Federal criminal cases focused on marijuana have fallen sharply since states began legalizing cannabis, even though drug crimes continue to consume the bulk of the federal caseload, new data shows.
A report from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) released on Tuesday revealed that drug crimes remain the most common type of federal criminal cases, accounting for about 30 percent. The USSC reported that 92 percent of these drug cases involved trafficking.
Even so, 1,301 federal drug cases “involved a conviction for the simple possession of a drug.”
The report, which does not include information about state criminal prosecutions, showed a downward trend in federal criminal cases overall. That includes drug cases, which dropped about four percent since fiscal year 2016—the fifth year in a row that drug cases have declined. Drug crimes involving cocaine and methamphetamine were up slightly, but those involving marijuana fell sharply.
“The number of marijuana cases [3,854] represents a 25.3 percent decline from the year before. Marijuana cases have declined by 45.8 percent since fiscal year 2013.”
Another interesting decline concerns mandatory minimum sentences. About 44 percent of drug offenders were convicted of crimes that carried a mandatory minimum—the lowest percentage since the USSC began collecting that data in 1993. Marijuana offenders were generally given the shortest sentences, averaging 29 months of imprisonment.
But what accounts for the substantial decline in marijuana cases?
Several factors may be at play. Federal marijuana cases have dropped almost 50 percent since 2013—the same year that former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memorandum, colloquially known as the “Cole memo,” to federal prosecutors on marijuana enforcement priorities. The document has generally been interpreted as a message to U.S. attorneys not to prosecute people complying with state cannabis laws.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that memo in January, but he later said it wouldn’t necessarily lead to an increase in federal marijuana cases. The Justice Department doesn’t have the resources to take on “routine cases,” he said.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment that he viewed the trend as a reflection of “shifting federal priorities among both U.S. drug enforcement and border agents” and “may also be attributable to the reality that international drug trafficking organizations in recent years, following the advent of legalization in several U.S. jurisdictions have largely shifted their efforts away from marijuana.”
In other words, more of the market for cannabis is now being supplied by people following new state laws, so there are fewer people for the feds to prosecute in marijuana trafficking cases.
According to a separate 2018 DEA report, federal seizures of indoor and outdoor grown marijuana fell 37 percent from 2016 to 2017.
“As more and more states move toward regulating domestic cannabis, one can presume that the market for imported cannabis will continue to decline and that the U.S. cannabis market will become of even less interest to [drug trafficking organizations],” Armentano said.
It should be noted that federal marijuana cases account for a small fraction of cannabis enforcement in the United States overall, the bulk of which is done on the state and local levels. For example, there were more than 580,000 arrests for marijuana nationwide in 2016.
Banks Accepted Significantly More Marijuana Businesses In 2019, Federal Data Shows
Banks and credit unions have been accepting significantly more marijuana businesses in 2019, according to new federal data.
At the end of the last quarter of 2018, there were 438 banks and 113 credit unions actively servicing cannabis businesses. By March 2019, those numbers grew to 493 and 140, respectively.
That data comes from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which tracks financial services for the marijuana industry by analyzing suspicious activity reports, or SARs, that institutions file in accordance with cannabis banking guidance issued by the Obama administration in 2014.
While banks run the risk of being penalized by financial regulators by accepting cannabis business accounts because their products are still federally controlled substances, an increasing number of them are willing to take that chance. The latest update of quarterly numbers, posted late last month, comes as bipartisan legislation that would protect banks that service state-legal markets advances toward the House floor for a vote.
“As of 31 March 2019, FinCEN has received a total of 81,725 SARs using the key phrases associated with [marijuana related businesses],” the federal agency wrote.
FinCEN also breaks down the types of SARs the banks and credit unions reported for marijuana businesses.
The vast majority (61,036) were considered “marijuana limited,” a term that refers to cannabis businesses that appear to be operating in compliance with state law and meet the agency’s standard for being serviceable under existing federal guidelines.
About 6,000 were defined as “marijuana priority,” which means they “may raise one or more of the red flags” under federal guidelines or they “may not be fully compliant with the appropriate state’s regulations” and are thus under investigation while the banks continue to service the businesses.
Finally, about 20,000 were marked as “marijuana termination.” That means has the cannabis business has violated at least one federal enforcement priority or state regulation and so “the financial institution has decided to terminate its relationship with” the business.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would do a lot to resolve uncertainty in the banking sector as it concerns marijuana. The bill cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March and is expected to get a full House floor vote next month.
Advocates argue that providing for the lawful banking of cannabis businesses would increase financial transparency, mitigate public safety risks associated with operating on a largely cash basis and simplify the tax process.
The legislation enjoys broad support outside of Congress as well. Twenty U.S. governors recently signed a letter encouraging its passage, as did banking associations representing all 50 states, a coalition of state attorneys general and another comprised of state treasurers.
Meanwhile, an annual spending bill that covers the Treasury Department and includes temporary language protecting banks from being punished for working with cannabis businesses is on the House floor this week.
