Marijuana reform advocates are getting concerned as rumors about the potential cancellation of a cannabis legalization vote on the House floor that’s been planned for next week continue to circulate and expand.
And they didn’t get much peace of mind when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) on Tuesday seemed to signal that now might not be the right time to put the legislation to the floor. That said, a representative for his office later told Marijuana Moment that, as for now, nothing about the schedule has changed.
While leadership announced earlier this month that they intended to hold a floor vote on Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act during the week of September 21, there’s been some pushback from certain moderate Democrats in vulnerable reelection races who feel that advancing cannabis reform before the next round of coronavirus relief legislation would come back to bite them, even if they’re personally supportive of the proposal at a time a majority of American voters back legalizing cannabis.
Hoyer said on a press call that Democrats are “really focused on the [continuing resolution] and on the COVID-19, which are the two critical pieces of legislation that in this three-week period we have to pass,” referring to legislation to keep the government funded and avoid a shutdown at the end of this month.
“I’m a support[er] of the MORE Act, but we’ve got to get the CR and COVID-19 done, because they’re absolutely critical to the welfare of our country,” he said. “There are a lot of bills that are possible which are—which are important bills, good bills, but we’re focused on COVID-19 and the CR, because that keeps government open, and it gives assistance to millions of people who absolutely need it.”
A spokesperson for Hoyer’s office told Marijuana Moment that they didn’t have anything to add on the leader’s remarks, but that “the schedule hasn’t changed.”
Also on Tuesday, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) was asked about the MORE Act and said that the bill did not come up on a caucus call earlier in the day.
“We didn’t discuss the MORE Act on the call today or the timing of some of the bills that are going to be on the floor next week,” he said.
“With respect to some of the other items on the legislative agenda—particularly as it relates to next week—I’m just trying to get to tomorrow,” Jeffries added said. “That’s the approach that many of us have taken in the context of the long national nightmare that has been the Trump administration since January 20 of 2017.”
He also pushed back against criticism from the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), which put out a a press release on Monday highlighting some apparent Democratic discontent with plans to hold a vote on the MORE Act.
“I think the comment about marijuana is just silliness,” he said. “They care more about the wealthy, the well-off and the well-connected.”
But it is the case that there has been some splintering over the pending scheduled vote; it’s just not clear the extent to which there’s been pushback and whether it’s enough to convince leadership to pull the bill following the public announcement of their intention to hold it this month.
“At a time when people are really struggling just to pay the bills and to get through this health crisis, [COVID relief] should be our priority,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) told The Hill, adding that he’s told Democratic leadership the legislation is “probably something I would support but we should do it later on.”
Another unnamed lawmaker said that certain colleagues feel that holding a vote on the bill doesn’t make sense at this time because “it’s not something that you can get passed into law,” presumably referring to its prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) seemed less convinced that the MORE Act stands no chance in the Senate during a virtual meeting on Tuesday that also involved Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). He said “I think we’re going to see not just a strong vote in the House, but I think there’s a chance that this is going to move through the Senate, with the leadership of Senator Booker.”
An aide to a senior Democrat who was also unnamed told The Hill flippantly that “prioritizing weed smokers over funding the government and providing relief to families and small businesses doesn’t make much sense to the American people.” The official added that while there are certain concerns about provisions of the bill, the ultimate issue “is the timing of this.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), sponsor of the MORE Act, acknowledged that there are discussions about delaying the vote, but told Politico that he’s feels the legislation should advance as planned.
“I’m not in favor of” a delay “because I think we can do it now,” the congressman said. He also dismissed concerns about the optics of voting on marijuana reform at this time because the issue “polls pretty well.”
But Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), cochair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, took a different stance and expressed openness to pushing the vote back if it could ultimately increase the vote count.
“We want to make sure the bill has the maximum number of votes. So the timing is not that crucial,“ she told Politico. “Whatever it takes to get unity and maximize our votes, we need to do that.”
In clarifying those comments, Lee told Marijuana Moment that legalization is “not an unpopular issue,” referring to polling data showing voter support and the growing number of states enacting reforms.
