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Florida’s US Senate Candidates Clash On Medical Marijuana

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In this year’s close U.S. Senate race in Florida, marijuana is playing a mostly sidelined role so far as voters in the key swing state decide between incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is term-limited out of his current job.

But among the two candidates, the winner of which could help determine which party controls the Senate next year, there are sharp disagreements about some aspects of marijuana policy.

Florida voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, in the fifth year of Scott’s term. The governor himself has not been a supporter, and his administration continues to fight efforts to allow patients to consume medical marijuana in smokeable form.

Despite 71 percent voter approval for the initiative, the Florida legislature limited the scope of medical cannabis to oils, tinctures, sprays and edibles—a move that was met with resistance from activists like attorney John Morgan, who largely funded the legalization effort and later supported legal action against the state on behalf of a small handful of patients and organizations, claiming the restrictions were unconstitutional.

Morgan urged Scott to drop his appeal in the smokable marijuana case, suggesting that he would lose the Senate race if he kept up the fight, and that if he did indeed drop it, he’d gain “five points overnight.”

Scott’s “boneheaded decision” to appeal the smokable marijuana case even garnered criticism from Trump ally Roger Stone, calling it a “waste of taxpayers’ money” likely to “cost him Republican votes [and] hurt him in the Senate race.”

And Congressman Matt Gaetz, also a Republican, said the decision was “neither compassionate nor conservative.”

Meanwhile, Scott had been defensive of his administration’s efforts to implement medical cannabis, even before the lawsuit ruling: “The Department of Health is implementing Amendment 2,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to streamline the process and work through this process… As you all know, this is a new process and they’re working very hard.”

That said, the governor himself had taken a stand against the state’s medical cannabis initiative at the ballot box. “I voted against it,” Scott said. “I believe people should have access to any drugs they need or anything they need, but I think it ought to go through the legislative process.”

He also vetoed research funding to study the effects of medical marijuana. Explaining his, decision, Scott also said that the University of Florida and the Moffitt Cancer Center already had enough of their own money to fund the research on their own.

In 2014, Scott signed into law a limited low-THC medical cannabis program.

“I have a great deal of empathy for people battling difficult diseases and I understand arguments in favor of this initiative,” he said at the time, referring to a more comprehensive medical marijuana measure that went on to a narrow defeat at the ballot box that year. “But, having seen the terrible effects of alcohol and drug abuse first-hand, I cannot endorse sending Florida down this path and I would personally vote against it.”

Two years later, voters approved a similar initiative.

For his part, Nelson has positioned himself in direct opposition to Scott, stating that doctors should be able to recommend smokable cannabis to patients. “I don’t want a government or a politician to get in the way of a doctor recommending what should be the treatment, the medical treatment for the doctor’s patient,” he said. “Of course” that includes smokable cannabis, he added. “That’s what the constitutional amendment was.”

However, while he supports medical marijuana (and indeed voted for the state’s ballot measure to legalize it), Nelson remains opposed to broader recreational legalization. When asked if he agreed with the growing number of Democrats aiming to reform cannabis policy, he answered: “That’s a fancy way that you’ve asked me ‘Do I agree with recreational marijuana’, and the answer is no.”

His opposition to legalizing cannabis seems to be rooted in the belief that, outside a medical context for “desperate” patients, the drug is otherwise harmful.

“Just listen to the personal testimonies of people that nothing will help them as they are dying and marijuana gives them comfort and relieves the pain,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Nelson began his political career in 1972, when he joined the Florida House of Representatives. He later served more than a decade in the U.S. House and, in 2001, became a U.S senator. Over time, he has maintained a reputation as one of Congress’s more moderate Democrats.

While Nelson has said that cannabis legalization should be “left to the states,” he hasn’t added his name as a cosponsor to a single piece of marijuana reform legislation during his decades on Capitol Hill.  He did, however, vote on the 2014 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp for research purposes.

Nelson has, however, signed onto a small handful of bills geared toward supporting drug war-style initiatives. Among them were a 1990 resolution to “take ongoing responsibility in the drug war by incorporating the issue of the illegal narcotics trade as an integral component of United States trade policy.”

While that legislation can be contextualized amidst the height of 1980s drug war propaganda, Nelson has nonetheless done little to modernize his attitude toward prohibition in the years since.

Legalization advocacy group NORML gave Nelson a B grade in its congressional scorecard, while Scott earned a D+ in the organization’s gubernatorial rankings.

