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Congressional Committee Protects Medical Marijuana From Jeff Sessions

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A powerful congressional panel voted on Thursday to continue shielding medical marijuana patients and providers who comply with state laws from prosecution by the federal government.

While the provision has been federal law since 2014, when it was first attached to legislation that funds the U.S. Department of Justice, its continuance has been in question because of recent efforts by Republican leadership to prevent votes on cannabis amendments.

But in a stunning bipartisan move, the House Appropriations Committee voted to add the provision as a rider to legislation funding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s department for Fiscal Year 2019.

The amendment was offered by Rep. David Joyce (R-OH).

“I’d be remiss if I did not point out that recent polling from just last month shows 92 percent of the American people support the use of medical marijuana,” Joyce said in debate before the committee adopted his amendment by a voice vote. “In fact, even more voters from every political demographic oppose federal interference in state marijuana laws.”

Historically, the measure has been approved on the House floor but, because Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) has effectively blocked floor votes on cannabis amendments for the last several years — most recently on Wednesday when his panel prevented three hemp measures from advancing —  supporters haven’t gotten a chance to bring the medical marijuana measure before the full chamber since 2015, when it passed by a margin of 242-186.

Since then, the provision has been extended, mostly by default, through large-scale omnibus bills or short-term continuing resolutions that have largely kept federal spending policy riders frozen in place for the last few budget cycles.

But legalization supporters circumvented their Pete Sessions problem on Thursday by inserting the marijuana language into the funding bill at the earlier Appropriations panel stage, a move they previously haven’t risked because members of Congress are seen as more likely to avoid bucking party leadership at the committee level when bills are being crafted.

“Congress still has a long way to go, but it’s remarkable how far we’ve come,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who has played a leading role in pushing cannabis reform measures, said in a statement. “Today’s vote is the latest example of the progress we’ve made. It’s still not enough, especially with Jeff Sessions at the helm of the justice system. Congress must seize this moment and act to expand protections to adult use.”

The growing number of states that are enacting medical cannabis laws in recent years means that far more members of Congress represent constituents who stand to be harmed by the spending riders’ disappearance, however, so advocates felt comfortable placing the measure before the committee this year.

“Today’s vote marks a victory for medical marijuana patients and another defeat for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his prohibitionist agenda,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said in an interview. “Representative David Joyce has demonstrated to his colleagues that it is time for mainstream Republicans to embrace federalism and provide protections for state-approved marijuana programs.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has no familial relation to the Rules Committee chairman of the same last name, asked congressional leadership to discontinue the provision in a 2017 letter, but lawmakers then extended it anyway as part of large-scale budget deals for the rest of that fiscal year and into FY 2018.

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” Sessions wrote at the time. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

Now, the protections for state medical marijuana laws and the people and businesses who rely on them are pace to continue through 2019 as well. The rider does not protect broader state laws allowing recreational marijuana use and businesses.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to take up its version of the Justice Department legislation next month. That panel has easily approved the medical cannabis rider — and other marijuana provisions — in recent fiscal years, and is expected to do so again.

By taking the House committee route, led by Joyce, marijuana reform supporters also avoided the measure’s long association with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has been its chief sponsor for years and who isn’t a member of the Appropriations panel. The reputation of Rohrabacher, who is seen as one of the most pro-Russia members of Congress, has been damaged amid revelations about that country’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race

And his reelection this year, in a district that Hillary Clinton won, is uncertain.

Now, because the measure was successfully attached to the 2019 Justice Department bill by Joyce, it is the Ohio congressman’s name — and not Rohrabacher’s — that will likely appear at the top of congressional sign-on letters about it, probably making it more likely that fellow GOP members will more seriously consider supporting its extension.

For now, advocates are hopeful that Congress is getting the message that supporting marijuana law reform is good politics.

