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Lawmakers In US Territory Send Marijuana Legalization Bill To Governor

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Lawmakers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory, have voted to send a marijuana legalization bill to the governor’s desk.

The legislation, which was approved on by the CNMI Senate on Thursday by a vote of 6 – 0, with 2 abstentions, passed the House of Representatives earlier this month.

Gov. Ralph Torres (R) now has 28 days to sign or veto the bill, or it will become law automatically without his signature.

If the bill is enacted, CNMI will become the first U.S. jurisdiction to go directly from outlawing marijuana across the board to allowing recreational use. The territory has no existing medical cannabis program, something that has been a precursor to broader legalization in a growing number of states.

It will also be the first place in the U.S. to legalize marijuana sales by an act of lawmakers. The eight existing state commercial cannabis legalization laws were enacted by voter initiatives. Earlier this year Vermont lawmakers passed legislation to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation of marijuana, but that law does not allow for any form of sales.

The legalization proposal has had a somewhat circuitous route to passage. Initially, the Senate introduced and approved a legalization bill. But although the legislation advanced through a House committee and to the floor of that body, some lawmakers raised procedural concerns that bills generating revenue must originate in the House. So representatives crafted their own bill, largely modeled on the original proposal from Sen. Sixto Igisomar (R).

The bill cleared the House earlier this month and, on Thursday, it was approved in a matter of minutes by the Senate.

“Senator Sixto just shared the house amendments to the senators and confirmed to them that the house bill still had most of the senate version intact and requested their support to accept it as is and move forward,” Gerry Palacios Hemley of the advocacy group Sensible CNMI told Marijuana Moment.

“It took them less than 7 minutes to passage.”

“The reason being that they have deliberated this issue for a while now since it was started in the senate in 2015 leading to its passage a couple months ago and felt that the only thing left to do was to act on it by vote,” Hemley said.

Now it is up to the governor to decide whether CNMI becomes the next U.S. jurisdiction to legalize marijuana. While Torres has expressed some concerns about potential “public safety issues,” advocates are hopeful he will allow the bill to become law.

“I will say this for the record: we should look at both sides of the coin. In the nine states that have legalized marijuana, have we seen an increase in crime?” Torres said in June. “If there is, what is the nature of these crimes? We should look at this and other things. I am concerned about public-safety issues.”

A growing body of research shows that state legalization laws don’t increase crime. One recent study indicated that police are able to focus on solving other crimes when they don’t have to enforce laws against cannabis possession.

“We expect the governor to strongly consider the evidential support given by both houses and the overwhelming support at public hearings and committee sessions, along with the research documents and testimonies submitted to making a favorable decision for the bill’s intent,” Hemley said.

“We are very hopeful he will sign it.”

If the bill is enacted, adults over 21 years of age and qualified medical cannabis patients will be able to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana, as well as infused products and extracts. Home cultivation will also be allowed, and regulators will issue licenses for cannabis producers, testing facilities, processors, retailers, wholesalers and lounges.

“This is a historic moment, as it is the first time a governing body in the U.S. has ever enacted legislation to both end marijuana prohibition and establish a system of regulation to replace it,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “Adults and medical cannabis patients will finally be able to access marijuana safely and legally, and products will be regulated and controlled to ensure they are safe for consumers. This legislation will allow for the establishment of new businesses that create jobs and generate new tax revenue that can support important programs and services.”

Legalizing Marijuana Helps Police Solve Other Crimes, New Study Shows

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.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

South Carolina Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Bill In Subcommittee Vote

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A South Carolina Senate subcommittee voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would legalize access to medical marijuana. The legislation, known as the Compassionate Care Act, now moves to the full Senate Medical Affairs panel for discussion and a possible vote.

The subcommittee vote of 5 to 1 came after lawmakers approved several amendments to the bill. Some of those changes include narrowing the list of medical conditions that would qualify a patient to legally use medical cannabis, banning certain workers from being able to access the treatment and requiring physicians to have specific qualifications before being able to recommend marijuana.

“I want to thank the law enforcement officials, business leaders and physicians who worked with members of this subcommittee to ensure that this medical cannabis bill reflects the will of the overwhelming majority of South Carolinians … but to also draw a bright line against the recreational use of cannabis,” said Sen. Tom Davis, the bill’s author.

