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Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Hires Former Marijuana Lobbyist As Senior Advisor

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The former director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has joined the staff of newly sworn-in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) as a senior counsel and policy advisor.

Dan Riffle, who most recently served as communications director to former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and a legislative aide to former Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), will bring his expertise on health care and tax reform to the freshman congresswoman’s team at a time when her proposal to raise the top marginal tax rate is dominating headlines.

While Riffle’s focus will not be on cannabis reform—at least for the time being—it will be interesting to see whether Ocasio-Cortez will embrace the former lobbyist’s nuanced views on legalization. Both believe that marijuana should be legalized at the federal level, though Riffle has expressed concerns that reform will follow a commercial model similar to that of alcohol and tobacco.

“Legalization is inevitable,” Riffle told the International Business Times in 2015. “But [people] haven’t put time into forming an alternative to the corporate model. That is something I’d like to work on.”

“We don’t really know what the best policies are, and anyone who says they do is blowing smoke.”

Riffle said he left MPP in 2014 because of what he described as an industry takeover of the legalization movement. The national advocacy group had previously criticized large cannabis businesses for benefiting from their work but declining to pay it forward, he said. But as the industry expanded and started to contribute, it was able to “drive the agenda,” he said. The worry being that it’s increasingly driven toward corporatization.

Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, has emphasized the racial injustices of cannabis criminalization enforcement and said that a pro-legalization platform can help galvanize audiences on social media.

In one of her widely watched Instagram live videos in November, she called prohibition a “tool” of oppression against minorities that ought to be eradicated.

But what kind of legalization model she supports is yet to be seen.

For the time being, Ocasio-Cortez is invested in building a progressive coalition in the House that will tackle issues like climate change, income inequality and immigration. But a different kind of “Green New Deal” may soon be on the horizon, and the congresswoman will have a say in what that looks like as cannabis reform moves forward in Congress.

And at the very least, it stands to reason that Riffle’s background in the marijuana advocacy realm could be of service to the new congresswoman down the line.

Congressman Issues ‘Blueprint To Legalize Marijuana’ For Democratic House In 2019

Photo courtesy of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Facebook.

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

GOP Congressman Refiles Marijuana Research Bill With Important Changes

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A bipartisan bill designed to stimulate research into marijuana was reintroduced on Wednesday—with changes that could significantly increase its chances of passage in the 116th Congress.

The Medical Cannabis Research Act, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), wouldn’t change the federal legal status of cannabis, but it would require the Justice Department to approve additional manufacturers of research-grade marijuana, protect research institutions interested in conducting studies on cannabis and authorize the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to inform patients about federally approved cannabis studies that they can participate in.

While the legislation was approved by a voice vote in the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee when it was introduced last year, several Democratic members of Congress and drug reform advocacy organizations voiced opposition to language in the bill that would have barred people with “a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from manufacturing marijuana for research purposes.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), now the chair of the committee in the new Democratic Congress, voted against the bill last year, saying the legislation at the time “unfortunately and unjustly expands the collateral consequences of criminal convictions.”

But that language was stripped from the new version. Instead, only individuals with “violent felonies” on their record would be excluded from participating.

“This bipartisan legislation will make a tremendous difference to researchers nationwide, who may finally be able to develop cures for illnesses that affect many of America’s most vulnerable populations,” Gaetz said in a press release. “I fully believe that this bill has a chance to pass this Congress and be signed into law by the President, who expressed his support for medical cannabis during his campaign.”

So far, four cosponsors have signed their names onto the bill: Reps. Darren Soto (D-FL), Ken Buck (R-CO), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), and Diana DeGette (D-CO). The prior version of the legislation ultimately garnered 44 cosponsors during the last Congress.

The bill initially came about after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions blocked the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from making good on its promise to approve additional marijuana manufacturers for research purposes. Since his departure, the DEA has reiterated that it’s actively reviewing manufacturer applications.

The Gaetz bill, if enacted, would force the attorney general to begin issuing new licenses on a set timetable.

Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, told Marijuana Moment that the organization is “pleased that Rep Gaetz has revised his bill to remove the provisions that prohibited personnel with convictions for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor from working on marijuana research.”

However, the group takes issue even with the scaled-down ban on people with violent felony convictions from working on cannabis research.

“There is no sound reason to include such language in a marijuana research bill, and such bans only serve to exacerbate racial disparities that permeate our criminal justice system,” Adesuyi said. “That said, we have received a commitment from the Gaetz office that eliminating the ban completely is a change they support and would be happy to make.”

Other changes to the bill include 1) increasing the required number of additional marijuana manufacturers from three to four, 2) extending the application deadline for Justice Department approval for manufacturing licenses “until enactment of this Act” and 3) eliminating a requirement for a “letter of reference affirming the manufacturer’s good standing” from state health care and law enforcement authorities.

Drug policy reform groups had also objected to the language in the previous bill regarding that last point because police groups often oppose marijuana law reform.

“The goal with these changes is to increase the number and diversity of federal manufacturers of cannabis for research purposes, ensure fair treatment of employees and to increase the applicant pool to ensure robust competition and high-quality applicants,” Gaetz’s legislative director wrote in a Dear Colleague letter seeking cosponsors for the bill.

The Congressional Budget Office said that the previous version of the legislation would have a “negligible” effect on federal spending.

Read the full text below:

Medical Cannabis Research Act by on Scribd

Trump Attorney General Nominee Won’t Go After Legal Marijuana Businesses And Urges Congress To Act

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Business

Trump Treasury Official Wants Congress To Fix Marijuana Businesses’ Banking Issues

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Congress needs to come up with a solution for banking access by the marijuana industry, a top federal Treasury Department official said on Wednesday. And he hopes that will happen by 2020, if not sooner.

Joseph Otting, the comptroller of the currency, told reporters that lawmakers “have to act at the national level to legalize marijuana if they want those entities involved in that business to utilize the U.S. banking system,” according to PoliticoPro.

Cannabis businesses acting in compliance with state law face uncertainty when dealing with federally regulated financial institutions. And banks potentially risk being penalized for servicing those businesses, leading many to avoid the industry altogether.

That said, a steadily growing number of banks are operating accounts for cannabis companies anyway, federal data shows.

“If I’m a betting person, I’m like 25-30 percent maybe next year, but I would hope by 2020 we can get this issue resolved,” said Otting, who was also recently assigned to double duty as acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

He previously called the existing situation “generally not healthy,” echoing comments made by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who said “it would be great if [the banking issue] could be clarified.”

Similarly, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has described the banking conflict as untenable. He said last year that his department was “reviewing the existing guidance,” referring to a 2014 Obama-era policy memo meant to provide direction for banks on how to service marijuana businesses.

“We do want to find a solution to make sure that businesses that have large access to cash have a way to get them into a depository institution for it to be safe,” he said.

More Banks Welcome Marijuana Business Accounts, New Federal Report Shows

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Politics

Legal Marijuana Advocates Rank The Best And Worst Governors On Cannabis

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The U.S.’s 50 state governors just got their annual report cards from a leading national marijuana legalization organization, and—for the first time—over half of them got passing grades.

The new scorecard, released on Wednesday by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), comes at a time when a growing number of governors are focusing on ending cannabis prohibition in their states. Over the past week, for example, at least eight governors have devoted portions of their inaugural or State of the State speeches to highlighting their support for marijuana law reform.

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.

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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