The House of Representatives approved a far-reaching measure on Thursday to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with state marijuana laws, including those allowing recreational use, cultivation and sales.
The amendment, which also shields cannabis laws in Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories, is now attached to a large-scale appropriations bill to fund parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2020.
The inclusion of adult-use programs represents a significant expansion of an existing policy that protects only local medical cannabis laws from federal intervention which was first enacted in 2014 and has since been extended through annual spending bills.
The broader rider was approved in a floor vote of 267 to 165, a tally that is considered by legalization supporters to be an indication of how much support there is in Congress for more comprehensive and permanent changes to federal marijuana policies.
“This is the most significant vote on marijuana reform policy that the House of Representatives has ever taken,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “Today’s action by Congress highlights the growing power of the marijuana law reform movement and the increasing awareness by political leaders that the policy of prohibition and criminalization has failed.”
Cannabis Trade Federation CEO Neal Levine agreed with the importance of the legislative victory.
“The historic nature of this vote cannot be overstated,” he said. “For the first time, a chamber of Congress has declared that the federal government should defer to state cannabis laws.”
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, called the vote “without a doubt the biggest victory for federal cannabis policy reform to date, and a hopeful sign that the harmful policies of marijuana prohibition will soon be a relic of the past.”
The measure, sponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Tom McClintock (R-CA), would bar the Department of Justice from spending money to prevent states and territories from “implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.”
In 2015, a nearly identical measure came just nine flipped votes short of passage on the House floor. Since then, the number of states with full legalization laws has more than doubled, meaning that far more lawmakers now represent constituents who stand to benefit from its protections.
“The end of marijuana prohibition has never been closer. When Drug Policy Alliance and a small band of allies first worked on this amendment in 2015, we were told that we didn’t stand a chance,” DPA Director of National Affairs Michael Collins said. “But we convinced members this was the right thing to do, and four years on, victory is sweet.”
“Now is the time for Democrats to pivot to passing legislation that will end prohibition through a racial justice lens, making sure that the communities most impacted by our racist marijuana laws have a stake in the future of legalization,” he said. “To do anything less would be to repeat an injustice.”
On Wednesday, the House approved a similar amendment protecting the marijuana laws of Indian tribes by a voice vote, and no member requested a roll call vote, so that language is also now attached to the spending bill.
“We’re watching the growth of this industry, a multibillion-dollar industry. We’re watching state after state move forward,” Blumenauer said in a floor debate on the state protection amendment on Wednesday evening. “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.”
Tonight, my amendment with @repblumenauer to prohibit the DOJ from using its funds to prevent jurisdictions from implementing their own medical and recreational marijuana laws passed in the House. Thank you to @repblumenauer for working with me to include D.C.
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) June 20, 2019
In a letter circulated to colleagues prior to the vote, McClintock wrote that “the issue at hand is whether the federal government has the constitutional authority to dictate policy to states on an issue which occurs strictly within their own borders.”
“I do not believe the federal government has that authority, but even if it did, states should determine their own criminal justice policies,” he wrote. “This is how our constitutional system was designed to function.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that Blumenauer and McClintock “deserve credit for their early leadership on marijuana policy reform, which dates back to the days when it was just good policy, not good politics too.”
The fate of the cannabis measures in the Senate is unknown for now. Historically that chamber’s Appropriations Committee has been relatively open to attaching marijuana riders to spending bills, and has consistently approved the medical cannabis protections. But the body’s Republican leadership may be reluctant to take the further step of also tying the Justice Department’s hands when it comes to enforcing federal prohibition against licensed businesses and consumers in states that allow recreational marijuana use and sales.
The House just made history! I’m so proud to have voted with my colleagues to puff, puff, pass an amendment to prevent the @DOJ from interfering with state cannabis programs. This progress is outstanding news for Nevada and so many states across the country.
— Dina Titus (@repdinatitus) June 20, 2019
House Democratic leadership urged their conference to support the measure in a whip email on Thursday, and only eight members of the party voted against it.
While the majority of Republicans voted against the rider, 41 GOP members supported it.
The passage of the state protection amendment comes despite congressional offices receiving an 11th-hour email saying Greenwich Biosciences, maker of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved CBD-based medication Epidiolex, wanted lawmakers to defeat it.
