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Lawmakers Slam Attorney General Over Improper Marijuana Investigations Alleged By Whistleblower

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Several members of a key congressional committee on Wednesday expressed concerns over a Justice Department whistleblower’s allegations that the attorney general directed multiple improper antitrust investigations into marijuana business mergers because of his personal opposition to the industry.

Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA) each directly questioned the witness, John Elias, about the allegations at a hearing that also covered other unrelated reports of inappropriate actions by Attorney General William Barr.

The lawmakers touched on the costs of the cannabis investigations to taxpayers, the waste of department resources to conduct the inquiries and the attorney general’s apparent animus toward businesses operating in accordance with state legalization laws.

“Did that cost the cannabis folks a lot of money?” Cohen asked.

“Absolutely, these subpoenas that get issued that require production of millions of documents is very burdensome,” Elias, who has been with the Justice Department for 14 years, said.

“So it was harassment by Bill Barr of an industry he didn’t like, is that right?” the congressman followed up.

The witness replied that “I think that’s a fair way to characterize it, yes.”

“Barr doesn’t like marijuana. Marijuana is seven times more likely to be enforced against young African Americans, breeding discontent with police and breeding interactions with police, and Barr doesn’t care about that type of stuff because he doesn’t like marijuana,” Cohen said. “That’s one of the breeding grounds of distrust of African Americans and police and police and African American contact and problems. Very unfortunate.”

Later in the hearing, Elias disclosed in response to a question from Scanlon that a second, unnamed Justice Department whistleblower had similarly raised concerns about the Antitrust Division’s marijuana investigations that were reportedly made at the attorney general’s behest. He further said that the response to his complaint was troubling because the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) determined that even if the investigations were directed out of personal animus, that would not represent a violation of any rule.

“That’s very concerning to me because it seems so self-evident that if your sole motivation is animosity that that’s impermissible,” he said.

Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) wasn’t able to attend the House Judiciary Committee hearing, but his office shared a copy of his prepared statement on the subject with Marijuana Moment. He said it was unacceptable that the allegedly improper cannabis-related investigations accounted for nearly one-third of the Antitrust Division’s caseload in 2019.

“After nearly four years, I did not think the actions of this administration could continue to shock me,” he said. “John Elias’s testimony showed me just how wrong that was. The very idea that the lead law enforcement professional in the land would use the immense power of the United States government to investigate American businesses out of his own personal animosity should put fear into every American.”

“Due process and equal protection under the law are the cornerstones of our democracy,” he added. “When they crumble, the fabric of our democracy and legal system follows close behind.”

Correa noted the growing number of states that have legalized cannabis in some form and “yet the federal government repeatedly treats this legal industry as criminals and second-class businesses.”

“The attorney general’s blatant abuse of his authority to improperly investigate cannabis businesses shows just how important it is to end the federal prohibition of cannabis,” he said. “Regardless of Mr. Barr’s own personal feelings, Americans wildly support descheduling cannabis, and it is time  ur federal laws represented the people’s will.”

“Attorney General Barr has once again shown he cannot be trusted to meet the high standards of his position. His use of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division to satisfy his own personal grudges are beyond reproach. If these allegations stand true, there must be serious consequences for the Attorney General. Every American must know with full confidence that the leader of American law enforcement will protect each of our constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the law. When investigations by the Department of Justice can be directed by the personal whims of individual men, the very core of our legal system shattered.”

Jayapal stressed that the allegations indicate the Justice Department’s resources and taxpayer dollars were wasted at the whim of the nation’s top prosecutors. She first asked how much of the division’s staff was involved in the investigations.

“Congresswoman, there were dozens of staff—attorneys, paralegals, economists and others who worked on these various cases,” Elias replied.

Jayapal also pressed the witness on the extent to which the millions of documents that were obtained over the course of the investigations were reviewed.

“I think a very small number of the documents were reviewed,” he said, adding that many were “uploaded after the closing process had been initiated as if they were irrelevant to the investigation.”

Ultimately, across 6 of the 10 investigations for which data are available, 5,965,000 documents were produced by the marijuana companies under inquiry.

