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Task Force Doesn’t Recommend Legalizing Marijuana To Biden, Despite Support From Panel Members

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Legalizing marijuana is not among the recommendations made to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by a criminal justice task force his campaign created in partnership with former 2020 primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Advocates had held out hope that the panel would push the former vice president to join the majority of U.S. voters—and a supermajority of Democrats—in backing legal cannabis. But, despite the fact that most individual members of the Biden-Sanders group have previously gone on record in favor of legalization on an individual basis, its report mostly reiterates the candidate’s existing marijuana position while adding a few specifics.

“Decriminalize marijuana use and legalize marijuana for medical purposes at the federal level. Allow states to make their own decisions about legalizing recreational use. Automatically expunge all past marijuana convictions for use and possession,” the document, released on Wednesday, says.

“Lift budget rider blocking D.C. from taxing and regulating legal marijuana and remove marijuana use from the list of deportable offenses,” it continues. “Encourage states to invest tax revenue from legal marijuana industries to repair damage to Black and brown communities hit hardest by incarceration.”

The 110-page document also says that “Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level.”

“We will support legalization of medical marijuana, and believe states should be able to make their own decisions about recreational use,” it says. “The Justice Department should not launch federal prosecutions of conduct that is legal at the state level. All past criminal convictions for cannabis use should be automatically expunged.”

Legalizing marijuana had reportedly been a topic of discussion and contention for the criminal justice panel, and some members have spoken publicly about their desire for Biden to further evolve his cannabis position since the task force was convened.

“We didn’t reach consensus on legalization. That conversation will have to continue. But we did agree on some important new aspects of marijuana policy for the vice president’s agenda,” Chiraag Bains, a former federal prosecutor who was a member of the criminal justice task force, told Marijuana Moment. “We agreed on lifting the D.C. budget rider to allow the District to regulate and tax marijuana, removing marijuana from the list of deportable offenses and pushing states to invest revenue from the marijuana industry to repair damage to the Black and brown communities that have been most harmed by over-policing and over-incarceration.”

“That last piece is incredibly important,” said Bains, who severs as director of legal strategies for Demos. “These policies will help build racial justice, reduce harm and repair generational damage caused by the racist War on Drugs.”

To that end, the task force document also speaks to broader drug policy issues beyond cannabis.

“It is past time to end the failed ‘War on Drugs,’ which has imprisoned millions of Americans— disproportionately people of color—and hasn’t been effective in reducing drug use,” it says. “Democrats support policies that will reorient our public safety approach toward prevention, and away from over-policing—including by making evidence-based investments in jobs, housing, education, and the arts that will make our nation fairer, freer, and more prosperous.”

While Biden’s campaign put representatives onto the task force and presumably exerted considerable influence on the scope of its report, the document doesn’t necessarily represent new positions supported by the candidate himself; rather, it constitutes recommendations to him and to the Democratic National Committee to consider when drafting its 2020 party platform.

“For the millions of Americans facing hardship due to President Trump’s failed coronavirus response, this election offers the chance to usher in a stronger, fairer economy that works for our working families,” Biden said in a press release. “I commend the Task Forces for their service and helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country. And I am deeply grateful to Senator Sanders for working together to unite our party, and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come.”

In addition to Bains, other members of the criminal justice panel included former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Tennessee Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D), South Carolina Rep. Justin Bamberg (D), Linn County, Iowa Supervisor Stacey Walker (D) and Biden campaign spokesperson Symone Sanders. Separate task forces created by Biden and Sanders focused on issues such as health care, immigration and climate change.

The group called on Biden to “support diversion programs” and “reduce criminal penalties for drug possession and support increased use of drug courts and treatment diversion programs instead of incarceration for those struggling with substance use disorders.”

“The misguided and racist federal war on drugs and the systematic criminalization of poverty means that one in three Black men—and one in six Latino men—will spend time in jail or prison at some point in their lives, reducing their lifetime earnings and making it harder to get a job upon release and build family and community resources,” the recommendation document says.

“Substance use disorders are diseases, not a crimes [sic]. Democrats believe no one should be in prison solely because they use drugs,” it continues. “And rather than involving the criminal justice system, Democrats support increased use of drug courts, harm reduction interventions, and treatment diversion programs for those struggling with substance use disorders.”

