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.”
Marijuana Isn’t Addictive, Former A.G. Eric Holder Says
The nation’s former top law enforcement officer is not worried that the legalization of marijuana will lead to addiction.
“I’ve never seen any scientific evidence that points you to concerns about addiction through the use of marijuana,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in an interview published on Friday by NY1.
The comments by the former A.G. call into question cannabis’s current status as a Schedule I drug. That category is supposed to be reserved only for substances with no medical value and a high potential for abuse. In fact, it would mean that marijuana should be moved to at least Schedule III, where drugs with “moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence” are categorized.
Although Holder did not move to reclassify cannabis when he had the power to do so as attorney general, he did specifically endorse such a change just months after leaving office.
“I certainly think it ought to be rescheduled,” he said in a 2015 interview with PBS.
And he still feels the same way.
“We need to move marijuana from Schedule I, so research can be done,” Holder said in the new NY1 interview. “It is classified now on the same level as heroin is, and clearly that is inappropriate.”
While he did nothing to officially recategorize marijuana as attorney general — and continually passed the buck to Congress when asked about the issue — Holder’s Justice Department did issue guidance, known as the Cole Memo, which generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal interference.
Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that memo earlier this year.
In the new interview, Holder said he thinks the federal government should continue letting states implement their own legalization laws.
“Let those be laboratories to see where we want to be,” he said. “I think if you allow the states to experiment we’ll ultimately come to a national consensus about what it is we ought to do with regard to marijuana.”
He also spoke about unfair enforcement of cannabis criminalization.
“One of the things that I am concerned about, though, is the racial disparity you see in the enforcement of marijuana laws,” he said. “You see African Americans, Latinos using marijuana at just about the same rates as whites, and yet seeing rates of arrest four, five times as great as it is for whites. That is something that I think is extremely troubling.”
Photo courtesy of US Embassy New Zealand.
Congressional Committee Protects Medical Marijuana From Jeff Sessions
A powerful congressional panel voted on Thursday to continue shielding medical marijuana patients and providers who comply with state laws from prosecution by the federal government.
While the provision has been federal law since 2014, when it was first attached to legislation that funds the U.S. Department of Justice, its continuance has been in question because of recent efforts by Republican leadership to prevent votes on cannabis amendments. But in a stunning bipartisan move, the House Appropriations Committee voted to add the provision as a rider to legislation funding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s department for Fiscal Year 2019.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congressional Republicans Block Votes On Hemp Amendments
In the latest development in a series of anti-cannabis moves, congressional Republican leadership has blocked consideration of several industrial hemp amendments.
Supporters were seeking to attach the measures to the large-scale Farm Bill, which sets food and agriculture policy for the country, but the House Rules Committee on Wednesday decided that the proposals cannot be considered on the floor.
The anti-cannabis chairman of the panel did, however, reveal that a broader deal for industrial hemp might be in the works.
One of the measures the committee killed, submitted by Reps. James Comer (R-KY) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), along with a bipartisan list of cosponsors, would have legalized hemp and made it eligible for crop insurance.
“Hemp is a crop with a long and rich history in our country,” Comer said in introducing his amendment before the committee. “It was grown by many of our founding fathers.”
Comer, who is a former Kentucky agriculture commissioner, said his state’s existing industrial hemp research program, which is authorized under a previous Farm Bill enacted in 2014, “has been a great success.”
He also spoke about the economic potential of the plant. “Times are tough in rural america,” he said. “For rural Kentuckians, industrial hemp has provided a new crop and business opportunity.”
But in a party-line move, the committee voted 8 to 3 to reject a motion to add Comer’s amendment to the list of proposals approved for floor consideration.
Another hemp amendment, filed by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Jared Polis (D-CO), would have removed hemp from the list of federally banned substances.
A third proposal, submitted by Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), sought to create “a safe harbor for financial institutions that provide services to hemp legitimate businesses” that operate under state-authorized research programs.
“There is a proud history in American and in Kentucky [for hemp] as an agriculture product,” Barr said when testifying for his amendment, noting that it can be used in over 25,000 products.
Under current law, banks that work with legitimate hemp companies “fear reprisal from federal regulators,” Barr said, arguing that his proposed measure would protect financial institutions “from unnecessary interference from bank examiners and regulators” and give producers rights that “every other American crop enjoys.”
The committee did not hold specific votes on those two measures.
Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) has made a consistent practice of blocking cannabis measures from advancing over the past several years.
Sessions, seemingly mistakenly, told Comer during the Wednesday hearing that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has “a clause…that industrial hemp should be declassified under their Schedule I drugs, which they concur, which is the position you hold, too.”
A hemp lobbyist told Marijuana Moment in an email that he had not heard of the DEA taking a pro-hemp position.
Polis, who as a Rules Committee member made the unsuccessful motion to let the full House vote on Comer’s amendment, argued that hemp is a “common sense area” that enjoys bipartisan support. The measure, he said, would simply “treat industrial hemp as the agricultural commodity that it is.”
While Sessions and other GOP panel members were not swayed, the chairman did hint just before the vote that there may still be hope for hemp reform, saying that the issue would be “determined by an agreement that would be reached” with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
McConnell last month filed a hemp legalization bill, which Comer’s amendment closely modeled. Fully a fifth of the Senate is now signed on as cosponsoring that legislation, and the majority leader has already announced plans to attach his hemp language to the version of the Farm Bill being considered by the Senate this month.
While it is unclear what exactly Sessions was suggesting when he referred to an “agreement” with McConnell, it may have been a reference to the conference committee process that will merge the House and Senate’s respective versions of the Farm Bill into a single proposal after each chamber passes its legislation. If McConnell succeeds in attaching hemp legalization to the Senate bill, it would then be up for consideration as part of the final legislation sent to President Trump for signing into law.
In 2014, McConnell successfully inserted a provision to prevent federal interference in hemp research programs in that year’s version of the Farm Bill.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.