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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.

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Banning CBD Products Would Be ‘A Fool’s Game,’ FDA Chief Admits

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Products containing cannabidiol (CBD) are here to stay, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn acknowledged on Wednesday, calling it “a fool’s game” to attempt to pull the products off the market.

“People are using these products,” Hahn, a cancer doctor, said in his first public speech on CBD since taking office as commissioner in December. “We’re not going to be able to say you can’t use these products. It’s a fool’s game to try to even approach that.”

Hemp and its derivatives have been federally legal in the U.S. since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, but policies governing the marketing of CBD have been murkier. FDA is still in the process of developing rules to allow businesses to sell the cannabis compound in foods or nutritional supplements—a process that Hahn’s predecessor, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, has said could take years without congressional action.

Hahn’s latest comments suggest that while FDA may not be happy with CBD’s explosion onto the consumer market, the agency at least isn’t planning an immediate, industry-wide crackdown.

“We have to be open to the fact that there might be some value in these products, and certainly Americans think that’s the case,” the FDA chief said. “But we want to get them information to help them make the right decisions.”

The commissioner was addressing the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture at its winter policy conference in Arlington, Virginia.

Since Congress began lifting restrictions on hemp cultivation in 2014, all but three states have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate hemp production, and states such as Kentucky have embraced hemp as a promising commercial crop.

After Hahn was nominated to lead the FDA last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pressed him on the need to establish a regulatory framework for CBD products.

“Like many Kentuckians who are taking advantage of hemp’s legalization,” McConnnell said at the time, “I am eager for FDA’s plans to create certainty for CBD products.”

Last week, however, the agency missed a deadline outlined in a report attached to an annual spending bill to provide an update on the development of enforcement guidelines around CBD products. “We haven’t received the report yet,” House Appropriations Committee Communications Director Evan Hollander told Marijuana Moment in an email. “That’s not surprising; agencies typically submit these very late.”

Meanwhile, Congress is taking separate steps to allow and regulate hemp-derived CBD. Bipartisan legislation filed last month would allow the cannabinoid to be marketed and sold as a dietary supplement.

While regulations for CBD have yet to be finalized, the government’s enforcement actions have been infrequent and sometimes unpredictable. The FDA has said it’s using its enforcement discretion to target businesses making outlandish, unsupported claims about CBD’s health benefits.

Also at Wednesday’s agriculture event, a USDA undersecretary announced that the agency would be delaying a requirement for hemp testing laboratories to register with the DEA. On Thursday, USDA issued a notice clarifying it would temporarily suspend enforcement of that rule as well as one on the disposal of crops with too much THC.

USDA Touts Hemp Industry’s Growth But Says Challenges Remain

Photo by Kimzy Nanney.

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USDA Announces Two Temporary Changes To Restrictive Hemp Rules

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Thursday that it will be temporarily delaying enforcement of two provisions of its hemp regulations.

Hemp producers will not be required to use a laboratory registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to conduct potency tests on their crops, at least for now. And for the time being, they won’t have to dispose of so-called “hot hemp” containing excess THC through DEA or a law enforcement body.

“Because currently there isn’t sufficient capacity in the United States for the testing and disposal of non-compliant hemp plants, USDA has worked hard to enable flexibility in the requirements in the Interim Final Rule for those issues,” USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach said in a press release announcing the enforcement decision.

These changes come in response to feedback from industry stakeholders, who argued that the policies included in USDA’s interim final rule on hemp would prove cost prohibitive for farmers and inhibit the growth of the market since the crop was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.

USDA received significant feedback from lawmakers and hemp interests during a public comment period that ended last month. The department said earlier this month that it was open to making certain changes based on those responses, but it also said certain proposed changes—such as increasing the threshold of allowable THC in hemp—are statutory matters that it cannot revise on its own.

A follow-up comment period will launch after this current planting season, USDA said.

In the meantime, the laboratory testing and disposal requirements are being delayed until October 31, 2021, or until a final rule is released. USDA said the delay will “serve as a temporary measure to allow a smooth transition into regular enforcement” and give DEA enough time to increase “registered analytical lab capacity.”

“Through these conversations, we have learned that these provisions will serve as a significant hindrance to the growth of a domestic hemp market at this nascent stage,” USDA said. “For instance, we now better understand how the limited number of DEA-registered labs will hinder testing and better understand the associated costs with disposing of product that contains over 0.3 percent THC could make entering the hemp market too risky.”

“Because USDA is exercising its enforcement discretion to adopt a temporary policy of non-enforcement for producers who—due to the dearth of registered laboratories and limited access to reverse distributors or law enforcement disposal—are unable to comply with the testing and disposal procedures promulgated through the [interim final rule], we believe that this guidance is a statement of agency policy not subject to the notice and comment requirements,” the notice states.

Hemp will still have to be tested, and it must be disposed if it contains too much THC, but processors will be able to use other facilities and methods and still be in compliance.

The department stressed that laboratories that aren’t registered with DEA will have to “adhere to the standards of performance as outlined within the [interim final rule].” For example, they must test “total THC employing post-decarboxylation or other similarly reliable methods” and “make arrangements to be compliant with registration requirements before this period of delayed enforcement expires.” DEA will review applications from laboratories who wish to participate.

USDA also included a guideline for compliant, alternative disposal methods. The department’s intent is “that these methods allow producers to apply common on-farm practices as a means of disposal while rendering the controlled substance non-retrievable or non-ingestible,” it said. A list of alternative disposal options include burning, composting and burying hemp.

It added that the department will “conduct random audits of licensees to verify hemp is being produced in accordance with” regulations.

“One of the top considerations in making these changes was the desire to provide additional options that minimize, to the extent possible, the resource impact to state and local law enforcement in handling hemp that is out of compliance,” Ibach said. “We look forward to partnering with producers, states, tribes and other stakeholders to deliver regulations that work for everyone.”

