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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,” 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.

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 20-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.)

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Top Connecticut Lawmakers Announce They’re Prioritizing Marijuana Legalization In 2020

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Top Connecticut lawmakers said on Thursday that legalizing marijuana will be a legislative priority this year, with an emphasis on promoting social equity in a regulated market.

During a press conference outlining their agenda for the new session, Senate Democrats said that while progress has been made by decriminalizing simple possession of cannabis, Connecticut must catch up with public opinion and pursue adult-use legalization.

Senate President Pro-Tem Martin Looney (D) said “we believe it needs to come to resolution so that Connecticut can join its neighbors in recognizing a reality that we should have dealt with already but need to deal with now, and that is the issue of the legalization and regulation of cannabis in our state.”

While removing the threat of jail time for possession “addressed part of the problem,” the “fundamental question of legalization and regulation still persists,” he said. “I think it’s time that we caught up to what the public attitude and public will is on this subject and move forward with it this year.”

Watch Connecticut senators’ marijuana comments, around 9:25 into the video below:

“The time has come. We know that there are very large numbers of Connecticut residents already traveling regulatory to Massachusetts to buy this product and bring it home with them. New York is considering it this year. Other states around us have,” Looney said. “I don’t think we want to put our heads in the sand and be in a position equivalent to a state that refused to recognize that prohibition of alcohol…was a failure and try to maintain prohibition after the national law changed.”

“I think the time has come. We need to recognize it. There’s broad based public support for it.”

Sen. Douglas McCrory (D), the deputy president pro-tem who serves on several committees that have had jurisdiction over cannabis issues, stressed the need to tackle what he described as the “three E’s,” which are “equity, expungement and economic opportunity.”

“It’s ironic right now that we’re thinking about passing legislation to sell and legalize cannabis to pay our bills when we had a number of people who have risked their lives to do the same thing to pay their bills,” he said. “If we’re going to be fair about this and have a conversation about this as we move forward, these things must be addressed.”

“If they’re not addressed, I don’t think we have a snowball’s chance to get this legislation passed,” McCrory added. “There are things that we can do in Connecticut right now this legislative session around those three E’s that can demonstrate to those people throughout Connecticut that we’re serious about addressing unjust laws that took place.”

Jason Ortiz, the Connecticut-based president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that “communities of color across Connecticut are lucky to have champions like Senator Doug McCrory and Senator Martin Looney, who are putting our communities first in line for economic opportunities in the cannabis industry.”

“This commitment to equity will ensure the program is successful by ensuring all of Connecticut’s communities will share in the wealth creation of this growing industry,” he said. “Now we just need House leadership to show the same courage and we’ll get this done in 2020.”

During the press conference, Looney also described three pieces of marijuana legislation that advanced in several committees last year, dealing with finance, restorative justice and regulations. He said that taken together, the bills “give us an excellent framework for moving forward on this issue.”

Cannabis legalization was one of eight proposals included in the lawmakers’ “A Smart & Responsible Connecticut” agenda, which is the third of four such plans they’re rolling out for the 2020 legislative session.

“The prohibition of the possession and sale of cannabis has failed in its intent to stop the sale or use of cannabis,” the document states. “The ‘war on drugs’ is a similar failure and has led to a staggering racial disparity when it comes to enforcement of laws criminalizing cannabis.”

“In 2020, the Senate Democratic Caucus will take action to legalize, tax and regulate the retail sale, personal growth and recreational use of cannabis by individuals over twenty-one years old,” it says.

Earlier this month, key committee leaders met to discuss a path forward for legalization legislation, and Looney and others have previously made similar comments predicting that reform will be prioritized and achievable this year. While bills to legalize cannabis for adult use cleared several panels during the 2019 session, disagreements about certain provisions such as how to allocate revenue ultimately derailed those efforts.

Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who’s been having ongoing conversations with the governors of neighboring states about coordinating a regional legalization model, is supportive of passing legalization legislation during the three-month session.

“I think the idea that we’d be isolated by ourselves and the idea that you hand this over to the black market is dangerous,” the governor said in a recent TV appearance. “You have no idea what they’re doing. You want a carefully regulated market.”

Marijuana reform is expected to be a hot topic throughout the Northeast in 2020.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) renewed his call for reform in his State of the State address and included legalization language in a budget proposal to lawmakers this week. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) included a proposal to legalize though a state-run model in her budget plan. New Hampshire lawmakers will pursue legislation for non-commercial cannabis legalization. New Jersey voters will decide on the issue in November’s election. And Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) seems more open to adding a regulated sales component to his state’s noncommercial legal marijuana law.

Wisconsin Governor Blasts Lawmakers For Not Legalizing Medical Marijuana Despite Public Support

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Bernie Sanders’s Marijuana Plan Is More Than Legalization, It’s A Matter Of Justice (Op-Ed)

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Bernie’s marijuana plan goes beyond legalizing marijuana to address the shortcomings of our historically racist criminal justice system.

By Tick Segerblom

When it comes to smart marijuana policy, Nevadans are ahead of the curve—voting to legalize medical marijuana in 1998 and 2000 and recreational marijuana in 2016. What has followed is an industry that has generated thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state. Marijuana sales produced nearly $70 million in tax revenue in the first year of legal sales alone, providing new funding sources for educational and social programs. There is no doubt that legalizing marijuana has been a smart economic move for our state.

