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Government Shutdown Could Allow Sessions To Launch Marijuana Crackdown

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Funding for the federal government is set to run out on Friday, unless Congress enacts a bill extending current spending levels before the midnight deadline. Also set to expire is a current rider that prevents the Department of Justice from interfering with state medical cannabis laws.

If lawmakers fail to enact an extension, the marijuana protections would disappear but, because drug enforcement are considered “excepted” from furloughs, the Justice Department would be newly empowered to enforce federal cannabis prohibition wherever it wants, regardless of state laws.

That means U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime vocal legalization opponent, would get a legal green light to direct the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and federal prosecutors crack down on medical marijuana patients and providers for the first time since he took office in February.

“All agents in DEA field organizations are excepted from furlough because they support active counternarcotics investigations,‚ÄĚ a Justice Department¬†shutdown contingency plan¬†says. “DEA investigations need to continue uninterrupted so that cases are not compromised and the health and safety of the American public is not placed at risk.”

The same goes for federal prosecutors.

“As Presidential Appointees, U.S. Attorneys are not subject to furlough,” the shutdown plan says. “Excepted employees are needed to address ongoing criminal matters and civil matters of urgency throughout the Nation. Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an excepted activity to maintain the safety of human life and the protection of property.”

The medical cannabis budget rider was first enacted into law in late 2014, and has since been extended for each subsequent fiscal year. In May, Sessions sent a letter to congressional leaders asking them not to continue the medical marijuana rider into 2018.

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” he wrote. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

President Trump, who tweeted earlier this year that favored a temporary government shutdown, has suggested to his advisers in recent weeks that a congressional failure to enact a new spending bill would be politically beneficial for his administration, according to the Washington Post.

Among key issues in behind-the-scenes negotiations are funding for the president’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Because many House Republicans are¬†opposed¬†to a short-term budget extension on principle, Democratic votes will likely to be needed to pass it. Senate Republicans will also need support from Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance the legislation.

That means negotiations are fluid and the outcome uncertain with just days to go before the deadline.

Congressional leaders are considering¬†various scenarios¬†to avoid a shutdown while talks concerning a full Fiscal Year 2018 spending package are ongoing. Most options involve a short-term extension of current funding levels — along with policy riders like the medical marijuana one — into late December or early next year. One¬†resolution¬†pending before the House Rules Committee would extend the deadline to December 22, just days before the Christmas holiday.

Setting aside the important question of whether the medical cannabis rider will be included in next year’s bill — and it is a big question, since House leaders blocked lawmakers from even voting on whether to include the policy that chamber’s version of Justice Department spending legislation this year — the current budget brinksmanship on Capitol Hill means the marijuana protections could disappear as soon as Saturday morning.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted in July to include the medical marijuana provision in its version of the 2018 Justice Department funding bill. Last week, a bipartisan group of 66 House members sent a letter urging congressional leaders adopt the Senate cannabis language into broader legislation extending federal funding and policy riders into next year.

But just because the medical cannabis rider could disappear in the coming days doesn’t automatically mean there would be a federal crackdown. There is no such rider in law that protects broader state laws allowing recreational marijuana use from federal interference, and Sessions’s Justice Department hasn’t yet launched a crackdown on businesses operating under those policies.

Sessions’s personal preferences aside, a large-scale move against state-legal cannabis consumers and businesses, particularly those focused on medical use, would likely be politically damaging for the Trump administration.¬†It would represent a reversal of then-candidate Donald Trump’s repeated campaign pledges to respect state marijuana laws and run counter to his statements that he personally knows people who benefit from medical cannabis.

In October, a Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, including majority support across party lines. Other surveys have shown support for medical cannabis as high as 94 percent among U.S. voters.

Sessions has in recent weeks sent mixed signals about his plans for federal marijuana enforcement policy under the Trump administration.

Last month, he testified before Congress that an Obama-era Justice Department memo that generally allows states to implement their own marijuana laws without interference remains in effect. But last week he told reporters at a briefing that his department is actively conducting talks about potential changes to the policy.

This story was first published by Forbes.

If you value staying updated on cannabis news, please start a monthly Patreon pledge to support Marijuana Moment!

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 serves as chairman of 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

Voters In Key Congressional Districts Support Marijuana Legalization, Poll Says

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With many key congressional races rated as “toss ups” by political observers, either major party could end up controlling of the U.S. House of Representatives after this November’s midterm elections.

A new poll identifies one thing that can help Republican or Democratic candidates come out ahead: Embracing marijuana legalization.

The polling firm Lake Research Partners surveyed¬†800 likely 2018 general election voters in 60 so-called “battleground districts,” finding that 60 percent support ending cannabis prohibition. Only 36 percent are opposed.

Medical marijuana is even more popular, with 79 percent of voters in these swing districts on board.

More to the point for politicians looking to win elections, the survey showed that¬†44 percent of battleground voters say they would be more more likely to vote for a candidate who supports legalization, including 26 percent who say they would be “much” more likely. Only 33 percent said they would be less likely to back a pro-legalization candidate.

The survey was conducted in February but is being released on Tuesday at Washington, D.C. event sponsored by MedMen Enterprises, a cannabis dispensary chain that commissioned the poll.

Another key finding is that¬†55 percent of voters say they would be ‚Äúmore likely‚ÄĚ to vote if a marijuana initiative was on the ballot in their state.

The survey also tested the effectiveness of various arguments concerning legalization, determining that “the strongest pro-legalization message frame highlights how we need legalization to repair the financial and moral damage of the failed war on drugs,” according to a polling memo prepared by the firm.

Several other recent national polls have found majority support for marijuana legalization, but the new results narrowed down to key swing districts are likely to warrant special attention from candidates and political operatives.

