A coalition of state agriculture officials, farmers and drug policy organizations are teaming up to press the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to limit the scope of a ban on participation in the legal hemp industry by people with felony drug convictions.
The chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee made a letter from the groups public on Thursday during a hearing at which federal officials provided updates on progress toward implementing the federal legalization of hemp that was part of the 2018 Farm Bill.
The large-scale agriculture legislation also included the felony ban despite broad opposition from drug policy and criminal justice reform advocates. But in response to that pushback, lawmakers reached a compromise on a scaled-down version that made it into the bill, which President Trump signed in December.
Rather than instituting a blanket ban on participation in the legal hemp market by those convicted of a drug felony as it was initially drafted, the provision states that the ban expires 10 years after the conviction. But the coalition said it’s concerned that a misreading of even the less far-reaching measure could exclude people from participating in a wide range of hemp-connected occupations, while they say congressional intent was to have it applied only to individuals seeking to actually hold a license to produce hemp.
“Although Congress specified that the hemp felony ban should apply to producers, there are many occupational roles that could be interpreted to be involved in hemp production,” the letter, sent last month to USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, states. “Should the provision be interpreted in an inappropriately broad manner, state agricultural authorities and the private sector would be required to conduct costly background checks, screen and track workers involved in hemp production operations such as cultivation, processing, packaging and transporting hemp products.”
The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, American Farm Bureau Federation, Drug Policy Alliance and Vote Hemp each signed the letter, which was entered into the congressional record by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) at the start of the hemp implementation hearing—the second congressional meeting on cannabis of the week.
“We believe a fair reading of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 and the accompanying conference report indicates that Congress intended for this provision to only apply to individuals seeking a license or authorization to produce hemp in accordance with a state, tribal or USDA plan,” the organizations wrote.
While the provision’s language is somewhat vague, including “any person convicted of a felony relating to a controlled substance” in a ban on participating “in the program established under this section” as well as producing “hemp under any regulations or guidelines issued under” the bill, the coalition pointed to the conference report as evidence that lawmakers didn’t intend to have the ban enforced across the board.
The report states that “[a]ny person convicted of a felony relating to a controlled substance shall be ineligible to participate under the state or tribal plan for a 10-year period following the date of the conviction.”
However, it goes on to specify that “this prohibition shall not apply to producers who have been lawfully participating in a state hemp pilot program as authorized by the Agricultural Act of 2014, prior to enactment of this subtitle.”
That specific language demonstrates that the “felony ban clearly applies to producers,” the coalition wrote.
“These requirements that a producer must meet to lawfully participate in a State, Tribal or Federal plan are consistent with the roles and responsibilities of an individual seeking a license or authorization from the government. The hemp felony ban therefore applies to individuals seeking to obtain and maintain a license or authorization from the government to produce hemp. The hemp felony ban should not apply to any other individuals engaged in lawful hemp production under a State, Tribal or Federal plan, including any individuals employed by a producer.”
“We therefore urge USDA to follow congressional intent and limit the application of the felony ban only to individuals seeking to obtain a license or authorization to produce hemp in accordance with the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,” the letter concludes.
“It’s critical that USDA implement the felony ban as narrowly as possible given the many harms its enforcement will impose,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “These harms include the unnecessary hardship on states, the agriculture industry and individual farmers of policing workers, to the denial of job opportunities in this fast growing industry to qualified workers on the basis of a prior conviction alone, including communities of color disproportionately convicted of drug offenses.”
Read the full letter pushing for a narrow interpretation of the hemp felony ban below:
This story was updated to include comment from Smith.
Harris Will Give Biden ‘Honest’ Input On Legalizing Marijuana And Other Issues As Part Of ‘Deal’
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris says she has a “deal” with Joe Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, including legalizing marijuana. Separately, she also recently discussed cannabis reform in a private meeting with rapper Killer Mike.
During an interview on 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, the senator was pressed on marijuana and numerous other issues where she and Biden disagree. In response, while she didn’t specifically commit to proactively advocating for comprehensive cannabis reform, she pledged in general that she would always share her views with the would-be president if the pair are elected next week.
“What I will do—and I promise you this and this is what Joe wants me to do, this was part of our deal—I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront,” she said after the interviewer listed cannabis legalization among a handful of issues on which she and Biden depart. “I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”
If elected, would Kamala Harris advocate for Medicare for All, a plan Joe Biden doesn’t support?
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 26, 2020
Asked whether that perspective will be “socialist” and “progressive,” Harris laughed and said “no.”
“It is the perspective of a woman who grew up a black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India, who also, you know, likes hip hop,” she said.
The senator’s taste in music also came up during her own 2020 presidential bid, when she said in an interview that she listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while smoking marijuana during college despite graduating before those artists released their debut albums.
Music culture has played a key role in this election cycle, and one of the strongest voices for criminal justice reform in the industry is Killer Mike, who worked as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The artist said he met with Harris on Friday and the two discussed cannabis business opportunities for communities of color.
Just had a meeting with Sen. Harris.
My points *Dems Need to be heavy on the door Knox’N, HR40 tweek it better and have Biden Sign, Fed Trades Programs for worker class Americans so u can build, Black men exit prison and entrance to marijuana biz as a priority for biz and jobs
— Killer Mike (@KillerMike) October 23, 2020
As she’s done repeatedly since joining Biden’s campaign, Harris also reiterated at a rally in Pontiac, Michigan on Sunday that the administration would pursue marijuana decriminalization and expunging prior cannabis convictions.
