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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 Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Federal Agency Loosens Marijuana-Related Grant Funding Restrictions For Mental Health Treatment

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The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) loosened restrictions this week on grant funding for state health providers and other entities that allow patients to use medical marijuana for mental heath treatment.

The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs flagged the new policy change in a notice to SAMHSA grant recipients on Monday. It said that the federal agency has removed language from its terms and conditions that until now has prevented grant funds from going to any institution that “provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders.”

This restriction led the state department to issue a memo in June warning recipients and applicants about the possible withholding of funding.

Despite the recent change, SAMHSA is still continuing a narrower ban that says federal funds themselves “may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana.”

The broader prohibition, which has now been rescinded, prompted a notice last year from Maine’s Education Department, which said is was no longer eligible for certain federal funds to support mental health programs in schools because the state allows students to access medical marijuana.

It seems the federal agency is now being somewhat more permissive.

Here’s how SAMHSA’s updated marijuana restriction reads:

“SAMHSA grant funds may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory and public policy requirements); 21 U.S.C. 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana).”

The older, more broad prohibition read:

“Grant funds may not be used, directly or indirectly, to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. Treatment in this context includes the treatment of opioid use disorder. Grant funds also cannot be provided to any individual who or organization that provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. § 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to “ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory requirements.”); 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana). This prohibition does not apply to those providing such treatment in the context of clinical research permitted by the DEA and under an FDA-approved investigational new drug application where the article being evaluated is marijuana or a constituent thereof that is otherwise a banned controlled substance under federal law.”

The marijuana restrictions were first added to grant award terms for Fiscal Year 2020. The language was initially carried over to Fiscal Year 2021 but was more recently switched out for the narrower language by the federal agency.

In a January 2020 FAQ that the Pennsylvania department shared from SAMHSA this June, the federal agency responded to a prompt inquiring whether grant recipients can serve patients who are “very clear about their wish to remain on their medical marijuana for their mental or substance use disorder.”

“No. The organization cannot serve a patient who is on medical marijuana for a mental or substance use disorder and wishes to remain on such treatment,” it said. “SAMHSA promotes the use of evidence-based practices and there is no evidence for such a treatment; in fact, there is increasing evidence that marijuana can further exacerbate mental health symptoms.”

While the agency seemed adamant in enforcing that policy at the time, it appears to have had a change of heart and has since loosened the restriction.

A SAMHSA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the new rules took effect on Sunday, but played down their significance.

“This Aug. 1 clarification simply made clearer what was already in place: SAMHSA funds should not be used to procure a federally prohibited substance,” he said in an email.

While it is true that the revised provision, as was the case in the prior language, states that federal funds cannot be used to pay for marijuana, the spokesperson avoided commenting on the new deletion of the broader prohibition on grants going to entities that otherwise allow patients to use medical cannabis to treat substance use or mental disorders.

After SAMHSA announced in 2019 that its marijuana policy would impact organizations applying for its two main opioid treatment programs and another that provides funding to combat alcoholism and substance misuse, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Oregon Health Authority issued notices on the impact of the rule.

Read the Pennsylvania department’s notice on the SAMHSA marijuana policy change below: 

Pennsylvania SAMHSA marijuana by Marijuana Moment

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Mexican Lawmakers Could Finally Legalize Marijuana Sales Next Month (Op-Ed)

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The legislature missed repeated deadlines, and then the Supreme Court moved to allow homegrow. What’s next?

By Zara Snapp, Filter

Mexico has never seemed so close and yet so far from fully regulating the adult-use cannabis market.

A first Supreme Court resolution determined in 2015 that the absolute prohibition of cannabis for personal use was unconstitutional because it violates the right to the free development of personality. To reach jurisprudence in Mexico, five consecutive cases, with the same or more votes each time, must be won before the Supreme Court. This was achieved in October 2018, which detonated a legislative mandate that within 90 days, the Senate should modify the articles in the General Health Law that were deemed unconstitutional.

The first deadline came and went without the Senate modifying the articles; so the Senate requested an extension, which was granted. The second deadline to legislate expired on April 30, 2020—but another extension was provided because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At first, it looked like the third time was the charm. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the Federal Law to Regulate and Control Cannabis in November 2020 and passed it to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, for review and approval. Since the deadline of December 15, 2020, was fast approaching, the Chamber asked for its own extension. The Supreme Court granted it (until April 20, 2021) and the bill underwent significant changes before being approved by the Chamber on March 10, and so sent back to the Senate.

The Senate certainly had enough time to review and either reject or accept the changes made by the lower house. That would have made this a shorter story. However, the Senate had other plans. Rather than approve the bill or request an additional extension, it simply did not do anything. June’s national midterm elections were approaching, and political calculations were made. The legislative process came to a standstill.

Since the Senate did not approve the bill by the deadline, the Supreme Court basically did what it had mandated Congress to do. It activated a mechanism to guarantee rights that had only been undertaken once before in Mexican history: the General Declaration of Unconstitutionality (GDU).

On June 28, the Supreme Court approved, with a qualified majority of eight of the 11 Ministers, that two articles in the General Health Law must be modified to permit adults to cultivate cannabis for personal use in their homes.

These changes were officially published on July 15, with specific instructions to the Health Secretary to approve authorizations for any adult who applies.

The GDU has certain restrictions attached, including that this is only for personal use and cannot be used to justify any commercialization of cannabis or cannabis-derived products. Adults cannot consume in front of minors, or other adults who have not expressly given their permission. Nor can they operate heavy machinery or drive while under the effects.

