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Key Committee Chair Broke Promise On Marijuana Justice Before Banking Vote, Advocates Say

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Marijuana industry excitement over Wednesday’s House vote on cannabis banking legislation is palpable. But as the bill approaches the floor, some advocates are feeling burned by a key committee chair who they say made a deal to take up comprehensive reform before passing a proposal viewed as primarily favorable to large marijuana businesses.

In February, House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) apparently made the agreement with several leading advocacy groups including the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), ACLU and the Center for American Progress. So when Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced earlier this month that he intended for the House to vote on the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act by the end of September, it ignited debate within advocacy circles.

A number of advocacy organizations wrote a letter to House leadership urging a delay on the banking vote until broader legislation that addressed social equity issues passed. They didn’t get their wish, though, as Hoyer later confirmed a vote would take place on Wednesday.

During their first meeting with Waters and Financial Services Committee leadership in February, the groups “brought up our strategic concerns about the way the banking bill hitting the floor first could potentially take air out of the room for broader and more comprehensive reform, really emphasizing all the points we’ve been continually talking about,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator with DPA, told Marijuana Moment.

“The banking bill doesn’t actually address the crux of the issue when it comes to prohibition and how it’s impacted individuals and communities,” she said. “They made it seem like they were in alignment with our concerns and recognized them and acknowledged them.”

Waters, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, told Marijuana Moment in an interview last week that she appreciates the concerns expressed in the letter requesting a delay of the floor vote, but she said the problem is a lack of action on the part of Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who has yet to put his more wide-ranging legalization bill to a vote in his panel in preparation of potential action by the full body.

“And so what’s going to happen is [the SAFE Banking Act] that gives safe harbor to the banks is going to move, and whenever Judiciary gets that bill done, then it’s going to move too with the same kind of support that [the banking] bill is going to get,” she said.

But as Adesuyi described it, ensuring that Nadler’s bill received a vote before the banking legislation was explicitly part of the groups’ verbal agreement with Waters’s office.

“If the deal was upheld and the MORE Act moved first and the banking bill moved second, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

Prior to the August congressional recess, rumors began circulating that the SAFE Banking Act would soon be scheduled for a vote, and the advocacy groups arranged a follow-up meeting.

“We met again with [staff for] Chairwoman Waters and Financial Services leadership, asking ‘what’s the deal’ and they reiterated the fact that the deal was still on the table and they still were abiding by it and the MORE Act would still go first,” Adesuyi said. “There was a reiterating of alignment with our concerns and alignment with our perspective around needing more comprehensive reform rather than a piecemeal reform.”

“We were struck and disappointed to see within the first two weeks of them coming back from recess hearing that the banking bill was being scheduled for a vote,” she said. “Chairwoman Waters went back on her word, and Financial Services went back on their word. That’s essentially what happened.”

Representatives from Waters’s office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment on the agreement advocates described by the time of publication, but late on Tuesday night the chairwoman released a statement saying she is “pleased” that the banking bill will be on the floor and that it is “one important piece of what should be a comprehensive series of cannabis reform bills.”

“I have long fought for criminal justice reform and deeply understand the need to fully address the historical racial and social inequities related to the criminalization of marijuana,” she said. “I support legislation that deschedules marijuana federally, requires courts to expunge convictions for marijuana-related offenses, and provides assistance such as job training and reentry services for those who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.”

Lawmakers And Groups Weigh In On Eve Of Historic Cannabis Vote

In recent weeks, industry stakeholders, advocates and lawmakers have voiced a wide range of perspectives on the best way to approach banking reform for the cannabis industry.

In an interview with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) said that while she’s in favor of broad, all-encompassing marijuana legislation, there are political realities that ought to be considered, stating that “we’ve become desensitized in terms to how challenging this process of moving policy is.”

“Oftentimes it is easy for people to believe if one thing happens, something else won’t happen,” she said. “And the idea that we could have it all is really fading for many people who are pushing for progress in this country.”

Omar’s message to groups opposed to allowing the banking vote to proceed first is “to believe that it is possible that we could get all of these policies implemented, that we don’t have to forego a particular idea or policy implementation because something else is more pressing or more important.”

