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Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Discusses Marijuana, Joe Biden And Prohibitionist Activists

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As the marijuana legalization movement presses forward, many eyes are turned to the Northeast, where legislative stalemates over reform have derailed several recent attempts to change state cannabis laws.

But in Pennsylvania, advocates are seeing clear signs that the tide is rapidly changing, with Gov. Tom Wolf (D) recently endorsing legalization and and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who spoke to Marijuana Moment in phone interview last week, helping to spearhead the fight to end prohibition.

Fetterman, who earned an endorsement from NORML last year and led a statewide listening tour this year to discuss the prospect of legalizing cannabis in the Keystone State, expanded on his reform vision and discussed his engagement with constituents on the issue, his online tiffs with prohibitionists and what he makes of former Vice President Joe Biden’s opposition to legalization.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Marijuana Moment: You headed a listening tour across Pennsylvania to talk about legalization plans with constituents. Were there any takeaways from that experience that resonated with you?

John Fetterman: There’s a lot that stood out to me. One of the things that really stood out to me is that this is a topic that everybody wants to talk about. Everybody. It’s something that everyone wants to get out, whether you’re in red country, Pennsylvania or whether you’re in super liberal, where-it’s-decriminalized, downtown Philadelphia—everybody wants to talk about it.

Another thing that really struck out at me is how important access to cannabis is for veterans. Because of its Schedule I classification, they are prohibited from receiving it from the VA and we had veteran after veteran come to our meetings and often would end up in tears, just so frustrated because he or she would be like, “The one thing that I need more than anything is access to safe medical cannabis and I can’t.”

Those were two things that really struck out at me. Also, how non-issue it is. There are very few people that are like, “reefer madness, this is the devil’s tobacco” kind of mentality. Even if you’re not for it recreationally, I think very few people—in fact, no one that we could find—thinks that it’s appropriate to be on Schedule I or this idea that it’s in any way, shape or form comparable to hard drugs or dangerous drugs.

MM: Were you surprised at all when Gov. Wolf came out in support of adult-use legalization?

JF: I wasn’t because, you know what, the governor had the wisdom that the state needed to have a whole, comprehensive conversation. And I know the governor is always at the forefront of his views on what’s appropriate for Pennsylvania. It doesn’t surprise me at all. I was gratified, of course, but at the same time, not surprised because that’s the kind of governor he is, that’s why he was reelected by a significant majority and why I’m proud to be his running mate.

MM: What do you make of state Rep. Delloso’s proposed to implement a state-run cannabis market?

JF: I thank Representative Delloso because that’s one of the things that we did hear from a lot of people. It’s controversial to some, but we heard from a lot of people that we wanted strict access and people checking IDs and we didn’t want it to be like a JUUL where there’s a profit motive or incentive to marketers to sell. There’s a lot of appeal for a state-store system. What makes that possible in Pennsylvania is that we are one of only two states—I think Utah is the only other one—that controls the access of alcohol, so it’s a metaphor that Pennsylvanians are familiar with. I think it would be a channel that a lot of people that are either unsure or would otherwise oppose access to cannabis could actually support.

MM: Do you feel that, broader legalization aside, a more moderate decriminalization policy is achievable in the short term in the GOP-controlled legislature?

JF: I do. I do. I’ve got to tell you, no matter how somebody feels about legalization for recreational, there is universal support for decriminalization. I would say that to my more conservative or unconvinced colleagues, this is a jobs bill, this is a let-people-get-back-into-the-mainstream bill. If we can decriminalize this, we will literally save 25,000 people from going through the criminal justice system being charged on this. Law enforcement has better fish to fry, and I hear that from law enforcement. This isn’t anything radical. This is something that’s already embraced in some of our largest metropolitan areas in Pennsylvania. This is not radical. I hope that we can get to that point.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the governor laid that out. Even though he and I both support full legalization, decriminalization and mass expungement of low-level, non-violent arrests, I think, is a great point to begin with. It’s not controversial. Nobody is going to get their ears boxed back home in their district for talking about this, because that’s what we heard from all these different counties.

MM: You get into it with the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM) on social media from time to time. What do you make of them?

JF: I get into with them simply because having a conversation about it and then just getting to a point where I get frustrated when people deliberately conflate legal with harmless, and that’s just not the case. That’s my main point with SAM or anyone, where it’s like, look at all the substances in our world or things like lawnmowers or automobiles. They’re dangerous. People can and do die using them or consuming them, but they’re legal and being legal means it’s regulated and it’s taxed, or it’s made safer every year. Currently, we don’t have that with cannabis and cannabis needs to join the bastards of goods like alcohol and tobacco.

I don’t know how an open, informed mind can simultaneously lobby for prohibition of cannabis but has no issue with legal tobacco or alcohol, when those two substances kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. Or opioid pills, pain pills. Or I forget how many people die from aspirin poisoning even. When you contrast that with zero overdose deaths with cannabis, I don’t know how anybody in good faith can argue those points simultaneously. That’s my main issue with SAM. I respect their right to having opinions and voicing them publicly, but it’s disingenuous to conflate legal with harmless.

MM: Do you think that some of the arguments in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana do or should apply to other drugs?

JF: I’m just not ready to take on other drugs or anything. I think we need to get to a point in our society where we embrace cannabis legally, nationwide we get it off Schedule I and we right that ship and we stop criminalizing millions of people that partake in a substance that has zero overdose deaths, that many people use to medicate themselves for pain or traumatic stress, as my wife does—she’s a medical marijuana patient. Let’s get to that point.

I do support harm reduction, whether that’s safe injection sites. I’m all about having conversations where we can get to a safer, healthier place, and I think harm reduction is part of that conversation. It’s controversial in my state, with safe injection sites in Philadelphia, and I support that. But with respect to other drugs, we’re grappling with cannabis and that’s the way our conversation is going to stay at the moment.

MM: Former Vice President Joe Biden recently said he doesn’t support adult-use legalization, partly because he feels that marijuana may be a gateway drug. What’s your response?

JF: My response is the vice president is wholly entitled to his views as wrong as they are on marijuana. That seems like an odd hill to die on as a presidential Democratic candidate vying for nomination, but needless to say, I strenuously disagree with the vice president—both from a practical standpoint, but also politically, I don’t think it’s a very smart move either. It’s very 1997 in its view. I would respectfully urge the vice president to carefully reconsider his position on that.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gov. Tom Wolf.

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 Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Federal Agency Loosens Marijuana-Related Grant Funding Restrictions For Mental Health Treatment

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The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) loosened restrictions this week on grant funding for state health providers and other entities that allow patients to use medical marijuana for mental heath treatment.

The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs flagged the new policy change in a notice to SAMHSA grant recipients on Monday. It said that the federal agency has removed language from its terms and conditions that until now has prevented grant funds from going to any institution that “provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders.”

This restriction led the state department to issue a memo in June warning recipients and applicants about the possible withholding of funding.

Despite the recent change, SAMHSA is still continuing a narrower ban that says federal funds themselves “may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana.”

The broader prohibition, which has now been rescinded, prompted a notice last year from Maine’s Education Department, which said is was no longer eligible for certain federal funds to support mental health programs in schools because the state allows students to access medical marijuana.

It seems the federal agency is now being somewhat more permissive.

Here’s how SAMHSA’s updated marijuana restriction reads:

“SAMHSA grant funds may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory and public policy requirements); 21 U.S.C. 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana).”

The older, more broad prohibition read:

“Grant funds may not be used, directly or indirectly, to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. Treatment in this context includes the treatment of opioid use disorder. Grant funds also cannot be provided to any individual who or organization that provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. § 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to “ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory requirements.”); 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana). This prohibition does not apply to those providing such treatment in the context of clinical research permitted by the DEA and under an FDA-approved investigational new drug application where the article being evaluated is marijuana or a constituent thereof that is otherwise a banned controlled substance under federal law.”

The marijuana restrictions were first added to grant award terms for Fiscal Year 2020. The language was initially carried over to Fiscal Year 2021 but was more recently switched out for the narrower language by the federal agency.

In a January 2020 FAQ that the Pennsylvania department shared from SAMHSA this June, the federal agency responded to a prompt inquiring whether grant recipients can serve patients who are “very clear about their wish to remain on their medical marijuana for their mental or substance use disorder.”

“No. The organization cannot serve a patient who is on medical marijuana for a mental or substance use disorder and wishes to remain on such treatment,” it said. “SAMHSA promotes the use of evidence-based practices and there is no evidence for such a treatment; in fact, there is increasing evidence that marijuana can further exacerbate mental health symptoms.”

While the agency seemed adamant in enforcing that policy at the time, it appears to have had a change of heart and has since loosened the restriction.

