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Medical Cannabis Expansion Has High Support In Texas Legislature, But Lt. Gov. Might Stand In The Way

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By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

One lawmaker yelled, “This is a bad bill.” Others booed as Klick argued that her bill would legalize medical cannabis in the most narrow way possible. It only allowed the sale of specific medical cannabis products if they contained low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC — to Texans with intractable epilepsy who had already tried two Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. Patients also needed to be permanent Texas residents and get approval from two doctors listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Getting her measure across the finish line in the House amounted to nothing short of a floor fight. Yet the bill, dubbed the Compassionate Use Act, ultimately passed both chambers that year, sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott, who later signed it into law. Three dispensaries have since opened in Texas.

Now, nearly four years later, a broad coalition of lawmakers plus some powerful lobbyists support expanding access to medical cannabis in Texas. But bills to do so face a major obstacle: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, who can single-handedly block any legislation from coming up for a vote in the upper chamber.

In a statement to The Texas Tribune, Patrick spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen hasn’t publicly expressed a position on expanding the Compassionate Use Act, but he voted against the bill in 2015. According to a person familiar with his thinking, he does not plan to get in the way of the chamber if there is support for amending the program.

Klick, who did not respond to request for comment, is one of a handful of lawmakers this session who has put forth a bill to expand the list of patients eligible for the drug. If passed, her measure would give Texans with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and spasticity access to medical cannabis.

In addition to Klick’s bill, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, filed a bill that would increase the cap on THC levels in medical cannabis legally grown in Texas from 0.5 percent to nearly 1 percent, and allow physicians on the state’s Compassionate Use Registry to decide which patients need it rather than restricting it to those with certain conditions. Two other measures filed by Democrats would drastically expand the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for the drug.

It’s not unusual for the more conservative upper chamber to stall marijuana-related bills. A Compassionate Use Act expansion bill in 2017 from state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, never received a hearing.

“I don’t understand why politicians are trying to get between the doctor and the patient on something that doesn’t do anything but help the patient,” said Menéndez, who also filed a bill this session that would expand the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for medical cannabis to include illnesses like terminal cancer, autism, Crohn’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Why are we sticking our heads in the sand?

“I can’t give up on all the people who have put their confidence on my working hard on this issue, and I’m not going to.”

But Patrick isn’t the only one skeptical of an expansion measure. Law enforcement groups have also said they fear expanding medical cannabis in the state would lead to the full-blown legalization of marijuana.

“Let’s not sugarcoat it,” said Mitch Slaymaker, deputy executive director for the Texas Municipal Police Association, whose expertise is not in the realm of what constitutes a need for medical marijuana. “Our concern is that expanding medical cannabis is slowly inoculating the public a little more to where it may eventually be fully legalized.”

The association’s main concern, he said, is that if fully decriminalized law enforcement won’t be able to test drivers to determine how affected they are.

Even Campbell, whose Senate Bill 2416 would also establish a review board to approve and oversee research of higher THC cannabis oil for medical purposes, said she agreed with the sentiments put forth by Patrick. “That’s why she introduced a medical cannabis oil bill based on what the Legislature previously passed, with a heavy emphasis on medically driven research,” spokeswoman Alice Claiborne said.

“The senator has great respect for Lt. Gov. Patrick and looks forward to working closely with his office on this subject matter,” Claiborne added.

But it’s unclear if any such measure will even draw a hearing this year, let alone get debated before the full Senate. Matthew Russell, a spokesman for state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Brenham Republican who chairs the Senate Health & Human Services Committee, said the panel was “still reviewing the proposed legislation and gathering information.”

“No decision has been made on either piece of legislation,” Russell said of Menéndez’s and Campbell’s bills.

The House, meanwhile, is handling marijuana-related bills with a different speed and tone. Two years ago, Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville filed a measure that would’ve expanded the program to patients with medical conditions such as terminal cancer and PTSD. More than half of the Texas House — nearly 80 members — signed on as authors, co-authors or joint authors, yet it didn’t make it to the floor in time for a vote. Lucio filed a similar bill this session that would expand the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for the oil to include autism and Crohn’s disease, among others.

In 2017, “we moved a comprehensive medicinal marijuana bill further than anyone ever has in the Legislature,” Lucio said. “There was such broad support, and I think it’s grown even more so since then. It’s discussed even more openly now.”

One sign in support of Lucio’s reading of the chamber: Last week, Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, who chairs the House Public Health Committee, created a subcommittee on medical marijuana to hear just proposals related to the issue.

“There are so many things we want to do to make [medical marijuana] legally available to help people if it can help them,” Thompson said. “I’m assuming the public wants to have a say on this issue, and I’m trying to do my best to give them a say.”

And although the Senate may refuse to budge on medical expansion bills, Thompson said they would still receive a fair shake in the lower chamber.

“If the Senate wants to take another position, then that’s on them,” Thompson said. “I’m just going to do what I can do from where I stand.”