The message to congressional staff claimed that the measure is “overly broad and could be interpreted as impacting the ability of the DOJ to assist the FDA with any enforcement action that may need to be taken to ensure the public safety.”
But Collins, of DPA, pointed out that if that were true, it would also apply to the current medical cannabis rider that’s been part of federal law for nearly five years.
It “doesn’t pass the laugh test,” he said. “Who are Dems going to side with: Big Pharma or people trying to end the drug war?”
A company media representative didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Earlier on Thursday, the House approved an amendment from Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) that directs the Food and Drug Administration to establish a process for regulating CBD in foods and dietary supplements.
Another measure passed in a voice vote, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), shifts $5 million away from the Drug Enforcement Administration toward an opioid treatment program.
An additional Ocasio-Cortez amendment aimed at removing barriers to research on psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin and MDMA was soundly defeated on the House floor last week.
The House is set to consider another amendment on the spending legislation in the coming days that would allow military veterans to receive medical marijuana recommendations from Department of Veterans Affairs doctors.
A separate spending bill moving through the House already contains language to protect banks from being punished for working with state-legal cannabis businesses and removes a longstanding rider that has prevented Washington, D.C. from spending its own local tax dollars to legalize and regulate marijuana sales.
Meanwhile, standalone cannabis legislation is also advancing.
A comprehensive marijuana banking bill was cleared by the Financial Services Committee in March and is expected to receive a floor vote next month. The Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing on four separate pieces of legislation concerning cannabis and military veterans on Thursday. And the Small Business Committee hosted a Wednesday hearing on issues facing cannabis firms, with the panel’s chairwoman announcing she would soon file a bill on the issue.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Touts Legal Marijuana’s Economic Potential At Revenue Meeting
The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on Tuesday again stressed the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who unveiled a revised legalization bill last month and pushed legislators to promptly take it up, discussed the projected economic impact of the policy change at a revenue conference.
During the virtual meeting, he pulled up a spreadsheet that breaks down estimates for annual cannabis sales from residents and tourists, as well as potential revenue from taxes and fees.
Cruise passengers and non-resident hotel guests will make approximately $43 million in annual marijuana purchases, the estimate from an independent firm states. Residents, meanwhile, are projected to spend about $38 million on cannabis each year.
“This doesn’t include what we would call the second and third turns in the economy in term of products being bought like lamps and fertilizer, jobs being created, dispensary jobs. None of that,” the governor said.
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization’s economic impact, starting around 3:10:35 into the video below:
In terms of revenue, the territory can expect to take in about $11 million annually from tourists, who will be taxed at 25 percent for marijuana products. Residents, who will be taxed at a much lower rate, will contribute about $3 million in taxes. All told, the territory is estimated to generate nearly $18 million in cannabis sales tax revenue per year.
Additionally, the analysis projects that USVI will receive $12.1 million from licensing fees and a cultivation tax. Point of sale permits for cruises and hotels will bring in another $3.6 million.
It all adds up to “a $33 million deposit in our treasury due to cannabis sales,” Bryan said, characterizing the projections as conservative estimates.
The governor said he wanted to highlight these figures to conference attendees “to show you quickly what this could mean to the territory should we have this enacted and we go to work.”
“Of course, it’s going to take some work to get this done,” he said. “But we need to get this measure done as quickly as possible in order to start impacting our economy in a very positive way.”
Bryan has previously said that beyond helping to offset some of the financial damage that COVID-19 outbreak has created, establishing a legal cannabis market would provide funding for the territory’s retirement system for government employees.
After he first proposed the policy change and directed the legislature to take up the issue in a special session late last year, several legislators voiced opposition to specifics of the proposal.
Some questioned the notion that tax revenue from cannabis sales could make up for the significant deficits running within the retirement program, while others argued that the legislation as drafted did not adequately address social equity. Another issue that arose concerned licensing, with lawmakers worried that small businesses on the island would be left out.
The governor’s revised marijuana legalization bill, which has been transmitted to the Senate for action, would ban home cultivation for recreational consumers, allow cultivation for medical cannabis patients, increase the number of members of the government’s Cannabis Advisory Board and limit non-residents to purchasing up to seven grams of flower per day while residents could buy up to an ounce.
There would be no tax on cannabis sales for medical patients, a 7.5 percent tax for residents and a 25 percent tax for non-residents.
