Are federal agents trying to interfere with a state medical cannabis effort despite President Trump’s pledge to respect local marijuana policies?
New public documents show that a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task force is officially affiliated with a group that’s doing everything it can to derail a proposed Utah initiative to legalize medical marijuana.
Drug Safe Utah, an organization representing opponents of the initiative such as the Utah Medical Association and the DEA Salt Lake City Metro Narcotics Task Force, is actively recruiting paid canvassers to encourage voters who signed the cannabis ballot petition to rescind their signatures. The Salt Lake Tribune first reported the DEA task force’s affiliation on Thursday.
Last month, organizers behind the proposed Utah medical cannabis initiative met two key requirements to qualify the measure’s inclusion on the state ballot in November: They collected received more than 113,000 total signatures and exceeded the signature threshold in more than 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts, according to county clerks.
Days later, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who recently came out in support of medial cannabis access and research, met with representatives from the Utah Medical Association. The discussion centered on “medical marijuana research, puns, and finding real alternatives to addictive opioids,” according to a tweet from Hatch’s official account. Drug Safe Utah’s primary officer, Michelle McOmber, is also the CEO of the Utah Medical Association.
Senator Hatch meeting with representatives of the Utah Medical Association about medical marijuana research, puns, and finding real alternatives to addictive opioids. #utpol pic.twitter.com/0aJWbnnI6y
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) May 2, 2018
“While there has been opposition [to legalization initiatives] in other states, the opposition we’re seeing here, we think, is unprecedented,” DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “It’s just kind of bizarre that a federal agency can weigh in like that.”
The DEA task force was not immediately available to comment on the nature of its involvement in the anti-legalization group, but it is listed as “an organization affiliated with the [political issues committee]” in a statement of organization filed on April 27.
The apparent endorsement of an anti-legalization group by the DEA comes at a time when the executive branch is moving in the opposite direction, with President Donald Trump pledging to back congressional efforts to protect states where marijuana is legal. The president has also repeatedly said that he supports medical marijuana “100 percent” and knows people who have benefitted from it.
Then There’s the Ethics Question
It’s unclear whether DEA affiliation with a political campaign to block medical marijuana legalization amounts to a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits certain types of partisan political activity by federal employees.
Kathleen Clark, an ethics law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told Marijuana Moment that the “key word” was “partisan.”
“I believe that in general, it does not reach ballot initiatives that aren’t associated with a party,” she said. However, she expressed uncertainty over the involvement of a federal agency in state-level ballot initiatives, and questioned whether the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which formally established the DEA’s task force program, permits this type of activity.
Marijuana Moment reached out to the Justice Department for clarification, but it did not respond by the time of publication. Drug Safe Utah also did not acknowledge requests for comment.
UPDATE: Marijuana Moment obtained a copy of a document that appears to contain the script that Drug Safe Utah’s operatives are using when knocking on doors and asking voters to rescind their ballot signatures. The guidance offers dramatically different talking points based on the perceived age of voters. See below:
UPDATE 5/7/2018 8:48am PST: A spokesperson for the Utah Medical Association reportedly denied providing paid canvassers with the script featured above, according to a journalist from local radio station KUER.
— Whittney (@WhittneyE) May 7, 2018
Marijuana Moment has still not received comment from Drug Safe Utah.
UPDATE 5/7/2018 2:29pm PST: Video obtained by the pro-legalization advocacy group TRUCE Utah appears to show a canvasser making a series of false or misleading claims about the medical marijuana initiative in an effort to get the signee to remove her signature.
A spokesperson for the Utah Medical Association, the main backer behind an effort to get signatures off the petition, told Fox13 that the organization “doubts seriously that the video is one of our people,” but added that UMA does not have “any control” over who is hired or trained by a third-party firm UMA hired to orchestrate the anti-legalization campaign.
“Together what the video and the scripts show about this cynical campaign changes the terms of the debate,” TRUCE executive director Christine Stenquist said in a press release. “[The video is] simply filled with fanciful confabulations, outright untruths and attempts to manipulate the person being visited.”
Senators Cite Marijuana Arrests Of U.S. Citizens In Border Patrol Oversight Request
Three senators requested a review of Border Patrol immigration checkpoint actions on Tuesday, citing a past report that found a significant number of searches and seizures were executed against U.S. citizens for low-level marijuana possession.
The request to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) outlines a number of data points concerning checkpoint enforcement that the senators say are necessary to collect in order to assess compliance with the Fourth Amendment. That includes information on rationale for checkpoint stops, data collection and protocol for searches.
“In 2017, the GAO published a report that looked at, among other things, the Border Patrol strategy of placing and utilizing immigration checkpoints generally between 25 and 100 miles from the border,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) wrote in a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro. “As a result of this review, the GAO found that 40 percent of checkpoint seizures were from U.S. citizens for one ounce or less of marijuana.”
Though the letter—which was also signed by Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Gary Peters (D-MI)—didn’t specifically request information on marijuana seizures, it did inquire about the number of U.S. citizens apprehended and the reason for their arrests. It also asks, “How frequently does the agency analyze trends in drug seizures and apprehensions to evaluate its priorities at each checkpoint?”
“Comprehensive data on who receives additional screening at checkpoints, and the reasonable suspicion that undergirds these encounters, searches, and seizures, is fundamental to understanding if and how Border Patrol abides by constitutional limits,” the letter states.
Leahy and Murray also called for the collection of data on “the quantities of drugs detected” during canine checkpoint searches in legislation the pair reintroduced last month.
“Unless a government agent has a legitimate reason to stop and search you—a reasonable suspicion or probable cause—Americans should not be subject to questioning and detention for merely going about their daily lives,” Leahy said in a press release. “The Trump administration cannot be trusted to use its finite resources in a way that protects our civil liberties and reflects our values.”
It’s not clear if cannabis seizures for U.S. citizens remain prominent at immigration checkpoints since the 2017 report was released, but one thing that the Customs and Border Protection has made clear is that it doesn’t matter if a stop takes place in a state that’s legalized marijuana—it enforces federal law.
That applies to instances of illicit drug trafficking across the border, too. But as more states like California have legalized cannabis, border agents have seized less and less marijuana.
Congressman Tells Joe Rogan He Backs States’ Marijuana Rights But Actually Voted Against Them
Joe Rogan debated the merits of marijuana legalization on Tuesday with a Republican congressman who ultimately conceded that medical cannabis should be federally legal and states should be empowered to set their own legalization policies.
But neither Rogan nor Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) mentioned the fact that he recently voted against a House amendment to shield state marijuana laws from federal interference and has not added his name as a cosponsor of several pending medical cannabis bills.
The congressman, a former Navy SEAL, didn’t rule out the possibility of coming around to endorsing adult-use legalization but voiced several concerns about the prospect, including underage usage, the lack of technology to detect impaired driving and reduced productivity.
“I can be convinced, but I’m not there yet,” he said on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. “I’m definitely more open to just the federal legalization of medical marijuana and all the benefits that come with that. On the recreational side, I’m happy to leave that up to the states.”
“My issue with recreational marijuana still—and this is not a strong opinion I have, this is not a hill I’m dying on by any means—but if we’re going to change it, I want to understand what the point is, what the benefits are of it recreationally,” he said. “I understand the benefits medically very well, but I want to understand the recreational benefits and I want to see how this data plays out in places like California and Colorado.”
Rogan emphasized that alcohol is federally legal despite risks to young people, but Crenshaw, an avowed scotch fan, said his “counter is simply this: the alcohol issue is out of the bag” and that we’re “never going to put that back in.”
“My point is this: there’s a normalization that occurs when you legalize something,” the congressman said. “What you’ve done though is you normalized it for teenagers. There’s a lot of people who can just live their lives extremely productively and smoke pot a lot. And there’s a lot of people who can’t and there’s a lot of people who don’t.”
“Those people are lazy bitches,” Rogan said.
