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Senate Committee Declines To Expand State Marijuana Protections In Spending Bill

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A key Senate committee approved a spending bill on Thursday that again contains a provision preventing the Justice Department from intervening in medical cannabis states—despite objections raised by one senator who ultimately withdrew an amendment he filed to undermine the rider.

But while the House of Representatives passed legislation this summer to extend those protections to all state marijuana programs, no members of the Senate Appropriations Committee attempted to insert similar far-reaching language to shield laws allowing recreational cannabis use and sales from federal interference.

There are several reasons for that, unrelated to the panel’s feelings about broader reform in general. A  primary factor is that congressional appropriators made a “gentleman’s agreement” earlier this year not to add new policy-related riders to spending legislation out of concern that inserting controversial “poison pills” could jeopardize passage of the overall bills.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a member of the Appropriations Committee, told Marijuana Moment it was because of a “bipartisan agreement to add no new policy into the bill in order to get it out” of committee that he previously voted against a marijuana amendment that he personally supported.

“There were a number of things that I am opposed to that remained in the bill that I would’ve preferred to have out,” he said, highlighting the complicated nature of voting on large-scale bills to fund federal agencies. “There were things that were not in the bill that I would have preferred to have in.”

“I know that this bill is a funding bill. It’s not an authorization bill,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said at a Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee markup on Tuesday. “We’ve all tried to refrain from putting poison pill riders in our appropriations bill, and so as a result, we don’t address many of the controversial issues that both Democrats and Republicans would like to confront.”

“The Senate Appropriations Committee isn’t allowing policy riders, so it hasn’t been a priority since language is already in House bill,” Michael Correia, government relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment to explain why legalization groups didn’t fight very hard this year to convince senators to push the more far-reaching state protections.

Recognizing the difficulty in overcoming the budget agreement, a lobbyist with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) proactively encouraged senators not to push for a cannabis amendment.

Don Murphy, director of federal policies for MPP, told Marijuana Moment that advocates have their “resources spread thin” as they work to advance various pieces of cannabis legislation such as the bipartisan marijuana banking bill that the House passed overwhelmingly on Wednesday. Murphy said “we had few options but to put all our eggs in the conference committee basket.”

In other words, the last chance to get a more expansive marijuana provision in the enacted CJS appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2020 is for Senate negotiators to agree to merge the House-passed language into the final package sent to the president—a dubious prospect given the overall agreement among lawmakers to not add new policy riders.

Even without that agreement, the prospects of getting the conference committee to adopt a marijuana provision approved by only one chamber would be a far reach.

Last year, for example, an amendment to a Senate-passed spending bill that would’ve prevented the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from spending its funds to enforce a policy against having its doctors fill out medical cannabis recommendation was removed in conference because the House didn’t have companion language.

Both the Senate and House passed amendments in 2016 to allow veterans to obtain cannabis recommendations from their doctors at VA but, because the language differed slightly, it was also removed, demonstrating the complications that await any attempt to keep the House-passed cannabis protections measure in the final bicameral negotiated spending bill.

A losing vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee on the broad state protection amendment, advocates feared, could further jeopardize efforts to advance the language in conference.

That said, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he “didn’t expect [the amendment] to be raised” in Senate committee and that it’s “going to be raised in conference.” The senator did introduce an amendment last year that would’ve expanded protections to all legal marijuana states, but he withdrew it rather than force a vote he thought he might have lost.

Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, expressed frustration that “the Senate Appropriations Committee refuses to acknowledge their role in the perpetuation of marijuana prohibition.”

“The continued allowance of taxpayer dollars to be used to perpetuate criminalization is a failed public policy,” he said.

What would have happened if a member of the Appropriations Committee had introduced an amendment expanding cannabis protections?

Marijuana Moment spoke to more than a dozen senators, including several appropriators, in recent weeks to get a sense of where the chamber stands on the issue.

Generally speaking, senators who were interviewed said they support the intent—that states’ rights should be prioritized and thus their cannabis programs should be protected from federal intervention—but several added that they would need to see the exact language of any proposed amendment before stating how they’d vote.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said in July that “we want to make sure that whether you support legal marijuana or not, those states that have legalized, when people are operating within the laws of those states, we want to make sure those protections are there.”

But in a follow-up interview on Thursday, the senator, who is a member of the Appropriations Committee, said, “I think they’re trying to take in the bites that they can so I respect that they’ve got differing views within the subcommittee on that. I think they were trying to thread the needle.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), chair of the CJS Appropriations Subcommittee, told Marijuana Moment that he has “not reached a conclusion” about how he’d vote if an amendment protecting all state cannabis programs was brought up, and he added that it’s “uncertain” where the full Appropriations Committee would come down on it, which is partly why no such measure was introduced.

