Democratic candidates clashed on marijuana policy during Wednesday’s presidential debate, with former Vice President Joe Biden’s record of supporting harsh criminalization policies being a focus of contention for other contenders.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) called out Biden, slamming his role in advancing punitive criminal justice reform legislation and arguing that the country needs “far more bold action on criminal justice reform,” and that includes “true marijuana justice, which means legalizing it on a federal level and reinvest the profits in communities that have been disproportionately targeted by marijuana enforcement.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) also weighed in on cannabis policy, with the California senator stating that the next president would have to be “cleaning up the mess [Biden] created in the United States Senate” and then facing criticism from Gabbard over her own marijuana record as a prosecutor who once campaigned against legalization.
“This is a crisis in our country because we have treated issues of race and poverty, mental health and addiction, with locking people up and not lifting them up,” Booker said. “Every major crime bill—major and minor—has had [Biden’s] name on it and not mine.”
Biden’s drug policy platform—and particularly his decades-long Senate record as an author of punitive anti-drug laws that have contributed to mass incarceration and racial inequities in the criminal justice system—has become a target for reform-minded candidates in recent weeks. He was first to be asked about criminal justice at the debate and, highlighting his newly somewhat evolved position, said that “when someone is convicted of a drug crime, they end up going to jail and to prison” when they “should be going to rehabilitation.”
But while the former vice president has attempted to distance himself from his drug warrior image, including by unveiling a criminal justice reform plan that would involve decriminalizing cannabis and expunging records of those with prior marijuana convictions, his opponents won’t let him forget his past positions, nor the fact that he still opposes full legalization.
“The house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws and you can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire,” Booker said. “We have got to have far more bold action on criminal justice reform.”
We have a mass incarceration crisis in this country because we’ve tried to solve addiction, mental health and poverty by locking people up, not by lifting people up. #DemDebate
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) August 1, 2019
“All of the problems that he is talking about that he created, I actually led the bill that got passed into law that reverses the damage that your bills, that you are frankly—correct me, Mr. Vice President—you are bragging, calling it the Biden crime bill up to 2015,” Booker said.
Biden pushed back by against the New Jersey senator, inquiring about the then-Newark mayor’s position on stop-and-frisk policing policies.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 1, 2019
Joe Biden will strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform by taking action to reduce our prison population, address racial disparities, and make our communities safer.#DemDebate pic.twitter.com/rVcRMKB3SH
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 1, 2019
Booker accused the former VP of “trying to shift the view from what you created,” noting that “there are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime, phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.”
“This isn’t about the past, sir. This is about the present right now.”
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) August 1, 2019
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro joined in to say that he agreed Biden’s role in pushing the 1994 crime bill “was a mistake” and that “he has flip-flopped on these things, and that’s clear.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) invited candidates to visit his state to witness “what criminal justice reform looks like,” touting his initiative to pardon thousands of individuals with cannabis possession convictions on their record.
Here’s some context on the Booker-Biden quarrel:
Shortly after Biden released his criminal justice reform proposal earlier this month, Booker issued a press release deeming the plan inadequate and arguing that the “proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
Joe Biden has the boldest, most comprehensive criminal justice reform proposal in this election.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 1, 2019
Booker also said that Biden seems to have an “inability to talk candidly about the mistakes he made, about things he could’ve done better, about how some of the decisions he made at the time, in difficult context, actually have resulted in really bad outcomes.”
Booker has focused on drug policy reform throughout his campaign, striving to distinguish himself from the pack of candidates by emphasizing his support for comprehensive marijuana legalization legislation—bills like his Marijuana Justice Act that go beyond descheduling cannabis and include provisions aimed at promoting social equity in the marijuana industry and righting the wrongs of prohibition.
In March, he took a thinly-veiled swipe at Harris after the senator discussed her past experience with marijuana in a lighthearted manner during a radio interview. Booker contrasted the California senator’s cavalier comments about using marijuana during college with the fact that “we had more arrests for marijuana possession in this country than all the violent crime arrests combined” in 2017.
Gabbard didn’t give Harris a pass to that end, emphasizing that the then-California attorney general “put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) August 1, 2019
“As the elected attorney general of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work,” Harris responded. “And I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor but actually doing the work, of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.”
“That is why we created initiatives that were about re-entering former offenders and getting them counseling,” she continued. “It’s why, and because I know the criminal justice system is so broken, it is why I’m an advocate for what we need to do to not only decriminalize but legalize marijuana in the United States.”
Harris filed legislation this month that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and invest in programs aimed at helping to repair the damage of the war on drugs.
Biden, meanwhile, has only gone so far as to say that he supports decriminalization and rescheduling.
