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

Politics

California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals

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A California senator is asking the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide clarification on whether hospitals and other healthcare facilities in legal marijuana states can allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis without jeopardizing federal funding.

State Sen. Ben Hueso (D) on Thursday sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure inquiring about the policy. Confusion about possible implications for permitting marijuana consumption in health facilities led pro-legalization Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to veto a bill meant to address the issue in 2019.

Hueso refiled a nearly identical version of the legislation for this session, and it’s already passed the full Senate and one Assembly committee. It’s now awaiting action on the Assembly floor before potentially being sent to Newsom’s desk.

“Ryan’s Law would require that hospitals and certain types of healthcare facilities in the State of California allow a terminally-ill patient to use medical cannabis for treatment and/or pain relief,” the senator wrote in the letter to the federal officials, with whom he is asking to meet to discuss the issue. “Currently, whether or not medical cannabis is permitted is left up to hospital policy, and this creates issues for patients and their families who seek alternative, more natural medication options in their final days.”

Hospitals that receive CMS accreditation are generally expected to comply with local, state and federal laws in order to qualify for certain reimbursements. And so because marijuana remains federally illegal, “many healthcare facilities have adopted policies prohibiting cannabis on their grounds out of a perceived risk of losing federal funding if they were to allow it.”

But Hueso said that his office received a letter from CMS several months ago stating that there are no specific federal regulations in place that specifically address this issue and that it isn’t aware of any cases where funding has been pulled because a hospital allows patients to use medical cannabis.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

Additionally, because the Justice Department has been barred under annually renewed spending legislation from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state-level medical marijuana programs, the senator said, “we believe the risk of federal intervention is little to none.”

“This confirmation from CMS been quite a breakthrough and we are optimistic it will alleviate the Governor’s concerns,” the letter continues. “However, I want to underscore that, prior to receiving this response, even the Governor of California was under the impression that CMS rules prohibited hospitals and healthcare facilities from allowing medical cannabis use.”

“Undoubtedly other states are struggling with this issue, too,” it says. “As more states decriminalize cannabis and even create recreational markets, we must not forget to also update the books for the most important consumers of all—patients.”

“While ideally the federal government will remove cannabis from its Schedule I designation, I appreciate that this is a lengthy and complex process. In the interim, it would be extremely helpful if you could provide clarification that assures Medicare/Medicaid providers that they will not lose reimbursements for allowing medical cannabis use on their premises. This clarification would go a long way to help hospital staff, security, above all, patients.”

Becerra, while previously serving as California attorney general and as a member of Congress, demonstrated a track record of supporting marijuana law reform.

Meanwhile, there are efforts in both chambers of Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are currently soliciting feedback on draft legalization legislation they introduced this month.

Meanwhile, a separate House bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity in the industry was reintroduced in May.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was filed with a number of changes compared to the version that was approved by the chamber last year.

Read the letter from the California senator to Becerra below: 

Marijuana hospital letter t… by Marijuana Moment

Rhode Island House Speaker Says ‘No Consensus’ On Marijuana Legalization, But It’s ‘Workable’

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.
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Rhode Island House Speaker Says ‘No Consensus’ On Marijuana Legalization, But It’s ‘Workable’

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A top Rhode Island lawmaker says that while there’s not yet a consensus among legislators and the governor on a bill to legalize marijuana, it’s still a “workable” issue and would be prioritized if a special session is convened this fall.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D) told The Public’s Radio that it’s “possible” that a special session will be held later in the year after lawmakers failed to reach a deal on competing reform proposals.

“It really depends if we can come to some kind of resolution of consensus on a couple of major bills,” he said, referring to cannabis and a handful of other issues. “If we can, we certainly would come back.” But if not, members will continue to discuss the proposals and prepare to take them up at the start of the next session in January.

“Unfairly, sometimes I have or the House gets blamed for stopping the legalization of recreational use of marijuana, when in reality there is no consensus,” he said. “If we can come to some closeness, in the several different proposals, then we’ll move some kind of legislation. But if not, it just needs more work—and it’s very workable, so it’s very much something that can happen, we just have to put the effort in and make it happen.”

Listen to the speaker discuss the marijuana legalization plan, about 1:00 into the audio  below: 

Shekarchi similarly told Marijuana Moment in an email earlier this week that he’s “not opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana,” but “there have been very divergent proposals offered by Representative Scott Slater, the Senate, the governor and various advocacy groups.”

“As I have done with other issues, my role will be to bring the parties together and see if we can reach a consensus,” he said. “I will be working on the issue this summer and fall, and if an agreement can be reached, it is possible that one piece of legislation will be brought before the legislature for future consideration. But there is a lot of work to be done to reach consensus.”

Shekarchi and other top lawmakers have previously said they will work this summer to try to reach a compromise on the differing provisions of the competing legalization plans.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) said earlier this month that he’s not disappointed the House hasn’t advanced legalization legislation yet and that “what we really wanted to do was send it over and have them take a look at it” when his chamber passed a cannabis reform measure last month.

Shekarchi previously said that he feels reform is “inevitable.”


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

A key disagreement between the House, Senate and governor’s office concerns who should have regulatory authority over marijuana. Ruggerio was pressed on the issue during the recent interview and said members of his chamber agree that “a separate commission is the way to go with respect to this.”

