In the race for Maine’s U.S. Senate seat, Republican State Sen. Eric Brakey has made marijuana a front-and-center issue, positioning himself as more pro-reform than his Democratic-caucusing opponent, independent incumbent U.S. Sen. Angus King.
Brakey has been particularly vocal about cannabis law reform on Twitter, where he’s articulated a clear pro-legalization stance. “I supported cannabis legalization and I have supported implementation of sales,” Brakey tweeted in one response to a constituent. “I would love to see those proceeds used to support healthcare services for our most vulnerable: our seniors and intellectually disabled.”
Brandon, I supported cannabis legalization and I have supported implementation of sales. I would love to see those proceeds used to support healthcare services for our most vulnerable: our seniors and intellectually disabled.
— Sen. Eric Brakey (@SenatorBrakey) November 8, 2017
The state senator’s support for cannabis law reform seems to stem from his loyalty to states’ rights, specifically in reference to the 10th Amendment, which details that power not delegated by the Constitution to the federal government is reserved for the states or to the people.
“In a free society, we don’t throw people in cages for life choices we disagree with,” Brakey tweeted. “Washington DC has no constitutional authority on cannabis policy and needs to leave us all alone.”
“The federal government should not be interfering when states’ economic growth comes from a substance that is only legal for adults, and poses very little danger to one’s health compared to other legal substances like alcohol,” he wrote.
Yes. The Constitution never gave Washington DC the authority to set cannabis policy in the first place. #10thAmendment means the states should decide those policies.
— Sen. Eric Brakey (@SenatorBrakey) June 4, 2018
— Sen. Eric Brakey (@SenatorBrakey) June 2, 2018
Brakey’s support for cannabis law reform goes beyond his penchant for states’ rights, and stems also from his concerns surrounding criminal justice reform. “I’ve sponsored #CriminalJusticeReform legislation in Maine to allow expungement of low-level, non-violent convictions after 5 years out with no re-offense. And I do believe we should pardon and expunge non-violent cannabis convictions,” he tweeted in June, hinting as well at the gross racial disparities inherent in the War on Drugs.
“White and blacks both use cannabis at similar rates, yet black Americans are convicted for these offenses at far higher rates. We need to rethink this whole system of throwing people in jail for victimless crimes,” he added.
You are right that we still have work to do in securing our liberties. Washington DC has no constitutional authority on cannabis policy and needs to leave us all alone.
— Sen. Eric Brakey (@SenatorBrakey) January 31, 2018
And in light of the looming election season, Brakey took a recent jab at King, as well, noting his opponent’s belated support for expanded cannabis research, two decades after the state voted to legalize the drug’s medical use.
After nearly 20 years since Maine people passed the medical marijuana law, I’m glad to hear that Angus King FINALLY supports medical marijuana research. What else is Angus King 20 years late on? #MEPolitics pic.twitter.com/kdrHRFHuxT
— Sen. Eric Brakey (@SenatorBrakey) August 20, 2018
At home in Maine, where voters legalized marijuana at the ballot box in 2016, Brakey has displayed support for cannabis legislation, such as when he co-chaired the committee that drafted a medical marijuana reform bill, which headed to the governor’s desk this past spring.
On the other hand, King, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, has been less of a trailblazer when it comes to marijuana.
King has never tweeted about cannabis but he has cosponsored a handful of Senate bills related to the issue.
Among the pieces of legislation he has supported are the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2015, which would provide protections for state medical cannabis laws and make other reforms. He signed onto the current Congress’s version of the bill in June.
In July, he cosponsored the VA Medical cannabis Research Act of 2018, aimed at furthering research into the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana for veterans with PTSD and chronic pain.
“We owe it to our veterans who need medical assistance to do everything we can to help them face their challenges in healthy, productive ways, including research into alternative treatments that may help ease their pain,” King said in a statement about the legislation. “Maine’s veterans have earned nothing less than our complete support, and we must explore every possible avenue to help them.”
In 2016, he joined a bipartisan group of senators by signing onto a letter asking the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to clarify guidance for banks that deal with cannabis businesses. “Forcing all these direct and indirect businesses to operate in cash not only creates a huge target for criminals, but also complicates the collection of state and federal taxes,” the cohort wrote. “[New guidance to banks] will not only bolster the safety of our communities, but it will also help to spur economic growth across the country.”