With the GDU, the judicial process concludes. However, the Supreme Court was clear in its final recommendations: Congress can and should legislate to clear up inconsistencies and generate a legal framework for cannabis users.

Whether the Senate decides to take up the matter again in September when it returns to its legislative session will depend largely on its political whim. The body no longer has a deadline to meet; however, there are growing calls from society to regulate the market beyond home-grow, as well as several legal contradictions that obviously need to be harmonized.

The General Health Law has now been modified and the health secretary must approve permits or authorizations for adults to cultivate in their homes. But the Federal Criminal Code has not changed—it still penalizes those same activities with sanctions ranging from 10 months to three years or more in prison.

The Supreme Court decision ignores the need for a comprehensive regulation that would allow the state to apply taxes to commercial activities, which are currently still criminalized with penal sanctions. It also overlooks the urgency of an amnesty program for the thousands of people currently incarcerated on low-level cannabis charges, or hampered by criminal records for such charges.

The Senate should now revisit the bill it initially passed. It should maintain the positive aspects of the bill, which would improve things well beyond the scope of the Supreme Court decision. These include provision for cannabis associations (permitting up to four plants per person for up to 20 members), for home-grow without the need to request authorization, and for a regulated market with a social justice perspective—allocating 40 percent (or more!) of cultivation licenses to communities harmed by prohibition and imposing restrictions on large companies.

The Senate could also build upon the previous version of the bill by eliminating simple possession as a crime, by allowing the associations to operate immediately and guaranteeing the participation of small and medium companies through strong government support.

During the last three years, and before, civil society has closely accompanied the process of creating this legislation, providing the technical and political inputs needed to move forward in a way that could have great social benefits for Mexico.

By becoming the third country in the world to regulate adult cannabis use, after Uruguay and Canada, Mexico could transition from being one of the largest illegal producers to being the largest legal domestic market in the world. As well as economic benefits, this could have substantial impacts on how criminal justice funds are spent, freeing up law enforcement dollars to focus on high-impact crimes and changing the way the state has shown up in communities that cultivate cannabis.

Rather than eradicating crops, the government could accompany communities in gaining legal licenses, provide technical assistance and improve basic services. These positive externalities of regulation could signal a shift from a militarized state of war to a focus on rights, development and social justice.

Of course, this all depends on key political actors recognizing the benefits—and that requires political will. Mexico deserves better; however, it remains to be seen whether legislators will act.

This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.

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Oregon Governor Plans To Veto Bill To Regulate Kratom Sales That Advocates Say Would Protect Consumers

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The governor of Oregon has announced her intent to veto a bill that’s meant to create a regulatory framework for the sale and use of kratom for adults.

The Oregon Kratom Consumer Protection Act is bipartisan legislation that would make it so only people 21 and older could purchase the plant-based substance, which some use for its stimulating effects and which others found useful in treating opioid withdrawals.

Vendors would have to register with the state Department of Agriculture to sell kratom. The agency would be responsible for developing regulations on testing standards and labeling requirements. The bill would further prohibit the sale of contaminated or adulterated kratom products.

But while the House and Senate approved the legislation in June, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said on Sunday that she plans to veto it, in large part because she feels the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is better suited to regulate the products.

“Given there is currently no FDA-approved use for this product and there continues to be concern about the impacts of its use, I would entertain further legislation to limit youth access without the state agency regulatory function included in this bill,” the governor said.

This comes as a disappointment to advocates and regulators who share concerns about the risks of adulterated kratom but feel a regulatory framework could help mitigate those dangers and provide adults with a safe supply of products that have helped some overcome opioid addiction.

“Kratom has been consumed safely for centuries in Southeast Asia and Americans use it in the same way that coffee is used for increased focus and energy boosts. Many use kratom for pain management without the opioid side effects,” Rep. Bill Post (R), sponsor of the bill, wrote in an op-ed published in June. “The problem in Oregon is that adulterated products are being sold.”

“Kratom in its pure form is a natural product,” he said. “Adulterated kratom is a potentially dangerous product.”

Pete Candland, executive director of the American Kratom Association, said in written testimony on the bill in February that four other states—Utah, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada—have enacted similar legislation with positive results.

He said that “the number of adulterated kratom products spiked with dangerous drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and morphine in those states has significantly decreased” in those states.

Meanwhile, six states—Vermont, Alabama, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Rhode Island—have banned kratom sales altogether.

Candland said that number is actually a testament to the noncontroversial nature of the plant, as prohibition is only in effect in six states despite “a full-throated disinformation campaign on kratom by the FDA with outrageously untrue claims about kratom being the cause of hundreds of deaths.”

After failing to get kratom prohibited domestically, FDA recently opened a public comment period that’s meant to inform the U.S. position on how the substance should be scheduled under international statute.

“Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects,” FDA wrote in the notice. “Kratom is available in several different forms to include dried/crushed leaves, powder, capsules, tablets, liquids, and gum/ resin. Kratom is an increasingly popular drug of abuse and readily available on the recreational drug market in the United States.”

Responses to the notice will help inform the federal government’s stance on kratom scheduling in advance of an October meeting of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, where international officials will discuss whether to recommend the substance be globally scheduled.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a report to spending legislation that says federal health agencies have “contributed to the continued understanding of the health impacts of kratom, including its constituent compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.”

It also directed the Health and Human Services secretary to continue to refrain from recommending that kratom be controlled in Schedule I.

Late last year, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) asked the public to help identify research that specifically looks at the risks and benefits of cannabinoids and kratom.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year separately received more than one thousand comments concerning kratom as part of another public solicitation.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/ThorPorre.

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