Abbott, for his part, said in 2015 that Texas lawmakers wouldn’t approve legislation that would legalize marijuana. A spokesperson for Abbott did not respond to request for comment on whether he’d back an expansion of the current medical cannabis system.

Still, the effort to expand the Compassionate Use Act has drawn some politically powerful supporters since the last legislative session. In its most recent platform, the Republican Party of Texas approved a plank asking the Legislature to “improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients.”

And earlier this month, a new group lobbying for medical marijuana emerged comprising players with some serious clout in the Capitol — including Allen Blakemore, a top political consultant for Patrick.

Texans for Expanded Access to Medical Marijuana, dubbed TEAMM, said it will work to educate the public and lawmakers about the benefits of expanding medical cannabis to those with illnesses like cancer and traumatic brain injury. The group is backed by Green Peak Innovations, a Michigan-based medical cannabis firm.

According to a poll commissioned by TEAMM, 81 percent of Texas voters support the expansion of medical marijuana and 86 percent believe that doctors and researchers — as opposed to the state — should decide when patients have access to medical marijuana.

“This is one of the last true bipartisan issues out there,” said Brian Sweany, a member of TEAMM’s leadership. “I don’t think it surprises anyone how high support is for this among Democrats, but people who identify as conservative Republicans also overwhelmingly support this.”

More than 30 states allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas is one of nearly a dozen states that only allows for “low THC, high CBD” products for medical situations in limited circumstances.

“We’re going to do our job in the House, and the bill that gets out of the House — whether it’s mine or Klick’s or some compromise of the two — is going to help a lot of people,” Lucio said. “If it gets to the Senate, then it’s up to the lieutenant governor to make that decision, and he has to answer to the Texans who overwhelmingly support this.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

(Disclosure: Allen Blakemore has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.)

Photo element 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.

Culture

Lots Of Politicians And Companies Are Tweeting About Marijuana On 4/20

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It’s 4/20 again, and that means another slew of tweets from politicians and mainstream brands looking to use the marijuana holiday as a hook to get their message out.

Here’s a roundup of some of the best, funniest, most important or otherwise notable cannabis-related tweets of the day…

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a presidential candidate:

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a presidential candidate:

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), a presidential candidate:

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), a presidential candidate:

Former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK), a presidential candidate:

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D), a presidential candidate:

Former San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julián Castro (D), a presidential candidate:

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY):

House Committee on Small Business:

Congressional Black Caucus:

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV):

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR):

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN):

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA):

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA):

Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL):

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN):

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM):

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D):

Los Angeles, California City Council President Herb Wesson (D):

Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney Kim Foxx (D):

The American Civil Liberties Union:

Ben & Jerry’s:

Denny’s:

Hidden Valley Ranch:

Carl’s Jr.:

Boston Market:

George Washington’s Mount Vernon:

Bill Maher:

Miley Cyrus:

311:

The Onion:

Ben & Jerry’s Stands Out From Companies Just Trying To Make Money From 4/20

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State-Legal Marijuana Use Makes Immigrants Morally Unfit for Citizenship, Trump Administration Warns

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A federal immigration agency clarified on Friday that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related “activities” such as working for a dispensary—even in states where it’s legal—is an immoral offense that makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship.

When applying for naturalization, the process of gaining citizenship, individuals must have established “good moral character” in the five years preceding the application. Good moral character is a vague requirement that has been criticized by scholars and civil rights advocates, as assessing morality is arguably subjective.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), state-legal marijuana consumption renders individuals morally unfit for citizenship. The new policy clarification reflects a sentiment once expressed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

The USCIS memo says that “violation of federal controlled substance law, including for marijuana, established by a conviction or admission, is generally a bar to establishing [good moral character] for naturalization even where the conduct would not be a violation of state law.”

Further, an applicant “who is involved in certain marijuana related activities may lack GMC if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity is not unlawful under applicable state or foreign laws,” the document says. The policy also applies to individuals who worked in the state-legal cannabis industry.

There have already been reports of people being denied citizenship due to their proximity to state-legal marijuana businesses. Earlier this month, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock hosted a group of immigrants who said their work in the state’s cannabis industry was being used as justification by federal officials to deny them citizenship.

“In Colorado, cannabis has been legal for 5 years. For work in a legal industry to be used against an individual trying to gain citizenship is a prime example of why we need to harmonize our state and federal laws to ensure that states like Colorado that have moved to legalize cannabis can act in our own authority to expand and regulate our cannabis industry,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO), told Marijuana Moment in reaction to the Trump administration memo.

Legalization activists also criticized the move.

“The cruel treatment of immigrants for offenses related to something as minor as marijuana is illustrative of the way this administration has used the war on drugs to pursue communities of color,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “It also shows that pursuing a state by state approach to federal policy doesn’t work for these communities. Federal descheduling is essential.”

While the federal policy deeming marijuana use a violation of “good moral character” standards for immigration purposes was already on the books, it seems the spread of state-level cannabis legalization has prompted the agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, to issue the clarification.

