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Earlier this month, Attorney General Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal intervention.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.
Andrew Yang Wants To Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms For Military Veterans
Andrew Yang says he wants to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for military veterans to help them combat mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During a town hall event at an Iowa college on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked whether he would take initiative and allow veterans to access medical marijuana if elected. Yang replied he “will be so excited to be that commander-in-chief” that he would not only end federal cannabis prohibition but would go one step further by legalizing the psychedelic fungus for veterans as well.
“We need to get marijuana off of the Controlled Substances Act and legalize it at the federal level, make it freely available,” he said. “I say this because I’ve talked to hundreds of veterans and other Americans who benefit from marijuana as a pain relief treatment, and it’s much less deadly than the opiates that many, many people are using for the same conditions.”
“I’ve talked to veterans who’ve also benefited from psilocybin mushrooms,” he added. “They said it was the only thing that actually has helped combat their PTSD. I’m for legalizing psilocybin mushrooms for veterans as well. Pretty much if it’s going to help a veteran, we should make it easier, not harder, for them to get access to it.”
Yang’s drug policy reform platform is unique in that respect. While the majority of Democratic candidates support marijuana legalization, he’s pushed unique proposals such as decriminalizing possession of opioids and making psilocybin mushrooms “more freely available” for therapeutic purposes. The candidate also wants to invest federal funds in safe injection facilities where individuals can use prohibited drugs in a medically supervised environment and receive help getting into treatment.
He hasn’t gone so far as embracing the decriminalization of all drugs, as former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has, however.
That said, Yang did signal that he’s open to legalizing and regulating “certain drugs” beyond cannabis, which he argued would disrupt international drug cartels. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) recently said she backs “legalizing and regulating” currently illegal controlled substances to protect public safety and combat the illicit market.
At the Iowa town hall, Yang went on to say that he’s particularly interested in legalizing marijuana, and he again pledged to “pardon everyone who’s in jail for a non-violent marijuana-related offense because they shouldn’t be in jail for something that’s frankly legal in other parts of the country.”
“And I would pardon them all on April 20, 2021, high-five them on the way out of jail and be like, ‘things got a lot better in the last year,'” he said, referencing the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20.
Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Tom Steyer Calls For Marijuana Legalization And Opioid Decriminalization
Billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer is calling for the legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of opioid possession.
In a criminal justice reform plan released on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate laid out a vision for ending the drug war, which he said has contributed to mass incarceration and is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
“Tom believes we must end the failed War on Drugs. Based on the flawed idea that incarceration is the answer to addiction, federal and state elected officials passed severe sentencing laws that encouraged incarceration for low-level drug offenses,” the plan states. “Unfortunately, communities of color were and continue to be disproportionately affected and targeted by these laws, even when other ethnicities were committing the same drug crimes at the same rates.”
Today @TomSteyer announced a new criminal justice plan to:
– Reform the juvenile system
– Improve prison conditions
– Redirect funds to education
– Eliminate cash bail
– Release more rehabilitated people
– End the war on drugs
And much more! 👉 https://t.co/3VYRw7ioXB
— TeamTom 🌎 (@TomHQ) January 24, 2020
There are six proposals in the drug war section, including legalizing cannabis and expunging prior marijuana convictions, ending mandatory minimum sentences and empowering judges to use more discretion in non-violent drug cases, diverting people convicted of drug offenses to treatment or drug court, ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, sealing the records of certain drug convictions and decriminalizing opioids while investing $75 billion in treatment programs and holding pharmaceutical companies accountable.
Steyer specifically endorsed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would deschedule cannabis, expunge prior convictions and set aside tax revenue to support communities most impacted by the drug war.
“Policing marijuana use has led to too many unfair incarcerations and predominantly impacted communities of color,” the plan says. It also criticizes then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s 2018 move on “repealing leniency given to states for marijuana laws.”
Today, I'm meeting with formerly incarcerated individuals to talk about transforming the criminal justice system through police accountability, ending cash bail, providing adequate funding to re-entry programs, and so much more. pic.twitter.com/m9lDEKWwwU
— Tom Steyer (@TomSteyer) January 23, 2020
“A Steyer Administration will also open equitable pathways to banking for marijuana businesses,” it continues. “The federal government—including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—should not be a barrier to marijuana businesses receiving support from their local banks.”
