The acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was put through the wringer by lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, pressed repeatedly to answer questions about the federal agency’s outdated marijuana policy.
Here’s a roundup of exchanges between DEA Acting Administrator Robert Patterson and members of the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on the opioid epidemic.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN)
“The DEA has always been in a position of great importance—and it’s important that the DEA administrator stay current with what the people have shown by their actions and their statements what they believe is the right priorities for the DEA,” Cohen started.
In short, the people don’t think marijuana should be a federal law enforcement priority, he said. He then asked Patterson why marijuana is classified in the same drug scheduling category as more harmful drugs such as heroin.
“The reason why it remains in Schedule I is the science,” Patterson said.
“The science?” Cohen responded. He later added, “I’m happy to hear that you believe in science, that’s refreshing.” But Cohen wanted to know what the DEA official’s personal views on marijuana scheduling were, and Patterson delivered: He said that he was worried the country was “going down a bad path with marijuana” and that all of the national conversations around reform mainly had to do with revenue.
Cohen pushed back, arguing that adults also care about racially disproportionate arrests for non-violent marijuana offenses, for instance. Patterson said he didn’t see a link between prohibitionist marijuana policies and mass incarceration, then went into a rant that concluded:
“At what point did we determine that revenue was more important than our kids?”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)
Johnson began his questioning by asking Patterson how many Americans died from opioid-related overdoses among the 64,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in 2016.
Patterson knew that figure, responding that about 44,000 deaths were the result of opioid-related overdoses. But when asked a follow-up question about marijuana-related overdose deaths, the DEA official said that he didn’t believe there were any officially recorded in 2016, but that he was “aware of a few deaths from marijuana.”
(The DEA itself said there were no known deaths attributed to a marijuana overdose in a 2017 report on drug abuse.)
“You are aware of a few deaths from marijuana?” Johnson asked. At that point, Patterson said that he didn’t have materials in front of him to reference, but that he believed these deaths were caused by “adulterated” cannabis and said he ultimately understood the congressman’s point: that in terms of risk of overdose, marijuana and opioids are “not comparable.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA)
Swalwell used his time at the hearing to talk about the struggles of families he’s met whose children have either fatally overdosed on opioids or suffered from addiction. He asked Patterson what can be done to prevent and address youth substance abuse.
The DEA official discussed the importance of early education drug prevention programs—and then pivoted to marijuana.
“I hate to do this, but I’m going to do it to you—and this is what concerns me about marijuana because those same stories I hear all the time, I generally hear marijuana introduced,” Patterson said. But he then made a surprising admission, telling Swalwell that he’s “not going to compare” drugs like marijuana and opioids, and also that he wouldn’t “say [marijuana is] a gateway [drug].”
That caveat was significant, Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “When the head of the DEA rejects the gateway theory, he’s a witness for an end to prohibition,” Murphy said.
Patterson did go on to say that “the problem is that these things all seem to dovetail together, and my concern is—and again, I’ll take my DEA hat off for a second is as a person in the United States—what message we send as we try to navigate this space in terms of that, and I think that’s problematic.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)
Gaetz wanted to know whether it is “the position of the DEA that democratizing access to medical marijuana will add to the substance abuse problem in this country.” Patterson said he feels “it’s a conversation that we have to have.”
But that question appeared to set Gaetz up for an extensive back-and-forth during which the DEA head demonstrated a stunning lack of knowledge about the existing scientific literature concerning marijuana’s health benefits and its potential use as a substitute for dangerous pharmaceuticals, including opioid painkillers.
Was Patterson familiar with a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science that found “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis and cannabinoids effectively treats chronic pain—a condition that is traditionally treated with opioid painkillers? No.
Was he familiar any of the numerous patient surveys from states where marijuana has been legalized, showing significant reductions in pharmaceutical use correlated with cannabis reform? No.
OK, was he aware of any studies that showed the opposite? That marijuana use was associated with increased use of dangerous illicit drugs? Again, no.
So then, going back to his first question, why is it that the DEA cannot speak to its official position as to whether marijuana legalization would add to the country’s substance abuse problem if its acting administrator can’t defend that argument based on any “evidentiary standpoint,” Gaetz asked. A flustered Patterson reaffirmed the agency’s support for research into medical marijuana and also pinned blame on the lack of DEA-approved research grants for medical marijuana research on international treaties that he claimed were being deliberated by the Justice Department.
Gaetz said he appreciated the agency’s support for research and asked whether the DEA would commit to partnering with lawmakers in their efforts to expand federal marijuana research.
