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Scientists Sue DEA Over Alleged ‘Secret’ Document That Delayed Marijuana Research Expansion

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is finding itself in court over marijuana again after scientists filed a lawsuit against the agency, requesting “secret” documents that they allege DEA used to delay action on expanding cannabis research.

The Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) is behind the suit. It’s one of more than 30 organizations that have submitted applications to DEA to become licensed cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.

Some background should be noted: In 2016, DEA announced it would expand marijuana research by approving additional growers beyond the sole source that has existed for half a century at the University of Mississippi. But after more than three years, applicants heard silence, and SRI filed an initial lawsuit alleging that the agency was deliberately holding up the process. A court mandated that it take steps to make good on its promise, and that case was dropped after DEA provided a status update.

This month, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party. A public comment period is now open, after which point the agency says it will finally approve an unspecified number of additional growers.

But what really accounted for the delay?

According to the plaintiffs in this new suit, after DEA said it would accept more cultivators, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) secretly issued an opinion that interprets international treaty obligations as making it impossible to carry out the 2016 proposed rule while maintaining compliance.

The new revised rule aims to address the problem, in part by shifting jurisdiction over the cannabis to a single agency, DEA, which would purchase and technically own all of the cannabis grown by approved cultivators, and would then later sell the product directly to researchers.

That OLC document, which is not public, is the basis of SRI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaint. The case was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on Wednesday and requests that the Justice Department be found guilty of unlawfully failing to make records available related to its interpretation of the Single Convention treaty, including the OLC opinion. It further states that DEA should release those documents and pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees.

Matt Zorn, an attorney working the case, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that it’s not clear what’s contained in the OLC opinion and that the uncertainty is “entirely the point” of the suit.

“I think we all know vaguely what it says—the subject matter of it—but we don’t know what it actually says,” he said. “That’s important because you need to know what that instruction was or what their interpretation of the law is to assess whether what they’re doing now is appropriate.”

The suit claims that SRI, “as a non-commercial company dedicated to advancing the state of medical care through clinical research, is directly harmed by this unlawful secrecy.”

“Because Defendants have failed to fully disclose their re-interpretation of federal law and treaty obligations as the law requires, Plaintiff lacks information necessary to protect its legal rights, including the right to have its application to manufacture marijuana for research processed in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act and the [Controlled Substances Act],” the filing states.

SRI’s research objective for cannabis is to determine potential therapeutic benefits for veterans suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. “While DEA’s unlawful and dilatory conduct harms the public generally, the secrecy and delay have been especially harmful to our nations’ veterans,” the suit says.

“We deserve not only to know the scientific truth about medical marijuana use, but candor from our government, which includes disclosure of the ‘secret law’ the agency continues to rely on as a basis to delay and ultimately revamp the process for researching and manufacturing marijuana in this country,” the filing says. “Plaintiff brings this FOIA action so can understand the legal basis—if there is one—for the government’s conduct surrounding the Growers Program.”

While SRI acknowledged that DEA last week announced its revised rule change proposal, the suit states that the explanation about how it arrived at its determination “leaves Plaintiff and the public in the dark with respect to several critical considerations.” For example, it alleges, the notice doesn’t account for how the Justice Department advised the agency on the matter and which parts of the amended proposal would make the action compliant with international treaties.

“The answer to these questions and others presumably lies in the undisclosed OLC Opinion and related records that animated DOJ’s decision to sideline the Growers Program and prompted DEA to embark on this notice-and-comment rulemaking in the first place… In sum, using a secret OLC Opinion interpreting the CSA and a 1961 international treaty, DEA delayed processing applications to cultivate marijuana for research and now proposes to radically revamp federal law through rulemaking—rules which will loom large over the future of medical marijuana research, manufacture, and distribution going forward.”

The plaintiffs argue that DEA violated federal statute that prohibits the creation of a “secret law.” The statute says that federal agencies must make records—including final opinions and policy interpretations not published in the Federal Register—public.

“To block the Growers Program, DOJ formulated—through the OLC Opinion and related records—and DEA adopted to an undisclosed interpretation of the Single Convention and federal law contrary to the view espoused and published by DEA in the August 2016 Policy Statement, and contrary to the view of the State Department,” it continues, apparently referencing a letter the State Department sent to a senator in response to questions about the role of international treaties as it concerns expanding cannabis cultivation facilities.

In that letter, the department said nothing about the Single Convention prevents member nations from increasing the number of such facilities. “If a party to the Single Convention issued multiple licenses for the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes, that fact alone would not be a sufficient basis to conclude that the party was acting in contravention of the Convention,” it read.

