A congressional committee is urging the federal government to reconsider its hiring and firing policies as they relate to workers who use marijuana in compliance with state laws.
The House Appropriations Committee made the recommendation in a report attached to a large-scale spending bill funding parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2020 that was released on Monday. That same legislation also includes a provision protecting banks that service cannabis businesses and deletes a longstanding rider prohibiting Washington, D.C. from using its local tax dollars to implement a system of legal marijuana sales.
The panel made its new recommendation to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
“Hiring Guidelines—The Committee encourages OPM to review its policies and guidelines regarding hiring and firing of individuals who use marijuana in states where that individual’s private use of marijuana is not prohibited under the law of the State. These policies should reflect updated changes to the law on marijuana usage and clearly state the impact of marijuana usage on Federal employment.”
Existing federal policy strictly prohibits marijuana usage for federal workers even in states that have enacted legalization.
But even while the committee report is adding the new encouragement for a legal-state carveout for cannabis, the bill itself maintains a provision stating that a federal agency can only receive funds under the legislation if it “has in place, and will continue to administer in good faith, a written policy designed to ensure that all of its workplaces are free from the illegal use, possession, or distribution of controlled substances by the officers and employees of such department, agency, or instrumentality.”
That language could potentially be amended as the bill makes it way through the legislative process.
“We’re proud to support any efforts to ensure that the successful cannabis reform efforts in states around the nation are able to be implemented in smooth and sensible manner,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “The prospect of responsible adults being denied federal employment opportunities is counterproductive and disproportionally impacts the veterans community.”
“It is our hope that the final appropriations package maintain these provisions to give certainty to the increasing number of states that are ending the failed war on cannabis,” he said.
The report recommendation is in line with a piece of standalone legislation introduced in March by Reps. Charlie Crist (D-FL) and Don Young (R-AK) that would bar federal agencies from firing employees solely because they tested positive for THC if they live in a legal cannabis state. That bill has not yet been scheduled for any hearings or votes.
“Voters across the country are saying yes to legalization. It’s time for the federal government to catch up with the will of the people,” Crist said in a press release about the new appropriations moves. “For folks from all walks of life, veterans, seniors, people facing chronic pain or disabilities, cannabis is an incredible source of relief – and that legal commerce is providing an economic boost to our communities. You shouldn’t lose your job if you need cannabis to live a healthy, normal life, and companies shouldn’t be at risk of operating a cash-only business in this day and age.”
It’s time for the federal government to follow the will of the people when it comes to medical marijuana! Proud to have secured two major wins for medical cannabis users & businesses across the country. https://t.co/XJR34AKNpX pic.twitter.com/GaCIoYHp5R
— Rep. Charlie Crist (@RepCharlieCrist) June 10, 2019
Besides the employment section, the spending bill report also discusses the cannabis banking provision that made it into the base spending bill.
That provision states that none of the money appropriated through the bill “may be used to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, a produce, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana, marijuana products, or marijuana proceeds” in a jurisdiction where it’s legal.
Standalone legislation to provide that protection is making headway in Congress. It was approved by the House Financial Services Committee in March. Last week, it was placed on the chamber’s Union Calendar and is expected to be taken up for a full floor vote in coming weeks. In the meantime, lawmakers are considering adding amendments to broaden its GOP appeal.
Missing from the report is a description of a rider that appeared in earlier versions of the appropriations bill, stipulating that Washington, D.C. isn’t allowed to spend local tax revenue to implement legal marijuana sales. That section was nixed from the draft legislation as introduced. If it doesn’t get put back in later in the legislative process, the path would be cleared for officials in the nation’s capital to move ahead with a local proposal to expand the city’s current noncommercial legal cannabis system.
The 116th Congress has seen numerous standalone cannabis reform bills introduced so far, but it seems that lawmakers are also increasingly interested in pursuing change though the appropriations process.
Several other House Appropriations Committee reports released so far this year include provisions aimed at expanding research into medical cannabis, establishing a regulatory framework for CBD, providing funds for the implementation of hemp regulations, addressing impaired driving and protecting military veterans from losing their benefits for working in the cannabis industry.
On Friday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) filed an amendment to a separate spending bill coming to the floor this week that would eliminate a provision blocking the use of federal funds for “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.” The purpose of the legislation is to lift barriers to research into the therapeutic potential of substances such as psilocybin and MDMA, a summary prepared by the congresswoman’s office says.
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) also introduced an amendment to that bill that would prevent the Department of Education from denying or limiting “any funding or assistance to institutions of higher education” as a punishment for allowing the use of medical cannabis in a legal marijuana state.
The House Rules Committee will decide on Monday whether those drug policy amendments will be allowed for votes by the full body.
That panel’s chairman, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), had repeatedly criticized his Republican predecessor for blocking cannabis votes on the floor and pledged to take a different approach.
This story was updated to include comment from Crist.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise
2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.
The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
America’s addiction and mental health care crisis has been building for decades—due to decades of neglect by political leaders in Washington. Today, I’m proposing a new approach that tackles this crisis with the urgency and care it deserves. pic.twitter.com/U8F9DXJPC2
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”
The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”
Our country is in the midst of a mental health and addiction crisis, worsened by decades of stigma and political neglect. I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves. https://t.co/spBoh5KH4X
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”
The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”
The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”
Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”
Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”
In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.
“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.
The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.
But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.
In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.
“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”
This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States
Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.
The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.
Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.
Got the answer: He believes it should be left up to the state. However, he does want to educate people on the effect marijuana has on young brain development, pregnant women and wants to come up with better guidance & testing for marijuana while driving. https://t.co/eifryNJB1j
— Kayla Sullivan (@KaylaReporting) August 14, 2019
It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.
Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.
Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”
“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”
Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.
During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”
“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”
He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.