Advocates say they’re happy the bill is moving, but are expressing concerns about the changes that were adopted. Judy Ghanem, the executive director of patient advocacy group Compassionate SC, said she worries the bill will ultimately limit how many people will actually be able to access cannabis for their medical needs.

“The main concern that we have is, will enough doctors actually be recommending [medical cannabis] and will enough patients be able to get the medicine,” she told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview.

The original text of the bill authorized primary care physicians to recommend cannabis to their patients with debilitating medical conditions. “There might not be as many specialists that are willing to recommend as there would be regular physicians,” Ghanem said.

“Concessions have to be made, and we understand that, but from a logistics standpoint, we need to have a law that’s workable,” she continued. “We hope that it’s not narrowed any more than it is now. We’re still going to be happy that patients will get the medicine, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to do everything we can to increase the number of patients that can have access.”

Also on Wednesday, a group of faith leaders held a news conference at the State House to show their support for legalization.

The bill still faces an uphill battle, as opponents from the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), S.C. Sheriffs’ Association and S.C. Medical Association have all said they won’t get behind the legislation without the Food and Drug Administration’s stamp of approval on medical marijuana.

“Never before have we determined what medicine is by popular vote or legislation,” SLED Maj. Frank O’Neal told the Post & Courier.

This is the fourth year the Compassionate Care Act has been introduced in the South Carolina legislature. Last year, it was approved by both the Senate Medical Affairs Committee and the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs (3M) Committee, but it did not receive floor consideration in either chamber before the session ended.

A January poll found that a majority of South Carolinians support legalizing medical marijuana.

South Carolina Lawmakers Pre-File Four Marijuana Bills For 2019

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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FDA Chief Warns CBD Rulemaking Could Take Years Without Congressional Action

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The outgoing head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggested on Tuesday that it would take several years for the agency to come up with rules around allowing hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) in food products—unless Congress steps in.

At a Brookings Institution event, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recognized that there’s strong interest among the cannabis industry and lawmakers in developing a regulatory framework through which CBD from hemp could be extracted, sold and introduced into the food supply. The problem is that “CBD didn’t previously exist in the food supply, and it exists as a drug under the statute.”

“It can’t just be put into the food supply,” he said, arguing that current law only allows the FDA to “contemplate putting a drug that wasn’t previously in the food supply into the food supply if it goes through a rulemaking process.”

That rulemaking process can take two to three years for conventional products, and so because CBD is “more complex”—due to its association with marijuana—and has already been approved by the FDA as a drug to treat epilepsy (in the form of Epidiolex), it could theoretically take much longer to develop those regulations.

“We’ve never done this before,” Gottlieb said. “It would be a highly novel rulemaking process.”

In the meantime, the FDA is putting together a “high-level work group” that will work to identify “some potential legislative pathways might be to create a framework for allowing CBD into the food supply.”

Gottlieb said he expects the group to release some recommendations by the summer, as Business Insider first reported.

The commissioner said the work group will be formally announced within the next week and would involve a public meeting to solicit comments from stakeholders.

While Congress might have intended to permit the marketing of hemp-derived CBD through the 2018 Farm Bill, the commissioner indicated that additional legislation that specifically addresses CBD regulations would be necessary to allow the ingredient in the food supply. He said there’s precedent for such actions, citing legislation around human growth hormone and fish oil.

“I think you need to come up with a framework that defines concentration levels, where you would create some kind of cut off, and that would be up to the agency to do,” he said. “Congress would obviously give directions to the agency to do that.”

“CBD in high concentrations isn’t risk-free, and in low concentration, it probably is safe—I don’t want to make a declaration here. It’s also a question of whether it’s providing any kind of therapeutic benefit in those concentrations, although people seem to believe that it has some value. But this is a process that the agency would have to work through. I think the most efficient way to get to a pathway would be through legislation, probably that would just be legislation that would specifically address CBD.”

Gottlieb made similar comments in response to questions from members of a House Appropriations subcommittee last month, where he announced that the agency would hold a public meeting in April to gather input from stakeholders on CBD regulation.