While drug policy reform was strongly featured at Wednesday’s event, it received little attention during an earlier debate on Tuesday—which involved pro-legalization candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
At that event, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought up alcohol prohibition and said the country’s decision to reverse that decision shows that more change on other issues is possible. “This is a country that once changed its Constitution so you couldn’t drink and then changed it back because we changed our minds about that,” he said.
Warren argued that President Donald Trump is advancing “criminal justice racism.” Sanders decried the “prison-industrial complex.” And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) emphasized the need to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for opioid addiction.
Biden echoed Klobuchar’s point at the Wednesday debate, arguing that we “should put some of these insurance executives who oppose my [healthcare] plan in jail for the nine billion opioids they sell out there.”
For his part, entrepreneur Andrew Yang said he would “trust anyone on the stage more than I trust our current president on matters of criminal justice.”
USDA Approves Hemp Plans For Texas, Nebraska And Delaware
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Monday that it has approved hemp regulatory plans for three more states and four additional Indian tribes.
This is the latest in a series of approvals that USDA has doled out since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Texas, Nebraska and Delaware—in addition to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and the Yurok Tribe—each had their regulatory plans cleared.
“USDA continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes on an ongoing basis,” the department said in a notice. “Plans previously approved include those for the states of Louisiana, New Jersey, and Ohio, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux, Santa Rosa Cahuilla, and La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indian Tribes.”
While hemp is no longer a federally controlled substance, farmers interested in cultivating and selling the crop must live in a jurisdiction where USDA has approved a proposed regulatory scheme. The process was outlined in an interim final rule USDA published late last year. If a state or tribe does not have, or plan to propose, regulations for hemp, cultivators can apply for a USDA license instead.
“This is a victory for Texas farmers,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement. “We are one step closer to giving our ag producers access to this exciting new crop opportunity.”
“We’ve got to get our rules approved and get our licensing program up and running, but the dominoes are dropping pretty quick,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment that “Texas has the potential to be the largest supplier of hemp in the U.S., providing farmers with an unprecedented opportunity.”
“With approval from the USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture already moving forward with establishing licensing standards, it’s refreshing to see our government paving the way for legal cannabis cultivation in Texas,” Fazio said.
While lawmakers and industry stakeholders have widely celebrated USDA’s commitment to implementing hemp legalization, it has also received a significant amount of pushback over proposed rules such as THC limits and laboratory testing requirements. A public comment period for the department’s interim rule ends on Wednesday.
USDA maintains a website that tracks the status of state and tribal hemp plans.
Monday’s announcement sends another signal to the hemp industry that the federal government is committed to supporting the market and ensuring that farmers have the resources they need to see their businesses thrive since the crop was legalized.
That said, one of the most lucrative market opportunities that hemp farmers are hoping to take advantage of is the widespread interest in hemp-derived CBD products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over rules for marketing CBD, and the agency has made clear that the process may take several years without congressional action.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers set out to do just that, filing a bill that would require FDA to allow CBD products to be sold as dietary supplements.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Mexico’s President Says A New Marijuana Panel Will Make Legalization Recommendations
The president of Mexico said on Monday that a government panel is being formed in order to make recommendations for a legal marijuana system in the country.
While he didn’t offer many details about the commission, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said it will be focused on studying public health aspects of legalization.
“A group is going to be formed to decide what will happen about that with a public health approach. We are about to comply with the recommendation of the Supreme Court,” the president said during a press conference, according to a translation of his remarks, referencing a 2018 ruling that deemed the prohibition of cannabis for personal use unconstitutional.
Watch López Obrador’s marijuana comments, around 1:43:45 into the video below:
Asked to weigh in on the argument that regulating drugs like cannabis could combat cartels, the president said “we are analyzing this possibility” and went on to describe the state of play on legislation to legalize marijuana.
Since the court ruling, legislators have spent months discussing and drafting marijuana reform legislation to create a commercial cannabis market. Several Senate committees produced a comprehensive legalization bill last year, which advocates hoped would get a vote before the court’s October 2019 deadline to change the country’s marijuana policy, but that didn’t pan out.
The court granted lawmakers a deadline extension to end prohibition by April 30 of this year.
“We are about to fulfill this recommendation of the [Supreme Court] so that it becomes law,” he said. “We are going to process it, we are working on that—I think it will move forward. A group will be formed to decide what to do about this, basically.”
An amended reform bill, jointly submitted by the Justice and Health Committees, started circulating earlier this month. It would legalize possession of up to 28 grams, or 200 grams for those who obtain a certain license. Individuals would also be able to cultivate up to six plants.