A SAMHSA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the new rules took effect on Sunday, but played down their significance.

“This Aug. 1 clarification simply made clearer what was already in place: SAMHSA funds should not be used to procure a federally prohibited substance,” he said in an email.

While it is true that the revised provision, as was the case in the prior language, states that federal funds cannot be used to pay for marijuana, the spokesperson avoided commenting on the new deletion of the broader prohibition on grants going to entities that otherwise allow patients to use medical cannabis to treat substance use or mental disorders.

After SAMHSA announced in 2019 that its marijuana policy would impact organizations applying for its two main opioid treatment programs and another that provides funding to combat alcoholism and substance misuse, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Oregon Health Authority issued notices on the impact of the rule.

Read the Pennsylvania department’s notice on the SAMHSA marijuana policy change below: 

Pennsylvania SAMHSA marijuana by Marijuana Moment

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Mexican Lawmakers Could Finally Legalize Marijuana Sales Next Month (Op-Ed)

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The legislature missed repeated deadlines, and then the Supreme Court moved to allow homegrow. What’s next?

By Zara Snapp, Filter

Mexico has never seemed so close and yet so far from fully regulating the adult-use cannabis market.

first Supreme Court resolution determined in 2015 that the absolute prohibition of cannabis for personal use was unconstitutional because it violates the right to the free development of personality. To reach jurisprudence in Mexico, five consecutive cases, with the same or more votes each time, must be won before the Supreme Court. This was achieved in October 2018, which detonated a legislative mandate that within 90 days, the Senate should modify the articles in the General Health Law that were deemed unconstitutional.

The first deadline came and went without the Senate modifying the articles; so the Senate requested an extension, which was granted. The second deadline to legislate expired on April 30, 2020—but another extension was provided because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At first, it looked like the third time was the charm. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the Federal Law to Regulate and Control Cannabis in November 2020 and passed it to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, for review and approval. Since the deadline of December 15, 2020, was fast approaching, the Chamber asked for its own extension. The Supreme Court granted it (until April 20, 2021) and the bill underwent significant changes before being approved by the Chamber on March 10, and so sent back to the Senate.

The Senate certainly had enough time to review and either reject or accept the changes made by the lower house. That would have made this a shorter story. However, the Senate had other plans. Rather than approve the bill or request an additional extension, it simply did not do anything. June’s national midterm elections were approaching, and political calculations were made. The legislative process came to a standstill.

Since the Senate did not approve the bill by the deadline, the Supreme Court basically did what it had mandated Congress to do. It activated a mechanism to guarantee rights that had only been undertaken once before in Mexican history: the General Declaration of Unconstitutionality (GDU).

On June 28, the Supreme Court approved, with a qualified majority of eight of the 11 Ministers, that two articles in the General Health Law must be modified to permit adults to cultivate cannabis for personal use in their homes.

These changes were officially published on July 15, with specific instructions to the Health Secretary to approve authorizations for any adult who applies.

The GDU has certain restrictions attached, including that this is only for personal use and cannot be used to justify any commercialization of cannabis or cannabis-derived products. Adults cannot consume in front of minors, or other adults who have not expressly given their permission. Nor can they operate heavy machinery or drive while under the effects.

With the GDU, the judicial process concludes. However, the Supreme Court was clear in its final recommendations: Congress can and should legislate to clear up inconsistencies and generate a legal framework for cannabis users.

Whether the Senate decides to take up the matter again in September when it returns to its legislative session will depend largely on its political whim. The body no longer has a deadline to meet; however, there are growing calls from society to regulate the market beyond home-grow, as well as several legal contradictions that obviously need to be harmonized.

The General Health Law has now been modified and the health secretary must approve permits or authorizations for adults to cultivate in their homes. But the Federal Criminal Code has not changed—it still penalizes those same activities with sanctions ranging from 10 months to three years or more in prison.

The Supreme Court decision ignores the need for a comprehensive regulation that would allow the state to apply taxes to commercial activities, which are currently still criminalized with penal sanctions. It also overlooks the urgency of an amnesty program for the thousands of people currently incarcerated on low-level cannabis charges, or hampered by criminal records for such charges.

The Senate should now revisit the bill it initially passed. It should maintain the positive aspects of the bill, which would improve things well beyond the scope of the Supreme Court decision. These include provision for cannabis associations (permitting up to four plants per person for up to 20 members), for home-grow without the need to request authorization, and for a regulated market with a social justice perspective—allocating 40 percent (or more!) of cultivation licenses to communities harmed by prohibition and imposing restrictions on large companies.

