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.
Marijuana Policy Project Welcomes New Executive Director
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the nation’s best-funded cannabis advocacy group, has named long-time social justice reform advocate Steve Hawkins as its next executive director.
Hawkins, who previously served as the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and executive vice president of the NAACP, will assume responsibility for MPP’s national legalization advocacy efforts just months before a number of states vote to enact their own legal systems.
The decision was made after a “months-long candidate search that included several exceptionally qualified candidates,” MPP said in a press release.
“We are still battling the effects of decades of anti-marijuana legislation and propaganda in this country,” Hawkins told Marijuana Moment. “Huge strides have been made when it comes to setting the record straight, but our work is far from over and there is still a lot of misinformation out there that needs to be addressed.”
“Fundraising and maintaining momentum is also a core challenge for the movement, which is in some ways a victim of its own success. Thanks to the major gains it has made in recent years, many people think legalization is inevitable and that their donations are no longer needed or that they don’t need to take the time to write their elected officials. These laws are not going to change themselves and there is more need than ever for resources and engagement to support federal and state-level reform efforts.”
Hawkins’s experience running successful criminal justice reform campaigns—including a bipartisan effort to end capital punishment for juveniles during his time at the NCADP—made him an apt candidate to spearhead the fight to end prohibition, Troy Dayton, chair of MPP’s board of directors, said in a statement.
“Steve has a strong track record in the field of criminal justice reform, and he knows how to build a movement toward meaningful social change,” Dayton said. “We were not only impressed by his expertise and experience, but also his strong convictions regarding the injustice of marijuana prohibition.”
“The country is moving in the right direction on marijuana policy, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Hawkins also previously held leadership positions at Amnesty International and the Coalition for Public Safety.
He told Marijuana Moment that his three decades of experience “defending civil and human rights” has informed his belief that we should “bring an end to marijuana prohibition, which has had a hugely detrimental impact, especially to communities of color,” and that we should “replace it with a more sensible system of regulation.”
“I also believe it is critical we ensure those populations that were so negatively impacted by prohibition are able to participate in and experience the positive impacts of such a regulated system.”
At MPP, Hawkins will succeed Rob Kampia, who late last year left the organization he founded in 1995 to start a for-profit cannabis policy consulting firm called the Marijuana Leadership Campaign. Kampia’s departure was announced shortly after sexual misconduct allegations against him resurfaced amid the #MeToo movement.
Kampia offered some words of advice for the next person to occupy his former seat in a phone interview with Marijuana Moment:
“View yourself as a fundraiser who has to engage in transactional fundraising with the marijuana industry in part, and view yourself as needing to come up with a smart, strategic plan for lobbying in state legislatures rather than doing ballot initiatives where no one else is going to touch it. Do not view yourself as a spokesperson.”
Or in other words, less of a focus on talk, and more on action.
MPP named Matthew Schweich as the interim executive director while the group scouted for a replacement. Scweich will now serve as MPP’s deputy director overseeing marijuana reform initiatives in Michigan and Utah.
In a statement, MPP board member Joby Pritzker said Schweich “provided critical leadership during a challenging transition period for MPP.”
“He maintained the effectiveness of our advocacy operations, managed our fundraising efforts, and oversaw ballot initiative campaigns in multiple states, while at the same time leading our staff and assisting the board with the executive director search.”
The past few years have seen a number of leadership changeups at national pro-legalization groups.
NORML brought on Erik Altieri as executive director in 2016 after Allen St. Pierre left the organization following 11 years of service. And last year, the Drug Policy Alliance announced that it had hired Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, who worked on international and domestic drug policies issues for 13 years at the Human Rights Watch, as the new executive director to replace retiring founder Ethan Nadelmann.
While the objective at all of these groups—promoting equitable drug policy reform in the United States—has remained the same, the nature of the movement has evolved. A majority of states have now legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, and though state-level reform efforts continue, calls for change at the federal level are increasingly resonant.
That is to say, these new executive directors will face a different set of challenges than their predecessors did.
Photo courtesy of Beloit College.
UN Launches First-Ever Full Review Of Marijuana’s Status Under International Law
For the first time ever, the United Nations (UN) is launching an in-depth review of whether marijuana is properly classified under international drug treaties.
In a related development, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that cannabidiol (CBD), a compound in marijuana that is increasingly used for medical purposes, does not warrant being controlled under the global agreements.
“The Committee recommended that preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled within the International Drug Control Conventions,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote in a letter announcing the moves. “The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a Critical Review” of marijuana, hashish, cannabis extracts and THC.
That broader review is set for November, and follows the results of an initial pre-review conducted by WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) in June.
“A pre-review is the first step of the ECDD’s assessment process, where it is determined whether there is enough robust scientific information to proceed to the next step, called a critical review,” an explanatory document accompanying the new letter reads. “This initial evaluation is also an opportunity to identify gaps in the available scientific data. A critical review is carried out when there is sufficient scientific evidence to allow the ECDD to make informed an recommendation that the substance be placed under international control, or if its level of control should be changed.”
The reviews include analyses of the chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, epidemiology and therapeutic use of the substances.
If the UN ultimately decides to change marijuana’s status under international law, it would trigger a review on U.S. scheduling, according to provisions of the Controlled Substances Act.
“Thankfully the World Health Organization has accepted the challenge of evaluating the placement of cannabis in the 1962 Single Convention treaty,” Michael Krawitz of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access told Marijuana Moment. “Cannabis placement in the treaty was done in the absence of scientific evaluation and has provided the basis for a moral campaign against drugs by the USA for many decades. Since our work on medical access to cannabis has been based upon scientific inquiry we know that any rational assessment of the evidence leads the observer to understand cannabis indeed has proven medicinal value and, compared to other medicines, has profoundly fewer negative side effects.”
Here’s what the UN experts have determined so far:
“There are no case reports of abuse or dependence relating to the use of pure CBD. No public health problems have been associated with CBD use,” an annex attached to Ghebreyesus’s letter reads, noting that research has shown it to be effective in treating epilepsy. “CBD has been found to be generally well tolerated with a good safety profile.”
“Cannabidiol (CBD) is not specifically listed in the schedules of the 1961, 1971 or 1988 United Nations International Drug Control Conventions… There is no evidence that CBD as a substance is liable to similar abuse and similar ill-effects as substances in the 1961 or 1971 Conventions such as cannabis or THC, respectively. The Committee recommended that preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled.”
When it comes to whole-plant marijuana and resin, ECDD’s pre-review found that while “adverse effects” are possible and that cannabis can cause physical dependence, its current categorization in international treaties “may not appear to be consistent with the criteria.”
“Several countries permit the use of cannabis for the treatment of medical conditions such as back pain, sleep disorders, depression, post-injury pain, and multiple sclerosis,” the document says. “The evidence presented to the Committee did not indicate that cannabis plant and cannabis resin were liable to produce ill-effects similar to these other substances that are in Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The inclusion of cannabis and cannabis resin in Schedule IV may not appear to be consistent with the criteria for Schedule IV.”
“The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to critical review of cannabis plant and cannabis resin at a future ECDD meeting and explore further the appropriateness of their current scheduling within the 1961 Convention.”
With respect to extracts and tinctures of cannabis, the committee similarly identified health issues associated with consumption, but said “there is limited evidence of a withdrawal syndrome upon abrupt cessation.”
The committee also looked at THC itself and isomers of THC, and recommended that both be subject to critical reviews in November.
Ghebreyesus’s letter is addressed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who will be the ultimate recipient of WHO’s recommendations on cannabis and related extracts and compounds following the review.
Guterres was prime minister of Portugal when that nation decriminalized all drugs, a move he touted last year in an address to the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs. After the critical reviews are in, that body will vote on whether to alter cannabis’s status under the international treaties.
Marijuana Moment Patreon supporters can see the full text of the new WHO letter on cannabis below:
North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Measure Qualifies For November Ballot
North Dakotans voted to approve medical cannabis two years ago, and now they will get the chance to decide on full marijuana legalization this November.
Activists collected a sufficient number of signatures to qualify a ballot measure that would allow adults over 21 to use and grow marijuana, the secretary of state’s office determined on Monday.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.