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One Year After Jeff Sessions Rescinded A Federal Marijuana Memo, The Sky Hasn’t Fallen

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Exactly one year ago, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions stoked fears in the marijuana industry by rescinding an Obama-era Justice Department memo that encouraged federal prosecutors to generally not interfere with state cannabis legalization laws.

But in the year since, the government has not launched a crackdown, five more states legalized cannabis in some form—with Vermont lawmakers voting to do so on the very same day Sessions made his move—and federal prosecutions for marijuana-related offenses during the 2018 fiscal year, which ended in September, declined by almost a fifth.

While the Obama guidance, known as the Cole memo, provided the legal industry with some sense of comfort, advising U.S. attorneys to exercise discretion and enforce federal law in a limited number of circumstances, its rescission hasn’t halted the progress of the reform movement. If anything, Sessions’s decision to do away with the document seems to have emboldened marijuana-friendly lawmakers at the state and federal levels.

In Congress, an outpouring of condemnation and vows to protect legal states against federal interference followed last year’s announcement. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) went so far as to threaten to block Justice Department nominees unless the Trump administration committed to grant states the autonomy to set their own cannabis policies. And later in the year, he got the president’s backing on a bipartisan bill to exempt legal states from federal marijuana enforcement under the Controlled Substances Act.

“I don’t know what Jeff Sessions’s intentions were when he rescinded the Cole memo, but strictly from a cannabis policy reform standpoint it really helped to advance the ball,” Neal Levine of the Cannabis Trade Federation told Marijuana Moment. “He started a chain reaction that directly led to the STATES Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation that addresses the majority of the issues the cannabis industry faces and is supported by the president. We now have a real opportunity to pass game-changing legislation into law in during this Congress.”

Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, called the Cole memo repeal “more like thunder than lightning.”

“It spooked a lot of businesses, investors, and elected officials and elicited responses that had real-world ramifications,” he said. “But it did not actually strike a direct blow to the industry. Business deals fell through, banks may have shied away from providing services, and governments slowed their pace of adopting reforms, but ultimately there was never any noticeable change in federal enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws. The industry and the reform movement have continued to advance and still made significant strides in the 12 months that followed.”

There seems to be a consensus among leading marijuana policy reform advocates that Sessions’s move, even if it had negative short-term financial implications for some businesses, ended up inadvertently helping to advance the legalization agenda in the long term.

“I think that [the rescission] certainly backfired and had some unintended consequences for Mr. Sessions in that any real change that came out of the rescission of the memo arguably was supportive of the industry and that it really galvanized support for states’ rights and marijuana reform at the federal level in Congress in a way that we’ve really never seen before,” Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a phone interview.

“I’m sure that was not the intent, but I think what it did was it really created a situation where members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, particularly Republicans, were forced to take sides because there was a real threat. They look at the same polling numbers we look at, they know that this is an increasingly popular issue and, for the most part, came out in support of states’ rights.”

It’s also worth noting that the Justice Department, which remains largely operational in spite of the federal government shutdown, has so far declined to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana activities—even though a rider blocking the agency from spending money for such enforcement has expired for now.

Of course, Trump’s new attorney general nominee, William Barr, could always direct the agency to adopt a more intensive enforcement protocol, but there haven’t yet been any signals that he considers federal marijuana prohibition a priority.

All told, the post-Cole memo world might have left federal prosecutors without explicit guidance, but the sky hasn’t fallen and the legalization movement marches on—by most accounts stronger than ever.

Federal Marijuana Prosecutions Are Dropping In Era Of Legalization, Chief Justice Reports

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.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Marijuana Banking Bill Would Save Federal Money, Congressional Budget Office Says

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The federal government would save money if a bipartisan bill to give marijuana businesses access to banks is approved, according to a report released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on Friday.

The legislation, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in a bipartisan vote of 45 to 15 in March, would change federal law to protect financial institutions that service the cannabis industry from being penalized by regulators. That reform would set off a chain of events, beginning with a likely increase in the number of banks accepting deposits from those businesses, CBO reasoned.

Assuming the bill takes effect near the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the office estimates that starting in 2022, banks would see a $1.2 billion increase in deposits, and credit union deposits would grow by $200 million. By 2029, the amounts “would rise to $2.1 billion and $350 million, respectively.”

Because those deposits would have to be insured through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), the CBO took into account the possibility that individual financial institutions will fail, and the estimated cost of resolving those failures is $5 million.

That said, those direct spending costs would be “offset by assessments levied on insured financial institutions,” which would amount to about $9 million.

