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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

Colorado Governor Touts Marijuana Legalization’s Benefits

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After the 2012 election, which saw Colorado become the first state to legalize marijuana, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said he probably would have reversed the vote if he had a magic wand.

But with the perspective of a few years post-legalization, today he says he’d put that wand “back in the drawer.”

“I’m not quite there to say this is a great success, but the old system was awful,” Hickenlooper said at a forum hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago on Wednesday.

What’s more, “the things that we most feared—a spike in teenage consumption, a spike in overall consumption, people driving while high—we haven’t seen them,” he said.

“We had a little increase in teenage consumption, but then it went down. We do think that some of the teenage consumers are using it a little more frequently than they were five years ago before legalization. We have in many ways seen no demographic where there’s an increase in consumption, with one exception: senior citizens. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

Hickenlooper, who’s been floated as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, described the challenges his administration faced when Colorado voters approved an adult-use legalization measure. Elected officials and advisors were opposed to it, he said, and plus, “it’s no fun to be in conflict with federal law.”

But he pushed forward with implementation, recruiting the “smartest people” he could find to figure out the best approach to regulation and taxation. And Illinois, which recently elected pro-legalization J.B. Pritzker for governor, will likely be better off if they pursue reform because they can learn from the successes and failures of Colorado’s system, Hickenlooper said.

“Ultimately, I haven’t come to a final conclusion yet, but I think it’s looking like this is going to be—for all of the flaws and challenges we have—a better system than what we had. You guys are going to benefit, I think, having let us make a bunch of the mistakes and deal with it, I think you’re going to be able to have a much better system if indeed that is the direction that the state wants to go.”

Asked what advice he’d give to Pritzker if Illinois does elect to fully legalize cannabis, Hickenlooper offered three tips: 1) don’t overtax marijuana, or else the illicit marketplace will persist, 2) get data from law enforcement on the presence of cannabis metabolites in the blood after highway fatalities to establish “good baselines” for comparison and 3) set limits on THC concentrations in edibles.

“What they’re selling now, they tell me it’s 10-to-12 times more intense than what allegedly I smoked in high school,” Hickenlooper said, pausing before conceding, “I smoked pot in high school and I inhaled, but it was a fraction of the intensity of what these kids are getting now.”

Legal Marijuana Would Generate Hundreds Of Millions For Illinois, New Analysis Finds

Photo courtesy of YouTube/Economic Club of Chicago.

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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The DEA Just Got Scolded Over Its Marijuana Eradication Program

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) got a slap on the wrist from a federal watchdog agency over its management of a multi-million dollar marijuana eradication program.

In a report released on Wednesday, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the DEA had failed to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners that received funds through the federal program. And that lapse could prevent the agency from being able to accurately assess “program performance.”

What’s more, the DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals,” according to the report.

In other words, the agency expends about $17 million in funds to partners across the U.S. each year to help them get rid of illegal cannabis grows. That includes fully legal states like California, where enforcement efforts are generally limited to public lands—namely national forests. But due to inadequate record keeping, the DEA doesn’t really know if that money is serving its purpose.

To fix the problems, the GAO issued four recommendations:

1. The DEA Administrator should develop and implement a plan with specific actions and time frames to ensure that regional contractors are implementing DEA’s requirement for collecting documentation supporting participating agencies’ Domestic Cannabis Eradication And Suppression Program (DCE/SP) program expenditures in the intended manner.

2. The DEA Administrator should clarify DCE/SP guidance on the eradication and suppression activities that participating agencies are required to report, and communicate it to participating agencies and DEA officials responsible for implementing DCE/SP.

3. The DEA Administrator should clearly document all DCE/SP program goals.

4. The DEA Administrator should develop DCE/SP performance measures with baselines, targets, and linkage to program goals.

The DEA was able to review a draft of the GAO report ahead of its release and, in an October 17 letter, a Justice Department official said the agency concurred with all four of the recommendations and would take steps to address them.