“We’ve been consistent in that message,” Patterson said.
Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan.
Four Governors Talk Marijuana Reform During Major Speeches In A Single Day
Governors in at least four states talked about their goals for marijuana reform during separate speeches on Tuesday.
The day kicked off with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) offering details on planned cannabis legalization legislation in a State of the State speech outlining his annual budget proposal.
“Legalize adult-use cannabis,” Cuomo, who previously called marijuana a “gateway drug,” said. “Stop the disproportionate impact on communities of color and let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”
His plan involves imposing a 20 percent state tax and 2 percent county tax on cannabis transfers from wholesalers to retailers. The plan would also tax cultivators $1 per gram on dry flower and a $0.25 per gram on trim.
Across the border, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) dedicated a significant portion of his State of the State address to marijuana policy.
Legalizing adult-use marijuana will allow us to benefit from creating an entirely new and legal industry, much as we did last year with sports betting. We can do it in a smart way that ensures fairness for minority-owned businesses and minority communities. #StateoftheStateNJ
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) January 15, 2019
The governor started by touting medical cannabis expansion in the state, which has “given more of our veterans have access to medical marijuana to treat their [post-traumatic stress disorder] so they can get their lives back, and go to work or school.” He then pivoted to the broader benefits of full legalization.
Today, more of our veterans have access to medical marijuana to treat their PTSD, so they can get their lives back, and go to work or school. We thank our veterans for their service, and may God bless them all.#StateoftheStateNJ
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) January 15, 2019
“By legalizing adult-use marijuana—first and foremost—we can reverse the inequality and unfairness left from years of failed drug policies and shift public safety resources to where they can do the most good,” Murphy said. “We must ensure that those with a past mark on their records because of a low-level offense can have that stain removed, so they can move forward to get a stable job or an education.”
Legal marijuana “will also allow us to broadly benefit from creating an entirely new and legal industry, much as we did last year with sports betting,” he said. “We are learning from the states that went before us on what not to do, but we are also seeing the positive economic impacts.”
“Massachusetts’ new industry is creating an estimated 19,000 new jobs. And, in Colorado, legalization fostered an industry that has an annual statewide economic impact measured at $2.4 billion, with 18,000 new jobs created in research, agriculture, processing, and retail. We can do that here, and in a smart way that ensures fairness and equity for minority-owned businesses and minority communities.”
Let’s start 2019 by finishing what we began in 2018 – putting the minimum wage on a clear and responsible path to $15 an hour, and legalizing adult-use marijuana.
We must remember that when we talk about policy we are talking about people, not politics. #StateoftheStateNJ
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) January 15, 2019
In New Mexico, newly sworn-in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) reiterated her pledge to make opioid addiction a qualifying condition for medical cannabis in the state.
She said she will “direct my Health Department to adopt the longstanding recommendation from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board” to add the condition as a means to reduce opioid abuse.
I will direct my Health Department to adopt the longstanding recommendation from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to include opioid addiction as a qualifying condition. #StateOfTheStateNM
— Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (@GovMLG) January 15, 2019
And in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) talked about his recently launched Marijuana Justice Initiative, which allows individuals with a simple possession marijuana conviction going back to 1998 to apply for an expedited pardon. An estimated 3,500 Washington residents qualify for a pardon under the program.
“We are going to write an even brighter chapter of our Washington story,” Inslee said during his State of the State address. “We’re the state offering to pardon thousands of people with misdemeanor marijuana convictions.”
If there were any questions about whether marijuana was going to be a hot political topic in 2019, these and a flurry of other recent speeches from governors across the country should put those doubts to rest.
Besides the four who spoke about marijuana in major addresses on Tuesday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) again committed to fully legalizing cannabis during his inaugural address on Monday. And last week, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) said in his State of the State speech that the lack of action on medical cannabis was “hurting” patients, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) advocated for decriminalization in his State of the Commonwealth address and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) touted hemp and legal marijuana during his State of the State address.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
Trump Attorney General Nominee Won’t Go After Legal Marijuana Businesses And Urges Congress To Act
At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, attorney general nominee William Barr said he would not go after marijuana companies that have operated in compliance with earlier Justice Department guidance that was rescinded last year by his predecessor, Jeff Sessions.
He also encouraged Congress to address the conflict between federal and state cannabis policies.
“My approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations and the reliant interests that have arisen as a result of the Cole memorandum,” Barr said, referring to a memo on federal marijuana enforcement priorities that Sessions revoked in early 2018. “However, I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked Barr what he would do to address the issue and whether he felt it was “appropriate to use federal resources to target marijuana businesses that are in compliance with state law.”
