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Marijuana Bill Approved By Congressional Committee, Despite Drug Conviction Restriction Dispute

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A powerful U.S. House panel that oversees federal drug enforcement efforts approved a bill on Thursday to require the Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to begin issuing more licenses to grow marijuana for research.

Prior to the vote, a bitter dispute broke out over a provision of the legislation that prevents anyone with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from being affiliated with cannabis research cultivation operations.

“There is no legitimate health or public safety justification for the inclusion of this language and we urge you to strike this unnecessary, punitive ban on individuals with previous drug law violations,” reads a letter sent to the committee’s leaders on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, #cut50, the Drug Policy Alliance and other groups. “To help lower recidivism rates and improve public safety, we should be making it easier for people with records to obtain jobs, not more difficult.”

Legalization supporters scrambled this week to build support to amend the bill accordingly, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)—who has long opposed marijuana reform but is a cosponsor of the research legislation—refused to go along with a compromise that would have stripped the restrictions on people with drug misdemeanors while maintaining the ban on those with felony convictions, Capitol Hill staffers and advocates said.

As a result, some drug policy reformers who otherwise strongly support expanding marijuana research balked on the bill, urging lawmakers to vote no.

The legislation as introduced “unfortunately and unjustly expands the collateral consequences of criminal convictions,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the top Democrat on the panel, said at the start of an hour-long debate before the vote.

Citing the racially disproportionate manner in which drug laws have been enforced, he said the restrictions in the bill would “compound this injustice by preventing the very people who have been harmed from participating” in research.

But Goodlatte argued that it is “wholly appropriate that we set a firm standard for those who are supposed to be growing and manufacturing research-grade marijuana.”

During the committee markup, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) offered an amendment to remove the words “drug-related misdemeanor” from the provision in question, but ultimately withdrew the proposal instead of forcing a vote after Goodlatte made a commitment to work to revise the restrictions before the bill goes to the House floor. The chairman indicated that he would “probably not object” to a carve-out for people with drug possession convictions.

The overall bill, the Medical Cannabis Research Act, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), was then approved by a voice vote.

“While there are many varying opinions on the issue of marijuana, one thing we all can agree on is that we need qualified researchers to study the science to determine if there are any potential medicinal benefits to chemicals derived from cannabis,” Goodlatte said in a statement.

Earlier in the week Gaetz tweeted that “both sides make fair points” about the drug conviction language, but the issue “isn’t important” to him.

“What a shame if disagreement on such a small thing kept us from making University/Hospital/Hospice/VA/MedSchool #MedicalMarijuana research collaboration legal with the vibrant, innovative commercial cannabis industry,” he wrote.

During the committee hearing on Thursday, Gaetz said that the restriction wasn’t included in initial drafts of the bill and its addition was suggested by people in the marijuana industry who “wanted to raise the bar” and not have “people who wandered out of their drug circle or hacky sack endeavor” leading cannabis research.

Morgan Fox, communications director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a text message that his organization “absolutely did not suggest that and does not support that restriction.”

It is unclear who did suggest it.

While a number of Judiciary Committee Democrats spoke up to say that they could not support the legislation as written, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) said that he was willing to vote to advance it in the hopes of it being amended later.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), who is not a member of the panel, praised its passage in a tweet, as did Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), who sits on the committee.

Legalization advocates, mindful of growing political momentum for marijuana policy reform, said they have moved past the time when they were willing to make major concessions in order to move incremental legislation.

“While the bill’s consideration represents progress, it’s a drop in the ocean given what we need to do to end federal prohibition and repair the harms of the drug war,” Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance said in an interview earlier this week, adding that the restrictive provisions are “egregious, unnecessary and representative of an outdated approach to public policy.”

Others cannabis activists cheered the bill’s passage but questioned whether more research on marijuana was really needed before Congress moves to change its status under federal law.

“While this vote marks a step forward, it must also be acknowledged that despite existing barriers to research, ample studies already exist to contradict cannabis’ federal, schedule I status as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a press release. “More clinical research is welcome, but unfortunately science has never driven marijuana policy. If it did, the United States would already have a very different policy in place.”

Under current U.S. policy, a University of Mississippi farm has for the past 50 years been the only legal source of marijuana for studies. But researchers have often complained that it is too hard to get approval to use the facility’s cannabis products, and that they are often of low quality.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, in the closing months of the Obama presidency, moved to create a process for the federal government to issue additional research cultivation licenses. But the Justice Department under Sessions has blocked the DEA from acting on the more than two dozen applications that have been submitted.

Gaetz’s bill, if enacted into law, would force Sessions’s hand by requiring the granting of more licenses. It now heads to the House floor.

In addition to the requirement to issue additional cultivation licenses, the bill clarifies that Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors can discuss the medical marijuana with their patients and can refer them to participate in scientific studies on the drug’s effects.

The Judiciary Committee vote marks only the second time in history that a congressional panel has approved standalone cannabis reform legislation. Earlier this year, the House Veterans Affairs Committee passed a bill encouraging the VA to conduct research on the medical benefits of marijuana for military veterans.

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

Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.

At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.

Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.

The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”

He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.

“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”

Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:

“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.

“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”

Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.

Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.

“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”

“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”

Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.

After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”

“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”

Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches

Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.

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Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota

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A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.

Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.

“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.

The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.

Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.

Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.

“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”

Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.

It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.

“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.

California Lawmakers Use Cryptocurrency To Buy Marijuana From Dispensary

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches

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With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.

In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”

The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.

Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.

Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.

While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.

Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.

“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”

“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”

Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”

The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.

House Marijuana Banking Vote Officially Scheduled For Next Week, Leadership Announces

Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.

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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