“So they requested enormous resources, taxpayer dollars were used, these documents were never really looked at, they weren’t relevant to the investigations—and so to be clear, at Attorney General Barr’s direction, the department expends countless taxpayer resources to force companies to ultimately produce millions of pages of evidence and then doesn’t even look at or upload some of that evidence before admitting there’s a violation,” Jayapal said.

“Have you ever seen anything this extreme?” she asked.

“In my experience, which includes 14 years at the Justice Department at many different levels of the antitrust division, no, I have never seen anything like that,” the witness said.

Asked why the situation is concerning to him, Elias said it’s “concerning because the investigations and the work of the Antitrust Division need to be done in good faith—they need to be done evenhandedly—both for the sake of everybody involved and for the sake of the public’s perception of the rule of law in that the Justice Department is being aboveboard with everything.”

“For it to disregard the usual standards in the law on what counts for an antitrust investigation is improper and an abuse,” he said.

Early in the hearing, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) mentioned that the Justice Department’s OPR had determined that the investigations into cannabis mergers didn’t violate rules or regulations and questioned his political motivations. He also brought up marijuana’s legal status under federal law and asked the witness whether he knew what schedule the plant is classified as under the Controlled Substances Act.

Elias said he knew it was a controlled substance but wasn’t sure of the schedule.

“You were part of an antitrust in marijuana and didn’t know how it was scheduled?” Collins said. “The credibility of this is going downhill quickly here.”

Other committee members, including Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ), spoke more broadly about the Justice Department’s antitrust investigations without explicitly discussing the marijuana merger inquiries. He said the department’s “resources are not being used to protect the American people” when it is “pursuing meritless investigations.”

All of these questions come one day after Elias’s written testimony was first released, detailing how the attorney general directed questionable investigations into 10 mergers of state-legal marijuana companies, including one for MedMen and PharmaCann that seemed to have resulted in the end of the agreement.

“The head of the Antitrust Division, Assistant Attorney General Delrahim, responded to internal concerns about these investigations at an all-staff meeting on September 17, 2019,” the witness said. “There, he acknowledged that the investigations were motivated by the fact that the cannabis industry is unpopular ‘on the fifth floor,’ a reference to Attorney General Barr’s offices in the DOJ headquarters building.”

“Personal dislike of the industry is not a proper basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation,” he said.

Barr’s personal opposition to the cannabis industry doesn’t seem to comport with statements he’s made in various congressional hearings, where he’s expressed interest in resolving the state-federal conflict over marijuana policy.  Last year, he said that while he personally opposes legalization, he would prefer for Congress to pass a bill respecting the rights of states to implement their own cannabis policies rather than maintain blanket federal prohibition.

Federal Commission Pushes Expansion Of Marijuana And Psychedelics Research For Military Veterans

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Arizona Marijuana Activists Turn In 420,000 Signatures To Qualify Legalization Measure For Ballot

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Arizona activists behind an initiative to legalize marijuana have officially turned in what they say are more than enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Smart and Safe Arizona announced on Wednesday that they submitted 420,000 raw signatures to the secretary of state’s office—one day before the turn-in deadline. They need 237,645 valid signatures from registered voters to qualify.

This marks another drug policy reform success amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced campaigns in several other states to end due to social distancing and stay-at-home requirements.

Advocates joined with three separate campaigns in April to ask the state Supreme Court to order the secretary of state to allow electronic signature gathering, but the request was denied. Even so, the raw numbers signal the legalization effort is in a comfortable position to make the ballot once signatures are verified.

“Arizonans are ready to legalize cannabis and this is the right policy for our state,” Arizona Dispensary Association President Steve White said in a press release. “New jobs and revenue are even more critical, today, than when we embarked on this campaign last year.”

The legalization petition would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. People could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

The measure also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program

Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.

The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.

If the measure does make the ballot, recent polling indicates that it will prevail. In a survey of likely voters, about two-thirds (65.5 percent) of respondents said they would support the proposed initiative.

A 2016 legalization proposal was rejected by Arizona voters. But in the four years since, more states have opted to legalize and public opinion has continued to shift in favor of reform.

Here’s a status update on other drug policy campaigns across the country:

Idaho activists behind a medical cannabis initiative are hoping that a federal judge’s recent ruling that would extend the signature turn-in deadline for a separate campaign will apply to them. The state has indicated it will appeal, but if things go in their favor, they could start collecting signatures, including electronically, next week.