Read the State Department’s responses on international treaties and marijuana below:

State Dept Response on Single Convention by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

If the new lawsuit’s allegations prove accurate, it could help explain the role of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the anti-marijuana official who was reportedly involved in blocking research expansion.

The suit, which was first reported by Politico, goes on to say:

“For more than three years, Defendants relied on this undisclosed interpretation, contained in the OLC Opinion and related records, to make an end-run around the Administrative Procedure Act by unlawfully withholding and unreasonably delaying agency action on marijuana cultivation applications. The OLC Opinion has guided DEA’s actions—and its inaction… The government’s unlawful conduct under FOIA prevents Plaintiff and those similarly situated from timely and effectively vindicating legal rights under the Administrative Procedure Act, effectively rendering its protections and judicial review provisions meaningless.”

To resolve the issue, SRI said it wants DEA to be held accountable for violating federal law, release the documents and compensate them for the legal action. While this is a FOIA-related suit, the institute didn’t first seek the documents through a standard document request but instead filed the case under the law’s “Reading Room provision” that allows courts to force federal agencies to put records online, according to a Ninth Circuit ruling last year.

Sue Sisley, a researcher with SRI, told Marijuana Moment that the institute has generally had a good relationship with DEA over the years and doesn’t expect that it would unduly deny their application in retaliation for the institute’s repeated legal actions against the agency.

“I couldn’t fathom that that would happen, but I hope that the merits of our application are so clear that it would carry us forward,” she said. However, these licensing agreements are “not always a merit-based process so it is possible that if politics get deeply involved here that there could be a situation where licenses are awarded to friends of the government. We’re still praying that there is some merit-based system.”

Researchers and lawmakers have made clear that the current availability of federally authorized cannabis for research raises questions about the accuracy of tests that rely on it, as the quality is insufficient. As of now, there’s only one facility at the University of Mississippi that’s authorized to grow cannabis for researchers. The products developed at the university have been widely criticized by scientists and lawmakers. A study indicated that the facility’s cannabis is chemically more similar to hemp than marijuana available in state-legal markets.

“If adopted, these proposed rules would radically overhaul how medical marijuana manufacture and research will proceed in this country,” the plaintiffs wrote. “Better supply is needed for better research, and better research is needed not only because millions use medical marijuana every day, but also to facilitate informed policymaking at the federal and state levels, including legislation and drug scheduling decisions.”

Read the full lawsuit against DEA below:

SRI FOIA Complaint by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Federal Agency Touts Hemp Progress While Refusing To Serve Marijuana Businesses

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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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Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Seventh House Committee

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Another day, another House committee approval of a bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota.

On Saturday, a seventh panel cleared the proposal from House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers since it was filed in February.

The bill would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.

The House State Government Finance and Elections Committee is the latest panel to advance the legislation, by a vote of 7-5,—just days after the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee gave it the green light.

Winkler said before the vote that the goal of the bill is “to end the criminal prohibition of cannabis in Minnesota [and] to acknowledge that the criminal enforcement of cannabis in Minnesota is part of a broader war on drugs that has disproportionately impacted communities of color, especially black Minnesotans.”

“We seek to provide criminal justice reform and make sure that those adversely affected through the criminal sanctions of the war on drugs have an opportunity to have their records expunged,” he said, “and to have an opportunity to participate in the upside, the opportunity of a new cannabis market—to right past wrongs.”

Before this latest hearing, the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, the Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, the Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee, the Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee and the Commerce Finance and Policy Committee each advanced the measure.

The next stop will be the Education Finance Committee. Winkler recently said that he expects the legislation to go through any remaining panels by the end of April, with a floor vote anticipated in May.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Still, even if the legislation does make it all the way through the House, it’s expected to face a significant challenge in the Republican-controlled Senate, where lawmakers have signaled that they’re more interested in revising the state’s existing medical cannabis program than enacting legalization of adult use.

After the New York legislature approved a recreational cannabis legalization bill—which the governor promptly signed into law—Winkler said that Minnesota is “falling behind a national movement towards progress.”

“MN has some of the worst criminal justice disparities in the country, and legalizing cannabis & expunging convictions is a first step towards fixing that,” he tweeted.

The majority leader’s bill as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.

Under the legislation, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.

On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.

Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.

The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.

People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.

Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.

Gov. Tim Walz (D) is also in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, and in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.

Walz did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.

Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.

Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen.

The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.

In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.

Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A House Floor Vote Next Week, Majority Leader Confirms

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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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Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A House Floor Vote Next Week, Majority Leader Confirms

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A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators has been formally scheduled to receive a House floor vote on Monday, a calendar released by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) office confirms.

