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Congress Clashes On Marijuana Amendments In Floor Debate

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An amendment that would block the Justice Department from using funds to intervene in state and territory marijuana laws was debated on the House floor on Wednesday, with consideration of additional cannabis-related measures scheduled for later this week.

In a voice vote, the chamber approved the amendment—introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)—as well as a separate measure that extends the same protection to tribal lands where cannabis has been legalized.

While no lawmakers spoke in opposition to the tribal measure, and a roll call vote was not requested, the state and territory amendment still requires a recorded vote for final passage through the House. And the ultimate fates of both measures are unknown as the Senate prepares to consider companion legislation.

The last time a similar amendment to shield state marijuana laws from federal interference was up for consideration in 2015, it came just nine flipped votes short of passage on the House floor. But in the years since, the number of states with legal marijuana has more than doubled and now includes large states like California and Michigan that have vast constituencies who stand to benefit from the protection—with Illinois just a supportive governor’s signature away.

The Justice Department is already barred from interfering in state medical cannabis programs under a separate, more limited rider that’s been enacted each year since 2014.

Language of the broader amendment stipulates that federal law enforcement agencies cannot use funds to stop states and territories “from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.”

In a floor debate before the voice vote, Blumenauer pointed to shifting public opinion in favor of marijuana reform.

“This is what the American people have demanded, why it is now legal in 33 states,” he said. “It is supported by two-thirds of the American public, and 90 percent for medical marijuana. It’s time that we extend this protection to state-legal activities so they can drive and move forward.”

“We’re watching the growth of this industry, a multibillion-dollar industry. We’re watching state after state move forward,” he said. “Every one of us on the floor of the House who are here now represent areas that have taken action. We have had embedded in our legislation protections for medical marijuana. And this would simply extend that same protection to prevent the Department of Justice interfering with adult use. I strongly, strongly urge that we build on the legacy that we’ve had in the past, that we move this forward to allow the federal government to start catching up to where the rest of the states are.”

Norton, whose constituents in Washington, D.C. voted to approve marijuana legalization in 2014, decried Congress’s longtime interference in the city’s affairs.

“The District has insisted that Congress cease interfering with our desire to commercialize adult-use marijuana, and I appreciate that D.C. is included with the states that have the same goal,” she said of the amendment. “This amendment is a breakthrough.”

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke against the measure.

“This proposal would prevent federal law enforcement from enforcing current law, from protecting public health and ensuring community safety,” he said. “Claims of benefits from smoked or ingested marijuana are anecdotal and generally outright fabrication. It is established by fact that such marijuana use has real health and real social harms.”

“This amendment that’s before us sends the wrong message about widely abused drugs in the United States,” he continued. “The amendment ignores the problems of abuse and sends the false message to youth that smoking marijuana is healthy.”

Blumenauer countered that marijuana’s current classification under federal law isn’t supported by the science.

“If we were rescheduling drugs today, cannabis probably wouldn’t be scheduled at all. And what would be schedule I is tobacco, which is highly addictive and deadly,” he said.

While Blumenauer voiced confidence that the amendment would pass when it comes up for a roll call vote, expected on Thursday, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the body’s Democratic leadership is whipping for support.

Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in a brief interview on Wednesday that the amendment is “being whipped by people who care about it,” referring to its sponsors and supporters.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said “it’s not their priority,” referring to Democratic leadership.

“Each state is different and I think members have to vote their district, so I don’t know that leadership will necessarily whip it,” Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment. “I don’t know really if leadership should, because ultimately members are going to do what they think is best for their politics back home.”

Meanwhile, the amendment enjoys support from a coalition of fiscally conservative thought leaders, including Michelle Minton, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

“Though we vary in our opinions on marijuana legalization, the signatories to this letter are in strong accord when it comes to the matter of the level of government to which this question should be left: with the states,” they wrote in a sign-on letter that was released on Wednesday.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who has historically voted against cannabis measures, told Marijuana Moment that “increasingly as voters go to the ballot box, you’re finding increasing support in [reform]” and that “there’s broadly a movement in that direction.”

At the same time, anti-legalization group Smart Approaches To Marijuana circulated a one-pager on the Hill on Wednesday, claiming that the amendment would fuel the opioid epidemic.

Blumenauer’s separate measure would make it so the Justice Department couldn’t use its resources to block Indian tribes “from enacting or implementing tribal laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first Native American women ever elected to Congress, cosponsored the amendment.

“Tribes have an interest in being able to conduct activities that deal with cannabis,” Blumenauer said on the floor. “It is a multibillion-dollar growth industry. It provides opportunities for health, economic development, recreational activities. The states have been granted a certain amount of latitude moving into this space, but the tribes have been denied.”

“It’s ironic—this is a substance that has been used by tribes for healing going back millennia. And there’s an opportunity for them to be able to be part of an economic opportunity that is taking place across the country. We need to grant them that authority,” he said. “I hope that there is a recognition that tribes deserve this latitude and this empowerment. And that we vote in favor of it to allow them to proceed as has taken place in states around the country.”

In a press release, Haaland, who is co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, said that “tribal cannabis programs are giving Native American communities access to diverse revenue streams.”

“This amendment is important to ensure tribes can exercise their rights as sovereign nations and rightfully reflects that to promote self-determination while maintaining the economic opportunities that come with them,” she said.

Separately on Wednesday as part of a voice-vote approval of a bloc of noncontroversial amendments, the House signed off on a measure to add the U.S. Virgin Islands to the list of jurisdictions protected by the funding bill’s existing medical cannabis rider. It had been inadvertently omitted from the language when the legislation was introduced.

Even setting aside the roll call votes yet to come on the state-focused measure, the House is far from done considering marijuana amendments to the overall large-scale spending bill funding parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2020.

On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee also made in order measures to block the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from punishing doctors that issue medical cannabis recommendations in states where it’s legal and directing the Food and Drug Administration to develop guidelines that would allow certain levels of CBD in the food supply and as health supplements.

Another Rules-approved amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), would take $5 million from Drug Enforcement Administration and distribute it to an opioid treatment program.

This isn’t the freshman congresswoman’s first time floating a bold drug policy measure. Last week, her amendment to a separate appropriations bill that would have lifted barriers to research for psychedelic substances including psilocybin and MDMA was advanced by the Rules Committee but defeated on the House floor.

While the successful voice votes on the Justice Department-focused amendment is a positive signal for reform advocates, Thursday’s roll call votes will show just how far lawmakers are willing to go to protect cannabis consumers and patients in states that have decided to legalize.

Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.

Congressional Committee Discusses Challenges For Small Marijuana Businesses

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature

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“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”

By Christian Wade | The Center Square

Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.

“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”

The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.

But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.

McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.

“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”

While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.

Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.

To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.

New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.

While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.

In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.

The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.

Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.

This piece was first published by The Center Square.

New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal

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American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi

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Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.

The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.

The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.

While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.

“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.

The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”

“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”

Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”

In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.

“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”

The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.

Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.

“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”

“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”

Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”

“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.

It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.

Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”

Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.

It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.

The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.

In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.

Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.

The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.

Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.

The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.

New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal

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New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.

Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.

The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”

Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”

That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.

That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.

Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.

That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.

The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.

“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.

A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.

To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”

“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.

But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.

The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.

Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.

The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.

Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.

Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.

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