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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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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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White House Completes Review Of CBD Guidance From FDA

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The White House recently completed its review of pending Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance on marijuana and CBD research—though it remains to be seen whether the draft document will ultimately be released to the public.

FDA submitted its proposed plan—titled “Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds: Quality Considerations for Clinical Research”—to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in May. Few details are known about its contents, but an FDA spokesperson previously told Marijuana Moment that it could inform the agency’s approach to developing regulations for the marketing of CBD.

OMB finished its review last week, as first reported by InsideHealthPolicy. This comes days after a spending bill for FDA was released that includes a provision providing “funding to develop a framework for regulating CBD products.”

Despite the review being finalized, however, an FDA representative told Marijuana Moment on Friday that the agency “cannot provide an update of when (or even if) this guidance will issue.”

“It will be announced via the Federal Register should it move to publication,” they said.

It’s not entirely clear why the guidance wouldn’t be published in the end, but it may take some time for FDA to implement any edits suggested by the White House over the past month, and it’s possible there are additional layers of review beyond OMB that could determine when and whether it will be finalized.

It also remains to be seen whether FDA plans to wait for this specific guidance to be finalized and for the resulting research to be completed before it gets around to issuing final rules for CBD products in general. Stakeholders have been eagerly awaiting those regulations so they can fully take advantage of the legalization of hemp and its derivatives.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in May that White House policies requiring OMB to review scientific documents in the first place represent an onerous step that’s delayed the issuance of guidance.

Beyond sending the draft research plan to the White House for review, FDA is also soliciting public input about the safety and efficacy of CBD in comment period it has decided to keep open indefinitely. The agency said in an update to Congress in March that it has several specific questions it wants answered before deciding whether the cannabidiol can be lawfully marketed. That includes questions about the impact of different methods of consumption and drug interactions.

This week, FDA submitted a report to Congress on the state of the CBD marketplace, and the document outlines studies the agency has performed on the contents and quality of cannabis-derived products that it has tested over the past six years.

In the meantime, FDA is maintaining enforcement discretion when it comes to action against companies that sell CBD products regardless of the lack of regulations and has said it is currently targeting sellers that make especially outlandish or unsanctioned claims about the therapeutic value of their products.

It sent a warning letter to a CBD company owned by a former NFL player after advertisements it displayed suggested its products could treat and prevent a coronavirus infection, for example.

FDA sent a letter warning to a company about its marketing of injectable CBD products that led to a voluntary recall in May.

The agency also publicized a voluntary recall of another CBD product from a different company, notifying consumers about potentially high levels of lead in a batch of tinctures.

FDA has previously issued warnings to other CBD companies that have made unsubstantiated claims about the therapeutic potential of their products.

Veterans Working In Marijuana Industry Aren’t Automatically Blocked From Home Loans, VA Says

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Veterans Working In Marijuana Industry Aren’t Automatically Blocked From Home Loans, VA Says

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently clarified to Congress that it does not have a policy automatically barring veterans from receiving home loans solely because they work in the marijuana industry—and now a key House committee is asking the department to better communicate that to lenders and would-be borrowers.

For the past year, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and other lawmakers have been pressing VA on difficulties some veterans have faced in securing the benefit, with at least one constituent telling Clark that they were denied a home loan because of their work in the state-legal cannabis market. That prompted the congresswoman to circulate a sign-on letter and introduce an amendment to resolve the problem.

However, in a report submitted to Congress last month that was obtained by Marijuana Moment, VA said there is no policy on the books that calls for home loan denials due to employment at a cannabis business. Instead, the department clarified that conflicting state and federal laws makes it “difficult to prove the stability and reliability of cannabis-derived income,” which are key factors in determining loan eligibility.

“VA is committed to working diligently to serve our Nation’s Veterans by providing eligible Veterans with home loan guaranty benefits,” VA said. “There is nothing in VA statutes or regulations that specifically prohibits a Veteran whose income is derived from state-legalized cannabis activities from obtaining a certificate of eligibility for VA home loan benefits. However, given the disparity between Federal and State laws on cannabis, determining whether such a Veteran is able to obtain a loan has become a complex issue.”

A person’s “reliance on [marijuana-derived] income may hinder a Veteran’s ability to obtain a VA-guaranteed home loan, a result that is consistent with other federal housing programs,” the report states. “VA also notes that many lenders have established their own income thresholds and policies on overlays, which are often more stringent than VA’s requirements, to ensure that the VA-guaranteed loan will be purchased by an investor in the secondary mortgage market.”

In other words, individual lending companies may be denying home loans to veterans because the cannabis industry-derived income they would use to pay back loans isn’t necessarily stable and reliable due to the fact that federal officials could shut down their employers at any time.

If that’s the case, then it doesn’t appear it would be necessary to pass legislation targeting the narrow issue in the way lawmakers did last year. Clark’s amendment to address the problem was approved by the House as part of a defense spending bill—though leaders in the chamber agreed to scrap it after the Senate didn’t include it in its version of the legislation.

