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Senators Debate Marijuana Use By Judges

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How many times should judicial nominees be allowed to consume marijuana before they are confirmed to the federal bench?

That’s a question United States senators spent roughly half an hour debating on Thursday.

“Over time, there’s been an evolving attitude in our society towards marijuana,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) said. “And I suppose as I’ve looked at it over a period of time in which I’ve had this absolute prohibition attitude that I’ve demonstrated maybe not in public but in private about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that sometime down the road — and we may be down the road there now — that we, if [marijuana use is] the sole judgement of whether somebody ought to have a judgeship or not, or maybe any other position, we may not be able to find people to fill those positions.”

The statement is significant, coming from Grassley, long one of Congress’s most vocal opponents of cannabis law reform. He has, for example, blocked bipartisan medical marijuana bills from even getting a hearing in his committee.

The Judiciary panel, which held a business meeting on Thursday, is preparing to pare back a long-held standard on prior marijuana use by judicial nominees.

Previously, any use of marijuana after passing a bar exam would disqualify a nominee under the committee’s rules, though waivers have sometimes been granted, seemingly depending on which party controls the Senate and the White House.

“I thought that standard and that unwritten rule in the committee was unfair, unwise” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said. “I saw…how good people because of a mistake they made in a young part of their lives were disqualified from a lifetime of federal service on the bench. I just think it was wrong.”

Durbin recounted previous cases where President Obama’s nominees were blocked under the rule by objecting GOP senators.

“I know of some who would have been top-notch federal judges [and] were disqualified and stopped by Republican senators,” he said.

Now, he pointed out, Republicans seem to be in favor of a “more permissive standard for President Trump’s judicial nominees… I’m not opposed a different standard, but we should not have a double standard for nominees who are presented under a Democratic president and nominees that are presented under a Republican president.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) shared the concern.

“There’s seems to be one standard with a Republican administration [and] a different one with a Democratic administration. It’s tougher on the Democrats. I’m just saying, let’s have one standard. It may evolve,” he said.

Grassley replied that he hopes waivers aren’t “related to who’s president, but I don’t blame you for drawing that conclusion.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who, along with Grassley has been one of Congress’s most ardent drug warriors, said she too supports easing committee’s policy.

“The rule has had real consequences,” she said. “For my part, and I was opposed to legalization of marijuana in California, I believe that the rule should change.”

(As an aside, Feinstein incorrectly stated several times during the meeting that 29 states have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Grassley attempted to correct her by rightly pointing out that that’s the number of states that allow medical cannabis use, but added further confusion by saying only two states have legalized recreational marijuana. The correct number is eight.)

The committee hasn’t finalized the new standard yet, but the public discussion by its members provided an indication of where they may end up.

Durbin asked Grassley whether they would set a “reasonableness standard that has some flexibility or are we going to set a numeric standard?”

The chairman replied that he’s “aware of the ranking member [Feinstein] having a view, that it ought to be a very hard rule, and I probably have taken a rule of a reasonable approach.”

Feinstein seemed somewhat taken aback by the comment, and Grassley then told her, “I thought your rule was a little harder than my rule.”

After an interlude from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) about using “discretion” in enforcing rules, Feinstein said, “My understanding is that we have agreement that the post-bar reasonable standard is one to two uses [of marijuana].”

Grassley confirmed, “That is so.”

It is unclear when the committee will finalize and formally announce the new policy.

In 1987, Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsberg was forced to withdraw his name from consideration after it was revealed that he had smoked marijuana.

If you value staying updated on cannabis news, please start a monthly Patreon pledge to support Marijuana Moment!

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Voters In Key Congressional Districts Support Marijuana Legalization, Poll Says

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With many key congressional races rated as “toss ups” by political observers, either major party could end up controlling of the U.S. House of Representatives after this November’s midterm elections.

A new poll identifies one thing that can help Republican or Democratic candidates come out ahead: Embracing marijuana legalization.

The polling firm Lake Research Partners surveyed 800 likely 2018 general election voters in 60 so-called “battleground districts,” finding that 60 percent support ending cannabis prohibition. Only 36 percent are opposed.

Medical marijuana is even more popular, with 79 percent of voters in these swing districts on board.

More to the point for politicians looking to win elections, the survey showed that 44 percent of battleground voters say they would be more more likely to vote for a candidate who supports legalization, including 26 percent who say they would be “much” more likely. Only 33 percent said they would be less likely to back a pro-legalization candidate.

The survey was conducted in February but is being released on Tuesday at Washington, D.C. event sponsored by MedMen Enterprises, a cannabis dispensary chain that commissioned the poll.

Another key finding is that 55 percent of voters say they would be “more likely” to vote if a marijuana initiative was on the ballot in their state.

The survey also tested the effectiveness of various arguments concerning legalization, determining that “the strongest pro-legalization message frame highlights how we need legalization to repair the financial and moral damage of the failed war on drugs,” according to a polling memo prepared by the firm.

Several other recent national polls have found majority support for marijuana legalization, but the new results narrowed down to key swing districts are likely to warrant special attention from candidates and political operatives.

Support for Marijuana Legalization At Record High, New Survey Shows

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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Congressional Committee Blocks Marijuana Votes (Again)

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Lawmakers on a key congressional committee once again blocked colleagues in the full House from being able to vote on marijuana-related amendments.

