found that a strong majority of Texans—including most Republicans—support even broader reform to legalize marijuana for adult use.
The survey from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University found that 67 percent of Texas residents back the broad reform. Fifty-one percent of participants who identified as Republican said they back legalization.
In Texas, drug policy reform did advance in the legislature in the latest session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
Advocates remain disappointed, however, that lawmakers were unable to pass more expansive cannabis bills—including a decriminalization proposal that cleared the House but saw no action in the Senate.
The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018.
Another Texas poll that was released over the summer found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use.”
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.