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Leading Candidate For Biden’s Drug Czar Embraced Marijuana’s Health And Economic Benefits

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President Joe Biden’s leading candidate to be White House drug czar has played a critical role in overseeing the implementation and expansion of a state medical marijuana program and has publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.

Rahul Gupta, the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board who also served as the lead on drug policy in Biden’s presidential transition team, is reportedly the top pick to head the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), according to Filter—though no formal announcement has yet been made.

The ONDCP director, commonly known as “drug czar,” is explicitly required under statute to oppose efforts to legalize currently controlled substances.

As such, it would be a significant departure from the norm to have someone fill that role who has repeatedly touted the medical value of marijuana—saying, for example, that it can “help citizens suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer”—and who has worked to institute a state-legal cannabis program that authorizes people to carry out activities that are in contravention of federal law.

That said, harm reduction advocates have been quick to criticize Gupta’s record, pointing out that, during his time as commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) Bureau for Public Health, he oversaw the decertification of a syringe access program that was designed to mitigate the spread of diseases like HIV and offer resources to people with substance misuse disorders.

Prohibitionists, for their part, have also been closely following ONDCP appointment developments. They’ve held out hope that the president would select someone whose views more closely align with their own, such as former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a cofounder of anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches To Marijuana, who has been personally lobbying for the nomination. Whether Gupta gets the pick, or if the slot goes to another leading contender such as Acting ONDCP Director Regina LaBelle, legalization advocates would be relieved if Kennedy is not chosen.

Gupta’s views on adult-use legalization are not clear, but he was proactive in promoting patient access to medical cannabis before leaving the state government to join the nonprofit March of Dimes, which is focused on public health issues related to mothers and children.

Marijuana Moment reached out to the White House and March of Dimes for comment about the potential ONDCP job for Gupta, but representatives did not immediately respond.

Rusty Williams, who served as a patient advocate on the West Virginia medical marijuana board alongside Gupta, told Marijuana Moment that he once had a personal conversation with the official about the origins of marijuana prohibition. He said that the then-chair broached the topic of why marijuana was criminalized in the first place, and then agreed that federal officials intended to use prohibition as a tool to oppress communities of color.

“Having served with him on on the advisory board, and especially given the climate surrounding the issue here in West Virginia—it’s a very hostile place to try to push cannabis reform, it has been for years—I’m very, very encouraged” by Gupta’s appointment, Williams said.

“He was willing to make things happen a year early,” he said, referring to the issuance of the board’s report on medical cannabis policy. “I was encouraged with the conversation that he and I had about the roots of prohibition.”

In 2018, the West Virginia medical marijuana board released a report that included series of recommendations on the state’s cannabis program. Led by Gupta, the body advised that patients should have access to marijuana in flower form for “administration by vaporization or nebulization”—something that was not initially allowed in the program as approved by lawmakers.

When it comes to smoking that raw plant material, Gupta noted, that patients “can combust themselves if they want, but that’s not what we’re advocating or recommending.”

The report also called for the removal of “limitations on the number of permits the Bureau for Public Health may issue for growers, processors, and dispensaries,” as well as the removal of “the limitation that a grower or processor may not also be a dispensary to permit the vertical integration of growers, processors and dispensaries.”

“To be honest with you, when he took the position with the March of Dimes, I was sad to see him go,” Williams said. “I think that, had he remained in the position here with DHHR, our medical cannabis program would be much further along than it is right now. Just for my personal opinion, I think he will be an ally to medical cannabis patients.”

When medical marijuana legalization was approved by the West Virginia legislature in 2017, Gupta said that, like most people, he was “surprised.”

“It’s an understatement,” he said at the time. “However, what we have in front of us today is a law as it stands in an attempt to compassionately address a number of disorders with chronic pain at the heart of it.”

When members of the state medical cannabis advisory board were appointed, the official said the panel will help facilitate “a transparent and accountable process critical to ensuring a comprehensive system that will help citizens suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer.”