Support for Marijuana Legalization At Record High, New Survey Shows

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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Congressional Committee Blocks Marijuana Votes (Again)

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Lawmakers on a key congressional committee once again blocked colleagues in the full House from being able to vote on marijuana-related amendments.

One proposed measure, filed last week, would have allowed Washington, D.C. to legally tax and regulate retail marijuana sales and another would have prevented federal regulators from penalizing federal banks from working with businesses and individuals in the legal cannabis industry.

But on Monday evening, the Republican-controlled Rules Committee, led by Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), continued its recent tradition of preventing floor votes on any and all measures to scale back federal cannabis prohibition.

“Everyone who knows that Congress has a responsibility to at least debate these issues should unite and help Pete Sessions find another line of work,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who cosponsored both cannabis measures, told Marijuana Moment in a statement.

Sessions’s Texas district, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, is currently considered a “toss up” by political analysts in this November’s midterm elections.

Before Monday, his panel had blocked at least 34 other cannabis-related amendments from reaching the floor for votes during the current Congress. The full House of Representatives has not been allowed to consider marijuana reform proposals since the spring of 2016.

Analysis: GOP Congress Has Blocked Dozens Of Marijuana Amendments

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers cosponsored both new cannabis measures, which they were seeking to attach to legislation to fund parts of the federal government through Fiscal Year 2019.

(A third marijuana-related measure considered on Monday proposes shifting money away from forest and rangeland research toward “eradicating, enforcing, and remediating illegal marijuana grow operations on National Forest System land.” That measure was cleared for a floor vote, likely sometime this week.)

“Our federal laws are outdated. The people in this country want the law to treat marijuana as we do alcohol,” Congressman¬†Denny Heck (D-WA), said in testimony about his marijuana banking amendment. “These large sums of cash make dispensaries an obvious target for robberies.”

He recounted the story of Travis Mason, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who was killed during a 2016 robbery at a Colorado marijuana dispensary where he was serving as a security guard.

“He managed to survive his service in the United States Marine Corps, but he didn’t survive his job guarding a store here at home,” Heck said.

“If we do nothing, this is bound to happen again.”

The D.C. measure was filed by Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia.

“This rider has unintentionally benefited violent drug gangs,” Norton¬†said of current policy in her testimony¬†before the Rules Committee. “For that reason, some refer to it as the ‘Drug Dealer Protection Act.’ As one marijuana dealer told the Washington Post, the rider is ‘a license for me to print money.’ Regulating marijuana like alcohol would allow D.C., instead of drug dealers, to control production, distribution, sales and revenues.”

Under a ballot measure approved by D.C. voters in 2014, low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation is legal. But because of an ongoing federal appropriations rider enacted in past years and included in the new FY19 bill, local officials have been prevented from adding a system of taxed and regulated cannabis sales.

Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO), a member of the Rules Committee, specifically moved during the meeting Monday night to make the amendment on cannabis businesses’ access to banks in order for a floor vote, but that was defeated by a party-line vote of 8 – 2.

The marijuana banking measure had 22 cosponsors, more than any of the 276 other measures the Rules Committee considered this week. Eighty-seven amendments were cleared for floor consideration.

Congress Could Vote On These Marijuana Amendments Next Week (Unless GOP Blocks Them Again)

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Sen. Jeff Merkley “Disappointed” That Democrats Blocked His Marijuana Banking Amendment

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One of the U.S. Senate’s foremost champions for marijuana law reform says he is “disappointed” that fellow Democrats recently joined with Republicans in blocking his amendment to increase cannabis businesses’ access to banks.

Last month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) offered a measure that would have shielded banks that open accounts for state-legal marijuana businesses from being punished by federal regulators for that activity even though cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

While the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved two similar amendments in previous years, the panel this time voted to table the measure with a bipartisan vote of 21 – 10, with ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and other Democrats who normally support marijuana reform objecting on procedural grounds.

“I was disappointed,” Merkley said in an interview with BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith on Monday. “We had passed this twice before.”

“We need to establish banking for cannabis because a cash economy is an invitation to money laundering and theft and cheating your employees and cheating on your taxes [and] organized crime. All bad.”

“I accompanied the owner of a company who had $70,000 in his backpack to pay quarterly taxes,” Merkley recounted in response to the cannabis banking question on Monday, which was suggested to BuzzFeed by Marijuana Moment’s editor. “It’s so bizarre going down the freeway and talking about how they have to pay their employees in cash, have to pay their suppliers in cash. It’s a bad system.”

“Everyone should agree: States’ rights on this. Let the states have an electronic system to track what these businesses are doing, not billions of dollars floating around like this.”

Despite his disappointment with the measure being blocked, the Oregon Democrat, who is believed to be considering a 2020 presidential run, said that his colleagues “had a fair point to make on the policy front” in tabling the measure.

At the time, Leahy argued that spending bills such as the one before the committee should be kept “free of new controversial policy riders” and that a more appropriate forum would be an authorizing committee that sets banking laws.

“It wasn’t existing policy and therefore it was new policy,” Merkley acknowledged in the new interview.

But he pointed out that there are few other avenues available for senators to pursue the issue.

“Here’s the thing. Normally we could take these policy bills like I was putting forward [and] you could put it on the floor of the Senate as an amendment to something,” he said. “In 2017, outside of the budget process, not a single amendment was considered on the floor of the Senate… This is the end of the Senate really as a deliberative body on policy. So if you’re blocked in the Appropriations Committee, and you’re blocked on the floor, then it’s very hard to put ideas out there and say, ‘Hey vote on this. This matters.'”

The House Appropriations Committee also defeated a cannabis banking amendment last month.

See the video of Merkley’s remarks at about 19:15 into the clip below:

Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.

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