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For Tulsi Gabbard, Marijuana Sits At Nexus Of Good Policy And Smart Politics

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Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) says that ending the federal prohibition of marijuana is smart policy and, on Thursday, she is introducing legislation in Congress to do just that.

The 2020 presidential candidate also appears to know that endorsing cannabis legalization is smart politics.

“The fact that marijuana’s still a Schedule I drug is unacceptable in the harm that it is causing to the people of our country and to taxpayers as well,” Gabbard said in a phone interview this week.

Gabbard and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) are teaming up to file two new cannabis bills. One would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act—a process known as descheduling—so that states can set their own laws without interference.

“The impact this has on individuals, potentially leading to criminal records that impact them, their families, their ability to get a job, housing, financial aid for college—the impacts of this are great,” she said of the hundreds of thousands of arrests for cannabis offenses that take place every year in the U.S. “That’s not to speak of the impact on states, small businesses and banks in those states that have legalized some level of marijuana.”

The other new House proposal from the bipartisan duo would require the federal government to study the impact of state marijuana legalization policies.

“There are still a lot of myths and outdated information and stigma that are being used as excuses to not push forward these very impactful policy changes,” Gabbard said.

The legislation, under which several federal agencies would be tasked with compiling information on the economic, health, criminal justice and employment effects of state cannabis laws, would generate “one central study providing facts on what the impacts have already proven to be in states that have legalized marijuana at one level or another,” the congresswoman said.

Gabbard, who during her presidential campaign launch speech last month criticized a system that “puts people in prison for smoking marijuana while allowing corporations like Purdue Pharma, who are responsible for the opioid-related deaths of thousands of people, to walk away scot-free with their coffers full,” shared her thoughts on the likelihood that someone who doesn’t support legalization could with the Democratic nomination.

“I think it would be very difficult, but obviously this is something that voters will have to contend with and a question I’m sure they’ll be asking in states across the country of those who are seeking that office,” she said.

“Regardless of who it is, this is a major issue I’m putting at the forefront of my campaign and continuing the work that I’ve been doing in Congress to bring about this change,” Gabbard said. “It’s something I’ve continued to bring up in bigger cities as well as small towns in New Hampshire and Iowa and other states, and it’s an issue that is very exciting to voters who believe, as I do, that we’ve got to make this happen.”

She said that “freedom of choice” is a key reason she has focused so much on cannabis during her time on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t smoke marijuana. I never have,” she said. “But I believe firmly in every person’s freedom to make their own choices, and that people should not be thrown in jail and incarcerated or made into criminals for choosing to smoke marijuana whether it be for medicinal and non-medicinal purposes.”

In the interview, the congresswoman also addressed her views on the broader war on drugs, saying that many of the arguments reform advocates make about marijuana can be applied to other substances as well.

“I think that there’s no question that this overall war on drugs has not only been a failure, it has created and exacerbated a number of other problems that continue to afflict people in this country,” she said, adding a teaser that “this is something that I’m working on on my presidential campaign that we will be rolling out a detailed policy position statement on.”

When it comes to marijuana, Gabbard believes that Congress is well-positioned to advance far-reaching reform bills this year, at least through one chamber.

“We are hopeful that there will be a great opportunity to pass pieces of legislation in the House of Representatives given that we have the majority,” she said, referring to Democrats. “We will have some more work to do to get these bill through the Senate. But if members of Congress, and leaders in Washington listen to the voices of the vast majority of Americans in this country, they will hear the calls for action that go beyond partisanship. We are long past time to bring about this kind of change.”

And she believes her home state of Hawaii—where a bill to legalize marijuana was approved by a legislative committee last month—is on track to end cannabis prohibition sooner rather than later.

“Momentum is moving in the right direction,” she said, but added that she’s “disappointed” the bill wasn’t approved by a second committee in time to advance further in the process this year.

“I think that we’re only going to continue to see more progress being made,” she said.

Gabbard also referenced incremental cannabis reform moves in the state, such as a bill that lawmakers approved last year to add opioid addiction as a medical marijuana qualifying condition. The measure was ultimately vetoed by Gov. David Ige (D), which she said left her and other supporters “not only disappointed but pretty pissed off.”

