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One Year After Jeff Sessions Rescinded A Federal Marijuana Memo, The Sky Hasn’t Fallen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“I don’t know what Jeff Sessions’s intentions were when he rescinded the Cole memo, but strictly from a cannabis policy reform standpoint it really helped to advance the ball,” Neal Levine of the Cannabis Trade Federation told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

Governor Signs Bill Legalizing Medical Marijuana In The U.S. Virgin Islands

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Medical cannabis was legalized in another U.S. territory on Saturday after the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands signed a long-awaited bill into law.

“I have approved the Virgin Islands Medicinal Cannabis Care Act because it is a step in the right direction toward assisting Virgin Islanders suffering from autoimmune and other debilitating medical conditions,” newly sworn-in Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) said in a press release.

The Virgin Islands Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act allows qualified patients to obtain, possess and consume marijuana for therapeutic purposes. It also establishes legal dispensaries and facilities to cultivate, test and manufacture cannabis products.

“After such a prolonged beating, I don’t know how to feel, except relieved for the people who will finally have access to healthy, effective, and affordable medicinal cannabis,” Senator Terrence ‘Positive’ Nelson, who for several legislative sessions in a row has sponsored medical cannabis bills that were ultimately defeated, said in a text message to Marijuana Moment.

“I feel redeemed and excited that the effort went from ‘laughable’ to law!”

Photo courtesy of Gov. Albert Bryan’s office.

Patients suffering from a list of serious medical conditions including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain will be able to receive a recommendation for medical marijuana from a licensed medical practitioner. Qualifying residents can possess up to four ounces of cannabis at a time and possession for non-residents will be capped at three ounces.

The legislation was approved by lawmakers last month.

In an interview with The St. Thomas Source last year, Bryan said he supports legalizing medical cannabis “based on the proven health benefits in the relief of pain and treatment of symptoms for many serious ailments including cancer.”

“I believe a properly regulated medicinal cannabis industry can provide relief to those seeking alternatives to conventional medicine and can also be an economic driver attracting new revenues for the Virgin Islands,” he said.

Revenue from the territory’s medical cannabis program will be used to fund drug rehabilitation, tourism projects, agriculture investments, work training and infrastructure.

While reform efforts in mainland U.S. have been receiving significant attention, advocates are also scoring wins in various U.S. territories. For example, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands fully legalized cannabis last year, before even implementing a medical cannabis system.

“This legislation also gives effect to a Virgin Islands community-wide Referendum held in 2014 that approved the introduction of the medical-use sale of cannabis products by a majority of the voters,” Bryan said. “Since the Referendum, it is clear that marijuana-use policy in the United States has been changing rapidly in favor of medicinal and recreational use and will continue, even potentially on the federal level.”

The governor also suggested that the new medical cannabis policy may be tweaked going forward.

“The Legislature recognized that the Bill, as passed, is not perfect and needs more refinement and amendment and provides for an implementation period that we must aggressively pursue,” he said. It is part of the process of implementation of the regulatory and operational system. And therefore it will be essential that further revisions be developed, with professional guidance, in the implementation process, including preparation of Regulations, forms, fees, and procedures; and to undertake necessary amendments to the Bill with the Legislature.”

Nelson, the bill’s sponsor, said that he is looking forward to staying involved in the medical cannabis implementation process but that he is also ready to begin pushing for broader marijuana policy reforms.

“I am ready to assist with the establishment of rules and regulations which will be the next step,” Nelson said. “However, each jurisdiction cannot be satisfied with our own success in getting local law changed, but must continue the charge until there are changes to federal government law.”

“This is just another small victory on the rugged road to full legalization.”

Read the full text of the Virgin Islands Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act below:

USVI medical marijuana bill by on Scribd

UPDATE: A previous version of this story reported that the legislation was signed on Thursday as told to Marijuana Moment by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nelson. The governor signed the bill on Saturday.

Legal Marijuana Advocates Rank The Best And Worst Governors On Cannabis

Photo element courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Marijuana Descheduling Could Be ‘Next Step’ In Congressional Criminal Justice Reform

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Lawmakers in Congress are already weighing additional criminal justice bills as a follow up to recently passed sentencing reform legislation.

Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Douglas Collins (R-GA), who championed the successful First Step Act signed into law by President Trump last month, are now considering introducing a bill that would clear the criminal records of people with nonviolent drug convictions that occurred before Congress reduced minimum sentencing requirements, The Washington Post reported on Thursday.

The legislation, which Collins is tentatively describing as the “Next Step Act,” is still in the early stages of being negotiated and drafted, would also restore people’s ability to get certain jobs after serving their sentences.

Jeffries, the fifth top ranking Democratic in the House, says that provisions removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act should be on the table for inclusion in the bill, and he is holding open the possibility that the minority party will get on board with the idea.

