As Congress moves to legalize marijuana under the new Democratic majority, a large coalition of cannabis businesses and advocacy groups has formed in the hopes of advancing the issue this session.
The United States Cannabis Council (USCC), which is being headed on an interim basis by Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) Executive Director Steven Hawkins, will advocate for federal legalization and promote social equity for the industry.
The new outfit says it will present a “unified voice advocating for the descheduling and legalization of cannabis,” but the prevalence of mostly businesses among its membership—and the absence of some key advocacy and industry groups such as NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) and National Cannabis Roundtable—has led some to wonder what specific policies USCC will be prioritizing and whether they will ultimately align with activists’ reform goals.
While USCC stressed in its announcement and on its website that legalization and social equity will be principal goals, the fact that these important players are missing from the roster has left some skeptical about the notion that it will provide uniformity in how advocates address these issues.
Agreed. Look at the makeup of this federal cannabis coalition. Who is at the table? Who’s been left out?
As is, this coalition doesn’t represents the ideals of advocates on the ground fighting for equity.
This group prob won’t ever say or define “reparations” in their advocacy. https://t.co/StQGF14jlQ
— TauhidChappell (@TauhidChappell) February 8, 2021
Some have also questioned whether there’s a need to bring another coalition into the fold—especially one that is largely represented by existing private interests—as congressional leaders move to enact a federal marijuana policy change.
“We’ve seen many organizations come and go over the years and the various efforts they’ve made to rebrand or reorganize themselves and, just as in those past cases, we wish the USCC the best,” Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA, told Marijuana Moment.
“We were approached about joining but as the largest and broadest trade association in the country, we feel it necessary to focus on representing our membership and to remain independent and nimble,” he said. “We already collaborate closely with the organizations behind the USCC and will definitely be working with this coalition in the future.”
Hawkins told Marijuana Moment that he understands that “there will be reasons why organizations may or may not join.” For example, they “may feel that their voices are better served being independent.”
“But having four or five voices [advocating for reform independently] doesn’t necessarily undercut [the mission],” he said. “What was undercutting was having 20 to 25 voices” all putting out different messages.
“If we’ve been able to bring together three trade groups, as we have, if we have now four different advocacy organizations under this umbrella and the companies, then we have done, I think, a tremendous service in terms of what was needed to ensure that we can really have the best shot at ending federal prohibition,” Hawkins said. “There has to be greater unity. In all the coalitions I’ve ever worked in, we never got anything accomplished when everyone was splintered.”
MPP is proud to be a founding member of the U.S. Cannabis Council, a first-of-its-kind strategic alliance of businesses, associations, and advocacy organizations. The purpose of the USCC is to act as one unified voice advocating for the descheduling and legalization of cannabis.
— Marijuana Policy Project (@MarijuanaPolicy) February 8, 2021
USCC members include major cannabis-related businesses like Acreage Holdings, Canopy Growth, Columbia Care, Cronos Group, Curaleaf, Eaze, iAnthus Capital Holdings, LivWell Enlightened Health, MedMen, PAX Labs, Schwazze, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Vireo.
Organizations affiliated with USCC include MPP, American Trade Association of Cannabis and Hemp, Cannabis Trade Federation, Cannabis Voter Project, Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce, Veterans Cannabis Project and Vicente Sederberg LLP.
Asked about the decision not to join the new coalition, DPA Policy Coordinator Queen Adesuyi said her group’s focus “remains on advancing comprehensive marijuana reform grounded in justice reform and equity this Congress, alongside our dedicated partners within the Marijuana Justice Coalition and other allies who share our commitment to ending federal criminalization of marijuana, addressing its collateral harms, and ensuring that the legal marketplace is inclusive of those negatively affected by prohibition.”
Other groups that were invited to be members of the new coalition but didn’t accept similarly said that they still plan to work with USCC and its members in some capacity.
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana Moment that “we welcome the support from any group willing to work to bring about an end to our failed prohibition on marijuana,” but “it is important for NORML’s mission to remain independent from industry and solely focused on representing the millions of cannabis consumers across the country.”
“We were invited. We support it and look forward to working with them but declined,” MCBA’s Amber Littlejohn told Marijuana Moment. “No drama. Just a matter of current MCBA priorities.”
ASA Executive Director Debbie Churgai told Marijuana Moment that the group supports a “coordinated federal approach to medical cannabis and social equity” but recently formed its own policy advisory committee comprised of medical professionals, veterans and companies that aims to “engage Congress and the new administration on best federal approaches” to serving patients.
Still, ASA will continue to work with “coalition partners across cannabis advocacy to realize the full breath of reforms necessary that will ensure safe, legal, affordable and equal access to patients, consumers and the industry,” she said.
Despite some initial skepticism among certain advocates, USCC says it intends to make comprehensive marijuana reform a priority.