The Oregon Secretary of State’s office announced on Tuesday that a campaign to decriminalize currently illicit drugs and expand substance misuse treatment has qualified for the ballot.

Another Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes has already turned in signatures that they feel will qualify them for the ballot, though those submissions must still be verified by the state.

Washington, D.C. activists are continuing to collect signatures for a proposed measure to make enforcement of laws against various entheogenic substances such as psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities. They’re receiving assistance from activists who flew in from across the country, including leadership behind Denver’s successful psilocybin decriminalization initiative last year.

A Nebraska campaign plans to submit signatures this week that they hope will be sufficient to qualify a medical cannabis measure for the ballot.

Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana initiatives—one to legalize the plant for adult use and another stipulating that individuals must be 21 or older to participate—for the November ballot. The state is currently validating those submissions.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

Mississippi activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

campaign to legalize marijuana in Arkansas will not qualify for the ballot this year, a spokesperson told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.

Activists behind an initiative to decriminalize currently illicit drugs and expand access to treatment services in Washington State said last week that they will no longer be pursuing the ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they are seeking to enact the policy change through the legislature during the next session starting January 2021.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists ended their push to place a marijuana legalization measure on the 2020 ballot and will instead seek qualification for 2022.

Ohio Senate Votes To Expand Marijuana Decriminalization To Cover 200 Grams

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Ohio Senate Votes To Expand Marijuana Decriminalization To Cover 200 Grams

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The Ohio Senate has approved a bill to double the amount of marijuana that is decriminalized in the state and reduce criminal penalties for many other drug crimes.

Following months of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the measure cleared both a committee and the full body on Tuesday. The floor vote was 24–5.

While possession of small amounts of cannabis would still be illegal in Ohio, people caught with up to 200 grams of marijuana (about seven ounces) would face no arrest or jail time under the measure, SB 3. Instead, they’d receive a civil citation and pay a fine of $150.

“Among other criminal justice changes, SB 3 would reduce the sentences for several marijuana offenses, including by doubling the amount of marijuana that is decriminalized,” Karen O’Keefe, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policies, told Marijuana Moment.

Existing Ohio law already classifies possession of up to 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of marijuana as a “minor misdemeanor.” Offenses are penalized with citations and civil fines of $150. By law, officers are only supposed to arrest people for cannabis if they refuse to provide identification, won’t sign the citation or pose a health and safety risk, but critics note that those exceptions open the door to discriminatory police enforcement.

Under SB 3, simple possession would remain a minor misdemeanor, but the qualifying limits would increase. In addition to the new 200 gram cap for marijuana flower, the limit on hash would rise from 5 grams to 10 grams.

The bill states that citations for those offenses would not constitute a criminal record or need to be reported on “any inquiries contained in any application for employment, license, or other right or privilege.”

Anything over the decriminalized amount limits would still incur criminal penalties, such as arrest, possible jail time and a criminal record. SB 3 would, however, downgrade the criminal designations for greater amounts of cannabis.

For flower, 200 grams to 400 grams would be a fourth-degree misdemeanor under the bill, while 400 to 1,000 grams would be a first-degree misdemeanor. For hash, 10 grams to 20 grams would qualify as a fourth-degree misdemeanor, and 20 grams to 50 grams would be a first-degree misdemeanor.

Possession of other drugs would see downgrades under the bill, too, lessening many felony charges to misdemeanors. Judges in some circumstances would be able to pause criminal cases or even dismiss them entirely for defendants who complete drug treatment programs.

“We believe that we have found the appropriate mark in the sand,” one of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Sen. Sean O’Brien (D), told The Columbus Dispatch a day before the vote.

“I think the overarching goal of the bill is to take small amounts of possession that are clearly for personal use and make that a misdemeanor,” Senate President Larry Obhof (R) said. “That’s really been one of the bigger sticking points over the last year as we’ve considered this. What is really the right amount for personal use versus at what number do we then say, ‘You’re not really using this. You’re a trafficker.’ We’re trying to work that out.”

O’Keefe at Marijuana Policy Project applauded the Senate’s passage of the bill Tuesday but lamented that lawmakers still see cannabis as a police matter at all.