“Especially as the country reckons with its history of racial injustice, this should be seen as a prime opportunity to address a form of systemic racism,” she said. “Each day we gain more and more cosponsors, giving me no doubt that we are going to finally correct this historic injustice once and for all. We’re doing everything we can over the next week to build broad coalitions of support to ensure that happens sooner rather than later.”
Legalization advocates are pushing House leadership to move ahead with the vote next week.
“Congress has the ability and responsibility to walk and chew gum at the same time. The House can and must pass a bill that will bring justice to millions of Americans while continuing to work on other priorities,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “Taking a vote on the MORE Act will not preclude the House from working on the CR or another COVID-19 package, which by the way, the House already voted on back in May but is now wasting away in the Senate.”
“The MORE Act is not simply a bill about the marijuana plant—it’s about addressing the unjust criminalization of a substance that has led to the economic and social devastation of millions of Americans and whole communities in the middle of a global pandemic,” she said.
Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “confident that Congress will pass comprehensive marijuana reform legislation in the near future.”
“The precise timing of the MORE Act vote will not change the fact that 66 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization and a growing number of states are enacting marijuana reform policies,” he said.
Should the legislation be formally scheduled and head to the floor for a vote, it wouldn’t be entirely partisan, as three GOP members have already publicly said they will vote in favor of the proposal.
The latest to say as much, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), said he’s “confident” it will pass the chamber.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor on the bill, said earlier this month that he would be voting “yes” on the MORE Act, though he expressed criticism about a provision that would impose a federal excise tax on marijuana sales to be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war, calling them “reparations.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) also said “I intend to vote yes on the bill” in a recent interview with Politico. “With respect to timing, I do find it ironic that the only small businesses the Democrats seem to be worried about is cannabis shops, but I would support this bill whenever it is brought to a vote,” he said.
McClintock, along with Gaetz, voted for the MORE Act when it was marked up by the Judiciary Committee last year.
This story was updated to include comment from Lee and to correct a quote misattributed to Hoyer by another outlet.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Trump Grants Clemency To Marijuana Prisoners On Last Day In Office
As one of his final acts in the White House, President Trump on Wednesday announced that he has granted clemency to dozens more people with marijuana and drug convictions.
The latest batch of pardons and commutations is the product of a push from advocates, celebrities and even some Republican lawmakers, who coordinated with White House staff over the course of Trump’s administration.
In a letter sent to the president in November, the coalition noted the president’s comments supporting bipartisan legislation to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention and argued that congressional gridlock meant that those most harmed under federal prohibition would go without relief unless executive action was taken.
They also attached a list of people incarcerated in federal prison who they felt were most deserving of clemency—an addendum that was requested by the office of Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Now the White House has granted relief to several of those names.
One of the people on that list, Craig Cesal, was granted clemency for his cannabis conviction that landed him a life sentence.
“It feels like a new life, even though I don’t even know the terms yet,” Cesal, who received a call about the news on Tuesday evening from Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, told Marijuana Moment. “Just to know that I won’t have to go back to the prison after COVID abates is a huge relief.”
Cesal was released to home confinement in June.
“Many, many marijuana activists have worked for years to make this happen for me, with the Last Prisoner Project helping recently with my reintegration into society,” he said. “My release and my clemency is due solely to the efforts of many marijuana activist groups, and I thank each and every one of them.”
Another recipient of the presidential action is Michael Pelletier, who has served 14 years of a life sentence over a federal marijuana conviction. He’s been a paraplegic since age 11 and is currently 64.
Weldon Angelos, an activist who received a presidential pardon for a federal marijuana conviction last month and has been involved in the White House talks about further clemency, told Marijuana Moment that he’s been encouraged by the progress that advocates have been able to make.
However, one person he fought especially hard for—Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California—did not make Wednesday’s clemency list. Angelos said it’s possible he was passed up at the last minute, or that he will be granted relief in another round of clemency on Wednesday.