The United States #Cannabis Council (USCC) is the broadest and most diverse collection of organizations, businesses, and individuals ever to assemble to legalize cannabis in the United States. #Voice4Cannabis pic.twitter.com/vxsLZ8RZwm
— USCannabisCouncil (@USCannabisCncl) February 8, 2021
“USCC has come together to meet this moment. And to meet it, we understand that we will need unity,” Hawkins said. “What USCC represents is a broad coalition that brings together some of the top companies in the industry, as well as several advocacy organizations, as well as several trade groups, all to have one unified voice going forward with the primary goal: to see the end of the federal prohibition and to ensure that there’s social equity provisions in place.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a leading champion of congressional cannabis reform, voiced his support for USCC and said he’s “seen firsthand that our most successful cannabis wins have been secured by a team.”
“That’s why I am glad to see this first-of-its-kind alliance. We have a unique opportunity in the 117th Congress to advance cannabis reform, but we must remain united to create the change we know is possible,” he said. “I look forward to welcoming the United States Cannabis Council to Washington, D.C. and working together toward meaningful policy change in the months and years ahead.”
Christian Sederberg, USCC’s acting board chairman and a partner at the cannabis firm Vicente Sederberg, said “the cannabis industry has mobilized to make our message clear—we must deschedule and legalize cannabis, and it is critical that it is done the right way.”
“After so many years working towards meaningful reform, it’s inspiring to see the diverse group of partners who have formed this collective voice, and together, we are hopeful that true, meaningful federal cannabis reform is within reach,” he said.
Part of the reason that some have been left questioning the motives of a new, largely industry-backed advocacy outfit in congressional marijuana advocacy comes down to recent history.
When Democratic House leadership moved to hold a vote on the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act last year, there was significant pushback from some advocates who felt that Congress shouldn’t advance a bill that would largely benefit industry stakeholders before approving a more wide-ranging bill that addressed social equity.
That sentiment seemed to be echoed by the newly installed chair of the Senate Banking Committee, who said last week that he’s open to advancing a cannabis banking bill—but added that it must be passed in tandem with sentencing reform legislation for drug offenses.
That said, USCC’s website lists policy and advocacy priorities that include justice-focused items such as expunging prior criminal records and social equity licensing. It also says the coalition wants “complete descheduling of cannabis at the federal level”—a departure from the more limited federal legislation that some companies favored during the last Congress that would have exempted state-legal marijuana activity from the Controlled Substances Act without formally descheduling.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are charting a path forward on major reform. The trio released a joint statement last week previewing their comprehensive legalization plan, which will involve introducing draft legislation “in the early part of this year” and soliciting feedback from activists and stakeholders.
But to that end, their first meeting with representatives from numerous reform groups on Friday did not overlap in a significant way with members of USCC. Rather, it involved conversations with organizations like DPA, NORML, NCIA, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and other justice-focused groups. Less represented were cannabis businesses and trade associations. MPP was also not part of the senators’ meeting.
Hawkins said that “there will undoubtedly be times when there are differences of opinion” among USCC’s membership. “What’s going to be different going forward is that there will still be some other voices besides ours, but Senator Schumer is not going to have 25 different people coming to his door, expressing their views on on what’s good for cannabis.”
“We are doing our best to help unify and speak with one voice,” he said.
To accomplish that will require funding, of course. The interim USCC head said that raising money will “take a variety of forms,” including membership dues. Groups like MPP that have hearty grassroots supporters could also “augment those strategies,” he said, in addition to contributions from individual companies.
For now, it remains to be seen how successful the new coalition that aims to bring stakeholders to the table to form a unified approach to cannabis advocacy will be in achieving that goal and to what extent advocates and industry will diverge from one another when it comes to setting legislative priorities and tactics.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Top IRS Official Says Marijuana Banking Reform Would Help Feds ‘Get Paid’
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would like to get paid—and it’d help if the marijuana industry had access to banks like companies in other legal markets, an official with the federal department said. She also talked about unique issues related to federal tax deductions for cannabis businesses.
At an event hosted by UCLA’s Annual Tax Controversy Institute on Thursday, IRS’s Cassidy Collins talked about the “special type of collection challenge” that the agency faces when it comes to working with cannabis businesses while the product remains federally illegal.
While IRS isn’t taking a stand on federal marijuana policy, Collins said that the status quo leaves many cannabis businesses operating on a cash-only basis, creating complications for the agency, in part by making it harder for banks to “pay us.”
“The reason why [the marijuana industry is] cash intensive is twofold,” she said. “Number one, a lot of customers don’t want a paper trail showing that they’re buying marijuana, and number two, the hesitancy of banks to allow marijuana businesses to even bank with them.”
Of course, the reason why many financial institutions remain hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients is because the plant is a strictly controlled substance under federal law.