Analysis: Breaking Down Congress’s Vote To Protect Legal Marijuana States From Federal Enforcement
In one of the most significant legislative victories in the history of the marijuana reform movement, an amendment blocking the Department of Justice from interfering in state-legal cannabis programs was approved for the first time in the U.S. House of Representatives last week.
In a 267-165 vote, the measure passed handily, drawing support from all but eight Democrats and nearly a quarter of the Republican caucus. The amendment’s passage seems to affirm what advocates have suspected—that broad reform is within arm’s reach in the 116th Congress.
But a closer look at the vote tally reveals subtle trends, dissents, individual vote flips and developments that paint a fuller picture of the state of marijuana politics in the Democratic-controlled chamber.
First, a top-level look: the last time this amendment was up for consideration in 2015, it came nine flipped votes short of passing, with a final tally of 206-222. It gained 61 “yes” votes in that time, which is a reflection of evolving public opinion on the issue and was also likely influenced by the fact that several sizable states such as California, Michigan and Illinois have since opted to legalize cannabis, putting pressure on lawmakers to embrace a policy that protects their constituents from federal harassment.
State Action Makes A Difference
Geographic changes in the vote tally can be seen in the images below, courtesy of GovTrack.us. Blue represents Democrats and red represents Republicans, with dark shading indicating “yes” votes and lighter shading standing for “no” votes.
Among states that legalized adult-use marijuana subsequent to the prior amendment’s consideration, here’s how the the number of “yes” votes for the measure grew:
- California: 40 vs. 46
- Illinois: 10 vs. 14
- Massachusetts: 6 vs. 9
- Maine: 1 vs. 2
- Michigan: 6 vs. 10
- Nevada: 2 vs. 3
- Vermont: 1 vs. 1
But not all of the growth came from states that have recently enacted legalization. All told, 20 individual members who were present for the prior amendment’s consideration switched their vote from “nay” to “aye” since 2015.
“No” to “yes” votes:
- Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA)
- Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH)
- Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY)
- Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO)
- Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN)
- Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI)
- Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH)
- Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA)
- Rep. William Keating (D-MA)
- Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA)
- Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL)
- Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MD)
- Rep. Tom Reed II (R-NY)
- Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA)
- Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL)
- Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)
- Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY)
- Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX)
- Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX)
- Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR)
Meanwhile, seven members flipped their votes in the opposite direction.
“Yes” to “no” votes:
- Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)
- Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL)
- Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL)
- Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC)
- Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA)
- Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA)
- Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO)
Support And Opposition Across Party Lines
The measure enjoyed some bipartisan support, but while a sizable bloc of members joined the “aye” side, there were actually four fewer total Republicans who voted in favor of the amendment this round as compared to 2015. Why? The shift is partially related to loss of marijuana-friendly GOP members in the 2018 midterm election. For example, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Mike Coffman (R-CO) each voted in favor of the 2015 amendment and otherwise championed cannabis reform to some extent, but lost reelection bids last year.
Plus there are those noted above who actually supported the measure last time but voted against it this year.
Perhaps some members took issue with the broader language of the new version, which extended protections to Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories, unlike the prior amendment, which lined up more squarely with Republican “states’ rights” views.
Another explanation could come down to partisanship. GOP Congressman Tom McClintock of California was the lead sponsor of the 2015 version, when Republicans controlled the House, whereas Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) took the helm this year, with McClintock as a cosponsor. With dozens of amendments to consider in a row in floor voting blocks of just two minutes each, it’s within reason to assume that some lawmakers approached some votes along party lines, leading some Republicans to vote for the prior measure led by their caucus-mate in 2015 after a quick glance.
An even simpler answer to the question of why there were fewer Republican “aye” vote this time is that there are just fewer GOP members in the chamber to begin with in light of Democrats’ electoral success in last year’s midterms in which they readily won control of the chamber.
Regardless, the 267-vote win is remarkable. More members voted for this amendment than they did for a narrower measure that simply prevented Justice Department interference in state medical cannabis programs in 2015. That tally was 242-186.
After the amendment was adopted, questions remained about the eight Democratic members who voted against the measure, given that marijuana reform is widely popular, especially among the party’s voters.
The most noteworthy Democratic “nay” vote came from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, who has historically been opposed to many cannabis reform measures. She was joined by Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Sharice Davids (D-KS), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Conor Lamb (D-PA), Collin Peterson (D-MN), Tom Suozzi (D-NY) and Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ) in opposing the measure.
But overall, Democratic members sent a forceful message about where the party stands on the issue. Leadership sent a “yes” recommendation in a whip email distributed before the vote, and presidential candidates and even some who’ve historically been reluctant to back cannabis reform joined hands to push the measure forward.
Presidential hopefuls Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) voted for it. (Other contenders Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) were absent for the vote as well as others taking place on Thursday.)
Leadership votes in favor of the amendment include Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY); Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY); Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY); Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD); Deputy Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NJ) and Majority Whip Jim Cylburn (D-SC).
