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.
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Earlier this month, Attorney General Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal intervention.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.
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.
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.
Anti-Marijuana Group Wants Campaign Finance Transparency, Kind Of
A leading anti-legalization group is cooking up a new follow-the-money tool, ostensibly to track contributions from the marijuana industry to lawmakers.
At least, that seems to be what Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) is doing with this interactive map on its website:
If you visit the page and click on a highlighted state, it brings you to a list naming select members of Congress, the district they represent and an undefined monetary “amount.”
Presumably, this is a beta version of something that SAM has been talking about for some time.
Take last year, for example. A group of 44 U.S. House members signed a letter to the chairman of a key subcommittee, asking that language restricting the Department of Justice from interfering in state marijuana programs be included in an appropriations bill. In response, SAM president Kevin Sabet announced plans to “investigate campaign contributions” of signees.
“Legalization is about making a small number of people very rich,” Sabet said in a press release. “For them, it’s all about the money.”
“The representatives who sign on to this letter will be investigated, and any ties to the pot industry lobby will be exposed. There’s a money trail behind further relaxation of federal marijuana laws, and it points to politicians who have taken money from the next big addictive industry.”
It’s admittedly difficult to follow the money using the current version of SAM’s online map, though. There are few citations showing where the group’s information is coming from, and for most states, when you click on one of the hyperlinked “amounts,” it takes you here:
For some reason, nearly every hyperlinked amount points to a URL apparently meant for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and the page only shows a 404 error message.
At least one state, Washington, seems to be mostly functional.
SAM representatives did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication, but they do appear to have slightly edited the webpage after receiving Marijuana Moment’s inquiry. The title “The Money Trail: Where Big Pot Meets Big Politics” was added above the map, and the phrase “(Work In Progress)” was appended to all sub-pages.
This story will be updated if the organization sends comment.
What SAM appears to be interested in accomplishing is drawing links between campaign contributions from cannabis industry interests and politicians who’ve come to embrace marijuana reform. Or in other words, campaign finance transparency.
Missing from that agenda, though, is disclosure of SAM’s own finances—a subject of particular interest to advocates and reporters following the marijuana legalization debate.
Sabet touted the group’s financial expansion over the past two years in a recent curriculum vitae (not linked here, as it appears to reveal his personal phone number). A summary of Sabet’s work at SAM noted that the 12-person organization has a $1 million budget, with $4.5 million in reserve.
The group also recently opened a new office in Manhattan.
When this reporter asked Sabet about financial contributions to SAM in a 2016 interview, he emphasized the role of grassroots, individual contributions. There is limited public information available about SAM’s financing.
An FAQ published on SAM’s website states:
“SAM is funded by small family foundations (with no interest in the opioid, tobacco, alcohol, or prison industries) and individuals affected by drug use and its consequences. SAM does not receive a dollar from the opioid, pharmaceutical, alcohol, or tobacco industries – unlike some pro-legalization groups like Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which takes money from Big Tobacco.”
Another potential source of ongoing funding may be past supporter Julie Schauer, a retired art professor who donated at least $1.3 million to SAM Action’s efforts to defeat 2016 marijuana ballot initiatives in California and other states.
It remains to be seen when SAM will officially launch its online campaign donation tracking tool and what its impact will be.
Marijuana Emerges As Key Issue In Nevada U.S. Senate Race
This year’s U.S. Senate race in Nevada has become one of the most watched of the cycle, and marijuana is increasingly a central issue as Congresswoman Jacky Rosen (D) ramps up her challenge to incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R).
During the campaign, Rosen has consistently drawn attention to what she says is Heller’s lack of pushback against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s moves to rescind protections for state cannabis laws.
Rosen herself had written to Sessions in January, urging him to reverse his decision to end Obama-era guidance on the issue — known as the Cole Memorandum — that generally allowed states the freedom to enact legalization and regulate their own cannabis industries without federal interference.
ICYMI: I sent a letter to AG Jeff Sessions demanding @DeptofJustice end its marijuana crackdown. The DOJ shouldn’t interfere with states' rights and halt the progress that has been made on medical and recreational marijuana use in Nevada. pic.twitter.com/UFFAHi6F3W
— Rep. Jacky Rosen (@RepJackyRosen) January 24, 2018
Meanwhile, Heller also made a statement in response to Session’s decision: “Knowing Attorney General Sessions’ deference to states’ rights, I strongly encourage the DOJ to meet with Governor Sandoval and Attorney General Laxalt to discuss the implications of changes to federal marijuana enforcement policy. I also urge the DOJ to work with the congressional delegations from states like Nevada that have legalized marijuana as they review and navigate the new policy.”
However, as Rosen pointed out in January, Heller is the only Republican senator up for re-election this year who’s both from an adult use cannabis state and also voted to confirm Sessions as attorney general.
— Jacky Rosen (@RosenforNevada) January 6, 2018
On various counts, Rosen has vocalized her support for legal marijuana — citing benefits like job creation and tax revenue — as well as her commitment to protecting state cannabis industries from federal interference, all while simultaneously attacking Heller for his relative passivity on the issue.
Senator Heller stood on the sidelines while Jeff Sessions attacked our marijuana industry.
— Jacky Rosen (@RosenforNevada) August 7, 2018
In addition to public commentary, Rosen has taken a stand by cosponsoring several congressional bills relating to cannabis, including the STATES Act to strengthen states’ rights on marijuana, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018, the SAFE Act of 2017 to secure banking for the cannabis industry and the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, as well as legislation to ensure tax fairness for cannabis businesses and to remove roadblocks to marijuana research.
“Nevada voters chose to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, and states like Nevada have shown that allowing responsible adults to purchase marijuana legally supports our state budget, creates new jobs and businesses, and drives our economy instead of making our broken criminal justice system worse,” Rosen said in a press release about signing on to the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act. “I believe it’s time to end the federal prohibition on marijuana, start regulating this product like alcohol, and get rid of barriers for states like ours where voters have made this decision to move forward.”
Nevada's marijuana industry has created thousands of jobs and continues to exceed revenue projections. In the Senate, I'll keep fighting to support these workers and protect these businesses from federal interference. https://t.co/iOpOmOXf1V
— Jacky Rosen (@RosenforNevada) July 27, 2018
Though publicly less vehement on the issue than Rosen is, Heller has cosponsored a handful of cannabis bills during his time in the Senate, namely the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015 and the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2015.
But he has not signed onto the CARERS Act or the banking bill in their current iterations during the 115th Congress.
Though Heller has discussed cannabis under the umbrella of states’ rights, in 2007, as a House member, he voted against an amendment shielding state medical marijuana laws from federal interference.
By 2015, Heller made a statement that “the time has come for the federal government to stop impeding the doctor-patient relationship in states that have decided their own medical marijuana policies.”
Meanwhile, NORML gave Heller a B grade in its congressional scorecard last year. Rosen will receive an A in the organization’s forthcoming analysis of the current Congress, and Heller is being downgraded to a C for “not representing his constituents,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment.
NORML is getting ready to release it's 2018 scorecard and challenger ratings. Lots of interesting races, like in #Nevada where @RepJackyRosen will have an A for cosponsoring the STATES AcT against @SenDeanHeller who has yet to put his name on comprehensive reform legislation.
— NORML (@NORML) August 14, 2018
Two years ago, Nevada voters approved legalization by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. This year, it could end up being the case that a contrast on cannabis issues makes the difference in what is expected to be a very close Senate race.
Marijuana Policy Project Welcomes New Executive Director
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the nation’s best-funded cannabis advocacy group, has named long-time social justice reform advocate Steve Hawkins as its next executive director.
Hawkins, who previously served as the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and executive vice president of the NAACP, will assume responsibility for MPP’s national legalization advocacy efforts just months before a number of states vote to enact their own legal systems.
The decision was made after a “months-long candidate search that included several exceptionally qualified candidates,” MPP said in a press release.
“We are still battling the effects of decades of anti-marijuana legislation and propaganda in this country,” Hawkins told Marijuana Moment. “Huge strides have been made when it comes to setting the record straight, but our work is far from over and there is still a lot of misinformation out there that needs to be addressed.”
“Fundraising and maintaining momentum is also a core challenge for the movement, which is in some ways a victim of its own success. Thanks to the major gains it has made in recent years, many people think legalization is inevitable and that their donations are no longer needed or that they don’t need to take the time to write their elected officials. These laws are not going to change themselves and there is more need than ever for resources and engagement to support federal and state-level reform efforts.”
Hawkins’s experience running successful criminal justice reform campaigns—including a bipartisan effort to end capital punishment for juveniles during his time at the NCADP—made him an apt candidate to spearhead the fight to end prohibition, Troy Dayton, chair of MPP’s board of directors, said in a statement.
“Steve has a strong track record in the field of criminal justice reform, and he knows how to build a movement toward meaningful social change,” Dayton said. “We were not only impressed by his expertise and experience, but also his strong convictions regarding the injustice of marijuana prohibition.”
“The country is moving in the right direction on marijuana policy, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Hawkins also previously held leadership positions at Amnesty International and the Coalition for Public Safety.
He told Marijuana Moment that his three decades of experience “defending civil and human rights” has informed his belief that we should “bring an end to marijuana prohibition, which has had a hugely detrimental impact, especially to communities of color,” and that we should “replace it with a more sensible system of regulation.”
“I also believe it is critical we ensure those populations that were so negatively impacted by prohibition are able to participate in and experience the positive impacts of such a regulated system.”
At MPP, Hawkins will succeed Rob Kampia, who late last year left the organization he founded in 1995 to start a for-profit cannabis policy consulting firm called the Marijuana Leadership Campaign. Kampia’s departure was announced shortly after sexual misconduct allegations against him resurfaced amid the #MeToo movement.
Kampia offered some words of advice for the next person to occupy his former seat in a phone interview with Marijuana Moment:
“View yourself as a fundraiser who has to engage in transactional fundraising with the marijuana industry in part, and view yourself as needing to come up with a smart, strategic plan for lobbying in state legislatures rather than doing ballot initiatives where no one else is going to touch it. Do not view yourself as a spokesperson.”
Or in other words, less of a focus on talk, and more on action.
MPP named Matthew Schweich as the interim executive director while the group scouted for a replacement. Scweich will now serve as MPP’s deputy director overseeing marijuana reform initiatives in Michigan and Utah.
In a statement, MPP board member Joby Pritzker said Schweich “provided critical leadership during a challenging transition period for MPP.”
“He maintained the effectiveness of our advocacy operations, managed our fundraising efforts, and oversaw ballot initiative campaigns in multiple states, while at the same time leading our staff and assisting the board with the executive director search.”
The past few years have seen a number of leadership changeups at national pro-legalization groups.
NORML brought on Erik Altieri as executive director in 2016 after Allen St. Pierre left the organization following 11 years of service. And last year, the Drug Policy Alliance announced that it had hired Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, who worked on international and domestic drug policies issues for 13 years at the Human Rights Watch, as the new executive director to replace retiring founder Ethan Nadelmann.
While the objective at all of these groups—promoting equitable drug policy reform in the United States—has remained the same, the nature of the movement has evolved. A majority of states have now legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, and though state-level reform efforts continue, calls for change at the federal level are increasingly resonant.
That is to say, these new executive directors will face a different set of challenges than their predecessors did.
Photo courtesy of Beloit College.