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Shakeup In Key Senate Committee Bodes Well For Federal Marijuana Reform

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Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a longtime ardent marijuana legalization opponent, announced on Friday that he is stepping down as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in order to take over a separate leadership position, potentially paving a path forward for cannabis legislation in the 116th Congress.

Next in line for the chairmanship of the panel, which plays a central role in drug policy legislation, is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who certainly isn’t the most marijuana-friendly member of the Senate but is significantly more open-minded about medical cannabis and other common sense reform measures than the current chairman is.

Whereas Grassley has refused to let any marijuana bills come to a vote as Judiciary chairman, Graham has made surprise appearances as a cosponsor of legislation to protect legal medical states from federal interference, reschedule cannabis and also remove cannabidiol (CBD) from the list of federally banned substances.

“Senator Graham chairing Judiciary is the best news reformers have heard since Pete Sessions lost reelection,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment, referring to the outgoing House Rules Committee chair who has consistently blocked marijuana legislation from votes.

The senator has “shown empathy for patients and is a vocal advocate of the Tenth Amendment,” Murphy said. Plus, he added, Graham’s relationship with President Donald Trump “also bodes well for passage” of key marijuana reform legislation.

“If I was in the industry, I’d be buying today.”

In 2015, Graham voted against an amendment that would have allowed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend cannabis to patients; but the next year he reversed himself and supported a similar proposal to expand access to medical marijuana for veterans.

Also in 2016, the South Carolina senator supported an amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.

Graham told Politico that same year that medical cannabis “could be life-changing” and that restrictions on research should be lifted.

At a CNN event in 2015 he said that while he’s “not a big fan of legalizing marijuana,” you can “count me in for medical marijuana” because he is “convinced that it helps people with epilepsy.”

Graham once referred to marijuana as “half as bad as alcohol” but added that didn’t “see a real need for me to change the law up here.”

Grassley, for his part, did cosponsor a limited CBD research bill, but that’s about as far as his openness to marijuana reform seems to extend.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about what can be accomplished with Senator Graham chairing Judiciary. He’s certainly more open-minded and dynamic when it comes to marijuana than Senator Grassley,” Michael Liszewski, principal of the cannabis-focused lobbying outfit The Enact Group, told Marijuana Moment. “However, as a former prosecutor he could be more insistent that DOJ enforce the letter of the existing law.”

It is also worth noting that Graham has not signed on to the current 115th Congress’s version of the far-reaching medical cannabis bill he previously cosponsored, nor has he gotten on board with growing bipartisan calls to more broadly amend federal marijuana law, something for which President Trump has voiced support.

“Moreover, he demonstrated some hyperbolic fears about state medical marijuana programs in a July 2016 subcommittee hearing,” Liszewski said, referring to a discussion on cannabis policy Graham chaired. “But even with all of that, we will have a better chance to move forward with legislation in the Senate than we had under Grassley.”

In all likelihood, medical cannabis legislation will be referred to the committee Graham is positioned to run during the next Congress. Bills referred to the Senate Judiciary in the 115th Congress include one to end federal marijuana prohibition, another that would remove CBD from the Controlled Substances Act (which Graham cosponsored) and the CARERS Act (a version of which he previously cosponsored). Grassley didn’t schedule hearings or votes on any of them.

Graham has made clear that marijuana isn’t a top priority for him, but his support for medical cannabis and his voting record suggest that the Judiciary Committee could become much more amendable sending reform bills to the Senate floor under his leadership at a time when advocates are more optimistic than ever about the prospects for federal change. At least, more amenable than it has been under Grassley.

And this latest development, combined with the fact that Democrats retook the House, adds to the increasingly favorable political landscape that marijuana reform advocates are entering in the next Congress.

In the meantime, Graham hasn’t yet been formally named as chairman, but he is next in the line of seniority among Republicans on the panel following Grassley’s switch to instead chair the Finance Committee and the retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

“As the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham will have to make a choice when it comes to marijuana,” NORML political director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “Will he continue to perpetuate the failed policy of federal criminalization which resulted in over 659,000 Americans being handcuffed in 2017 alone, or will he be open to reform in a way the reflects the rapidly evolving nature of cannabis policy in the majority of states?”

“In the 116th Congress, there will be at least 66 Senators representing states with a regulated medical cannabis program,” Strekal added.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comments from representatives of NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project.

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Photo courtesy of John Pemble.

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.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Top Democratic Party Leader Flops With Attempted Joke About Trump Smoking Hemp

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The chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) apparently thinks that hemp gets you high—and that getting high makes you dumb.

In an attempted dig at President Donald Trump, who said last week that farmers struggling amid a trade war were “over the hump,” DNC Chair Tom Perez said he thought the president “was smoking some hemp when he said they were over the hump.”

“If you smoke some hemp, I guess that would stimulate certain farm economies here,” he added during his remarks at a press conference in Wisconsin.

Watch Perez’s hemp comment at about 6:45 into the video below:

Because hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, it wouldn’t get you high, as Perez implied. But legalization advocates say it’s especially problematic that a party leader is treating marijuana as a laughing matter in the first place.