“As a result, CBO estimates, H.R. 1595 would decrease net direct spending by $4 million over the 2019-2029 period,” the office reported.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the bill’s chief sponsor, told Marijuana Moment that its enactment would have benefits beyond fiscal savings.

“Getting cash off our streets and making our communities safer will come at no cost to the federal government and actually save money while providing a much-needed long-term banking solution for legitimate marijuana businesses across the country,” he said.

Via CBO.

“This CBO score should only increase the significant momentum in Congress behind passing the SAFE Banking Act,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment. “It is now apparent that we can help diminish a serious threat to public safety at no net cost to the federal government. We look forward to the bill passing through the House and hope the Senate will follow suit.”

There are some implementation costs to take into account, CBO says. The administrative costs are estimated to be $3 million. But the FDIC and NCUA are able to charge premiums on the financial institutions they regulate to cover much of those costs. The total net administrative costs would, therefore, be about $1 million.

The Federal Reserve would also have to spend funds to implement the bill, and that would reduce remittances to the Treasury Department. Those remittances are considered revenue, which is expected to decrease by about $1 million if the legislation is implemented.

Then there are costs related to other provisions of the bill. Financial regulators would have to update and issue new guidance, which would “cost less than $500,000 over the 2019-2024 period.”

The legislation also requires the Government Accountability Office to study barriers to entry in the marijuana industry and to financial services for minority- and women-owned cannabis businesses. The costs are estimated to be less than $500,000 annually from 2020 to 2024.

The CBO also estimated that enacting the legislation “would not increase on-budget deficits by more than $5 billion in any of the four consecutive 10-year periods beginning in 2030.”

The CBO outlined “several noteworthy areas of uncertainty” that could change the calculus.

1. New guidance from federal financial regulators could be more or less stringent than existing guidance implemented under the Obama administration, which could impact the amount of deposits banks and credit unions will receive.

2. Data on cannabis-related deposits is currently “limited,” as federal restrictions have forced marijuana businesses to operate on a largely cash basis. That means CBO’s estimates on the amount of deposits financial institutions will see could end up being “greater or smaller.”

3. If those estimates do end up being different, costs associated with the bank and credit union insurance funds “could be higher or lower depending on the amount of premium collections and capital deposits and on changes in the resolution costs for financial institutions.”

Sahar Ayinehsazian, an associate attorney at Vicente Sederberg LLP who specializes in cannabis banking, told Marijuana Moment that most of the figures lined up with her expectations. However, given that many marijuana businesses have gravitated toward credit unions rather than banks, she said the estimate increase in deposits to those financial institutions may well end up being larger.

“Looking at the chances of this legislation passing from an economic standpoint, I think [the CBO score is] good news,” she said.

Other advocates agreed that the CBO estimate should help efforts to advance the bill.

“For years, cannabis advocates have been preaching the net benefits SAFE Banking would have on consumers, patients, financial institutions, regulators and taxpayers. This CBO cost estimate confirms that,” Michael Correia, director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “The increase of insured deposits, coming from the added certainty this legislation brings, far outweighs the minor administrative costs to implement this bill.”

The House marijuana banking bill currently has 184 cosponsors, and a companion Senate version has 30 lawmakers signed on. The committee of jurisdiction in the upper chamber has not yet set a hearing or a vote, but pressure is increasing.

Banking associations from all 50 states urged the Senate to take up the legislation earlier this week. Other organizations that have called for a resolution to the cannabis banking dilemma include the National Association of Attorneys General, which has endorsed the bill, and the National Association of State Treasurers, representing state treasurers and finance officials, which adopted a resolution last week in favor of the legislation’s passage.

The new analysis is just the third time that the CBO, which is mandated to score bills that pass full committees, has issued a report on the economic impact of standalone cannabis legislation. The agency scored two marijuana research bills that cleared committees last year.

Federal Small Business Administration Pressed On Supporting Marijuana Industry

This story was updated to include comment from Perlmutter and Correia.

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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Federal Small Business Administration Pressed On Supporting Marijuana Industry

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Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) pressed a federal official responsible for advocating for small businesses on Wednesday about whether existing laws and regulations are preventing the growth of state-legal marijuana markets.

The line of questioning comes as members of Congress are preparing legislation aimed at removing barriers to small business assistance for cannabis industry participants.

The senator said at a hearing of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee that her state’s legal industry is attracting small businesses and entrepreneurs who are selling millions of dollars of product each month. She asked Major Clark, acting chief counsel of the office of advocacy at the Small Business Administration (SBA), about the unique barriers these companies face under federal prohibition.

“Senator, that’s a difficult question,” Clark replied. “We have not actually studied the issue of marijuana in that regard, and we have not because the federal government has not yet legalized it.”