“There’s been a number of legislative bills that have been introduced—and I am definitely not expressing any opinion personally or on behalf of the IRS about any pending or proposed legislation,” Collins, who is a senior counsel in the IRS Office of Chief Counsel, said. “But it is interesting to note that, if the law changed so that the marijuana businesses could have banks, that would make the IRS’s job to collect [taxes] a lot easier. As part of collection, we want the money. That’s our end goal there.”
A major part of what makes cannabis businesses unique is that they don’t qualify for traditional tax credits under an IRS code known as 280E. That policy “prohibits them from claiming deductions for business expenses because they’re technically being involved in drug trafficking,” Collins explained at the event, from which small excerpts of her comments were reported by Bloomberg.
There are some options available to lessen the burden on marijuana firms, however. At the end of the day, “IRS will work with marijuana companies because, again, we want to get paid,” Collins said.
One of the ways the agency works with marijuana business operators is to have them visit designated IRS “tax assistance centers” that accept cash payments in excess of $50,000. But the official warned businesses to “be prepared to be there for a little while” as the center checks—and double checks—the amount of cash being submitted.
“Revenue officers will assist the marijuana companies in paying us,” she said.
IRS officials could also help cannabis firms by having officials accompany them “to the bank in order to try to help the taxpayer secure a cashier’s payment to pay the IRS, as well as using money orders,” she said, adding that “our revenue officers are are wanting to work with the marijuana companies to help assist them to pay us.”
“When the revenue officers are there in person with the taxpayer, that could potentially help increase the likelihood that the bank will cooperate and help the taxpayer transition into a cashier’s check,” she continued. “And that has been a trend since this first became legal [at the state level], that more and more banks are allowing cannabis companies to bank with them.”
In a report published earlier this year, congressional researchers examined tax policies and restrictions for the marijuana industry—and how those could change if any number of federal reform bills are enacted.
IRS, for its part, said last month that it expects the cannabis market to continue to grow, and it offered some tips to businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.
As it stands, banks and credit unions are operating under 2014 guidance from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) that lays out reporting requirements for those that choose to service the marijuana industry.
Leaders in both chambers of Congress are working on legalization bills to end federal marijuana prohibition. But stakeholders are hopeful that, in the interim, legislators will enact modest marijuana banking reform. Legislation to protect financial institutions from being penalized for working with cannabis businesses passed the House for the fifth time last month.
Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a Marijuana Moment op-ed this month that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications.
IRS separately hosted a forum in August dedicated to tax policy for marijuana businesses and cryptocurrency.
Earlier this year, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress that the agency would “prefer” for state-legal marijuana businesses to be able to pay taxes electronically, as the current largely cash-based system under federal cannabis prohibition is onerous and presents risks to workers.
Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in 2019 that he’d like to see Congress approve legislation resolving the cannabis banking issue and he pointed to the fact that IRS has had to build “cash rooms” to deposit taxes from those businesses as an example of the problem.
IRS released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry last year, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.
The update appears to be responsive to a Treasury Department internal watchdog report that was released earlier in the year. The department’s inspector general for tax administration had criticized IRS for failing to adequately advise taxpayers in the marijuana industry about compliance with federal tax laws. And it directed the agency to “develop and publicize guidance specific to the marijuana industry.”
Luxembourg Set To Become First European Country To Legalize Marijuana Following Government Recommendation
Luxembourg is poised to become the first European country to legalize marijuana, with key government agencies putting forward a plan to allow the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use.
The ministers of justice and homeland security on Friday unveiled the proposal, which will still require a vote in the Parliament but is expected to pass. It’s part of a broader package of reform measures the agencies are recommending.
Under the marijuana measure, adults 18 and older could grow up to four plants. However, under the non-commercial model that is being proposed, possessing more than three grams in public would still be a civil offense, carrying a fine of €25-500 ($29-581). Currently, the maximum fine for possession is €2,500 ($2,908).
In terms of access, adults would be able to buy and trade cannabis seeds for their home garden.
Justice Minister Sam Tamson said the government felt it “had to act” and characterized the home cultivation policy change as a first step, The Guardian reported.
👉🏻élaboration du projet de loi usage privé du #cannabis : jusqu’à 4 plantes à domicile & décorrectionnalisation <3g
👉🏻renforcement de la prévention & de l’accompagnement
👉🏻⬆️des moyens de la police
👉🏻élaboration d’un projet de production/vente #Luxembourg pic.twitter.com/8yre0Udt8J
— Sam Tanson (@SamTanson) October 22, 2021
“The idea is that a consumer is not in an illegal situation if he consumes cannabis and that we don’t support the whole illegal chain from production to transportation to selling where there is a lot of misery attached,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to get more and more away from the illegal black market.”
