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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.)

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North Dakota Marijuana Activists Turn Hopes To 2020 Ballot Measure Following Legislative Defeat

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Despite the narrow defeat on Wednesday of a bill that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, activists in North Dakota say they are looking ahead to 2020, when they’ll try to push for broader cannabis legalization through a ballot measure.

The activist group Legalize ND stated their intentions to take the issue to voters in the upcoming general election in a Facebook post following the legislation’s failure.

“The legislature has proven they have 0 interest in reform, and that they are unwilling to live by their pledge to pass decriminalization as an alternative to full legalization,” the post said.

The legislation, supported by Gov. Doug Burgum (R), would have removed criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce or two mature plants. The current misdemeanor offense that carries a penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine would have been replaced with a non-criminal offense that carried a $200 fine. The bill also set new penalties for possession of paraphernalia including pipes, containers or growing tools as a non-criminal offense with a $100 fine.

Instead, members of the House voted the measure down 43-47, with four abstentions.

Activists with Legalize ND and Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, who introduced the failed decriminalization bill, did not return calls from from Marijuana Moment seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the House approved separate legislation Monday that would add new conditions for which residents can use medical cannabis, increase the number of professionals who can recommend its use and expand the allowed methods of consumption. The House also voted to allow cancer patients to have higher amounts of medical marijuana.

North Dakota’s first medical cannabis dispensary is set to open next week in Fargo, the Associated Press reported. Acreage Holdings will open a facility called The Botanist in Bismark.

In 2018, North Dakota voters rejected a marijuana legalization measure, which would have set no limit on the amount of the drug that people could possess or cultivate. Two years earlier, voters approved a separate measure allowing medical cannabis in the state.

North Dakota officials hope to have dispensaries up and running in the state’s eight major cities by fall.

Marijuana Decriminalization Narrowly Rejected By North Dakota Lawmakers

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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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Marijuana Companies Urged Governor To Ban Cannabis Home Cultivation, Document Shows

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) took marijuana reform supporters by pleasant surprise when he endorsed legalization last year after previously calling cannabis a “gateway drug” that should remain prohibited. But for advocates, there was at least one major disappointment in store when he got around to revealing the details of his plan: the proposal, unveiled as part of his budget last month, would ultimately include a ban on home cultivation of recreational marijuana.

Home growing—seen by many as a commonsense policy that ensures access to cannabis for individuals who can’t afford retail prices, live too far from a dispensary or just want to flex their green thumbs—has been a feature of almost all legal adult-use marijuana systems operating in the U.S., with the exception of Washington State’s. So what’s behind the New York governor’s opposition to letting adults cultivate their own crops?

It could be that Cuomo took a page from the commercial cannabis industry. Literally.

Roughly a month before the governor announced the details of his legalization proposal, a New York-based marijuana business association—led by the executives of the state’s major licensed medical cannabis providers—sent a policy statement to Cuomo’s office in the interest of offering “some thoughts on various issues associated with a transition from medical to adult-use.”

One of those thoughts centered on the businesses’ desire to prevent consumers from growing their own marijuana.

Politico first reported the existence of the document, created by New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA), in December. This month, Marijuana Moment obtained the full 29-page memo through a state freedom of information law request.

There are some broad recommendations that most legalization supporters would take no issue with, such as encouraging individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition to participate in the legal industry and leveraging partnerships to expand research into medical cannabis.

But a chapter titled “The Fallacy of Home Grow” makes very specific—and, in the eyes of advocates, misleading—arguments against allowing marijuana cultivation for personal use.

The group recognized that people want home cultivation because of “currently high prices of medical marijuana” or because they see it as an “individual civil liberty.” But according to NYMCIA, home cultivation “creates a significant public safety and black market risk.”

The industry organization listed five claims to support that argument:

1. Home grow will make it impossible for the state to eliminate the black market.

2. Home grow will make it impossible for law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal products, thus frustrating enforcement efforts.

3. Home grow will undermine the state’s harm reduction goal of ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is grown without noxious pesticides or other contaminants.

4. Home grow will undermine the state’s public health interest in ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is tested, packaged, and and labeled correctly.

5. Home grow will cost the state tax revenue, thus hindering the state’s ability to fund priorities such as drug abuse treatment and community investment.

Per that last point, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that New York state would miss out on some sales tax revenue if residents decided to grow their own plants. But the other side of that dilemma is that it’d likely mean missed profits for cannabis businesses, including those affiliated with NYMCIA.

“From our perspective, it’s really hard to see any real reason—other than individual and corporate greed—to be against home cultivation at this point,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “There’s not a lot of rational concerns when it comes to allowing a limited amount of plants for an individual to grow at home.”

Melissa Moore, New York deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, also pushed back against NYMCIA’s claim that a home grow option would make eliminating the illicit market “impossible.”

It’s the “fallacy of ‘The Fallacy of Home Grow,'” as she put it. It would make more sense to attribute difficulties reducing illicit market sales to state tax rates on retail cannabis, she said in a phone interview.

“It’s really disingenuous to try to say that it would not be possible to eliminate the illicit market if we allow for home grow. That certainly hasn’t been the experience of other states that allow home grow.”

Moreover, NYMCIA’s position is not consistent with that of other marijuana industry groups such as the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), which argues that allowing home growing can actually benefit businesses.

“NCIA does not oppose limited home cultivation,” Morgan Fox, media relations director at the group, said in an email. “In fact, it can act as an incubator for people to develop skills which can be used in the legal cannabis industry, which benefits businesses as well as individuals looking to enter the market. Much like home brewing has helped spur interest the craft beer market, limited home cannabis cultivation can do the same in legal states.”

Who is involved in NYMCIA and why do they want to ban home cultivation?

Marijuana companies Columbia Care, Etain, PharmaCann, The Botanist and Acreage NY, Vireo Health and MedMen were all listed as members of NYMCIA in the memo to Cuomo’s office. (MedMen later acquired PharmaCann, and more recently, NYMCIA urged MedMen to leave the association amid a controversy over racist remarks allegedly made by the company’s executives).

(A separate controversy previously enveloped Columbia Care, which owns dispensaries and grow facilities in multiple states, after its Massachusetts-based subsidiary, Patriot Care, was discovered to be advocating against letting certain people with past drug convictions work in the legal cannabis industry).

Acreage Holdings, a cannabis firm that Republican former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner joined as a board member, declined to comment for this story through a public relations firm that represents the company.

A MedMen spokesperson said in a statement to Marijuana Moment that it “respects the right of those who choose to cultivate cannabis for their personal use,” but did not respond to specific questions about the company’s involvement in drafting the policy statement that urged New York officials to continue prohibiting such activity.

Jeremy Unruh, director of public and regulatory affairs at PharmaCann, told Marijuana Moment that the document “was our industry association’s first go at formulating some broad policy positions” prior to meeting with the governor’s office and that the company’s “position on home grow is far more nuanced than a simple approve/oppose.”

“Those policy points you have are sound, but our positions have evolved (and will continue to do so) as we’ve had a chance to socialize these concepts” with other stakeholders, Unruh said. He argued that New York has superior quality control standards in place for medical cannabis and that while the company recognizes “the nature and value of civil liberty” of home cultivation, allowing it would pose public health risks.

But ultimately, “Our position is this: We support the governor’s homegrow proposal,” he wrote in an email.

While recommending that lawmakers ban personal cultivation of recreational marijuana, Cuomo did include a home grow option for medical cannabis patients in his budget plan.

(Full disclosure: Several members of the companies involved in NYMCIA support Marijuana Moment through monthly Patreon pledges, or have in the past.)

Cannabis reform advocates aren’t buying NYMCIA’s claims.

It is quite obvious that NYMCIA’s affiliates have a financial stake in the shape of whatever marijuana law eventually emerges from the New York legislature. And their opposition to a home grow option is a point of concern for advocacy groups.

“[T]o advocate against home cultivation given all we know about how it works in practice from the industry side really just is kind of despicable and illustrates their greed, that they’re willing to sacrifice individual freedoms for the slightest increase in their profits,” NORML’s Altieri said.

The association’s recommendation also runs counter to what Marijuana Moment was previously told by the vice president of corporate communications for Vireo Health, Albe Zakes.