“I’m not going to go after companies that have relied on Cole memorandum,” Barr replied. “However, we either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself because I think it’s a mistake to back off marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach—if we want states to have their own laws—then let’s get there and get there in the right way.
William Barr to @CoryBooker: We either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself, 'cause I think it's a mistake to back off on marijuana. However, if we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws…" (cont.) pic.twitter.com/EgogMltZsu
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 15, 2019
Booker, who has sponsored a bill to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and penalize states where marijuana enforcement is disproportionate, said he was glad to hear Barr’s comment on not taking action against state-legal marijuana businesses.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also pressed Barr about his stance on federal marijuana enforcement. She asked whether the nominee intended to use the limited federal funds at his disposal to go after cannabis businesses in compliance with state law.
HARRIS: You do not intend to use fed resources to enforce fed marijuana law in states that have legalized?
BARR: “That’s right. But I think i’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we are going to have a federal system.” pic.twitter.com/owWekY9PqP
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 15, 2019
“No, I thought I answered that by saying that to the extent that people are complying with the state laws—distribution and production and so forth—we’re not going to go after that,” Barr said. That said, “I think it’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we’re going to have a federal system or whether it’s going to be essential federal law. This is breeding disrespect for the federal law.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who has sponsored broad marijuana reform legislation that last year earned an endorsement from President Trump, said he is “encouraged” by Barr’s statements.
I plan on speaking with him about taking a states' rights approach to regulating the legal marijuana industry in further detail in our meeting prior to his confirmation vote. 2/3
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 15, 2019
When it comes to Colorado’s legal marijuana industry, states’ rights must be protected. My bipartisan STATES Act respects the will of the people in each state and I will continue to fight to pass this landmark legislation. 3/3
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 15, 2019
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that “Barr’s comments on not going after state-legal marijuana are a welcome development, and a break with his predecessor.”
“He should now commit his department to working with Congress on a solution to the state vs. federal conflict, so that we can reform our outdated marijuana laws in a way that is consistent with racial justice values,” Collins said.
Other advocates saw the comments as positive, though one noted that Barr seems to personally opposed marijuana law reform even while he indicated he wouldn’t interfere with the implementation of state laws.
“While it is encouraging that William Barr committed to not enforce federal prohibition, his insistence that he believes in the policy of prohibition is a clear signal that the Department of Justice will continue to be led by an individual who refuses to acknowledge the successful implementation of reforms in states throughout the nation,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
Strekal said Barr’s pledge not to interfere in state-legal marijuana activities gives Congress “a clear mandate to take action and end the underlying policy of federal criminalization.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that Barr’s newly stated stance effectively “green lights the marijuana industry” in spite of concerns reform advocates expressed about the Trump administration after the 2016 presidential election. He said the exchange represented a “big win for marijuana policy reformers.”
“Senator Booker delivered for advocates and AG nominee Barr delivered for the industry.”
Also at the hearing, Booker questioned the nominee’s broader views on mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Barr defended his earlier call for increased incarceration in the 1990s, saying it was made in the context of historically high crime rates and was directed at chronic, violent offenders.
But he also agreed to commission a Justice Department study about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and recognized that harsh penalties for non-violent drug crimes have specifically “harmed the black community—the incarceration rate on the black community.”
Harris also challenged Barr to “take a look at the more recent perspective on the drug crisis that is afflicting our country.”
.@KamalaHarris: There's understanding that the war on drugs was an abject failure. America has an addiction crisis & putting the limited resources of our fed. govt. into locking up people who suffer from a public health crisis is probably not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars. pic.twitter.com/lxC9sNTIsk
— Legal Defense Fund (@NAACP_LDF) January 15, 2019
She said there’s “now an understanding that the war on drugs was an abject failure, that America frankly has a crisis of addiction and that putting the limited resources of our federal government into up locking people who suffer from a public health crisis is probably not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars.”
A few moments ago I reminded Attorney General nominee William Barr that the War on Drugs has been an abject failure.
America has an addiction crisis and we should be putting our resources toward combatting drug addiction, not locking people up.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 15, 2019
One of the last senators to question Barr during the first round, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), also brought up cannabis. He asked whether it was fair to characterize the nominee’s statements as essentially imploring Congress to settle the issue, regardless of where he personally stands on marijuana policy.
“That’s generally fair, yes,” Barr said.
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Barr, Booker, Gardner, Harris and Tillis, as well as marijuana policy reform advocates.
Photo courtesy of The Washington Post/YouTube.
New York Gov. Cuomo Releases Marijuana Legalization Details
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who only recently flipped from calling marijuana a “gateway drug” to endorsing its legalization, released details on Tuesday that shed light on exactly how he wants to end cannabis prohibition in 2019.
“Legalize adult-use cannabis,” Cuomo said in his State of the State speech. “Stop the disproportionate impact on communities of color and let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”
Under the plan, which the governor is including in his annual budget request to lawmakers, marijuana would be legal for adults over the age of 21.
Cuomo is proposing a 20 percent state tax and 2 percent county tax on marijuana transfers from wholesalers to retailers, in addition to a $1 per gram tax on dry flower for cultivators, along with a $0.25 per gram tax on trim.
The governor said that legalization “will create the good union jobs that we need.”
Here it is: Gov. Cuomo’s plan to legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults. pic.twitter.com/2eRnLEGYnw
— WXXI News (@WXXINews) January 15, 2019
His administration estimates that the move will eventually generate roughly $300 million in annual tax revenue, though counties and large cities would be allowed to opt out of legal sales—something that could potentially impact revenue.
Speaking of revenue, funds would be earmarked for a state traffic safety committee, small business development, substance abuse services and other programs.
The proposal would create a new Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the marijuana industry and would prohibit cultivation license holders from also operating retail outlets.
The plan would also create a process to review and seal prior marijuana conviction records.
The governor is proposing to ban home cultivation of marijuana by recreational consumers, though the plan would allow medical cannabis patients and their caregivers to grow their own medicine.
Cuomo formally endorsed legalizing cannabis for the first time in a December speech in which he laid out his priorities for New York’s 2019 legislative session. It was the culmination of his evolution on cannabis issues over the course of the past year or so.
Earlier, in August, during the course of a contentious primary race with the pro-legalization actress Cynthia Nixon, the governor formed a working group to draft a legalization bill after a state Department of Health report, which he commissioned, found that the benefits of legal cannabis outweigh its potential consequences.
Today Cuomo announces his plan to legalize marijuana in NY.
Here’s what I’ll be looking for:
A plan to ensure the economic benefits go to communities harmed by the War on Drugs – not rich white men looking to make $$ off a product that’s sent thousands of POC to prison.
— Cynthia Nixon (@CynthiaNixon) January 15, 2019
Earlier this month, Cuomo reiterated the promise to enact legalization during his inaugural address at the start of his third term as governor.
The prospects for legalization are believed to have gotten a significant boost from the fact that Democrats took control of the state Senate in November’s midterm elections after years of being in the minority.
Senate Republicans, for their part, seem poised to accept the fact that legalization is on the way and are taking steps to focus their efforts on arguing how cannabis tax revenue is earmarked rather than trying to oppose the end of prohibition.
“If New York State legalizes marijuana, we will propose that all tax revenues from marijuana sales go to tax relief – not to fuel more spending,” the caucus wrote in a budget document of their own on Tuesday.
The Cuomo administration, for its part, released several lengthy documents outlining the governor’s marijuana proposal.
See below for excerpts of explanatory documents from the governor’s office:
“Enact the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act. The Executive Budget proposes to regulate and control the manufacture, wholesale, and retail production, distribution, transportation, and sale of cannabis, cannabis related products, medical cannabis, and hemp cannabis within the State of New York, for the purposes of fostering and promoting temperance in their consumption, to properly protect the public health, safety, and welfare, and to promote social equality.
“This bill would impose three taxes on the adult-use of marijuana. The first tax is imposed on the cultivation of cannabis at the rate of $1 per dry weight gram of cannabis flower and $0.25 per dry weight gram of cannabis trim. The second tax is imposed on the sale by a wholesaler to a retail dispensary at the rate of 20 percent of the invoice price. The third tax is imposed on the same sale by a wholesaler to a retail dispensary at the rate of 2 percent of the invoice price, but collected in trust for and on account of the county in which the retail dispensary is located.
“Revenues from the State cannabis taxes will be expended for the following purposes: administration of the regulated cannabis program, data gathering, monitoring and reporting, the governor’s traffic safety committee, small business development and loans, substance abuse, harm reduction and mental health treatment and prevention, public health education and intervention, research on cannabis uses and applications, program evaluation and improvements, and any other identified purpose recommended by the director of the Office of Cannabis Management and approved by the Director of the Budget.”
New York Marijuana Plan by on Scribd
More New York Marijuana Plan by on Scribd
The full legislative language is available here.