That setback is another reason to push her new congressional bill requiring the federal government to compile information on the impact of cannabis policies, she argued.

“Even in a state like Hawaii, if you look back to the governor’s statements about why he vetoed that bill, there are still a lot of myths and outdated information and stigma that are being used as excuses to not push forward these very impactful policy changes,” the congresswoman said. “So that is one of the main reasons that is spurring my bill, to be able to provide this from the National Academy of Sciences as an undisputed collection of data and studies saying you can’t dispute this. You can’t just pick and choose anecdotes that you want to talk about”.

Gabbard and Young, her Republican cosponsor for the two new cannabis bills, are actively seeking support from other lawmakers for the proposals.

“The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2019 is our opportunity to remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances list and to allow our states the freedom to regulate marijuana as they choose, without federal inference,” they wrote in a letter asking colleagues to cosponsor the descheduling legislation.

“The purpose of this legislation is to collect and synthesize relevant data and to generate a federally recognized, neutral report regarding the impact of statewide marijuana legalization schemes,” they wrote in a separate letter about the second bill, which is called the Marijuana Data Collection Act. “Such a report will assure that federal discussions and policies specific to this issue are based upon the best and most reliable evidence available at this time.”

Prior versions of both bills filed during the last Congress did not receive hearings or votes.

But Gabbard said now is the time for action.

“We can’t afford to kick this can down the road given the devastating negative impact it is having on the people of this country,” she said, referring to marijuana prohibition.

Meanwhile, several senators who are also seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination joined together last week to file far-reaching legislation that would deschedule marijuana. That bill also contains provisions aimed at expungements and investment in communities previously harmed by the war on drugs.

A national poll released on Wednesday found that 60 percent of voters support legalizing marijuana.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

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.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Hemp Farmers Guaranteed Federal Crop Insurance Through Disaster Bill Amendment

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The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that is mostly focused on providing relief aid to areas impacted by natural disasters—but it also includes a provision ensuring that hemp farmers qualify for federal crop insurance.

The hemp section was inserted into the legislation at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Though similar language already exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp and its derivatives, the senator took an added measure to provide clarity to farmers who want access to the insurance option ahead of the 2020 planting season.

“Beginning not later than the 2020 reinsurance year, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation shall offer coverage under the wholefarm revenue protection insurance policy (or a successor policy or plan of insurance) for hemp (as defined in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o)),” text of the provision states.

“Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985,” it continues.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 85 to 8. The House is expected to approve the disaster legislation by unanimous consent by the end of the week, and President Donald Trump has offered assurances that he will sign it into law.

The legalization of hemp has sparked strong interest among farmers in states from Colorado to Kentucky, but it will still be some time until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and implements its federal regulatory guidelines.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that while his department would not rush its rulemaking process, it still intends to implement the regulations before the 2020 planting season. After that point, USDA would be able to approve regulatory plans submitted by individual states.

McConnell, who championed the hemp legalization provision, has urged the quick and effective implementation of such regulations, and he’s suggested that he’d introduce standalone legislation to resolve any “glitches” in its rollout.

While not a standalone bill, the hemp-focused provision of the disaster legislation seems to indicate he plans to make good on that promise.

The senator has made much of his pro-hemp agenda, arguing last month that his role in reforming hemp laws is at “the top of the list” of reasons why voters should reelect him in 2020. He also cited hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco when he introduced a bill this week to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Mitch McConnell Touts Hemp As He Proposes Raising Tobacco Purchase Age Limit

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Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications

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A congressional committee report attached a large-scale spending bill containing marijuana-related protections has been amended to include a call for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to finally act on long-pending applications for federal licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes.

The legislation itself, which was released by a House subcommittee last week, could still be further amended as it goes through the legislative process. But as approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the bill stipulates that none of the Fiscal Year 2020 funds it allocates may be used by the Justice Department to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs.

The provision has been federal law since 2014, but its inclusion in the initial subcommittee proposal as introduced is the earliest it has ever surfaced in the legislative process for the annual spending bill. While advocates hoped broader protections for adult-use cannabis states would also be included in the base legislation, that rider isn’t in the bill—at least not yet.