The Thursday vote “shows that protecting state medical marijuana programs from interference by the Department of Justice is no longer a controversial issue when members of Congress are given an opportunity to vote on this issue,” said Michael Liszewski, a policy advisory at the Drug Policy Alliance. “The House Appropriations Committee stands with the 90 percent of Americans, including supermajorities of all Republicans and Democrats alike, who think Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice have no business disrupting state medical marijuana programs. The only thing standing in the way of more comprehensive federal marijuana reform proposals is a small handful of committee leaders who are blocking these bills and amendments from moving forward.”

And Don Murphy of the Marijuana Policy Project said the fact that no cannabis opponents demanded a roll call vote on the state protection measure is significant.

“Opponents clearly want to avoid being on the record voting against sick patients and states’ rights, which explains why the committee held a voice vote,” he said.

Separately during the Appropriations Committee’s markup of the Commerce, Justice Science spending bill, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), an opponent of legalization, successfully offered an amendment urging the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to quickly process pending applications to cultivate marijuana to be used in scientific research.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

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.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

DC Activists Have A New Plan To Get Psychedelics Decriminalization On The Ballot Despite Coronavirus

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Activists in Washington, D.C. are considering a new strategy to get a measure to decriminalize psychedelics on the November ballot, with the coronavirus outbreak having forced them to suspend in-person signature gathering.

While Decriminalize Nature D.C. hoped that officials would pass emergency legislation allowing the digital collection of signatures, they aren’t actively considering that option. And the District Council’s chairman said he would not simply place the initiative on the ballot for voters to decide regardless of the signature count.

That’s left the group in a challenging position. But they’re not out of ideas yet.

Now the campaign is exploring the possibility of conducting “micro-scale petition signature collection” to make the ballot. The plan would involve having petitions mailed to supporters, who would circulate it and collect signatures from “registered DC voters in their immediate vicinity, such as family, roommates, friends and close-by neighbors” and then return the signed petitions to the campaign headquarters.

They’ve launched an online survey to determine the feasibility of the option. It asks prospective volunteers to estimate how many signatures they could theoretically collect under that limited scope and provide their mailing information should the campaign decide to move forward with the plan.

This is one of the last remaining options for the 2020 effort, which is working to make a wide range of psychedelics among the district’s lowest law enforcement priorities.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said during a press conference on Friday that he “would not say that we’re looking for legislative action to put [the initiative] on the ballot” outside of the conventional process.

Board of Elections Chairman Michael Bennett also took a question about the prospect of allow electronic signature collection. He said his panel is not considering the possibility “at this point.”

Watch the comments below, starting around 22:15:

Decriminalize Nature D.C. is one of numerous groups working to change local and state drug policy laws. And it’s not alone in its struggle amid the current pandemic.

A California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

Arizona activists shared some more positive news last week, however, announcing that they have collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot—though they have not yet been submitted to or verified by the state.

Marijuana Legalization Left Out Of New York Budget, According To Draft Summary Document

Photo elements courtesy of carlosemmaskype and Apollo.

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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Marijuana Legalization Left Out Of New York Budget, According To Draft Summary Document

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The New York legislature seems poised to eliminate a proposal to legalize marijuana through the budget this year, according to an unverified document outlining the policies included in the spending legislation currently under final negotiations ahead of a vote this week.

The draft budget report, which was shared with Marijuana Moment, includes a line stating that the “Adopted Budget omits the Executive proposal to legalize adult use cannabis.”

It also “eliminates $34.31 million in funding for the Office for Cannabis Management,” a government body that would have been responsible for regulating the marijuana market.

The apparent exclusion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) legalization proposal, while disappointing to reform advocates, is not entirely surprising in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. While the governor repeatedly stressed that the policy change should be enacted through the budget, he and top lawmakers have tried to temper expectations in recent weeks as legislative priorities have shifted during the pandemic.

But to some, the draft adopted budget report isn’t necessarily a death knell for the reform move, and they hope lawmakers can still accomplish legalization this year through separate legislation.

“We are disappointed adult use is not in the budget since it would have been a huge economic benefit to New York farmers and small businesses,” Allan Gandelman, president of the NY Cannabis Growers & Processors Association, told Marijuana Moment. “We hope to continue working with the governor and the legislature to get this done as soon as possible.”