“Don’t you have to drink way more scotch to get even close to the basic cognitive incoherence that you’d be with just one bite of a brownie?” Crenshaw asked.
“You would, but not me,” Rogan said. “I smoke pot all the time. I could have smoked pot before this podcast and had the exact same podcast. I could have had several hits. If I gave you several hits, you’d be obliterated.”
“On a personal level, I’m just not opposed to what you’re saying at all,” Crenshaw said. “From a policy level though I just look at things different.”
That stance is reflected in the freshman congressman’s record. Despite voicing support for medical cannabis and leaving recreational legalization up to the states, he’s declined to cosponsor any legislation on the former issue and proactively voted against an amendment to protect states that legalize marijuana for adult use from federal intervention.
(On another drug policy issue near and dear to Rogan that didn’t arise during the interview, Crenshaw also voted against an amendment from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that would have removed barriers to research on the benefits like psilocybin and MDMA.)
Crenshaw said his perspective wasn’t formed out of naivety and that he tried marijuana and didn’t like it. He also argued that cannabis “does reduce productivity I think more than alcohol does.”
“As a policymaker, I have to look at the whole situations. I see people like you and you’re like you’d be fine, why not?” he said. “But I do have to take into account the entirety of the situation and ask myself, ‘well, what is the benefit to society doing this?'”
Rogan said that marijuana facilitates community bonding and makes people happier—to which Crenshaw responded “I don’t know, I think alcohol is much more of a social lubricant—it definitely makes you meaner too—but I mean as far as getting along with people and interacting with human beings.”
“I’m not dying on this hill. I have questions, and those questions are unanswered,” he said, adding that the “bottom line is that’s a state decision” to legalize recreationally.
“As far as the battles that we should fight at the federal level, we’ve got to start with the medical side. I think the science is clear there,” he said.
“Another reason I’m a Republican is because I believe in somewhat slower policymaking too. These conversations have to play out in society and we don’t always need to solve the problem right away. I think the medical conversation is the one we should be fighting for. I think the recreational side is a few steps beyond that. We’ll get to know and we’ll know more.”
Later in the podcast, Crenshaw defended the broader war on drugs and argued that “you might feel like you’re losing all the time, but you’re mitigating” drug use through prohibition enforcement.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Joe Rogan Experience.
New York And Connecticut Governors Talk Marijuana Legalization On Fishing Trip
The governors of New York and Connecticut went fishing and talked about marijuana legalization on Tuesday.
The conversation comes after lawmakers in both states were unable to pass legalization legislation before their respective sessions’ ends this year, despite having the support of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D).
“We talked about policy issues like the marijuana issue, which is obviously also relevant to contiguous states,” Cuomo said at a press conference following the fishing trip. “What Connecticut does on marijuana is relevant to New York, what New York does is relevant to Connecticut so we talked about that and a lot of issues. So we had fun.”
Watch Cuomo’s marijuana comments at about 5:00 into the video below:
Cuomo had described legalization as a top legislative priority for 2019 and included it in his state budget proposal. But after months of negotiations with lawmakers, the plan fell through, due in part to disagreements about how to allocate tax revenue and whether to allow individual jurisdictions to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses.
The governor did sign legislation in July that expands the state’s marijuana decriminalization policy and provides a pathway for expungements of past marijuana convictions.
Over in Connecticut, Lamont campaigned on legalization during his election bid last year and described it as one of his administration’s “priorities” after he took office. But as with neighboring New York, the legislature failed to advance a legalization bill beside multiple successful committee votes and hearings throughout the year.
The specifics of what the governors talked about during their fishing expedition on Lake Ontario aren’t clear, but both are presumably gearing up for another round of legislative efforts marijuana over the coming year and could take lessons from each other as reform talks continue.
Another East Coast state, New Jersey, has also struggled to move legalization legislation forward, with lawmakers saying that the issue should be taken up by voters in 2020 rather than pushed through the legislature, though there has been discussion lately about another try at moving a bill before year’s end. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) did sign a decriminalization and expungements bill in May, however.
Photo courtesy of CBS 6.