“It would ultimately make it difficult for this bill to pass,” he said of the amendment. “The end result, I think, would be that CJS becomes another bill that gets sidelined because of controversial issues in it.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a topic that arrives in the full Senate,” he said.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said he believes “that we should” pass a spending bill that includes the cannabis protections.

“I have sponsored legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and to allow states to make their own rules, so that’s certainly consistent with the position I’ve taken in the past,” he said. “I don’t think we need federal marijuana laws—at this point, we should leave it up to the states.”

“I do think it’s a states’ rights issue,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), another appropriator, said, though he also clarified he’d still need to look at the specific language.

“We should be looking at that and respecting what states have done,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) said, adding that she’d be “likely to support” such a proposal.

Others—including Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), John Kennedy (R-LA), John Boozman (R-AR) and John Hoeven (R-ND)—said they didn’t have enough information to weigh in on the proposal.

While an amendment to shield all state marijuana laws was ultimately not produced during the Thursday committee markup, there was discussion about the existing rider for medical cannabis protections, which was first enacted in 2014 and has since been extended for each subsequent fiscal year.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) raised concerns about cannabis advertising and stated that the spending legislation contains “an affirmation of marijuana for the states that have approved it.”

Like last year, the senator filed an amendment that would gut the existing rider, which this year was included in the base bill as introduced.

“I would just hope in our conversation about [e-cigarette] vaping flavors in the days ahead that we somehow pay attention to how THC is being targeted to children as well,” he said. “We seem to be ignoring that, and I know I’m going to lose this vote so I’m not going to call for it, but I would love to do a dialogue on these issues to say are we really going to ignore the way THC is targeted to kids.”

Listen to the panel’s marijuana conversation, starting at about 2:05:00 into the audio below:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the panel’s chairman, chimed in to say that “this issue is not going to go away and it’s going to get worse.”

Moran said during the debate that “there was a bipartisan agreement” on the medical cannabis rider and that it was part of the base legislation “in an effort to limit possible amendments on this topic that may be ever more controversial.” He added that he’d be “personally and professionally very interested in joining the debate about the goals that Senator Lankford wishes to achieve.”

“I have been one who has said, as a state since we have gone that way [by legalizing marijuana], my job is to make sure that what is now legal” is protected, Murkowski said, adding that she remains concerned about children having access to cannabis.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted that Illinois became the latest state to legalize marijuana for adult use earlier this year and that he’s “glad that we are finally leaving the criminalization of marijuana and the wreckage it’s left behind on many people.”

But, citing research restrictions on marijuana caused by its Schedule I status, he said that “health claims are being made for cannabis and its derivatives that are far beyond anything proven by clinical testing, and that should come to an end.”

In separate spending legislation, the Appropriations Committee approved bills last week that include provisions that continue to prohibit Washington, D.C. from using its tax dollars to establish a legal marijuana program and provide funding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement regulations for hemp.

Aaron Houston contributed reporting from Capitol Hill for this story.

House Approves Marijuana Banking Bill In Historic Vote

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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.

Business

Marijuana Industry Groups Ask States For Coronavirus Relief Loans That Feds Won’t Provide

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A coalition of marijuana industry associations sent a letter to governors and state treasurers on Wednesday, asking them to help secure financial relief that cannabis businesses are being denied by the federal government amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The letter emphasizes that marijuana companies are providing jobs and essential services during the pandemic, and some are producing needed medical supplies like hand sanitizer. Despite this, the cannabis industry is specifically ineligible for federal disaster loans and other relief programs due to their product’s ongoing status as an illegal controlled substance. The groups said the treasurers could provide assistance to that end.

“Like all essential businesses, cannabis businesses are facing significant uncertainty and costs to provide for our employees and to maintain the medical supply chain during this pandemic,” the groups said. “Yet, unlike every other essential business, there is an underlying federal-state tension which puts our businesses in a uniquely vulnerable and dire operational and financial position. This is particularly true of our small and minority-owned businesses.”

They made two requests to the state officials: 1) encourage congressional delegations to insert language into future COVID-19 legislation that would enable marijuana companies to access federal Small Business Administration (SBA) relief loans and disaster assistance, and 2) consider creating state-level lending programs for the industry to help fill the gap in the meantime.

“Although cannabis businesses operate in strict compliance with state law and comply with a broad range of federal mandates, including paying federal corporate taxes at a much higher effective rate than other businesses due to a quirk in the tax code, their activity is still considered illegal under federal law,” the letter states. “This creates all kinds of hardship, including this current prohibition on SBA assistance.”

“While the underlying federal issues with banking, taxes, and capital access remain, our businesses need access to some additional liquidity to ensure reliability in the medical supply chain for patient access and employee retention in these uncertain times,” they said.

