The Senate approved spending legislation on Thursday that extends a provision protecting medical marijuana states from federal interference—but the question remains as to whether a House-passed version with broader protections for all state cannabis programs could still be adopted in the final bill that’s sent to the president.
The so-called “minibus” appropriations legislation covers funding for Commerce, Justice, Science, Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, Interior, Environment, Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development for the 2020 fiscal year.
The vote on the bill, which also includes new hemp and CBD-related language, was 84 to 9.
The medical cannabis provision in question prohibits the Department of Justice from using its resources to prosecute individuals acting in compliance with state laws. The rider has been in place and renewed each year since 2014.
But after the House passed a Justice Department spending bill in June that for the first time would extend those protections to all state cannabis programs, including those allowing recreational use and sales, some advocates hoped the Senate would follow suit. In the lead up to a committee markup where that would have happened, however, several senators told Marijuana Moment that the prospects were unlikely, as congressional leaders made a bicameral agreement not to add new policy riders in the appropriations process unless agreed to by leadership on a bipartisan basis.
Now the only chance that Congress will send the broader provision to President Trump’s desk for 2020 is if negotiators on a bicameral conference committee agree to put the House language in the final package, though there is a chance that the larger chamber could simply approve the bill as passed by the Senate in an effort to avoid a government shutdown that would occur if no spending legislation is signed into law by November 21.
“It’s our hope that the House will insist that today’s minibus appropriations package include the provision to restrict the Department of Justice from interfering with state-legal marijuana programs that passed with bipartisan support,” said Justin Strekal, political director for NORML.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a separate amendment to the large-scale appropriations bill last week that would have called on the attorney general to study the criminal justice implications of marijuana legalization, but the measure was not considered on the Senate floor.
The medical marijuana protections language isn’t the only cannabis-related rider that has advanced via the spending process this year. The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved legislation that includes existing policies barring Washington, D.C. from using its local tax dollars to implement a legal marijuana market, in addition to a provision providing funds to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enact regulations for a legal hemp program.
The latter language is included in the minibus the Senate approved on Thursday, as are report provisions urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue enforcement discretion guidelines for CBD, encouraging the Farm Credit Administration to provide services to hemp businesses and supporting “competitive USDA grants for hemp projects.”
“The FDA has been dragging its feet to issue the guidance required following the legalization of hemp-derived CBD,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), told Marijuana Moment. “This is about helping Oregon’s hemp industry continue to create jobs, protecting consumers and putting an end to the regulatory confusion and uncertainty. This language again shows that the Senate is serious about the FDA doing its job.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who with Wyden was a leading advocate for hemp legalization, also cheered the spending bill provisions.
“Hemp farmers, processors and manufacturers are exploring the crop’s great potential, and I’m proud to work with them every step of the way. As federal and state governments continue to develop how to best support this industry, I’ll keep working to benefit Kentucky producers and ensure hemp is treated just like any other legal commodity,” he said in a press release. “Ensuring law enforcement can differentiate between industrial hemp and its illicit cousin is critical, and I’ll continue working with the DEA and other federal agencies so hemp can be treated the same as any other legal commodity.”
Senate approves @SenateMajLdr McConnell's funding requests to:
✅combat Asian Carp in #Kentucky
✅implement & research Kentucky's #hemp industry
✅help address #opioid & substance abuse epidemic
✅support economic development & infrastructure prioritieshttps://t.co/dOMA8VUUib
— Senator McConnell Press (@McConnellPress) October 31, 2019
The hemp riders are timely given that USDA unveiled draft rules for hemp, which was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, on Tuesday. The interim final rule will be formally adopted following a 60-day public comment period.
Another House-passed appropriations bill also includes protections for banks that work with the marijuana industry, and the rider preventing D.C. from establishing a cannabis market was removed from the chamber’s version of the legislation.