Although Trump would need to sign any grant of relief prior to the end of his term at noon, there is no requirement in federal law that it be publicly announced by that time in order to take effect.
“He was following state law—and they used his case to send the message,” Angelos said, of Scarmazzo. “He got charged under a kingpin statute, as though he was a cartel member, rather than providing medicinal cannabis for people that needed it.”
In all, 12 people with marijuana-related convictions were included in the latest round of clemency actions, and more than two dozen others with other drug offenses on their records were also granted pardons or commutations.
Of course, while Trump campaigned during his reelection bid as the criminal justice reform candidate, certain administrative actions have raised questions about that—such as the revival of federal executions for people on death row. He hasn’t done anything to proactively promote marijuana policy reform either, and has taken a number of hostile budget actions related to cannabis while also hiring several key officials who hold anti-legalization views.
Asked what message he felt resonated with the White House when it came to presidential clemency for nonviolent drug offenders, Angelos said he thinks Trump “is not a typical politician, and so he doesn’t make the same political calculations as other presidents.”
“I think Trump was also very skeptical of the government,” he said, as well as the criminal proceedings that land people in prison for lengthy sentences over minor crimes.
As with his last batch of pardons and commutations, it’s possible that these particular actions for people with drug-related convictions will be overshadowed by the slew of other clemency decisions that are rolling out, such as one for former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.
And at the same time that Angelos was pardoned last month, Trump gave clemency to allies and controversial figures such as Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, former Republican members of Congress and the team of four private military contractors convicted of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre.
But advocates—including Angelos and Alice Johnson, who also received a presidential commutation in 2018—are going to take their wins where they can get them.
Wednesday was “a day to honor mercy and justice, a day to celebrate the second chance given to many deserving individuals, and the families and communities who have been reunited with their loved ones,” Johnson said in a press release.
“While we celebrate today, let us not forget we still have laws in place that put nonviolent people in prison for life and there remain thousands behind bars today, who have paid their debt to society and who deserve a second chance to return home,” she added. “Today is just more fuel for the fire in my heart to continue to fight for those who have no voice.”
The 2020 letter that informed some of the new cannabis-related clemency actions was supported by Republican state lawmakers from Kansas, Maine and Missouri, as well as a former U.S. attorney, actor Danny Trejo, the New Haven, Missouri police chief and former New Mexico governor and former presidential candidate Gary Johnson. They were joined by representatives of groups like #cut50, Marijuana Policy Project and Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
Activists are cautiously optimistic that between the new Democratic Senate and the incoming presidential administration, this trend of drug war relief will continue. Despite a history of championing punitive anti-drug legislation during his time as a senator, President-elect Joe Biden has called those efforts a mistake and now backs some modest marijuana reforms.
Read the full list of new marijuana-related pardons and commutations below:
Ferrell Damon Scott – President Trump commuted the sentence of Ferrell Damon Scott. This commutation is supported by former Acting United States Attorney Sam Sheldon, who prosecuted his case and wrote that he “… strongly does not believe that [Mr. Scott] deserves a mandatory life sentence.” Ms. Alice Johnson, the CAN-DO Foundation, and numerous others also support clemency for Mr. Scott. Mr. Scott has served nearly 9 years of a life imprisonment sentence for possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Under today’s sentencing guidelines, it is likely that Mr. Scott would not have received such a harsh sentence.
John Knock – President Trump commuted the sentence of John Knock. This commutation is supported by his family. Mr. Knock is a 73 year-old man, a first-time, non-violent marijuana only offender, who has served 24 years of a life sentence. Mr. Knock has an exemplary prison history, during which he completed college accounting classes and has had zero incident reports.
Anthony DeJohn – President Trump commuted the sentence of Anthony DeJohn. Mr. DeJohn has served more than 13 years of a life sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Mr. DeJohn has maintained a clear disciplinary record and has been recognized for his outstanding work ethic while incarcerated. Mr. DeJohn has employment and housing available to him upon release.