Despite the modest reforms included in the document, legalization advocates are not pleased with the end result of the panel’s recommendations.

“It is impractical at best and disingenuous at worst for the Biden campaign to move ahead with these policy proposals,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said. “Rescheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act would continue to make the federal government the primary dictators of cannabis policy, and would do little if anything to address its criminal status under federal law.”

“Rescheduling marijuana is intellectually dishonest,” he added. “Just as cannabis does not meet the strict criteria of a Schedule I controlled substance, it similarly does not meet the specific criteria that define substances categorized in schedules II through V.”

In February, Biden appeared to mistakenly say marijuana is “at the point where it has to be basically legalized” before correcting himself and insisting that further research be done before he commits to actually supporting policy change beyond the modest reforms such as decriminalization and federal rescheduling he had already backed.

The task force document also touches specifically on the opioid crisis at length:

“The opioid epidemic has devastated American communities, and the Trump Administration has completely failed in its response, leaving millions of families desperate for help. Democrats will make medication-assisted treatment available to all who need it, and will require publicly supported health clinics to offer medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. Democrats recognize that incarcerated people suffer from serious mental health and substance use disorders at higher rates than the general population, which is why we will support expanded access to mental health care in prisons and for returning citizens. We will ensure no one is incarcerated solely for drug use, and support increased use of drug courts, harm reduction interventions, and treatment diversion programs for those struggling with substance use disorders.”

“End the Opioid Epidemic: The opioid epidemic remains a national epidemic, devastating rural communities. The Task Force believes we must end the epidemic by holding pharmaceutical corporations accountable, increasing access to medication-assisted therapy across rural, urban, and suburban communities, improving medical and behavioral supports for incarcerated people and better assisting their re-entry into communities, increasing access to life-saving treatments, investing in harm reduction strategies, and fully funding research on current and future interventions.”

Sanders, who during his own campaign had pledged to legalize marijuana nationwide by executive action on his first day in office, said that the report fell short of what he would have recommended but still represents progress.

“Though the end result isn’t what I or my supporters would’ve written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country,” he tweeted.

In an interview in April, Sanders declined to list legalizing marijuana among the issues he thought the task force could bring Biden around to supporting.

Democrats’ 2016 platform endorsed rescheduling cannabis, allowing states to set their own laws and “providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization.”

“We support policies that will allow more research on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty,” is said.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s reelection campaign is working to highlight Biden’s long record of supporting harsh drug penalties during his time as a senator and is seeking to position the incumbent as the criminal justice reform candidate.

While Trump has signed modest criminal justice reform legislation and granted clemency to a small number of individuals incarcerated on drug charges, he has also has voiced support for using the death penalty against people who sell drugs and has urged police to be rough with suspects.

When it comes to marijuana, he personally opposes legalization but has said that states should be able to set their own cannabis laws without federal interference and has voiced support for pending legislation to exempt state-legal activity from the Controlled Substances Act.

But his administration has also taken a number of hostile actions when it comes to cannabis.

Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, rescinded Obama-era guidance known as the Cole memo. Under that directive, federal prosecutors were advised not to pursue action against people for state-legal cannabis-related activity, except under a limited set of circumstances.

The president has on several occasions released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore a long-standing rider that blocks the Department of Justice from interfering with state-legal medical cannabis programs, and he has asked Congress to end the medical marijuana protections as part of his own budget proposals—something the Obama administration also previously did to no avail.

Despite his pledged support for medical cannabis and states’ rights, Trump apparently holds negative views toward marijuana consumption, as evidenced by a leaked 2018 recording in which he said that using cannabis makes people “lose IQ points.”

The Trump administration has also used marijuana as a way to punish immigrants. In 2019, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo stating that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related activities such as working for a dispensary—even in states where marijuana is legal—is an immoral offense that makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship. That same year the Justice Department issued a notice that it was seeking to make certain cannabis offenses, including misdemeanor possession, grounds to deny asylum to migrants.

Most Republican voters join the vast majority of Democrats in supporting legalizing marijuana, according to Gallup.

Some observers have suspected that Trump could issue a surprise endorsement of cannabis legalization as Election Day approaches as a way to outflank Biden and undermine Democrats’ support from young people in particular. If the president has in fact been considering such a move, the Biden-Sanders task force’s refusal to even recommend legalizing marijuana to the presumptive Democratic nominee presents perhaps his greatest opening on the issue yet.

