The president of a major GOP super PAC is suggesting that sponsoring marijuana legislation will be an asset in Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s fight to retain his vulnerable Colorado seat in the 2020 elections.
But while the senator’s embrace of cannabis reform has earned him bipartisan praise, he still faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled chamber to actually score a legislative win on the cannabis front to bring home to voters before next November.
“Cory Gardner is a tremendously facile politician. He gets a lot of bipartisan legislation pushed through,” Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law, who previously served as chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers last week. “Because of where Colorado is on legalization of marijuana, he’s fighting for a states’ rights solution there that protects his state’s interests.”
“Again, I think good politicians, good senators, figure out what matters in the state, what they can get done, and it’s going to be unique to each individual state depending on what their voters care about,” Law, whose organization spent $127 million to put and keep Republicans in office last cycle, said.
Gardner’s seat is one of the most embattled in the 2020 race, with a dozen Democratic primary candidates and deep-pocketed committees threatening to push him out. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who remains popular in the state, became the latest to enter the race after dropping his bid for the presidency this month.
An Emerson College poll released this week found Hickenlooper thirteen points ahead of Gardner. And with just 40 percent of voters stating in another recent survey that they view Gardner favorably and 39 saying the opposite, the incumbent needs to score some wins ahead of the general election. And it stands to reason that passing his legislation to protect legal cannabis states from federal interference—or at least a bill allowing banks to service marijuana businesses, for which he’s also the chief GOP sponsor—could give him a much-needed boost in a state that overwhelmingly voted for legalization.
But standing in his way is a Republican-controlled Senate that has so far expressed little interest in achieving those goals. While Law, of the Senate Leadership Fund, said Gardner gets “a lot of bipartisan legislation pushed through,” that hasn’t included his marijuana bills so far.
The Senate Banking Committee did hold a hearing on cannabis financial services issues at which Gardner testified in July, but no votes have yet been scheduled and the chamber under McConnell’s leadership generally has not been amenable to broader reform—outside of legalizing non-intoxicating hemp late last year.
“Even as appetite for comprehensive marijuana reform continues to grow in Congress and amongst American voters, McConnell continues in his legacy of being the barrier between the status quo and meaningful reform,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “McConnell finally advancing comprehensive marijuana reform, from descheduling to criminal justice provisions, would be a real win for Gardner, Colorado, and the country.”
“Criminal justice reform and second chances have generated robust bipartisan support—there’s an opportunity here to deliver a win that brings people together across the aisle and benefits communities most impacted by decades of the failed policy of prohibition,” she said.
While it’s unclear if Law has talked to current McConnell staffers or the majority leader himself about moving Gardner’s marijuana bills in an effort to boost his political survival, his comments on C-SPAN signal that at least some key Republicans in Washington, D.C. believe that cannabis could be a key part of the vulnerable senator’s reelection strategy.
Could the prospect of losing Gardner’s seat—and potentially the Senate majority—be enough to motivate GOP leaders like the anti-marijuana McConnell to get the senator’s cannabis bills passed? Advocates have mixed opinions.
“It would appear that the Senate leadership now views marijuana reform as a winning issue,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “Voters support ending federal prohibition, and one way or another, voters will end it. This may be good news for Senator Gardner, but it’s great news for reformers.”
Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said “we really need to take a moment to appreciate how far we have come over the past decade.”
“In just the past week, we have seen approving statements related to respecting state cannabis laws from the head of [the Office of National Drug Control Policy] and the head of a Republican Senate campaign committee,” he said. “We are moving beyond majority support to consensus support.”
Still, not all advocates are convinced that the risk of losing a key Senate seat will be enough to move staunchly anti-legalization leaders in the chamber.
“Senator McConnell has shown zero interest in advancing legislation that would rename a post office, much less bills that would do something as ambitious as ending our failed prohibition on marijuana,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “On top of his blockade on most substantial policy, Mitch has been outspoken about his personal opposition to legalization.”
“As much as I’d love to see our war on cannabis come to an end sooner rather than later, there is little evidence to suggest that McConnell is ready to suddenly reverse course on marijuana law reform,” Altieri said.
Michael Correia, government relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said Republicans would do well to draw lessons from the 2018 election, which “showed that marijuana obstruction was not a winning position for House Republicans to take.”
“If Senate Republicans don’t learn that same lesson, and get in line with the vast majority of voters, a similar result will play out in 2020,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Majority Leader McConnell is savvy and knows his power is retained by defending seats like Senator Gardner’s so I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibilities to see some marijuana reform legislation reach the Senate Floor at all.”
Should the Senate battle see Hickenlooper and Gardner go toe-to-toe in November, it’s not clear how the race would play out among marijuana reform advocates and leaders of the state’s growing cannabis industry, who are increasingly flexing their muscles as a political players who can cut big campaign checks.
Gardner has, after all, put the issue in the congressional spotlight and served as a valuable GOP vehicle for cannabis legislation in a chamber that hasn’t see much action on the issue, even if he hasn’t yet gotten any marijuana bills passed. He even elicited a tentative endorsement of his states’ right marijuana bill from President Trump last year.
And while Hickenlooper was initially opposed to his state’s legalization measure, he by most accounts effectively implemented the voter-approved law and has since become a vocal proponent of legalization even though he vetoed some legislation to expand the industry and consumer access before leaving office.