Corvain Cooper – President Trump commuted the sentence of Mr. Corvain Cooper. Mr. Cooper is a 41 year-old father of two girls who has served more than 7 years of a life sentence for his non-violent participation in a conspiracy to distribute marijuana.
Way Quoe Long – President Trump commuted the sentence of Way Quoe Long. Mr. Long is a 58 year-old who has served nearly half of a 50-year sentence for a non-violent conviction for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana. Mr. Long has spent his incarceration striving to better himself through English proficiency classes and by obtaining his GED. Upon release, Mr. Long will reunite with his family and will be strongly supported as he integrates back into the community.
Michael Pelletier – President Trump commuted the sentence of Michael Pelletier. Mr. Pelletier is a 64 year-old who has served 12 years of a 30 year sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Mr. Pelletier has maintained a clear disciplinary record, has thrived as an artist working with oil paints on canvas, and has taken several courses to perfect his skill while incarcerated. Upon his release, Mr. Pelletier will have a meaningful place of employment and housing with his brother.
Craig Cesal – President Trump commuted the sentence of Craig Cesal. Mr. Cesal is a father of two, one of whom unfortunately passed away while he was serving his life sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Mr. Cesal has had an exemplary disciplinary record and has become a paralegal assistant and a Eucharistic Minister in the Catholic Church to assist and guide other prisoners. Upon his release, Mr. Cesal looks forward to reintegrating back into society and to contributing to his community while living with his daughter with whom he has remained close. Mr. Cesal hopes to be a part of her upcoming wedding.
Brian Simmons – President Trump commuted the sentence of Brian Simmons. Mr. Simmons has served 5 years of a 15 year sentence for a non-violent conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana. Mr. Simmons has had an exemplary prison record and upon release will have strong support from his fiancée and his community.
James Romans – President Trump commuted the sentence of James Romans. Mr. Romans is a father and a grandfather who received a life sentence without parole for his involvement in a conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Mr. Romans has had an exemplary disciplinary record for the more than 10 years he has served, and has completed a long list of courses. He has already secured job opportunities that will help him successfully re-enter society.
Jonathon Braun – President Trump commuted the sentence of Jonathan Braun. Mr. Braun has served 5 years of a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to import marijuana and to commit money laundering. Upon his release, Mr. Braun will seek employment to support his wife and children.
Noah Kleinman – President Trump commuted the sentence of Noah Kleinman. Mr. Kleinman is a 45-year old father of two children. The mother of his children unfortunately passed away during Mr. Kleinman’s incarceration. Mr. Kleinman has served 6 years of a nearly 20 year sentence for a non-violent crime to distribute marijuana. Mr. Kleinman has had an exemplary prison history and has worked to remain close to his children and his father. Upon release, he looks forward to living with his father, working for the family business, and caring for his children.
Lynn Barney – President Trump granted a full pardon to Lynn Barney. This pardon is supported by Senator Mike Lee, as well as numerous notable members of the Utah business community. Mr. Barney was sentenced to 35 months in prison for possessing a firearm as a previously convicted felon, after having previously been convicted for distributing a small amount of marijuana. Since his release from prison, Mr. Barney has been a model citizen and has devoted himself to his work and children. He is described by his employer as an exceedingly hard worker and a role model to other employees.
USDA Appoints Another Hemp Executive To Trade Advisory Committee
Another hemp industry executive has been appointed to a federal advisory committee under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).
Patrick Atagi, chairman of the board at the National Industrial Hemp Council (NIHC), will serve as a member of USDA’s Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Tobacco, Cotton and Peanuts, the organization announced on Friday.
He’s the second member of NIHC to join a USDA and USTR advisory panel. Kevin Latner, vice president of marketing for the group, was appointed to the Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Processed Foods in July.
In their federal advisory roles, the NIHC officials will focus on advocating for trade policies that benefit the burgeoning hemp market.
“I want to thank outgoing USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue for his confidence and look to working with Biden Administration Secretary-designate Tom Vilsack and USTR-designate Katherine Tai,” Atagi said in a press release. “It’s an honor to be asked to serve and I look forward to representing the hemp industry.”