She added that she will be a “yes” vote on the banking bill—which will be the first standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation in history to receive a full House floor vote—and that she’s “for all of it” in terms of broader marijuana reform.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said in a statement on Tuesday that he would vote for the banking bill and further committed to schedule a vote in his panel on more far-reaching marijuana reform legislation.

Waters said in her statement that she wants that done “as quickly as possible.”

“The sooner the better,” she said.

While drug policy reform advocates broadly share the sentiment that there’s a need for legalization legislation that seeks to resolve the injustices of the war on drugs, with disagreements mostly coming down to timing, financial associations have been unambiguously focused on passing the SAFE Banking Act as soon as possible.

That’s been true from the onset: 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states have all voiced support for the bill’s passage throughout the year.

And on Tuesday, the American Bankers Association (ABA) sent a letter to the leaders on Tuesday that described the legislation as “an important measure that helps clarify many issues for the banking industry, regulators, businesses and consumers.”

“It also provides immediate relief for urgent public safety and cannabis industry oversight challenges, which will help keep our communities safe and should not be delayed while Congress works to build consensus on broader questions of national drug policy,” ABA said.

ABA, Americans for Prosperity, Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, Electronic Transactions Association, National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, National Association of Professional Employer Associations, National Association of REALTORS and Wholesale & Specialty Insurance Association also sent a separate letter to House leaders calling on Congress to advance the legislation.

“A safe harbor would not only enable law enforcement and states to effectively monitor and regulate cannabis transactions and businesses, but it would bring billions of dollars and tax revenue out of duffel bags and safes and into the regulated banking sector,” the groups wrote.

“We understand that creating a true federal regulatory framework for cannabis is a multi-step process,” they said. “However, we strongly believe that the SAFE Banking Act is a critical first step to ensure that legal cannabis marketplaces are safe, legal, and transparent.”

Marijuana-focused groups that want to see a vote argue that besides serving as a first step on the path to comprehensive legalization, the banking bill does address social equity to an extent by opening up opportunities to credit and financial services that disadvantaged groups have been shut out of.

National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Executive Director Aaron Smith said in a press release Wednesday that the bill “would greatly improve public safety and transparency, and represents a chance to even the playing field by allowing small businesses and people from marginalized communities participating in this emerging industry to access traditional lending.”

“Current banking regulations disproportionately hurt small businesses, women, and people of color, and we cannot afford to wait any longer while they are being excluded from the opportunities created by legal cannabis markets,” Smith said. “We urge every member of the House who is concerned about safety and fairness to support this bill.”

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) made a similar argument in an op-ed published on Monday.

“Members of Congress should allow banks to provide financial services to cannabis businesses,” MPP Executive Director Steve Hawkins said. “This creates access to resources for minority and women entrepreneurs and increases the chances for success in state equity initiatives. The SAFE Act is the best next step toward establishing a more equitable cannabis industry in the U.S.”

Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, wrote in an op-ed on Tuesday that a “congressional fix is necessary” to resolve banking issues in the marijuana industry.

“In short, the upcoming banking vote is an important first step by Congress,” he said. “But much more action will still need to be taken in order to ultimately comport federal law with the new political and cultural realities surrounding marijuana.”

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said she agreed with MPP’s position, writing that the SAFE Banking Act “improves equity for minority & women entrepreneurs—Congress should pass it.”

The Cannabis Trade Federation and Veterans Cannabis Project also voiced supported for passing the banking legislation.

The bill will “set things right by granting legal marijuana businesses access to traditional banking services, just as any other legitimate business receives,” Law Enforcement Action Partnership said in an action alert.

That said, Will Heaton, vice president of government affairs at JustLeadershipUSA, another group that called for the banking vote delay, told Marijuana Moment in an interview that congressional cannabis reform “requires a very holistic approach.”

“Even in Chairwoman Waters’s statements in the markup and in the hearings earlier this year, she’s been a very avid supporter of justice reform and I don’t want to take away from that record at all,” he said. “At the same time, I think this is just a misstep in terms of not taking advantage of the opportunity that we had here to pass legislation that would be able to significantly address some of these disparities.”

