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House Votes To Protect State Marijuana Laws From Federal Interference

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The House of Representatives on Thursday voted in favor of an amendment to protect all state, territory and tribal marijuana programs from federal interference.

The measure, which would prevent the Department of Justice from using its funds to impede the implementation of cannabis legalization laws, passed in a 254-163 vote on the floor. Earlier in the day, it had been approved in an initial voice vote.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) sponsored the amendment, which builds on an existing, more limited provision to shield only state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department intervention that has been enacted through appropriations legislation each year since 2014.

As a growing number of states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, “we’ve watched across the country shifting attitudes,” Blumenauer said in the floor debate prior to the vote. “The federal government, sadly, is still trapped by the dead hand of Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, declaring cannabis a schedule I controlled substance.”

The congressman also talked about separate House-passed legislation to protect banks that service the marijuana industry and another standalone bill to federally deschedule cannabis.

“Make no mistake, that day is coming,” he said. “In the meantime, until that day of reckoning comes, we must pass this amendment to ensure the federal government does not interfere with state cannabis activities. This modest extension of existing protections, which we have achieved through the appropriations process in the past, is critically important.”

All but six Democrats participating in the vote supported the measure, while 31 Republicans cast their votes in favor.

Watch the House debate the marijuana amendment below: 

 

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke in opposition to the amendment, arguing that the health benefits of cannabis are not proven and that passing the measure would send “the false message to youth that smoking marijuana is healthy.”

“Claims of benefits from smoked or ingested marijuana are very unreliable and generally outright fabrication,” he said. “However, it is an established fact that marijuana use has real health and social harms.”

Blumenauer gave an impassioned response, underscoring the fact that marijuana is used to effectively treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, epilepsy in children and nausea for people undergoing chemotherapy.

“The existing policy of prohibition is an abject failure,” he said, adding that criminalization disproportionately impacts communities of color and has driven mass protests against police violence. “This selective enforcement of nonsensical policy has posed huge problems for black Americans.”

Later on the floor after the voice vote, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) made a point of criticizing the cannabis amendment, using time that was designated for debate on an unrelated measure.

“This isn’t just what some might look at as a states’ rights issue. This is a problem,” he said. “We have a 50-state standard for [Food and Drug Administration] legalization of drugs and we are going to have a willy-nilly hopscotch way of doing things with every state that wants to legalize it doing their own thing.”

“What it boils down to, this is still in violation of federal law by legalizing marijuana,” he said. “We should continue to enforce it.”

The congressman also expressed concerns about potential consequences of legalization such as out-of-state trafficking of state-legal products, and he said drug cartels are moving in on public lands to cultivate illicit marijuana.

Nonetheless, his fellow representatives went on to vote overwhelmingly in support of the reform amendment.

Last year was the first time the House passed the more sweeping protections to cover state recreational marijuana laws, and members approved it along largely bipartisan lines in a 267-165 vote. At the time, the tribal cannabis program language passed as a separate amendment, whereas this year the protections have been combined into a single proposal.

The Senate didn’t include similar language in their version last year, however, and it was excluded from the final appropriations legislation that was signed by the president. The chamber has not yet started considering its appropriations bills for the 2021 fiscal year.

“For far too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in our discriminatory past and have continued inflicting harm on communities of color,” Lee, one of the amendment cosponsors, said in a press release following the new vote. “As the public’s views toward cannabis have evolved, Congress has a responsibility to ensure that our policies follow suit and move toward restorative justice.”

The passage of the new amendment came days after the measure was cleared for floor action by the Rules Committee. That panel also declined to make in order two anti-cannabis amendments offered by Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) to strip federal money from states that allow sales of “kid-friendly” edible cannabis products or that don’t have THC-impaired driving education programs in place.

“This is the most significant vote on marijuana policy reform that the House of Representatives has taken this year,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “The importance of this bipartisan vote cannot be overstated as today; nearly one in four Americans reside in a jurisdiction where the adult use of cannabis is legal under state statute. It is time for Congress to acknowledge this reality and retain these protections in the final spending bill.”

“The next logical step for House Leadership is to bring legislation to the floor to end prohibition and demonstrate to the American people that the era of marijuana criminalization is drawing to a close,” he said.

This latest amendment comes as sources tell Marijuana Moment that there are plans in the work to hold a floor vote on a more sweeping standalone marijuana legalization bill in September. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which was approved by the Judiciary Committee last year, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and fund programs to begin repairing the harms of the war on drugs.

Several other cannabis-related measures have already been attached to this latest FY 2021 appropriations legislation that the House will vote on in the coming days. That includes the current medical cannabis protections as well as separate provisions allowing banks to service legal marijuana businesses without being penalized by the Treasury Department and protecting universities from losing funding for studying cannabis.

