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.”
Voters In Key Congressional Districts Support Marijuana Legalization, Poll Says
With many key congressional races rated as “toss ups” by political observers, either major party could end up controlling of the U.S. House of Representatives after this November’s midterm elections.
A new poll identifies one thing that can help Republican or Democratic candidates come out ahead: Embracing marijuana legalization.
The polling firm Lake Research Partners surveyed 800 likely 2018 general election voters in 60 so-called “battleground districts,” finding that 60 percent support ending cannabis prohibition. Only 36 percent are opposed.
Medical marijuana is even more popular, with 79 percent of voters in these swing districts on board.
More to the point for politicians looking to win elections, the survey showed that 44 percent of battleground voters say they would be more more likely to vote for a candidate who supports legalization, including 26 percent who say they would be “much” more likely. Only 33 percent said they would be less likely to back a pro-legalization candidate.
The survey was conducted in February but is being released on Tuesday at Washington, D.C. event sponsored by MedMen Enterprises, a cannabis dispensary chain that commissioned the poll.
Another key finding is that 55 percent of voters say they would be “more likely” to vote if a marijuana initiative was on the ballot in their state.
The survey also tested the effectiveness of various arguments concerning legalization, determining that “the strongest pro-legalization message frame highlights how we need legalization to repair the financial and moral damage of the failed war on drugs,” according to a polling memo prepared by the firm.
Several other recent national polls have found majority support for marijuana legalization, but the new results narrowed down to key swing districts are likely to warrant special attention from candidates and political operatives.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Congressional Committee Blocks Marijuana Votes (Again)
Lawmakers on a key congressional committee once again blocked colleagues in the full House from being able to vote on marijuana-related amendments.
One proposed measure, filed last week, would have allowed Washington, D.C. to legally tax and regulate retail marijuana sales and another would have prevented federal regulators from penalizing federal banks from working with businesses and individuals in the legal cannabis industry.
But on Monday evening, the Republican-controlled Rules Committee, led by Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), continued its recent tradition of preventing floor votes on any and all measures to scale back federal cannabis prohibition.
“Everyone who knows that Congress has a responsibility to at least debate these issues should unite and help Pete Sessions find another line of work,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who cosponsored both cannabis measures, told Marijuana Moment in a statement.
Sessions’s Texas district, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, is currently considered a “toss up” by political analysts in this November’s midterm elections.
Before Monday, his panel had blocked at least 34 other cannabis-related amendments from reaching the floor for votes during the current Congress. The full House of Representatives has not been allowed to consider marijuana reform proposals since the spring of 2016.
Bipartisan groups of lawmakers cosponsored both new cannabis measures, which they were seeking to attach to legislation to fund parts of the federal government through Fiscal Year 2019.
(A third marijuana-related measure considered on Monday proposes shifting money away from forest and rangeland research toward “eradicating, enforcing, and remediating illegal marijuana grow operations on National Forest System land.” That measure was cleared for a floor vote, likely sometime this week.)
“Our federal laws are outdated. The people in this country want the law to treat marijuana as we do alcohol,” Congressman Denny Heck (D-WA), said in testimony about his marijuana banking amendment. “These large sums of cash make dispensaries an obvious target for robberies.”
He recounted the story of Travis Mason, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who was killed during a 2016 robbery at a Colorado marijuana dispensary where he was serving as a security guard.
“He managed to survive his service in the United States Marine Corps, but he didn’t survive his job guarding a store here at home,” Heck said.
“If we do nothing, this is bound to happen again.”
— Denny Heck (@RepDennyHeck) July 14, 2018
The D.C. measure was filed by Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia.
“This rider has unintentionally benefited violent drug gangs,” Norton said of current policy in her testimony before the Rules Committee. “For that reason, some refer to it as the ‘Drug Dealer Protection Act.’ As one marijuana dealer told the Washington Post, the rider is ‘a license for me to print money.’ Regulating marijuana like alcohol would allow D.C., instead of drug dealers, to control production, distribution, sales and revenues.”
Under a ballot measure approved by D.C. voters in 2014, low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation is legal. But because of an ongoing federal appropriations rider enacted in past years and included in the new FY19 bill, local officials have been prevented from adding a system of taxed and regulated cannabis sales.
Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO), a member of the Rules Committee, specifically moved during the meeting Monday night to make the amendment on cannabis businesses’ access to banks in order for a floor vote, but that was defeated by a party-line vote of 8 – 2.
Last night the Rules Committee blocked an amendment I cosponsored w/ @RepDennyHeck to protect financial institutions working with legal cannabis businesses. @RepJaredPolis asked for a roll call vote and EVERY Republican present voted no. What are they afraid of? Let us vote! pic.twitter.com/YDmnousHki
— Dina Titus (@repdinatitus) July 17, 2018
The marijuana banking measure had 22 cosponsors, more than any of the 276 other measures the Rules Committee considered this week. Eighty-seven amendments were cleared for floor consideration.
Sen. Jeff Merkley “Disappointed” That Democrats Blocked His Marijuana Banking Amendment
One of the U.S. Senate’s foremost champions for marijuana law reform says he is “disappointed” that fellow Democrats recently joined with Republicans in blocking his amendment to increase cannabis businesses’ access to banks.
Last month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) offered a measure that would have shielded banks that open accounts for state-legal marijuana businesses from being punished by federal regulators for that activity even though cannabis remains illegal under federal law.
While the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved two similar amendments in previous years, the panel this time voted to table the measure with a bipartisan vote of 21 – 10, with ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and other Democrats who normally support marijuana reform objecting on procedural grounds.
“I was disappointed,” Merkley said in an interview with BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith on Monday. “We had passed this twice before.”
“We need to establish banking for cannabis because a cash economy is an invitation to money laundering and theft and cheating your employees and cheating on your taxes [and] organized crime. All bad.”
“I accompanied the owner of a company who had $70,000 in his backpack to pay quarterly taxes,” Merkley recounted in response to the cannabis banking question on Monday, which was suggested to BuzzFeed by Marijuana Moment’s editor. “It’s so bizarre going down the freeway and talking about how they have to pay their employees in cash, have to pay their suppliers in cash. It’s a bad system.”
“Everyone should agree: States’ rights on this. Let the states have an electronic system to track what these businesses are doing, not billions of dollars floating around like this.”
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) July 16, 2018
Despite his disappointment with the measure being blocked, the Oregon Democrat, who is believed to be considering a 2020 presidential run, said that his colleagues “had a fair point to make on the policy front” in tabling the measure.
At the time, Leahy argued that spending bills such as the one before the committee should be kept “free of new controversial policy riders” and that a more appropriate forum would be an authorizing committee that sets banking laws.
“It wasn’t existing policy and therefore it was new policy,” Merkley acknowledged in the new interview.
But he pointed out that there are few other avenues available for senators to pursue the issue.
“Here’s the thing. Normally we could take these policy bills like I was putting forward [and] you could put it on the floor of the Senate as an amendment to something,” he said. “In 2017, outside of the budget process, not a single amendment was considered on the floor of the Senate… This is the end of the Senate really as a deliberative body on policy. So if you’re blocked in the Appropriations Committee, and you’re blocked on the floor, then it’s very hard to put ideas out there and say, ‘Hey vote on this. This matters.'”
The House Appropriations Committee also defeated a cannabis banking amendment last month.
See the video of Merkley’s remarks at about 19:15 into the clip below:
— AM to DM by BuzzFeed News (@AM2DM) July 16, 2018
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.