To be sure, Waters said during her committee’s vote on the banking bill that it “addresses an urgent public safety concern for legitimate businesses that currently have no recourse but to operate with just cash,” but that “I also consider this bill as part of a holistic approach toward providing criminal justice reform to those who have been harmed by criminalization of marijuana, and should not by any means be the only bill the House takes up on the important issue of cannabis reform.”

Despite pushback against the bill from certain progressive lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who said last week she was considering voting against it because it didn’t fully grapple with social equity, insiders generally expect the SAFE Banking Act to pass in the Democratic-controlled chamber, even under the expedited procedure being used that requires a two-thirds majority.

In an effort to broader the bill’s GOP appeal, its sponsor, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) moved to add amendments at the last minute that would clarify that banks would be protected while servicing hemp and CBD businesses and also stipulate that federal regulators couldn’t target certain industries like firearms dealers as higher risk for fraud without valid reasons.

The lobbying arm of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation remains opposed to the legislation, however, writing on Tuesday that the bill is “a shortcut to federal marijuana legalization and undermines existing federal law in the process.”

The group is joined by the prohibitionist Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which similarly opposes the reform move.

Advocates who wrote the delay request letter made an eleventh-hour attempt to insert additional social equity language into the bill, but that didn’t come to fruition.

The House will vote on the bill on suspension of the rules, meaning it needs the supermajority threshold to pass and that no amendments can be added on the floor. Discussion on the legislation will also be limited to 40 minutes.

Aaron Houston contributed reporting from Capitol Hill for this story.

This story was updated to include a statement from Waters.

Senate Committee Includes State Medical Marijuana Protections In Spending Bill

This story was updated to clarify that groups met with staff for Waters rather than the lawmaker herself.

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Culture

Lawmakers Mourn Loss Of Charlotte Figi, Whose Story Inspired National CBD Movement And Helped Change Policies

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Advocates and lawmakers are mourning the loss of a young icon in the medical marijuana reform movement. Charlotte Figi, who showed the world how CBD can treat severe epilepsy, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 13 due to complications from a likely coronavirus infection.

Across social media, people are sending their support to the Figi family and sharing anecdotes about how Charlotte’s battle against Dravet syndrome—and the success she demonstrated in treating it with the cannabis compound—changed hearts and minds. Her impact has been felt across state legislatures and in Congress, where her story was often told as a clear example of why laws prohibiting access to cannabidiol needed to change.

The domino effect Charlotte’s story helped set off—with states, particularly conservative ones, passing modest reform bills for CBD access—paved the path for a successful congressional rider that ended up protecting more far-reaching medical cannabis programs across the U.S., advocates say.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who has become one of the leading GOP champions for broad marijuana reform on Capitol Hill, said he was personally influenced by Charlotte and, as a state lawmaker in 2014, her story motivated him to support legislation to reform Florida’s medical cannabis policies.

“Charlotte lived a life of tremendous significance. Her story inspired me to completely change my views on medical cannabis and successfully pass legislation so that patients could get help in Florida,” the congressman said. “I’m so sad she is gone, but the movement she has ignited will live forever.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), another top marijuana reform advocate who has raised the issue directly with President Trump on several occasions, wrote that Charlotte “made a positive and everlasting change in the world by the age of 13, and her inspirational courage will always be remembered.”

“Charlotte changed the way the nation thinks about CBD through her grace and advocacy,” he said. “We should honor her by fixing our federal cannabis laws as soon as possible.”

Florida state Rep. Rob Bradley (R) agreed with the sentiment, writing that “Charlotte Figi was a bright, beautiful light that changed how our state and country views cannabis. I am saddened to hear that this sweet soul has left us.”

In Illinois, state Rep. Bob Morgan (D) said Charlotte, who is the namesake of one of the most well-known CBD brands, Charlotte’s Web, “singlehandedly transformed how the world viewed medical cannabis and children with epilepsy.”

“She suffered so much so that others would not have to,” he said. “May her memory be a blessing.”

Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach (D) also said Charlotte “inspired me to get involved in the cannabis movement” and “showed the world that Cannabis is medicine and the trail she blazed has helped millions.”