But for Gardner to overcome the odds, it may require him to deliver something actionable for his constituents. Marijuana seems like a rational place to start, but unless Senate leadership gets behind him, achieving that won’t be simple.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State
Oregon officials finalized a series of analyses this week on separate ballot measures to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and decriminalize drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that the decriminalization initiative would reduce felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug possession by 91 percent, and that reduction would be “substantial for all racial groups, ranging from 82.9% for Asian Oregonians to approximately 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.”
Overall, the policy change would result in a 95 percent drop in racial disparities for possession arrests, the panel projects.
“The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests.”
The conviction estimate was included in the panel’s draft analysis first released last month, but the final version was expanded to include the arrest data as well. The new document also notes that “disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others”—a point that activists hoped the panel would include.
That said, the commission noted it “lacks sufficient or appropriate data in each of these areas and therefore cannot provide estimates for these other stages.”
The new report, published on Wednesday, cites research indicating that the resulting “drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others.”
The decriminalization proposal was the first ballot initiative in the state’s history to receive a report on the racial justice implications of its provisions under a little-utilized procedure where lawmakers can request such an analysis.
This information will be included in a voter pamphlet as a factual statement from the secretary of state’s office.
“Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more,” Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign, said in a press release.
Both the psilocybin therapy and drug decriminalization measures also received final explanatory statements and fiscal impact statements this week.
For the therapeutic psilocybin legalization initiative, the Financial Estimate Committee said that it projects the measure will have an impact of $5.4 million from the general fund during the two-year development period. After the program is established, it will cost $3.1 million annually, “which will be covered by the fees and tax funds for the administration and enforcement of the Act.”
The explanatory statement says the measure “directs the Oregon Health Authority to regulate the manufacture, delivery, purchase, and consumption of psilocybin, a psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms, at licensed psilocybin service centers” and that a “person would be allowed to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin only at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
It also describes an initial two-year development period during which officials will research and make recommendations on “the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat mental health conditions,” after which time the new law will allow “a client who is at least 21 years of age to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin initiative, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “satisfied with the explanatory statement and believe it captures the thoughtful approach we took that led to psilocybin therapy being on the ballot this November.”
“Specifically, we were happy to see the regulations and safeguards that are built into the measure highlighted in the explanatory statement,” he said. “We also believe that the fiscal committee saw and respected our approach to keep the psilocybin therapy program revenue neutral once up and running.”
The drug possession decriminalization measure is expected to cost $57 million annually, according to state officials, but it will be covered by marijuana tax revenue, which is “estimated at $61.1 million in 2019-21 and $182.4 million in 2021-23” and would therefore be “sufficient to meet this requirement.” Cannabis revenue to cities and counties would be reduced under the measure.
The reform would also save money through reduced drug enforcement. “These savings are estimated at $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23,” the analysis says. “This will reduce revenue transferred from the Department of Corrections for local government community corrections by $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23. The savings are expected to increase beyond the 2021-23 biennium.”
The initiative “mandates the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each existing coordinated care organization service area in the state,” the separate explanatory statement says, and describes how they would be funded with marijuana tax revenue.
“The measure eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles,” it says. “Instead, possession of these specified quantities of controlled substances becomes a non-criminal Class E violation for which the maximum punishment is a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.”
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
A measure to effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics has officially qualified for the November ballot in Washington, D.C.
Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last month.
Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Read the full state analysis of the Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin therapy measures below:
Top White House Official Blasts Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ Coronavirus Bill
Vice President Mike Pence’s top staffer on Thursday joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing House Democrats for including marijuana banking provisions to the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief bill.
Marc Short, who is Pence’s chief of staff and previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, discussed the COVID-19 legislation during an interview with Fox Business, and he described the Democratic proposal as a “liberal wish list” with “all sorts of things totally unrelated to coronavirus.”
“In one instance they have provided guarantees for banking access for marijuana growers,” Short said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus.”
He’s referring to language that was inserted from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Numerous Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have been critical of the provision, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.
Democrats, for their part, have made the case that granting cannabis businesses with access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview this week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.
“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.
While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.
The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.
USDA Approves Hemp Plan For Maryland And One More Indian Tribe
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved hemp regulatory plans for Maryland and the Lower Sioux Indian Community on Thursday.
With this latest development, the total number of approved plans across states, territories and tribes is 55.
“USDA continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes,” the agency said in a notice.
While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.
USDA announced in February that it will temporarily lift two provisions that the industry viewed as problematic. Those policies primarily concern testing and disposal requirements. The department declined to revise the THC limit, however, arguing that it’s a statutory matter that can’t be dealt with administratively.
Last week, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to the head of USDA, expressing concern that testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said on several occasions that the Drug Enforcement Administration influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.
State agriculture departments and a hemp industry association also wrote to Congress and USDA this week, seeking an extension of the 2014 Farm Bill pilot program for hemp to give states more time to develop regulatory plans to submit to the agency.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still in the process of developing regulations for CBD. It sent an update on its progress to Congress in March, explaining that the agency is actively exploring pathways to allow for the marketing of the cannabis compound as a dietary supplement and is developing enforcement discretion guidance.
An FDA public comment period was reopened indefinitely for individuals to submit feedback on CBD regulations.
Last month, the White House finalized a review of FDA CBD and cannabis research protocols, but it’s unclear when or if the document will be released to the public.
Also last month, FDA submitted a report to Congress on the state of the CBD marketplace, and the document outlines studies the agency has performed on the contents and quality of cannabis-derived products that it has tested over the past six years.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.
However, USDA has previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While the department initially said it would not reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.
Two members of Congress representing New York also wrote a letter to Perdue in June, asking that the agency extend access to that program to hemp farmers.
Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department recently released guidelines for processing loans for the industry.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.