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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

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Presses Housing Secretary About Marijuana Eviction Policies

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pressed the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) about policies that cause public housing residents and their families to be evicted for committing low-level offenses such as marijuana possession on Tuesday.

During a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, the congresswoman first quoted HUD Secretary Ben Carson from a 2017 speech where he acknowledged that the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted minority communities.

“Do you acknowledge that the war on drugs disproportionately impacted black communities and communities of color despite marijuana and other drug use levels being comparable to white communities?” she asked the secretary for the record.

“Traditionally that has been the case,” Carson replied.

Ocasio-Cortez went on to say that she was concerned that “the negative impact of the war on drugs has not been limited to incarceration” and that “we had legislative rippling effect that also seems to have been codified in our housing system”

She pointed to two specific HUD policies: the “one strike” rule, which allows property managers to evict people living in federally assisted housing if they engage in illicit drug use or other crimes, and the “no fault” rule, which stipulates that public housing residents can be evicted due to illicit drug use by other members of their household or guests—even if the resident was unaware of the activity.

Carson said that property owners in individual jurisdictions have discretion when it comes to enforcing the policy, but he conceded that these rules are in effect under federal law.

“So a person could be stop and frisked and be found in possession of a small amount of marijuana and then be evicted or have their entire family evicted from public housing?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.

“That is a possibility,” Carson said.

The congresswoman then asked if Carson was aware of the “no fault” rule, to which he replied that the “use of such activity is extremely limited, if ever used.” Ocasio-Cortez responded by stating that the policies “are still codified in federal law” and asked whether the official supports “reversing some of these provisions” such as the “no fault” rule.

Carson said he was willing to talk about individual cases, and the congresswoman followed up by noting that there’s a lack of holistic review for these cases. Given Carson’s interest in hearing details about individual cases, she wondered if he’d “support being able to move some of these policies to a more holistic review.”

“Should that case-by-case consideration be codified in federal law instead of having blanket, one-strike or no fault policies?” she asked.

“I’m always in favor of more flexibility,” he said, signaling that he’d be open to reforming some of the anti-drug policies in effect federally at HUD.

Should Carson decline to take action, legislation introduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) in April would protect public housing residents who use marijuana in compliance with state law from being evicted.

Ocasio-Cortez herself has filed a bill that would prevent public housing applicants from being denied due to a low-level drug conviction that resulted in a sentence of under ten years and prohibit drug testing of applicants “as a condition of such housing assistance,” among other reforms.

People Could Use Marijuana In Public Housing Under New Congressional Bill

Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.

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Presidential Candidates Are Cosponsoring A New Marijuana Descheduling Bill

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Four 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have signed onto new legislation to federally deschedule marijuana—while a handful of other White House hopefuls are notably missing as original cosponsors.

The companion bills introduced on Monday by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and use some tax revenue from marijuana sales to provide grants to socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals to participate in the legal industry.

It would also set aside money to support efforts to expunge past marijuana convictions.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—who are each seeking the Democratic presidential nomination—are cosponsoring the bills.

But Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) have so far declined to give the legislation their signature, despite their overall support for marijuana reform.

Bennet was an original cosponsor of a similar bill that Schumer filed during the 115th Congress.

The reasons he and other candidates decided against joining as original cosponsors of the new legislation are unclear, though some of them may end up adding their names at a later date.

For Booker, it’s possible that the senator doesn’t feel that the bill goes far enough in terms of promoting social equity—which is why he hasn’t supported separate cannabis reform legislation introduced this Congress.

Outside of the presidential candidates, Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Tom Carper (D-DE) also cosponsored last year’s version but are not yet on the new proposal.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are moving ahead with plans to pass more modest cannabis reform legislation, including a bipartisan bill to give marijuana businesses access to banks that cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March.

Democratic Congressional Bill Protects Medical Cannabis But Not Broader State Marijuana Laws

Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.

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Two Federal Agencies Schedule Meetings To Discuss Marijuana-Related Issues

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Two federal agencies recently announced that they will be holding meetings this summer to discuss public health and safety issues related to marijuana.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a notice published in the Federal Register last week that its Board of Scientific Counselors will convene on July 16 and 17 to tackle a wide variety of topics, including how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and how to balance intramural and extramural research initiatives.

On the second day of the meeting, which will be open to the public, the panel of experts will also discuss the role of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in “addressing public health concerns related to marijuana.”

The notice is light on specifics, but the CDC has historically weighed in on the impacts of cannabis use on pregnancy, driving and young people.

Separately, on June 11 and 12, members of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Drug Testing Advisory Board will meet for a conversation about federal workplace drug testing policies. Part of that meeting will involve a discussion of “emerging issues surrounding marijuana legalization.”

While the Federal Register filing does not spell out which “emerging issues” will be specifically addressed during the first day’s public session, it also notes that the board will discuss the “impact of cannabis laws on drug testing and future direction” in a closed session on the second day of the meeting.

The federal discussion comes as marijuana reform advocates have stepped up efforts to end the employer practice of penalizing workers who test positive for THC metabolites.

In New York City, for example, a City Council measure prohibiting pre-employment drug testing for cannabis in specific industries and another barring such tests for people on probation were both enacted this month without the mayor’s signature.

While federal marijuana laws continue to strictly prohibit cannabis, the growing legalization movement has forced various agencies to address the issue. Officials from some federal divisions have observed in recent months that the scheduling status of marijuana under federal law has inhibited research into its public health benefits and risks.

In December, representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration and National Institute on Drug Abuse were part of a workshop focusing on cannabis research.

U.S. government agencies have also used Federal Register notices to solicit the public’s help in identifying studies about the effects of cannabis on disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

NAACP And ACLU Ask Congress To Suspend DEA’s Drug Enforcement Activities

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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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