The House Appropriations Committee also approved report language last year attached to the bill that funds VA expressing concern that the department “has never publicly stated its position on this matter, hindering Veterans’ ability to fully understand and consider how employment decisions could affect future eligibility for earned benefits.”

The newly released explanation from VA is a result of that provision.

Now, for the next fiscal year, a new report attached to the latest Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies spending bill acknowledges VA’s recent policy clarification—but lawmakers are asking the department to do more.

“The Committee understands that as directed by House Report 116–63, VA has clarified that nothing in VA statutes or regulations specifically prohibits a Veteran whose income is derived from state-legalized cannabis activities from obtaining a certificate of eligibility for VA home loan benefits,” the report states. “The Committee directs the VA to improve communication with eligible lending institutions to reduce confusion among lenders and borrowers on this matter.”

Clark told Marijuana Moment that “no veteran should be denied benefits simply because they work within the legal cannabis industry.”

“This must be crystal clear in our laws and communicated directly to both borrowers and lenders,” the congresswoman said. “By including this language, we’re eliminating any doubt about the rights of our service members and protecting their ability to access what they’ve rightfully earned.”

In other veterans and cannabis news this year, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis on a marijuana research bill for veterans and determined that it would have no fiscal impact. And a federal commission issued recommendations to promote research into the therapeutic potential of both cannabis and psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA.

Read VA’s report on its home loan policy for veterans working in the marijuana industry below:

VA Response On Home Loans F… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

FDA Updates Congress On CBD Product Labelling Accuracy

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Idaho Medical Marijuana Activists Ask State For Electronic Signature Gathering Option Following Court Ruling

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Idaho activists have formally requested that the state allow them to collect signatures electronically for a medical cannabis legalization initiative following a series of federal court rulings on the issue in a case filed by a separate campaign.

While the signature submission deadline passed in May, advocates for an education funding campaign filed a suit against the secretary of state, arguing that social distancing restrictions that were put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic meant the state should give them more time to digitally petition. The judge agreed and ordered the state to allow them to do so for 48 days starting Thursday.

The marijuana reform campaign feels that the same relief should be extended to them as well, and an attorney representing the group sent a letter to the secretary of state this week, asking that the Elections Division also provide cannabis activists with the digital petitioning and deadline extension concessions that the federal judge granted to the education funding group.

In one of the latest developments, the state’s request to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to temporarily force the suspension of electronic signature gathering was denied on Thursday, though the appeal on the broader case is ongoing. That’s given the cannabis activists more hope as they pursue legal routes to have the lower court’s ruling apply to them.

Russ Belville, campaign spokesperson for the Idaho Cannabis Coalition, told Marijuana Moment that the group was “thrilled” to see the appeals court refuse to stay the electronic signature gathering decision.

“Our attorneys are working to convince the state to provide our Idaho Medical Marijuana Act petition the same electronic signature gathering relief, as we have suffered the same infringement of our petitioning rights,” he said. “It’s a shame it takes a pandemic to even consider allowing electronic signatures on petitions. Idaho should make every effort to make exercising our rights as easy as possible, especially for sick, disabled, elderly, infirm and rural folks without easy access to an in-person petitioner.”

In the new letter to Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, attorney Bradley Dixon said his client “has standing to pursue a remedy given the impact that the COVID-19 restrictions have had upon it.” The campaign “can show (1) they have suffered an injury in fact, which is both concrete and particularized, and actual or imminent; (2) their injury is fairly traceable; and (3) their injury will likely be redressed by a favorable outcome.”

“Moreover, just like Reclaim Idaho, as illustrated above, our client can show that it was diligent in collecting signatures and had adopted a thorough plan to achieve ballot success in advance of the unforeseeable coronavirus outbreak. Considering the merits of a possible case, our client’s First and Fourteenth Amendments rights have been harmed because the State of Idaho and its agents did not provide an alternative means to signature collection during the stay at home order, or during any of the phased reopening stages.”

The state’s stay-at-home order “made it impossible to retrieve all statutorily-required signatures because of both the reduction in time to collect such signatures, and the deadline date to obtain signatures falling on the same day as the end of the stay at home order,” the attorney said.

If the campaign is ultimately allowed to proceed with signature gathering, they will need 55,057 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Activists said they have about 45,000 unverified signatures on hand at this point, and they’re confident that can fill the gap if they get the deadline extension and electronic petitioning option.

The group has indicated it is prepared to seek relief directly from the courts if the secretary of state does not comply with their request to his office.

Under the proposed ballot measure, patients with qualifying conditions could receive medical cannabis recommendations from physicians and then possess up to four ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.

Advocates say that passing medical cannabis in one of the remaining states without such policies on the books would be a significant victory for patients in its own right—but it could also have outsized federal implications. A House-passed bill to protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators is currently pending action in a Senate committee chaired by a senator who represents the state.

Creating a medical marijuana program in Idaho, which is one of small handful of states that don’t yet even have limited CBD laws, could put additional pressure on Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) to move the financial services legislation in Congress.

Read the letter to the secretary state on allowing electronic signature gathering for medical marijuana below:

Idaho Secretary of State Re… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Oregon Voters Will Decide On Legalizing Psilocybin Therapy In November, State Announces

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