While limited in scope, the reform would make Luxembourg the first country in Europe to legalize the production and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Cannabis has been widely decriminalized in certain countries in the continent, but it has remained criminalized by statute.
Government sources in Luxembourg told The Guardian that plans are in the works to develop a program where the state regulates the production and distribution of marijuana. Tamson said they are working to resolve “international constraints” before taking that step, however, referring to United Nations treaty obligations that multiple U.S. states and other countries like Canada and Uruguay have openly flouted.
The measures include:
🟢 Regulation of cannabis use and cultivation: adults will be able to legally cultivate up to four cannabis plants for their own use, provided the cultivation is happening at their place of residence.
— European Greens (@europeangreens) October 22, 2021
For now, the country is focusing on legalization within a home setting. Parliament is expected to vote on the proposal in early 2022, and the ruling parties are friendly to the reform.
This has been a long time coming, as a coalition of major parties of Luxembourg agreed in 2018 to enact legislation allowing “the exemption from punishment or even legalization” of cannabis.
Meanwhile in the U.S., congressional lawmakers are working to advance legalization legislation. A key House committee recently approved a bill to end marijuana prohibition, and Senate leadership is finalizing a separate reform proposal.
In Mexico, a top Senator said this week that lawmakers could advance legislation to regulate marijuana in the coming weeks. The Supreme Court has already ruled that adults cannot be criminalized over possession or cultivation, but there’s currently no program in place to provide access.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
New Bipartisan Marijuana Research Bill In Congress Would Let Scientists Study Dispensary Products
A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday to remove barriers to conducting research on marijuana, including by allowing scientists to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries.
The Medical Marijuana Research Act, filed by the unlikely duo of pro-legalization Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), would streamline the process for researchers to apply and get approved to study cannabis and set clear deadlines on federal agencies to act on their applications.
“Congress is hopelessly behind the American people on cannabis, and the quality of our research shows why that is an urgent problem,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment. “Despite the fact that 99 percent of Americans live in a state that has legalized some form of cannabis, federal law is still hamstringing researchers’ ability to study the full range of health benefits offered by cannabis, and to learn more about the products readily available to consumers.”
“It’s outrageous that we are outsourcing leadership in that research to Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, and others. It’s time to change the system,” he said.
Late last year, the House approved an identical version of the cannabis science legislation. Days later, the Senate passed a similar bill but nothing ended up getting to the president’s desk by the end of the last Congress. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators refiled their marijuana research measure for the current 117th Congress.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are also advancing a separate strategy to open up dispensary cannabis to researchers. Large-scale infrastructure legislation that has passed both chambers in differing forms and which is pending final action contains provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal businesses instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.
The new bill filed this week by Blumenauer and Harris, along with six other original cosponsors, would also make it easier for scientists to modify their research protocols without having to seek federal approval.
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.
It would additionally mandate that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license more growers and make it so there would be no limit on the number of additional entities that can be registered to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. It would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to submit a report to Congress within five years after enactment to overview the results of federal cannabis studies and recommend whether they warrant marijuana’s rescheduling under federal law.
“The cannabis laws in this country are broken, including our laws that govern cannabis research,” Blumenauer said in remarks in the Congressional Record. “Because cannabis is a Schedule I substance, researchers must jump through hoops and comply with onerous requirements just to do basic research on the medical potential of the plant.”
The new legislation will “both streamline the often-duplicative licensure process for researchers seeking to conduct cannabis research and facilitate access to an increased supply of higher quality medical grade cannabis for research purposes,” he said, adding that expanded studies will help make sure “Americans have adequate access to potentially transformative medicines and treatments.”
For half a century, researchers have only been able to study marijuana grown at a single federally approved facility at the University of Mississippi, but they have complained that it is difficult to obtain the product and that it is of low quality. Indeed, one study showed that the government cannabis is more similar to hemp than to the marijuana that consumers actually use in the real world.
There’s been bipartisan agreement that DEA has inhibited cannabis research by being slow to follow through on approving additional marijuana manufacturers beyond the Mississippi operation, despite earlier pledges to do so.
In May, the agency finally said it was ready to begin licensing new cannabis cultivators. Last week, DEA proposed a large increase in the amount of marijuana—and psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and mescaline—that it wants produced in the U.S. for research purposes next year.
Under the new House bill, the agency would be forced to start approving additional cultivation applications for study purposes within one year of the legislation’s enactment.
HHS and the attorney general would be required under the bill to create a process for marijuana manufacturers and distributors to supply researchers with cannabis from dispensaries. They would have one year after enactment to develop that procedure, and would have to start meeting to work on it within 60 days of the bill’s passage.
In general, the legislation would also establish a simplified registration process for researchers interested in studying cannabis, in part by reducing approval wait times, minimizing costly security requirements and eliminating additional layers of protocol review.
Read the full text of the new marijuana research bill below: