U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged before a key Senate panel on Wednesday that “there may well be some benefits from medical marijuana” and that it is “perfectly appropriate to study” cannabis.
But Sessions was also quick to dismiss a mounting body of evidence that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid issues.
Acknowledging that he has seen some research indicating lower overdose deaths in states that allow cannabis in some form and that “science is very important,” the attorney general said he doesn’t “believe that will be sustained in the long run.”
Sessions also indicated that the federal government would soon take steps to license more entities to legally grow marijuana for research.
“We are moving forward and we will add fairly soon, I believe, the paperwork and reviews will be completed and we will add additional suppliers of marijuana under the controlled circumstances,” he said during an appearance before the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.
In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration enacted a new policy intended to license more research cultivators, and he agency has reportedly since received at least 25 applications to participate in the new program. But it has not yet acted on any of them and, according to the Washington Post, that is because top Justice Department officials have stepped in to prevent DEA from approving any proposals.
In his answers, Sessions indicated that he thought opening up research could put the U.S. at risk of violating international drug treaties.
The “treaty requires certain controls in that process,” he said, adding that in his view, the “previous proposal violated that treaty.”
Sessions was responding to a line of questioning from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who said that “we’re all evolving on this issue, some quicker than others.”
There are “good civil rights reasons for decriminalizing and pursing a federalist approach around this,” the senator added.
Sessions did not offer a specific timeline for releasing a revised research cultivation approval process.
And despite acknowledging cannabis’s medical potential, he said he takes issue with the way it is currently consumed.
“Medical marijuana, as one physician told me, ‘whoever heard of taking a medicine when you have no idea how much medicine you’re taking and ingesting it in the fashion that it is, which is in itself unhealthy?'” Sessions said.
Advocates welcomed Session’s admission that marijuana can help patients, but said that the Justice Department needed to act on allowing research as well as make broader policy changes sooner rather than later.
“Over two million registered medical marijuana patients throughout the legal markets can attest to the attorney general’s newfound revelation,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “What we need is better research on consumer grade marijuana and lawful protections for legal markets, not further deliberation from the DoJ.”
Later in the Senate hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) cited a resolution approved by Alaska state lawmakers urging the federal government to respect local marijuana laws. She also attempted to elicit a commitment from the attorney general not to oppose congressional efforts to reform federal cannabis laws.
“I can’t make a commitment about what position we would take at this time, until we know what’s exactly involved,” he replied.
Sessions said, however, that “our priorities are fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine. People are dying by massive amounts as a result of those drugs. We have very few, almost zero, virtually zero small marijuana cases. But if they are a big deal and illegally acting, and violating federal law, our agents may work that case.”
In a CJS Approps Subcmte hearing I raised the conflicts between state & federal marijuana law, asking AG Jeff Sessions for assurances that the Department of Justice will act as an ally, rather than an obstacle, in considering future legislation respecting states’ rights. pic.twitter.com/UvFiTaW2Sg
— Sen. Lisa Murkowski (@lisamurkowski) April 25, 2018
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Vice President Pence Slams Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ COVID Bill
Vice President Mike Pence on Monday criticized the inclusion of marijuana banking language in the latest House-passed coronavirus relief bill.
During an interview with Fox Business’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” the vice president discussed GOP priorities for future COVID-19 legislation and said they were at odds with those of Democrats.
“In the House of Representatives, I heard the other day that the bill that they passed actually mentions marijuana more than it mentions jobs,” Pence, who consistently voted against cannabis amendments when he served in Congress, said. “The American people don’t want some pork barrel bill coming out of the Congress when we’ve got real needs from working families.”
This is one of the more high-profile examples of Republicans condemning the cannabis provisions, but it’s far from the only one. Just last week, Pence’s chief of staff, who previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, made similar remarks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been one of the most vocal critics, though he’s largely focused on specific industry diversity reporting requirements of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act that were included in the COVID legislation along with the basic financial services provisions of the bill.
The SAFE Banking Act, which previously passed the House as a standalone bill, is primarily meant to protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The prospects of getting the House version to the president’s desk seem dim, as negotiations between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have stalled.
President Trump, meanwhile, has decided he’s not waiting for lawmakers to reach a deal and issued an executive order over the weekend that calls for new unemployment benefits, student loan payment deferrals and more.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said on Sunday that Democrats are “ready to meet the White House and Republicans halfway.” What remains to be seen, however, is whether “halfway” would involve cannabis banking protections.
Democrats have made the case that granting cannabis businesses access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview last week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.
“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.
While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still the House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.
The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative Officially Qualifies For November Ballot
A measure to legalize marijuana in Arizona officially qualified for the November ballot on Monday.
The secretary of state announced that activists turned in enough valid petitions to make the cut one month after about 420,000 raw signatures were submitted.
Under the measure, adults could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
The initiative also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program
Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.
The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said that her office verified petitions submitted by the Smart and Safe Arizona campaign and determined that they turned in approximately 255,080 valid signatures. At least 237,645 were needed to qualify.
The measure will be designated on the ballot as Prop. 207.
