When Texas voters hit the polls in November, they’ll face a choice between two U.S. Senate candidates who have significantly divergent views on marijuana and are facing off in one of the nation’s most-watched races, the result of which could determine whether Democrats or Republicans end up controlling Congress’s upper chamber.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) is taking on incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is running for a second term. Polling reveals a surprisingly tight race—with O’Rourke behind by about four points on average—and while marijuana isn’t exactly center stage for either campaign, it’s clear how the candidates differ on the issue.
O’Rourke wants to end the federal prohibition of cannabis and create a legal, regulated system to deter youth consumption while stripping criminal enterprises of profits. He also supports expunging the criminal records of people who’ve been convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses.
When it comes to underage use, O’Rourke has voiced concerns about marijuana’s potential impact on cognitive development. In a road trip campaign video from last year, he said that all of the solutions to that problem were “bad,” but the “least bad” solution was legalization and regulation.
The congressman has also supported various pieces of marijuana-related legislation during his time in the House, including measures that would expand cannabis research, prevent federal interference in legal states and increase access to medical marijuana for veterans. He is also the lead sponsor of a bill that would repeal a law that reduces highway funding for states that don’t automatically suspend drivers licenses for people convicted of drug offenses.
Taken together, it’s no surprise that O’Rourke would receive an endorsement for his Senate run from NORML’s political action committee. In a press release, NORML PAC executive director Erik Altieri said the Democratic nominee “has been a true champion for abolishing our disastrous prohibition on marijuana since the very beginning of his political career as a city council member in El Paso.”
“As Senator, O’Rourke will be an outspoken and indispensable ally in reforming our federal laws relating to marijuana and fight to finally end our failed prohibitionist policies that are currently tearing apart families, oppressing communities of color, squandering countless tax dollars, and filling the coffers of criminal cartels.”
The organization gave O’Rourke a B+ grade in its congressional scorecard.
O’Rourke has been a vocal supporter of marijuana policy reform since years before he entered Congress, for example speaking at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.
On a lighter note, O’Rourke made headlines this summer when he performed the marijuana-themed song “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” on stage with fellow Texan Willie Nelson.
O’Rourke has also found a friend in Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), another pro-legalization lawmaker who supports the congressman’s bid to de-seat Cruz.
My friend & colleague @BetoORourke understands what's at stake with dangerous & unfair marijuana policies. A message I've carried around the country, but nothing beats hearing it from a high profile candidate like Beto as he takes on Ted Cruz.https://t.co/oQPFyz2QZa
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) August 30, 2018
Speaking of Cruz, the incumbent senator has taken a decidedly federalist approach to marijuana, saying that while he personally wouldn’t vote for any state referendum to legalize cannabis, he believes that it’s the “prerogative” of voters to decide on the issue at the state level without federal interference.
“The people of Colorado have made a different decision. I respect that decision.“
“It is an opportunity for the rest of the country to see what happens here in Colorado, what happens in Washington state, see the states implement the policies,” Cruz said in April 2016 in the midst of his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination that year. “If it works well, other states may choose to follow. If it doesn’t work well, other states may choose not to follow.”
And while Cruz has received a “C” grade from NORML for his hands-off position on state marijuana legalization efforts, he hasn’t signed his name onto a single piece of cannabis reform legislation during his time in the Senate.
He’s also attempted to undermine his opponent throughout the campaign by criticizing O’Rourke’s drug policy reform platform.
Specifically, the senator has taken comments O’Rourke made during his time as a member of the El Paso City Council out of context and leveraged those comments to suggest that his opponent supports legalizing all drugs, including heroin.
With opioids ravaging so many American communities, Congressman Beto O’Rourke's radical resolution to legalize all narcotics—including heroin and other deadly opioids—is looking worse and worse all the time: https://t.co/VdwaYMccMn #TXSen
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 1, 2018
The “radical resolution” Cruz referenced wasn’t actually a resolution in favor of legalization itself; rather, O’Rourke floated the idea of simply considering ending prohibition as an amendment to a 2009 City Council measure focused on curbing violence near the U.S.-Mexico border. PolitiFact rated Cruz’s tweet as “false.”
