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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

Hemp Farmers Guaranteed Federal Crop Insurance Through Disaster Bill Amendment

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The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that is mostly focused on providing relief aid to areas impacted by natural disasters—but it also includes a provision ensuring that hemp farmers qualify for federal crop insurance.

The hemp section was inserted into the legislation at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Though similar language already exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp and its derivatives, the senator took an added measure to provide clarity to farmers who want access to the insurance option ahead of the 2020 planting season.

“Beginning not later than the 2020 reinsurance year, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation shall offer coverage under the wholefarm revenue protection insurance policy (or a successor policy or plan of insurance) for hemp (as defined in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o)),” text of the provision states.

“Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985,” it continues.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 85 to 8. The House is expected to approve the disaster legislation by unanimous consent by the end of the week, and President Donald Trump has offered assurances that he will sign it into law.

The legalization of hemp has sparked strong interest among farmers in states from Colorado to Kentucky, but it will still be some time until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and implements its federal regulatory guidelines.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that while his department would not rush its rulemaking process, it still intends to implement the regulations before the 2020 planting season. After that point, USDA would be able to approve regulatory plans submitted by individual states.

McConnell, who championed the hemp legalization provision, has urged the quick and effective implementation of such regulations, and he’s suggested that he’d introduce standalone legislation to resolve any “glitches” in its rollout.

While not a standalone bill, the hemp-focused provision of the disaster legislation seems to indicate he plans to make good on that promise.

The senator has made much of his pro-hemp agenda, arguing last month that his role in reforming hemp laws is at “the top of the list” of reasons why voters should reelect him in 2020. He also cited hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco when he introduced a bill this week to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Mitch McConnell Touts Hemp As He Proposes Raising Tobacco Purchase Age Limit

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Politics

Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications

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A congressional committee report attached a large-scale spending bill containing marijuana-related protections has been amended to include a call for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to finally act on long-pending applications for federal licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes.

The legislation itself, which was released by a House subcommittee last week, could still be further amended as it goes through the legislative process. But as approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the bill stipulates that none of the Fiscal Year 2020 funds it allocates may be used by the Justice Department to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs.

The provision has been federal law since 2014, but its inclusion in the initial subcommittee proposal as introduced is the earliest it has ever surfaced in the legislative process for the annual spending bill. While advocates hoped broader protections for adult-use cannabis states would also be included in the base legislation, that rider isn’t in the bill—at least not yet.

There was also a technical problem with the legislation that wasn’t resolved by the committee manager’s amendment, the text of which has not been posted but was obtained by Marijuana Moment. The medical cannabis provision lists the states and territories its protections apply to—but it left out the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical marijuana in January.

Similar errors have occurred in past versions of the legislation, when legal medical cannabis states North Dakota and Indiana were not included in an earlier version of the rider, and advocates hope that the language will be amended on the House floor.

But while that fix didn’t make it into the bill at the committee level, the directive to the DEA about cannabis cultivation licenses was added to the committee report attached to the bill via the manager’s amendment.

“The Committee urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for us in medical research,” the revised report states.

The DEA has faced significant pressure from lawmakers, advocates and scientists to approve applications for additional marijuana manufacturers to produce research-grade cannabis. Currently there is only one federally authorized facility, and the quality of its product has long been criticized.

DEA announced a process to license additional cultivators during the final months of the Obama administration in  2016, but the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to act on more than two dozen pending applications. Current Attorney General William Barr has pledged to look into the matter, and has said he agrees that approving additional manufacturers is necessary.

Advocates hope that the new committee report language could help to finally spur movement at the department.

“The DEA is a disaster on marijuana and they need to stop obstructing research ASAP,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.

“It’s beyond ridiculous that they won’t act on these applications. Even prohibitionists like Project SAM agree,” he added, referring to the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “And when the guys who get their drug policy from the 1920s say you’re behind the times, that’s pretty embarrassing.”

Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that Sessions “was the only government official opposed to cannabis research, and he is no longer employed.”

“Now is the time for AG Barr to follow through on his commitment and allow researchers pathways to consumer-grade cannabis,” he said.

Another provision included in the appropriations bill would offer protections for states that have implemented industrial hemp pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. The Justice Department wouldn’t be allowed to use its funds to interfere in such programs under the proposal.

Of course, the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act, shifting regulatory responsibility onto the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Justice Department, so that provision may not be especially relevant going forward.

The bill will next head to the Rules Committee, which will decide the list of amendments—potentially including additional cannabis-related ones—that can be considered on the House floor.

Read the text of the manager’s amendment with the DEA marijuana language below: 

Managers Amendment FINAL by on Scribd

Presidential Candidates Are Cosponsoring A New Marijuana Descheduling Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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House Committee Approves Immigration Bill With Marijuana Protections

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A congressional committee voted in favor of a wide-ranging immigration bill on Wednesday, and the legislation includes marijuana-related protections for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Under the DREAM Act as approved, having low-level cannabis convictions, or engaging in state-legal cannabis-related activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not be counted against applications for permanent resident status for so-called Dreamers.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in a 19-10 vote, without specific discussion about the cannabis provisions.

The section concerning eligibility for permanent status stipules that having three or more misdemeanor convictions could be grounds for ineligibility—but the bill creates an exemption for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

The text seems to indicate that immigrants who engaged in cannabis-related activities prior to a state reforming its marijuana laws would still be protected even if that activity was not state-legal at the time.

Similar language appears under a separate section about grounds for a provisional denial of an application for adjustment of status. Applicants would be exempted from such a denial if their conviction was for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

A previous version of the legislation, filed in March, didn’t include the specific eligibility requirements related to certain criminal activity, nor did it contain any explicit marijuana protections. It’s possible that House Democrats thought up the exemptions during a brainstorming session earlier this month about potential bill revisions aimed at building more support.

The next likely stop for the DREAM Act will be the House Rules Committee before heading to a full floor vote.

There’s been growing interest in reforming marijuana policies as they apply to immigrants and visitors to the U.S.

Earlier this month, four congressional Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to end the practice of rejecting naturalization applications solely because the applicant worked in a state-legal marijuana market. That came after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo specifying that such activity could render them morally unfit for citizenship.

And last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced legislation aimed at resolving marijuana-related border issues, whereby visitors who admit to using cannabis or working in their country’s legal industry can be denied entrance.

New Congressional Bill Aims To Resolve Marijuana Industry Border Issues

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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