Every Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the measure—another positive sign as lawmakers continue to pursue various pieces of marijuana legislation that will likely have to pass through the panel.
Curiously, however, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), minority ranking member on the Judiciary who’s advocated for a separate bill to let states set their own cannabis policies, voted against the amendment. That said, McClintock and other GOP members of the panel—Reps. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), Ken Buck (R-CO), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) and Gregory Steube (R-FL)—voted for the measure, indicating that broad legislation to reform federal cannabis laws could sail through the Judiciary Committee with solid bipartisan support.
On the Democratic side, Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), who have historically been hostile to cannabis reform, also voted for the measure this time around.
On the flip side, here are all 41 Republicans who bucked party leadership in voting in favor of the amendment:
- Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI)
- Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND)
- Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE)
- Rep. Troy Balderson (R-OH)
- Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO)
- Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY)
- Rep. James Comer (R-KY)
- Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL)
- Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-ID)
- Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)
- Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT)
- Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH)
- Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH)
- Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR)
- Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA)
- Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA)
- Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK)
- Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN)
- Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA)
- Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH)
- Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY)
- Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL)
- Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA)
- Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-MI)
- Rep. Dan Newhouse (WA)
- Rep. Amata Radewagen (R)
- Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY)
- Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA)
- Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC)
- Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA)
- Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL)
- Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX)
- Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ)
- Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)
- Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL)
- Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)
- Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR)
- Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL)
- Rep. Steve Watkins (R-KS)
- Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL)
- Rep. Don Young (R-AK)
Who Voted To Let The Feds Arrest Their Constituents?
While the increased number of votes in favor of the amendment seems to correspond, in part, with the rising number of states with legal marijuana programs, there were 17 members representing legal states who voted against protecting consumers who participate in their state’s cannabis system. Here’s a breakdown:
- Rep. Ken Calvert (R)
- Rep. Paul Cook (R)
- Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R)
- Rep. Devin Nunes (R)
- Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R)
- Rep. Doug Lamborn (R)
- Rep. Scott Tipton (R)
- Rep. Mike Bost (R)
- Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R)
- Rep. Darin LaHood (R)
- Rep. John Shimkus (R)
- Rep. Jack Bergman (R)
- Rep. Bill Huizenga (R)
- Rep. John Moolenarr (R)
- Rep. Tim Walberg (R)
- Rep. Mark Amodei (R)
- Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R)
Advocates walked away with a demonstrable win on Thursday but, as a final note, the roll call tally might well have been even larger if it weren’t for certain absentees. Besides Ryan and Swalwell, those members include Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) and Tom Emmer (R-MN)—all of whom voted in favor of the measure in 2015. There was just one member absent from the latest vote who voted against it last time.
Another indicator bodes well for the future of marijuana reform by demonstrating growing support from political newcomers is that among current members of Congress who weren’t in office during the 2015 vote, 98 voted in favor of the amendment while 50 voted against it.
Though advocates are celebrating the historic victory in the House, it remains to be seen whether the Republican-controlled Senate has an appetite for reform. That chamber’s Appropriations Committee is expected to begin its consideration of appropriations legislation that a similar amendment could potentially be attached to within the next few weeks.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Federal Transportation Official Says Marijuana Consumers Think They Drive Better While High
Federal research shows that marijuana consumers believe they drive better when they’re high, a leader of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said during a congressional hearing last week.
Appearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King testified that the department is combating impaired driving from cannabis, opioids and other drugs by issuing grants for law enforcement training and expanding public education campaigns on the issue.
Part of the reason public education is particularly necessary, she said, is because “most users of marijuana who have participated in market research we have developed are saying they believe they drive safer when they’re high because they’re very focused and they’re being very cautious.”
“We know from the driver simulator studies it’s not true,” she said. “We are doing everything we can, putting out more grant funds and supporting communities where the rubber hits the road to make sure we get ahead of the problem. And we educate consumers to make better decisions.”
NHTSA’s objective to that end is to debunk five myths: “That it’s safe to drive when under the use of a substance, that they’re not going to get stopped, that they’re not going to be arrested, not going to be prosecuted, not going to be convicted.”
But while King referenced simulator tests showing that people do not drive better under the influence of cannabis—and most advocates and opponents of legalization alike share the opinion that nobody should drive after consuming marijuana—a congressional report released in May found that the science isn’t quite so clear.
“Although laboratory studies have shown that marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance, studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage,” the Congressional Research Service report stated.
And several independent studies have found that legalization isn’t associated with an increase in traffic fatalities.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) asked whether NHTSA was focusing its research efforts on states that have legalized cannabis, such as his home state of Alaska.
“Yes, we have actually first traveled to Washington we later traveled to Denver in Colorado to have meetings and learn from them and learn best practices,” she said. “One of the things we find is the states that have been early legalizers of marijuana products like Washington and Colorado, they have a great deal to learn. Other states that were early medical marijuana adopters like the state of California also have something to share.”
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.