The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), Marijuana Policy Project, Minority Cannabis Industry Association, Cannabis Trade Federation, National Cannabis Roundtable and Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce each signed the letter.

“The cannabis industry is under the same strains as many other industries in these difficult times, in addition to existing unduly burdensome regulatory and financial requirements,” Morgan Fox, NCIA media relations director, said on behalf of the groups in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “Given the increasing recognition of cannabis businesses as necessary components of healthcare and economic stability, it is absolutely vital that they can access relief loans to continue to provide services effectively.”

SBA has made clear that its services are not available to marijuana businesses, or even those that indirectly work with the industry. While eleven senators recently requested that a key committee approve spending bill language allowing SBA program access to cannabis companies, the request was targeted at future spending legislation in the works, rather than bills concerning the coronavirus outbreak that will likely be enacted in short order.

In a separate letter to governors and regulators in states with medical cannabis programs, another set of industry and advocacy organizations stressed the need to maintain access to medical cannabis for patients. They thanked the states for deeming dispensaries to be essential services and said, additionally, they should allow home deliveries, curbside pickup and recommendations via telemedicine while removing or reducing caregiver application fees, among other steps.

“On behalf of medical cannabis businesses, patients, and our communities, we again express our gratitude for your leadership and work to ensure continued access to safe and effective medicine,” the groups, which includes all of those in the aforementioned letter as well as Americans for Safe Access and NORML. “We welcome the opportunity to help identify and implement safe means to ensure continued access to medicine.”

Read the letter concerning financial relief below:

Cannabis industry letter to… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Read the letter concerning medical cannabis access below: 

Industry group on medical c… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Lawmakers Mourn Loss Of Charlotte Figi, Whose Story Inspired National CBD Movement And Helped Change Policies

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Lawmakers Mourn Loss Of Charlotte Figi, Whose Story Inspired National CBD Movement And Helped Change Policies

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Advocates and lawmakers are mourning the loss of a young icon in the medical marijuana reform movement. Charlotte Figi, who showed the world how CBD can treat severe epilepsy, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 13 due to complications from a likely coronavirus infection.

Across social media, people are sending their support to the Figi family and sharing anecdotes about how Charlotte’s battle against Dravet syndrome—and the success she demonstrated in treating it with the cannabis compound—changed hearts and minds. Her impact has been felt across state legislatures and in Congress, where her story was often told as a clear example of why laws prohibiting access to cannabidiol needed to change.

The domino effect Charlotte’s story helped set off—with states, particularly conservative ones, passing modest reform bills for CBD access—paved the path for a successful congressional rider that ended up protecting more far-reaching medical cannabis programs across the U.S., advocates say.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who has become one of the leading GOP champions for broad marijuana reform on Capitol Hill, said he was personally influenced by Charlotte and, as a state lawmaker in 2014, her story motivated him to support legislation to reform Florida’s medical cannabis policies.

“Charlotte lived a life of tremendous significance. Her story inspired me to completely change my views on medical cannabis and successfully pass legislation so that patients could get help in Florida,” the congressman said. “I’m so sad she is gone, but the movement she has ignited will live forever.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), another top marijuana reform advocate who has raised the issue directly with President Trump on several occasions, wrote that Charlotte “made a positive and everlasting change in the world by the age of 13, and her inspirational courage will always be remembered.”

“Charlotte changed the way the nation thinks about CBD through her grace and advocacy,” he said. “We should honor her by fixing our federal cannabis laws as soon as possible.”

Florida state Rep. Rob Bradley (R) agreed with the sentiment, writing that “Charlotte Figi was a bright, beautiful light that changed how our state and country views cannabis. I am saddened to hear that this sweet soul has left us.”

In Illinois, state Rep. Bob Morgan (D) said Charlotte, who is the namesake of one of the most well-known CBD brands, Charlotte’s Web, “singlehandedly transformed how the world viewed medical cannabis and children with epilepsy.”

“She suffered so much so that others would not have to,” he said. “May her memory be a blessing.”

Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach (D) also said Charlotte “inspired me to get involved in the cannabis movement” and “showed the world that Cannabis is medicine and the trail she blazed has helped millions.”

“The world lost a fighter,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who previously advocated for CBD reform as a state senator, said. “Charlotte Figi-who helped inspire passage of CBD Oil legislation for epilepsy treatment nationwide-passed away. I worked w/her mom/others in 14 in MO. My speech in the Senate was a tribute to her, June Jesse, my son & many others.”

Beyond championing a successful CBD bill in Florida, Charlotte’s family also captivated national audiences and became a household name in the reform movement. Her story was featured on a popular CNN documentary, “Weed,” hosted by Sanjay Gupta, that introduced people from diverging political ideologies to an issue that’s since become a focus of legislation across the country.

A bipartisan congressional bill named after her—the Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act—was first introduced in 2015.

