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Senators Vote To Block Marijuana Banking Amendment

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A powerful U.S. Senate panel has moved to block an amendment to let marijuana businesses store their profits in banks.

In a 21 – 10 vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee tabled an amendment on Thursday that would have shielded financial institutions that open accounts for cannabis businesses that are complying with state laws from being punished by federal regulatory authorities.

Current policy, which forces many marijuana businesses to operate on an all-cash basis, is “a big problem because it’s great for organized crime, it’s great for money laundering, it’s great for theft and larceny, it’s great for cheating on taxes, it’s great for cheating on your payroll,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the sponsor of the measure, said in a brief debate before the vote. “We’re really facilitating crime by not enabling the banking industry to provide basic services.”

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee defeated a similar cannabis banking proposal.

Several Democratic members of the Senate panel who said they otherwise support the ability of marijuana businesses in a growing number of states to access financial services objected on procedural grounds to the measure, which Merkley was seeking to attach to the Fiscal Year 2019 Financial Services and General Government funding bill.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), for example, said that he wanted to keep spending legislation “free of new controversial policy riders” and that a more appropriate forum would be an authorizing committee that sets banking laws.

Nonetheless, Leahy himself has sponsored appropriations amendments to prevent the Justice Department from interfering with state medical cannabis laws instead of insisting that those measures go through the authorizing Judiciary Committee.

Also voicing opposition to the move were Sens. Christopher Coons (D-DE) and Jon Tester (D-MT).

“I’ve supported it in the past and I think it’s different today,” Tester said. “It adds a level of confusion to the folks who are out there doing business,” adding that it would give a “false hope” to cannabis providers because it only deals with the Department of the Treasury and not the Justice Department.

“Do I think these businesses ought to be able to bank?” he said. “Absolutely.”

The same committee approved similar amendments in 2015 and 2016 by votes of 16 to 14.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who is a vocal legalization opponent, also spoke up. “This amendment would [make] a confusing situation for banks and pot shops around the country…more confusing,” he said.

Legalization advocates were upset by the committee’s move.

“The Senate Appropriations Committee chose to bury its head in the sand rather than make it easier for licensed and regulated marijuana businesses to operate safely, transparently or effectively,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said in an interview. “It’s absurd.”

Don Murphy of the Marijuana Policy Project added, “Today was a victory for the drug cartels and anyone else who benefits from billions of dollars of unaccountable, untraceable and unbankable cash.”

Ongoing federal marijuana prohibition and related money laundering laws have made many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.

Nonetheless, new Treasury Department data first reported last week shows that a steadily increasing number of financial institutions have been opening accounts for marijuana growers, processors, retailers and related outfits even as Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes anti-cannabis moves and comments.

The House of Representatives passed a cannabis banking amendment in 2014 by a vote of 231 to 192, but the provision was not included in final spending legislation that year. Congressional Republican leadership has since blocked floor votes on cannabis measures.

Several Trump administration officials have indicated they would like to see a resolution to the issue.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said last week that the gap between state and federal cannabis laws “puts federally chartered banks in a very difficult situation.”

“It would great if that could be clarified,” he said.

Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin has implied in several appearances before congressional committees that he wants marijuana businesses to be able to access banks.

“I assure you that we don’t want bags of cash,” he testified before a House committee in February. “We do want to find a solution to make sure that businesses that have large access to cash have a way to get them into a depository institution for it to be safe.”

In another hearing he said that fixing cannabis banking issues is at the “top of the list” of his department’s concerns.

And Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chairwoman said on Tuesday that she’s asked staff to think about how to address marijuana banking issues, but that for now the agency’s hands are “somewhat tied.”

Despite the defeat of the banking amendments in House and Senate committees this month, there has been a recent string of other developments demonstrating marijuana’s political momentum.

Last week, the Texas Republican Party voted to adopt platform planks endorsing marijuana decriminalization, medical cannabis, industrial hemp and federal reclassification of the drug.