There was also a technical problem with the legislation that wasn’t resolved by the committee manager’s amendment, the text of which has not been posted but was obtained by Marijuana Moment. The medical cannabis provision lists the states and territories its protections apply to—but it left out the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical marijuana in January.

Similar errors have occurred in past versions of the legislation, when legal medical cannabis states North Dakota and Indiana were not included in an earlier version of the rider, and advocates hope that the language will be amended on the House floor.

But while that fix didn’t make it into the bill at the committee level, the directive to the DEA about cannabis cultivation licenses was added to the committee report attached to the bill via the manager’s amendment.

“The Committee urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for us in medical research,” the revised report states.

The DEA has faced significant pressure from lawmakers, advocates and scientists to approve applications for additional marijuana manufacturers to produce research-grade cannabis. Currently there is only one federally authorized facility, and the quality of its product has long been criticized.

DEA announced a process to license additional cultivators during the final months of the Obama administration in  2016, but the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to act on more than two dozen pending applications. Current Attorney General William Barr has pledged to look into the matter, and has said he agrees that approving additional manufacturers is necessary.

Advocates hope that the new committee report language could help to finally spur movement at the department.

“The DEA is a disaster on marijuana and they need to stop obstructing research ASAP,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.

“It’s beyond ridiculous that they won’t act on these applications. Even prohibitionists like Project SAM agree,” he added, referring to the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “And when the guys who get their drug policy from the 1920s say you’re behind the times, that’s pretty embarrassing.”

Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that Sessions “was the only government official opposed to cannabis research, and he is no longer employed.”

“Now is the time for AG Barr to follow through on his commitment and allow researchers pathways to consumer-grade cannabis,” he said.

Another provision included in the appropriations bill would offer protections for states that have implemented industrial hemp pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. The Justice Department wouldn’t be allowed to use its funds to interfere in such programs under the proposal.

Of course, the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act, shifting regulatory responsibility onto the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Justice Department, so that provision may not be especially relevant going forward.

The bill will next head to the Rules Committee, which will decide the list of amendments—potentially including additional cannabis-related ones—that can be considered on the House floor.

Read the text of the manager’s amendment with the DEA marijuana language below: 

Managers Amendment FINAL by on Scribd

Presidential Candidates Are Cosponsoring A New Marijuana Descheduling Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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House Committee Approves Immigration Bill With Marijuana Protections

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A congressional committee voted in favor of a wide-ranging immigration bill on Wednesday, and the legislation includes marijuana-related protections for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Under the DREAM Act as approved, having low-level cannabis convictions, or engaging in state-legal cannabis-related activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not be counted against applications for permanent resident status for so-called Dreamers.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in a 19-10 vote, without specific discussion about the cannabis provisions.

The section concerning eligibility for permanent status stipules that having three or more misdemeanor convictions could be grounds for ineligibility—but the bill creates an exemption for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

The text seems to indicate that immigrants who engaged in cannabis-related activities prior to a state reforming its marijuana laws would still be protected even if that activity was not state-legal at the time.

Similar language appears under a separate section about grounds for a provisional denial of an application for adjustment of status. Applicants would be exempted from such a denial if their conviction was for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

A previous version of the legislation, filed in March, didn’t include the specific eligibility requirements related to certain criminal activity, nor did it contain any explicit marijuana protections. It’s possible that House Democrats thought up the exemptions during a brainstorming session earlier this month about potential bill revisions aimed at building more support.

The next likely stop for the DREAM Act will be the House Rules Committee before heading to a full floor vote.

There’s been growing interest in reforming marijuana policies as they apply to immigrants and visitors to the U.S.

Earlier this month, four congressional Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to end the practice of rejecting naturalization applications solely because the applicant worked in a state-legal marijuana market. That came after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo specifying that such activity could render them morally unfit for citizenship.

And last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced legislation aimed at resolving marijuana-related border issues, whereby visitors who admit to using cannabis or working in their country’s legal industry can be denied entrance.

New Congressional Bill Aims To Resolve Marijuana Industry Border Issues

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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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