Notably, the funding bill also excludes language to continue a longstanding policy that has blocked Washington, D.C. from spending its own money to legalize cannabis sales.

The measure’s approval by the Democratic-controlled House comes days after the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) platform committee defeated an amendment to include support for legalizing cannabis in the party’s 2020 platform. One of the amendment’s sponsors, Cannabis Caucus Co-chair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), was among the delegates who voted against the DNC proposal.

This story has been updated to include comments from LaMalfa.

California Asks Federal Court To Block DEA Subpoena For Marijuana Business Info

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Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A House Floor Vote Next Week, Majority Leader Confirms

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A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators has been formally scheduled to receive a House floor vote on Monday, a calendar released by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) office confirms.

Marijuana Moment reported on the expected development earlier Friday after obtaining an email that was sent to stakeholders by a staffer for Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the bill’s sponsor, seeking letters of support for the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act ahead of the anticipated vote.

The bill is now now officially listed on the majority leader’s agenda of legislation for Monday.

This will mark the first floor action on a cannabis reform bill this Congress. The standalone legislation cleared the House with bipartisan support in 2019, and its language was also included in two coronavirus relief packages that the chamber approved. The proposal did not advance in any form in the Senate under GOP control, however.

With Democrats now in control of the House, Senate and White House, industry stakeholders are optimistic that the legislation stands a solid chance of becoming law this year.

The SAFE Banking Act was reintroduced in the House last month, and it currently has 151 cosponsors—more than one-third of the chamber. Days later, it was refiled in the Senate, where Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) are the chief sponsors.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

The legislation would ensure that financial institutions could take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators.

Because the bill will be taken up under the process known as suspension of the rules, it will need a two-thirds supermajority to pass—an achievable threshold given the level of support it got during the earlier 2019 vote. No floor amendments will be allowed under the procedure.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said in a tweet on Friday that he’ll “be voting for the SAFE Banking Act in the House” and that it’s “absurd that Marijuana business cannot fully access the US financial system.” He did not comment on the timing of a vote, however.

After it passed the House last Congress, advocates and stakeholders closely watched for any action to come out of the Senate Banking Committee, where it was referred after being transmitted to the chamber. But then-Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) did not hold a hearing on the proposal, despite talk of negotiations taking place regarding certain provisions.

Crapo said he opposed the reform proposal, but he signaled that he might be more amenable if it included certain provisions viewed as untenable to the industry, including a 2 percent THC potency limit on products in order for cannabis businesses to qualify to access financial services as well as blocking banking services for operators that sell high-potency vaping devices or edibles that could appeal to children.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who took the top seat in that panel after Democrats secured a majority in the Senate, told reporters in February that he’s “willing” to move the cannabis banking bill, “but with it needs to come sentencing reform.”

The current Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act has 32 cosponsors.

When legislative leaders announced that the SAFE Banking Act was getting a House vote in 2019,  there was pushback from some advocates who felt that Congress should have prioritized comprehensive reform to legalize marijuana and promote social equity, rather than start with a measure viewed as primarily friendly to industry interests.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and an original cosponsor of the bill, said last month that the plan is to pass the banking reform first this session because it “is a public safety crisis now,” and it’s “distinct—as we’ve heard from some of my colleagues—distinct from how they feel about comprehensive reform.”

Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers are simultaneously preparing to introduce legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are in the process of crafting a legalization bill, and they’ve already met with advocates to get feedback on how best to approach the policy change.

Schumer said this week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Biden’s Already On Board With Federal Marijuana Legalization Even If He Doesn’t Use That Word, Booker Says

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Washington Senate Replaces Drug Decriminalization Bill With Revised Measure To Reinstate Penalties

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A bill that would have formally decriminalized drugs in Washington State was gutted on the Senate floor on Thursday, with lawmakers approving a dramatically revised version that instead reinstates criminal penalties following a state Supreme Court ruling that overturned prohibition.

The action sets up a possible showdown with more progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives who have said they won’t vote for legislation that returns to a criminal war on drugs.

Washington has been without a law against drug possession since a divided state Supreme Court abruptly struck it down February, after ruling that a narrow portion of the decades-old law was unconstitutional. Lawmakers have since scrambled to address the decision—which has halted drug arrests and prosecutions across the state and freed dozens of people incarcerated on drug possession charges—before the legislative session ends on April 25.

On the Senate floor on Thursday evening, a bill that originally would have left drug possession decriminalized was amended to instead make possession a gross misdemeanor, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine—a change that led its lead sponsor to vote against the measure.

Prior to the court decision, drug possession was classified as a felony.