Earlier this month, President Trump voiced support for bipartisan congressional legislation that would allow states to enact marijuana legalization laws without federal interference. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is leading the charge for hemp legalization, with the support of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

See the full text of the marijuana banking amendment as considered by senators below:

“None of the funds made available in this Act may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, or with respect to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or Guam, to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana or marijuana products and engages in such activity pursuant to a law established by a State or a unit of local government.”

See the full committee roll call vote on tabling the amendment (an Aye vote is to block the measure from advancing):

Republicans

  • Mitch McConnell, Kentucky – Aye by proxy
  • Lamar Alexander, Tennessee – Aye
  • Susan Collins, Maine – Aye
  • Lisa Murkowski, Alaska – Aye
  • Lindsey Graham, South Carolina – Aye by proxy
  • Roy Blunt, Missouri – Aye
  • Jerry Moran, Kansas – Aye by proxy
  • John Hoeven, North Dakota – Aye
  • John Boozman, Arkansas – Aye
  • Shelly Moore Capito, West Virginia – Aye
  • James Lankford, Oklahoma – Aye
  • Steve Daines, Montana – No
  • John Kennedy, Louisiana – Aye
  • Marco Rubio, Florida – Aye by proxy
  • Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi – Aye
  • Richard Shelby, Alabama, Chairman – Aye

Democrats

  • Patrick Leahy, Vermont, Ranking Member – Aye
  • Patty Murray, Washington – No by proxy
  • Dianne Feinstein, California – No by proxy
  • Dick Durbin, Illinois – Aye by proxy
  • Jack Reed, Rhode Island – Aye by proxy
  • Jon Tester, Montana – Aye by proxy
  • Tom Udall, New Mexico – No
  • Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire – No by proxy
  • Jeff Merkley, Oregon – No
  • Chris Coons, Delaware – Aye
  • Brian Schatz, Hawaii – No by proxy
  • Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin – No
  • Christopher Murphy, Connecticut – Aye by proxy
  • Joe Manchin, West Virginia – No
  • Chris Van Hollen, Maryland – No

This piece was first published by Forbes.

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.

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 founded 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.)

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Feds Send Warning Letter To Another CBD Company Over Medical Claims

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a warning letter to a Florida-based CBD company on Tuesday, alleging that the business made several unsanctioned claims about the therapeutic benefits of their products.

The federal agencies accused Rooted Apothecary of unlawfully asserting that their cannabidiol products could treat symptoms of conditions such as ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, ear aches, ADHD and autism. Those claims appeared on the company’s website and social media accounts, they said.

Certain products appeared to be marketed as dietary supplements, which FDA currently prohibits as it works to develop an alternative regulatory scheme for CBD.

“Cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds are subject to the same laws and requirements as FDA-regulated products that contain any other substance,” Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless said in a press release. “We are working to protect Americans from companies marketing products with unsubstantiated claims that they prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure a number of diseases or conditions.”

“We’ve sent numerous warning letters that focus on matters of significant public health concern to CBD companies, and these actions should send a message to the broader market about complying with FDA requirements,” he said. “As we examine potential regulatory pathways for the lawful marketing of cannabis products, protecting and promoting public health through sound, science-based decision-making remains our top priority.”

FTC’s complaint with the company is that it violated a law that requires businesses that advertise medical claims about their products to have “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to back them up, which could include human clinical trials. Making or exaggerating such claims through “a product name, website name, metatags, or other means” without proper evidence is also prohibited.

Rooted Apothecary must respond to the agencies within 15 working days to explain what steps it’s taking to resolve the issues. If the company fails to do so, it is subject to legal action, including the possible seizure of its products or an injunction. It may also have to compensate customers.

FDA emphasized that CBD products—other than the prescription medication Epidiolex, for the treatment of intractable epilepsy—are not currently allowed. But it also reiterated that the agency is in the process of developing rules that could allow for the lawful marketing of the compound.

In April, FDA sent warning letters to three other CBD companies that it said was making unauthorized claims about the medical benefits of their products. FTC also submitted warning letters to three separate CBD companies for allegedly advertising misleading statements about their products last month.