The House and Gov. Dan McKee (D), on the other hand, want the program to be managed by the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR). Ruggerio noted that “it was difficult to negotiate on a bill when the House bill really didn’t come until late in the session.”

Asked whether he felt the legislature and governor could come to an agreement despite the differences, Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D) said this month that “that’s what our goal is.”

“Obviously there’s some issues that different people have relative to different categories of licenses and things like that and how we’re rolling them out,” he said. “Are we going to limit them? what type of equity are you going to give to the different people in different communities so that they can get into the business? And social equity and things of that nature.”

McCaffrey was also asked about provisions related to allowing local municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is passed in, the communities have an opportunity to opt out.”

“They have an opportunity to opt out if the community doesn’t want to participate in it,” he said. “That’s their decision—however, they don’t get the funds that would come from the sales in that community.”

The majority leader also noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, and that adds impetus for the legislature to pursue reform in the state. .

Shekarchi, meanwhile, said this month that he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. But it is the case that legalization has now gone in effect in in surrounding states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“I’m not in any hurry to legalize marijuana for the sake of legalizing it. I want to do it right,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if we’re the last state in the union to legalize it or we never legalize it, but I need to do it right.”

Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, Shekarchi said.

These latest comment come weeks after the state Senate approved a legalization bill from McCaffrey and Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D), which was introduced in March. The governor also came out with his own legalization proposal shortly thereafter.

A third Rhode Island legalization measure was later filed on the House side by Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors. The House Finance Committee held a hearing on the measure last month.

The governor, for his part, told reporters that while he backs legalization it is “not like one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we’re not in a race with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.”

“I think we need to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and Senate.

The House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at an earlier hearing in April.

Both the governor and the leaders’ legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.

McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”

Shekarchi, meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and also leans toward privatization.

Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.

Meanwhile, the governor this month signed a historic bill to allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse. Rhode Island is the first state to allow the facilities.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

Ohio Lawmakers Officially File Marijuana Legalization Bill In Historic First For The State

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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Ohio Lawmakers Officially File Marijuana Legalization Bill In Historic First For The State

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Ohio lawmakers on Friday formally introduced a bill to legalize marijuana possession, production and sales—the first effort of its kind in the state legislature. This comes as activists are pursuing a separate ballot initiative that would effectively force the legislature to consider similar cannabis reforms.

Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D) filed the legislation, weeks after circulating a co-sponsorship memo to colleagues to build support for the measure.

The 180-page bill would legalize possession of up to five ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older and allow them to cultivate up to 12 plants for personal use. It also includes provisions to expunge prior convictions for possession and cultivation activities that are being made legal under the measure.

A 10 percent excise tax would be imposed on marijuana sales, with revenue first going toward the cost of implementation and then being divided among municipalities with at least one cannabis shop (15 percent), counties with at least one shop (15 percent), K-12 education (35 percent) and infrastructure (35 percent).

“It’s time to lead Ohio forward,” Weinstein said in a press release. “This is a big step for criminal justice reform, for our veterans, for economic opportunity, and for our individual liberties.”

The state Department of Commerce would be responsible for overseeing the program and issuing cannabis business licenses.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

Individual municipalities could restrict the type and number of marijuana that operate in their area. The bill specifically states that the state’s existing medical marijuana program would not be impacted by the establishment of an adult-use market.

“This bill is much needed in Ohio, and it’s time for Ohio to become a national leader in marijuana decriminalization and legalization,” Upchurch said. “This bill is more than just about legalization, it’s about economic and workforce development, it’s about decriminalization, and it’s about healthcare! The time is now, and I look forward to getting this done in a bipartisan fashion.”

Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is likely to oppose the effort given his record, but activists have effectively demonstrated through local initiatives that voters in the state broadly support enacting a cannabis policy change.

A newly formed organization called the the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) is also actively collecting signatures for a statewide ballot measure that would separately force lawmakers to consider taking up legalization legislation once a certain signature gathering threshold is met.

“I’m glad to see it! It’s added momentum toward legalization,” Weinstein told Marijuana Moment earlier this week of the ballot effort. “And hopefully a looming ballot initiative will add some incentive for my Republican colleagues to work with me on my bill.”

Meanwhile, 22 jurisdictions have adopted local statues so far that reduce the penalty for low-level cannabis possession from a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine to the “lowest penalty allowed by state law.” And activists are pursuing similar policy changes in dozens of cities this year.

Don Keeney, executive director of NORML Appalachia, told Marijuana Moment that local officials have so far certified decriminalization initiatives in five cities they were targeting this year: Laurelville, McArthur, Murray City, New Lexington and New Straitsville.

Ohio activists had hoped to place a cannabis legalization initiative on the statewide ballot last year, but that effort stalled as the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting public health restrictions made signature gathering all but impossible.

Local advocates sought relief through the court system to make it so they could collect signatures electronically for 2020 ballot initiatives, but the lawsuit was repeatedly rejected—most recently by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which ruled on Wednesday that the challenge was no longer relevant because last year’s election has passed and the case was therefore moot.

Read the text of the Ohio marijuana legalization bill below: 

Ohio marijuana legalization… by Marijuana Moment

GOP Senator Sponsoring Marijuana Banking Bill Proposes Controversial Welfare Restrictions For Cannabis Purchases

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.
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