“It was an artless, and even inaccurate amendment to the larger resolution (I only learned later that marijuana is not a narcotic, even though it was precisely that drug that I felt people would be most open to debating), but it got the point across,” O’Rourke wrote in his 2011 book, Dealing Death and Drugs. He continued:
“I knew we were addressing a taboo topic, one that conventional wisdom dictated that only potheads, hard-core libertarians and political suicides ever brought up. But I also knew that Juarez had gone beyond the pale and it was time to place all options on the table, even those that had been unthinkable, for me as well as others, just a year ago.”
Even so, Cruz’s team put out a political ad that seems meant to look like O’Rourke personally endorses the legalization of all narcotics.
.@TedCruz also has a new TV ad contrasting his work on unemployment drug testing with @BetoORourke's 2009 comments about the war on drugs (Background: https://t.co/cLxvNdigIs). #txsen pic.twitter.com/leVOnazXaN
— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) August 3, 2018
The ad also notes Cruz’s support for legislation mandating drug testing for individuals seeking federal unemployment benefits.
It’s not the first time O’Rourke’s push to debate legalization has been used by political opponents. But when former U.S. Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX) tried to convince voters that O’Rourke’s resolution amendment meant he was for legalizing all drugs during their 2009 Democratic primary race, it seemed to backfire.
Reyes had personally lobbied the El Paso City Council to defeat O’Rourke’s proposal, a move that angered the councilman so much that three years later he ran against the congressman in a Democratic primary.
Voters chose the challenger over the incumbent for the nomination, clearing the path for O’Rourke’s rise to Congress. Of course, a congressional primary election in a Democratic-leaning district in 2009 doesn’t exactly provide a clean parallel to a 2018 statewide Senate race in Texas, and Cruz seems to be betting that similar anti-drug messaging will serve him better in November than it did Reyes.
It’s not clear to what extent each candidate’s marijuana stance will influence how Texans vote in the midterm election, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind going into November. Sixty-one percent of Texas voters favor ending federal cannabis prohibition, compared to just 34 percent who oppose it, according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University survey.
Even the Texas Republican Party endorsed marijuana decriminalization and expansion of the state’s current limited medical cannabis law during their June conference.
And while Cruz’s federalist perspective on the issue distinguishes him from other hardline prohibitionists in Congress, it seems increasingly clear that even in red states like Texas, where no Democrat has been elected to statewide office in decades, marijuana has become a political mainstay.
Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.
Hemp Farmers Guaranteed Federal Crop Insurance Through Disaster Bill Amendment
The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that is mostly focused on providing relief aid to areas impacted by natural disasters—but it also includes a provision ensuring that hemp farmers qualify for federal crop insurance.
The hemp section was inserted into the legislation at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Though similar language already exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp and its derivatives, the senator took an added measure to provide clarity to farmers who want access to the insurance option ahead of the 2020 planting season.
“Beginning not later than the 2020 reinsurance year, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation shall offer coverage under the wholefarm revenue protection insurance policy (or a successor policy or plan of insurance) for hemp (as defined in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o)),” text of the provision states.
“Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985,” it continues.
The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 85 to 8. The House is expected to approve the disaster legislation by unanimous consent by the end of the week, and President Donald Trump has offered assurances that he will sign it into law.
The legalization of hemp has sparked strong interest among farmers in states from Colorado to Kentucky, but it will still be some time until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and implements its federal regulatory guidelines.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that while his department would not rush its rulemaking process, it still intends to implement the regulations before the 2020 planting season. After that point, USDA would be able to approve regulatory plans submitted by individual states.
McConnell, who championed the hemp legalization provision, has urged the quick and effective implementation of such regulations, and he’s suggested that he’d introduce standalone legislation to resolve any “glitches” in its rollout.
While not a standalone bill, the hemp-focused provision of the disaster legislation seems to indicate he plans to make good on that promise.
The senator has made much of his pro-hemp agenda, arguing last month that his role in reforming hemp laws is at “the top of the list” of reasons why voters should reelect him in 2020. He also cited hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco when he introduced a bill this week to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.
Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications
A congressional committee report attached a large-scale spending bill containing marijuana-related protections has been amended to include a call for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to finally act on long-pending applications for federal licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes.
The legislation itself, which was released by a House subcommittee last week, could still be further amended as it goes through the legislative process. But as approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the bill stipulates that none of the Fiscal Year 2020 funds it allocates may be used by the Justice Department to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs.
