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.”
Senate Republicans blocked Obama nominees who had used marijuana after passing the bar. Now they want a more flexible standard for Trump nominees.
— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) November 17, 2017
I am not opposed to a more flexible standard. But it shouldn’t be a double standard for Democratic vs. Republican nominees.
— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) November 17, 2017
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.
Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise
2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.
The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
America’s addiction and mental health care crisis has been building for decades—due to decades of neglect by political leaders in Washington. Today, I’m proposing a new approach that tackles this crisis with the urgency and care it deserves. pic.twitter.com/U8F9DXJPC2
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”
The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”
Our country is in the midst of a mental health and addiction crisis, worsened by decades of stigma and political neglect. I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves. https://t.co/spBoh5KH4X
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”
The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”
The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”
Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”
Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”
In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.
“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.
The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.
But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.
In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.
“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”
This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States
Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.
The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.
Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.
Got the answer: He believes it should be left up to the state. However, he does want to educate people on the effect marijuana has on young brain development, pregnant women and wants to come up with better guidance & testing for marijuana while driving. https://t.co/eifryNJB1j
— Kayla Sullivan (@KaylaReporting) August 14, 2019
It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.
Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.
Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”
“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”
Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.
During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”
“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”
He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.