You can listen to a podcast about the GAO report here:

Just because it’s the DEA’s program doesn’t mean it’s the only agency dropping the ball on marijuana eradication efforts. In April, a report from the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that agents weren’t adequately cleaning up public lands after cannabis busts, which can pose threats to humans, animals and the environment.

Feds Don’t Properly Clean Up After Marijuana Raids, Report Finds

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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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Here’s How Much Legal Marijuana Supporters And Opponents Spent Per Vote In Last Week’s Election

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Political committees concerned with marijuana law reform in four states have waged an information war over the past year, first to qualify cannabis initiatives for the ballot, and then to support or oppose those measures in the lead-up to last week’s midterm elections. In total, over $12.9 million in cash and in-kind services was spent attempting to convince voters about these marijuana ballot measures.

Now that voters have had their say, Marijuana Moment decided to calculate how much each “yes” and “no” vote cost the committees on either side of the debate. Our calculations are based on dollars raised and disclosed before the election, since final totals of actual expenditures won’t be available until December or January reports required in the states that voted on cannabis.

Michigan

In Michigan, where voters approved marijuana legalization, our calculations show that the two anti-legalization committees spent about $1.28 per “no” vote, as they raised $2.37 million for the 1.85 million votes against the measure. The proponents spent 19 percent more per vote, or $1.52 for each of 2.35 million “yes” votes.

Missouri

In Missouri, three separate medical cannabis initiatives competed in the run-up to Election Day, resulting in the highest funding levels of the four states we looked at. There, committees raised a total of $5.4 million dollars to influence voters. Across all the committees, the average cost per “yes” vote was $1.82.

Amendment 3, which was supported by Find the Cures PAC, spent $2.91 for each of its 747,977 votes. Proposition C, supported by Missourians for Patient Care, spent $1.44 for each of its 1.03 million votes. New Approach Missouri, which supported winning Amendment 2, which garnered the support of 1.57 million voters, spent the least, at $1.10 per vote. Only Amendment 2 received a majority and was approved.

Given that there were three competing measures on the ballot, vote costs cannot be parsed in the same binary “yes” or “no” on marijuana reform that is possible for initiatives in the other states. A “no” vote for one measure in Missouri was often paired with a “yes” vote for another.

North Dakota

In North Dakota, there were many fewer votes cast on the state’s marijuana legalization initiative as compared to cannabis measure elsewhere, a total of 324,550. The two committees that opposed Measure 3 heavily outspent the pro-reform committees, to the tune of $629,648 to $94,308. With 131,585 people voting for the initiative, the cost per “yes” vote was 72 cents. On the opposing side, winning came at a high price: Each “no” vote cost four and a half times as much, or $3.26, the most costly per-vote expense on a marijuana ballot measure in the nation this year.

Utah

In Utah, a relatively state where proponents of medical cannabis measure Proposition 2 were narrowly outspent by opponents, the cost per vote was higher. Votes are still being counted more than a week after Election Day, but preliminary vote totals show opponents spent $908,464, or $1.99 for each of the 455,879 votes against the initiative. The prevailing “yes” committees spent $831,471 for 493,060 votes, or $1.69 each. About 8 percent of precincts are yet to be counted, so both of these figures will decrease as more votes are added to both the support and opposition tallies.

Overall in the three states that had a straight up-or-down vote (Michigan, Utah and North Dakota), the average cost per “no” vote was slightly more than each “yes” vote, with prohibitionist committees spending an average of $1.56 for each “no” vote, versus $1.51 spent on average for each “yes” votes. It should be noted that those costs include millions of dollars in in-kind services. In Michigan, for example, The Coalition to Regulate Cannabis like Alcohol reported $706,900 in in-kind services, or 23 percent of their total fundraising.

Looked at another way, the average per state cost (rather than total votes average) for “yes” votes was $1.31 while “no” votes cost 67 percent more: $2.18. And with the total number of “yes” votes in those states outnumbering “no” votes by 19 percent, it would seem that in the state-by-state marijuana legalization battle, you don’t always get what you pay for.

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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