“Descheduling marijuana at the federal level shouldn’t actually be that controversial, and it’s consistent with Republican principles of states’ rights and federalism,” he told the Post.

Jeffries previously described cannabis decriminalization as the natural “next step” in criminal justice reform after the First Step Act passed.

“It’s great to see a member of this stature among House Democrats make this commitment,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator with Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “Jeffries is a long champion of marijuana reform and really gets how we cannot have a full conversation about criminal justice reform and economic justice without a conversation about ending marijuana prohibition in a way that centers those most harmed by its enforcement.”

“I’m excited to see what his office will do as they lead on these efforts.”

But while descheduling stands a good chance of passing in the Democratic-led House, it’s not certain that Jeffries’s GOP counterpart would attach his name to a criminal justice reform bill that includes significant cannabis policy changes. Collins would be “unlikely to support such a move,” the Post reported, citing a staffer.

And the prospects of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate are even more dubious.

Still, Jeffries is optimistic that lawmakers of all stripes could get behind descheduling.

“There’s a growing number of conservatives, libertarians and Republicans who are in agreement with Democrats, who believe that we should at least take a hard look at descheduling marijuana,” he said.

Descheduling would be one way to address conflicting federal and state marijuana policies—something that attorney general nominee William Barr said was necessary as more states legalize cannabis during a confirmation hearing this week.

As it stands, marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the most restrictive category. In the past, there have been efforts to reschedule cannabis in order to make it easier for researchers to access and study, but those efforts have so far stalled.

Federal Officials Recognize How Marijuana’s Legal Status Blocks Research, Documents Show

Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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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First Senate Marijuana Bill Of 2019 Would Force Study On Medical Cannabis For Veterans

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The first Senate marijuana bill of the new Congress focuses on increasing research on the medical benefits of cannabis for military veterans.

The legislation, introduced by Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) on Thursday, would direct the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to conduct clinical trials on the effectiveness of medical marijuana in the treatment of conditions common among military veterans.

While the new bill has the same title as a proposal the bipartisan duo filed during the last Congress, its language—which is not yet online but was obtained by Marijuana Moment—much more forcefully directs VA to begin researching medical cannabis than the earlier legislation did.

Whereas last year’s version simply said that the department “may conduct and support research relating to the efficacy and safety of forms of cannabis,” nothing in current federal law actually prevents it from doing so.

This latest version stipulates that the VA, which has been reluctant to engage in marijuana studies, “shall” begin conducting clinical trials on cannabis.

“The VA needs to listen to the growing number of veterans who have already found success in medicinal cannabis in easing their pain and other symptoms,” Tester, the ranking member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a press release. “Our bill will make sure the VA takes proactive steps to explore medicinal cannabis as a safe and effective alternative to opioids for veterans suffering from injuries or illness received in the line of duty.”

The proposed double-blind randomized controlled clinical trials are meant to cover the potential therapeutic applications of marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

In particular, the department would have to study areas such as medical marijuana’s effect on opioid, benzodiazepine and alcohol consumption, as well as inflammation, sleep quality, spasticity, agitation, quality of life, mood, anxiety, social functioning, suicidal ideation and frequency of nightmares or night terrors.

Marijuana reform advocates praised the new legislation’s more forceful language as compared to the prior bill.

“The more assertive language is great improvement to this commonsense research bill that could ultimately help veterans with debilitating conditions,” Michael Liszewski, principal of The Enact Group, a lobbying and consulting firm that focuses on cannabis issues, told Marijuana Moment.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs already has the ability to conduct this research and the previous language would have let the Department continue to drag its heels,” he said. “It’s sort of like the difference between a parent telling their child ‘maybe you should clean up your room’ versus ‘you will clean up your room, now.'”

Sullivan said that he’s heard from many veteran constituents who are interested in finding an alternative to prescription painkillers for their pain.

“Many of our nation’s veterans already use medicinal cannabis, and they deserve to have full knowledge of the potential benefits and side effects of this alternative therapy,” he said in a press release.

During the last Congress, the Senate version of the legislation garnered six cosponsors, while 55 representatives ultimately signed onto the House version. The bill became the first standalone piece of marijuana legislation to clear a congressional panel when the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved it in May.

Nonetheless, VA leadership remained reluctant about engaging in marijuana research.

“VA is committed to researching and developing effective ways to help Veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain conditions,” VA Secretary David Shulkin wrote in a letter to lawmakers last year. “However, federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such projects.”

That isn’t true.

Meanwhile, top officials in the Trump administration have talked about pressuring the VA to conduct studies on medical marijuana for veterans, emails revealed, but they expressed concerns about how the Justice Department would react.

Read the full text of the new Senate veterans medical cannabis bill below:

Senate Veterans Medical Mar… by on Scribd

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