Marijuana Moment reported on the expected development earlier Friday after obtaining an email that was sent to stakeholders by a staffer for Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the bill’s sponsor, seeking letters of support for the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act ahead of the anticipated vote.

The bill is now now officially listed on the majority leader’s agenda of legislation for Monday.

This will mark the first floor action on a cannabis reform bill this Congress. The standalone legislation cleared the House with bipartisan support in 2019, and its language was also included in two coronavirus relief packages that the chamber approved. The proposal did not advance in any form in the Senate under GOP control, however.

With Democrats now in control of the House, Senate and White House, industry stakeholders are optimistic that the legislation stands a solid chance of becoming law this year.

The SAFE Banking Act was reintroduced in the House last month, and it currently has 168 cosponsors—more than one-third of the chamber. Days later, it was refiled in the Senate, where Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) are the chief sponsors.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

The legislation would ensure that financial institutions could take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators.

Because the bill will be taken up under the process known as suspension of the rules, it will need a two-thirds supermajority to pass—an achievable threshold given the level of support it got during the earlier 2019 vote. No floor amendments will be allowed under the procedure.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said in a tweet on Friday that he’ll “be voting for the SAFE Banking Act in the House” and that it’s “absurd that Marijuana business cannot fully access the US financial system.” He did not comment on the timing of a vote, however.

After it passed the House last Congress, advocates and stakeholders closely watched for any action to come out of the Senate Banking Committee, where it was referred after being transmitted to the chamber. But then-Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) did not hold a hearing on the proposal, despite talk of negotiations taking place regarding certain provisions.

Crapo said he opposed the reform proposal, but he signaled that he might be more amenable if it included certain provisions viewed as untenable to the industry, including a 2 percent THC potency limit on products in order for cannabis businesses to qualify to access financial services as well as blocking banking services for operators that sell high-potency vaping devices or edibles that could appeal to children.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who took the top seat in that panel after Democrats secured a majority in the Senate, told reporters in February that he’s “willing” to move the cannabis banking bill, “but with it needs to come sentencing reform.”

The current Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act has 32 cosponsors.

When legislative leaders announced that the SAFE Banking Act was getting a House vote in 2019,  there was pushback from some advocates who felt that Congress should have prioritized comprehensive reform to legalize marijuana and promote social equity, rather than start with a measure viewed as primarily friendly to industry interests.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and an original cosponsor of the bill, said last month that the plan is to pass the banking reform first this session because it “is a public safety crisis now,” and it’s “distinct—as we’ve heard from some of my colleagues—distinct from how they feel about comprehensive reform.”

Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers are simultaneously preparing to introduce legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are in the process of crafting a legalization bill, and they’ve already met with advocates to get feedback on how best to approach the policy change.

Schumer said this week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Biden’s Already On Board With Federal Marijuana Legalization Even If He Doesn’t Use That Word, Booker Says

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Washington Senate Replaces Drug Decriminalization Bill With Revised Measure To Reinstate Penalties

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A bill that would have formally decriminalized drugs in Washington State was gutted on the Senate floor on Thursday, with lawmakers approving a dramatically revised version that instead reinstates criminal penalties following a state Supreme Court ruling that overturned prohibition.

The action sets up a possible showdown with more progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives who have said they won’t vote for legislation that returns to a criminal war on drugs.

Washington has been without a law against drug possession since a divided state Supreme Court abruptly struck it down February, after ruling that a narrow portion of the decades-old law was unconstitutional. Lawmakers have since scrambled to address the decision—which has halted drug arrests and prosecutions across the state and freed dozens of people incarcerated on drug possession charges—before the legislative session ends on April 25.

On the Senate floor on Thursday evening, a bill that originally would have left drug possession decriminalized was amended to instead make possession a gross misdemeanor, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine—a change that led its lead sponsor to vote against the measure.

Prior to the court decision, drug possession was classified as a felony.

Senators passed the amended version of the bill, SB 5476, on a 28–20–1 vote. It next proceeds to the House, where it’s scheduled for an initial hearing in the Appropriations Committee on Monday, with possible committee action slated for Wednesday, April 21.

Watch the senators discuss the drug penalties legislation, around 1:01:33 into the video below: 

As amended, the Senate-passed bill represents a moderate reform to Washington’s now-invalidated felony law against possession. It requires the prosecutors divert people for first- and second-time possession charges to evaluation and treatment programs, and allows for the possibility of further diversions with a prosecutor’s approval.

“I think that this striking amendment will help move us forward as we continue negotiations in these final 10 days with the body across the way toward having a response that will provide services and treatment and help for people who are struggling with substance use disorder,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D), who brought the amendment, said on the Senate floor.

The bill in its original form represented a more significant shift away from the drug war. It would have imposed no penalties for possession of small, “personal use” amounts of drugs, instead routing people to evaluation and treatment services for substance use disorder.

Some senators who initially supported SB 5476 ultimately changed their vote after the misdemeanor amendment was adopted. The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D) said she could no longer support the proposal.

“The way we are doing this, I’m glad there’ll be opportunities for diversion, but it needs to be not through the criminal justice system,” Dhingra said during floor debate. “I understand this is my bill, I understand my name is on there, but I will be voting no on this today.”

Many senators who weighed in on the bill Thursday said it was important that the legislature pass something before the session end, given the sweeping impact of February’s state Supreme Court decision, State v. Blake. In a statement issued after the floor vote, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said that not passing a state law on drug possession “means a patchwork of local ordinances that will be confusing to Washingtonians and won’t provide equal justice across the state.”

Generally speaking, state drug laws are understood to preempt those of Washington’s cities and counties. With the state law against possession gone, localities could establish their own laws and penalties, and some have already begun doing so.

“The bill we passed today is not the final word on the subject,” Billig said in a statement. “It is a compromise that keeps this important legislation moving so that we can do our duty as the representatives of the people of our whole state.”

Representatives in the House, however, have indicated more openness to leaving drug possession decriminalized this session. On Thursday, lawmakers in favor of broader drug reform introduced a new bill, HB 1578, which would expand treatment and recovery services and reclassify low-level possession as a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $125 and no possibility of jail time.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Of all the measures currently in play this session, the new bill is the one that most closely resembles neighboring Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure passed by voters in November. But its path forward is uncertain: HB 1578 would need to pass both chambers of the legislature in less than two weeks.

Likewise, it remains unclear how the House will receive the Senate-passed bill, SB 5476, in its new form. More progressive members of the Democratic caucus have said they won’t vote for legislation that reimposes criminal penalties for simple possession, but it’s not certain they’ll be able to muster enough support to pass a decriminalization measure.

If House lawmakers were to amend the Senate bill before passing it, the legislation would need to go to a conference committee, where members of both chambers would iron out differences in the two versions of the bills.

Earlier this year, before the Supreme Court’s decision, a House committee passed a separate bill, HB 1499, that would have ended criminal penalties for personal use amounts of drugs and instead routed people to evaluation and treatment. It would have also significantly expanded the state’s outreach and recovery programs for people with drug use disorders. That measure failed to proceed further after missing a legislative deadline last month.

HB 1499, for its part, stemmed from an effort to put a drug decriminalization initiative on Washington’s ballot last year. Supporters pivoted to a push through the legislature after pressing pause on their signature-gathering campaign after COVID-19 first broke out in the Seattle area early last year.

Advocates for reform have noted that the state’s criminal enforcement of drug possession laws has had a strong bias against people of color, particularly the state’s Black, brown and Indigenous communities.

In her comments on the Senate floor, Dhingra echoed that point, arguing that the Blake decision presents a chance for lawmakers to finally begin to address those racial disparities.

“I will say that the Supreme Court did provide us with an opportunity,” she said, “an opportunity to really think about what we as a state and as a nation have been doing in regards to the war on drugs, and to really think critically of the impact that this has had very, very specifically on Brown and Black families.”

“The racial impact of our drug laws cannot be understated,” Dhingra continued. “When we take a look at mass incarceration, when we take a look at families with a single mom who is bringing up her children, when we take a look at parents who cannot find a job because of their criminal history, cannot find housing, cannot seek recovery, it comes down to the manner in which we have been enforcing our drug laws.”

Rep. Roger Goodman (D), the lead sponsor of the new House measure, HB 1578, which would make possession a civil infraction, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday evening. In an interview with Marijuana Moment last month, however, he called the Blake decision “both a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s an opportunity for us to come up with a more effective approach that does less harm,” he said, “but we don’t have the opportunity to be deliberate and inclusive in conversations with interested parties, so it’s not as well thought-out a proposal as it would be otherwise. It has to be an interim measure.”

Just five years ago, few state legislatures would have dreamed of letting drugs remain decriminalized after a court decision like Blake. Now attitudes are beginning to shift.

“There’s this phenomenon called discontinuous change,” Goodman told Marijuana Moment, “where nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then the Berlin Wall falls down. We’re getting to that place in drug policy where it’s a tipping point.”

Oregon voters ended prohibition of low-level drug possession at the ballot during last November’s election, which has contributed to the national conversation.

In both Maine and Vermont, lawmakers have also recently unveiled legislation last month to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs. Last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said last month that he’s “open-minded” on decriminalizing all drugs.

California Bill To Legalize Possession Of Psychedelics Clears Second Senate Committee

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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