Scientists have successfully forced the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to release an internal document that was allegedly used to justify delaying the approval of additional marijuana manufacturers for research purposes. And it reveals that the Justice Department feels that the current licensing structure for cannabis cultivation has been in violation of international treaties for decades.
The Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), which is one of several applicants seeking federal authorization to cultivate cannabis for studies, filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) last month, claiming that DEA had relied on a “secret” memorandum interpreting international drug treaties to avoid accepting more manufacturers.
On Tuesday, the parties reached a settlement in the case. And DEA released the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) document on Wednesday, as part of the agreement.
The June 2018 memo—titled “Licensing Marijuana Cultivation in Compliance with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs”—was published, unredacted, on the Justice Department’s site.
“The parties acknowledge that this Settlement Agreement is entered into solely for the purpose of settling and compromising the claims in this action without further litigation, and it shall not be construed as evidence or as an admission regarding any issues of law or fact, or regarding the truth or validity of any allegation or claim raised in this action, or as evidence or as an admission by Defendants regarding Plaintiff’s entitlement to any relief (including attorneys’ fees or other litigation costs) under the Freedom of Information Act,” the text of the filing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona states.
The document largely confirms what the scientists had suspected. They argued that, following a DEA announcement in the waning months of the Obama administration in 2016 that it would approve additional marijuana manufacturers, the Trump administration’s OLC secretly issued the 2018 internal government opinion that interprets international treaty obligations as making it impossible to fulfill that pledge.
OLC determined in the memo that the international Single Convention treaty requires just one federal agency to have sole control over the purchasing and possession of cannabis cultivated for research purposes. And because two agencies—DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—currently have roles in this process, it’s in violation of that treaty obligation.
In order to resolve that issue and allow additional cultivators, OLC said DEA needed to issue a revised new rule to be in compliance with treaties.
“We conclude that DEA must change its current practices and the policy it announced in 2016 to comply with the Single Convention,” the memo states. “DEA must adopt a framework in which it purchases and takes possession of the entire marijuana crop of each licensee after the crop is harvested. In addition, DEA must generally monopolize the import, export, wholesale trade, and stock maintenance of lawfully grown marijuana.”
“There may well be more than one way to satisfy those obligations under the Single Convention, but the federal government may not license the cultivation of marijuana without complying with the minimum requirements of that agreement,” the Justice Department said.
“Under the CSA, DEA may register an applicant to cultivate marijuana only if the registration scheme is consistent with the Single Convention.”
Further, it explained that while the government assumed it was complying with international treaties by having NIDA regulate a single cannabis cultivation facility for research purposes while DEA has been responsible for registering scientists authorized to utilize such products, that isn’t necessarily the case—for three reasons.
“We conclude that the existing licensing framework departs from Article 23 [under the Single Convention] in three respects. First, the division of responsibilities between DEA and NIDA, a component of the Department of Health and Human Services (‘HHS’), contravenes Article 23(2)’s requirement that all Article 23 functions be carried out by a single government agency. Second, neither of the two government agencies ‘take[s] physical possession’ of the marijuana grown by the National Center, as required by Article 23(2)(d). Third, no federal agency exercises a monopoly over the wholesale trade in marijuana, as required by Article 23(2)(e).”
NIDA, which operates under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is not overseen by DEA, raising problems with the single-agency requirement for marijuana licensing, the memo contends. The Justice Department also concluded the situation couldn’t be resolved administratively, as the president “may not delegate to DEA his constitutional authority to supervise NIDA in the exercise of its statutory responsibilities.”
The memo also notes that under the current licensing scheme, neither DEA or NIDA physically take possession of marijuana grown by the contracted third-party, the University of Mississippi facility. Instead, it’s delivered directly to DEA-registered researchers—another violation of international treaties.
“The contract at most results in a federal government agency’s having constructive, rather than physical, possession of the marijuana crop,” OLC said. “We think it evident from the treaty’s text and context that ‘physical possession’ requires growers licensed under the CSA to transfer the crops to the physical, and not merely legal, control of the federal government.”
The university manufacturer—known as the National Center—is “not an extension of the federal government,” the memo continues. What’s more, DEA “certainly does not have title to the crops” grown there.”
“Even if NIDA had formal legal title to the crops, the current arrangement would still have to be adjusted to comply with the treaty’s requirement that a single government agency be charged with licensing cultivators, purchasing, and physically possessing the crops… The government agency responsible for the relevant controls must own the crops and be the sole distributor of the marijuana. In allowing the National Center to maintain possession of the marijuana and ship it to DEA-approved researchers, the NIDA contract does not create the required government monopoly over the lawful marijuana trade.”
OLC noted that several other countries—Canada, the United Kingdom and Israel—are similarly violating the Single Convention mandates.
“While DEA focuses on its view of the broader purposes of the treaty’s requirements, the Single Convention requires the United States to adopt specific, listed controls if it licenses cannabis cultivation,” the memo reiterates. “A single government agency must purchase and take physical possession of harvested cannabis, and generally monopolize the wholesale trade in that plant. The United States cannot satisfy those requirements simply by employing alternatives that the government believes may prevent unlawful diversion.”
“We conclude that DEA must alter the marijuana licensing framework to comply with the Single Convention.”
The agency concluded that it sees “no reason why the NIDA contract framework might not remain in place under a system in which DEA assumes clear title to the marijuana, either at inception or by purchase after harvest, and then takes physical possession after harvest.” And DEA could, theoretically, “station one or more employees at the National Center after cultivation as a way of ensuring physical possession of the marijuana and exclusive control over its distribution.”
It was previously reported that the Justice Department, under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vociferous opponent of cannabis reform, blocked DEA from processing any of the several dozen cultivation license applications it received in response to the 2016 announcement. Attorney General William Barr has taken a different tone, however, telling lawmakers that he’s pushed “very hard” to get more manufacturers approved and that he thinks “it’s very important to get those additional suppliers.”
The reason all of this matters to researchers and advocates is because of issues resulting from the monopolized cannabis supply for research purposes at the University of Mississippi. And studies have indicated that the marijuana it produces is not reflective of the cannabis sold in retail dispensaries in legal states, raising questions about the veracity of previous studies that have relied on it.
Three years after DEA announced it would begin approving more manufacturers, applicants didn’t hear anything back, and SRI filed an initial lawsuit alleging that the agency was deliberately holding up the process. A court mandated that it take steps to make good on its promise, and that case was dropped after DEA provided a status update.
Last month, DEA did unveil a revised proposal that contained changes the agency said were necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties. A public comment period is now open, after which point the agency says it will finally approve an unspecified number of additional growers.
That was a step in the right direction as far as advocates are concerned, but the proposed rule neglected to provide information about how the Justice Department advised DEA on the matter and which parts of the amended proposal would make expanding cannabis cultivators compliant with international treaties.
SRI argued in its latest lawsuit that DEA had violated federal statutes that prohibit the creation of “secret law.” Federal agencies must make records—including final opinions and policy interpretations not published in the Federal Register—public, the case maintained.
Now that the Justice Department memo has been publicly released as a result of the FOIA lawsuit, the newly revised rule makes contextual sense, with DEA proposing that it will maintain authority over the purchasing and possession of research-grade marijuana as required under international treaties. As such, the rule seems to resolve OLC’s concerns.
Read the OLC memo below:
Read the DEA marijuana FOIA settlement and related documents below:
This story has been updated to include the newly disclosed OLC memo.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.