These appointments come at a pivotal time, as USDA just last week released its final rule setting out the federal regulations for hemp that will take effect in March. With two industry experts advising the federal agency, they could bring unique insights that further promote market growth.
Early versions of the agency’s proposed regulations were met with mixed reviews from industry stakeholders. While many appreciated USDA’s efforts to stand up the market, there was widespread criticism from businesses and lawmakers over certain provisions viewed as excessively restrictive such as testing requirements and THC limits.
The final rule doesn’t include everything stakeholders sought, but there were some modifications made throughout the process, including adding flexibility in THC testing and extending the sampling window.
These aren’t necessarily areas where the NIHC appointees will be directly involved, but they could help inform regulations from a trade perspective.
Under a trade deal signed last year, China will be required to buy a lot more hemp from the U.S.
Even as USDA crafted its rules and built up these advisory committees, it has spent past months reviewing and approving numerous state and tribal regulatory proposals—most recently for Rhode Island.
Biden Transition Team Highlights Top Health Pick’s Medical Marijuana Work
President-elect Joe Biden’s new pick for a leading role in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is a strong ally of the medical marijuana community—the latest pro-reform selection to be named in recent weeks.
Rachel Levine, who currently serves as Pennsylvania’s health secretary, is being nominated for assistant secretary of HHS. And the Biden transition team isn’t shying away from her connection to medical cannabis, noting her expertise on the topic in a press release on Tuesday.
“In addition to her recent posts, Dr. Levine is also an accomplished regional and international speaker, and author on the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders, and LGBTQ+ medicine,” Levine’s official biography states.
Of course, the president-elect is in favor medical cannabis, in addition to a number of other more modest reform proposals such as rescheduling, decriminalizing possession, expunging prior marijuana records and letting states set their own policies. But given his ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization, the cannabis mention on his site is noteworthy.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) reacted to Biden’s selection by emphasizing Levine’s cannabis work, noting that during her time in the state’s health department, she “was instrumental in establishing the state’s medical marijuana program, bringing national awareness to opioid use disorder, and highlighting and promoting the need for adequate medical care and access for the LGBTQ community.”
Michael Bronstein, president of the American Trade Association for Cannabis & Hemp, similarly said in a press release that Levine “is a trailblazer who successfully guided the implementation of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program.”
“Under Dr. Levine’s leadership, the program expanded qualifying conditions based on science, added flower to help meet patient needs, and stood up a first in the nation marijuana research program,” he said. “Pennsylvania is now one of the quickest growing and most consequential medical marijuana markets in the country in large part due to Dr. Levine’s work.”
In one of the more recent actions in her current role, the health department head oversaw temporary changes to the state’s medical cannabis program in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That included eliminating restrictions on the number of patients a registered caregiver can work with.
“In the midst of COVID-19, we need to ensure medical marijuana patients have access to medication,” she said in March. “We want to be sure cardholders in the medical marijuana program can receive medication for one of 23 serious medical conditions during this difficult time.”
Levine, who would also be the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed federal official, would be serving in an agency that plays a significant role in setting federal marijuana policy. While the Justice Department broadly dictates marijuana’s federal scheduling, a medical and scientific review by HHS is binding on the attorney general’s subsequent classification decision.
Biden’s pick to lead HHS, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), is also amenable to reform.
The president-elect also recently nominated former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison to lead the Democratic National Committee—and he’s a strong backer of full marijuana legalization.
Biden announced earlier this month that he wants Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) to run the Commerce Department. The governor came out in support of legalization in 2019, and she released a budget proposal last year that called for a state-run regulatory model for cannabis.
For attorney general, Biden is nominating Judge Merrick Garland, who has not been especially outspoken about his views on marijuana policy. While advocates expressed concern about his commentary in a 2012 federal appeals case on marijuana scheduling, he doesn’t appear to have been publicly hostile to a policy change.
In other positive news for advocates, the president-elect is also set to nominate former prosecutor and civil rights activist Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general. She favors cannabis legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.