The Secretary of State's Office has certified the signatures submitted by the Smart and Safe Arizona initiative. After review, the petition exceeded the minimum requirement with approximately 255,080 valid signatures and will be placed on the General Election ballot as Prop. 207. pic.twitter.com/E6nM4vkLgf
— Secretary Katie Hobbs (@SecretaryHobbs) August 11, 2020
It’s been a long road to the ballot for activists, who at one point asked the state Supreme Court to allow them to collect signatures electronically amid the coronavirus pandemic. That request was ultimately rejected.
Prohibitionists attempted to keep the measure off the ballot by filing a suit in state court, arguing that the official summary of the initiative was misleading because it omitted certain provisions. The court disagreed and rejected the suit last week, though it’s still possible the legalization opponents will appeal.
Arizona voters narrowly rejected a marijuana legalization initiative in 2016. But in a survey of likely voters released last month, more than six-in-ten (62 percent) said they now support legalizing cannabis, while 32 percent are opposed.
Opponents of the proposal, including Gov. Doug Ducey (R), recently released official voter guide arguments against the initiative. Supporters filed arguments as well, and all will be circulated to voters in a pamphlet printed by the state.
The governor, in his submission, argued that legalization is “a bad idea based on false promises.”
Meanwhile, pro-legalization activists are asking supporters to share personal stories about why they support the cannabis ballot measure.
Share your personal story or reason for supporting Smart and Safe AZ, for the chance to be featured on our social media platforms! Submit your story on our website: https://t.co/Kbxa003kXK #SmartandSafeAZ #legalizemarijuana pic.twitter.com/EhO7jeFuPG
— Smart & Safe AZ (@SmartandSafeAZ) August 10, 2020
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
The Washington, D.C. Board of Elections certified last week that activists submitted enough valid signatures to place a measure to decriminalize plant- and fungi-based psychedelics in the nation’s capital.
Oregon’s secretary of state confirmed last month that separate measures to legalize psilocybin therapy and decriminalize possession of all drugs while expanding treatment services will appear on the November ballot.
Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.
Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group last week, hopes are dashed.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Federal Drug Decriminalization Model Unveiled By Top Reform Group
A leading drug policy reform group recently unveiled a framework to federally decriminalize all illicit drugs that they hope will be embraced by Congress.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said ending the drug war will help address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and promote public health. The proposal is being rolled out ahead of the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, the legislative basis of today’s federal drug criminalization.
Full bill text of the proposed “Drug Policy Reform Act” isn’t available yet, but according to a summary, it will contain provisions to end strict sentencing constructs such as mandatory minimums for drug conspiracy offenses, provide for expungements and end collateral consequences for drug convictions like the denial of public benefits and educational loans. It would also defund federal drug agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“There are many elected officials—on and off the Hill—that speak to the sentiments of drug decriminalization, continually touting drug use should be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue—most notably when it comes to marijuana,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager at DPA’s Office of National Affairs, told Marijuana Moment.
“However, tides are shifting and this transformational political moment calls for this roadmap we have provided legislators to begin repairing the extensive devastation the failed drug war has created beyond marijuana and beyond talking points,” she said. “There are congressional offices and allies who are, in fact, ready to see the end of criminalizing people for drug use actualized; we’re looking forward to working with them to lay the groundwork for this much needed reform in Congress.”
Criminal penalties for simple possession would be removed on the federal level. While Congress can’t change state laws under which a majority of people punished for drug offenses are prosecuted, the proposal states that federal dollars would no longer go to states for drug enforcement purposes. Also, military equipment would not be allowed to be transferred to local or state law enforcement departments for drug enforcement, no-knock warrants and surveillance technologies for drug offenses would be prohibited and employment discrimination based on criminal conviction disclosures would also be banned.
Under the proposed legislation, drug scheduling classification responsibilities would be shifted from DEA to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
NIH would also led a rulemaking task force to create a definition for “personal use quantities” and establish a process for “facilitating voluntary access to services for those seeking addiction treatment,” according to the summary.
The legislation would also promote investments in harm reduction programs to treat substance misuse.
“Removing criminal penalties for drugs is a first step in repairing the harms of the drug war,” Theshia Naidoo, managing director of criminal justice law and policy at DPA, said in a press release.
“In 2018 alone, over 1.6 million people were arrested on drug charges, over 86 percent of which were just for possession. These arrests can have impacts that last for a lifetime, often preventing access to employment, housing, financial aid for college, and even jeopardizing parental rights or immigration status,” she said. “And as we all know too well, these laws are far from equal. They are disproportionately enforced on Black, Latinx & Indigenous people, resulting in generational trauma, vilification and economic hardship on entire communities.”
At the state level, voters in Oregon could make the state the first in the nation to decriminalize possession of all drugs after an initiative to enact that policy change officially qualified for the ballot last month.
Insiders at the Vermont Democratic Party are also circulating a draft platform that proposes adding an end criminalization for drugs as a 2020 plank.
While neither President Trump or presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has backed broad drug decriminalization, presidential nominees for the Libertarian and Green Parties have both voiced support for the policy change.
Read DPA’s summary of its proposed drug decriminalization legislation below: