For the first time ever, a provision protecting state medical marijuana laws is being included in base funding legislation for the U.S. Department of Justice.
While the provision in question has been federal law since 2014, in years past its enactment has required votes on the House floor or in a Senate committee. But now, in a dramatic sign of the rapidly changing politics of cannabis, the budget rider is part of the initial spending bill for the Justice Department as introduced by Republican Senate leaders.
“It’s taken years of hard work by patients and their advocates, but we’ve finally reached the point where even in a U.S. Senate controlled by Republicans, a medical marijuana provision is not considered a poison pill and its support requires no further debate,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an interview.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies approved Fiscal Year 2019 spending legislation including the measure on Tuesday. A full committee vote on the overall bill is expected on Thursday.
The House Appropriations Committee inserted the medical marijuana protections into its version of the Justice Department bill by a voice vote last month. That means the provision is all but certain to end up in the final FY19 appropriations legislation that is sent to President Trump for his signature later this year, clearing the way for states to keep implementing medical marijuana programs without federal interference through at least September of next year.
“The Senate Appropriations Committee finally read the writing on the wall and accepted the inevitable, that allowing the Department of Justice to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs is bad policy and losing politics,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, said in an interview. “Looking at the scorecard, today it’s medical freedom: 1; Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his reefer madness ways: 0.”
While the rider does not protect recreational marijuana consumers or the businesses that serve them, it does continue to shield patients and medically-focused providers in the 46 states that now allow some form of legal cannabis for therapeutic use. And that is a much-appreciated measure of relief in light of the fact that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year rescinded Obama-era protections that generally allowed states to implement cannabis laws without harassment from the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are teaming up on separate legislation to change federal law to permanently let states set their own marijuana laws without fear of federal intervention — and President Trump is on board.
“I really do. I support Senator Gardner,” the president said on Friday of when asked if he supports the bill, filed last week by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
The legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act, would exempt state-legal marijuana activity from the provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act. It would also protect banks that work with legal cannabis businesses and allow industrial hemp cultivation.
Before the Tuesday appropriations subcommittee vote on the Justice Department legislation, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), said he was “surprised to see the medical marijuana language.”
Lankford, who recently filmed a television commercial opposing the medical cannabis ballot measure that voters in his state will consider during this month’s primary election, called it “conflicting here that we’re spending millions of dollars focused on fighting opioids and yet leaning into pushing in the base bill towards the medical marijuana piece.”
“The FDA still considers marijuana as a gateway drug to opioid abuse,” he said.
In fact, numerous studies show a correlation between legal marijuana access and reduced opioid issues.
Democrats cheered the move, however,
“This bill again contains language preventing the Justice Department from interfering with states that have medical marijuana laws, ensuring that the prescribing and dispensing of medical marijuana in those states is both legal and regulated,” Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats wrote in a summary of the provision, somewhat overstating its impact because it actually only prevents federal officials from spending money to enforce the prohibition on medical cannabis without actually repealing it. “Patients and doctors in states that have approved medical marijuana need to know that they are safe from arrest and prosecution by the federal government.”
Trade Associations And Civil Rights Groups Send Mixed Messages On Marijuana Banking To Senate
A coalition of trade associations sent a letter to Senate Banking Committee leadership on Thursday, urging a vote on legislation to protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses.
But those senators are also feeling pressure from leading civil rights groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, which sent an earlier letter insisting that they not allow cannabis banking to detract from more comprehensive reform that addresses social equity.
The organizations involved in the latest letter—including the American Bankers Association and Credit Union National Association—said that advancing the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act or similar legislation is pivotal to ensuring that stakeholders receive needed clarity and are shielded from being penalized by federal regulators.
The letter, addressed to Banking Chair Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-OH), emphasized the bipartisan nature of the House passage of the bill in September and the growing movement at the state level to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes.
“Our organizations support an initial legislative step that allows the legal cannabis industry into the banking system,” the groups, which also include the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, International Council of Shopping Centers and National Association of REALTORS, wrote. “Ultimately, protecting law-abiding financial institutions and ancillary businesses from their currently untenable position and addressing increasing public safety concerns.”
As more states reform their marijuana laws, however, “distribution, sale, possession, research, transaction, housing, employment, and a broader landscape of cannabis is becoming increasingly problematic” for stakeholders under federal prohibition.
“Ultimately, this creates more legal and security concerns that impact the operations and safety of businesses and consumers,” they said. “Finally, the lack of an available safe harbor for cannabis will continue to challenge the full adoption and deployment of the legal hemp and CBD products market in the U.S. due to the inextricable link between hemp and cannabis.”