“I would need to be smoking something a hell of a lot stronger than hemp to find Tom Perez’s weak attempt at a marijuana joke funny,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“At a time when over 600,000 overwhelmingly black and brown Americans are still being arrested every year for simple possession, our failed and racist prohibition is no laughing matter,” he said. “While we have made great progress in winning elected officials nationwide to our cause, Perez illustrated that we have a lot of work left to do when it comes educating them about the issue and still a bit of a road to go down before we can stop dealing with dad jokes and bad weed puns.”

Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, echoed that point.

“We need more leadership and action at the federal level, not more stupid jokes, puns and inaccurate comments about hemp’s ability to get you high,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Luckily that is something that many of his party’s presidential candidates understand,” he said. “Sadly, Mr. Perez does not.”

Perez’s position on cannabis policy isn’t quite clear, as he’s remained largely silent on the issue. In contrast, many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are campaigning on broad marijuana reform proposals.

The DNC chair made his attempted hemp quip during a press availability in Milwaukee, where he is meeting donors and coordinating preparation for next year’s Democratic National Convention.

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Texas Leaders Say Hemp Law Did Not Decriminalize Marijuana

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By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

Weeks after Texas prosecutors began dropping hundreds of marijuana cases and stopped actively pursuing criminal charges because of complications that arose from legalizing hemp, the state’s leaders have stepped into the fray.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, all Republicans, signed a letter Thursday to Texas district and county attorneys, emphasizing that the new hemp law does not decriminalize marijuana. They wrote that the prosecutors who have stepped back from marijuana charges after stating they can not legally distinguish between legal hemp and marijuana without further testing — almost all of those in the state’s most 10 populous counties — misunderstand the new law.

“Failing to enforce marijuana laws cannot be blamed on legislation that did not decriminalize marijuana in Texas,” stated the letter.

House Bill 1325, which legalized hemp and hemp-derived products like CBD oil, soared through the Texas Legislature this year and was signed into law on June 10 by Abbott. Since then, numerous Republican and Democrat district attorneys have said they can no longer actively pursue misdemeanor marijuana cases, because the new law changed the definition of marijuana from parts of the cannabis plant, to those parts that contain more than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. Cannabis below that level is now hemp.

The attorneys and forensic experts have said current equipment in public crime labs can’t accurately prove show how much THC is in cannabis, and circumstantial evidence, like the smell of marijuana or smoking-related paraphernalia, no longer gives them enough credibility in court, where defendants could claim the substance they possessed was instead hemp.

“The plant is the plant, so the stuff smells the same no matter the THC concentration,” Lynn Garcia, general counsel with the Texas Forensic Science Commission, told The Texas Tribune earlier this week.

But the letter to prosecutors says lab reports aren’t necessary in every marijuana case.

“Criminal cases may be prosecuted with lab tests or with the tried and true use of circumstantial evidence, a point some of you have already made clear in this context,” the letter states, pointing to a Tribune article on El Paso’s District Attorney claiming he will move forward on marijuana prosecution without lab reports.

The letter also points out that companies and labs were already developing equipment to test THC concentration before HB 1325 was enacted, and competition will lead to declining costs — initial estimates of which were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. No funds for additional marijuana testing were included in the passage of the hemp law.

The state’s hemp law was enacted to match the federal Farm Bill passed last year, which allowed for states to develop their own plans to regulate the production and sale of hemp. The Texas Department of Agriculture, under the state law, will regulate hemp, but the plan on how to do that has not yet been established.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas Prosecutors End Some Marijuana Prosecutions Under New Hemp Law

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Homeland Security Chief Won’t Say Whether Families Should Be Separated Over Marijuana

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The head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) evaded a congressman’s question on Thursday about whether an immigrant’s prior conviction for simple marijuana possession should be grounds for family separation.

During a hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) asked Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan about DHS policy on immigrant child separation, which the lawmaker said has “shocked the conscience of our nation.”

Raskin said that while DHS has maintained that separations only occur under extreme circumstances, he wanted to understand the breadth of the agency’s enforcement policy as it concerns criminal history.

“Mr. Secretary, does a parent’s prior charge for marijuana possession justify taking his or her child away?” he asked.

McAleenan didn’t directly answer the question and instead argued that such separations are “rare” and that the process is “carefully governed, by policy and by court order.” Criminal history, medical emergencies and abuse or neglect are factors that DHS would consider grounds for separating families, he said.

“This is in the interest of the child,” he said. “It’s carefully governed. It’s overseen by a supervisor and those decisions are made. Criminal history, yes, is a factor if there’s an extraditable warrant or prosecution for another offense.”

The congressman repeated his question, asking specifically whether a cannabis possession charge “justifies taking children away from their parents.”

“It depends on the totality of the individual case,” McAleenan said.

“If there were nothing else, if there were no other factors,” Raskin interjected.

The secretary declined to answer directly and said he’d “have to look at the kind of case in reference.”

Lawmakers have increasingly focused on overlap between federal marijuana and immigration policies this Congress. For example, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) filed a bill last month that would prevent immigrants from being deported solely due to a cannabis offense.

After after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo in April stating that immigrants who work in a state-legal marijuana industry can have their naturalization applications denied because the behavior indicates they don’t have “good moral character,” there have been repeated calls to end that practice.

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Photo courtesy of YouTube/House Oversight.

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