These letters are examples of the agency’s use of enforcement discretion. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who recently suggested that the federal government should be involved in regulating state marijuana programs, clarified in March that the agency is only going after companies that make especially misleading claims about their products.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who championed a provision of the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalizing hemp and its derivatives, has urged FDA to clear a path for the lawful marketing of CBD products by using enforcement discretion while it develops an interim final rule. A bipartisan group of lawmakers made a similar request in a letter sent to the agency last month.

“The FDA is working quickly to further clarify our regulatory approach for products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds like CBD while using all available resources to monitor the marketplace and protect public health by taking action as needed against companies,” FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy said.

“We recognize that there is significant public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds; however, we must work together to fill in the knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products,” she said. “We are committed to advancing our regulation of these products through an approach that, in line with our mission, prioritizes public health, fosters innovation and promotes consumer confidence.”

Hemp Regulations Will Be Issued Within Weeks, Top USDA Official Says

Photo courtesy of Kimzy Nanney.

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California Governor Signs Marijuana Tax Fairness Bill But Vetoes Cannabis In Hospitals

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced on Saturday that he signed several marijuana-related bills into law—including one that will let legal businesses take advantage of more tax deductions—but also vetoed another measure that would have allowed some patients to use medical cannabis in health care facilities.

Under a section of current federal law known as 280E, marijuana growers, processors and sellers are unable to deduct expenses from their taxes that businesses in any other sector would be able to write off. Until now, California policy simply mirrored the federal approach.

But under AB 37, the state tax code will depart from Internal Revenue Service policy when it comes to 280E, allowing licensed state cannabis firms to take deductions just like other business.

Newsom, who campaigned for the state’s successful marijuana legalization measure that voters approved in 2016, also signed SB 34, which allows businesses to provide free medical cannabis to low-income patients, and exempts those products from state taxes.

Another bill signed by the governor, SB 153, directs state officials to develop and submit to the U.S. Department of Agriculture an industrial hemp program plan in accordance with the provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized the crop and its derivatives—including CBD.

“The California hemp industry looks to become a significant force nationally thanks to” the bill, Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, said in a press release.

But Newsom “begrudgingly” vetoed legislation, SB 305, that would have required certain health care facilities to allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis on site.

“This bill would create significant conflicts between federal and state laws that cannot be taken lightly,” the governor wrote in a veto message that suggested facilities would be at risk of losing Medicare and Medicaid funds if they allowed use of federally illegal cannabis.

“It is inconceivable that the federal government continues to regard cannabis as having no medicinal value,” Newsom said, adding that its “ludicrous stance puts patients and those who care for them in an unconscionable position.”

California NORML Director Dale Gieringer said in an email that the group is “disappointed” with the governor’s veto, noting that the legislation had already been watered down from an initial version that covered more than just terminal patients.

“The bill even allowed exemptions in the case that federal agencies ruled or notified the facilities that they were violating the law,” he said.

Other legislation Newsom signed includes measures on marijuana testing laboratories, vape cartridge labeling, appellations and marketing, cultivation canopy sizes, industry labor peace agreements and equity license applicants.

He also signed the appropriately numbered AB 420, which expands cannabis-focused research.

Last week, Newsom signed a bill to allow parents to administer medical cannabis to students at schools.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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.
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Former Congressman Who Fought Marijuana Legalization Joins Cannabis Company Board

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A former GOP congressman with a long track record of opposing marijuana legalization efforts is now cashing in on the legal cannabis industry.

FSD Pharma, a Canadian company that is a licensed producer of “pharmaceutical grade cannabis” through its subsidiary FV Pharma and researches cannabinoid-based therapies, announced on Friday that former Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN) joined its board of directors. Missing from the press release is mention of his legislative history that includes repeated actions to oppose federal protections for state-level marijuana reforms.

From 1998 to 2000, Buyer cosponsored two resolutions and one bill aimed at condemning legalization and upholding federal prohibition. His opposition extended to limited medical cannabis reforms, too, voting five times from 2003 to 2007 against an amendment to protect state laws and the patients and providers complying with them from federal prosecution.