Asked about the memo following the initial Politico report that only vaguely described the document, Zakes wrote in an email that “our CEO and COO assured me that we’ve never lobbied against home grow and in fact support home grow as part of larger legislation, as long as it is regulated and controlled in a responsible manner, the same way medical or recreational markets would be, in order to protect consumers.”

(Vireo CEO Aaron Hoffnung signed an Internal Revenue Service financial disclosure form for NYMCIA last year as one of the association’s directors.)

Marijuana Moment sent a follow-up request for comment after obtaining the policy statement through the public records request, but Zakes said the he was unable to reach the company’s executives and so Vireo would have to decline the opportunity for further comment.

Advocates question whether NYMCIA leveraged its influence for the right reasons.

Is the worry really that a home cultivation policy would sustain an illicit market or complicate law enforcement activities in New York? Are concerns about the public health impact genuine? Or is it that cannabis businesses want the entire market to themselves?

We need to make sure that we have a check on the potential greed of the industry that we can already see in these early stages based on this advocacy document,” Altieri said. “We need to make sure that the market in New York not only begins to address all the harms caused by the war on cannabis but also is oriented toward the consumer and not large industry interests.”

Banning home cultivation benefits no one but corporations and large industry groups.”

Despite Cuomo including the home grow ban in his proposal, it seems that advocates may get more time to voice their concerns about the policy. Some leading lawmakers such as Senate President Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) are increasingly doubtful that marijuana reform will make it into the final state budget, meaning that negotiations on separate legalization legislation could end up resulting in a law that allows consumers to grow their own cannabis.

Marijuana Moment reached out to NYMCIA itself, Cuomo’s office, Etain and Columbia Care for comment, but representatives did not respond to multiple inquiries by the time of publication.

Read the full NYMCIA policy statement, including the section on home cultivation, below: 

New York Medical Cannabis I… by on Scribd

New York City Council Members File A Dozen Marijuana Proposals In One Day

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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Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Key New Hampshire House Committee

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A New Hampshire House committee approved a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana in the state on Thursday.

The legislation, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess, purchase and gift up to one ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants (three of which could be mature), cleared the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in a 10-9 vote.

A governor-appointed commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for marijuana cultivators, product manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Possession and home cultivation would be legal 60 days after the bill passes, and the first retail licenses would be issued in November 2020.

The bill also provides for the expungement of prior convictions for cannabis-related offenses that were made legal.

This is the first time that the committee has advanced such legislation, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Last year, the panel rejected a similar proposal, but the full House voted to overturn that recommendation and then it passed an amended version of the bill that excluded commercial sales. It later died before making its way to the Senate, however.

While some committee members expressed reservations about the health impacts of marijuana and raised doubts about revenue from legal sales, others like Rep. Will Pearson (D) said such concerns are overblown and that the time to legalize “was yesterday—beyond yesterday.”

“We applaud the committee for recognizing that marijuana prohibition is an outdated and increasingly unpopular policy that has failed to accomplish its public health and safety objectives,” Matt Simon, New England political director at MPP, said in a press release. “It’s time for New Hampshire to adopt a more sensible system in which cannabis is legal for adults 21 and older and regulated in order to protect consumers and the public.”

“We are very pleased that the committee tasked with overseeing criminal justice and public safety has recommended the passage of this legislation,” he said. “Passage of this bill would be terrible news for illicit drug dealers and good news for proponents of smarter, more effective drug policies.”

Gov. Chris Sununu (R) opposes legalizing cannabis, but House Speaker Steve Shurtleff has said he believes there are enough votes in his chamber, and perhaps also in the Senate, to override a potential veto.

Meanwhile, marijuana legislation is moving through legislatures all across the U.S.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

We followed more than 900 pieces of cannabis legislation in 2018. Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

During the last week alone, a Vermont Senate committee approved a bill to allow cannabis sales, the West Virginia House passed a piece of marijuana banking legislation and a Missouri House committee cleared a bill to provide for the expungement of certain marijuana convictions. On Wednesday, North Dakota’s House narrowly rejected cannabis decriminalization legislation.

Earlier this month, legislative committees in Hawaii and New Mexico both voted to approve marijuana legalization bills.

Hawaii Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Committee

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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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