Congresswoman Dina Titus voted for the marijuana legalization measure on Nevada’s ballot a year ago. Since then, she has been fighting on Capitol Hill to get the federal government to respect the decision she and a majority of her constituents made to end prohibition.
The Las Vegas Democrat has sponsored or signed onto bills and amendments that would protect state laws from Justice Department interference, allow marijuana businesses to use banks and let military veterans access medical cannabis recommendations through government doctors, among others.
Those measures haven’t advanced, however, because of roadblocks thrown up by Congressional Republican leadership.
But even though the GOP-controlled House Rules Committee won’t allow floor votes on marijuana amendments, and Speaker Paul Ryan hasn’t done anything to help, Titus said in an interview that cannabis isn’t just an issue for Democrats.
“This was not partisan,” she says of the measures she has supported. “It was heavily Democratic but we had Republicans supporting these amendments. I think if they came to the floor they would pass.”
Indeed, large bipartisan majorities approved floor amendments to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference in 2014 and 2015, but since then House leadership has consistently prevented votes.
Titus says that “Republicans aren’t going to buck their leadership and sign a discharge petition” to circumvent committees and force measures to the floor, but she is hopeful that shifting poll results on legalization and the growing number of changing state laws will make Congress come around soon.
“We’re going to keep on beating the drum, and I think you reach a tipping point because every cycle there are more initiatives and more efforts by state legislatures to legalize marijuana in some fashion. It’s over half of the states that have it now,” she says. “So when public opinion shifts…and more states make it legal, then the Republicans are going to have to respond.”
Titus believes it is important that she tailor her pitch when trying to convince fellow members of Congress to support cannabis legislation.
“You make the argument based on who you’re talking to,” she says. “Some believe it’s a criminal justice issue. Others believe it’s a states’ rights issue. Others see it as a medical opportunity issue. You’ve got a few who are just old stoned hippies who want to do it.”
For her part, Titus says that in addition to representing the views of her constituents, she has focused so much of her time on cannabis law reform because of people she knows who are impacted by current policy.
“I have many, many veterans in southern Nevada, and I have seen the problem of opioid addiction and I think that medical marijuana is a viable option,” she says. “And I’ve heard the stories of families of children with epilepsy who say this is the only way their children can get relief from having episodes. You hear stories like that, you think, ‘We’re missing the boat if we’re not looking at all the possibilities.'”
The congresswoman has also built relationships with marijuana business operators that she represents in her district.
“A lot of people in Las Vegas who are my constituents are in this business, and I have visited a number of the dispensaries,” she says. “There are not little head shops on the corner with black lights and pictures of Che Guevara. There are very professional operations. They’ve got agronomists, they’ve got scientists. They are respectable places with high security. They improve the neighborhood. They don’t bring it down.”
Titus thinks Nevada officials have done a good job implementing what voters approved, partially because the state has previously been a pioneer in regulating formerly prohibited activity, namely gambling.
“I think that’s pretty well shaken out,” she says. “This is a whole new area for us, but we have experience regulating something that’s kind of unusual because of our gaming and I think we were able to adjust to it pretty well.”
But for now, there’s no overlap between the state’s cannabis and gaming industries, largely because regulators for the latter have prohibited casinos from entering the marijuana trade.
“It won’t happen until federal legislation happens, because gaming is so tightly regulated and they’re not going to take any chances of losing a license or having the feds step into the gaming world because of marijuana,” Titus says. “It’s kind of like the banks that don’t want to do business with marijuana companies because of federal regulation. So it’s going to take not just becoming mainstream or not just becoming legalized at the state level, but federal action before that happens.”
One area where Titus does see opportunity for advancement without Congressional action is improving military veterans’ access to medical cannabis. Under current Department of Veterans Affairs policy, government doctors are not allowed to fill out medical marijuana recommendation forms, even in states where it is legal.
It’s “a crying shame,” she says.
Despite some victories on the House floor and in a Senate committee, efforts to force a change at the VA haven’t been enacted into law. But VA Sec. David Shulkin could change the policy himself, if he wanted to.
“I’m very disappointed in the VA not moving this forward,” she says. “I think they should do it without legislation.”
The issue is particularly important in light of increased attention being paid to opioid addiction and overdoses. “The veterans who want to try [marijuana] have to use it on their own, pay for it out of their own pockets and who knows how it interacts with other things that are being prescribed,” Titus says. “The opioid crisis, I think, has been perpetuated by the VA because it’s so much easier to give somebody a pill than it is just to deal with some of the demons that they may face or some of the real physical problems. Veterans come back now not with just one injury but maybe 10, 12 injuries because of the new science on the battlefield.”
On broader marijuana enforcement issues, despite concerning comments from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Trump administration officials, there have been no formal policy changes announced this year.
“We’re just in limbo,” Titus says. “That can be as bad as knowing what you have to face even if it’s something you don’t like.”
The congresswoman remains optimistic about shifting tides on marijuana issues, however, and in particular is impressed by how the legalization movement and the industry it has created have stepped up their game.
“The groups that represent different aspects of the medical marijuana and recreational marijuana industry are getting much more energized, much more mobilized, much more professional in their lobbying efforts,” she says. “I think you’re going to see that start to increase.”
Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration.
Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.
The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.
Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.
There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.
The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.
The JSC on the Cannabis Control Bill will report to the @TTParliament by February 29, 2020. Trinidad & Tobago's government only required a simple, however, the bill received the support of the country's opposition in its amended form, the context here: https://t.co/o6ibF39KRS
— Clydeen Seeorne McDonald 🇹🇹 (@ClydeenMcDonald) December 12, 2019
Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.
“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”
“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”
The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”
“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”
“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”
The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.
New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot
New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.
The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.
"If we are successful in placing this question on the ballot next year, the voters will make the final decision," says @JoeDanielsen17 on today's public hearing on legislation that would allow voters to decide to amend the State constitution to legalize adult-use cannabis pic.twitter.com/1Mlt8gcrzg
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.
The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.
“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.
In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.
“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.
Assembly Panel Hosts Public Hearing on @AnnetteQuijano, @jamelholley, @AswTimberlake and @AswMcKnight Measure Amend State Constitution to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis: https://t.co/IfEf98LO43 pic.twitter.com/h6gfT9CDwQ
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.
Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) December 12, 2019
In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.
As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications
A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.
It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.
It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.
But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”
“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”
The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”
“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”
The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.
The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.
“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”
“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.
Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.
One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.
DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.
Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.