All of a sudden, a Mormon Republican senator from Utah is one of Congress’s leading champions for medical marijuana.
“The evidence shows that cannabis possesses medicinal properties that can truly change people’s lives for the better,” Sen. Orrin Hatch said last month when introducing legislation to remove roadblocks to studies on the drug’s medical potential. “I strongly support research into the medicinal benefits of marijuana, and I remain committed to helping patients find the help they need, whether they suffer from cancer, severe seizures or any other chronic disorder.”
In the days since that Senate floor speech, Hatch has spoken about medical cannabis at seemingly every opportunity. In tweets, press releases, committee hearings and videos, the senator and his staff have consistently maintained a focus on marijuana issues.
Hatch even cited his cannabis advocacy in pushing back against press reports about opioid-related legislation that led to President Trump’s nominee for drug czar withdrawing from consideration last week.
Hatch’s marijuana moves, and how his office has characterized them, have taken many longtime observers of marijuana policy by surprise in light of the Utah GOP senator’s longtime vocal opposition to cannabis law reform.
Hatch’s Cannabis History
Despite telling Rolling Stone last month that there’s been “no transformation” in his position on the issue and that he’s “always been for any decent medicine,” a review of Congressional records shows that Hatch’s views have indeed shifted over the years, in a very big way.
In 1977, when Hatch was a first-year freshman senator in, he voted no on a Judiciary Committee amendment to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. It cleared the panel over his objection, six votes to four.
“We’re sending out a message that really shouldn’t be sent out,” the Utah senator said.
But that was only a temporary setback for prohibitionist forces. After the vote, Hatch threatened to submit a substitute amendment establishing prison sentences for low-level cannabis possession, and the committee reversed itself the following week, undoing the decrim proposal.
Nearly two decades later, Hatch had ascended to the chairmanship of the panel. In December 1996, just weeks after California and Arizona voters became the first in the country to approve medical cannabis, he convened a Judiciary Committee hearing with the intent of pressing Clinton administration officials to work to overturn the state measures.
“Perhaps the most effective way to handle this would be to work with concerned citizens in Arizona and California who want to modify or repeal these initiatives,” he said, according to the hearing record. “I would like to know what the administration’s thinking is in this area and who is going to make these decisions as soon as possible because I think we can’t let this go without a response.”
Citing the DEA and other cannabis opponents, Hatch said that the “asserted medical benefits of marijuana have been rejected,” “marijuana is likely to be more cancer-causing than tobacco” and that the state initiatives “send the wrong message to our youth and easily could worsen the problem.”
He argued that the drug legalization movement essentially tricked voters into approving the ballot measures with “disingenuous tactics” such as misleading TV ads that “tug at the heartstrings.”
“Today, we will hear how the philanthropists of the drug legalization movement pumped millions of dollars in out-of-state soft money into stealth campaigns designed to conceal their real objective — the legalization of drugs. We will view some of their deceptive advertisements and we will learn the true threat these soft-headed campaigns pose to America…
“These were successful examples of stealth political strategies — that relied on misdirection and dissemblance to persuade the public that a campaign is devoted to salving the pain of the ill and dying or is designed to ‘get tough’ with drug offenders, but in truth were just a first step in a larger movement toward decriminalization of controlled drugs.”
Over the years, however, Hatch apparently met people whose real stories convinced him that cannabis actually does have medical benefits.
In the floor speech he gave introducing his marijuana research bill last month, for example, the senator told the story of a young constituent suffering from severe epilepsy, whom he called a “friend.”
“The current treatment for his condition, with no guarantee of success, would be invasive brain surgery,” Hatch said. “This poor family is seeking help, yearning for a way for their child to live a safe and healthy life. Compounds found in marijuana could significantly mitigate the severity of my friend’s seizures and even help him lead a normal life. But current regulations prevent the development of any such treatment from going forward. So this young man is left to suffer.”
Far from the dire warnings he deployed in the 1996 hearing, Hatch has even taken to jokingly using pot puns in his statements about cannabis. A lot of them.
“As I said last month on the Senate floor, it’s high time we give stone-cold serious consideration to medical marijuana research. For twenty years, states have delved into the weeds of potential uses, but research has often been stymied by a puffed-up regulatory bureaucracy. As doctors strain to find effective alternatives to addictive opioids, they need more than token gestures from Congress; they need potent solutions. That’s why the bill we have rolled out is not a half-baked policy proposal but an earnest effort to address a chronic problem in the system. With growing support from Democrats and Republicans alike, this joint effort represents a unique hash of ideas from members of both parties, and a budding opportunity for real bipartisan reform. We need to blaze a trail for a new era of medical research, and this legislation will light the way.”
While many experts maintain that marijuana is not addictive they have not made the same claim about puns.
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) October 13, 2017
Last week, Hatch’s office tweeted a link to a Marijuana Moment story about his pressing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on marijuana research during a committee hearing, and then followed up with a second tweet facetiously wondering “why anyone would be surprised to find out Orrin Hatch reads ‘Marijuana Moment.'”
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) October 19, 2017
Can’t figure out why anyone would be surprised to find out Orrin Hatch reads “Marijuana Moment.” https://t.co/YvCXHZTdbU
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) October 19, 2017
Hatch filed a similar marijuana research bill last year, but did not so clearly endorse cannabis’s medical potential in his related remarks upon introduction as he did this time. And his staff didn’t do nearly as much press outreach or social media work about the earlier bill.
Hatch’s State May Legalize Medical Marijuana Soon
The senator’s increasingly involved work on marijuana could be related to the issue’s growing prominence in Utah. Activists there are currently collecting signatures to place a medical cannabis measure on the state’s 2018 ballot.
While Hatch hasn’t publicly weighed in on how he plans to vote on the initiative if it qualifies, he did recently sit down with its organizers, and his office tweeted about the meeting.
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) September 22, 2017
Alex Iorg, campaign manager for the Utah Patients Coalition, which is behind the ballot measure, was at the half-hour meeting with the senator.
Hatch’s “change in direction and understanding is very similar to what most people have gone through since the mid-90s. Back then there wasn’t a lot of research,” Iorg told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “He’s learned more, and I think of my parents. Back then they would’ve been totally against it. And now they’re open to the medical value of cannabis, and they’re strong, conservative [Mormons]. I’m sure that his evolution in acceptance of this has evolved right along with most people in Utah.”
A big part of that evolution has been driven by the stories of patients like the young man with epilepsy that Hatch mentioned on the Senate floor last month.
“Those stories have made a huge impact and I think they are mostly to account for the change that you saw in Hatch in mid-90s to today,” said Iorg, who once interned in the senator’s office. “It is those patient stories. They are powerful.”
If Hatch does end up endorsing the ballot measure, it would put him opposite the official stance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church or LDS, of which he is a member.
“We believe that society is best served by requiring marijuana to go through further research and the FDA approval process that all other drugs must go through before they are prescribed to patients,” the Church said in a statement earlier this year.
But while the Church isn’t necessarily on board with the ballot measure, Iorg’s campaign is getting a lot of support from its individual devotees.
“Among LDS conservative members, we’re polling over half. These are conservative, very active Mormons and we’re finding that what we considered probably our toughest demographic, most of them support our cause,” he said.
While the campaign hasn’t specifically pressed Hatch for an endorsement yet, Iorg thinks the senator would be open to considering it once the measure qualifies for the ballot early next year.
“He was very open and genuinely interested,” the activist said of the senator’s disposition in the recent meeting. “He gave great feedback and asked good questions.”
Perhaps because of his faith, Hatch himself admits he is an “unlikely” ally for medical cannabis patients.
“I’m against illicit drug use and have always been very strong in these areas,” he told Roll Call. “But I’m also a pioneer in good medicine and how we can help doctors and scientists… I have to make these decisions based upon what’s right for the people of Utah and the people of this country. And there’s no reason to be afraid of medical marijuana.”
That’s a far cry from two decades ago, when Hatch argued from the dais of the Senate Judiciary Committee that there are many reasons people should fear legalizing medical cannabis.
Below, read documents from the 1996 Senate hearing Hatch chaired on state medical cannabis legalization, provided to Marijuana Moment by freedom of information journalist Emma Best:
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder
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.”
The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster for communities of color.
We will legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and invest revenue from legal marijuana back into those communities. pic.twitter.com/x7xrzw1Eu4
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 21, 2019
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.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota
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.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches
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.”
As I said earlier this year, 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.https://t.co/Y1dOwgHbm2
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) September 20, 2019
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.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.