In the new comments, the commissioner also added that he felt the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would have to “formally de-schedule” hemp-derived CBD before moving forward with regulatory changes, in spite of the fact that the agriculture legislation shifted regulatory responsibility for the crop and its derivatives from the Justice Department to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I think the prevailing view is that the plain language of the statute [of the Farm Bill] intended for that, but I’m not sure that DEA has done that yet,” he said. “But that’s another step that would have to take place. DEA would have to formally de-schedule CBD derived from hemp.”

The desire for clarity around CBD’s legality post-Farm Bill passage has been widespread. For example, the U.S. Postal Service issued an advisory earlier this month spelling out rules for mailing hemp-derived CBD. Representatives from state agriculture departments also heard talk about “alternative approaches” to regulating the compound at a conference last month.

In his remarks at Brookings, Gottlieb announced that the CBD work group would be co-chaired by Amy Abernethy, FDA’s principal deputy commissioner, and Lowell Shiller, the agency’s acting associate commissioner for policy.

In the meantime, it is clear that lawmakers want FDA to move on the issue.

“Every meeting I go into on Capitol Hill, almost every meeting, I get asked about this,” Gottlieb said.

U.S. Postal Service Issues Advisory On Mailing Hemp-Derived CBD

Photo courtesy of YouTube/Brookings Institution.

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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Beto O’Rourke Says Prosecute Pharma Execs And Legalize Marijuana

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The federal government should end the prohibition of marijuana and prosecute pharmaceutical executives who recklessly marketed addictive opioid painkillers, Beto O’Rourke argued at a rally in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate received enthusiastic applause in response to the pitch from the crowd in the early primary state, which has been hard hit by the opioid crisis.

“We’re going to acknowledge an incredibly warped system of justice in this country,” the former congressman said, singling out Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, over its products’ role in the addiction problem.

“The vast majority of those who are addicted today began with a legal prescription,” he said. “Those executives understood the addictive properties of what they sold and did not share that with the public, and not a single one of them has done a single day in jail.”

“Yet, we have the largest prison population on the face of the planet, disproportionately comprised of people of color, far too many there for possession of a substance that is legal in most states of this country, marijuana.”

Watch O’Rourke’s marijuana and drug policy comments, about 20:00 into the video below:

The candidate expanded on the unfairness, noting that rates of cannabis use are roughly the same for different races but “only some are more likely than others to be arrested, to serve time, to upon release be forced to check a box” rendering them ineligible for student loans and making it more difficult to secure employment.

“We need real criminal justice reform,” he said. “We need to end the prohibition of marijuana, expunge the arrest records for everyone arrested for possession of something that’s legal in so many other places, and make sure that we have a full prosecution and accountability for those who are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans in this country.”

There were signs that drug reform would be a main feature of O’Rourke’s campaign in the weeks leading up to his announcement, and he’s quickly confirmed that suspicion on the trail. He sent out an email blast about marijuana reform before declaring his bid and he discussed ending cannabis prohibition on the day of his announcement.

But contrasting the unchecked malfeasance of the pharmaceutical industry with the aggressive enforcement of cannabis laws represents an evolution in O’Rourke’s messaging on the issue.

It’s not dissimilar to a talking point often heard at rallies for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who frequently talks about the injustice of failing to prosecute Wall Street executives for their role in the 2008 financial crisis while locking up individuals for non-violent marijuana offenses.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), another 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has also criticized the pharmaceutical industry for misleading prescribers about the risks of potent opioid painkillers while opposing marijuana reform.

“To them it’s competition for chronic pain, and that’s outrageous because we don’t have the crisis in people who take marijuana for chronic pain having overdose issues,” she said, adding that she doesn’t see cannabis as a gateway to opioids. Rather, “the opioid industry and the drug companies that manufacture it, some of them in particular, are just trying to sell more drugs that addict patients and addict people across this country.”

Another contender for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), has also been critical of the pharmaceutical industry while supporting cannabis legalization.

She said last month that the U.S. criminal justice system “puts people in prison for smoking marijuana while allowing corporations like Purdue Pharma, who are responsible for the opioid-related deaths of thousands of people, to walk away scot-free with their coffers full.”

Let States Decriminalize Heroin And Cocaine, Presidential Candidate Hickenlooper Says

Photo courtesy of Facebook/Circa.

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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