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Congress Will Consider Lots Of Marijuana Amendments Next Week

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Almost a dozen cannabis-related amendments will be considered by a key congressional committee next week.

The House Rules Committee published the submitted measures on Thursday. They cover everything from preventing the Justice Department from interfering in state legal marijuana programs to funding the creation of a regulatory pathway for CBD to be introduced into the food supply to shifting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) funds to substance abuse prevention and education programs.

Here’s a rundown of what’s being proposed as part of a large-scale appropriations bill to fund parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2020.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Tom McClintock (R-CA) reintroduced an amendment that would bar the Justice Department from using its funds to prevent states “from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana.” The measure, which goes beyond an existing rider that protects only local medical cannabis laws by also including all adult-use states, is similar to an amendment that came just nine flipped votes short of passage on the House floor in 2015.

“In 2014, we successfully passed amendments to protect state cannabis programs,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment, referring to when the current medical marijuana protections were first enacted. “It’s now 2019. It’s past time to protect all cannabis programs, including adult-use.”

Interestingly, the amendment covers states with cannabis laws but does not cover Washington, D.C. or U.S. territories that have enacted legalization. To that end, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) filed a separate measure that also covers the District of Columbia and the territories.

And Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) introduced another amendment that would fix the fact that the U.S. Virgin Islands, which enacted a medical cannabis law this year, was inadvertently left out of the overall funding bill’s existing medical cannabis protection rider.

Blumenauer also introduced four other measures aimed at extending protections to tribal areas that allow marijuana in some form: one that prohibits the Justice Department from spending money to interfere in any tribal marijuana programs, another for tribal marijuana programs within states where it’s legal, one that applies to tribal medical cannabis programs in states with such programs and one that would broadly protect tribal medical cannabis programs regardless of surrounding state laws.

The congressman, who is one of the leading advocates for marijuana reform in Congress, didn’t stop there.

He also filed a measure to prohibit the Justice Department from prosecuting or penalizing U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) workers “for filing out paperwork in compliance with State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

The VA, on the other hand, would be blocked under a separate amendment Blumenauer filed from punishing its doctors for that activity, otherwise preventing veterans from participating in a state-legal medical cannabis program or denying their benefits due to such participation.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), whose amendment meant to expand research into psychedelics in a separate spending bill was rejected on the House floor on Thursday, introduced another bold drug reform measure she is seeking to attach to the new spending legislation.

The congresswoman proposed diverting $5 million in DEA enforcement funds “to the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Program in keeping with the growing consensus to treat drug addiction as a public health issue,” a summary of the amendment states. (She initially proposed shifting $30 million between the accounts but scaled that back in a revised version.)

Under the spending legislation as it stands now, DEA funding for next year would be almost $90 million above what was appropriated in the 2019 fiscal year and roughly $78 million more than what was requested by President Donald Trump.

Another interesting amendment concerns Food and Drug Administration (FDA) funding. While the text of the measure, introduced by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), doesn’t explicitly mention the purpose of the spending proposal, its summary stipulates that it’s meant to fund a “process to make lawful a safe level for conventional foods and dietary supplements containing Cannabidiol (CBD) so long as the products are compliant with all other FDA rules and regulations.”

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said repeatedly that Congress may have to pass legislation to provide for the lawful marketing of hemp-derived CBD, which was legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill, in the food supply. Existing FDA policies would force the department to develop alternative pathways to that end.

Also of interest to drug policy reformers is a measure proposed by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) that would block the Department of Justice from spending money to prohibit states and localities from establishing and implementing safe consumption sites for illegal substances. The department is currently suing to stop a proposed facility from opening in Philadelphia.

There are at least two anti-drug amendments that run counter to the objectives of reform advocates. Both of them, filed by Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI), propose that U.S. Department of Agriculture funds included in the spending legislation should be restricted or withheld unless the head of the agency testifies before Congress that resources won’t go toward individuals participating or applying for benefits unless they’ve undergone drug testing.

This year has seen a deluge of drug reform legislation being pursued through the appropriations process, especially in recent weeks.

Besides Ocasio-Cotez’s psychedelics research amendment, committee reports attached to funding legislation have touched on issues such as CBD regulations, hemp policy implementation, preventing impaired driving, safeguarding veteran benefits and urging the federal government to reevaluate employment policies for federal workers who use marijuana in accordance with state law.

Also, earlier this week the House Appropriations Committee advanced spending legislation that contains an amendment to protect banks that service cannabis businesses and excludes a longstanding rider blocking Washington, D.C. from using local funds to legalize and regulate cannabis sales.

The Rules Committee will decide next week which of the new pending amendments will be cleared for floor votes when the House takes up the overall spending legislation. This week the panel blocked a measure that would have prevented the Department of Education from punishing colleges and universities for allowing medical marijuana on campus, citing procedural issues.

Chairman James McGovern (D-MA) has said that he generally will not impede cannabis amendments filed in proper order from advancing, however, unlike former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who consistently blocked marijuana proposals from coming to the floor when he held the panel’s gavel in recent years.

How Democrats Helped Republicans Shut Down AOC’s Psychedelics Research Measure

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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.

Politics

Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana

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Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Legislation And Policy Actions

Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.

The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.

Quotes And Social Media Posts

It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.

Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.

Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.

Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.

He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.

“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.

One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”

“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.

Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.

Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency

Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.

At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.

That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.

Where Presidential Candidate Bill de Blasio Stands On Marijuana

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Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says

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Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.

Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.

Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.

Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.

In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.

The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”

In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”

Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:

Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”

“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”

Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.

“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”

Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.

“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”

Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.

“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.

Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”

Texas Governor Signs Bill To Expand State’s Medical Marijuana Program

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USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.

“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”

The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.

“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.

A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”

“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.

While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”

USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.

The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.

While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.

The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.

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