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Justice Department No. 2 Weighs In On Marijuana Legalization

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The Trump administration is continuing to weigh whether or not to reverse Obama-era guidance that generally allows states to legalize marijuana without federal interference, the Justice Department’s number two official said on Thursday.

“We are reviewing that policy. We haven’t changed it, but we are reviewing it. We’re looking at the states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, trying to evaluate what the impact is,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in an appearance at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“And I think there is some pretty significant evidence that marijuana turns out to be more harmful than a lot of people anticipated, and it’s more difficult to regulate than I think was contemplated ideally by some of those states,” he said.

Under the so-called “Cole Memo,” named after the former Obama Justice Department official who authored it in 2013, the federal government set out certain criteria that, if followed, would allow states to implement their own laws mostly without intervention. Those criteria concern areas like youth use, impaired driving and interstate trafficking.

In April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime legalization opponent, directed a Justice Department task force to review the memo and make recommendations for possible changes.

But that panel did not provide Sessions with any ammunition to support a crackdown on states, according to the Associated Press, which reviewed excerpts of the task force’s report to the attorney general.

In his new remarks, Rosenstein expressed concern that people are misinterpreting the still-in-effect memo.

“That’s been perceived in some places almost as if it creates a safe harbor, but it doesn’t. And it’s clear that it doesn’t,” he said. “That is, even if, under the terms of the memo you’re not likely to be prosecuted, it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is legal or that it’s approved by the federal government or that you protected from prosecution in the future.”

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. have comprehensive legal medical cannabis programs, and eight states and D.C. have legalized marijuana for adults over 21 years of age.

Citing ongoing federal prohibition laws, Rosenstein said, “Marijuana is illegal, and it’s a controlled substance and there are no authorized uses for it, with very limited exceptions for research approved by DEA.”

Without saying when a decision or announcement might be made, he said that the administration will “take that all into consideration and then make a determination whether or not to revise that policy.”

This story was first published at Forbes.

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Politics

Federal Medical Marijuana Amendment Author Dies At 79

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If you’ve only been paying close attention to marijuana policy for a few years, Maurice Hinchey’s name is one you may not recognize.

But if you are a patient who relies on medical cannabis or an entrepreneur in the legal marijuana industry, you owe Hinchey, who died this week, a debt of gratitude.

As a Democratic congressman from New York, Hinchey was the original sponsor of the federal spending provision that now protects state medical cannabis laws from Department of Justice interference.

First introduced in 2001 and then periodically after that, the measure wasn’t even enacted until after Hinchey retired from Congress in 2013.

The next year, after repeatedly failing on the floor of the House of Representatives, the measure was finally approved with a bipartisan vote and was included in a Fiscal Year 2015 spending bill signed into law by then-President Obama in late 2014.

Here’s a video of Hinchey introducing and debating the measure for the first time, in July 2001:

(Scroll to 10:08:20.)

In 2001, only eight states had legalized medical cannabis, a far cry from the 29 state laws that are now on the books.

Instead of insisting on a vote that would almost certainly have lost, Hinchey withdrew the amendment following a passionate debate.

Two years later, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California teamed up with the Democrat on the officially rebranded Hinchey-Rohrabacher measure.

That lost, by a vote of 152 to 273:

(Scroll to 10:14:05.)

The bipartisan duo teamed up on the amendment several more times in subsequent years, losing each time.

(Scroll to 2:56:05.)

(Scroll to 6:36:00.)

(Scroll to 10:31:25.)

(Scroll to 7:24:25.)

Then, in 2014, after Hinchey retired, Democrat Sam Farr of California joined with Rohrabacher in sponsoring the measure. By that time, many more members of Congress represented places where constituents were using medical cannabis in accordance with state law.

Finally, the dam had broken. The Rohrabacher-Farr measure passed the House by a vote of 219 to 189. It got included in the final spending bill that year, and it was approved the next year, as well, by an increased tally of 242 to 186.

While House Republican leadership has since blocked floor votes on the measure and other cannabis amendments, it remains current law thanks to victories in the Senate Appropriations Committee and its language not being deleted from short-term federal funding extension bills to keep the government operating.

That’s the case at least until December 8, when current federal funding — along with policy riders like the medical cannabis protections — are set to expire.

In the meantime, advocates working to convince Congress to include the provision in Fiscal Year 2018 legislation should take a moment to consider the efforts of the late congressman whose work more than a decade and a half ago began to make the federal government take medical marijuana seriously.

Photo courtesy of the Hinchey Family.

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Former Republican A.G. Warns Sessions Against Marijuana Crackdown

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Current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be wrong to crack down on state marijuana laws, one of his Republican predecessors says.

“To prosecute an act that is otherwise lawful under state law, one could make the argument [that] as a matter of policy, we’ve got other priorities we ought to be spending our resources on,” Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general during President George W. Bush’s administration, said in an interview with Newsweek.

“With respect to everything else going on in the U.S., this is pretty low priority,” he added.

And what’s more, cracking down on seriously ill people who rely on medical cannabis and their providers who are following state laws would look bad, Gonzales warned his successor.

“The optics just aren’t very good, quite frankly,” he said.

As a U.S. senator, Sessions was long one of Congress’s most vocal opponents of legalization, saying last year that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

But while deploying threatening and concerning comments about cannabis policy from time to time as attorney general, he hasn’t moved to rescind Obama-era guidance that generally allows states to implement their own marijuana laws without federal interference. At least not yet.

Last week, at a House hearing, Sessions testified that the previous administration’s approach remains in effect for now.

Gonzales, in the Newsweek interview, said that Sessions would probably clear any big cannabis moves with the White House first.

“What people often fail to understand or appreciate, is that the attorney general works for the president,” he said. “While the attorney general has a great deal of say about law enforcement policy, so does the White House. When Jeff Sessions makes something, he responds to the White House.”

On the campaign trail, President Trump repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws, going so far as to say he personally knows people who benefit from medical cannabis.

Despite Gonzales’s apparent supporting for letting states enact their own marijuana polices today, his Justice Department argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 that it had the right to punish medical cannabis patients who were following local policies.

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Top GOP Senator’s Bill Lets DC Legalize Marijuana Sales

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Washington, D.C. would finally be allowed to legalize marijuana sales under a new bill authored by a powerful Republican senator.

Voters in the nation’s capital approved a ballot initiative that legalized cannabis possession and home cultivation in 2014. But under a current annual budget rider, the city is not allowed to spend its own money setting up a legal regulatory system for marijuana sales. As such, the city can’t earn tax revenue on recreational marijuana like Colorado and seven other states that have ended prohibition are.

That would change under legislation released on Monday by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

The new bill, which funds various federal agencies and concerns appropriations covering the District of Columbia government, is totally silent on the matter of D.C. marijuana sales. That means that if its language is enacted as part of a Fiscal Year 2018 spending agreement, the ban in current law will disappear.

But, unfortunately for marijuana legalization advocates, it’s not that easy. The version of 2018 spending legislation approved by the House in September not only continues the current ban but actually broadens its language to close a potential loophole that advocates had urged D.C. officials to pursue in order to fund regulation of legal cannabis sales.

As a result, if the language in the new bill released by Cochran on Monday is approved by the Senate, the differences will need to be reconciled by a conference committee made up of a handful of members from either chamber. And at that stage, behind closed doors, anything could happen.

In 2015, Cochran made a similar move by excluding the D.C marijuana sales ban language in a chairman’s mark. But the House-passed ban was included in that year’s version of final spending legislation anyway.

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