Neither the incumbent senator nor his challenger have taken strong stances in support of marijuana law reform— though perhaps the upcoming election will encourage them to, in one direction or another.

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Madison is a New York/Los Angeles-based journalist on the cannabis beat. You can read her work on Herb, Rolling Stone, Merry Jane, and elsewhere.

Politics

Three Federal Agencies Take Public Comments On Cannabis Topics

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Three federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—are now accepting comments from the public on cannabis-related topics such as hemp pesticides and the legal classification of marijuana globally.

In a notice published in the Federal Register last month, FDA said that it is seeking input on potential changes to the status of marijuana under international treaties.

EPA invited comments on applications for pesticides to be used on hemp, which comes months after the crop was federally legalized.

Meanwhile, people have the chance to share their perspective on a proposal DEA released last week that calls for the cultivation of more than three million grams of cannabis for research purposes next year. That 3.2 million gram quota would be 30 percent higher than this year’s. At the same time, DEA said its quota for prescription painkillers such as fentanyl and oxycodone would be decreased next year by more than 50 percent.

The comment period opened last week, and 25 people have weighed in at this point. Submissions received so far are primarily focused on DEA’s proposed reduction opioid production, with several chronic pain patients arguing that they will be negatively impacted. People can send comments on the cannabis and other drug quotas through October 15.

FDA initially made its request for input on cannabis’s global treaty status in March, but it was closed because an expected United Nations (UN) vote on a proposal to remove marijuana from the most strictly regulated category was postponed.

Last month, FDA said it was reopening the comment period until September 30, in anticipation that the UN will make a decision on the possible changes in the coming months. So far, a total of about 3,000 comments have been received, including those posted since August 29. The vast majority voice support for legalization, with many sharing personal anecdotes about the plant’s therapeutic benefits.

“Please lift the ban and prohibition of marijuana. Marijuana isn’t ruining the lives of countless Americans… America’s drug laws are doing that all by themselves via mass incarceration,” Zach Fowler wrote.

“I am 30 years old and suffer from a progressive neurologically condition that leaves me in constant debilitating pain along with a host of other symptoms. Without cannabis, I could not function enough to work for even care for my children,” Amanda Wood-Devore said. “Cannabis calms my pain, eases corresponding anxiety, and helps my constant nausea and vomiting.”

Alex Rol said that the “current marijuana laws are more destructive than protective.”

“We have seen extensive reports that cannabis can be used for medical purposes and many find its effects increase the ease of life,” he said. “While I understand the concern of those less familiar with cannabis on its legalization it simply isn’t right to incarcerate people for possession of a generally harmless substance.”

“I agree with the [World Health Organization] that cannabis should be removed from the Schedule 1 classification,” Michael Ochipa wrote, referring to a recommendation WHO released in February urging the rescheduling of marijuana and descheduling of CBD.

“Most of the research to date indicates that cannabis has a very positive risk/reward profile,” he wrote. “Side effects are lower, and medicinal benefits are greater than many over the counter drugs. It can also be grown easily at home making it more economical.”

Though it’s not clear how much stock FDA will put into personal stories of individuals who’ve benefited from marijuana in shaping the Trump administration’s position on scheduling changes, the volume of comments and consistency of support for legalization is significant. While there has been a focus on the medical potential of cannabis, several others emphasized the consequences of prohibition, particularly for communities of color.

If the United Nations does decide to adopt WHO’s recommendations, it wouldn’t mean that member nations would be free to legalize marijuana without technically violating the treaties. However, even under its current strict status, Canada and Uruguay have moved forward with legalization models, with Mexico expected to follow suit as early as next month.

Over at EPA, there hasn’t been quite as much interest from the public in submitting comments on pesticides applications for hemp. The agency announced last month that it was accepting input on 10 existing applications and said it hoped “this transparent and public process will bring hemp farmers and researchers increased regulatory clarity in time for next growing season.”

EPA said it’s not required to take public comment on the applications but is doing so “because of the potential significant interest from the public in these initial applications and in furtherance of being completely transparent about these applications.”

There may be significant interest from the public on hemp legalization generally, particularly among stakeholders who are eagerly awaiting federal regulations to unlock the crop’s potential, but that isn’t being reflected on the Federal Register notice page yet when it comes to pesticides. Only five people have commented on the proposal.

