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Legal Marijuana Opponents Say Federal Law Blocks Research

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It’s not often that marijuana legalization supporters and opponents agree on the negative implications of cannabis’s classification under federal law.

But a group involving some of the leading voices opposing legalization recently told Congress that marijuana’s current Schedule I status “effectively limit[s] the amount and type of research that can be conducted” on the drug.

That’s something activists working to end the criminalization of marijuana and otherwise change its legal status have been saying for decades.

Meanwhile, many of the same legalization opponents who make up the group behind the new congressional submission pointing out research roadblocks have repeatedly argued that federal law doesn’t stand in the way of cannabis studies.

Schedule I is supposed to be reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no medical value. Researchers and advocates have often said that studies on substances classified there have to overcome approval hurdles that don’t exist for other substances.

“At a time when we need as much information as possible about these drugs, we should be lowering regulatory and other barriers to conducting this research,” the group Friends of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (FNIDA) wrote in its submission, which contains suggested language it wants the Senate Appropriations Committee to include in a report attached to legislation funding NIDA and other federal health agencies for Fiscal Year 2018.

FNIDA is a “coalition of over 150 scientific and professional societies, patient groups, and other organizations committed to preventing and treating substance use disorders as well as understanding their causes through the research agenda of NIDA,” its Senate document says.

The group’s Board of Scientific Advisors includes several prominent legalization opponents, including Smart Approaches to Marijuana’s Kevin Sabet, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), former White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, former National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Robert DuPont and former Office of National Drug Control Policy Deputy Director Bertha Madras, according to the group’s letterhead. Representatives of the Partnership for a Drug-free America, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and the American Society of Addiction Medicine sit on the organization’s executive committee.

It is unclear when exactly FNIDA submitted the proposal, but it was published as part of a document posted by the U.S Government Printing Office on Wednesday that compiled requests for Fiscal Year 2018 spending legislation.

“The Committee directs NIDA to provide a short report on the barriers to research that result from the classification of drugs and compounds as Schedule 1 substances,” FNIDA wants the Senate panel to demand of the federal agency.

The same organization submitted a similar proposal for FY 2017, and the Appropriations Committee ended up adopting much of the language for its final report that year. The House Appropriations Committee also included criticism of Schedule I’s research roadblocks in its own 2017 report.

As reported by MassRoots when FNIDA’s 2017 submission was published, a number of the group’s members have dismissed the notion that cannabis’s Schedule I status is a barrier to studies:

Madras, for example, called the Drug Enforcement Administration’s denial of marijuana rescheduling petitions last August “a victory for science that, to me, is very comforting.”

Also last year, she wrote, “Is Schedule I drug a roadblock to marijuana research? Not really,” adding that moving cannabis to Schedule II would be “conceivably unethical.”

Sabet’s group called rescheduling a “red herring” in a 2015 report, saying that it would not “solve the problem of the need for more research, and instead would likely encourage illegal operators to continue to manufacture inferior products.”

In a Huffington Post piece, he wrote that discussion about reclassifying marijuana is “distracting and essentially meaningless” and doing so would “mainly serve as a symbolic victory for marijuana advocates.”

In a 2013 law review article, Sabet argued that “it is not necessary for marijuana to be rescheduled in order for legitimate research to proceed. Schedule I status does not prevent a product from being tested and researched for potential medical use.” (He did acknowledge that “additional Schedule I restrictions can delay a research program,” and in a 2015 Senate hearing, under intense questioning from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), was forced to admit that moving marijuana to Schedule II would make it “absolutely easier to research.”)

Kennedy and DuPont joined Sabet in signing a 2014 Smart Approaches to Marijuana letter asking the Obama administration not to reschedule marijuana, claiming that a change in status would be “scientifically dubious” and “is not necessary to facilitate research.”

As drug czar, McCaffrey argued that marijuana “can’t be moved to Schedule two.”

Even after the earlier submission was publicized, Sabet continued to publicly dismiss the notion that it is unduly difficult for scientists to study Schedule I drugs.