Senators passed the amended version of the bill, SB 5476, on a 28–20–1 vote. It next proceeds to the House, where it’s scheduled for an initial hearing in the Appropriations Committee on Monday, with possible committee action slated for Wednesday, April 21.

Watch the senators discuss the drug penalties legislation, around 1:01:33 into the video below: 

As amended, the Senate-passed bill represents a moderate reform to Washington’s now-invalidated felony law against possession. It requires the prosecutors divert people for first- and second-time possession charges to evaluation and treatment programs, and allows for the possibility of further diversions with a prosecutor’s approval.

“I think that this striking amendment will help move us forward as we continue negotiations in these final 10 days with the body across the way toward having a response that will provide services and treatment and help for people who are struggling with substance use disorder,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D), who brought the amendment, said on the Senate floor.

The bill in its original form represented a more significant shift away from the drug war. It would have imposed no penalties for possession of small, “personal use” amounts of drugs, instead routing people to evaluation and treatment services for substance use disorder.

Some senators who initially supported SB 5476 ultimately changed their vote after the misdemeanor amendment was adopted. The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D) said she could no longer support the proposal.

“The way we are doing this, I’m glad there’ll be opportunities for diversion, but it needs to be not through the criminal justice system,” Dhingra said during floor debate. “I understand this is my bill, I understand my name is on there, but I will be voting no on this today.”

Many senators who weighed in on the bill Thursday said it was important that the legislature pass something before the session end, given the sweeping impact of February’s state Supreme Court decision, State v. Blake. In a statement issued after the floor vote, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said that not passing a state law on drug possession “means a patchwork of local ordinances that will be confusing to Washingtonians and won’t provide equal justice across the state.”

Generally speaking, state drug laws are understood to preempt those of Washington’s cities and counties. With the state law against possession gone, localities could establish their own laws and penalties, and some have already begun doing so.

“The bill we passed today is not the final word on the subject,” Billig said in a statement. “It is a compromise that keeps this important legislation moving so that we can do our duty as the representatives of the people of our whole state.”

Representatives in the House, however, have indicated more openness to leaving drug possession decriminalized this session. On Thursday, lawmakers in favor of broader drug reform introduced a new bill, HB 1578, which would expand treatment and recovery services and reclassify low-level possession as a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $125 and no possibility of jail time.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Of all the measures currently in play this session, the new bill is the one that most closely resembles neighboring Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure passed by voters in November. But its path forward is uncertain: HB 1578 would need to pass both chambers of the legislature in less than two weeks.

Likewise, it remains unclear how the House will receive the Senate-passed bill, SB 5476, in its new form. More progressive members of the Democratic caucus have said they won’t vote for legislation that reimposes criminal penalties for simple possession, but it’s not certain they’ll be able to muster enough support to pass a decriminalization measure.

If House lawmakers were to amend the Senate bill before passing it, the legislation would need to go to a conference committee, where members of both chambers would iron out differences in the two versions of the bills.

Earlier this year, before the Supreme Court’s decision, a House committee passed a separate bill, HB 1499, that would have ended criminal penalties for personal use amounts of drugs and instead routed people to evaluation and treatment. It would have also significantly expanded the state’s outreach and recovery programs for people with drug use disorders. That measure failed to proceed further after missing a legislative deadline last month.

HB 1499, for its part, stemmed from an effort to put a drug decriminalization initiative on Washington’s ballot last year. Supporters pivoted to a push through the legislature after pressing pause on their signature-gathering campaign after COVID-19 first broke out in the Seattle area early last year.

Advocates for reform have noted that the state’s criminal enforcement of drug possession laws has had a strong bias against people of color, particularly the state’s Black, brown and Indigenous communities.

In her comments on the Senate floor, Dhingra echoed that point, arguing that the Blake decision presents a chance for lawmakers to finally begin to address those racial disparities.

“I will say that the Supreme Court did provide us with an opportunity,” she said, “an opportunity to really think about what we as a state and as a nation have been doing in regards to the war on drugs, and to really think critically of the impact that this has had very, very specifically on Brown and Black families.”

“The racial impact of our drug laws cannot be understated,” Dhingra continued. “When we take a look at mass incarceration, when we take a look at families with a single mom who is bringing up her children, when we take a look at parents who cannot find a job because of their criminal history, cannot find housing, cannot seek recovery, it comes down to the manner in which we have been enforcing our drug laws.”

Rep. Roger Goodman (D), the lead sponsor of the new House measure, HB 1578, which would make possession a civil infraction, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday evening. In an interview with Marijuana Moment last month, however, he called the Blake decision “both a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s an opportunity for us to come up with a more effective approach that does less harm,” he said, “but we don’t have the opportunity to be deliberate and inclusive in conversations with interested parties, so it’s not as well thought-out a proposal as it would be otherwise. It has to be an interim measure.”