“We do, in conversations with a lot of businesses, get inquires as to what they can do and how they can do it. But to actually do an analysis of it, we have not yet done that,” he said. “I’m sure that as soon as the federal government decides to legalize this substance, we will begin to study its impact and the ability to use it in a more economical context within the state.”

Watch the conversation about small business assistance for cannabis operators at 35:50 in the video below:

Rosen followed up to get Clark’s opinion about whether marijuana companies would benefit from some of the guidelines and resources the SBA offers to small businesses in other industries.

“These types of businesses can benefit from some of these types of things, but again, because this issue is an issue that has not reached the surface of being legalized, we have actually stayed away from trying to advise these businesses on these particular aspects,” he said.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), chair of the committee, weighed in on the issue after the Rosen’s time expired, saying that he recognizes the difficulty that federal agencies face when it comes to regulating a controlled substance.

“It is a unique challenge dealing with a Schedule I drug on the federal side and to also know that some states, including my own, have said that they want to allow it,” Lankford said, referring to the medical cannabis law that Oklahoma voters approved in 2018. “And the federal government and the [Food and Drug Administration] continues to study it and say there’s no medicinal gain from this product.”

“It’s a Schedule I drug. I get it,” he said. “The science, and whether it is SBA or whoever it is continues to be able to deal with that.”

While lawmakers push to get marijuana businesses access to federally authorized financial services, industry advocates say that SBA-specific reform legislation may be on the horizon.

The day after Rosen questioned the SBA official about cannabis policy, Khurshid Khoja, a board member for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said at a press conference on Capitol Hill that a bill was being drafted to “essentially get SBA services for cannabis businesses and for cannabis businesses from disproportionately impacted communities.”

Watch the SBA reform discussion at about 32:15 in the video below:

“The House Small Business Committee is looking into the issue and is interested in holding a hearing and drafting legislation this summer that addresses these issues,” a cannabis policy lobbyist who didn’t wish to be named in order to discuss plans that are in development, told Marijuana Moment separately.

GOP Congressman Exposes Flaws In VA Marijuana Research Projects

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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GOP Congressman Exposes Flaws In VA Marijuana Research Projects

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Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) emphasized the importance conducting clinical trials on medical marijuana at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on Tuesday, a topic on which he has often focused.

He also criticized the catch-22 of VA cannabis research, arguing that while the department is able to conduct clinical trials on marijuana, it doesn’t effectively publicize those studies, leaving veterans who might be interested in participating in the dark.

The congressman started by asking whether Mike Colston, director of mental health policy and oversight at the Department of Defense, felt that giving veterans access to medical cannabis could reduce suicides.

Colston said “there’s far more research to be done” and that there’s “insufficient evidence for or against that position.”

Gaetz cited research showing reductions in opioid use in states that have loosened cannabis laws, and he questioned whether “the current offramp for opioid addiction,” which typically involves prescribing long-term opioids that are less potent and less prone to abuse, “is a more effective offramp than medical cannabis.”

“I just think those are the three evidence-based therapies right now that meet the medical bar,” Colston said, referring to bupenehprine, methadone and naltrexone. “Obviously more research can change that.”

That prompted Gaetz to expand on VA policy as it pertains to medical cannabis. He asked for confirmation that the department’s doctors cannot currently recommend marijuana to veterans in states where it’s legal.

They can’t do that because “there’s a federal law against it right now,” Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevention at the VA, claimed. (This has been a point of contention for legalization advocates, who argue that only the VA’s own internal administrative policies, and not an overarching federal law, blocks such recommendations.)

But VA officials can conduct clinical trials on marijuana, Franklin said.

“We have two ongoing research studies going on right now in this space,” she said. “I think we are open to research, yes.”

The congressman wanted to know if the VA publishes information about these studies and where to find it. The VA official wasn’t sure—and that was exactly Gaetz’s point.

“I don’t think anyone is clear, which is the source of my frustration because I think that there are a lot of these clinical trials that are seeking veterans,” he said. “The VA, due to a lack of clarity, won’t publicize that information or make it available, and then we’re unable to do the research that Captain Colston says is necessary to advance additional options for veterans trying to get off opioids and to stop them from killing themselves.”

Lawmakers have introduced legislation this session that would allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations and require the department to conduct clinical trials on the plant’s potential therapeutic benefits for veterans, among other cannabis and veterans-related bills.

But if the VA is mandated to research the plant, Gaetz wants the department to better publicize the studies so that would-be participants actually know about them.

Trump Official Would Rather Discuss Marijuana Than President’s Tax Returns, He Says

Photo courtesy of YouTube.

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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