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Government Shutdown Would Let Sessions Attack Medical Marijuana

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The federal government will shut down at midnight on Friday, barring an unexpected, last-minute bipartisan deal. That puts medical marijuana patients and providers at risk of being arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison by Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department.

Here’s why:

Under a shutdown scenario, an existing budget provision that prevents the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other agencies from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws would expire. But federal drug enforcement and prosecution actions, which are exempted from furloughs, would continue.

Why Might The Government Shut Down?

A bill to extend federal funding levels and policy riders like the marijuana one through February 16 was approved by the House on Thursday. But a heated dispute over immigration issues has jeopardized its passage in the Senate, where a significant number of Democrats are refusing to support any bill that does not provide protections to people who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal intervention. That has left recreational marijuana businesses and consumers without a key protection they’ve relied on since 2013, but the ongoing existence of the medical cannabis spending rider has continued to keep patients and providers safeguarded from federal attacks.

Until now.

An unintended consequence of Senate Democrats’ move to block the funding extension bill and shut down the government over immigration issues is that medical marijuana patients and industry operators would be at much greater risk, as soon as this weekend.

Why Would Drug Enforcement Continue Under A Shutdown?

“All agents in DEA field organizations are excepted from furlough because they support active counternarcotics investigations. This encompasses 21 domestic divisions, 7 regional foreign divisions, critical tactical support groups including the El Paso Intelligence Center and the Special Operations Division, forensic sciences, and technical surveillance support,” 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 document reads. “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.”

Politics Of Marijuana And Immigration Collide

Democrats, especially those considering 2020 presidential bids, are facing enormous pressure from their progressive base not to go along with yet another bill in a series of short-term funding extensions that do not include protections for young immigrants known as “DREAMers.” Because Republicans hold only 51 seats in the chamber, and a handful of GOP members are also opposing the spending resolution, leaders need support from Democrats to reach the critical 60-vote threshold to advance legislation.

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

Setting aside the important question of whether the medical cannabis rider will be included in full Fiscal Year 2018 spending legislation that congressional leaders continue to negotiate — and it is a big question, since House leaders blocked lawmakers from even voting on whether to include the policy in that chamber’s version of Justice Department spending legislation — the current budget brinksmanship on Capitol Hill means the medical marijuana protections could disappear as soon as Saturday morning.

A Shutdown Allows Old Federal Marijuana Prosecutions To Resume

If the provision lapses, it wouldn’t just allow new actions against people violating federal marijuana laws. It would also allow earlier medical cannabis prosecutions that were suspended under to the rider to resume.

A federal judge in a California case last August, for example, wrote that the prosecution of two marijuana growers would be “stayed until and unless a future appropriations bill permits the government to proceed. If such a bill is enacted, the government may notify the Court and move for the stay to be lifted.”

The failure to enact a new bill continuing the protections would have the same effect under a shutdown scenario, given that enforcement of federal drug laws would still continue.

Long-Term Status Of Marijuana Protections Unclear

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted in July to include the medical cannabis rider in its version of the 2018 Justice Department funding bill. But without the provision being approved on the House side, its long-term continuance will be determined behind closed doors by a bicameral conference committee that merges the two chambers’ proposal into a single bill to be sent to President Trump.

Advocates have also pushed to expand the protection to encompass all state marijuana laws, not just those focused on medical access. A measure to do that came just nine flipped votes of passage on the House floor in 2015, and the number of states with legalization has doubled since then. However, Republican congressional leaders have blocked subsequent cannabis measures from advancing to floor consideration, including as recently as this week.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Push For Marijuana Protections In Funding Bill

In the meantime, medical cannabis patients and providers will wait to see if Jeff Sessions and his DEA agents will regain the ability to come after them for the first time since 2014 this weekend.

Portions of this post were 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

Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances One Step In South Dakota

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South Dakota’s attorney general filed an official explanation of a proposed ballot measure to legalize marijuana on Friday.

While separate organizations are working to get a medical cannabis-focused initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot, activists behind this measure are hoping to incorporate recreational legalization, medical marijuana reform and hemp into one package.

Adult-use legalization would be accomplished through a constitutional amendment under the initiative, which would separately require the legislature to pass legislation creating rules for medical cannabis and hemp.

“The constitutional amendment legalizes the possession, use, transport, and distribution of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia by people age 21 and older. Individuals may possess or distribute one ounce or less of marijuana,” Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg (R) wrote. “Marijuana plants and marijuana produced from those plants may also be possessed under certain conditions.”

The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be responsible for issuing licenses for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Individual jurisdictions would be able to opt out of allowing such facilities in their areas.