She made similar comments during a campaign event in Atlanta last week, stating that the “war on drugs was, by every measure, a failure, and black men were hit the hardest.” That said, while the senator has come to embrace broad cannabis reform, she’s faced criticism over her past opposition to legalization and role in prosecuting people for marijuana offenses as a California prosecutor.
In another interview released last week, Harris said she and Biden “have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”
“When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits,” she said.
There’s been some frustration among cannabis reform advocates that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization but has in recent weeks focused her comments on the more modest reforms of decriminalization and expungement.
Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.
In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”
In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.
GOP Tennessee Senator Calls For Medical Marijuana Legalization In New Campaign Ad
A Tennessee senator touted his support for legalizing medical marijuana in a campaign ad released on Friday.
In the 30-second spot, which has notably high production value for this kind of local race, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R) talks about both the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and the consequences of broader marijuana criminalization.
“As your state senator, I’ve led the fight to legalize medical marijuana so our veterans and sickest Tennesseans can deal with chronic pain,” he said. “But this same life-saving plant has led to mass incarceration, with nonviolent marijuana possession resulting in lengthy prison sentences.”
It’s past time for Tennessee to legalize medical cannabis and give our sickest residents a smart, safe treatment to help with chronic pain. Legalization and securing criminal justice reform have been my top priorities, and I won’t stop fighting until we’ve changed the law. pic.twitter.com/28eFUy3loZ
— Steve Dickerson (@DickersonforS20) October 23, 2020
“I think that’s wrong. That’s why I’ve been pushing for criminal justice reform,” the senator added.
Dickerson, who sponsored a medical cannabis legalization bill that cleared a Senate committee in March, said in a Q&A published earlier this month that the policy change would be among his top three legislative priorities if he’s reelected.
His Democratic opponent, former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell, is in favor of “fully legalizing marijuana,” with her campaign site stating that cannabis crimes “disproportionately impact people of color and it’s time to end marijuana prohibition.”
But while Dickerson has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican given his positions on issues like cannabis reform, he’s faced backlash after declining to denounce an independent ad taken out on his behalf that some, including the LGBTQ rights organization Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), called racist.
The ad, which was paid for by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s (R) political action committee MCPAC, hits Campbell over her support for a nonprofit organization that is designed to keep young people out of prison, and it frames the group as “radical” and “extremist.” TEP rescinded their endorsement of Dickerson over his refusal to condemn the ad.
In the Tennessee legislature, marijuana reform has yet to pass—but there’s growing recognition that voters are in favor of the policy change. For example, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R) released the results of a constituent survey last year that showed 73 percent of those in his district back medical cannabis legalization.
Another former GOP House speaker, Beth Harwell, highlighted her support for the reform proposal during her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, and she referenced President Trump’s stated support for medical marijuana on the campaign trail.
In other Tennessee drug policy politics, a lawmaker in June blocked a resolution to honor murdered teen Ashanti Posey because she was allegedly involved in a low-level cannabis sale the day she was killed.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
South Dakota Voters Back Marijuana Legalization And Medical Cannabis Ballot Measures, Poll Finds
Voters in South Dakota are poised to approve two separate ballot measures next month that would legalize marijuana and allow patients to access medical cannabis.
The initiative to allow adults to possess, grow and purchase marijuana leads among likely voters by a margin of 51 percent to 44 percent, with five percent undecided, according to the survey released over the weekend by Argus Leader Media and KELO-TV.
The medical cannabis item got 74 percent support in the poll, with 23 percent in opposition and 3 percent undecided.
When it comes to recreational legalization, voters are divided on the issue across demographic lines. Fifty-seven percent of those under age 50 back the ballot measure, while it is narrowly opposed by older voters. Seventy-three percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents support the reform, but Republicans are against it, 61 percent to 34 percent. Men are on board, 56 percent to 40 percent, but women are divided with 47 percent in support and 47 percent opposed.
The separate medical cannabis ballot measure, on the other hand, enjoys supermajority backing among every surveyed group. In fact, it had a greater margin of support than any other item or entity in the entire poll, which also asked voters about the presidential election, other races on the ballot and approval of officials including the governor and U.S. vice president.
A separate survey released last month by marijuana opponents found that about 60 percent of South Dakota voters support the broader recreational legalization proposal and more than 70 percent back the narrower medical cannabis initiative.
Under the adult-use constitutional amendment, people 21 and older could possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana, and they would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants.
The separate medical cannabis legalization measure that voters will decide on would make a statutory change to allow patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions to possess and purchase up to three ounces of marijuana from a licensed dispensary.
Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who previously vetoed a hemp bill, appeared in a new ad this month urging voters to reject the cannabis legalization ballot measure, saying, “I’ve never met someone who got smarter from smoking pot.”
Meanwhile, the pro-legalization campaign released its own spot featuring a retired police officer who says “our harsh marijuana laws aren’t working.”
“In 2018, 4,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in South Dakota. That’s one in 10 arrests,” the former officer said in the TV advertisement, referencing a report that South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws published last month. “Each arrest costs $4,000. It doesn’t make us any safer. We’re wasting law enforcement time and resources that should be fighting serious crimes. So I’m voting ‘yes’ on A and 26.”
The data from that report also shows that—as is the case across the country—marijuana enforcement has had a disparate impact on people of color, despite comparable rates of consumption among white people.