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The Marijuana Evolution Of Senator Orrin Hatch

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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.”

Hatch’s Evolution

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.”

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.'”

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.

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:

1996 Senate Marijuana Hearing by tomangell on Scribd

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Kentucky GOP Congressman Touts ‘High Hemp IQ’ Of His Constituents

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Rep. James Comer (R-KY) says that he proved his political advisors wrong when he decided to champion hemp legalization.

When he served as Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner before joining Congress and first contemplated “making hemp a reality,” he was told that people would conflate the crop with marijuana and he’d face a backlash, Comer said during an interview that aired this week.

“They said the people of Kentucky will never know the difference. They’ll think you’re talking about marijuana and you’re done,” he said during the Kentucky Educational Television appearance. “You can’t be a Republican and do this.”

“But people in Kentucky are smarter than some people give us credit for, and the people in Kentucky knew the history of hemp,” he said, noting that his own grandparents cultivated the crop.

“We have a high hemp IQ in Kentucky, and people across America are now learning the difference between hemp and marijuana.”

One of the areas that Comer said he hopes to see expanded is the use of hemp fibers to create products such as furniture and car parts. He mentioned one example of a Kentucky company that’s creating hardwood flooring out of hemp, and House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) is going to tour that facility with him soon.

Shortly before becoming the panel’s chair, Peterson said he was considering growing hemp on his own farm.

Most of the existing hemp facilities in Kentucky are producing CBD oil, which Comer said he also takes to treat minor pain.

While hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, businesses are still awaiting guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And that regulatory uncertainty has led some financial institutions to deny credit lines to hemp companies.

To that end, Comer said he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are working closely to resolve the problem. That includes pushing for the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal financial regulators.

“We teamed up with the marijuana people in the states,” Comer said.

Watch Comer’s hemp comments, starting around 5:30 into the video below:

“They’ve legalized marijuana. They’re selling marijuana. They’re not allowed to deposit the cash. They’re not allowed to take credit card transactions at those marijuana stores,” he said. “We have worked with them to try to create a system where you can have financial transparency, and that bill is making its way through Congress now.”

The SAFE Banking Act was approved by the House Financial Services Committee in March. And on Tuesday, the Senate Banking Committee took advocates by surprise after it announced that it would hold a hearing on marijuana banking issues next week, with just days left before the August recess.

Separately, the Senate Agriculture Committee will meet to discuss hemp production two days later.

McConnell has been an especially vocal advocate for hemp and CBD. For example, he led the head of USDA on a tour of a Kentucky hemp facility that produces CBD oil earlier this month.

Comer also claimed in the new interview that large pharmaceutical companies feel threatened by hemp-derived CBD as more consumers gravitate toward it as a “natural supplement” that could be a substitute for prescription painkillers.

“Now what you are having up here in Washington as we speak, the big drug companies are like, ‘Wow, people are buying this CBD oil and not buying our drug,'” the congressman said. “So they’re demanding that the FDA regulate it.”

He and McConnell are working to “keep the FDA off the backs of people,” Comer said.

While former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stressed that creating a regulatory pathway that allows for the lawful marketing of CBD as a food item or dietary supplement would take years without congressional action, the agency recently said that it is speeding up the rulemaking process and will issue a progress report by early fall.

USDA similarly recognized the intense interest from lawmakers and stakeholders in developing regulations for the crop, and it plans to issue an interim final rule for the crop in August.

Senate Schedules Second Cannabis Hearing For Next Week

Photo courtesy of KET.

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Psychedelics Decriminalization Moves Forward In Cities Around The U.S.

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Activists in Berkeley, California and Port Townsend, Washington took steps this week to get psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics decriminalized, following in the footsteps of successful similar efforts in Denver and Oakland.

In Berkeley, a decriminalization resolution advanced in a City Council committee on Wednesday, and organizers in Port Townsend spoke about their proposal at a county public health board meeting on Thursday, with plans to formally present it to the City and County Council.

The Berkeley measure would prohibit city departments and law enforcement from using any funds to enforce laws against possession, propagation and consumption of psychedelics by individuals 21 or older. Members of the City Council Public Safety committee unanimously voted to send the resolution to the body’s Public Health Committee for further consideration.

If that panel approves the measure, the full Council will schedule a hearing and vote on final passage. Decriminalize Nature, the group behind this resolution as well as the successful passage of neighboring Oakland’s psychedelics decriminalization effort last month, said they hope the Council will act on the measure by early November.

Separately, activists in Port Townsend announced that they delivered a speech about their psychedelics decriminalization proposal during a meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Health.