“The world lost a fighter,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who previously advocated for CBD reform as a state senator, said. “Charlotte Figi-who helped inspire passage of CBD Oil legislation for epilepsy treatment nationwide-passed away. I worked w/her mom/others in 14 in MO. My speech in the Senate was a tribute to her, June Jesse, my son & many others.”

Beyond championing a successful CBD bill in Florida, Charlotte’s family also captivated national audiences and became a household name in the reform movement. Her story was featured on a popular CNN documentary, “Weed,” hosted by Sanjay Gupta, that introduced people from diverging political ideologies to an issue that’s since become a focus of legislation across the country.

A bipartisan congressional bill named after her—the Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act—was first introduced in 2015.

But while that standalone legislation didn’t advance, the growing number of state-level policy changes that were inspired by Charlotte and other young patients could help to explain why Congress, including members who oppose legalization, has consistently supported a budget rider that prohibits the Justice Department from interfering in state-legal medical cannabis programs. It was first approved in 2014—after repeatedly failing on the House floor—and has been renewed each year since.

With CBD-only states included on an enumerated list of those that would be protected from legal action, it became increasingly difficult for lawmakers to defend voting against a measure to prevent federal harassment of their own constituents. Support from more conservative-minded Democrats and a handful of Republicans, including those from states that had recently enacted or were debating their own CBD laws, allowed the amendment to narrowly advance for the first time when it had been handily defeated two years earlier.

Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and South Carolina stand out as examples of states where cannabis reform came online between those votes and where support for the measure also increased among their congressional delegations.

The measure as approved by Congress and first signed into law law President Obama, has given explicit protection from federal prosecution not just to people complying with limited CBD-focused state laws but also medical cannabis growers, processors and retailers in states with more robust policies such as California and Colorado (though it does not protect recreational marijuana businesses or consumers).

“Charlotte Figi personalized this issue in a way that few others have, and her story humanized the medical cannabis fight to such a degree that many politicians could no longer ignore it,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “There is little doubt that Charlotte’s story, arguably more than any other, paved the way for politicians in several southern and midwestern states to finally move forward to recognize the need for CBD, and in some cases, whole-plant cannabis access.”

Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said even opponents of cannabis legalization “can’t say ‘no’ to young mothers pushing sick kids in strollers,” referencing the many other patient advocates who helped usher the reform to victory.

“There’s no doubt it helped move the debate in our direction,” he said. “Truth is, I was once told that CBD hurt our effort [for broader reform]. I don’t think so.”

A person writing on behalf of the family on Tuesday said that “Charlotte is no longer suffering” and will be forever seizure-free.

CBD Prescription Drug Is No Longer A Federally Controlled Substance, DEA Says

Image element courtesy of Paige Figi.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Politics

FBI Policy On CBD Use By Agents Is ‘Under Review’

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is apparently looking into changing internal policy when it comes to the use of CBD products by its agents and other employees, the agency said on Tuesday.

While workers are prohibited from using marijuana—and applicants can be disqualified for consuming cannabis within the past three years—it seems FBI is open to loosening rules for the non-intoxicating cannabis compound, which has become more widely available since hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, creating a massive market for its derivatives.

During a Q&A on Twitter, FBI’s Newark office was asked two marijuana-related questions. One person wanted to know why the agency says “you cannot use marijuana within 3 years of applying, even with a medical card/prescription.”

“The policy regarding CBD oil is currently under review,” FBI replied. “Check the other eligibility requirements.”

The overall thread was about questions people had about the process of becoming a special agent, so it’s not clear if the CBD policy is being reevaluated for applicants only regarding past use, or if any change would cover active agents as well. Marijuana Moment reached out to FBI and its Newark division for clarification, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.

Another person asked whether the three-year cannabis abstinence requirement applies to positions other than special agents and FBI said: “Yes, that policy applies to all positions within the FBI.”

The simple fact that FBI fielded multiple marijuana questions while promoting recruitment seems to speak to a point that the agency’s former director, James Comey, made in 2014. He suggested that he wanted to loosen the agency’s employment policies as it concerns marijuana, as potential skilled workers were being passed over due to the requirement.

“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said at the time.

Last year, FBI said it wanted the public to send tips on illicit activity in state-legal marijuana markets, stating that restrictive licensing policies could open the door to corruption.