However, legalizing marijuana isn’t only about generating more revenue for our communities, it’s also about correcting a system that unjustly targets disadvantaged communities, particularly communities of color. The War on Drugs has accelerated the effects of institutional racism that have long pervaded our criminal justice system, and it’s past time we start to address and undo that damage.

Once considered radical, the legalization of marijuana is now wildly popular with the American public. In 2015, Bernie Sanders became the first major presidential candidate to support the federal legalization of marijuana. In October, Senator Sanders unveiled his marijuana reform plan, putting forward the most comprehensive proposal to legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and ensure those impacted the most are not overlooked by the growing marijuana industry.

Despite marijuana use being roughly equal across racial and ethnic groups nationally, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for possessing marijuana than white Americans. Criminalization has had disastrous consequences, particularly for communities of color, and Bernie will take federal action to right those wrongs. Bernie’s plan will expunge all past convictions and remove barriers to accessing public benefits and services for those who were previously convicted.

But it’s not enough to simply right the wrongs in our legal system. Nevada’s booming marijuana industry has created many lucrative business opportunities, and historically disadvantaged communities deserve to see their share of the economic rewards. Nevada has had some success creating new marijuana business opportunities for our tribal communities, but out of Nevada’s 58 dispensaries open in 2018, only one was Black-owned.

Overall, communities ravaged by marijuana criminalization have not enjoyed equal access to the economic opportunities that Nevada voters created. Bernie’s marijuana policy recognizes this injustice by investing $50 billion in revenue from marijuana back into the communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs. This will create new opportunities for Black, Latino, AAPI, and Native American entrepreneurs and will generate new jobs and new wealth for those communities.

I’ve worked throughout my career to legalize marijuana and reform our criminal justice system, and I am proudly supporting Bernie Sanders for president because he shares that commitment to social and economic justice. Bernie’s marijuana plan goes beyond legalizing marijuana to address the shortcomings of our historically racist criminal justice system. Bernie has set the gold standard for federal marijuana policy, and Nevadans should remember that when they participate in the Democratic presidential caucuses this February.

Tick Segerblom is a County Commissioner for Clark County, Nevada and a Nevada Campaign Co-Chair for Bernie 2020.

Congressman Visits Marijuana Dispensary On Behalf Of Bernie Sanders’s Presidential Campaign

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Wisconsin Governor Blasts Lawmakers For Not Legalizing Medical Marijuana Despite Public Support

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The governor of Wisconsin called out state lawmakers on Wednesday for declining to pass legislation legalizing medical marijuana despite widespread public support for the policy.

“When more than 80 percent of our state supports medical marijuana…and elected officials can ignore those numbers without consequence, folks, something’s wrong,” Gov. Tony Evers (D) said during his annual State of the State address.

Watch Evers’s comments about public support for medical cannabis below:

He also cited contrasting public support support and lack of legislative action on issues such as expanding Medicaid and universal background checks for gun purchases.

While Evers had included both marijuana decriminalization and medical cannabis legalization in his budget proposal last year, Republican leaders stripped those policies from the plan. It’s not clear if he’ll attempt to pursue the policies through the budget again this year, or if lawmakers would be more inclined to support reform than the last round.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D) recently said she hopes that the legislature came come together around certain bipartisan issues such as medical marijuana. But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said last month that there’s no such legislation he’s be willing to get behind.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) didn’t seem to close the door on the possibility of approving legalization legislation, however, but tempered expectations about when or how it would be achieved.

“It’s going to take a while,” he said last month. “It’s not like it’s a panacea that everybody thinks, ‘Oh, jeez this is an easy slam dunk.’ It’s a complicated issue that we want to get right.”

He also previously suggested that he’d only support a significantly limited program that would allow patients to access cannabis in pill form, raising doubts about whether Democratic lawmakers would be willing to advance such a reform.

While decriminalization didn’t come up in the governor’s speech, lawmakers did file a bill last year to remove criminal penalties for possession of up 28 grams of marijuana.

Not only is there broad public support for medical cannabis legalization based on polling, but local elections have also demonstrated that the people are ready for change. Three jurisdictions in the state voted in favor of non-binding resolutions expressing support for the legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes last year. That followed the approval of other cannabis ballot measures in 16 counties in 2018.

Evers reflected on the progress the state has made in the past year in a tweet sent during his speech, citing improvements to its hemp program as an example of the “many bipartisan successes” that have been achieved.

Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D) weighed in on the State of the State speech as well, echoing Evers’s point about 80 percent support for medical cannabis.

“Why does the majority ignore these issues?” she asked. “Partisan gerrymandering.”

Evers joined a growing list of governors who’ve discussed cannabis reform priorities for 2020.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legalization in his budget plan this week. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) called for a state-run cannabis model in her budget plan. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said it’s “high time” to legalize in her State of the State address and put ending prohibition on the agenda for the short 2020 session. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he wants to decriminalize cannabis possession and create a pathway for expungements in his annual address. And U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) pushed lawmakers to legalize cannabis to raise revenue to support a government employees retirement fund in his State of the Territory address.

New Mexico Governor Says It’s ‘High Time’ To Legalize Marijuana

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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