Sabet and FNIDA did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

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

GOP Senator Reveals What Trump Said About Jeff Sessions’s Anti-Marijuana Moves

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President Donald Trump immediately rebuked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the day that he rescinded Justice Department guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) revealed during an interview on the Cannabis Economy podcast earlier this month.

Following a meeting on trade and tariffs in the Oval Office, Gardner pulled Trump aside to express his opposition to the rescission of the Obama-era cannabis document known as the Cole Memo. But before he could finish his sentence, the president interrupted to say “we need undo this” and “[Sessions] needs to stop this.”

“It was very clear to me at that point that there was a disagreement between the president and the attorney general on this,” Gardner said. Trump also said, “I don’t like this, this isn’t something I support,” but that it was too late to reverse the decision.

“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” was an exact phrase the president used, per Gardner’s recollection.

“At that point I realized that there was an ally in the president on this.”

In response to Sessions’s decision, Gardner started blocking Justice Department nominees until he received assurances that the federal government would not take enforcement action against legal cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. That blockage prompted a subsequent phone call with the president, who said there was one nominee in particular he wanted to confirm.

Listen to Gardner’s interview with the Cannabis Economy podcast below:

Gardner explained why he was holding nominees, to which Trump replied, “OK, you’ve got my commitment to support the bill, you’ve got my commitment to support a solution on this,” referring to bipartisan legislation Gardner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from enforcement under the Controlled Substance Act.

Trump later told reporters that he “really” supports the legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act.

During his conversation with the president, Gardner cautioned that states like Colorado would be put in jeopardy if the Justice Department followed through on Sessions’s threats. But Trump said, “we’re not going to do that, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“That was the commitment from the president not only on showing that he’s going to disagree with Jeff Sessions, but actually saying, ‘don’t worry about what he’s done because it won’t impact Colorado,’ and then moving forward down for a solution,” Gardner said.

Sessions resigned from his position at the president’s request in November, and the Senate confirmed his replacement, William Barr earlier this month. Barr was repeatedly pressed about how he would approach federal cannabis policy during his confirmation hearing and in followup questions, and he made consistent pledges not to use Justice Department resources to “go after” state-legal marijuana businesses.

He did, however, encourage Congress to resolve conflicting federal and state cannabis laws through legislative action.

Trump Issues Signing Statement On Medical Marijuana Provision Of Funding Bill

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Five Governors Talk Marijuana And Hemp At Media Conference

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The governors of five states weighed in on marijuana and hemp during appearances at Politico’s ninth annual “State Solutions” conference on Friday.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said hemp should be regulated “just like any crop” and emphasized that he wants his state to continue to expand its legal hemp and marijuana economies. The pro-legalization governor, who pledged to make Colorado the nation’s leader in industrial hemp production during his State of the State address last month, also pulled out a business card printed on hemp paper during the event.

Then the conversation pivoted to broader federal cannabis policy. Polis said “there’s an existential threat to everything we’re doing in Colorado” because of the lack of formal protections against federal intervention in state marijuana laws.

“Obviously the counterbalance to that is the federal government—even if they somehow did make this more of an enforcement priority—don’t have the ability on the ground to prosecute so many people,” he said.

“I hope that they can either reinstate something like the Cole memorandum or, even better, that Congress can finally move forward with changing the laws and leaving it up to the states,” the governor said, referring to Obama-era marijuana enforcement guidance that then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded last year.

Polis also said that if the state got wind of pending federal enforcement, “it would be of great concern and we would bring that to the highest levels of the White House.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose constituents voted to legalize medical marijuana during November’s midterm election, was asked what he thought about allowing the use of medical cannabis to treat opioid addiction.

“I think everybody would like to have any kind of medicine that will help alleviate pain and suffering,” including opioid dependence, he said. But he said the federal government was at fault for failing to address cannabis rescheduling in order to enhance clinical research into the plant’s therapeutic benefits.

“We ought to change the law, allow it to be studied,” he said. “What are we afraid of?”