One person noted that the 10 pesticides under review contain almost the same ingredients and said “it really limits the ability of producers to manage pests and diseases.”

“I highly recommend expanding the list of compounds available to producers to increase the ability to suppress pests and diseases,” the anonymous commenter wrote. “There are many more bio-pesticides on the market that are safe for humans that specifically target agricultural pests.”

Another individual who said he and his partner are making a transition from growing cannabis in California to hemp in North Carolina wrote in support of the proposed pesticides.

“We have used the products under discussion with great effectiveness, especially the biological controls,” the person said. “Because hemp can be so susceptible to mold, fungus, and pests, it is imperative to have these tools to ensure a healthy and plentiful product.”

Finally, there was one comment in opposition to allowing any pesticides on hemp because, they wrote, “IT WILL JUST TURN IT IN TO POISON.”

EPA’s public comment closes on September 23. The agency did not say when decisions would be made about the applications, but it did state that it planned to give hemp farmers approval to use the tools before the 2020 planting season.

The fact that three separate federal agencies are now accepting comments on separate cannabis issues is another sign that the public has more opportunity than ever before to influence the government’s position on marijuana policy.

DEA Wants 3.2 Million Grams Of Marijuana Legally Grown In 2020

Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Bipartisan Lawmakers Circulate Letter Urging FDA To Back Off CBD Companies

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A bipartisan pair of lawmakers are circulating a sign-on letter asking colleagues to join them in urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to back off companies that are selling CBD products in a responsible manner.

The “Dear Colleague” letter, which is being led by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and James Comer (R-KY), emphasizes that hemp and CBD were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill and argues that the lack of regulations for such products is creating industry uncertainty that’s inhibiting economic opportunities.

The letter was first reported by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, which is asking its supporters to encourage their representatives to sign on.

FDA has said it is in the process of developing rules for the non-intoxicating compound, including a potential alternative regulatory pathway allowing for CBD to be added to the food supply and as dietary supplements. That could take years, however, as former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has noted.

In the meantime, the agency is being selective about enforcement action against companies that make unsanctioned claims about their products while also maintaining that all businesses selling CBD food items are violating the law.

The lawmakers aren’t satisfied. They described FDA’s regulatory timeframe as “untenable,” particularly because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to release its rules for hemp “any day now,” and an official revealed this month that its draft regulations are currently undergoing final White House and Department of Justice review.

The members of Congress added that FDA’s current approach to CBD has “created significant regulatory and legal uncertainty for participants in this quickly evolving industry.”

“Given the widespread availability of CBD products, growing consumer demand, and the expected surge in the hemp farming in the near future, it’s critical that FDA act quickly to provide legal and regulatory clarity to support this new economic opportunity,” they wrote.

“Please join us in signing this bipartisan letter to Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless urging the agency to adopt a risk-based policy of enforcement discretion that targets bad actors while eliminating uncertainty for responsible industry stakeholders and consumers. Additionally, we are requesting that FDA to issue an interim final rule to regulate CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”

In the letter to Sharpless that Pingree and Comer are asking fellow lawmakers to sign, they laid out two requests for FDA.

First, the agency should “promptly issue guidance announcing a policy of enforcement discretion that maintains FDA’s current risk-based enforcement approach towards hemp-derived CBD products.” And second, it should “consider issuing an interim final rule, pending issuance of a permanent final rule, to establish a clear regulatory framework for CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”

The lawmakers added that they appreciate that FDA has pursued “enforcement actions against the worst offenders,” but that “it can do so while eliminating regulatory uncertainty for farmers, retailers, and consumers.”

“Without a formal enforcement discretion policy, anyone participating in the growing marketplace for legal hemp-derived products will continue to face significant legal and regulatory uncertainty,” they wrote.

Though issuing guidance on a “policy of enforcement discretion” wouldn’t be a codified law allowing companies to market CBD in the food supply, it would demonstrate to the industry that some protections are in place while FDA continues to navigate the rulemaking process.

Lawmakers have until Tuesday to sign the letter to FDA.

Read the Dear Colleague invitation and CBD letter to FDA below:

Pingree Comer CBD Letter by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

GOP Senate Chair Says He Plans Marijuana Banking Vote

Photo by Kimzy Nanney.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A Full House Floor Vote This Month

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A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service marijuana businesses will get a House floor vote by the end of the month, the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed to Marijuana Moment on Friday.