One of the anti-marijuana resolutions he signed onto passed the House but did not advance in the Senate. As introduced, it characterized cannabis as “both dangerous and addictive” and stated that “Congress is unequivocally opposed to legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, and urges the defeat of State initiatives that would seek to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.”

The version that passed, which Buyer voted for, expressed concerns that “ambiguous cultural messages about marijuana use are contributing to a growing acceptance of marijuana use among children and teenagers” and noting that federal authorities can enforce prohibition “through seizure and other civil action, as well as through criminal penalties.”

The separate bill he cosponsored sought to declare state laws that allow cannabis use as “null and void.”

“[I]t is the intent of the Congress to supersede any and all laws of the States and units of local government insofar as they may now or hereafter effectively permit or purport to authorize the use, growing, manufacture, distribution, or importation by an individual or group of marijuana or any controlled substance which differs from the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act or regulations issued  pursuant thereto,” it read.

It’s not quite clear what changed for Buyer, but his appointment to the board of a major marijuana company that has benefitted from the successful reform movement he opposed is sure to raise questions.

In response to Marijuana Moment’s query about what accounted for the former congressman’s evolution on the issue, FSD Pharma President Zeeshan Saeed simply replied, “3M options as all other Directors and $40k cash comp.”

Hours later, Saeed clarified that he intended to send that reply to another journalist.

Raza Bokhari, executive co-chairman and CEO of FSD Pharma, said in a subsequent email that he’s known Buyer for years and believes that while he “remains opposed to recreational use of cannabis,” he “has come to recognize the potential of cannabinoid molecule in drug development targeting auto-immune diseases, especially the role of synthetic cannabinoids and other cannabinoids targeting the endocannibinoid system of the human body.”

The former congressman has been on “a very personal journey, with his wife being plagued with an auto-immune disease that has no cure and others in her family also that suffer from auto-immune diseases,” Bokhari said.

He added that Buyer has personally invested a quarter of a million dollars in the company and compared him to former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who also joined the marijuana industry after opposing cannabis reform while serving in Congress.

In a press release announcing the appointment, Buyer said the “opportunity to participate in FSD’s growth at this stage is exciting” and that he’s “attracted by FSD’s medical research to tame and define the unknown by challenging the edges of medical science to provide relief to people suffering from fibromyalgia and other serious illnesses.”

One industry that the former congressman’s actions did assist while in office and later went on to work for as a lobbyist is Big Tobacco. Buyer raised eyebrows in 2009 when he opposed legislation to regulate the tobacco industry and argued in a House floor speech that a person is just as likely to experience the health consequences of cigarettes if they were to smoke dried lettuce or grass. He insisted that it’s “smoke that kills, not the nicotine.”

Shortly after retiring, Buyer joined tobacco company Reynolds American as a lobbyist and paid consultant.

There have been several reports that noted Buyer’s decision not to run for reelection in 2010 came amid controversy over a foundation he founded. The Frontier Foundation was supposed to provide educational funding for students, but while it raked in tens of thousands from pharmaceutical interests such as Ely Lilly and PhRMA over a three-year period, it reportedly hadn’t distributed a single scholarship.

His retirement came months after USA Today and the Indianapolis Star reported on the foundation’s activities.

But now, Buyer is entering the cannabis space, and the company described his experience in the pharmaceutical industry and Congress as an asset.

“In welcoming Steve Buyer to the FSD Pharma Board of Directors and announcing a share consolidation, the Company has made an immense positive stride forward” FSD Pharma CEO Raza Bokhari said. “Steve’s addition has further strengthened the independence and profile of the FSD Pharma Board of Directors; his broad leadership experience and pharmaceutical industry relationships will help enhance our visibility, especially among U.S. Institutional investors and on U.S. Capitol Hill.”

Buyer also previously served as a special assistant U.S. attorney and an Indiana deputy attorney general.

This story has been updated to include additional comment from FSD Pharma’s CEO. 

Inside Mitch McConnell’s Private Lunch Meeting With The Marijuana Industry

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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.
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