“We have to review it well, of course, all with the public health approach, always with that approach, and taking into account the changes that are taking place,” the president said. “This is being analyzed.”
Sen. Ricardo Monreal Ávila of the ruling MORENA party stressed that the legislation isn’t final, but it’s a step in the right direction. He said he’ll be meeting with Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero and Julio Scherer, a legal advisor to the president, this week to discuss cannabis reform legislation.
Monreal, who included marijuana legalization in a list of legislative priorities this month, said he expects lawmakers to pass reform legislation ahead of the April deadline.
Advocates Push Back On Secretly Recorded Trump Claim That Marijuana Use Lowers IQ
Marijuana reform advocates are hitting back at President Trump’s suggestion that cannabis use makes people lose IQ points.
“In Colorado they have more accidents,” the president said of the first state to legalize cannabis for adult use. “It does cause an IQ problem.”
The comments were revealed over the weekend in a surreptitiously recorded video captured in April 2018 by Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani, who is involved in the Ukraine scandal that led to the president’s impeachment.
But when it comes to cannabis’s impact on intelligence, Trump has it wrong, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which determined based on longitudinal twin studies that there is not “a causal relationship between marijuana use and IQ loss.”
In interviews with Marijuana Moment on Monday, legalization advocates expressed frustration that the president perpetuated the prohibitionist talking point.
“Trump’s remarks simply reveal that he is out of touch, given that the majority of Americans support marijuana legalization for both medical and adult use,” Sheila Vakharia of the Drug Policy Alliance said. “This type of rhetoric is fear-mongering and inflammatory.”
“The evidence is clear from the dozens of states that have legalized medical and adult use—the sky isn’t falling and the kids are alright,” she said.
Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, said that “what truly causes a decline in an individual’s intelligence is adhering to false Reefer Madness rhetoric that flies in the face of available science.”
“If President Trump truly believes that responsible marijuana use by adults leads to a loss of IQ points, we suggest he immediately consults his physician to see if he is suffering from this affliction or at the very least consults the wide body of available research that debunks this old talking point,” he told Marijuana Moment.
Listen to Trump talk about marijuana, about 45:30 into the video below:
But while the president’s IQ claim came as a disappointment, there were other aspects of the secretly recorded dinner conversation concerning that cannabis reform advocates see as positive.
For example, Trump seemed surprised to hear that state-legal marijuana businesses don’t have access to traditional financial services, which Parnas described as “the biggest problem” in the industry.
“Cannabis, look, you’re talking about marijuana, right? You can’t do banking there?” the president said, adding that the issue is “all working out. That whole thing is working out.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” he said.
Trump, who has previously voiced support for allowing states to set their own marijuana policies, also asked others at the dinner table whether they believe “the whole marijuana thing is a good thing” and whether the plant is “actually good for opioids.”
One person said cannabis is a “better alternative” to prescription opioids, and Donald Trump Jr. noted that “alcohol does much more damage” than marijuana and that “you don’t see people beating their wives on marijuana. It’s just different.”
Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “pretty frustrating that the president, like many others, has been misled by ‘Just Say No’ propaganda into believing the disproven idea that cannabis consumption decreases intelligence.”
“However, this clip suggests that he is in a fairly good position or at least heading towards one on the issue overall,” he said. “I think it is pretty clear that he understands that prohibition is a failure from an economic standpoint, that states should be free from federal interference, and that reform could help with the opioid epidemic.”
“His statements regarding access to banking suggest that he would be willing to sign cannabis banking reform legislation that crosses his desk. Generally, it is very heartening to see that the administration is having substantive conversations about it, and we welcome the opportunity to continue this discussion with the president to make sure he recognizes the urgency of reform and has the facts.”
Later in the recording, Parnas made the case that Trump should embrace marijuana reform ahead of the 2018 midterm elections to attract young voters and get “ahead of” the issue.
“It’s so far out you’re not going to stop it,” he said. “I think you need to be ahead of it.”
Parnas pitched the idea of establishing a “bipartisan committee” with “no politicians” to independently explore possible policy changes and make recommendations to the administration. The president didn’t directly reply.
While Trump didn’t take up the suggestion to take the lead on cannabis prior to the 2018 election in which Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, Don Murphy, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said it’s not too late for him to act.
The president “has an opportunity to make the history books undoing a war he inherited, waged against Americans—African Americans in particular—literally for generations,” he said.
“Even his predecessor continued that same failed policy, throwing even more people in prison. Not only that, he has a chance to out flank every Democratic candidate in the field,” Murphy told Marijuana Moment, referring to the Obama administration’s rejection of petitions to reclassify cannabis under federal law. “He would be remembered as our greatest criminal justice reformer in history.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.