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Medical Marijuana Protected Under Democrats’ Spending Bill, But DC Blocked From Legalizing Sales

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A provision to extend protections shielding state medical marijuana laws from federal interference is part of a 1,070-page bill the incoming House Democratic majority intends to pass this week as part of a plan to end an ongoing government shutdown.

The cannabis protection rider, which has been enacted through appropriations bills since 2014, technically expired with the shutdown last month, leaving medical marijuana patients and providers in an uncertain situation as federal drug enforcement and prosecution efforts are exempted from furlough.

Section 537 of the Democrats’ new bill reads:

“None of the funds made available under this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, Guam, or Puerto Rico, to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Thus if the Senate approves the bill after the House presumably does on Thursday, and President Trump signs it into law, state-legal medical cannabis operations would again be protected from enforcement actions by the Department of Justice and its component agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, at least through September.

That’s a sizable “if,” however, as the president has drawn a line in the sand over funding for a proposed wall along the Mexican border, a notion that Democrats have refused to go along with. It is unclear if the Republican-controlled Senate will even send an appropriations bill to Trump’s desk without the inclusion of wall funding. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the chamber’s Appropriations Committee chair, have both said they don’t see a point in voting on something the president won’t sign.

Either way, broader recreational marijuana laws and people operating under them are not covered under the rider in the Democrats’ bill.

The new legislation also contains a bit of bad news for marijuana reform supporters, however, as it continues a current rider that blocks Washington, D.C. from spending its own money to legalize and regulate adult-use cannabis sales even though a 2014 ballot initiative ended the city’s prohibition on low-level possession and home cultivation.

Mayor Muriel Bower (D) said late last year that she planned to present a bill legalizing marijuana commerce to the District of Columbia Council in early 2019. But if congressional Democrats’ legislation is enacted as written, she will have to choose between potentially thwarting federal law or waiting until October, when the new bill and its included riders would lapse.

Advocates believe that Democrats are unlikely to include the D.C. legalization ban language in Fiscal Year 2020 spending legislation, which they will have more time to draft on a provision-by-provision basis this year.

“Democratic appropriators have been incredibly receptive to ending the absurd prohibition of allowing the District of Columbia to implement their own laws as voters intended,” said Justin Strekal, political director for NORML. “Those who would seek to maintain this punitive restriction do so against the very foundation of our federalist structure under the Constitution.”

It is also possible that a broader rider protecting states with recreational marijuana laws, and not just medical cannabis ones, could be adopted as part of next year’s spending legislation.

Incoming House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D), who is the author of the current large-scale spending bill, explained in a letter to colleagues that the proposal mostly amounts to a copy-and-paste job of the Senate’s incomplete work from 2018.

“The only differences between what I will introduce on Thursday and the Senate bills from the 115th Congress are technical, conforming, and scorekeeping adjustments,” she wrote.

So while Democratic leaders technically could have taken the D.C. marijuana sales ban out of their new bill, it’s not as if they went about drafting an entirely new piece of legislation and proactively decided to stand in the way of the cannabis reforms in the nation’s capital.

The fight over which marijuana-related and other riders will be included in FY2020 appropriations bills should heat up this spring.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

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

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

Politics

Pennsylvania Senators Release Details On Marijuana Legalization Bill

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Details of a soon-to-be introduced bill that would legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania were released on Monday.

The legislation, which is being sponsored by Sens. Daylin Leach (D) and Sharif Street (D), places an emphasis on not only legalizing cannabis for adult use but also implementing a variety of social equity and small business-focused provisions, according to an outline of the proposal.

Under the heading “Innovation,” the document details how the state’s medical cannabis seed-to-sale tracking system would be eliminated, home delivery and public consumption sites would be permitted and universities would be allowed to grow and process cannabis as part of classes on the marijuana industry.

Home cultivation of up to six cannabis plants per household would also be allowed.

While the tax rate for retail marijuana sales is not specified in the outline, and the formal legislative language has not yet been filed, the goal will be to set a rate that “balances the need to undermine any illegal market and the needs to both pay for regulation of the industry and invest in those harmed by prohibition.” Most of the revenue from those taxes will go toward funding public education programs.

“We’ve had a cruel, irrational and expensive policy on cannabis for more than 80 years,” Leach said in a press release. “Prohibition has destroyed countless lives and has cost our taxpayers millions of dollars. It’s time we walk into the bright sunshine of enlightenment and stop arresting our kids and funding violent drug cartels.”