Also, along with nearly a third of the Senate, he cosponsored a bill to legalize industrial hemp this year.
Nonetheless, King has earned a C grade from NORML.
In 2014 a King spokesman said the senator was still holding out on supporting federal legalization, which “must be thought through carefully and comprehensively,” and that “he is interested to see the effects of legalization in places like Colorado and Washington, as data emerges that will better inform the decision-making process on this issue.”
Last year, his spokesman said that King “believes the federal government should not interfere with state laws on this issue, and instead give states the ability to make and implement policy based on the wishes of their citizens.” He added that “a growing body of evidence suggesting that cannabinoids can be effective in treating a number of conditions, such as epilepsy and cancer, and he is troubled by the administration’s recent statements indicating a desire to crack down on states where medical marijuana has been legalized.”
But the senator himself, when asked about marijuana policy by Rolling Stone last year, brushed off the question. “That was a state issue – they made the decision up there, so I’m not going to comment,” he said.
To be sure, King’s support for modest marijuana reforms has remained relatively tepid, and he hasn’t sponsored legislation to protect his state’s broader recreational legalization law from federal inferences, indicating that the issue is not among his priorities.
For Democrats who rank marijuana reform as a top issue, this election may be a tough call, with cannabis-concerned voters forced to choose between a very pro-legalization Republican and a lukewarm Democrat-caucusing independent.
It is worth noting that also running is Zak Ringelstein, a Democrat who supports decriminalizing drugs and federally legalizing marijuana, according to his campaign website and social media posts. He is, however, polling in single digits, according to public surveys—far behind King and Brakey—and doesn’t appear to enjoy strong support from national party organs like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
UN Committee Unexpectedly Withholds Marijuana Scheduling Recommendations
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) was expected to make recommendations about the international legal status of marijuana, which reform advocates hoped would include a call to deschedule the plant and free up member countries to pursue legalization.
But in a surprise twist, a representative from the organization announced that WHO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, would be temporarily withholding the results of its cannabis assessment, even as it released recommendations on an opioid painkiller and synthetic cannabinoids. The marijuana recommendations are now expected to come out in January.
Earlier this year, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) released a pre-review of marijuana that included several positive, evidentiary findings. Cannabis has never caused a fatal overdose, the committee said, and research demonstrates that ingredients in the plant can effectively treat pain and improve sleep, for example.
The pre-review results prompted a more in-depth critical review, one of the final stages before the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) makes a determination about whether marijuana should remain in the most restrictive international drug classification. But on Friday, as observers anxiously awaited that determination, WHO pumped the brakes. The committee said it needed more time “for clearance reasons,” according to the International Drug Policy Consortium.
The @WHO's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence met in November to discuss the scheduling of cannabis and related/other substances.
— IDPC (@IDPCnet) December 7, 2018
“This decision to withhold the results of the critical review of cannabis appears to be politically motivated,” Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and legalization advocate who has pushed for international reform, said in a press release.
“The WHO has been answering many questions about cannabis legalization, which is not within their mandate. I hope the WHO shows courage and stands behind their work on cannabis, findings we expect to be positive based upon recent WHO statements and their other actions today.”
Those other actions include recommending that the opioid painkiller tramadol should not be scheduled under international treaties out of concern that such restrictions would limit access and hurt patients. In August, the committee made a similar recommendation about pure cannabidiol, or CBD, a component of marijuana.
While the critical review of marijuana itself has been postponed, the committee’s recommendations for its international scheduling are still expected to go up for a vote in the CND in March. If the committee does decide to recommend that cannabis be removed from international control, that would have wide-ranging implications for the reform efforts around the world.
In the U.S., the federal government has routinely cited obligations under international treaties to which it is a party as reasons to continue to ban marijuana and its derivatives. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration said in May that CBD doesn’t meet the criteria for federal scheduling at all, but that international treaties obliged it to recommend rescheduling to Schedule V.
“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or if the international controls on CBD change in the future, this recommendation will need to be promptly revisited,” the agency said.
Where Trump’s Pick For Attorney General Stands On Drug Policy
President Donald Trump said on Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr to replace Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.
Barr, who previously served in the position under President George H. W. Bush’s administration, seems less openly hostile to marijuana compared to other potential nominees whose names were floated—like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who pledged to crack down on state-legal cannabis activity during his failed 2016 presidential bid.
