President Joe Biden’s pick for attorney general said on Monday that it is not “a useful use of limited resources” to go after people who are complying with state marijuana laws. He also citied cannabis enforcement as an example of the racially discriminatory impact of the criminal justice system.
Judge Merrick Garland, whose views on marijuana policy have been largely unclear to date, said that the issue is “a question of prioritization about resources and discretion,” and he signaled that the Justice Department would adopt a hands-off policy for most cannabis cases, similar to what was implemented under President Barack Obama, if he was confirmed.
“It does not seem to me useful the use of limited resources that we have to be pursuing prosecutions in states that have legalized and are regulating the use of marijuana, either medically or otherwise,” he said when asked by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I don’t think that’s a useful use.”
“I do think we need to be sure that there are no end runs around the state laws that criminal enterprises are doing. That kind of enforcement should be continued,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a good use of our resources where states have already authorized, and it only confuses people obviously within the state.”
That view is consistent with policies put into place under Obama—known as the Cole memorandum—and then rescinded by President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Watch Garland’s comments on marijuana policy below:
Garland also said earlier in the hearing that he thinks the enforcement of marijuana criminalization is the “perfect example” of how the criminal justice system is racially biased and disproportionately impacts communities of color. And because cannabis possession arrests can “follow a person for the rest of their lives,” he said the Justice Department should avoid prosecuting those cases.
He proactively returned to the issue after it was first raised by Booker and previewed actions the Justice Department could take to resolve such systemic problems.
“One of the big things driving arrests in our country—stunningly to me even that it is still the case—is marijuana arrests. We had in 2019 more marijuana arrests for possession than all violent crime arrests combined,” Booker said, adding that those arrests fall disparately on black and brown Americans despite the fact that white people use cannabis at a comparable rate.
“Is that evidence that within the system there is implicit racial bias?” Booker, who is part of a trio of lawmakers leading the charge to enact federal legalization in the Senate, asked.
“That’s definitely evidence of a disparate treatment in the system, which I think does arise out of implicit bias—unconscious bias maybe, sometimes conscious bias,” Garland said. “This is a particular part of the reason why, at this moment, I think I wanted to be the attorney general.”
Booker picked up on Garland’s point about implicit bias and reiterated that just because there are racial disparities in the justice system doesn’t necessarily meant that those carrying out enforcement are overtly racist. The Biden nominee replied that “that’s correct” and the “marijuana example is a perfect example that you’ve given here.”
“Here’s a non-violent crime with respect to usage that does not require us to incarcerate people, and we’re incarcerating at significantly different rates of the different communities,” Garland said. “That is wrong, and it’s the kind of problem that will then follow a person for the rest of their lives. It will make it impossible to get a job, it will lead to downward economic spiral for their family.”
Watch Garland’s additional comments on cannabis policy below:
“If you just look at the impact of the law and the disparate impact on just marijuana, it is estimated to cost African-American communities in this country billions of dollars more,” Booker, who was recently named chair of a key Judiciary subcommittee, followed up. “My question to you now is, assuming this position…what are you going to do about this outrageous injustice that persists and infects our society with such a toll on black and brown communities?”
Garland said that there are “many things that the Justice Department has to do in this regard” and one of those things is “we can focus our attention on violent crimes and other crimes that put great danger in our society, and not allocate our resources to something like marijuana possession.”
He added that prosecutors could further mitigate mass incarceration by reviewing and revising sentencing standards so that people don’t face the maximum punishment for certain crimes.
Also at the hearing, Garland revisited the idea of deprioritizing enforcement against cannabis possession after being pressed on ensuring racial equity in the justice system by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA).
He said “one important way [to achieve equity] is to focus on the crimes that really matter—to bring our charging and our arresting on violent crime and others that deeply affect our society and not have such an overemphasis on marijuana possession, for example, which has disproportionately affected communities of color and then damaged them after the original arrest because of the inability to get jobs.”
Watch the discussion between Ossoff and Garland below:
The nominee reiterated the sentencing reform should also be part of the solution, and that includes resolving the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity for cocaine, which “has had an enormously disproportionate impact on communities of color, but which evidence shows is not related to the dangerousness of the two drugs.”