“This will be a tough battle, but so was passing medical marijuana. We did that, and we will do this. The stakes are too high for us to fail.”

On the business side of things, there wouldn’t be a cap on the number of marijuana business licenses that could be approved. Micro licenses for cannabis cultivation would be available in a three-tier system, which is meant to help people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war participate in the legal industry.

According to a cosponsorship memo, the legislation would create a “statewide cannabis business incubator that provides free training to Pennsylvanians who want to learn how to start and run a cannabis business.” People who’ve been harmed by prohibition and complete the incubator program would also have access to state grants and low-interest capital loans.

“An end to the prohibition of cannabis is overdue,” Street said. “It is time for us to join the emerging cannabis economy with the legalization of the Adult Use of Cannabis in PA., which should not be a crime when responsibly used by adults nor mandate medical oversight.”

“The economic imperatives are too great. We also have a moral mandate to correct the damage that disparate enforcement of our Marijuana Laws has done and is still doing to communities across the commonwealth.”

A separate bill to legalize marijuana in the state was introduced in the House last month. It currently has 27 cosponsors. It remains to be seen whether such legislation has enough support to pass in either Republican-controlled chamber of the legislature.

That said, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) recently shifted from saying the state is not ready for legalization to arguing that “it is time for Pennsylvania to take a serious and honest look at recreational marijuana.”

In the meantime, Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is vocally supportive of legalization and was endorsed by NORML in his election bid last year, is in the process of visiting all of the state’s 67 counties as part of a listening tour that’s meant to collect public input on marijuana reform.

“Cannabis prohibition was built on lies and racism and has resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians suffering criminal convictions merely because they chose a plant instead of an alcoholic beverage,” Pittsburgh NORML executive director Patrick Nightingale said in the press release. “Adult-use reform will save almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians from arrest and prosecution annually. Reform will also help affected Pennsylvanians expunge cannabis-related offenses from their record.”

“We are confident that an open and honest conversation about the risks and rewards of adult-use reform will help those critical of legalization to understand that it can be done responsibly and in a manner that protects our youth and our motorists,” he said.

Pennsylvania Governor Announces Statewide Marijuana Legalization Listening Tour

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Trump Budget Proposes Loosening DC Marijuana Legalization Restrictions

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A budget request released by the White House on Monday proposes scaling back restrictive language that has prevented the city of Washington, D.C. from spending its own money to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana.

While District of Columbia voters approved a ballot measure in 2014 that makes it legal to possess and grow small amounts of cannabis, there is no mechanism by which consumers can legally buy marijuana in the nation’s capital (outside of medical cannabis dispensaries that only serve registered patients). That’s because although D.C. councilmembers and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) would like to add in a legal sales component, longstanding congressional appropriations riders have blocked them from doing so.

In 2017, Congress tightened up the ban even further, taking away a potential loophole that city leaders had considered using to support a commercial legalization system.

But President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request asks Congress to revert to an earlier, less-restrictive version of the language that leaves the workaround on the table as an option.

The relevant section of the new document reads:

“SEC. 809. (a) None of the Federal funds contained in this Act may be used to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative.

“(b) None of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.”

Two years ago, Congress changed that second subsection to instead bar use of funds “available for obligation or expenditure by the District of Columbia government under any authority” to lower penalties for cannabis.

The reason that matters is because under the “none of the funds contained in this Act” version, the city would still be able to use separate contingency reserve funds to pay for legalization even while monies contained in the annual appropriations legislation would be restricted.

It’s unclear if White House officials consciously made the change to the earlier, less-restrictive version or if staffers inadvertently did so by simply copying and pasting language from prior budgets. Trump’s FY19 request made the same proposed change, but Congress, through a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus appropriations legislation, has extended the more expansive “under any authority” language through at least this September.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees will soon begin crafting their own spending bills for FY20, and legalization advocates expect that the new House Democratic majority will propose removing all restrictions on D.C.’s ability to spend its own money on cannabis policy changes and implementation.

Trump’s new budget request also proposes cutting funding for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy—commonly referred to as the drug czar’s office—by more than 93 percent by moving its key projects, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas and Drug-Free Communities programs, to the Department of Justice and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, respectively.

Trump’s FY2019 request made a similar request, but it was rejected by Congress.

The president’s new budget document also proposes continuing a congressionally approved provision that prevents the federal government from interfering with state industrial hemp research programs:

“SEC. 711. None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be used—

“(1) in contravention of section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (7 U.S.C. 5940); or

“(2) to prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp that is grown or cultivated in accordance with subsection section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014, within or outside the State in which the industrial hemp is grown or cultivated.”