And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) discussed the state’s possible legalization of industrial hemp. She said it was important to wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release “federal guidelines” on hemp production first and also to ensure that the state has the money and resources to regulate the crop.

The conversation comes after Noem urged the state Senate to postpone a scheduled hearing on an industrial hemp cultivation bill, a request the body ultimately agreed to earlier this week. The legislation passed the House in a 62-5 vote last week.

During the interview, Noem also expressed concerns generally about the lack of roadside drug tests to determine impaired driving from marijuana, and she said it’s important as governor to consider the public safety ramifications” of an industrial hemp market.

The second session of the conference featured Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who also spoke about cannabis.

Brown touted the legal cannabis industry and said it has stimulated job growth in Oregon, where she said about 20,000 people work for marijuana and hemp businesses. It should be a “top priority” for Congress to ensure that the cannabis industry has access to banking services, she said.

The Connecticut governor reiterated his belief that the state will legalize marijuana and “do it right” during his interview.

Without a regulated cannabis system, the illicit market will continue to thrive and people are already “driving over the border” to Massachusetts, where adult use is legal, so “that train has left the station,” he said. A significant portion of the Connecticut House has already signed onto an adult use legalization bill

But the existing system breeds “disrespect for the law,” Lamont added. What’s more, cannabis enforcement disproportionately targets communities of color, which is part of the reason that he considers legalization a “criminal justice issue.”

Legalization legislation should also involve expunging the records of individuals with prior cannabis convictions, he said.

Lamont revealed that he’s talked to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has recently and reluctantly embraced reform in response to neighboring states moving to legalize, and that the two agreed to work together to create effective marijuana systems in their respective states.

This story was updated to add comments from Brown and Lamont.

Two More Governors Call For Marijuana Legalization During Budget Speeches

Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.

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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Florida Senator Wants To Let Voters Decide On Marijuana Legalization

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A joint resolution introduced in the Florida Senate on Thursday would add a new section to the Florida Constitution to establish the right “to possess, use and cultivate cannabis.”

“This right may not be infringed, except that the transfer of cannabis by purchase or sale may be regulated by law as necessary to ensure public health and safety,” reads the measure, which would apply to adults over 21 years of age.

If approved by lawmakers, the question would go before voters in the 2020 general election.

The resolution, introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) of Orlando, comes as Florida lawmakers weigh other bills that would expand the allowable forms of medical marijuana in the state.

“I think if we just go straight to the people and ask them, ‘is this something that you want,’ it puts the onus back on us to regulate it,” Bracy told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “I think it’s such a controversial issue that the legislature is not in a position to agree on how it should be regulated. The best way to do it is to go through the people and then it will come back to us to figure out how to regulate it.”

“I’ve always thought the people are more progressive on this issue than the legislature is and I believe they are ready for legalization of marijuana. Whenever I hear from folks, it’s always a resounding ‘yes.’”

Under regulations instituted after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, patients are prohibited from smoking the drug. But new Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has called on lawmakers to change that, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a lawsuit seeking to over turn the ban if the legislature doesn’t act by mid-March.

While a House bill would prohibit the smoking of medical marijuana by those under 18, another bill in the Senate allows patients under 18 to smoke only if two doctors agree it to be the best method.

The two proposals are expected to receive floor votes in their respective chambers within the next few weeks.

“From the House perspective, the biggest sticking point is children,” State Rep. Ray Rodrigues told Florida Politics. “We don’t believe children should be smoking medical marijuana…but we’re having conversations.”

The 2016 ballot measure added language in the state constitution allowing the use of medical cannabis by those with cancer, AIDS/HIV, epilepsy or other conditions as determined by their doctor. Two years earlier, a similar measure got majority support from voters but fell short of the 60 percent threshold required to pass.

If Bracy’s full legalization amendment advances to the ballot, it appears to have a good chance of passing. A poll last year found that Florida registered voters support “legalizing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, limiting its sale to residents 21 years of age or older” by a margin of 62 percent to 35 percent.

Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Key New Hampshire House Committee

This story has been updated to add comment from Bracy.

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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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