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Prohibition Blocks Feds From Requiring Marijuana Warning Labels, Trump Cabinet Official Admits

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Federal health officials say that want to warn people about the risks of using marijuana, but prohibition prevents them from using a basic tool—warning labels on products—to achieve that.

Hours after the surgeon general issued an advisory expressing concern about cannabis use among adolescents and pregnant women, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar discussed the announcement in an interview with Fox Business News.

“What we’re doing is making sure that adolescents, that pregnant women and the doctors and teachers and parents who care for them are aware of the grave risks to them of marijuana use,” he said.

“Is that warning labels?” the host asked, referring to a regulatory instrument that’s been used to warn people about the dangers of using tobacco products for more than 50 years.

“Well, because of course there’s no such thing as legal marijuana in the United States—it is against federal law—there’s also no labeling regime for illegal products,” Azar said. “This is about public health education at this point.”

He also emphasized that HHS is “the public health agency, not the law enforcement or marijuana regulating agency.”

While the public education campaign that HHS is backing, with $100,000 that was donated from the President Donald Trump’s salary, will fund digital advertisements to get their message out, it stands to reason that including warning labels that would be seen by consumers at the point of sale could have a broader and more lasting impact.

“This obviously is why we need to finish the reform of our outdated marijuana laws at the federal level. We need to allow research, we need to regulate and enforce more realistic marijuana laws to protect young people and stamp out the black market,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment. “The sooner we recognize that cannabis is reform is inevitable, the sooner that doctors and patients will have the full scope of information at their disposal to find adequate care.”

Legalization advocates agreed that Azar’s comments highlighted the need for federal reform.

“Despite a lot of misinformation and selective analysis being promoted by the surgeon general and HHS today, pretty much everything they said has bolstered the case for making cannabis legal and regulated at the federal level,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Research, honest fact-based education, and effective public health resource allocation are all stymied by prohibition.”

“Keeping cannabis illegal does nothing to decrease the availability or popularity of this relatively safe substance, and discouraging states—as well as federal lawmakers—from regulating cannabis is the antithesis of a public health-oriented solution to potentially problematic consumption in any demographic,” Fox said. “If we want robust education and labeling, we need to get cannabis out of the illicit market and stop wasting federal resources on failed scare tactics.”

Don Murphy, federal policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project said that Azar “made a contorted statement for ending federal prohibition in support of regulation and labeling to better protect children and pregnant women from marijuana.”

“If that’s what he meant, we applaud him and look forward to his clarification and action to that end in the future,” he said.

Azar’s admission that health officials have their hands tied to that end is another example of how the federal government’s prohibition of marijuana undermines its ability to protect consumers.

The same dilemma prevents federal regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency from developing and enforcing quality control standards for cannabis products, a report published in a federally funded journal last week determined.

“States have had to determine on their own how to protect millions of cannabis users [from dangerous contaminants], and they have come up with widely varying responses,” the article states. “The result is an uncertain and occasionally incoherent regulatory landscape.”

Federal officials are also facing criticism amid a spate of lung injuries that seem to be linked to vaping unregulated THC oil. Experts suspect that a contaminated batch was introduced into the illegal market, but because marijuana is federally prohibited, the federal response to the health crisis has been confused.

Marijuana labeling requirements represent another issue that’s had to be decided at the state level. Several states that have legalized cannabis, including California, require marijuana products to be labeled so that consumers are reminded that it’s for adults 21 and older only and that using cannabis while pregnant or breastfeeding “may be harmful.”

Not every legal state mandates such labeling, though, which is where some federal regulations could come into play if it weren’t for existing drug laws.

Surgeon General Issues Anti-Marijuana Warning Funded By Trump Salary Donation

This piece has been updated to include comment from Blumenauer.

Photo courtesy of Fox Business News.

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Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

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A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.

The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.

Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.

There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.

The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.

That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.

“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”

“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”

The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”

“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”

“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”

The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.

Thailand Prime Minister Uses Medical Marijuana At Event With Ganja Mascot

Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.

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New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot

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New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.

The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.

Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.

The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.

“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”

After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.

In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.

“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.

Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.

Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.

In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.

As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.

Legalizing Marijuana Has Majority Support In Kansas, Poll Finds

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications

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A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.

It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.

It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.

But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”

“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”

The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”

“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”

The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.

The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”

“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.

Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.

One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.

DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.

Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:

Senators Press Feds On Mari… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

House Democrats Cave To Senate On Two Marijuana And Veterans Measures

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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