“I am fully committed to making this particular piece of legislation successful,” he said of the medical marijuana legalization bill. “This bill was put together very quickly and, obviously, no bill is perfect. We certainly discussed the shortcomings, but that doesn’t mean the program won’t be successful and be on track.”

“We want to do it because lives are at stake. They are depending on the program to be successful,” he added. “Many people are in chronic pain. We want to take on that challenge.”

Gupta said that the board had received feedback from a range of stakeholders interested in the implementation of the cannabis program, but they’d also “received calls from people who are suffering who want to have some sort of relief. They are asking when they can get their patient ID card and go to their doctors to get certification.”

“The human side of it—you can’t ignore that piece,” he also said. “Science explains some of it, but not all of it.” He went on to say that there is a potential economic benefit to legalize for medical use, noting that “rarely are there policies enacted that are win-win,” and if done right, “you can actually get a true win-win on this.”

But Gupta isn’t necessarily a fan of marijuana use for everyone. In 2019, he teamed up with then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams on a public education campaign meant to warn against the use of cannabis during pregnancy and adolescence.

“March of Dimes applauds today’s release of the US Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of marijuana use during pregnancy for both mom and baby,” he said. “The evidence clearly shows that no amount of marijuana has been proven safe to use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Unfortunately, this message is not resonating with all expecting women and maternity care providers, and marijuana use among pregnant women has doubled between 2002 and 2017.”

Gupta has also periodically posted on social media about marijuana policy developments, such as the enactment of regulations for Colorado’s marijuana program and a 2010 report that more teens were smoking cannabis than tobacco.

Despite Biden playing a leading role in passing legislation to create the drug czar role during his time in the Senate, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the ONDCP director role will not be reinstated to a cabinet-level position in his administration.

Part of the reason that advocates are monitoring each of Biden’s nominations is because skepticism prevails about how his administration will approach cannabis policy considering that the president remains opposed to legalization, and so each development sheds light on what to expect in the coming years.

Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony, for example, that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws.

But advocates have had a different reaction to Vanita Gupta—the nominee for assistant attorney general who worked in the Justice Department during the Obama administration in addition to serving in top positions at the ACLU, NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

While activists were encouraged by her nomination given her history of supporting policies like marijuana legalization and broad decriminalization of other substances, they were sorely disappointed earlier this month when she backpedaled on the broader drug issue—saying she’s “not too proud to admit” the policy shift—when questioned by GOP senators at her confirmation hearing.

Congressional Marijuana Banking Bill Will Be Reintroduced On Thursday

Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.

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Senate’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Aims To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries

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Senate leaders released a massive and long-anticipated infrastructure bill late on Sunday—and after weeks of bipartisan negotiations, the legislation includes provisions that aim to allow researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.

The bill also encourages states that have enacted legalization laws to educate people about impaired driving.

The language on scientists’ access to retail cannabis products was attached to an earlier version of infrastructure legislation in a Senate committee, and it’s substantively the same as a provision included in a House-passed infrastructure bill.

The measure makes it so the transportation secretary would need to work with the attorney general and secretary of health and human services to develop a public report within two years of the bill’s enactment that includes recommendations on allowing scientists to access retail-level marijuana to study impaired driving.

The cannabis provision stipulates that the report must contain a recommendation on establishing a national clearinghouse to “collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research that includes marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully available to patients or consumers in a state on a retail basis.”

It specifies that scientists from states that have not yet enacted legalization should also be able to access to dispensary products that are being sold in jurisdictions that have ended prohibition.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) sponsored the committee amendment that contains these reforms, and he argued that the changes are necessary in order to promote research into impaired driving and create a national standard for addressing such activity.

Advocates have been waiting to see whether the committee-approved language would make it into the bipartisan negotiated bill. And the fact that it did stay intact following extensive negotiations between Democrats and Republicans who worked to craft the deal is significant. The Senate is expected to take up the bill on the floor this week.

If it passes, the amended legislation would then need to go back to the House for consideration before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The bill says the cannabis research report must also broadly examine “federal statutory and regulatory barriers” to studies on marijuana-impaired driving.

