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.
Michigan Prosecutor Won’t Pursue Psychedelics Possession Cases Following Local Decriminalization Vote
A soon-to-be county prosecutor in Michigan said his office will not be pursuing psychedelics possession cases following a City Council vote to decriminalize entheogenic substances in Ann Arbor.
Eli Savit, who won in a three-way Democratic primary for Washtenaw County prosecutor last month and is running unopposed in the general election, said in a statement to the advocacy group Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor that he supports the measure and will extend the policy county-wide, rather than just at the city level.
“I support the decriminalization of entheogenic plants. I believe the War on Drugs has been an abject failure, and I see no reason to criminalize—or prosecute—people for their use of such plants,” he said. “That was my position before the Ann Arbor City Council resolution, and it’s true with even greater force afterwards.”
The official, who campaigned on a pro-reform platform, said that drug criminalization has “created a cruel roulette wheel of sorts” and “it’s a weighted wheel, as the data clearly shows that Black people and people of color are far more likely to face criminal consequences related to drug use than white people.”
“The Ann Arbor City Council resolution of course applies only in Ann Arbor,” he said. “But, consistent with the resolution, I do not plan to prosecute the use or possession of entheogenic plants in any other part of the county.”
The unanimous City Council vote earlier this month made Ann Arbor the third city in the U.S. to make it so enforcement of laws against a wide range of psychedelics such as psilocybin, ibogaine and ayahuasca are among the lowest police priorities. Oakland was the first to do so, followed by Santa Cruz. Washington, D.C. could be next, as activists successfully placed the issue on the November ballot.
The broader reform movement kicked off in earnest shortly after Denver voters approved a measure last year focused on decriminalizing psilocybin.
Savit’s support for the Ann Arbor policy change stands out as an example of how the messaging behind these local reforms can have an impact beyond the individual jurisdiction it directly applies to.
“While we were not surprised, we were absolutely thrilled to find out that Eli Savit supports the DNA2 resolution! This left us feeling very hopeful for the future of our county,” Julie Barron, chair of Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor, told Marijuana Moment. “Mr. Savit spoke extensively during his campaign about ending the war on drugs. It is great to know that he will continue this promise to the county with an action plan not to prosecute the possession and use of entheogenic plants/fungi.”
“We have a strong drug reform advocate here, and we cannot wait for him to take his position of Washtenaw County Prosecutor,” she said.
Several other prosecutors have similarly enacted policy changes to avoid low-level marijuana cases. For example, the top cop in Fairfax County, Virginia said in January that he “directed my office to dismiss prosecutions of adults for simple possession of marijuana.”
The top prosecutor in Baltimore is proactively closing warrants and dismissing hundreds of cases for certain offenses, including simple drug possession, that her office is no longer pursuing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Montana Marijuana Legalization Initiative Endorsed By Environmental Conservation Groups
Montana activists behind a marijuana legalization initiative are being backed by a uniquely “Big Sky Country” coalition: environmental conservation groups.
The state—widely known for its public lands and parks that attract tourists from across the country—would see a significant influx of revenue for environmental conservation programs from cannabis taxes if the legalization measure passes in November. Half of the public revenue from marijuana sales would be earmarked for such purposes.
Organized by the legalization campaign New Approach Montana, a new Public Lands Coalition (PLC) is comprised of four conservation organizations, including the Montana Conservation Voters and Montana Wildlife Federation.
“All Montanans share the values of open space, as Montanans we collectively own and steward some of the most special places on earth. We are in fact, the Last Best Place, and that’s a central part of our identity as Montanans,” Pepper Petersen, political director for New Approach Montana, told Marijuana Moment.
“The allocations in I-190 reflect our values as Montanans and you see that in the initiative,” he said. “Montanans know that marijuana revenue should be invested wisely, and our public lands in Montana are a great investment.”
The group said in an op-ed published in The Missoulian newspaper on Sunday that there is currently $60 million in “unmet conservation needs in Montana” for services such as “funding for landowners who want to offer access for hunting and fishing.” Legalizing cannabis could help fill that gap, the coalition said.
“In order to continue to offer Montanans and our millions of guests an experience worth coming back for, we need to invest in our public lands,” PLC, which also includes Wild Montana Action Fund and the Trust for Public Land, wrote. “A vote for 118 and 190 is a vote to maintain and create trails, protect land for wildlife, and fund our state parks.”
The new coalition’s website says that legalization “would provide more than $18 million per year to benefit our public lands; both maintaining current access and opening up new opportunities for recreation.”
“These additional funds would help to address the state’s backlog of repairs to campgrounds, trails, wildlife habitat, opening access and increasing maintenance on our public lands,” the groups said.
Interestingly, the campaign is also making the case that legalizing federally illegal cannabis on the state level will help open up access to additional federal funding.
“The Land and Water Conservation fund is the largest piece of federal funding for our public lands. Now that the LWCF is fully and permanently funded, there are $900 million federal dollars per year that can be leveraged with matching state resources,” the coalition website says. “Tax revenue from I-190 could allow Montana to access more of this funding through matched federal grants. Montana should take every opportunity to use this money, and I-190 represents a golden opportunity to do so.”
There will be two separate marijuana measures on the state’s November ballot.
One initiative, a statutory change, would create a system of legal cannabis access for adult-use. A separate constitutional amendment would ensure only those 21 and older can participate in the market.