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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 20-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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DEA’s Hemp Rule On THC Content Misinterprets Congressional Intent, Senators Say

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A pair of senators representing Oregon sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Thursday to demand changes to the agency’s proposed hemp regulations.

This is the second congressional request DEA has received on the subject this week, with a group of nine House members similarly imploring a revision of a rule concerning hemp extractions on Tuesday.

DEA released an interim final rule (IFR) for the crop in August, and it said the regulations were simply meant to comply with the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives. But stakeholders and advocates have expressed serious concerns about certain proposals, arguing that they could put processors at risk of violating federal law and hamper the industry’s growth.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said in the new letter that despite DEA’s claim that its IFR is only about compliance, the proposal “does significantly more.”

“The IFR treats hemp as a Schedule I controlled substance at any point its THC content exceeds 0.3% THC,” they said. “However, when Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, we understood that intermediate stages of hemp processing can cause hemp extracts to temporarily exceed 0.3% THC, which is why we defined hemp based on its delta-9 THC level.”

“In effect, the IFR criminalizes the intermediate steps of hemp processing, which is wholly inconsistent with Congress’s clearly stated purpose and the text of the 2018 Farm Bill,” the letter states.

In other words, while Congress intended to legalize hemp extracts, businesses that produce the materials could find themselves inadvertently breaking the law and be subject to enforcement action if THC levels temporarily increase beyond 0.3 percent.

A public comment period on DEA’s proposed rules closed on Tuesday. It saw more than 3,300 submissions, many of which focused on issues with the “work in progress” hemp THC issue.

Another issue identified by more than 1,000 commenters concerns delta-8 THC. The most widely known cannabinoid is delta-9 THC, the main component responsible for creating an intoxicating effect, but delta-8 THC from hemp is also psychoactive and is an object of growing interest within the market.

Because DEA’s proposed regulations state that all “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain schedule I controlled substances,” some feel that would directly impact the burgeoning cannabinoid, as its converted from CBD through the use of a catalyst—and that could be interpreted as a synthetic production process.

In any case, it’s not clear whether DEA deliberately crafted either of these rules with the intent of criminalizing certain hemp producers—but stakeholders and advocates aren’t taking any chances.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which also closed this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Read the letter from Wyden and Merkley on DEA’s hemp proposal below:

Wyden and Merkley letter on… by Marijuana Moment

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USDA Releases, Then Rescinds, Hemp Loan Notice Following Congressional Action

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released—and then promptly rescinded—a notice on providing federal loans for hemp processors.

After the crop was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA announced that regulations were being developed to offer direct and guaranteed loans to the industry. The federal agency unveiled those guidelines in April and then issued a new notice this month notifying applicants about the policy change ahead of the planned expiration of the earlier 2014 hemp pilot program.

The next day, however, it posted an “obsoleting notice” invalidating the prior document.

The new guidance “was developed with the understanding that operators would no longer be authorized to produce hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill Pilot Program,” USDA said. However, because Congress approved a continuing resolution that extends the program until September 30, 2021, the loan policies are not currently applicable.

That pilot program extension came at the behest of numerous stakeholders, advocates and lawmakers who have been pushing USDA to make a series of changes to its proposed hemp regulations. As those rules are being reviewed and finalized, they said it was necessary to keep the 2014 program in place.

The president signed the continuing resolution late last month, so it’s not clear why the notice on loan policy changes was released weeks later, which then necessitated a follow-up recision. But in any case, it’s another example of the fluidity and challenges of rulemaking for the non-intoxicating cannabis crop following its legalization.

It stands to reason that the loan processes outlined in the now-invalid notice will likely be consistent with what’s ultimately released next year, assuming the pilot program does expire then.

The primary rule change concerns licensing requirements for borrowers. After the 2014 regulations are no longer in effect, hemp loan applicants must be licensed under a USDA-approved state or tribal hemp program, or under the agency’s basic regulations if the jurisdiction the business operates in has not submitted its own rules.

Borrowers who are not licensed to grow hemp will be considered in non-monetary default and any losses will not be covered. For direct and guaranteed loans, hemp businesses must have a contract with USDA’s Farm Service Agency laying out termination policies and their ability to repay the loans.