“While these are welcome reforms, Ohio lawmakers should listen to their constituents and legalize marijuana,” she told Marijuana Moment. “There is no need for any police-civilian interaction around simple possession of marijuana. Issuing fines for cannabis possession wastes governmental resources and opens the door to unequal policing and abusive encounters. Ohio should follow Michigan’s lead and legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana for adults.”

Advocates at the beginning of the year intended to put legalization on Ohio’s ballot this November, filing a formal initiative proposal in early March. The effort stalled, however, as the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting social distancing measures made signature gathering all but impossible.

Another group of activists, working to put marijuana decriminalization measures on 14 municipal ballots in Ohio, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to force state officials to allow electronic signature gathering during the pandemic, but the justices did not take up the case.

Ohio voters in 2015 roundly rejected a push to legalize marijuana for adult use, but some think that’s a poor indicator of the state’s interest in legalizing commercial cannabis. The 2015 measure drew criticism at the time even from traditional allies of reform, many of whom criticized the proposal’s licensing provisions that would give a near monopoly on cultivation to the same investors who had funded the ballot initiative.

Despite the slow progress on cannabis reform represented by Senate Bill 3, criminal justice reform advocates praised the bill’s passage by the Senate as a timely response to the issues facing American communities today. Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, said the measure “was not written in this moment, but it is the rare bill that is truly meeting the moment.”

“It will help reduce the prison population, leaving far fewer people at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Harris said. “It will save up to $75 million in critical taxpayer dollars as the state deals with a fiscal crisis, and it will eliminate unnecessary interactions with the criminal justice system for minor drug offenses as we work to improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Colorado Governor Signs Marijuana Social Equity Bill Letting Him Expedite Possession Pardons

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

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Oregon Drug Decriminalization And Treatment Measure Qualifies For November Ballot

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It’s official: Oregon voters will decide in November whether to pass a measure to decriminalize drug possession while using marijuana tax revenue to fund expanded substance misuse treatment services.

The secretary of state’s office announced on Tuesday that activists behind the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act have collected enough valid signatures from registered voters to place the measure on the ballot.

The news comes one day after organizers of a separate Oregon measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use announced that their petitioning drive earned enough support for ballot access, though the state has yet to formally verify those submissions.

Officials said that out of the 163,473 total signatures the drug decriminalization campaign turned in, 116,622 were valid —putting them just over the 112,020 needed to qualify.

“This initiative will save lives, and we urgently need it right now because the pandemic has exacerbated Oregon’s addiction epidemic,” Janie Gullickson, who is a chief petitioner for the measure and is the executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, said in a press release.

The proposal places an emphasis on expanding drug treatment programs through the use of funds derived from existing cannabis tax revenues. It would also reframe drug addiction as a health issue by decriminalizing illegal substances. Low-level possession would instead be considered a civil infraction punishable by a maximum $100 fine and no jail time.

There were 8,903 drug simple drug possession arrests in the state in fiscal year 2018, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission—or more than one every hour.

“Oregon law enforcement need to stop making these kinds of arrests, targeting our communities, and ruining lives by giving people criminal records,” Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon, which is endorsing the measure, said. “The need for this measure is more urgent right now more than ever, because jails and prisons have turned into contagion hotspots during the pandemic.”

The initiative has also been endorsed by more than 50 other organizations, including ACLU Oregon, United Seniors of Oregon, Oregon Latino Health Coalition, Oregon State Council For Retired Citizens, the NAACP of Eugene, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Action. Two currently serving district attorneys and two former U.S. attorneys have also backed the measure.

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform campaigns across the country: 

Washington State activists had planned to pursue a similar drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last week that they will be targeting the legislature instead.

In Washington, D.C., a campaign to decriminalize a broad range of psychedelic substances is nearing the end of its signature drive.

Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative could get a second wind after a federal judge said last week that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives for the November ballot.

Nebraska activists are approaching a deadline this month to submit signatures for a proposed medical cannabis initiative.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort asked the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office. That request was denied, but advocates are still optimistic about the chances of making the ballot.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists said they plan to continue campaign activities for a marijuana legalization initiative, but it’s more likely that they will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

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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