If the statutory measure is approved by voters, possessing up to an ounce of cannabis would be allowed, and people could cultivate up to four plants and four seedlings at home.
The Montana Department of Revenue would be in charge of regulating the legal industry and would issue business licenses by January 1, 2022. Existing medical cannabis businesses would be first in line to enter the adult-use market.
There would be a 20 percent sales tax on recreational marijuana, while the tax on medical cannabis products would be reduced from two to one percent. Besides public land funding, those tax dollars would also go toward veteran services, substance misuse treatment, health care, local governments that allow cannabis businesses and the state general fund.
“We are excited to have the support of our neighbors and friends from the PLC,” Petersen said. “Countless Montanans will continue to enjoy this special place because of the funding I-190 is creating and because of the hard work of the folks like those who make up the Public Lands Coalition who believe and invest in Montana’s public lands and waters.”
Montana voters approved a medical cannabis legalization initiative in 2004 and later passed a 2016 expansion measure.
For the current cycle, New Approach Montana submitted their petitions for the cannabis initiatives in June. That came after they initially suspended signature gathering activities amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which they later relaunched with social distancing measures in place.
In July, the group announced that data from county officials indicated they would make the ballot. And in August, state officials officially qualified the measures.
The Montana Democratic Party adopted a platform plank endorsing marijuana legalization in June.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
House Democrats Keep Marijuana Banking Protections In Revised COVID Bill After Delaying Legalization Vote
A slimmed-down coronavirus relief bill that House Democrats released on Monday again includes marijuana banking protections.
Despite pushback from GOP lawmakers who challenged the germaneness of including the cannabis language in a prior version that the House approved in May, the text of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was again inserted into the new legislation. It could get a floor vote as early as this week—and that would mark the third time the chamber has taken up the banking measure in some form in the past year.
The SAFE Banking Act would protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, and on its own has significant bipartisan support. But its inclusion in the COVID-19 relief legislation was widely criticized by Republicans who insisted that it was part of an expansive Democratic wishlist of items not related to the health crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been particularly critical of the House proposal, specifically taking issue with industry diversity reporting provisions of the SAFE Banking Act, for example. Other vocal opponents include Vice President Mike Pence and Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and John Kennedy (R-LA).
The Senate did not add cannabis banking language to its own version of COVID relief legislation filed in July.
“We appreciate that Democratic leadership is standing firmly behind the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act, despite some Republicans in Congress preferring to treat this public safety issue like some kind of comic relief,” Steve Fox, president of VS Strategies, told Marijuana Moment. “Far from being non-germane, the pandemic has only underscored the importance of this legislation.”
“At a time when businesses all across the country are relying on electronic transactions to protect public health, cannabis businesses are being forced to exchange currency. This bill is timely and necessary,” he said.
A summary of the banking provision prepared by House leaders states that it would “allow cannabis-related legitimate businesses, that in many states have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential services, along with their service providers, to access banking services and products, as well as insurance.”
Notably, the document highlights the diversity reporting language that some Republicans have slammed, signaling that Democrats are not shying away from those components despite the criticism. It explains that the legislation “requires reports to Congress on access to financial services and barriers to marketplace entry for potential and existing minority-owned cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
Advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers have argued that providing marijuana banking protections will mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by making it so cannabis businesses don’t have to rely on cash transactions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she agrees that the measure is an appropriate component of the bill.
“The inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES 2.0 package is a positive development,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “In the majority of states that regulate the marijuana marketplace, cannabis businesses have been deemed essential during this pandemic.”
“Unfortunately, at the federal level, prohibition compounds the problems that this emerging industry faces,” he said. “Small cannabis businesses in particular are facing tough economic times and access to traditional financial tools will help ensure that they can weather this pandemic.”
While the incremental reform measure would help alleviate financial complications in the cannabis market, news that House Democrats opted to stick to their guns on the industry-focused marijuana banking legislation could frustrate advocates who were disappointed when the chamber’s leadership decided to postpone a planned vote on a comprehensive cannabis legalization and social equity bill earlier this month.
The banking provisions are generally considered industry friendly without addressing the systemic problems resulting from the war on drugs. In the past, some activists have made the case that lawmakers should’t approve the SAFE Banking Act until marijuana is descheduled and restorative justice policies are implemented.
The House was expected to hold a floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act to federally legalize cannabis last week, but leaders announced they were delaying it after certain centrist Democrats expressed concern about the optics of advancing marijuana reform legislation without first passing additional COVID relief.
All that said, others do view the banking protections as a boon for social equity in that they would help minority-owned cannabis businesses that currently struggle to get access to capital and financial services.
“Without access to much needed capital to maintain throughout the crisis, it is possible that we could see an acceleration of the corporatization of the cannabis industry in a manner that is inconsistent with the values and desires of many within the cannabis space,” Strekal said. “Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would ensure that small businesses could compete in this emerging marketplace.”
In July, bipartisan treasurers from 15 states and one territory sent a letter to congressional leadership, urging the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any COVID-19 legislation that’s sent to the president’s desk. Following GOP attacks on the House proposal, a group of Democratic state treasurers renewed that call.
The House last year approved the standalone SAFE Banking Act. For months, the legislation has gone without action in the Senate Banking Committee, where negotiations have been ongoing.