The transportation legislation also contains a separate section that would require legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider methods of educating people about and discouraging impaired driving from cannabis. Advocates take issue with that language simply because it targets legalized jurisdictions while ignoring the fact that marijuana-impaired driving takes place regardless of its legal status.

An earlier version of the transportation bill cleared the House last Congress with identical marijuana provisions but did not advance in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Since its initial introduction last year, some steps have been taken to resolve that issue. Most notably, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

That marks a significant development—and one of the first cannabis-related moves to come out of the Biden administration. There is currently a monopoly on federal cannabis cultivation, with the University of Mississippi having operated the only approved facility for the past half-century.

But that move from DEA would still not free up researchers to access marijuana products from state-legal retailers in the way the transportation legislation would encourage if enacted.

While advocates are supportive of measures to reduce impaired driving, some have raised issues with the implication that legalizing cannabis increases the risk of people driving while under the influence. Research isn’t settled on that subject.

A federally funded study recently promoted by the National Institute of Justice also found that the amount of THC in a person’s system after consuming marijuana is not an accurate predictor of impairment.

Colorado Could Vote On Marijuana Tax Hike To Fund Education Programs After Campaign Submits Signatures

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Colorado Could Vote On Marijuana Tax Hike To Fund Education Programs After Campaign Submits Signatures

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A Colorado campaign appears to have submitted enough signatures to place a ballot initiative before voters in November that would raise marijuana taxes to fund programs that are designed to reduce the education gap for low-income students.

The Colorado Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) measure would give low- and middle-income families a $1,500 stipend to have school-aged children participate in after-school programs, tutoring and summer learning activities.

The state excise tax on sales adult-use cannabis products would increased from 15 percent to 20 percent to fund the effort.

Supporters say this policy is especially needed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated income-related learning gaps for students. But some marijuana industry stakeholders—and even the state’s largest teachers union—have expressed concern about the proposal.

In any case, the LEAP campaign turned in about 200,000 signatures for the measure to the secretary of state’s office on Friday. It only needs 124,632 valid signatures to qualify.

Monica Colbert Burton, a LEAP campaign representative, told Colorado Public Radio that the sizable signature turn-in “really demonstrates the broad support around the state for this issue.”

“The learning loss that we’ve seen during the pandemic is so much higher than we’ve ever seen before particularly for our low-income families and our students that don’t have access to the same resources,” Colbert Burton said.

Beyond imposing the extra five percent tax on cannabis, the initiative also calls for a repurposing of state revenue that it generates from leases and rents for operations held on state land. Advocates estimate that the measure would translate into $150 million in additional funding annually.

But according to an analysis from Westword, adding the tax to the existing 15 percent special tax would’ve only created $80 million in added revenue based on 2020 sales figures.

Some stakeholders and cannabis advocates have come out strongly against the proposal.

“That this initiative is being pushed at a moment in Colorado when the cannabis industry is trying to create more equity and bring economic growth to marginalized communities harmed by the racist Drug War is especially tone deaf,” Hashim Coates, executive director of the trade group Black Brown and Red Badged, said in a press release. “But that is to be expected when the backers of this measure are affluent white men.”

“Let’s just be perfectly clear: this is a regressive tax—which always harms Black and Brown consumers the most. This is going to a voucher program—which always harms Black and Brown communities the most,” Coates said. “And it’s targeting the marijuana industry as a magical bottomless piggy bank—which will devastate the Black and Brown owned cannabis businesses the most. Can we just let the black community breathe for a moment after this pandemic before we start taxing them to death?”

The measure is being endorsed by a two former governors, about 20 sitting state lawmakers, several former legislative leaders and several other educational organizations.

But in June, the Colorado Education Association withdrew its support for the proposal over concerns about how it would be implemented.

The next step for the initiative is for the secretary of state’s office to verify that there are enough valid signature in the batch LEAP supporters turned in.

This development comes days after Colorado officials announced the launch of a new office to provide economic support for the state’s marijuana industry.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

The division, which was created as part of a bill signed into law in March, is being funded by cannabis tax revenue. It will focus on creating “new economic development opportunities, local job creation, and community growth for the diverse population across Colorado.”