While Sessions took actions on marijuana policy that are viewed as hostile by advocates, Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, maintained that Congress should take steps to resolve the state-federal marijuana policy conflict. But he did not make any definitive statements about the need to shift gears administratively, nor did he dedicate time while in office to recognize the racial disparities of cannabis enforcement.
Barr did allegedly direct the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to carry out investigations into 10 marijuana mergers out of personal animus for the industry. A whistleblower who testified before a key House committee claimed the investigations were unnecessary and wasted departmental resources. But the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division later argued that the investigations were actually “consistent with protecting consumers’ access to cannabis products, not with animosity toward the industry.”
Garland, who was previously nominated by Obama to serve on the Supreme Court only to have his nomination blocked by Senate Republicans, was relatively silent on the issue prior to the confirmation hearing. His judicial record did indicate that he believes in deference to the Drug Enforcement Administration when it comes to drug scheduling, raising initial concerns among advocates.
But while his broader enforcement position remains to be seen, Garland did clearly express on Monday that he feels the federal government should generally not waste departmental resources to interfere in state-legal markets and that the lowest level cannabis offenses should not justify incarcerating individuals.
It now seems apparent that he and Biden are principally aligned on those matter, supporting decriminalization and non-interference in state cannabis programs, as the president called for during his campaign.
Biden also supports legalizing medical marijuana, modestly rescheduling the plant and expunging prior cannabis convictions. He remains opposed to adult-use legalization, however, despite supermajority support for the policy change within his party.
New York Marijuana Regulatory Board Is Officially Completed With Governor’s Final Appointments
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) on Wednesday announced her final two appointees to regulate the state’s adult-use marijuana market—a key step toward implementing the legalization law signed by her predecessor.
Hochul named two additional Cannabis Control Board members weeks after the Senate confirmed previous appointees earlier this month. The newly named regulators—Reuben McDaniel III of the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York and Jessica García of the UFCW labor union—do not require confirmation by lawmakers.
“New York’s cannabis industry has stalled for far too long—I am making important appointments to set the Office of Cannabis Management up for success so they can hit the ground running,” the governor said in a press release. “I am confident Mr. McDaniel and Ms. Garcia will serve the board with professionalism and experience as we lead our state forward in this new industry.”
Hochul (D), who replaced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) last month after he resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal, has been supportive of the legislature’s passage of the adult-use legalization bill this year. And while her predecessor faced criticism as negotiations with legislators on potential appointments stalled, Hochul has now taken the helm and is working with leaders on how to move the process forward.
Under New York’s legalization law, the independent Office of Cannabis Management within the New York State Liquor Authority was established and will be responsible for regulating the recreational cannabis market as well as the existing medical marijuana and hemp programs. It will be overseen by a five-member Cannabis Control Board.
Three members have now been appointed by the governor, and the Senate and Assembly have also appointed one member each.
As it stands, adults 21 and older can possess up to three ounces of cannabis or 24 grams of concentrates in New York—and they can also smoke marijuana in public anywhere tobacco can be smoked—but there aren’t any shops open for business yet.
The first recreational marijuana retailers in New York may actually be located on Indian territory, with one tribe officially opening applications for prospective licensees earlier this month.
In July, a New York senator filed a bill to create a provisional marijuana licensing category so that farmers could begin cultivating and selling cannabis ahead of the formal rollout of the adult-use program. The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee.
Because the implementation process has been drawn out, however, one GOP senator wants to give local jurisdictions another year to decide whether they will opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area—a proposal that advocates say is unnecessary and would create undue complications for the industry.
Under the law as enacted, municipalities must determine whether they will opt out of permitting marijuana retailers or social consumption sites by December 31, 2021. Sen. George Borrello (R) introduced legislation late last week that would push that deadline back one year.
Legalization activists aren’t buying the argument, however.
Adding pressure to get the market up and running is the fact that regulators in neighboring New Jersey recently released rules for its adult-use marijuana program, which is being implemented after voters approved a legalization referendum last year.
For the first year of cannabis sales, the state is expected to see just $20 million in tax and fee collections. That will be part of an estimated $26.7 billion in new revenues that New York is expected to generate in fiscal year 2021-2022 under a budget that the legislature passed in April.