In order to own a marijuana business, an individual must have been a resident of USVI for at least 10 years. For micro-cultivator business, the threshold is five years of residency.
A special “cannabis fund” would be established under the proposed legislation, with 20 percent of marijuana tax revenue being allocated to fund the Office of Cannabis Regulations, a cannabis testing program, job training, substance misuse treatment and grant programs for business incubation and micro-lending.
The bill also provides for automatic expungements for prior marijuana possession convictions, encourages research into the benefits of cannabis and recognizes the rights of individuals who wish to use or grow the plant for religious purposes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Virginia Governor Says Marijuana Decriminalization Partly Addresses Racial Inequity Inspiring Mass Protests
The governor of Virginia said on Tuesday that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans.
In a speech, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said that while he cannot personally attest to the pain that the black community is grappling with, there are steps lawmakers can take to reform policies that disproportionately harm minorities. That includes removing the threat of jail time for cannabis possession—an offense more likely to be enforced against black people despite comparable rates of use among white people.
“Through 400 years of American history—starting with the enslavement of Africans, through Jim Crow, massive resistance and now mass incarceration—black oppression has always existed in this country, just in different forms,” he said. “I cannot know how it feels to be an African American person right now or what you are going through. I cannot know the depth of your pain. But what I can do is stand with you and I can support you, and together we’re going to turn this pain into action.”
That action has meant “reforming criminal justice,” he said. “It meant decriminalizing marijuana.”
The governor, who faced severe scrutiny last year after he admitted he was in a yearbook photo showing people wearing blackface and dressed as KKK members, also cited expanding access to Medicaid and increasing the threshold for felony larceny as examples of ways the state has addressed racial inequality during his administration.
Northam signed a marijuana decriminalization bill last month and it goes into effect on July 1. Under the legislation, possessing up to one ounce of cannabis will be punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record. Current Virginia law makes simple possession punishable by a maximum $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail and a criminal record.
Later in the Tuesday press conference, Shirley Ginwright, a member of the Virginia African American Advisory Board that Northam established, thanked him specifically for approving the cannabis decriminalization bill.
“So many of our students and our young black men and women were getting caught up in the criminal justice system because of marijuana, something that wasn’t killing them,” she said.
The governor isn’t alone in connecting the outrage over police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to cannabis prohibition enforcement. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.
Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs.
The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.
Berner, a rapper who owns a marijuana dispensary that was looted in Los Angeles over the weekend, also seemed to echo Booker’s sentiment, stating that the damage to his shop to looting pales in comparison to the underlying racial injustices that prompted the protests.
Meet The Vermont Marijuana Legalization Advocate Running For The Actual Office Of ‘High Bailiff’
The irony is not lost on Dave Silberman. The Vermont-based drug policy advocate and lawyer who has been working for years to reform the state’s marijuana laws is running for the office of…high bailiff.
No, really. In Vermont, each county elects a high bailiff whose singular responsibility is to arrest the sheriff if they engage in unlawful conduct. Silberman wants to occupy that position in Addison County—and he plans to use it as a platform to advance bold reforms, including legalizing all drugs.
The High Bailiff is the one person in each county who has the authority to arrest the sheriff.
It's a quirky holdover of our British common law roots, but it's also much more.
— Dave Silberman for High Bailiff (@dave4bailiff) May 22, 2020
The candidate recently spoke to Marijuana Moment about the need to have a voice challenging the status quo—rather than someone in law enforcement, as is typically the case for high bailiffs—assume the role.
And Silberman, who played a key role in convincing Vermont lawmakers to legalize cannabis possession and home cultivation in 2018 and is now working to get them to add legal sales, also discussed how his background in marijuana advocacy is informing his campaign.
While the coronavirus pandemic has meant he will have to stump remotely for the time being, the would-be high bailiff is set on reaching voters to engage them, as well as legislators, on the importance of ending the war on drugs and taking a public health-focused approach to substance use issues. And he’s convinced based on conversations in liberal and conservative strongholds alike that the message will resonate.
I'm overwhelmed by the positive response my 8-day old campaign (@dave4bailiff) has received.
— Dave Silberman (@DaveSilberman) May 29, 2020
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: You’ve talked about the need to put someone outside of the law enforcement community in the position of high bailiff. Can you expand on that?
