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Sen. Al Franken Is Evolving On Marijuana

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For the second time in as many days, U.S. Sen. Al Franken just added his name to a marijuana bill.

On Tuesday, the Democratic lawmaker from Minnesota became the fifth cosponsor of legislation to allow cannabis cultivators and sellers operating in accordance with state laws to be taxed just like any other business.

The day before, he signed onto a bill that would allow those businesses to access financial services from banks.

Earlier this month, the former “Saturday Night Live” star was one of six senators to introduce a broad bipartisan bill that would amend federal laws so states can enact and implement their own medical cannabis laws without federal interference.

The leadership on marijuana issues is a far cry from when Franken said on a BuzzFeed podcast last year (in response to a question I submitted) that he was “not the guy to ask” about cannabis policy.

In his answer then, he did acknowledge that he should probably study up on the issue because the state he represents is one of more than two dozen that allows medical marijuana. “I should know more,” the senator said, jokingly adding, “or it’s not important or somewhere in between.”

A month later, Franken added his name to an earlier, now-expired version of the comprehensive medical marijuana bill that he is an original cosponsor of in the new 115th Congress. But he never did add his name to the 114th Congress’s versions of the cannabis taxation and banking legislation.

Now, the senator is on a bit of a marijuana bill cosponsorship spree, and some observers think it’s good politics — in addition to good policy — at a time when Franken’s name is being floated as a possible 2020 presidential candidate.

“With clear public support in favor of outright legalization, presidential aspirants now recognize that marijuana reform is something that can no longer be ignored,” Justin Strekal of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said in an interview.

Quinnipiac University poll released in April found that 60% of U.S. voters — and 72% of Democrats — support legalizing marijuana.

When it comes to medical cannabis, 94% of all voters and 96% of Democrats are on board. Just 13% of Democrats and 21% of voters overall want the federal government to interfere with state marijuana laws.

Other potential Democratic presidential candidates such as fellow Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have increasingly taken on leadership roles in the fight for marijuana law reform.

Franken, who discussed his past marijuana, cocaine and LSD use in a book he published earlier this year, also joined four other senators in writing a July letter asking U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to go after state-legal industrial hemp growers.

But Strekal, of NORML, wants Franken to do even more, saying, until he “puts his name on a bill that outright deschedules cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, I remain uninspired.”

In July, Booker filed legislation to do just that, and more. And in the last Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a 2016 presidential candidate, filed cannabis descheduling legislation.

This story was first published by Forbes.

Photo courtesy of John Taylor.

Politics

Marijuana Is Safer Than Alcohol, Tobacco Or Sugar, Americans Say In New Poll

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Americans think marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, tobacco or sugar. That’s according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Friday.

When asked in a survey which substance is most harmful to health, 41 percent chose tobacco, 24 percent said alcohol and 21 percent flagged sugar.

Just nine percent believe cannabis is the most dangerous of the four options.

The poll also asked about American’s views on legalizing marijuana in their state, with 60 percent saying they would favor the policy.

When the news organizations polled the same question in 2014, 55 percent were on board.

The new numbers are in line with other recent polls showing growing support for ending cannabis prohibition.

In October, a Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans back legalizing marijuana.

Earlier this month, in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws, three separate national polls found broad opposition to federal interference in local cannabis policies.

On Marijuana, Voters Want Feds To Butt Out Of State Laws, Polls Find

See the full NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll below:

18033 NBCWSJ January Poll (1!19!18 Release) by Carrie Dann on Scribd

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Politics

Government Shutdown Would Let Sessions Attack Medical Marijuana

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The federal government will shut down at midnight on Friday, barring an unexpected, last-minute bipartisan deal. That puts medical marijuana patients and providers at risk of being arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison by Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department.

Here’s why:

Under a shutdown scenario, an existing budget provision that prevents the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other agencies from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws would expire. But federal drug enforcement and prosecution actions, which are exempted from furloughs, would continue.

Why Might The Government Shut Down?

A bill to extend federal funding levels and policy riders like the marijuana one through February 16 was approved by the House on Thursday. But a heated dispute over immigration issues has jeopardized its passage in the Senate, where a significant number of Democrats are refusing to support any bill that does not provide protections to people who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal intervention. That has left recreational marijuana businesses and consumers without a key protection they’ve relied on since 2013, but the ongoing existence of the medical cannabis spending rider has continued to keep patients and providers safeguarded from federal attacks.

Until now.

An unintended consequence of Senate Democrats’ move to block the funding extension bill and shut down the government over immigration issues is that medical marijuana patients and industry operators would be at much greater risk, as soon as this weekend.

Why Would Drug Enforcement Continue Under A Shutdown?

“All agents in DEA field organizations are excepted from furlough because they support active counternarcotics investigations. This encompasses 21 domestic divisions, 7 regional foreign divisions, critical tactical support groups including the El Paso Intelligence Center and the Special Operations Division, forensic sciences, and technical surveillance support,” a Justice Department shutdown contingency plan says. “DEA investigations need to continue uninterrupted so that cases are not compromised and the health and safety of the American public is not placed at risk.”

The same goes for federal prosecutors.

“As Presidential Appointees, U.S. Attorneys are not subject to furlough,” the shutdown document reads. “Excepted employees are needed to address ongoing criminal matters and civil matters of urgency throughout the Nation. Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an excepted activity to maintain the safety of human life and the protection of property.”

Politics Of Marijuana And Immigration Collide

Democrats, especially those considering 2020 presidential bids, are facing enormous pressure from their progressive base not to go along with yet another bill in a series of short-term funding extensions that do not include protections for young immigrants known as “DREAMers.” Because Republicans hold only 51 seats in the chamber, and a handful of GOP members are also opposing the spending resolution, leaders need support from Democrats to reach the critical 60-vote threshold to advance legislation.

The medical cannabis budget rider was first enacted into law in late 2014, and has since been extended for each subsequent fiscal year. Last May, Sessions sent a letter to congressional leaders asking them not to continue the medical marijuana rider into Fiscal Year 2018.

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” he wrote. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

Setting aside the important question of whether the medical cannabis rider will be included in full Fiscal Year 2018 spending legislation that congressional leaders continue to negotiate — and it is a big question, since House leaders blocked lawmakers from even voting on whether to include the policy in that chamber’s version of Justice Department spending legislation — the current budget brinksmanship on Capitol Hill means the medical marijuana protections could disappear as soon as Saturday morning.

A Shutdown Allows Old Federal Marijuana Prosecutions To Resume

If the provision lapses, it wouldn’t just allow new actions against people violating federal marijuana laws. It would also allow earlier medical cannabis prosecutions that were suspended under to the rider to resume.

A federal judge in a California case last August, for example, wrote that the prosecution of two marijuana growers would be “stayed until and unless a future appropriations bill permits the government to proceed. If such a bill is enacted, the government may notify the Court and move for the stay to be lifted.”

The failure to enact a new bill continuing the protections would have the same effect under a shutdown scenario, given that enforcement of federal drug laws would still continue.

Long-Term Status Of Marijuana Protections Unclear

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted in July to include the medical cannabis rider in its version of the 2018 Justice Department funding bill. But without the provision being approved on the House side, its long-term continuance will be determined behind closed doors by a bicameral conference committee that merges the two chambers’ proposal into a single bill to be sent to President Trump.

Advocates have also pushed to expand the protection to encompass all state marijuana laws, not just those focused on medical access. A measure to do that came just nine flipped votes of passage on the House floor in 2015, and the number of states with legalization has doubled since then. However, Republican congressional leaders have blocked subsequent cannabis measures from advancing to floor consideration, including as recently as this week.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Push For Marijuana Protections In Funding Bill

In the meantime, medical cannabis patients and providers will wait to see if Jeff Sessions and his DEA agents will regain the ability to come after them for the first time since 2014 this weekend.

Portions of this post were first published by Forbes.

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Politics

California Lawmakers Pressure Sens. Harris And Feinstein On Marijuana

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A group of ten U.S. House members from California are calling on the state’s two senators to do more to push back on the Trump administration’s decision to rescind protections for state marijuana laws.

“As you know, in November 2016, the people of California spoke up and voted in favor of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis… The recent action by the Attorney General put the industry in jeopardy,” the bipartisan group of ten members of Congress wrote to U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats.

“To increase pressure, we are calling on you to block nominations to the Justice Department until the Attorney General reinstates the Cole Memo,” the House lawmakers said.

While Feinstein has long been one of Congress’ most ardent opponents of marijuana legalization, Harris has in recent weeks repeatedly criticized the move by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to tear up Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws without federal interference.

But despite tweeting a lot about marijuana and starting an online petition on the issue through which her campaign apparatus is able to collect e-mail addresses, Harris hasn’t yet added her name as a cosponsor of a single one of the various cannabis reform bills her Senate colleagues have introduced.

Now, the House members, led by Reps. Lou Correa (D) and Dana Rohrabacher (R), are asking her and Feinstein to prevent Sessions from being able to confirm new U.S. attorneys or other Justice Department nominees until he reverses the anti-marijuana move.

“The legalization of cannabis will spur economic growth and provide sales tax revenues,” they write.

Within hours of Sessions’s announcement of rescinding the marijuana protections, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado vowed to place a hold on all Justice Department nominations over the issue.

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