Gov. Jared Polis (D) had initially asked lawmakers back in January to create a new a new cannabis advancement program as part of his budget proposal.

Beyond this program, the state has worked to achieve equity and repair the harms of prohibition in other ways.

For example, Polis signed a bill in May to double the marijuana possession limit for adults in the state—and he directed state law enforcement to identify people with prior convictions for the new limit who he may be able to pardon.

The governor signed an executive order last year that granted clemency to almost 3,000 people convicted of possessing one ounce or less of marijuana.

Funding for the new office is made possible by tax revenue from a booming cannabis market in the state. In the first three months of 2021 alone, the state saw more than half a billion dollars in marijuana sales.

The lack of access to federal financial support for marijuana businesses became a pronounced issue amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the Small Business Administration saying it’s unable to offer those companies its services, as well as those that provide ancillary services such as accounting and law firms.

Polis wrote a letter to a member of the Colorado congressional delegation last year seeking a policy change to give the industry the same resources that were made available to other legal markets.

California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals

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California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals

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A California senator is asking the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide clarification on whether hospitals and other healthcare facilities in legal marijuana states can allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis without jeopardizing federal funding.

State Sen. Ben Hueso (D) on Thursday sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure inquiring about the policy. Confusion about possible implications for permitting marijuana consumption in health facilities led pro-legalization Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to veto a bill meant to address the issue in 2019.

Hueso refiled a nearly identical version of the legislation for this session, and it’s already passed the full Senate and one Assembly committee. It’s now awaiting action on the Assembly floor before potentially being sent to Newsom’s desk.

“Ryan’s Law would require that hospitals and certain types of healthcare facilities in the State of California allow a terminally-ill patient to use medical cannabis for treatment and/or pain relief,” the senator wrote in the letter to the federal officials, with whom he is asking to meet to discuss the issue. “Currently, whether or not medical cannabis is permitted is left up to hospital policy, and this creates issues for patients and their families who seek alternative, more natural medication options in their final days.”

Hospitals that receive CMS accreditation are generally expected to comply with local, state and federal laws in order to qualify for certain reimbursements. And so because marijuana remains federally illegal, “many healthcare facilities have adopted policies prohibiting cannabis on their grounds out of a perceived risk of losing federal funding if they were to allow it.”

But Hueso said that his office received a letter from CMS several months ago stating that there are no specific federal regulations in place that specifically address this issue and that it isn’t aware of any cases where funding has been pulled because a hospital allows patients to use medical cannabis.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Additionally, because the Justice Department has been barred under annually renewed spending legislation from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state-level medical marijuana programs, the senator said, “we believe the risk of federal intervention is little to none.”

“This confirmation from CMS been quite a breakthrough and we are optimistic it will alleviate the Governor’s concerns,” the letter continues. “However, I want to underscore that, prior to receiving this response, even the Governor of California was under the impression that CMS rules prohibited hospitals and healthcare facilities from allowing medical cannabis use.”

“Undoubtedly other states are struggling with this issue, too,” it says. “As more states decriminalize cannabis and even create recreational markets, we must not forget to also update the books for the most important consumers of all—patients.”

“While ideally the federal government will remove cannabis from its Schedule I designation, I appreciate that this is a lengthy and complex process. In the interim, it would be extremely helpful if you could provide clarification that assures Medicare/Medicaid providers that they will not lose reimbursements for allowing medical cannabis use on their premises. This clarification would go a long way to help hospital staff, security, above all, patients.”

Becerra, while previously serving as California attorney general and as a member of Congress, demonstrated a track record of supporting marijuana law reform.

Meanwhile, there are efforts in both chambers of Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are currently soliciting feedback on draft legalization legislation they introduced this month.

Meanwhile, a separate House bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity in the industry was reintroduced in May.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was filed with a number of changes compared to the version that was approved by the chamber last year.

Read the letter from the California senator to Becerra below: 

Marijuana hospital letter t… by Marijuana Moment

Rhode Island House Speaker Says ‘No Consensus’ On Marijuana Legalization, But It’s ‘Workable’

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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