Meanwhile, a New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to research the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
USDA Wants To Help Hemp Farmers Weed Out Weeds (But Not The Marijuana Kind)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is teaming up with university researchers to figure out the best ways to keep weeds out of hemp.
To clarify, they want to develop strategies to stop invasive weeds from disrupting hemp cultivation. Not the marijuana kind of weed, but actual weeds.
USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has granted Cornell University $325,000 to support the weed management study for hemp, which was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.
It will be a three-year, “multi-institution, multistate” initiative designed to “provide growers with evidence-based, location-specific recommendations to suppress weeds and maximize yields,” according to a press release.
.@Cornell AgriTech researcher aim to cultivate new methods for managing #weeds to benefit organic #apple and #grape growers, and #hemp producers in New York state and around the country. @USDA_NIFA funded. Read more: https://t.co/kTUrLrAP6A pic.twitter.com/tdpp8MpRWs
— NIFA (@USDA_NIFA) September 22, 2021
Lynn Sosnoskie, assistant professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell, will lead the research project.
“The prohibitions on hemp production meant prohibitions on hemp research,” she said. “I get a lot of questions about weed control in hemp, and we don’t have a lot of answers other than generalities. What we’re hoping to do is fill in those details.”
Researchers will investigate potential factors related weed infestations such as planting different varieties, growing the crop at different times and weather impacts. As it stands, farmers have largely relied on trial and error for weed management, Dan Dolgin, co-owner of New York’s first licensed hemp production business, said.
“We’ve kind of been our own R&D,” Dolgin said. “Our big challenge as an organic grower is how to prevent weeds. That’s where we need more experience with growing hemp.”
Virginia Tech, Southern Illinois University, North Dakota State University and Clemson University will also be involved in the hemp study.
USDA also announced last month that it is moving forward with a large-scale survey to gain insight into the hemp market.
After requesting permission from the White House earlier this year to conduct the survey of about 20,000 hemp farmers, the agency’s National Agricultural Statistics Service recently said that the forms are being finalized to be filled out via mail or online.
USDA is asking questions about plans for outdoor hemp production, acreage for operations, primary and secondary uses for the crop and what kinds of prices producers are able to bring in. The questionnaire lists preparations such as smokeable hemp, extracts like CBD, grain for human consumption, fiber and seeds as areas the department is interested in learning about.
Last year, USDA announced plans to distribute a separate national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the industry.
That survey is being completed in partnership with National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the University of Kentucky. The department said it wanted to learn about “current production costs, production practices, and marketing practices” for hemp.
There’s still much to learn about the burgeoning market, even as USDA continues to approve state regulatory plans for the crop. Most recently, the agency approved a hemp plan submitted by Colorado, where officials have consistently insisted that the state intends to be a leader in the space.
While USDA’s final rule for hemp took effect on March 22, the agency is evidently still interested in gathering information to further inform its regulatory approach going forward. Industry stakeholders say the release of the final rule is a positive step forward that will provide businesses with needed guidance, but they’ve also pointed to a number of policies that they hope to revise as the market matures such as USDA’s hemp testing requirements.
The federal Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy expressed a similar sentiment in a blog post in February, writing that it is “pleased with some of the changes that [USDA] has made to the rule, as they offer more certainty and are less burdensome to small farmers,” but “some concerns remained unaddressed in the final rule.”
USDA announced in April that it is teaming up with a chemical manufacturing company on a two-year project that could significantly expand the hemp-based cosmetics market.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced last month that it is sponsoring a project to develop hemp fiber insulation that’s designed to be better for the environment and public health than conventional preparations are.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Oklahoma Activists Finalize Language For Two 2022 Marijuana Ballot Initiatives
Oklahoma marijuana activists have finalized the language of initiatives to legalize adult-use marijuana and remodel the state’s existing medical cannabis program that they hope to place on the 2022 ballot.
Oklahomans for Responsible Cannabis Action (ORCA) released draft versions of the proposals earlier this summer, and the group has been soliciting feedback on how best to refine the measures. The group announced on Tuesday that after taking that input into account, they’ve arrived at final text.
Under the recreational legalization measure, adults 21 and older would be able to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana that they purchase from retailers, as well as whatever cannabis they yield from growing up to 12 plants for personal use.