But it does not contain a current rider that protects state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department interference. Trump’s previous annual budget also did not include it. President Obama, following the measure’s initial enactment in 2014, requested its deletion in his subsequent budgets, but Congress has continued to extend it through at least the current fiscal year.

Trump Issues Signing Statement On Medical Marijuana Provision Of Funding Bill

Photo courtesy of YouTube/The White House.

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Cory Booker Appears To Call Out Kamala Harris’s Marijuana Jokes

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Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) explained why marijuana legalization is no laughing matter on Sunday and seemed to take a dig at Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) over the way she lightheartedly admitted to smoking cannabis in college.

During a campaign stop in Iowa, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked where marijuana fits in his criminal justice agenda. Booker emphasized that “a lot of people have a very different perspective on marijuana than I do.”

His next comment appeared to be a veiled criticism of Harris, a rival presidential candidate, who spoke about her personal experience with cannabis and relatively newfound support for legalization on a radio program last month.

“We have presidential candidates and congresspeople and senators that now talk about their marijuana use almost as if it’s funny,” he said. “But meanwhile, in 2017, we had more arrests for marijuana possession in this country than all the violent crime arrests combined.”

While Booker didn’t call Harris out by name, her recent admission—which was followed by a light back-and-forth about what kind of music she listened to when smoking—garnered dozens of headlines and also some backlash (including from her own father). “Half my family is from Jamaica,” she said at the time, laughing. “Are you kidding me?”

Watch Booker’s marijuana comments, about 37:40 into the video below:

(Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also recently talked about his cannabis experience, but the conversation wasn’t as humorous in comparison and received significantly less media coverage.)

Booker’s jab may offer a window into future Democratic presidential debates, with support for legalization increasingly being seen as the bare minimum requirement on the issue and candidates competing to address its implementation more thoughtfully.

It could also be an early sign that Harris’s record as a prosecutor who oversaw the sentencing of people for nonviolent drug offenses is a vulnerability that Booker and other candidates may seek to exploit before the Democratic electorate, which overwhelmingly supports legalizing marijuana.

Harris’s giggle-filled admission of her past cannabis consumption in the February radio interview wasn’t the first time she treated the marijuana issue as a laughing matter.

In 2014, she dismissively laughed off a reporter’s question about legalization instead of providing a substantive response on her position.

Harris also made an attempt at a cannabis joke in a January appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show, saying that the reason she looks so happy on the cover of her book is “not because I smoked a joint or anything, even though we legalized.”

In his comments on Sunday, Booker spoke about marijuana for several minutes, noting the racially disproportionate arrest rate for cannabis possession and the long-term consequences of having a non-violent drug conviction on a person’s record.

“In Newark, I’m sorry, the margins for error for my kids to experiment with drugs, like people often do, that margin is not there,” he said. “And then one kid gets one charge for possession of marijuana for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing, and what happens to their lives?”

There are tens of thousands of “collateral consequences” of drug arrests and convictions, he said, ranging from ineligibility for public housing to lost employment opportunities.

“So I’m all for legalizing marijuana. I have the premiere bill in the Senate to do it,” Booker said. “But you know what my bill says? It doesn’t say just that we should deregulate marijuana on the federal level, we should make it legal and let the states do what they want. But it doesn’t stop there, because do not talk to me about legalizing marijuana unless in the same breath you talk to me about expunging the records of the millions of people that are suffering with not being able to find a job.”

“And then on top of that, people who are in prison should be able to petition their way out under the new laws. And more than that, all of this tax revenue that we’re going to get from marijuana should be reinvested in those communities that have been disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs—for education, for drug treatment, for job training programs.”

Booker also talked about an issue that his legislation doesn’t directly address: equity in the marijuana industry. He said he gets “very upset about” about the fact that communities historically targeted by the war on drugs are largely left out of opportunities to participate in the increasingly legal cannabis economy.

“We need to start talking about what I call restorative justice in our system and make sure that when we look at our laws, we create commonsense laws because right now we are spending billions of dollars in this drug war, with this money that could go to infrastructure, it could go to education, it could go to so many more positive things than warehousing human potential in the country that is the leading nation for incarceration when we should be the leading nation for education,” he said.

Kamala Harris Tries To Tell A Marijuana Joke, But Stephen Colbert Isn’t Amused

Photo courtesy of Facebook/ABC News.

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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