As of this month, USDA has approved a total of 69 state and tribal hemp regulatory proposals—mostly recently for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Illinois and Oklahoma were among a group of states that USDA had asked to revise and resubmit their initial proposals in August.

While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.

USDA closed an extended public comment period on its proposed hemp regulations earlier this month. Its initial round saw more than 4,600 submissions, but it said last month that it was reopening the feedback period in response to intense pushback from stakeholders on its original proposal.

The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) said last month that the new 30-day comment window is too short and asked USDA to push it back, and it also issued a series of recommended changes to the interim final rule on hemp, which it says threaten to “stifle” the industry and benefit big firms over smaller companies.

All told, it appears that USDA is taking seriously the feedback it’s received and may be willing to make certain accommodations on these particular policies. The department’s rule for hemp is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.

In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote to Perdue in August, asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 pilot program in the meantime.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) also called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.

The senators weren’t alone in requesting an extension of the 2014 pilot program that was ultimately enacted legislatively, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA in August.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.

While USDA previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, that decision was reversed last month. While the department initially said it would not even reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.

Meanwhile, USDA announced last week that it is planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the industry.

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New York Will Legalize Marijuana ‘Soon’ To Aid Economic Recovery From COVID, Governor Cuomo Says

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently said that legalizing marijuana represents a key way the state can recover economically from the coronavirus pandemic.

During a virtual event last week to promote his new book on the state’s COVID-19 response, the governor was asked when New York will legalize cannabis for adult use.

“Soon, because now we need the money,” he said, according to a recording that was obtained by USA Today Network. “I’ve tried to get it done the last couple years.”

“There are a lot of reasons to get it done, but one of the benefits is it also brings in revenue, and all states—but especially this state—we need revenue and we’re going to be searching the cupboards for revenue,” he said in remarks that will be released in full in a podcast in the coming weeks by Sixth & I, which hosted the event. “And I think that is going to put marijuana over the top.”

Cuomo has included legalization in his last two budget proposals, but negotiations between his office and the legislature fell through both times, with sticking points such as how cannabis tax revenue will be allocated preventing a deal from being reached.

A top adviser of his said earlier this month that the plan is to try again to legalize cannabis in New York in early 2021.

“We’re working on this. We’re going to reintroduce this in our budget in January,” he said. “We think we can get it done by April 1.”

Cuomo was similarly asked about legalization as a means to offset the budget deficit caused by the pandemic in May.

While he said it’s the federal government’s “obligation as part of managing this national pandemic that they provide financial relief to state and local governments,” he added that “I support legalization of marijuana passage. I’ve worked very hard to pass it.”

“I believe we will, but we didn’t get it done this last session because it’s a complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way,” he said.

The governors of New Jersey, New Mexico and Pennsylvania have also made the case that implementing a regulated marijuana program can help their states financially recover from the health crisis.

Cuomo indicated in April that he thought the legislative session was “effectively over” for the year and raised doubts that lawmakers could pass cannabis reform vote remotely via video conferencing amid social distancing measures.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) made similar comments when asked about the policy in April, though she seemed to signal that she laid partial blame for the failure to enact reform on the governor prioritizing other issues during the pandemic.

In June, a senator said the legislature should include cannabis legalization in a criminal justice reform package, making the case that the policy change is a necessary step especially amid debates over policing reform. That didn’t come to pass, however.

The New York State Association of Counties said in a report released last month that legalizing marijuana for adult use “will provide the state and counties with resources for public health education and technical assistance” to combat the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the state Senate has approved several modest marijuana reform bills in recent months.

The chamber passed a bill in July that broadens the pool of people eligible to have their low-level marijuana convictions automatically expunged. That was preceded by a Senate vote in favor of legislation to prevent tenants from being evicted solely because of their legal use of medical marijuana.

Thanks to a bill expanding cannabis decriminalization in the state that the governor signed last year, the New York State Unified Court System made an announcement last month outlining steps that people can take to clear their records for prior marijuana convictions.

Locally, a local law enacted in New York City this summer bans pre-employment drug testing for marijuana for most positions. It was finalized in July following regulators’ approval of certain exemptions.

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