The legislature must still vote on the final budget, but there’s little time left to hash out a deal on comprehensive reform ahead of a Wednesday deadline. Sen. Liz Krueger (D) filed a revised standalone legalization bill earlier this month, language of which could have theoretically been inserted into the budget, but it’s not clear that option remains on the table.

Marijuana Moment reached out to Senate and Assembly leadership for comment about the draft budget summary, but representatives were not immediately available. The document, which according to its metadata was last modified on Sunday afternoon, contains highlighted sections for issues that are “still open” for negotiation, but that is not the case for the cannabis items.

This is the second year in a row that Cuomo has pitched legalization as part of his spending plan. Last year, months of negotiation between his office and lawmakers failed to produce a passable bill—with disagreements centering on issues such as how tax revenue would be allocated—and so the effort carried over to this year.

The governor seemed confident that 2020 would be the year for legal cannabis in New York, and he included the proposal in his State of the State address in January. As recently as last week, he indicated the effort was still alive, though he also recognized that it may prove too complicated an issue to ultimately deliver through the budget this round.

“We will pass a budget and address the policy items that we laid out and we discussed because it’s not just about passing a budget and the numbers,” he said. “There are many policy initiatives that I laid out back in January, and we’re going to pursue all of them.”

“The only caveat was if you have a really complex issue that normally would require weeks of nuanced, detailed negotiation to do it right, that we won’t do. Because I don’t want to pass any bills that are not really intelligent that I then have to come back and deal with again next year,” he continued. “If it’s a highly complex issue, I get it and then let’s put it off because we don’t want to do something sloppy.”

Another part of the governor’s legalization plan originally involved visiting legal cannabis states to learn from their experiences and take lessons back home. However, Cuomo said that trip was also impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, drug policy reform efforts across the country are struggling amid the pandemic.

Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. In Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics similarly wrote to the mayor and local lawmakers, imploring them to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

Another California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

Arizona activists shared some more positive news last week, however, announcing that they have collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot—though they have not yet been submitted to or verified by the state.

Senate Housing Bill Would Prevent Evictions For State-Legal Marijuana Extraction

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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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Senate Housing Bill Would Prevent Evictions For State-Legal Marijuana Extraction

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A new congressional bill designed to promote affordable housing in the U.S. includes a provision that would prevent landlords from evicting people over manufacturing marijuana extracts if they have a license to do so.

Under the legislation, filed earlier this month by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), there’s a list of “just causes for eviction” such as failure to pay rent or causing significant damage to a property.

The “manufacture of a cannabinoid extract” is another cause for eviction, “unless the tenant holds a license to manufacture the cannabinoid extract under Federal, State, or Tribal law.”

Curiously, however, the bill lacks any additional protections for other state-legal cannabis activities, including simple possession. It’s possible that a drafting error is to blame, but Merkley’s office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment.

Just above the manufacturing provision is another that states that “the unlawful manufacture, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance” is ground for eviction, though it contains no caveat exempting state-legal activity as cause for eviction.

Despite the growing number of states moving to allow cannabis for medical or recreational use, it remains “unlawful” under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

While advocates would likely applaud the inclusion of state-legal protection language, it’s also the case that eviction proceedings are handled at the state level, and so some courts would presumably defer to state law when it comes to cannabis-related eviction cases.

Also, when it comes to the manufacturing provision, states generally do not provide licenses that would specifically allow individuals to produce marijuana extracts in their residences, so it’s unclear how impactful that policy would be in practice if enacted into law.

Of course, the cannabis provision is just one notable part of a comprehensive housing bill, which aims to “address the shortcomings of our current housing policies and funding levels by holistically addressing disparities and systematic obstacles and ensuring an equitable outcome for the most vulnerable Americans.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) rolled out a different kind of housing reform bill last year that would protect people with low-level drug convictions from being denied access to or being evicted from public housing.

Letting VA Doctors Recommend Medical Marijuana To Veterans Won’t Cost Anything, Congressional Analysts Say

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.
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