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.
I very much appreciate Senator @ChuckGrassley's leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He chaired the committee with a steady hand, sense of fundamental fairness, and resolve.
His leadership serves as a model to us all.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) November 16, 2018
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.
Photo courtesy of John Pemble.
Trump’s New White House Chief Of Staff Supports Marijuana Reform
President Trump announced on Friday that Mick Mulvaney will serve as his acting White House chief of staff, a move that could bode extremely well for federal marijuana reform efforts in 2019.
….I look forward to working with him in this new capacity as we continue to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! John will be staying until the end of the year. He is a GREAT PATRIOT and I want to personally thank him for his service!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 14, 2018
Mulvaney, who currently serves as director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was previously a member of the U.S. House, where he consistently voted to support marijuana reform amendments and cosponsored cannabis bills.
In 2015, for example, he voted for a floor amendment that would have barred the Justice Department from spending money to interfere with state marijuana laws. The proposal, which came just nine flipped votes short of passage, would have expanded on existing protections for state medical cannabis programs by covering recreational laws as well.
Mulvaney backed a 2014 amendment to prevent the Treasury Department from punishing banks that work with marijuana businesses.
He also signed his name on as a cosponsor of several pieces of standalone marijuana legislation, including a comprehensive bill to reschedule cannabis and protect state medical-use laws, a measure to allow banking access for marijuana businesses, a hemp legalization bill and two separate CBD proposals.
“Mulvaney’s history of opposing wasteful government spending and support for states’ rights, specifically when it comes to marijuana, makes him our strongest ally in the White House,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment.
Pointing to how the Office of Management and Budget under Mulvaney on several occasions has floated severe funding cuts for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, commonly known as the drug czar’s office, Murphy said that the new acting chief of staff “delivers our ‘more liberty/less spending’ position directly into the Oval Office on a daily basis, where it could bring the federal war on marijuana to an end by 2020.”
It is unclear how long Mulvaney will serve as acting chief of staff, or how frequently marijuana issues will come across his desk, but the fact that he—and not an ardent legalization opponent like Chris Christie, who was also under consideration for the job—will sit a door away from the Oval Office is likely to be seen as a positive development for cannabis reform supporters.
In his new capacity, Mulvaney will be party to conversations about which congressional legislation the president should back as well as discussions about potential marijuana enforcement policy changes at the Department of Justice under a new attorney general.
This story has been updated to include comment from MPP.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
New York Governor Will Outline Plan To Legalize Marijuana On Monday
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) will lay out his agenda for the upcoming legislative session in a speech on Monday, and that will include details on his plan to get an adult-use marijuana legalization bill through the state legislature in 2019.
In an interview with radio station 1010 WINS on Friday, the governor confirmed that a proposal to end cannabis prohibition would be one of 15 pieces of legislation he’ll discuss in the speech. He said the current “political atmosphere” is “unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” and the timing is ripe to promote a bold agenda.
Listen to Cuomo confirm plans to reveal marijuana legalization details on Monday, about 5:00 into the clip below:
(In the exchange, the host mistakenly asks about “medical” marijuana, which is already legal in New York.)
In a separate interview on WCNY’s Capitol Pressroom, Cuomo said the Monday speech “is going to get to the meat of the specific legislative issues. This is not going to be a lot of rhetoric and retrospective.”
“We have an incoming [Democratic majority] legislature and I wanted to say, ‘these are the 15 things I’m trying to get done this year, and these are the 15 bills you’re going to see.'”
While reforming marijuana laws hasn’t always been a top priority for the governor, who as recently as a year ago called cannabis a “gateway drug,” 2018 has seen Cuomo’s position on the issue evolve dramatically. In August, he formed a working group to draft a legalization bill after the state Department of Health released a report finding that the benefits of legal cannabis outweigh the consequences.
Cuomo is also rumored to be considering putting cannabis legalization in his 2019 budget, which is set to come out next month. If he did so, New York could have a “fiscal framework for the program” by April, according to Crain’s.
It remains to be seen whether Cuomo will talk about a proposal to use revenue from legal marijuana sales to improve New York City’s subway system—a notion that’s put some lawmakers and advocates at odds—or if he will address details such as cannabis businesses licensing structures or whether he believes home cultivation should be allowed.
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Missouri Lawmaker Moves To Block Feds From Getting Medical Marijuana Patient Info
Missouri officials would be prohibited from sharing information about registered medical marijuana patients with the federal government under a new bill pre-filed by a state lawmaker on Thursday.
Voters in the state approved one of three competing medical cannabis initiatives during November’s midterm elections. So if the new legislation passes, patients enrolled in the program wouldn’t have to worry about the state outing them to the feds, who still regard cannabis as a strictly controlled illegal substance.
Any state official who did share medical marijuana patient info with a federal agency would be committing a felony under the proposal.
Missouri Rep. Nick Schroer (R) is sponsoring the bill, which states:
“1. Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no state agency shall disclose to the federal government the statewide list of persons who have obtained a medical marijuana card.
2. Any violation of this section is a class E felony.”
Federal prosecution of medical marijuana patients or providers is rare—the Justice Department is barred from using federal dollars to enforce prohibition in medical cannabis states—but not entirely unheard of.
“It’s very, very unlikely that there’s going to be [federal] targeting of individual customers,” Tamar Todd, legal director for the Drug Policy Alliance, told PolitiFact earlier this year. “Many, many other targets would come first.”
Still, Schroer’s bill would at least provide a safeguard in the event that the government radically shifts its drug enforcement policy. And it sends a strong message that state officials want the feds to respect their rights to enact their own marijuana laws without any kind of interference.
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The new Missouri bill is one of several that have been pre-filed for 2019 in states from Nevada to Texas.