The new announcement could help clear up some confusion about comments that Ibach made at an agriculture policy conference on Wednesday. According to the advocacy group Vote Hemp, there has been misreporting that suggested the official said the provision requiring DEA-registered labs to test hemp was being eliminated.

A recording of the discussion that Vote Hemp released shows that the undersecretary said enforcement of the provision would simply be delayed for the current planting season.

While USDA is still in the process of developing rules for the crop, it has started accepting state regulatory plans for hemp. Wyoming and Washington State became the latest to have their proposals approved. Previously, USDA accepted regulations from Texas, Nebraska, Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey and Ohio, as well as several tribal plans.

Meanwhile, at the same agriculture conference that Ibach spoke at, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration admitted that it would be “a fool’s game” to try to keep hemp-derived CBD products off the market.

Number Of Banks Reporting Cannabis Business Clients Dips After Hemp Rules Change

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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Minority Marijuana Business Group Defends Bernie Sanders’s Comments On Legalization And Race

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The country’s first diversity-focused marijuana trade association came to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) aid on Thursday, issuing a statement “to affirm our support and appreciation” for the 2020 presidential candidate’s recent comments on minority involvement in the legal cannabis industry.

During a Democratic primary debate on Tuesday, Sanders pledged not only to end federal marijuana prohibition and expunge past criminal records if elected, but also to help people of color find an economic foothold in the industry.

“We are going to provide help to the African American, Latino and Native American communities to start businesses selling legal marijuana rather than let a few corporations control the legalized marijuana market,” he said.

It’s an argument familiar to most legalization advocates, and several recent state marijuana laws have included provisions aimed at ensuring social equity in the industry for communities that have been targeted by the war on drugs. But the proposal didn’t sit well with everyone. Some wondered aloud whether Sanders was himself being racist by suggesting that people of color should sell drugs.

“Girl, I couldn’t believe my ears when Sanders said he was going to set up black people and natives to sell DRUGS!!” wrote one Twitter user, a self-described Christian mom from Alabama. “I’m still in shock. Dems are still the same ole racist. They look down on black Americans as if they are ignorant and incompetent children.”

Bernie Sanders “is a flat out racist” said another Twitter user, a supporter of Donald Trump. “Basically said minorities only capable of having businesses which sell drugs.”

But now, the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) is working to set the record straight. In a press release, the group said it “stands in support” of Sanders’s comments, which it argued touch on core parts of its mission to “promote economic empowerment for communities of color by creating policy considerations, social programming, and outreach initiatives to achieve equity for the communities most affected by the war on drugs.”

“Taking the public position of ensuring communities most impacted by the war on drugs will have the ability to enter the legal cannabis industry shows that he is serious about reversing the damage done by the war on our communities,” said Kaliko Castille, MCBA’s vice president.

In a phone interview with Marijuana Moment, MCBA President Jason Ortiz said he was “inspired” by Sanders’s comments, though he understands how they could have been misinterpreted.

“I think Bernie Sanders is addressing the issue of economic justice, and I think it is a complicated issue, so some folks have been misinformed,” Ortiz said. Sanders, he explained, is trying to ensure that the economic opportunities created by marijuana legalization are shared equitably.

So far in most legal states, he said, that hasn’t been happening.

“We see large, wealthy, white corporations already have access to those economic opportunities in our communities,” Ortiz said. “What Sen. Sanders is proposing is that communities of color share in those economic opportunities. And there’s nothing racist about economic justice.”

Ortiz chalked up the criticism to decades of misinformation about cannabis from government and the media.

“One of the most insidious parts of the war on drugs was its ability to confuse communities of color around the cannabis plant,” he said. “There’s been a sustained, systematic campaign to misinform our communities and deny us economic opportunities for decades.”

“Communities of color do want access to opportunities in the cannabis industry,” Ortiz added. “We demand access to opportunities. And we welcome any candidates that are willing to stand with our call for economic justice for our communities.”

Aside from Sanders, MCBA said that “Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is the only other Democratic candidate for president to release a plan regarding federal cannabis policy with restorative and economic justice.”

MCBA has not endorsed a candidate for president, but Sanders and Warren have by far the most comprehensive cannabis legalization proposals. Sanders’s plan would immediately deschedule cannabis nationwide and work to block big corporations from controlling the market. (He’s faced pushback from legal experts who argue that a president cannot legally use executive action to legalize marijuana in all 50 states on his first day in office, however.)

Warren’s recently released marijuana proposal, meanwhile, puts racial equity center stage. “It’s about undoing a century of racist policy that disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx communities,” the plan says. “It’s about rebuilding the communities that have suffered the most harm. And it’s about ensuring that everyone has access to the opportunities that the new cannabis market provides.”

While some criticisms of Sanders’s debate statements appeared to be sincere, others seemed politically opportunistic. Conservative pundits pounced on Sanders, apparently in an effort to stir up racial tensions. Fox News host Tucker Carlson—who described the legalization plan as “Fire up a bowl. Numb out”—said Sanders “is encouraging more black kids to sell drugs.”

“Where is this weed going to come from? Bernie has a plan for that, too. Black people are going to sell it to you,” Carlson said. “So first, they fill black neighborhoods with abortion clinics. Now the frontrunner is encouraging more black kids to sell drugs, but somehow this is the party that loves black America.”

Ortiz responded that “Tucker Carlson and his ilk have been perpetuating the racist stereotypes that led to the over incarceration crisis we face today” and his “flippant disregard for the violent history of the war on drugs is a testament to just how much work we still have to do on an issue with near universal support.”

Elizabeth Warren Cites Marijuana Advocacy In Response To Tribal Members’ Critical Letter

Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder

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