Marijuana sales would be subject to a 15 percent excise tax, and the initiative outlines a number of programs that would receive partial revenue from those taxes. The money would first cover implementation costs and then would be divided to support water-related infrastructure, people with disabilities, substance misuse treatment, law enforcement training, cannabis research and more.
The measure also lays out pathways for resentencing and expungements for those with marijuana convictions.
Oklahoma voters approved medical cannabis legalization at the ballot in 2018. Unlike many state medical marijuana programs, it does not require patients have any specific qualifying conditions; doctors can recommend cannabis for any condition they see fit.
Activists with ORCA want to revamp the program, however. The separate initiative would establish the Oklahoma State Cannabis Commission (OSCC) to oversee all areas of the medical marijuana system. It would also set a seven percent excise tax on medical cannabis sales, with revenue supporting marijuana research, rural impact and urban waste remediation, agriculture development, mental health response programs, substance misuse treatment and more.
But while the measures would appear separately on the ballot if they qualify, activists view them as complementary.
A key example of that is how the adult-use measure calls for a gradual decrease of medical marijuana tax, which would reach zero percent within one year of its enactment. Also, within 60 days of enactment, the state’s existing medical cannabis dispensaries would be permitted to sell to the recreational market.
Oklahoma activists had previously attempted to qualify a legalization measure for the 2020 ballot. They filed a petition to legalize cannabis for adult use in December 2019, but signature gathering fell short due in part to procedural delays and the coronavirus pandemic.
Both of the newly finalized initiatives would be constitutional amendments, meaning activists will need to collect at least 177,958 valid signatures from registered voters on each to qualify them for the ballot.
Oklahoma is one of a growing number of states where activists are working to place drug policy reform before voters next year.
Florida marijuana activists are making another push to place adult-use legalization before voters in 2022, recently filing a new petition with the state after previous versions of the reform were rejected by the state Supreme Court earlier this year.
South Dakota cannabis advocates are now ramping up for a signature gathering effort to put legalization on the 2022 ballot as the state Supreme Court continues to consider a case on the fate of the legal cannabis measure that voters approved last year.
New Hampshire lawmakers are pursuing a new strategy to legalize marijuana in the state that involves putting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide on in 2022.
Lawmakers in Maryland are also crafting legislation to place a marijuana legalization referendum on the 2022 ballot after the House speaker called for the move.
Nebraska marijuana activists announced recently that they have turned in a pair of complementary initiatives to legalize medical cannabis that they hope to place on the state’s 2022 ballot.
Ohio activists recently cleared a final hurdle to begin collecting signatures for a 2022 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in the state.
Missouri voters may see a multiple marijuana initiatives on the state’s ballot next year, with a new group filing an adult-use legalization proposal that could compete with separate reform measures that are already in the works.
Arkansas advocates are collecting signatures to place adult-use marijuana legalization on the ballot.
Activists in Idaho are working to advance separate measures to legalize possession of recreational marijuana and to create a system of legal medical cannabis sales. State officials recently cleared activists to begin collecting signatures for a revised initiative to legalize possession of marijuana that they hope to place before voters on the 2022 ballot. Meanwhile, a separate campaign to legalize medical cannabis in the state is also underway, with advocates actively collecting signatures to qualify that measure for next year’s ballot.
After a House-passed bill to legalize marijuana in North Dakota was rejected by the Senate in March, some senators hatched a plan to advance the issue by referring it to voters on the 2022 ballot. While their resolution advanced through a key committee, the full Senate blocked it. However, activists with the group North Dakota Cannabis Caucus are collecting signatures to qualify a constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis for the 2022 ballot.
Wyoming’s attorney general recently issued ballot summaries for proposed initiatives to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize cannabis possession, freeing up activists to collect signatures to qualify for the 2022 ballot.
And it’s not just marijuana measures that reform activists are seeking to qualify for state ballots next year. A California campaign was recently cleared to begin collecting signatures for an initiative to legalize psilocybin. And advocates in Washington State have announced plans to put a proposal to decriminalize all drug before voters.
Read the text of the Oklahoma adult-use and medical marijuana initiatives below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.