The Senate could also build upon the previous version of the bill by eliminating simple possession as a crime, by allowing the associations to operate immediately and guaranteeing the participation of small and medium companies through strong government support.

During the last three years, and before, civil society has closely accompanied the process of creating this legislation, providing the technical and political inputs needed to move forward in a way that could have great social benefits for Mexico.

By becoming the third country in the world to regulate adult cannabis use, after Uruguay and Canada, Mexico could transition from being one of the largest illegal producers to being the largest legal domestic market in the world. As well as economic benefits, this could have substantial impacts on how criminal justice funds are spent, freeing up law enforcement dollars to focus on high-impact crimes and changing the way the state has shown up in communities that cultivate cannabis.

Rather than eradicating crops, the government could accompany communities in gaining legal licenses, provide technical assistance and improve basic services. These positive externalities of regulation could signal a shift from a militarized state of war to a focus on rights, development and social justice.

Of course, this all depends on key political actors recognizing the benefits—and that requires political will. Mexico deserves better; however, it remains to be seen whether legislators will act.

This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.

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Oregon Governor Plans To Veto Bill To Regulate Kratom Sales That Advocates Say Would Protect Consumers

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The governor of Oregon has announced her intent to veto a bill that’s meant to create a regulatory framework for the sale and use of kratom for adults.

The Oregon Kratom Consumer Protection Act is bipartisan legislation that would make it so only people 21 and older could purchase the plant-based substance, which some use for its stimulating effects and which others found useful in treating opioid withdrawals.

Vendors would have to register with the state Department of Agriculture to sell kratom. The agency would be responsible for developing regulations on testing standards and labeling requirements. The bill would further prohibit the sale of contaminated or adulterated kratom products.

But while the House and Senate approved the legislation in June, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said on Sunday that she plans to veto it, in large part because she feels the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is better suited to regulate the products.

“Given there is currently no FDA-approved use for this product and there continues to be concern about the impacts of its use, I would entertain further legislation to limit youth access without the state agency regulatory function included in this bill,” the governor said.

This comes as a disappointment to advocates and regulators who share concerns about the risks of adulterated kratom but feel a regulatory framework could help mitigate those dangers and provide adults with a safe supply of products that have helped some overcome opioid addiction.

“Kratom has been consumed safely for centuries in Southeast Asia and Americans use it in the same way that coffee is used for increased focus and energy boosts. Many use kratom for pain management without the opioid side effects,” Rep. Bill Post (R), sponsor of the bill, wrote in an op-ed published in June. “The problem in Oregon is that adulterated products are being sold.”

“Kratom in its pure form is a natural product,” he said. “Adulterated kratom is a potentially dangerous product.”

Pete Candland, executive director of the American Kratom Association, said in written testimony on the bill in February that four other states—Utah, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada—have enacted similar legislation with positive results.

He said that “the number of adulterated kratom products spiked with dangerous drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and morphine in those states has significantly decreased” in those states.

Meanwhile, six states—Vermont, Alabama, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Rhode Island—have banned kratom sales altogether.

Candland said that number is actually a testament to the noncontroversial nature of the plant, as prohibition is only in effect in six states despite “a full-throated disinformation campaign on kratom by the FDA with outrageously untrue claims about kratom being the cause of hundreds of deaths.”

After failing to get kratom prohibited domestically, FDA recently opened a public comment period that’s meant to inform the U.S. position on how the substance should be scheduled under international statute.

“Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects,” FDA wrote in the notice. “Kratom is available in several different forms to include dried/crushed leaves, powder, capsules, tablets, liquids, and gum/ resin. Kratom is an increasingly popular drug of abuse and readily available on the recreational drug market in the United States.”

Responses to the notice will help inform the federal government’s stance on kratom scheduling in advance of an October meeting of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, where international officials will discuss whether to recommend the substance be globally scheduled.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a report to spending legislation that says federal health agencies have “contributed to the continued understanding of the health impacts of kratom, including its constituent compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.”

It also directed the Health and Human Services secretary to continue to refrain from recommending that kratom be controlled in Schedule I.

Late last year, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) asked the public to help identify research that specifically looks at the risks and benefits of cannabinoids and kratom.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year separately received more than one thousand comments concerning kratom as part of another public solicitation.

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