“Incarceration is not the answer to addiction, and low-level drug offenses should not carry a severe sentence. Tom will legalize marijuana, let states pass their own policies, expunge past records, and direct the federal government to open banking services to the marijuana industry. Tom’s administration will end the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences, decriminalize opioid possession, and invest $75 billion to address the opioid crisis.”
The opioid decriminalization proposal is similar to that of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, another 2020 candidate who said removing criminal penalties for possessing the substance is necessary in order to help get people into treatment and curb the opioid crisis. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have gone further, calling for the decriminalization of all drug possession and, in Gabbard’s case, also the legalization and regulation of illicit drugs.
“Tom supports decriminalizing small amounts of opioid possession for personal use at the federal level,” the plan states. “He will address the opioid crisis through $75 billion in new funding over ten years to resource state and local treatment programs, hold big pharmaceutical corporations and their executives accountable, and strongly enforce laws that end the illicit distribution and sale of opioids.”
This is a notable development for Steyer, who hasn’t discussed drug policy reform as much as many other candidates in the race and whose views on decriminalization of substances beyond marijuana were previously unknown.
Last year, Steyer said he supported creating a national referendum process so that Americans can made decisions about a wide range of policy issues, including cannabis legalization.
He also previously discussed his support for ending marijuana prohibition and providing the industry with access to banking, saying that he and his wife wanted to provide financial services to minority- and women-owned cannabis firms through their community bank, but federal prohibition means the business would be put at risk if they did that.
Steyer’s new plan also calls for juvenile justice reform, ending cash bail, banning facial recognition technology in policing, demilitarizing law enforcement, improving prison conditions and eliminating the death penalty, among other reforms.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
Austin City Council Approves Measure To End Most Marijuana Arrests
The decision to back away from pursuing criminal charges against people with small amounts of pot comes after state lawmakers last year legalized hemp in a way that threw marijuana prosecution into chaos.
The Austin City Council approved a resolution Thursday that will largely end arrests and fines for low-level marijuana possession. This comes after Texas’ legalization of hemp last June threw marijuana prosecution into chaos since the plants look and smell identical.
The resolution directing Austin police not to spend city resources on newly necessary lab tests to distinguish marijuana from now-legal hemp passed unanimously with nine votes. Council member Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Steve Adler were absent. Debate on the measure lasted just under an hour and a half. Of about 20 people who spoke on the resolution, only Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday was against it.
The council’s resolution states that it stems directly from Texas’ new law legalizing hemp. Last summer, following a federal hemp bill, state lawmakers approved a measure to create an agricultural industry for the crop in Texas. But the law also complicated marijuana prosecutions by narrowing the legal definition of the drug from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant.
Joint Effort: #ATXCouncil takes steps to eliminate the use of arrest or other enforcement action for low-level cannabis-related possession offenses + ensure City resources are focused on citizens’ public safety priorities. View the draft resolution: https://t.co/qNJ6L2ZPjJ. pic.twitter.com/rdwiLjx0w8
— City of Austin (@austintexasgov) January 23, 2020
All of a sudden, some district attorneys were dropping hundreds of low-level pot possession cases and not accepting new ones, arguing they couldn’t tell without lab testing if something was marijuana anymore. New misdemeanor marijuana cases filed by Texas prosecutors have dropped by more than half. And numerous Texas prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, require police to submit lab reports on a substance’s THC concentration before they will pursue misdemeanor marijuana charges. They argue circumstantial evidence like smell can no longer be used to authoritatively say something is marijuana.
Part of what prompted the Austin resolution — which prohibits spending city funds on such testing except in felony cases — is that public state labs are still working on establishing a way to test for that THC concentration. Right now they can only tell if something is cannabis. For some counties and cities, that has meant putting more money into shipping seized cannabis to private labs that can tell if it’s hemp or marijuana.
Even in places where police don’t have or aren’t spending funds on such testing and new cases aren’t being accepted by prosecutors, people are still being cited or arrested. They are sometimes taken to jail but then released with no charges being pursued. Austin police said this month that they still arrest or cite people who are suspected of possessing marijuana.
This resolution changes that, directing the city to get as close as possible to eliminating enforcement action for low-level cannabis possession.
The measure prohibits spending city funds on testing in low-level possession cases, and it directs police not to arrest or cite people in such cases — unless there is a safety concern — if they know the district attorney will automatically reject the charges or testing won’t be approved. It clarifies that lab testing can be used for suspected felonies or when the cannabis is not for personal use, like trafficking cases. A revised version also specifies that the measure will not affect toxicology testing.
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