“A number of states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) have enacted laws permitting ‘medical’ or ‘recreational’ use of marijuana. Marijuana, however, remains classified as a ‘Schedule I’ controlled substance under the federal CSA,” the updated USCIS policy manual now reads. “Schedule I substances have no accepted medical use pursuant to the CSA. Classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law means that certain conduct involving marijuana, which is in violation of the CSA, continues to constitute a conditional bar to GMC for naturalization eligibility, even where such activity is not a criminal offense under state law.”

“Such an offense under federal law may include, but is not limited to, possession, manufacture or production, or distribution or dispensing of marijuana. For example, possession of marijuana for recreational or medical purposes or employment in the marijuana industry may constitute conduct that violates federal controlled substance laws. Depending on the specific facts of the case, these activities, whether established by a conviction or an admission by the applicant, may preclude a finding of GMC for the applicant during the statutory period. An admission must meet the long held requirements for a valid ‘admission’ of an offense. Note that even if an applicant does not have a conviction or make a valid admission to a marijuana-related offense, he or she may be unable to meet the burden of proof to show that he or she has not committed such an offense.”

The underlying policy does provide an exception for “a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

An additional update to the policy manual stipulates that the exception “is also applicable to paraphernalia offenses involving controlled substances as long as the paraphernalia offense is ‘related to’ simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

That detail wasn’t included in an earlier 2014 version of the USCIS policy manual.

The policy alert is similar to an update the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) issued in 2017 when the federal gun purchase application form was revised to include a warning that the “use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside” and therefore disqualifies applicants.

But the USCIS clarification also reflects a recent ratcheting up of anti-immigration policy moves under the Trump administration.

Jason Ortiz, vice president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that the new memo reflects a “callous and irrational decision” by the administration and “is a reminder that without comprehensive cannabis reform our communities of color will continue to be prosecuted and subject to deportation for activity that is legal for affluent communities around the country.”

“Proposals such as the STATES act which seek to simply ease the risk on business do not address these deeper issues related to federal prohibition,” he said. “Considering the devastating effects our war on drugs had on Latin America, immigration reform must be a necessary component of any comprehensive cannabis legalization policy.”

People Could Use Marijuana In Public Housing Under New Congressional Bill

This story has been updated to include comment from Neguse.

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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USDA Clarifies That Farmers Can Import Hemp Seeds From Other Countries

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) clarified on Friday that hemp seeds can be imported into the U.S., and that the Justice Department no longer has a role in that process.

While USDA is still developing regulations for hemp cultivation under the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized the crop and its derivatives, farmers can still obtain seeds in the meantime.

The agriculture legislation “removed hemp and hemp seeds from DEA authority for products containing THC levels not greater than 0.3 percent” and “DEA no longer has authority to require hemp seed permits for import purposes.”

“U.S. producers and hemp seed exporters have requested assistance from USDA to provide an avenue for hemp seed exports to the United States,” the department wrote in a bulletin. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the importation of all seeds for planting to ensure safe agricultural trade. Under this authority, USDA is providing an alternative way for the safe importation of hemp seeds into the United States.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is among those who’ve requested assistance related to hemp importations. Earlier this month, he told Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that the DEA was blocking Montana farmers from importing hemp seeds.

Perdue said during the hearing that the matter was “news to me” and explained that farmers can import and cultivate hemp under the research-focused provisions in the prior 2014 version of the legislation while the USDA worked to enact new regulations.

In a letter sent to the acting administrator of Customs and Border Protect (CBP) on Tuesday, Tester and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) raised the concern again, imploring CBP to update its policy to reflect that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported. The letter was obtained by the industry advocacy group Vote Hemp.

The USDA bulletin specified how the process works for imports from Canada and other countries.

Importation of Hemp Seed from Canada

“Hemp seeds can be imported into the United States from Canada if accompanied by either: 1) a phytosanitary certification from Canada’s national plant protection organization to verify the origin of the seed and confirm that no plant pests are detected; or 2) a Federal Seed Analysis Certificate (SAC, PPQ Form 925) for hemp seeds grown in Canada.”

Importation of Hemp Seed from Countries other than Canada

“Hemp seeds may be imported into the United States from countries other than Canada if accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate from the exporting country’s national plant protection organization to verify the origin of the seed and confirm that no plant pests are detected.

Hemp seed shipments may be inspected upon arrival at the first port of entry by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to ensure USDA regulations are met, including certification and freedom from plant pests.”

The rulemaking process for hemp may take some time, as Perdue said the department would not expedite the regulations and will be “taking this slow.” Once the USDA has a regulatory framework in place, it will begin approving state plans, and those states will be the primary regulators.

For the time being, however, there’s nothing stopping farmers from collecting certified hemp seeds. Not even the DEA.

Trump Agriculture Secretary Accepts Invitation To Tour Hemp Farms

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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