Beyond prohibiting the use of government funds to criminalize adults for using and possessing the substances, the local Washington resolution also calls on the city administrator to “instruct the City’s state and federal lobbyists to work in support of decriminalizing all Entheogenic Plants and plant-based compounds that are listed on the Federal Controlled Substances Schedule 1.”

“We are overwhelmed by the support of our community. Our group of supporters filled up half the audience,” the Port Townsend Psychedelic Society said in an Instagram post. “We are currently making plans to speak with the county health officer to talk about next steps in presenting in front of city and county council.”

Alex Williams, who is leading the decriminalization effort in Berkeley, told Marijuana Moment that Wednesday’s Council committee meeting there “went better than I had anticipated” and that he feels “there is an excellent chance of the resolution passing.”

Watch the Berkeley Public Safety Committee discuss psychedelics, starting at about 42:00:

While Williams said two members of the committee seemed to be under the impression that the resolution is singularly geared toward recreational use and meant to “capitalize on a new market,” Decriminalize Nature plans to address those misconceptions, emphasizing that the measure would not provide for commercial manufacturing or sales and that “this process is very important to allowing safe, equitable access to marginalized communities.”

“It is essential that entheogenic substances be treats as sacred spiritual practices and healers,” he added.

The resolution defines entheogenic substances as “plants and natural sources such as mushrooms, cacti, iboga containing plants and/or extracted combinations of plants similar to ayahuasca; and limited to those containing the following types of compounds: indoleamines, tryptamines, phenethylamines.”

Two Councilmembers, Rigel Robinson and Cheryl Davila, are sponsoring the measure.

“You can imagine a day where, years from now, doctors working with patients with serious depression or veterans dealing with PTSD could actually offer them a more realistic and comprehensive suite of potential treatments, which may include some of these plants as the research over the last several decades has indicated,” Robinson said at the meeting.

While Berkeley might seem like an obvious target for psychedelics reform given the city’s decades-long close association with counterculture, the movement to remove criminal penalties is gaining steam nationally. Decriminalize Nature is maintaining a map of jurisdictions throughout the country where activists have expressed interest in pursuing a similar model.

Also this week, a resident spoke at a Columbia, Missouri City Council meeting, asking the body to consider a resolution to decriminalize psychedelics. At least one councilmember expressed interest in following through, and he called the therapeutic potential of the natural substances “very promising.”

Individuals from nearly 100 cities have reached out to the organization for assistance advancing their own decriminalization efforts.

Voters in Denver kicked things off by approving the nation’s first-ever ballot measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May.

Activists are currently pursuing efforts to place psilocybin-focused measures on statewide ballots in California and Oregon for next year.

More Than 100 Marijuana Businesses Urge Congress To Include Social Equity In Legalization

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Top Democratic Party Leader Flops With Attempted Joke About Trump Smoking Hemp

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The chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) apparently thinks that hemp gets you high—and that getting high makes you dumb.

In an attempted dig at President Donald Trump, who said last week that farmers struggling amid a trade war were “over the hump,” DNC Chair Tom Perez said he thought the president “was smoking some hemp when he said they were over the hump.”

“If you smoke some hemp, I guess that would stimulate certain farm economies here,” he added during his remarks at a press conference in Wisconsin.

Watch Perez’s hemp comment at about 6:45 into the video below:

Because hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, it wouldn’t get you high, as Perez implied. But legalization advocates say it’s especially problematic that a party leader is treating marijuana as a laughing matter in the first place.

“I would need to be smoking something a hell of a lot stronger than hemp to find Tom Perez’s weak attempt at a marijuana joke funny,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“At a time when over 600,000 overwhelmingly black and brown Americans are still being arrested every year for simple possession, our failed and racist prohibition is no laughing matter,” he said. “While we have made great progress in winning elected officials nationwide to our cause, Perez illustrated that we have a lot of work left to do when it comes educating them about the issue and still a bit of a road to go down before we can stop dealing with dad jokes and bad weed puns.”

Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, echoed that point.

“We need more leadership and action at the federal level, not more stupid jokes, puns and inaccurate comments about hemp’s ability to get you high,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Luckily that is something that many of his party’s presidential candidates understand,” he said. “Sadly, Mr. Perez does not.”

Perez’s position on cannabis policy isn’t quite clear, as he’s remained largely silent on the issue. In contrast, many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are campaigning on broad marijuana reform proposals.

The DNC chair made his attempted hemp quip during a press availability in Milwaukee, where he is meeting donors and coordinating preparation for next year’s Democratic National Convention.

Senate Schedules Second Cannabis Hearing For Next Week

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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