Just five years ago, few state legislatures would have dreamed of letting drugs remain decriminalized after a court decision like Blake. Now attitudes are beginning to shift.

“There’s this phenomenon called discontinuous change,” Goodman told Marijuana Moment, “where nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then the Berlin Wall falls down. We’re getting to that place in drug policy where it’s a tipping point.”

Oregon voters ended prohibition of low-level drug possession at the ballot during last November’s election, which has contributed to the national conversation.

In both Maine and Vermont, lawmakers have also recently unveiled legislation last month to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs. Last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said last month that he’s “open-minded” on decriminalizing all drugs.

California Bill To Legalize Possession Of Psychedelics Clears Second Senate Committee

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Biden’s Already On Board With Federal Marijuana Legalization Even If He Doesn’t Use That Word, Booker Says

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Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) says that President Joe Biden is already where he needs to be to get a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition enacted into law—even if he personally opposes legalization. Confusion about the president’s position comes down to semantics, the senator indicated.

Booker said in a recent interview that Biden’s stance in favor of “decriminalization” will be enough to advance the reform legislation he’s working on with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR).

That reason being, he said, is that what the reform proposal would accomplish at the federal level is effectively decriminalizing marijuana by removing it from the list of controlled substances and letting states set their own policies—something Biden does supports.

“I have a great partner” in the president, Booker said in an interview on the podcast Hell & High Water that was published on Wednesday. “He believes in decriminalization—and as I said to him the first time we talked about it was, ‘well, my bill is no different. I think states should be allowed to do what they want.'”

“I think it should be legalized, but what we need to do at the federal level is de-list marijuana. And as soon as you decriminalize marijuana, you open up states that right now are not able to do a lot of things, to give way for what I want to achieve,” Booker said. “His policy position on marijuana—he may say, ‘I’m not for legalization, I’m for decriminalization’—as a federal official, that’s where I’m trying to get.”

In other words, the senator isn’t especially concerned that Biden would be an obstacle if Congress passes the legalization bill he’s planning to introduce, as long as it’s made clear that there’s no mandate for all states to set up tax-and-regulate marijuana markets if they don’t want to.

Booker also said he would like for people to stop playing a video clip of him calling out Biden’s opposition to legalization during a presidential primary debate in 2019, as the interview host did in the new podcast interview. At the time, the senator jokingly accused his fellow candidate of being “high” when he articulated his opposition to legalization days earlier.

“That is a little clip I’m hoping at some point stops being played,” he said. “But yes, indeed, I accused Joe Biden of being high.”

While the text of the pending legalization legislation has yet to be introduced, it’s expected to incorporate key provisions from past reform bills such as Booker’s own Marijuana Justice Act (MJA) that could create incentives for states to adopt legalization. For example, the MJA called for the withholding of certain federal funds to states where cannabis criminalization is enforced out in a racially disproportionate way.

That would go a bridge further than simple decriminalization, so it remains to be seen if Biden would be amendable to that kind of broader reform.

In any case, Booker’s point about the decriminalization/legalization distinction when it comes to federal policy was also made by Schumer in a recent press conference. The majority leader, who’s said that Congress will move forward with legalization regardless of the president’s position, said last month that “I support decriminalization at the federal level, and we’ll be introducing legislation with a few of my colleagues shortly.”

Asked to clarify whether he supports legalization, Schumer replied, “decriminalization, legalization,” implying that the two terms are used interchangeably.

“At the federal level, you call it ‘decriminalization’ because that lets the states legalize,” he said. But in general, advocates draw a distinction between the terms, with decriminalization usually being used to describe state or local policies that simply remove the threat of incarceration for simple possession while fines or other penalties could still be levied, which is distinct from outright legalization.

Schumer also said this week that the legalization bill they’re working on will be brought to the floor of his chamber “soon.”

He, Wyden and Booker formally started their reform efforts by holding a meeting earlier this year with representatives from a variety of advocacy groups to gain feedback on the best approach to the reform.

Schumer made a point last month to say that it will specifically seek to restrict the ability of large alcohol and tobacco companies to overtake the industry.

Instead, it will prioritize small businesses, particularly those owned by people from communities most impacted by prohibition, and focus on “justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom,” he said.

He also urged voters to reach out to their congressional representatives and tell them that “this is long overdue.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Now that Democrats have the majority in both chambers, as well as the White House, there’s a sense of optimism among advocates that comprehensive reform is achievable in this Congress.

But with respect to the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that Biden’s position on adult-use legalization “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the policy.

69 Percent Of Americans Now Support Legalizing Marijuana—An All-Time High, Quinnipiac Poll Finds

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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