As he weighs a potential run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is an outlier on one key issue as compared to Senate colleagues who have already declared their candidacies: Marijuana.
Brown’s consistent refusal to endorse legalizing cannabis also puts him at odds with his party’s voters.
Last week, five competing presidential candidates—Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—teamed up to introduce the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and punish states that have discriminatory enforcement of prohibition policies.
This week, Rep. Tusli Gabbard (D-HI), who is also seeking the party’s presidential nomination, filed a bill to deschedule marijuana so that states can set their own laws without federal interference.
Brown, on the other hand, hasn’t introduced or cosponsored a single marijuana reform bill during his quarter-century in Congress.
Last week, during a South Carolina leg of a multi-state tour the senator is undertaking as he considers entering the presidential race, Brown said he disagrees with his colleagues and would-be primary opponents about cannabis legalization.
“Cory is a good guy,” he said of Booker, who is the lead sponsor of the new congressional cannabis bill, according to a journalist who was in the room. “But I don’t go quite where he does.”
Last year, Brown told a Cleveland TV news station that he isn’t sure if marijuana is a gateway drug or not.
“States that have legalized marijuana, we’ll see what happens in those states,” he said. “If that means less addiction to more powerful drugs, or if it’s a gateway. And I don’t think we don’t know that yet.”
In 2015, Brown said that “there are far too many” unanswered questions about legalizing cannabis, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
“I have significant concerns about it,” he said of a ballot measure to end prohibition in Ohio. “It’s a step that we should take with great caution.”
In 1998, Brown voted for a House resolution “expressing the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.” The measure argued that “the ambiguous cultural messages about marijuana use are contributing to a growing acceptance of marijuana use among children and teenagers.”
“Congress continues to support the existing Federal legal process for determining the safety and efficacy of drugs and opposes efforts to circumvent this process by legalizing marijuana, and other Schedule I drugs, for medicinal use without valid scientific evidence and the approval of the Food and Drug Administration,” the resolution said.
In a 2010 letter to a constituent, Brown wrote that “there are risks associated with making marijuana legally available,” according to NORML. “The widespread popularity and use of this drug among our nation’s youth, as well as its role as a ‘pipeline’ drug (potentially leading to the use of heroin and other lethal drugs) distinguishes it from other controlled substances, and we must be particularly careful before creating the potential for expanded access and use.”
In 2011, Brown told a student who asked him to support marijuana reform legislation that he would “probably not” take initiative on the issue.
“I’ve got other priorities,” the senator said.
That said, while Brown has refused to take proactive legislative steps on marijuana, and supported the 1998 anti-legalization resolution, he did take a moderate pro-reform position when forced to vote on cannabis issues later during his tenure in the House.
And although he doesn’t go as far as his colleagues and potential presidential rivals—including former prosecutors like Harris and fellow candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)—in endorsing the legalization of marijuana, he has voiced support for medical cannabis and letting states set their own policies without federal interference.
“Senator Brown supports legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing recreational use at the federal level and allowing states to go further if they choose,” Brown spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said in an email.
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked Obama-era guidance that urged federal prosecutors to respect local cannabis laws last year, Brown pushed back.
“I wish the attorney general would mind the store on other things and would put his efforts into this terrible addiction issue about opioids and worry less about medical marijuana,” he said. “I’m concerned when the attorney general and the Justice Department, it’s a huge operation, it’s powerful and when they come in this way I’m concerned about what it means for people who need medical marijuana and believe it can help them.”
And during his South Carolina pre-campaign stop last week, Brown indicated that he’s in favor of removing criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession and supports letting state-legal cannabis businesses access banks, according to a reporter who as in attendance.
Nonetheless, the fact that he has not supported legalizing marijuana or put his name on any cannabis reform bills in Congress makes him stand out from most Democrats who are seeking their party’s presidential nomination or are considering doing so.
“It is time for Senator Brown to place himself on the right side of history and give his unqualified support to ending marijuana prohibition in this country. His current position has more in common with the dated mentality that Democrats held in the 1990s than where the overwhelming majority of all Americans are in 2019,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said in an interview. “If he maintains his opposition to legalization, his presidential aspirations may be over before they even start. Supporting the failed status quo of prohibition in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will likely prove disqualifying with party voters.”
A Gallup poll last year found that 66 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. Among Democrats, 75 percent are on board with ending cannabis prohibition.
Even a majority of Republicans now want to legalize marijuana, according to the survey.
UPDATE: Brown announced on Thursday afternoon that is not running for president.
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.