While FBI’s CBD policy is in review, other federal agencies—particularly for within the military—have strongly discouraged or outright banned its use.

The Department of Defense made clear that CBD is off limits for service members.

The Air Force issued a notice last year stipulating that its members are prohibited from using the compound.

The Navy told its ranks that they’re barred from using CBD regardless of its legal status.

And the Coast Guard said last year that sailors can’t use marijuana or visit state-legal dispensaries.

Meanwhile, NASA said that CBD products could contain unauthorized THC concentrations that could jeopardize jobs if employees fail a drug test.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued guidance to federal agency drug program coordinators last year, expressing concern about excess THC in CBD products, which seems to have prompted the various departments to clarify their rules.

The Department of Transportation took a different approach in February, stating in a notice that it would not be testing drivers for CBD.

While much of the CBD found in markets across the U.S. is largely unregulated, as the Food and Drug Administration is in the process of developing rules for the compound, a CBD-based prescription medication for epilepsy was entirely removed from the Controlled Substances Act this week, which should lead to easier access for patients.

People Could Still Be Denied These Jobs Over Marijuana Use Under New York City Drug Testing Exemptions

Photo by Kimzy Nanney.

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People Could Still Be Denied These Jobs Over Marijuana Use Under New York City Drug Testing Exemptions

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New York State might not be legalizing marijuana this year, in large part due to complications from the coronavirus outbreak, but at least many of those still in the workforce in New York City won’t risk being denied jobs over a positive THC test thanks to a local law that goes into effect next month. And now a city commission is proposing regulations on who exactly will be protected from pre-employment cannabis testing.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights proposed a rule, which was published in The City Record on Tuesday, that

When the City Council first approved the legislation—which was enacted without Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (D) signature last year—it included language carving out exceptions from the prohibition on testing for those applying to certain jobs such as police officers and people charged with supervising or caring for children, as well as positions “tied to a federal or state contract or grant.”

The law, which goes into effect starting May 10, also exempts jobs with “the potential to significantly impact the health or safety of employees or members of the public.”

To that end, these new proposed regulations from the commission seek to explain exactly what constitutes such a position.

Here’s who would still be subject to pre-employment drug testing under the proposal:

1) People in jobs that require them to regularly be on active construction sites,

2) those who regularly operate heavy machinery,

3) those who regularly work with power or gas utility lines,

4) those who use a motor vehicle on approximately a daily basis and

5) those for whom impairment “would interfere with the employee’s ability to take adequate care in the carrying out of his or her job duties and would pose an immediate risk of death or serious physical harm to the employee or to other people.”

“These broad, vague exceptions—which include anyone who drives daily—make no more sense than requiring anyone who ever drives a car to permanently abstain from alcohol,” Karen O’Keef, state policies director with the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Cannabis stays in one’s system for over a month, so a positive test has nothing to do with if a person is impaired at work. The only exception that should apply is when federal law or contracts require pre-employment drug screening.”

The commission also clarified in the proposed rule that “a ‘significant impact on health and safety’ does not include concerns that a positive test for tetrahydrocannabinols or marijuana indicates a lack of trustworthiness or lack of moral character.”

A public comment period is now open for people to weigh in. Feedback will be accepted until April 16, the day the commission is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue.

In addition to passing the pre-employment cannabis testing ban last year, the City Council also approved resolutions to make it so simple cannabis possession alone doesn’t warrant the removal of a child from a guardian and to require the New York Department of Health to create hospital drug testing regulations for pregnant women or those giving birth, “including informing patients of their rights before any discussion of drug use or drug testing.”

Advocates have celebrated the modest reform victories, but the sting of a defeat on statewide legalization is still fresh. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legal cannabis in his budget proposal earlier this year and repeatedly insisted that the policy change be pursued through that vehicle, he said over the weekend that the prospect is “effectively over” for 2020.

Lawmakers in favor of legalization had signaled that might be the case as the state grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to shift legislative priorities. That said, there is a revised legalization bill that was recently introduced which could theoretically be taken up later this year if lawmakers opt to reconvene.

Businesses That ‘Indirectly’ Work With Marijuana Industry Ineligible For Federal Coronavirus Loans

This story was updated to include comment from MPP.

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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