“The Department must enact rules to implement and enforce this amendment,” the explanation states. “The amendment requires the Legislature to pass laws regarding medical use of marijuana. The amendment does not legalize hemp; it requires the Legislature to pass laws regulating the cultivation, processing, and sale of hemp.”

The initiative calls for a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana sales. That revenue would be used to fund the Department of Revenue’s implementation and regulation of the legal cannabis system, with remaining tax dollars going toward public education and the state general fund.

Ravnsborg said that judicial clarification of the amendment “may be necessary” and notes that marijuana “remains illegal under Federal law.”

The attorney general issued a similar explanation of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical cannabis earlier this month.

This latest move comes one day after advocacy organization New Approach South Dakota announced that their medical marijuana initiative was certified, enabling them to begin the signature gathering process.

Several other cannabis initiatives are in the process of being certified in the state, according to the attorney general’s website. In order to place constitutional amendments on the ballot, activists must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters.

South Dakota is one of the last remaining states in the U.S. that has not legalized marijuana for any purposes.

GOP Senator Keeps Endorsing Medical Marijuana But Hasn’t Sponsored A Single Cannabis Bill

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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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Elizabeth Warren’s Plan For Indian Tribes Includes Marijuana Legalization

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unveiled a plan on Friday that’s aimed at holding the federal government accountable for following through on its obligations to Native American tribes, and that includes ensuring that tribal marijuana programs are protected against federal intervention.

The plan emphasized Warren’s support for a bill she filed earlier this year that “would protect cannabis laws and policies that tribal nations adopted for themselves.”

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, who has faced criticism over claims of Native American heritage, pointed to federal reports showing that tribal programs generally have not received adequate funding and said it is imperative that legislation be enacted to “provide resources for housing, education, health care, self-determination, and public safety” for those communities.

To that end, Warren is planning to introduce a bill called the “Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act” alongside Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Before filing, however, the lawmakers are soliciting input on how best to draft the legislation, and are accepting written testimony until September 30.

While the proposed legislation itself doesn’t currently include marijuana-specific provisions, a press release and blog post on the topic address the senator’s sponsorship of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would allow tribal communities and states to set their own cannabis policies without Justice Department interference.

In order to provide economic opportunities to Native people, that “requires streamlining and removing unnecessary administrative barriers that impede economic growth on Tribal lands, respecting tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses, and promoting forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new and emerging economic opportunities.”

“For example, while not every tribe is interested in the economic opportunities associated with changing laws around marijuana, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important opportunity for economic development,” Warren’s campaign blog post states.

“I support full marijuana legalization, and have also introduced and worked on a bipartisan basis to advance the STATES Act, a proposal that would at a minimum safeguard the ability of states, territories, and Tribal Nations, to make their own marijuana policies,” she wrote.

A separate press release on Warren’s Senate website also touts her support for the STATES Act, saying she “worked hard to ensure” that it included tribal protections.

“It’s beyond time to make good on America’s responsibilities to Native peoples, and that is why I’m working with Congresswoman Haaland to draft legislation that will ensure the federal government lives up to its obligations and will empower tribal governments to address the needs of their citizens,” Warren said of the overall tribal plan. “We look forward to working closely with tribal nations to advance legislation that honors the United States’ promises to Native peoples.”

In an email blast to her campaign list, Warren included “a set of additional ideas to uphold the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations with Tribal Nations and to empower Native communities,” which includes her marijuana proposal:

“New economic opportunities: We also need to respect tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses and promote forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new economic opportunities. For example, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important economic opportunity. I support full marijuana legalization and have advanced the STATES Act, a proposal that would safeguard the ability of Tribal Nations to make their own marijuana policies.”

There’s increased interest in ensuring that Native populations receive the same benefits and protections as states as it concerns cannabis legislation.

In June, the House passed a spending bill that included a rider stipulating that Native American marijuana programs couldn’t be infringed upon by the Justice Department. And a GOP representative filed a bill in March that would provide similar protections.

GOP Senator Keeps Endorsing Medical Marijuana But Hasn’t Sponsored A Single Cannabis Bill

Photo elements courtesy of Pixabay and NorthEndWaterFront.com.

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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FBI Seeks Tips On Marijuana Industry Corruption

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is actively seeking tips on public corruption related to the marijuana industry, it announced on Thursday.

“States require licenses to grow and sell the drug—opening the possibility for public officials to become susceptible to bribes in exchange for those licenses,” FBI Public Affairs Specialist Mollie Halpern said on a short podcast the bureau released. “The corruption is more prevalent in western states where the licensing is decentralized—meaning the level of corruption can span from the highest to the lowest level of public officials.”

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.)

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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