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.
California Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Is A ‘Civil Rights’ Matter Amid Mass Protests Over Racial Injustice
The governor of California discussed systemic racism and injustice that is inspiring mass protests across the country in a Friday speech, and he touted the state’s legalization of marijuana as an example of how it has addressed racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said at a press conference that he’s “very proud of this state” for going beyond issues such as implicit bias in policing and the “deadly use of force.” California’s leadership helped advance “a conversation about broader criminal justice reform to address the issues of the war on drugs” and “race-based sentencing,” he said.
“That’s why the state was one of the early adopters of a new approach as it relates to cannabis reform. Legalization around adult-use of marijuana,” he said. “It was a civil rights call from our perspective.”
“I was proud to be out in front in those efforts,” he added. “It was about addressing the disparities. It was about addressing incarceration. It was about addressing the ills of this war on drugs.”
Newsom also discussed the racially discriminatory sentencing of crack versus powder cocaine and other mandatory minimum sentencing policies. While the federal disparity was reduced over time since Congress passed the sentencing provision—a policy presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden helped enacted during his time in the Senate and later sought to undo—California eliminated the distinction in terms of state sentencing in 2014.
Even so, the governor recognized that the reforms the state has enacted to date are “not enough” and more work needs to be done. He’s also not alone in drawing a connection between drug policy reform and racial justice.
Earlier this week, the governor of Virginia said that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.
Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs. It now has 160 cosponsors.
The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.
In New York, there’s a renewed push to pass a package of criminal justice reform legislation that includes a bill to legalize marijuana. Sen. Julia Salazar (D) told Marijuana Moment that “in this particular moment, I think what’s the important factor here is that [criminalization] disproportionately impacts black and brown New Yorkers.”
“Because of the criminalization of the use of marijuana, more black and brown New Yorkers have interactions with police than they need to,” she said. “More people end up in the criminal justice system in the first place than is necessary at all.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
American Bar Association Says Firms Working ‘Indirectly’ With Marijuana Industry Should Get COVID Relief
The American Bar Association (ABA) sent a letter to the heads of the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration (SBA) on Friday, urging them to end a current policy preventing law firms that service state-legal marijuana businesses from receiving federal coronavirus relief.
SBA has made clear that cannabis companies are ineligible for its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans—but its policy also bars those that work with marijuana businesses indirectly from getting the aid. ABA, which has nearly 200,000 dues-paying members, said it wants clarification or a formal policy change to make it so indirect businesses are not impacted.
“The ABA supports amending federal law to ensure that lawyers do not face the threat of criminal charges when they represent clients in states that have legalized marijuana,” the organization said. “Even before those changes are made to federal law, lawyers should also not be penalized for providing legal services to cannabis-related businesses that comply with state laws.”
ABA also argued that the policy is excessively broad in that it stipulates that companies that derive any revenue from servicing a cannabis business cannot receive relief during the pandemic. “Thus, a law firm where a single lawyer provided advice to a single marijuana business client on legal issues for a nominal fee would arguably be ineligible under this language for the SBA PPP loan program,” the organization wrote.
ABA’s letter further notes that 78 percent of firms are located in states where marijuana is legal in some form.
“We urge SBA to provide further guidance that it will not treat otherwise eligible businesses, including law firms, as disqualified from the PPP program based solely on having provided legal, financial/accounting, policy, or regulatory advice to a Direct Marijuana Business,” Judy Perry Martinez, ABA’s president, wrote.
Steve Fox, strategic advisor at the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “wonderful to see an organization with the reputation and stature of the ABA engage on this issue.”
“As they note, the SBA guidance is overly broad and unjustly punishes companies and firms all across the country. In fact, in some states, the cannabis industry is so ingrained in the economy, you have many hundreds of companies providing goods or services to cannabis businesses,” he said. “According to the plain language of the SBA guidance, they are all, with very minor exceptions, ineligible for PPP loans.”
“We stand with the ABA in urging the Treasury and Small Business Administration to issue further guidance, clarifying that ‘indirect marijuana businesses’ are eligible for PPP loans. If they fail to do so, Congress should remedy this situation at the earliest possible opportunity,” he added.
In February, ABA’s House of Delegates voted in favor of proposals endorsing pending federal legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses and calling for a clarification of rules to ensure that lawyers will not be penalized for representing clients in cases concerning state-legal marijuana activity.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill last month that would fix the COVID-19 relief access problem, calling for SBA eligibility for cannabis businesses and ancillary companies. That came after he led a letter with 34 bipartisan members of the House urging leadership to include the policy change in future coronavirus-related bills.
Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) made a similar request to Senate leaders in a separate letter.
Separately, the ABA-supported Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was included in a House-passed COVID-19 relief package last month.
A bipartisan coalition of 34 state and territory attorneys general asked Congress to pass the bill with that language, which would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said this week that marijuana business banking represents one of the most “challenging issues that I have encountered” at the agency.
Read ABA’s letter to the Treasury and SBA below:
Bermuda Government Releases Marijuana Legalization Bill For Public Feedback
The government of Bermuda released a draft bill on Wednesday to establish a legal marijuana market in the self-governing British overseas territory.
“Surprising for some, public attitudes have evolved apace with global legislative reforms and in recognition that opening up pathways for new economic opportunities and activity is needed,” Attorney General Kathy Simmons said in a video on the proposal.
Under the proposed legislation, adults 21 and older would be able to possess and purchase up to seven grams of cannabis from licensed retailers.
A regulatory body called the Cannabis Advisory Authority would be responsible for issuing licenses and regulating the market. There would be seven types of licenses available: cultivation, retail, research, import, export, transportation and manufacturing.
Individuals with prior marijuana convictions would not be barred from participating in the industry.
Fees for the licenses would be set in a way designed to both stimulate the territory’s economy while also ensuring that they are not prohibitively expensive for “underserved and marginalized communities,” a summary of the bill states.
People with convictions for possessing seven grams or less would be eligible for expungement.
The Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Senator the Hon. Kathy Lynn Simmons, JP has announced new regulations by the Government of #Bermuda to reform Cannabis laws.
— Bermuda Government (@BdaGovernment) June 4, 2020
Last year, Bermudan lawmakers unveiled draft legislation to create a medical cannabis program. Public feedback signaled that people felt the bill imposed excessive regulations and that the territory should more broadly legalize marijuana altogether for adult use.
Now that this new draft legislation has been released, the government is again asking for public input up until July 3. On its site, individuals are prompted with seven specific questions that feedback is being sought on. That includes queries about licensing requirements and penalties.
Premier David Burt, who pledged last year to introduce marijuana legalization legislation, also encouraged individuals to weigh in on the proposed regulations.
We want to hear from you! Share your thoughts by July 3rd.https://t.co/kkGtsuQ1ES
— Premier David Burt (@BermudaPremier) June 5, 2020
“The Government has made a commitment to progressively liberalize cannabis laws in Bermuda and to create economic opportunities for citizens wishing to participate in a regulated cannabis scheme,” the site states. “The Government again wishes to ‘take it to the people’ by commencing a one month public consultation exercise on the proposed scheme.”
The attorney general said in her video that the government plans to “move ahead with a more simplified, regulated cannabis scheme, which builds on the strength of the original medicinal cannabis policy and which embraces the public feedback.”
“The revised proposal with provide for a regulated cannabis program which has been hybridized to meet Bermuda’s requirements while modeling the best available legal provisions in Canada, both provincial and federal, and to a lesser degree, examples from the Caribbean,” she said.
Several Caribbean nations have started exploring marijuana reform in recent years. Importantly, in 2018, the heads of 19 Caribbean nations agreed to “review marijuana’s current status with a view to reclassification,” emphasizing “human and religious rights” issues stemming from criminalization as well as “the economic benefits to be derived” from legalization.
Since then, lawmakers in the dual-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis said they would be introducing legalization legislation. The government of Trinidad and Tobago brought two cannabis reform bills before Parliament last year—one to decriminalize low-level possession and another to legalize cannabis for medical and religious purposes.
Meanwhile, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands has been stressing the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the U.S. territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Jamaican government also recently announced that it will be allowing medical cannabis patients to make marijuana purchases online for pickup at “herb houses” as a means to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Read the draft bill to legalize marijuana in Bermuda below: