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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 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

Berkeley City Council Considers Decriminalizing Psychedelics This Week

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A resolution to decriminalize psilocybin and other psychedelics will go before a Berkeley, California City Council committee on Wednesday.

Decriminalize Nature, the group behind the measure, also led the charge to successfully get a measure decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi approved by the City Council in neighboring Oakland last month.

In Berkeley, the Public Safety Committee will discuss the proposal and can either decide to hold it for a future meeting or advance it to the full Council. The public is able to attend Wednesday’s special meeting and share their perspective on the resolution, but Decriminalize Nature stressed in a tweet that this “is a small meeting, so you do NOT need to attend.”

However, city residents are being encouraged to write to their Council members and urge them to vote in favor of the measure, which would codify that “no department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Berkeley Police Department personnel, shall use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of Entheogenic Plants by adults of at least 21 years of age.”

The resolution defines the covered substances as “plants and natural sources such as mushrooms, cacti, iboga containing plants and/or extracted combinations of plants similar to ayahuasca; and limited to those containing the following types of compounds: indoleamines, tryptamines, phenethylamines.”

Councilmembers Rigel Robinson and Cheryl Davila are sponsoring the resolution, which does not allow for commercial sales or manufacturing.

The lawmakers provided background information on the measure in a report to their colleagues and the mayor, describing the medical potential of various psychedelics as well as the success of decriminalization measures in Denver and Oakland.

“It is intended that this resolution empowers Berkeley residents to be able to grow their own entheogens, share them with their community, and choose the appropriate setting for their intentions instead of having to rely exclusively on the medical establishment, which is slow to adapt and difficult to navigate for many,” they wrote.

While efforts to eliminate criminal penalties associated with psilocybin and other psychedelics have so far centered in jurisdictions that have historically embraced marijuana legalization and broader drug reform, the conversation around decriminalizing psychedelics is spreading nationally.

Shortly after Oakland approved its measure, Decriminalize Nature received inquiries from activities in cities from across the country. The group has kept track of each city where organizers are pursuing decriminalization.

On Monday, a conversation around changing laws governing psychedelics reared during a City Council meeting in Columbia, Missouri. One resident implored the body to take up a resolution to decriminalize the natural substances, pointing to their therapeutic benefits.

Councilmember Mike Trapp said that the student’s proposal should be considered and that a government advisory board on public health should provide input on the medical potential of psychedelics, describing it as “very promising.”

Hawaii Governor Vetoes Two Cannabis Bills While Letting Decriminalization Become Law

Photo elements courtesy of carlosemmaskype and Apollo.

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Colorado Governor And USDA Official To Discuss CBD At Hemp Event

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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) and a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official will speak at a hemp conference next month to discuss policy and regulations concerning hemp-derived dietary supplements.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) announced the lineup of their first-ever hemp and CBD conference last week. The two-day event is meant to “provide critical information for companies navigating the rapidly evolving legal, regulatory and financial landscapes to manufacture and market dietary supplement products with hemp or hemp-derived ingredients including cannabidiol (CBD).”

Following the legalization of hemp and its derivatives under the 2018 Farm Bill, lawmakers and stakeholders have been quick to highlight the industry’s potential and to call for an expedited rulemaking process so that CBD can be lawfully marketed in food items and dietary supplements.

This conference will focus on dietary supplements in particular, with presentations on the current regulatory landscape for such products, compliance issues for hemp businesses and market analysis.

Polis has been a vocal advocate for marijuana reform and pledged in his State of the State address in January that he would make “good on the promise of industrial hemp in Colorado.”

“With our world class universities like Colorado State and Adams State, which are at the forefront of hemp innovation with the leading hemp manufacturers and cultivators already here, we want to seize on this opportunity under the most recent national Farm Bill to help make Colorado the national leader in industrial hemp production,” Polis said at the time.

AHPA’s two-day event will also feature USDA Senior Marketing Specialist William Richmond, who will brief attendees with an update on the department’s progress developing regulations for CBD. The department said last month that it is aiming to release an interim final rule on hemp in August.

But while USDA has regulatory authority over hemp, businesses will also have to await guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on marketing consumable CBD products. FDA said last week that it is “expediting” its rulemaking process and will release a report on its progress by early fall.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that because CBD exists as an FDA-approved drug and hasn’t previously been added to the food supply or in dietary supplements, the agency will have to create an alternative regulatory pathway for the compounds, which could take years without congressional action.

In the meantime, it appears that both federal agencies are taking steps to increase transparency around their regulatory progress. Two days before the USDA official is set to appear at the AHPA conference, an FDA representative is scheduled to keynote a separate hemp industry summit to discuss related issues.

FDA Says It Is Speeding Up The CBD Regulation Process

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Marijuana Legalization Could Be On The Horizon For British Virgin Islands

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The British Virgin Islands (BVI) could soon have a bill to legalize marijuana before the legislature, according to a government official.

Details are sparse, but Agriculture Minister Natalio Wheatley said on Saturday that the draft legislation under consideration would address concerns about youth consumption and impaired driving while ensuring that adults no longer face jail time for simple possession.

“We certainly know that marijuana, which contains THC, has an impact on your disposition. It has an impact on you being able to complete certain tasks,” he said, according to BVI News. “We don’t want to fool everyone into thinking that we think persons should be up and down smoking marijuana through the streets without any sort of regulation.”

He added that he hoped the legislation would make BVI a global model for legalization.

“We certainly support having a well-regulated industry, and the fact that we’re coming in late into this whole discussion of marijuana means that we don’t have to repeat the mistakes that some of our brothers and sisters made in other places,” he said.

The draft bill being circulated reportedly originated under the previous administration and is being improved upon. Wheatley said that residents, who he believes support legalization, should expect community meetings to be scheduled to discuss the proposal.

“Persons will no longer be incarcerated for the possession and consumption of something that is recognized to be a lot less detrimental to your health,” he said. “In fact, we’re speaking about the medicinal value of it than something like alcohol. It’s proven that alcohol is much more damaging to your health than marijuana.”

BVI’s cousin, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), hasn’t taken the step to allow adult use of marijuana, but the territory’s governor did sign a bill legalizing medical cannabis in January.

The sponsor of the USVI legislation, former senator and current Agriculture Commissioner Terrance “Positive” Nelson, said that he plans to continue to pursue broader reform, and he commended BVI for moving toward a commercial cannabis model.

“I told you already it is not easy to stand up for cannabis. I still have some scars on my back relative to the push in [USVI],” he said. “Here in the British Virgin Islands, you are talking about legalization and I want for local leaders here to continue to be brave enough to move forward.”

“Yes, there is going to be pushbacks. But the truth in the matter is this: the truth is on your side,” he said. “The truth is on our side.”

Hawaii Governor Vetoes Two Cannabis Bills While Letting Decriminalization Become Law

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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