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.”
Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana
Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.
The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.
Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.
The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.
Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.
Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.
He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.
“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.
One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”
“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.
Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency
Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.
At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.
That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.
Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says
Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.
Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.
Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.
Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.
In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.
The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”
In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”
Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:
Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.
Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”
“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”
Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.
“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”
Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.
“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”
Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.
“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.
Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”
USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.
Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.
“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”
The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.
“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.
A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”
“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.
While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”
USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.
The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.
While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.
The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.