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Congress Will Hold A Hearing On Three Marijuana Bills Next Week

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In the latest sign that congressional Democrats are using their new majority to prioritize marijuana law reform issues that languished under prior Republican leadership, a House subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on Tuesday to discuss three cannabis bills focusing on military veterans.

The legislation up for consideration concerns veterans’ access to medical marijuana, expanding research on cannabis’s therapeutic value and protecting U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits for those using the drug in compliance with state law.

It will be the second marijuana-related hearing of the 116th Congress, following a separate House committee’s approval of a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health will take testimony on the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, the Veterans Equal Access Act and the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act.

Lawmakers sponsoring the bills will appear before the panel, which is expected to advance the bills to the full committee for a vote soon after. Here’s what the legislation would accomplish:

Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) filed the marijuana research bill in January and pledged that it would be the “first veterans cannabis bill to pass the House.” It would require the VA to conduct clinical trials on the potential benefits of marijuana for veterans suffering from a range of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

Last year, an earlier version of the legislation was the first standalone marijuana reform bill ever to be approved by a congressional panel. Now the same committee will get a chance to advance the new version, which goes beyond last Congress’s bill by requiring, instead of simply encouraging, the VA to study medical cannabis.

“I am grateful to once again go before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to advocate for countless veterans in need of non-opioid pain management options,” Correa told Marijuana Moment. “Last Congress, my bipartisan VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act was successfully passed out of committee and I am eager to do so again. All across the United States veterans want access to cannabis. It’s Congress’s job to get to work and give them the access they need.”

The Veterans Equal Access Act, sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), would allow VA doctors to issue recommendations for medical marijuana to veterans living in a state where it’s legal.

“For too long, the VA has tied the hands of its doctors in providing appropriate care for their patients—our veterans. The Veterans Equal Access Act makes sure that our veterans get the treatment they need, and this hearing in an important step in the passage of this bill,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment. “Now, with the most pro-cannabis congress in history, we are updating our outdated federal cannabis laws. I’m looking forward to building on this momentum and seeing our continued progress.”

Both the House and Senate in years past have approved appropriations amendments aimed at allowing VA physicians to recommend medical cannabis, but they have never been enacted into law.

Earlier this month, Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introduced the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act. It would codify into federal law an existing VA administrative policy that protects veterans from losing their benefits due to cannabis use in legal states. It would also change VA rules so that doctors would be able to fill out forms allowing veterans to obtain medical marijuana, similar to the Blumenauer bill.

Tuesday’s hearing is another sign that House Democrats are prioritizing cannabis reform this Congress, and that they’re approaching the issue methodologically. It’s also in line with what Blumenauer outlined in a “blueprint” to end federal marijuana prohibition, with various committees taking up standalone cannabis bills in an incremental fashion leading up to eventual broader reform.

“The significance of House Leadership giving cannabis its day in Congress cannot be overstated,” NORML political director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “The momentum is cresting and never before have we been closer to ending the failed policy of prohibition and criminalization.”

Witnesses at the hearing will include representatives of the VA, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans, while prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana is set to provide a written statement for the record.

The banking bill that passed in the House Financial Services Committee last month is pending placement on the calendar for a full floor vote. The veterans-focused legislation is expected to follow a similar course: the subcommittee hearing next week followed by a full committee vote that would send the bills on their way for the full chamber for consideration.

Military Veterans Organizations Press Congress On Medical Marijuana Research

This story was updated to include comment from Correa and Blumenauer, as well as information about hearing witnesses.

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

Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.

At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.

Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.

The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”

He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.

“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”

Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:

“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.

“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”

Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.

Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.

“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”

“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”

Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.

After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”

“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”

Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches

Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.

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Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota

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A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.

Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.

“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.

The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.

Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.

Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.

“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”

Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.

It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.

“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.

California Lawmakers Use Cryptocurrency To Buy Marijuana From Dispensary

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches

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With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.

In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”

The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.

Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.

Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.

While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.

Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.

“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”

“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”

Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”

The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.

House Marijuana Banking Vote Officially Scheduled For Next Week, Leadership Announces

Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.

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.
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