“To resolve this, we urge the Committee to vote on the SAFE Banking Act or similar measures. Such measures are meant to create a safe harbor for depository institutions that provide a financial product or service to businesses in a state permitting the use of cannabis. A safe harbor will enable law enforcement and states to effectively monitor and regulate businesses while simultaneously bringing billions into the regulated banking sector.”
12 groups including ABA just wrote @MikeCrapo @SenSherrodBrown @senatemajldr @SenSchumer urging a vote on the #SAFEBanking Act. It's time to end the legal limbo over banking cannabis in the growing number of states where it's legal. Read the letter: https://t.co/1529vIHawq
— American Bankers Association (@ABABankers) December 12, 2019
The letter, also signed by Americans for Prosperity and R Street, recognizes that creating a federal regulatory scheme for marijuana will take time but says that the SAFE Banking Act represents “a critical first step to ensure that legal cannabis marketplaces are safe, legal, and transparent.”
Crapo has said that he’s interested in holding a vote on resolving the cannabis banking issue in his panel before the year’s end, but so far nothing has been scheduled. The chairman told Marijuana Moment in earlier interviews that there are several changes to the House-passed bill that he’d like to see but that he’s worried impeachment proceedings against the president will interfere with plans to hold a vote.
All that said, pressure from civil rights advocacy groups could complicate congressional efforts to get the banking bill approved. In October, several organizations including the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch and Center for American Progress sent a letter to Senate leadership, as well as Crapo and Brown, demanding that “marijuana legislation considered in the Senate include provisions that will guarantee equity in the industry.”
The letter, which doesn’t appear to have been previously reported and was obtained by Marijuana Moment, states that while the coalition agrees the SAFE Banking Act “is an incremental step toward rolling back the federal prohibition of marijuana, it fails to help communities that have been historically and disproportionately devastated by United States’ punitive drug laws.”
“As the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs considers similar legislation, we insist that the legislation include provisions that ensure equity in the marijuana industry by creating opportunities for individuals who have been prohibited from this growing business either by legal or financial means,” the letter, which was also signed by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and National Association of Social Workers, states.
“Indeed, this Congress has shown it understands the economic impact of legalization. But while progress on the business side of legalization is promising, it is not sufficient. Federal marijuana legislation must be comprehensive and lead with equity, addressing past and current harms to communities of color and low-income communities who bore the brunt of the failed war on drugs. We demand that any marijuana reform or legalization bill considered by the Senate] include robust provisions addressing equity. More than simply adding equity provisions to bills that address industry concerns, we need comprehensive reform that deschedules marijuana and addresses the inequities and harms continually inflicted by the failed war on drugs.”
In other words, the groups are insisting on broad reform prior to a vote on a bill viewed as largely beneficial to the cannabis industry—similar to a request they made of House members prior to the legislation’s passage in the chamber.
Read the marijuana banking letters from the trade associations and civil rights groups below:
GOP Congressman Knocks His Party For Failing To Pass Marijuana Reform
A Republican congressman says that whichever party is responsible for passing federal marijuana reform will “instantly” shoot up in the polls, while lamenting the fact that the GOP failed to do so when they controlled the House.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), a vocal advocate for hemp, was asked by Fox Business host Kennedy on Wednesday whether cannabis should be rescheduled under federal law.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The first party that does this—and I don’t understand why either party won’t do it—is going instantly gain 10 points in the general poll on which party versus the other.”
“We should have done it when we were in the majority,” he added. “The liberals should be asking Pelosi why she hasn’t put it on the floor yet.”
The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation last month to end federal marijuana prohibition, but it hasn’t yet been scheduled for floor action.
Massie made similar points during an interview with Marijuana Moment earlier this year, stating that if Republicans had advanced states’ rights-focused marijuana legislation, “I think we might still be in the majority.”
Of course, while Massie has supported legislation to allow states to set their own cannabis policies without federal intervention, as well as other more modest reform measures such as protecting banks that service marijuana businesses, he’s so far declined to cosponsor any bills that seek to deschedule cannabis.
The congressman has also expressed interest in changing federal gun control laws to allow cannabis consumers to purchase firearms.
Though it’s not clear exactly how much of a boost either party would get by passing a marijuana reform bill, a Pew poll released last month does show that there’s majority support for legalization among those who lean Republican (55 percent) as well those who lean Democratic (78 percent).
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Rep. Massie.
State Department Warns Travelers About Flying With Cannabis Oil Internationally
The U.S. State Department is warning international holiday travelers that while hemp-derived CBD might be legal in the U.S., it can land you in trouble if you take it certain places abroad.
“Make sure your gift isn’t a fa la la la la la la la la fail,” the department said in a tweet on Thursday. “Bringing along gifts like drones, CBD oils, and firearms can land you in trouble in foreign countries. Research what is and isn’t allowed before you travel.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Flickr/DHS.