One proposed measure, filed last week, would have allowed Washington, D.C. to legally tax and regulate retail marijuana sales and another would have prevented federal regulators from penalizing federal banks from working with businesses and individuals in the legal cannabis industry.

But on Monday evening, the Republican-controlled Rules Committee, led by Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), continued its recent tradition of preventing floor votes on any and all measures to scale back federal cannabis prohibition.

“Everyone who knows that Congress has a responsibility to at least debate these issues should unite and help Pete Sessions find another line of work,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who cosponsored both cannabis measures, told Marijuana Moment in a statement.

Sessions’s Texas district, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, is currently considered a “toss up” by political analysts in this November’s midterm elections.

Before Monday, his panel had blocked at least 34 other cannabis-related amendments from reaching the floor for votes during the current Congress. The full House of Representatives has not been allowed to consider marijuana reform proposals since the spring of 2016.

Analysis: GOP Congress Has Blocked Dozens Of Marijuana Amendments

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers cosponsored both new cannabis measures, which they were seeking to attach to legislation to fund parts of the federal government through Fiscal Year 2019.

(A third marijuana-related measure considered on Monday proposes shifting money away from forest and rangeland research toward “eradicating, enforcing, and remediating illegal marijuana grow operations on National Forest System land.” That measure was cleared for a floor vote, likely sometime this week.)

“Our federal laws are outdated. The people in this country want the law to treat marijuana as we do alcohol,” Congressman Denny Heck (D-WA), said in testimony about his marijuana banking amendment. “These large sums of cash make dispensaries an obvious target for robberies.”

He recounted the story of Travis Mason, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who was killed during a 2016 robbery at a Colorado marijuana dispensary where he was serving as a security guard.

“He managed to survive his service in the United States Marine Corps, but he didn’t survive his job guarding a store here at home,” Heck said.

“If we do nothing, this is bound to happen again.”

The D.C. measure was filed by Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia.

“This rider has unintentionally benefited violent drug gangs,” Norton said of current policy in her testimony before the Rules Committee. “For that reason, some refer to it as the ‘Drug Dealer Protection Act.’ As one marijuana dealer told the Washington Post, the rider is ‘a license for me to print money.’ Regulating marijuana like alcohol would allow D.C., instead of drug dealers, to control production, distribution, sales and revenues.”

Under a ballot measure approved by D.C. voters in 2014, low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation is legal. But because of an ongoing federal appropriations rider enacted in past years and included in the new FY19 bill, local officials have been prevented from adding a system of taxed and regulated cannabis sales.

Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO), a member of the Rules Committee, specifically moved during the meeting Monday night to make the amendment on cannabis businesses’ access to banks in order for a floor vote, but that was defeated by a party-line vote of 8 – 2.

The marijuana banking measure had 22 cosponsors, more than any of the 276 other measures the Rules Committee considered this week. Eighty-seven amendments were cleared for floor consideration.

Congress Could Vote On These Marijuana Amendments Next Week (Unless GOP Blocks Them Again)

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Sen. Jeff Merkley “Disappointed” That Democrats Blocked His Marijuana Banking Amendment

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One of the U.S. Senate’s foremost champions for marijuana law reform says he is “disappointed” that fellow Democrats recently joined with Republicans in blocking his amendment to increase cannabis businesses’ access to banks.

Last month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) offered a measure that would have shielded banks that open accounts for state-legal marijuana businesses from being punished by federal regulators for that activity even though cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

While the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved two similar amendments in previous years, the panel this time voted to table the measure with a bipartisan vote of 21 – 10, with ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and other Democrats who normally support marijuana reform objecting on procedural grounds.

“I was disappointed,” Merkley said in an interview with BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith on Monday. “We had passed this twice before.”

“We need to establish banking for cannabis because a cash economy is an invitation to money laundering and theft and cheating your employees and cheating on your taxes [and] organized crime. All bad.”

“I accompanied the owner of a company who had $70,000 in his backpack to pay quarterly taxes,” Merkley recounted in response to the cannabis banking question on Monday, which was suggested to BuzzFeed by Marijuana Moment’s editor. “It’s so bizarre going down the freeway and talking about how they have to pay their employees in cash, have to pay their suppliers in cash. It’s a bad system.”

“Everyone should agree: States’ rights on this. Let the states have an electronic system to track what these businesses are doing, not billions of dollars floating around like this.”

Despite his disappointment with the measure being blocked, the Oregon Democrat, who is believed to be considering a 2020 presidential run, said that his colleagues “had a fair point to make on the policy front” in tabling the measure.

At the time, Leahy argued that spending bills such as the one before the committee should be kept “free of new controversial policy riders” and that a more appropriate forum would be an authorizing committee that sets banking laws.

“It wasn’t existing policy and therefore it was new policy,” Merkley acknowledged in the new interview.

But he pointed out that there are few other avenues available for senators to pursue the issue.

“Here’s the thing. Normally we could take these policy bills like I was putting forward [and] you could put it on the floor of the Senate as an amendment to something,” he said. “In 2017, outside of the budget process, not a single amendment was considered on the floor of the Senate… This is the end of the Senate really as a deliberative body on policy. So if you’re blocked in the Appropriations Committee, and you’re blocked on the floor, then it’s very hard to put ideas out there and say, ‘Hey vote on this. This matters.'”

The House Appropriations Committee also defeated a cannabis banking amendment last month.

See the video of Merkley’s remarks at about 19:15 into the clip below:

Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.

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