While the Republican-controlled Senate is mostly sticking to the agreement not to add new policy riders to appropriations legislation, it could soon take up a separate, standalone marijuana bill: the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow banks to service cannabis businesses without being penalized by federal regulators.
The House overwhelmingly approved that legislation in September, along largely bipartisan lines, and the chair of the Senate Banking Committee said recently that he plans to take up the legislation in his panel before the year’s end. He also outlined several changes he’d like to see to the House-passed version in an interview with Marijuana Moment.
This story has been updated to include comments from Wyden and McConnell.
Harris Will Give Biden ‘Honest’ Input On Legalizing Marijuana And Other Issues As Part Of ‘Deal’
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris says she has a “deal” with Joe Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, including legalizing marijuana. Separately, she also recently discussed cannabis reform in a private meeting with rapper Killer Mike.
During an interview on 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, the senator was pressed on marijuana and numerous other issues where she and Biden disagree. In response, while she didn’t specifically commit to proactively advocating for comprehensive cannabis reform, she pledged in general that she would always share her views with the would-be president if the pair are elected next week.
“What I will do—and I promise you this and this is what Joe wants me to do, this was part of our deal—I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront,” she said after the interviewer listed cannabis legalization among a handful of issues on which she and Biden depart. “I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”
If elected, would Kamala Harris advocate for Medicare for All, a plan Joe Biden doesn’t support?
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 26, 2020
Asked whether that perspective will be “socialist” and “progressive,” Harris laughed and said “no.”
“It is the perspective of a woman who grew up a black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India, who also, you know, likes hip hop,” she said.
The senator’s taste in music also came up during her own 2020 presidential bid, when she said in an interview that she listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while smoking marijuana during college despite graduating before those artists released their debut albums.
Music culture has played a key role in this election cycle, and one of the strongest voices for criminal justice reform in the industry is Killer Mike, who worked as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The artist said he met with Harris on Friday and the two discussed cannabis business opportunities for communities of color.
Just had a meeting with Sen. Harris.
My points *Dems Need to be heavy on the door Knox’N, HR40 tweek it better and have Biden Sign, Fed Trades Programs for worker class Americans so u can build, Black men exit prison and entrance to marijuana biz as a priority for biz and jobs
— Killer Mike (@KillerMike) October 23, 2020
As she’s done repeatedly since joining Biden’s campaign, Harris also reiterated at a rally in Pontiac, Michigan on Sunday that the administration would pursue marijuana decriminalization and expunging prior cannabis convictions.
She made similar comments during a campaign event in Atlanta last week, stating that the “war on drugs was, by every measure, a failure, and black men were hit the hardest.” That said, while the senator has come to embrace broad cannabis reform, she’s faced criticism over her past opposition to legalization and role in prosecuting people for marijuana offenses as a California prosecutor.
In another interview released last week, Harris said she and Biden “have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”
“When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits,” she said.
There’s been some frustration among cannabis reform advocates that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization but has in recent weeks focused her comments on the more modest reforms of decriminalization and expungement.
Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.
In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”
In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.
GOP Tennessee Senator Calls For Medical Marijuana Legalization In New Campaign Ad
A Tennessee senator touted his support for legalizing medical marijuana in a campaign ad released on Friday.
In the 30-second spot, which has notably high production value for this kind of local race, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R) talks about both the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and the consequences of broader marijuana criminalization.
“As your state senator, I’ve led the fight to legalize medical marijuana so our veterans and sickest Tennesseans can deal with chronic pain,” he said. “But this same life-saving plant has led to mass incarceration, with nonviolent marijuana possession resulting in lengthy prison sentences.”
It’s past time for Tennessee to legalize medical cannabis and give our sickest residents a smart, safe treatment to help with chronic pain. Legalization and securing criminal justice reform have been my top priorities, and I won’t stop fighting until we’ve changed the law. pic.twitter.com/28eFUy3loZ
— Steve Dickerson (@DickersonforS20) October 23, 2020
“I think that’s wrong. That’s why I’ve been pushing for criminal justice reform,” the senator added.
Dickerson, who sponsored a medical cannabis legalization bill that cleared a Senate committee in March, said in a Q&A published earlier this month that the policy change would be among his top three legislative priorities if he’s reelected.
His Democratic opponent, former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell, is in favor of “fully legalizing marijuana,” with her campaign site stating that cannabis crimes “disproportionately impact people of color and it’s time to end marijuana prohibition.”
But while Dickerson has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican given his positions on issues like cannabis reform, he’s faced backlash after declining to denounce an independent ad taken out on his behalf that some, including the LGBTQ rights organization Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), called racist.
The ad, which was paid for by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s (R) political action committee MCPAC, hits Campbell over her support for a nonprofit organization that is designed to keep young people out of prison, and it frames the group as “radical” and “extremist.” TEP rescinded their endorsement of Dickerson over his refusal to condemn the ad.
In the Tennessee legislature, marijuana reform has yet to pass—but there’s growing recognition that voters are in favor of the policy change. For example, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R) released the results of a constituent survey last year that showed 73 percent of those in his district back medical cannabis legalization.
Another former GOP House speaker, Beth Harwell, highlighted her support for the reform proposal during her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, and she referenced President Trump’s stated support for medical marijuana on the campaign trail.
In other Tennessee drug policy politics, a lawmaker in June blocked a resolution to honor murdered teen Ashanti Posey because she was allegedly involved in a low-level cannabis sale the day she was killed.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
South Dakota Voters Back Marijuana Legalization And Medical Cannabis Ballot Measures, Poll Finds
Voters in South Dakota are poised to approve two separate ballot measures next month that would legalize marijuana and allow patients to access medical cannabis.
The initiative to allow adults to possess, grow and purchase marijuana leads among likely voters by a margin of 51 percent to 44 percent, with five percent undecided, according to the survey released over the weekend by Argus Leader Media and KELO-TV.
The medical cannabis item got 74 percent support in the poll, with 23 percent in opposition and 3 percent undecided.
When it comes to recreational legalization, voters are divided on the issue across demographic lines. Fifty-seven percent of those under age 50 back the ballot measure, while it is narrowly opposed by older voters. Seventy-three percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents support the reform, but Republicans are against it, 61 percent to 34 percent. Men are on board, 56 percent to 40 percent, but women are divided with 47 percent in support and 47 percent opposed.
The separate medical cannabis ballot measure, on the other hand, enjoys supermajority backing among every surveyed group. In fact, it had a greater margin of support than any other item or entity in the entire poll, which also asked voters about the presidential election, other races on the ballot and approval of officials including the governor and U.S. vice president.
A separate survey released last month by marijuana opponents found that about 60 percent of South Dakota voters support the broader recreational legalization proposal and more than 70 percent back the narrower medical cannabis initiative.
Under the adult-use constitutional amendment, people 21 and older could possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana, and they would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants.
The separate medical cannabis legalization measure that voters will decide on would make a statutory change to allow patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions to possess and purchase up to three ounces of marijuana from a licensed dispensary.
Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who previously vetoed a hemp bill, appeared in a new ad this month urging voters to reject the cannabis legalization ballot measure, saying, “I’ve never met someone who got smarter from smoking pot.”
Meanwhile, the pro-legalization campaign released its own spot featuring a retired police officer who says “our harsh marijuana laws aren’t working.”
“In 2018, 4,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in South Dakota. That’s one in 10 arrests,” the former officer said in the TV advertisement, referencing a report that South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws published last month. “Each arrest costs $4,000. It doesn’t make us any safer. We’re wasting law enforcement time and resources that should be fighting serious crimes. So I’m voting ‘yes’ on A and 26.”
The data from that report also shows that—as is the case across the country—marijuana enforcement has had a disparate impact on people of color, despite comparable rates of consumption among white people.