Dave Silberman: The office of high bailiff, really it’s a holdover of our British common-law roots. It’s in the Vermont state Constitution. We’re the only state that still has the office. And the office was created in order to ensure that somebody can hold the sheriff to account—that the sheriff is not lawless. The high bailiff is the only person in each county with technical authority to arrest the sheriffs, and that makes it effectively a police oversight role.
Now, over the last five decades or so, the importance of that has been forgotten, and a tradition has taken root, where the position is typically held by a member of the law enforcement community, either the sheriff’s favorite deputy or his political rival that wants to raise awareness and name recognition ahead of a potential challenge for the sheriff, which is also an elected position. But when the people cede the power of oversights of the law enforcement community to the law enforcement community itself, we lose accountability. And when we lose accountability, we get police abuse.
And, so, through our deference to police officers, and without realizing it happened, we've ceded that power of oversight over the law enforcement community to the law enforcement community itself.
The office of High Bailiff should be held by a civilian.
— Dave Silberman for High Bailiff (@dave4bailiff) May 22, 2020
We see this all the time—we saw it recently in Minnesota, and that’s not the only time we’ve seen it—and we see police abuse in Vermont as well. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that electing a civilian as high bailiff is going to fix this problem, but I can absolutely promise you that electing me as high bailiff will shine a bright, bright light on this problem because I’m a loudmouth and I love talking about this stuff and I want to fix these problems.
MM: How is your background in drug policy reform informing your campaign and how would it inform your role if elected?
DS: My rooting in drug policy reform advocacy, it’s really what drove me to run this campaign. The office itself, I am never going to be called upon to arrest the sheriff—but I will have the opportunity to talk directly with voters. As I campaign both for myself and for legislative offices up ballot and our governor’s election or lieutenant governor’s election, I’m going to be going virtually door-to-door—I wanted to go physically door-to-door, but now I’m going to have to do it by phone and I’m going to have to do it by mailing out to voters—but I intend to speak directly with voters about drug policy reform, criminal justice reform in a way that I think appeals across partisan lines.
When I talk with people, for example, about the need to expand access to expungement, I get stronger positive reactions in traditionally conservative strongholds than I do in liberal strongholds in Addison County.
While campaigning, I'll be excited to talk with voters about how, together, we can reform Vermont's criminal justice system so that it delivers more justice, and greater safety, without busting the state's budget or criminalizing poverty or addiction.
— Dave Silberman for High Bailiff (@dave4bailiff) May 22, 2020
I organized a series of expungement clinics with our state’s attorney, our local prosecutor—three of them over the last two years. I went around advertising them, putting up flyers in different businesses. And you know, yeah, the natural food co-op was happy to put up a flyer and the local independent bookstore was happy to put up a flyer—but you know who I had the deepest most meaningful conversations with? It was at the bait-and-tackle and at the McDonald’s because people who have had any exposure to the criminal justice system know that, without expungement, people face a lifetime of collateral consequences of their conviction, even after they’ve paid repay their debt to society. They have a lifetime of daily discrimination in housing and education and employment, banking services.
I’ve always found that talking with voters about issues is meaningful, impactful and helps move issues forward. Since then, we’ve reformed Vermont’s expungement laws, and the legislators in Addison County all voted for those reforms because we talked about them and we put them in the public and we put them in the local newspaper. I’ve been going around this county for years talking about marijuana legalization, and we got that done and we got that done through grassroots advocacy. We’re going to get tax-and-regulate [cannabis reform] done this year too I hope in the same way.
I truly believe that we can do this with broader drug policy reform and broader criminal justice reform as well. That’s what drove me to do this campaign because I really found opportunity through talking with voters and driving up the vote up ballot, to build a coalition of voters and legislators willing to actually get these things done, not just talk about them.
MM: I know you mentioned likely not needing to perform the role of arresting the sheriff, but can you talk me through any scenarios where that might be required?
DS: Look, let’s be real. If the sheriff needs to be arrested, most likely it’ll be the result of some federal investigation. Right? He is absconding funds. He’s engaged in some sort of denial of civil rights. And then the FBI would come in and arrest him because it would be on a federal warrant. I should pause and say, I know our current sheriff, Peter Newton. I trust our current sheriff, Peter Newton. Peter Newton is a law-abiding man and I do not want to imply here at all that I worry about Peter Newton breaking the law. But, you know, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have meaningful oversight in place.
I don’t expect to ever have to do it. But if I did—if I were ever to be called upon to execute an arrest warrant against the sheriff—I would do stuff with a somber state of mind. I would, I presume, have the state’s attorney with me and I presume I would have either the Middlebury Police Department captain or somebody from the state police to assist me. That would be that.
Also, if the sheriff became incapacitated—whether through arrest or otherwise—the high bailiff temporarily assumes the powers of the office of the sheriff. As an attorney with a lot of experience working with very large organizations, I feel like I can handle that sort of several-week-long position. I would immediately look into the books and figure out what’s going on. I would continue to run the operations of the department in a steady state until the governor appointed a replacement, which is what Vermont law provides.
MM: What is the big picture plan if you’re elected high bailiff?
DS: This campaign is part of my sort of 10-year plan to legalize all drugs. And that is, you know, crazy sounding right off the bat, but I’m the kind of person who, when he sets his mind to something, just sticks with it and gets it done. I’ve talked with legislators, people in office today, who recognize that the Portugal [decriminalization] model is a better model. I’ve talked to the legislators who have told me that they would love to vote for a bill to decriminalize all drugs and replace our police-first approach to drug problems with a public health approach.
I believe that there is a good base of a coalition in there that can be built upon if somebody is willing to put in the work and make the effort on a consistent basis. I believe there’s over a dozen members of the House of Representatives—that’s about 10 percent of the House—there’s a long way to go, but it can be done. It can only be done if we can demonstrate that it’s popular. And that’s what I intend to do in this campaign—to talk with voters, get grassroots buy-in and pressure more and more politicians to say, you know what, this is not a crazy idea. This is the right way to do this.
We want to solve Vermont’s opioid crisis? We have to stop trying to arrest our way out of it. We have to actually stop trying to arrest our way out of it, not just saying that we’re going to take a public health approach. We need to stop spending $150 million a year on jails in this state. We spend 9.2 percent of the general fund every year on jails. That’s not cops, that’s not prosecutors, that’s not courts— jails. That robs us of the money we need to solve the underlying problems that actually lead to crimes. And it does nothing—does nothing—to ensure greater safety or reduce problematic drug use. If we replaced the police approach to it with an approach that takes a person in crisis and gives them help, we will actually solve this problem, we will actually drive down the overdose death rate in the state and we’ll make people safer and spend less tax money while we’re at it.
MM: You’re literally the pot guy running for high bailiff. Are you going to lean into that? Will marijuana puns be a part of your campaign?
DS: Look, I am not going to discourage anyone from making a high bailiff joke. I think it’s funny. It’s a little bit of a funny position, right? I take it seriously, I take the duties seriously and I take the opportunity very seriously. But I’m willing to reach voters where they are. And you know, engaging people in the political process sometimes means having a little fun and engaging in some levity. I love the pot puns, send them my way.
That’s not going to be a centerpiece of my campaign. You’re not going to see lawn signs with pot leaves on them. But you know, I’m not going to shy away from it either. My rooting in Vermont politics is drug policy reform and I’m proud of that and there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in using cannabis. This stigma—this moral disapproval that we’ve based our drug policy on—means nothing to me.
MM: Do you have plans to use the position of high bailiff as a stepping stone toward running for…higher office down the line?
DS: I’m not in a position in my life today to run for legislative office. I have a kid in high school, I have another kid in sixth grade. It’s just not for me now. I should also say, we have here in Middlebury, two really great state representatives who do good work in the legislature. We have in Addison County, two really great state senators—one of whom is a friend of mine and whose first campaign I didn’t just work on, I was her campaign treasurer when she was elected to office. I am not running this campaign as a marker. I am not running this campaign to threaten anybody for any office. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and say I will never run for any office, but that is not what I’m focusing on. I don’t see me focusing on that kind of office in the near future.
MM: You lived in Hawaii for a time and you’ve been known to sport some vibrant Hawaiian-style shirts in your Vermont town. Will voters get a taste of that on the trail?
DS: If you are the kind of voter who is deciding who to vote for for high bailiffs based on which candidate has the better aloha shirt collection, I guarantee you, I am your man.