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One Year After Jeff Sessions Rescinded A Federal Marijuana Memo, The Sky Hasn’t Fallen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“I don’t know what Jeff Sessions’s intentions were when he rescinded the Cole memo, but strictly from a cannabis policy reform standpoint it really helped to advance the ball,” Neal Levine of the Cannabis Trade Federation told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.

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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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