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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.

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 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

People With Marijuana Convictions Should Know About National Expungement Week

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Marijuana legalization is a solid first step, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to resolve  socioeconomic and racial inequities brought about by the war on drugs.

Hence, we now have National Expungement Week. The first-of-its-kind campaign, supported by a coalition of cannabis and social justice organizations called the Equity First Alliance, is taking place from October 20-27.

The organizations will offer “expungement and other forms of legal relief to some of the 77 million Americans with convictions on their records,” according to the campaign website. “These convictions can restrict access to housing, employment, education, public assistance, and voting rights long after sentences have been served.”

In an open letter, the alliance also said it was “largely unsupported by the cannabis industry and by the traditional funders of equity work.” While a main argument in support of legalization is that it would help to repair drug war damages, which have disproportionately affected communities of color, the laws and markets created by the successful movement haven’t necessarily lived up to its name, the alliance wrote.

To that end, the campaign has organized events across the country—from Los Angeles to Boston—to provide legal services to those whose criminal records are able to be reduced or expunged. You can check out the full list of events here.

The alliance’s agenda touches on numerous reform policies, including using marijuana tax revenue to fund communities that have been impacted by prohibition, implementing social equity programs, ensuring corporate responsibility for businesses that profit off cannabis and providing affordable medical cannabis for low-income patients, among other policies.

“We believe that we have a short but vital window of opportunity to change the course of the cannabis industry—and by doing so, we can prevent further harms to the most impacted communities and create a model of reparative economic and criminal justice.”

Adam Vine, co-founder of Cafe-Free Cannabis and an organizer with the campaign, told Marijuana Moment that the campaign is necessary “because millions of Americans have been harmed by the war on drugs and continue to face collateral consequences for convictions that may have happened years ago.”

“These consequences restrict people’s access to employment, housing, education, and social services, so our coalition decided to do something about it,” he said. “We are coordinating these events to provide free legal relief and to say that as states move towards cannabis legalization, expungement needs to be the first priority.”

Marijuana Use Will No Longer Be Prosecuted In Manhattan

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Chris Christie Finally Recognizes Marijuana Legalization As States’ Rights Issue

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Famously anti-marijuana former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) isn’t jumping on the pro-legalization train any time soon—but new comments suggest he might be softening his opposition a smidge, recognizing marijuana reform as a states’ rights issue.

Speaking at Politicon on Saturday, Christie took a question about his cannabis stance from YouTuber Kyle Kulinski, who asked him to weigh in on studies showing that states with legal marijuana programs experience lower rates of opioid addiction and overdoses compared to non-legal states. He was quick to dismiss the research, contending that other studies show the “exact opposite.”

“I just don’t believe when we’re in the midst of a drug addiction crisis that we need to legalize another drug,” Christie said, echoing comments he’s made as chair of President Donald Trump’s opioids committee.

Then he pivoted, acknowledging that some will push back on his anti-legalization position by pointing out that alcohol is legal. “I get that,” he said, “but I wasn’t here when we legalized alcohol.”

Kulinski seized on that point and asked the former governor if he’d vote to ban alcohol.

“No, I wouldn’t ban it. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, and that’s a big, important argument about marijuana because once you legalize this, that toothpaste never goes back in the tube.”

Christie stood out among other Republican and Democratic contenders during his 2016 presidential run by maintaining that in addition to personally opposing legalization, he’d crack down on legal cannabis states and enforce federal laws nationwide if elected.

“If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it,” Christie said in 2015. “As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.

So it came as something of a surprise when the former governor went on to say in the Politicon appearance that “states have the right to do what they want to do on this,” signaling a modest shift in his anti-marijuana rhetoric. States should have that right even though, as Christie put it, “broad legalization of marijuana won’t, in my view, alleviate or even minimize the opioid crisis.”

It’s unclear what’s behind the apparent shift from hardline prohibitionist to wary federalist, but who knows… maybe Christie experienced an epiphany at a Melissa Etheridge concert he attended earlier this month.

Etheridge, who recently spoke with Marijuana Moment about her cannabis advocacy and use of the drug for medicinal purposes, reacted to a tweet showing Christie at one of her recent performances, where he reportedly knew every word of her songs and sang along.

Christie, for his part, replied that he “enjoyed every minute of a great performance and a truly wonderful group of fans.”

Hm…

GIF by #ActionAliens

Melissa Etheridge Talks Art, Culture and Marijuana Advocacy In The Legalization Era

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

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Politics

Marijuana Support Grows: Two Out Of Three Americans Back Legalization, Gallup Says

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Two-thirds of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, the highest percentage ever in Gallup’s ongoing decades-long series of national polls on the topic.

The new survey released on Monday shows that U.S. adults back ending cannabis prohibition by a supermajority margin of 66 percent to 32 percent. That’s more than a two-to-one ratio.

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.

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