The provision has been federal law since 2014, but its inclusion in the initial subcommittee proposal as introduced is the earliest it has ever surfaced in the legislative process for the annual spending bill. While advocates hoped broader protections for adult-use cannabis states would also be included in the base legislation, that rider isn’t in the bill—at least not yet.
There was also a technical problem with the legislation that wasn’t resolved by the committee manager’s amendment, the text of which has not been posted but was obtained by Marijuana Moment. The medical cannabis provision lists the states and territories its protections apply to—but it left out the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical marijuana in January.
Similar errors have occurred in past versions of the legislation, when legal medical cannabis states North Dakota and Indiana were not included in an earlier version of the rider, and advocates hope that the language will be amended on the House floor.
But while that fix didn’t make it into the bill at the committee level, the directive to the DEA about cannabis cultivation licenses was added to the committee report attached to the bill via the manager’s amendment.
“The Committee urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for us in medical research,” the revised report states.
The DEA has faced significant pressure from lawmakers, advocates and scientists to approve applications for additional marijuana manufacturers to produce research-grade cannabis. Currently there is only one federally authorized facility, and the quality of its product has long been criticized.
DEA announced a process to license additional cultivators during the final months of the Obama administration in 2016, but the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to act on more than two dozen pending applications. Current Attorney General William Barr has pledged to look into the matter, and has said he agrees that approving additional manufacturers is necessary.
Advocates hope that the new committee report language could help to finally spur movement at the department.
“The DEA is a disaster on marijuana and they need to stop obstructing research ASAP,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.
“It’s beyond ridiculous that they won’t act on these applications. Even prohibitionists like Project SAM agree,” he added, referring to the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “And when the guys who get their drug policy from the 1920s say you’re behind the times, that’s pretty embarrassing.”
Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that Sessions “was the only government official opposed to cannabis research, and he is no longer employed.”
“Now is the time for AG Barr to follow through on his commitment and allow researchers pathways to consumer-grade cannabis,” he said.
Another provision included in the appropriations bill would offer protections for states that have implemented industrial hemp pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. The Justice Department wouldn’t be allowed to use its funds to interfere in such programs under the proposal.
Of course, the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act, shifting regulatory responsibility onto the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Justice Department, so that provision may not be especially relevant going forward.
The bill will next head to the Rules Committee, which will decide the list of amendments—potentially including additional cannabis-related ones—that can be considered on the House floor.
Read the text of the manager’s amendment with the DEA marijuana language below:
Managers Amendment FINAL by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
House Committee Approves Immigration Bill With Marijuana Protections
A congressional committee voted in favor of a wide-ranging immigration bill on Wednesday, and the legislation includes marijuana-related protections for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Under the DREAM Act as approved, having low-level cannabis convictions, or engaging in state-legal cannabis-related activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not be counted against applications for permanent resident status for so-called Dreamers.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in a 19-10 vote, without specific discussion about the cannabis provisions.
The section concerning eligibility for permanent status stipules that having three or more misdemeanor convictions could be grounds for ineligibility—but the bill creates an exemption for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”
The text seems to indicate that immigrants who engaged in cannabis-related activities prior to a state reforming its marijuana laws would still be protected even if that activity was not state-legal at the time.
Similar language appears under a separate section about grounds for a provisional denial of an application for adjustment of status. Applicants would be exempted from such a denial if their conviction was for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”
A previous version of the legislation, filed in March, didn’t include the specific eligibility requirements related to certain criminal activity, nor did it contain any explicit marijuana protections. It’s possible that House Democrats thought up the exemptions during a brainstorming session earlier this month about potential bill revisions aimed at building more support.
The next likely stop for the DREAM Act will be the House Rules Committee before heading to a full floor vote.
There’s been growing interest in reforming marijuana policies as they apply to immigrants and visitors to the U.S.
Earlier this month, four congressional Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to end the practice of rejecting naturalization applications solely because the applicant worked in a state-legal marijuana market. That came after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo specifying that such activity could render them morally unfit for citizenship.
And last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced legislation aimed at resolving marijuana-related border issues, whereby visitors who admit to using cannabis or working in their country’s legal industry can be denied entrance.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.