But while that standalone legislation didn’t advance, the growing number of state-level policy changes that were inspired by Charlotte and other young patients could help to explain why Congress, including members who oppose legalization, has consistently supported a budget rider that prohibits the Justice Department from interfering in state-legal medical cannabis programs. It was first approved in 2014—after repeatedly failing on the House floor—and has been renewed each year since.

With CBD-only states included on an enumerated list of those that would be protected from legal action, it became increasingly difficult for lawmakers to defend voting against a measure to prevent federal harassment of their own constituents. Support from more conservative-minded Democrats and a handful of Republicans, including those from states that had recently enacted or were debating their own CBD laws, allowed the amendment to narrowly advance for the first time when it had been handily defeated two years earlier.

Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and South Carolina stand out as examples of states where cannabis reform came online between those votes and where support for the measure also increased among their congressional delegations.

The measure as approved by Congress and first signed into law law President Obama, has given explicit protection from federal prosecution not just to people complying with limited CBD-focused state laws but also medical cannabis growers, processors and retailers in states with more robust policies such as California and Colorado (though it does not protect recreational marijuana businesses or consumers).

“Charlotte Figi personalized this issue in a way that few others have, and her story humanized the medical cannabis fight to such a degree that many politicians could no longer ignore it,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “There is little doubt that Charlotte’s story, arguably more than any other, paved the way for politicians in several southern and midwestern states to finally move forward to recognize the need for CBD, and in some cases, whole-plant cannabis access.”

Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said even opponents of cannabis legalization “can’t say ‘no’ to young mothers pushing sick kids in strollers,” referencing the many other patient advocates who helped usher the reform to victory.

“There’s no doubt it helped move the debate in our direction,” he said. “Truth is, I was once told that CBD hurt our effort [for broader reform]. I don’t think so.”

A person writing on behalf of the family on Tuesday said that “Charlotte is no longer suffering” and will be forever seizure-free.

CBD Prescription Drug Is No Longer A Federally Controlled Substance, DEA Says

Image element courtesy of Paige Figi.

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FBI Policy On CBD Use By Agents Is ‘Under Review’

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is apparently looking into changing internal policy when it comes to the use of CBD products by its agents and other employees, the agency said on Tuesday.

While workers are prohibited from using marijuana—and applicants can be disqualified for consuming cannabis within the past three years—it seems FBI is open to loosening rules for the non-intoxicating cannabis compound, which has become more widely available since hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, creating a massive market for its derivatives.

During a Q&A on Twitter, FBI’s Newark office was asked two marijuana-related questions. One person wanted to know why the agency says “you cannot use marijuana within 3 years of applying, even with a medical card/prescription.”

“The policy regarding CBD oil is currently under review,” FBI replied. “Check the other eligibility requirements.”

The overall thread was about questions people had about the process of becoming a special agent, so it’s not clear if the CBD policy is being reevaluated for applicants only regarding past use, or if any change would cover active agents as well. Marijuana Moment reached out to FBI and its Newark division for clarification, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.

Another person asked whether the three-year cannabis abstinence requirement applies to positions other than special agents and FBI said: “Yes, that policy applies to all positions within the FBI.”

The simple fact that FBI fielded multiple marijuana questions while promoting recruitment seems to speak to a point that the agency’s former director, James Comey, made in 2014. He suggested that he wanted to loosen the agency’s employment policies as it concerns marijuana, as potential skilled workers were being passed over due to the requirement.

“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said at the time.

Last year, FBI said it wanted the public to send tips on illicit activity in state-legal marijuana markets, stating that restrictive licensing policies could open the door to corruption.

While FBI’s CBD policy is in review, other federal agencies—particularly for within the military—have strongly discouraged or outright banned its use.

The Department of Defense made clear that CBD is off limits for service members.

The Air Force issued a notice last year stipulating that its members are prohibited from using the compound.

The Navy told its ranks that they’re barred from using CBD regardless of its legal status.

And the Coast Guard said last year that sailors can’t use marijuana or visit state-legal dispensaries.

Meanwhile, NASA said that CBD products could contain unauthorized THC concentrations that could jeopardize jobs if employees fail a drug test.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued guidance to federal agency drug program coordinators last year, expressing concern about excess THC in CBD products, which seems to have prompted the various departments to clarify their rules.

The Department of Transportation took a different approach in February, stating in a notice that it would not be testing drivers for CBD.

While much of the CBD found in markets across the U.S. is largely unregulated, as the Food and Drug Administration is in the process of developing rules for the compound, a CBD-based prescription medication for epilepsy was entirely removed from the Controlled Substances Act this week, which should lead to easier access for patients.

People Could Still Be Denied These Jobs Over Marijuana Use Under New York City Drug Testing Exemptions

Photo by Kimzy Nanney.

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