House leadership announced the decision to Democratic lawmakers at a closed-door meeting on Thursday.

“Mr. Hoyer said at the Whip meeting yesterday that he intends to move it this month,” a Hoyer staffer said in an email. “We’re discussing it with Members, but it hasn’t been scheduled just yet.”

Prior to confirmation from Hoyer’s office, four sources initially described the development to Marijuana Moment, with some saying the vote would be made under suspension of the rules—a procedure that is generally reserved for non-controversial legislation.

Voting on suspension would require two-thirds of the chamber (290 members) to vote in favor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in order for it to pass. The bill, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March, currently has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans.

No amendments would be allowed to be added on the floor under the suspension process.

Problems could arise if lawmakers aren’t able to rally additional votes from conservative members or if there’s pushback over the strategy from progressive lawmakers, though it is unlikely Democratic leadership would advance the bill if they didn’t believe they have the votes for passage.

While interest in resolving the banking issue is generally bipartisan, it’s within reason to assume that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle might have wanted the opportunity to offer provisions such as extending protections to hemp businesses or adding language promoting social equity policies. That said, it is possible that leadership could file an entirely new piece of legislation that is similar to the SAFE Banking Act but contains modified provisions negotiated with key members and use that as the vehicle for floor action.

Many expected cannabis banking legislation to receive a floor vote before the August recess, but that did not come to fruition.

In any case, the development comes as the Senate Banking Committee is also preparing to hold a vote on marijuana banking legislation, with Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) announcing on Thursday that his panel is “working to try to get a bill ready.” He didn’t offer a timeline, however, other than saying he hoped to advance the legislation by the end of the year.

While sources told Marijuana Moment that Hoyer made his decision to allow cannabis banking vote following an earlier Wednesday meeting on the issue, it is likely that building momentum in the GOP-controlled Senate added to pressure on the House to act so that Democrats wouldn’t be seen as lagging behind Republicans on cannabis reform, an issue the party has sought to take political ownership of.

Following Crapo’s statement on advancing the banking legislation, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told Marijuana Moment that he welcomes the senator’s “commitment to resolve the banking conflicts that have been created by the misalignment in state and federal law on the issue of cannabis.”

“I remain focused on passing the SAFE Banking Act out of the House and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate as they take up the SAFE Banking Act or work to develop and pass similar legislation,” he said.

Banking access is largely seen as one of the most achievable pieces of cannabis legislation that stands to pass this Congress. Advocates and reform-minded lawmakers view it as one of the first steps on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition.

“We are seeing the blueprint in action and moving forward on critical legislation to protect state legal cannabis banking,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment, referring to a memo he sent to House leadership last year outlining a committee-by-committee process for passing incremental cannabis bills leading up to major legislation to end federal prohibition. “Earlier this summer, the House passed protections for state and tribal cannabis laws. In the most cannabis friendly Congress in history, we need to keep up this momentum. There is still much to be done.”

There has been some disagreement within advocacy circles about whether it’s prudent to pass legislation viewed as primarily favorable to the industry before advancing comprehensive legislation that deschedules cannabis and takes steps to repair the harms of prohibition enforcement.

“It is our hope that after the successful passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, we will be able to advance legislation that ends the federal criminalization of cannabis once and for all,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Now is our time to demonstrate that marijuana law reform is both good policy and good politics.”

“We will not stop until otherwise law-abiding Americans are no longer discriminated against or criminalized due to the past or future choice to consume cannabis,” he said.

Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “delighted that the U.S. House of Representatives is on the brink of passing a landmark piece of cannabis policy legislation that modernizes our antiquated banking laws to reflect the will of the people.”

“This is welcomed and long overdue news for the over 200,000 employees that work in the industry, cannabis businesses, and for public safety in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “Once the SAFE Banking Act passes the U.S. House, we call on the U.S. Senate to move quickly to protect our businesses and our workers.”

Pressure has been building all year from stakeholders and policymakers alike to get the legislation passed. Endorsements aren’t just coming from reform groups, either; 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and bipartisan governors of 20 states have also voiced support for the SAFE Banking Act.

Earlier this month, the head of the American Bankers Association predicted that the bill would be passed in the House “as early as September.”

GOP Senate Chair Says He Plans Marijuana Banking Vote

This story was updated to add comment from Perlmutter and Hoyer’s office.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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