That said, he developed a reputation as anti-drug while overseeing harsh enforcement policies under Bush.
….and one of the most highly respected lawyers and legal minds in the Country, he will be a great addition to our team. I look forward to having him join our very successful Administration!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018
The prospective nominee seems to share a worldview with the late president under whom he served. Bush called for “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” to combat drug use and dramatically increased the federal drug control budget to accomplish that goal. In 1992, Barr sanctioned a report that made the “case for more incarceration” as a means to reduce violent crime.
Barr wrote a letter explaining why he was releasing the report, which has now resurfaced as observers attempt to gauge how he will approach drug policy in the 21st century.
“[T]here is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets,” he wrote. “Of course, we cannot incapacitate these criminals unless we build sufficient prison and jail space to house them.”
“Revolving-door justice resulting from inadequate prison and jail space breeds disrespect for the law and places our citizens at risk, unnecessarily, of becoming victims of violent crime.”
He also wrote a letter to lawmakers in 2015 defending the criminal justice system—including mandatory minimum sentences—and encouraging Congress not to bring up a sentencing reform bill.
“It’s hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one,” Michael Collins, director of national drug affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. “Nominating Barr totally undermines Trump’s recent endorsement of sentencing reform.”
“The vast majority of Americans believe the war on drugs needs to be replaced with a health-centered approach. It is critically important that the next Attorney General be committed to defending basic rights and moving away from failed drug war policies. William Barr is a disastrous choice.”
Another window into Barr’s criminal justice perspective comes from 1989, when he wrote a Justice Department memo that authorized the FBI to apprehend suspected fugitives living in other countries and extradite them to the U.S. without first getting permission from the country. The intent of the memo seemed to be to enable the U.S. to more easily capture international drug traffickers.
In 2002, Barr compared drug trafficking to terrorism and described the drug war as the “biggest frustration” he faced under Bush. The administration “did a very good job putting in place the building blocks for intelligence building and international cooperation, but we never tightened the noose,” he said.
Interestingly, as The Washington Post reported, Barr would be heading up a department where his daughter, Mary Daly, also works. Daly is the director of opioid enforcement and prevention efforts in the deputy attorney general’s office, and she’s established herself as an advocate for tougher criminal enforcement aimed at driving out the opioid epidemic.
Today’s drug policy landscape is a lot different than it was in the early 1990s, though, and it’s yet to be seen how Barr, if confirmed by the Senate, will navigate conflicting state and federal marijuana laws. He’ll also be inheriting a Justice Department that no longer operates under an Obama-era policy of general non-intervention, after Sessions moved this year to rescind the so-called Cole memo that provided guidance on federal cannabis enforcement.
But for advocates, at least it’s not the guy who said “good people don’t smoke marijuana” anymore and it won’t be one who campaigned for president saying he’d enforce federal prohibition in legal states, either.
Marijuana Bills Are Already Being Pre-Filed For 2019 Legislative Sessions
If you thought 2018 was a big year for marijuana, gear up for 2019. Before the next legislative session has even started, lawmakers in at least four states have already pre-filed a wide range of cannabis reform bills.
In Missouri, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative during last month’s midterm election, a state lawmaker has already drafted a piece of legislation that would legalize cannabis for adult-use—though it would not establish a retail sales system. Instead, adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
At least one marijuana decriminalization bill will be on the table in Virginia next year. The legislation would reduce the penalty for simple possession from a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum of a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail to a civil penalty punishable by a $50 fine for first-time offenders, $100 for second-time offenders and $250 for subsequent offenses.
Marijuana Moment is currently tracking more than 900 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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Down in Texas, lawmakers in the state House and Senate have already pre-filed no fewer than 12 marijuana-related bills. The legislative proposals range from constitutional amendments to fully legalize and regulate cannabis to simple decriminalization policies to lessen penalties for low-level possession.
Finally, in Nevada, where cannabis is legal for adults, lawmakers have introduced a flurry of what are called “bill draft requests” that relate to marijuana. Proposals to revise cannabis tax policies, create a state bank that could potentially service the legal industry and regulate hemp cultivation—among several others—could be taken up by the state legislature next year.
While the pre-filing process has already started in most states, there’s still time and it’s possible that more cannabis legislation will be introduced for consideration in coming days and weeks prior to the formal start of 2019 legislative sessions.