With a congressional committee set to hold a first-ever hearing on ending federal marijuana prohibition on Wednesday, debate among legalization advocates over which piece of cannabis reform legislation would be the most effective and politically achievable is intensifying.
A key part of that conversation concerns the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from federal enforcement actions.
Advocates broadly agree that passage of the STATES Act would represent a momentous development in the reform movement, providing protections for many marijuana consumers and businesses in legal states. But questions remain about what specifically the legislation would accomplish and whether it goes far enough.
Moreover, there’s disagreement about whether lawmakers and activists should invest their political capital and efforts into the bill when several others on the table—such as the Marijuana Justice Act (MJA), the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act and others—would make broader changes to federal drug policy and include social equity provisions that are increasingly seen as vital components of any reform agenda.
It’s a complicated situation that will likely spark discussion at Wednesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee. The panel has released few advance details about the meeting’s scope, but its title alone—”Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform”—indicates that the debate will go beyond merely whether to legalize and instead delve into specifics on charting the best path beyond prohibition.
A staffer for the committee said in a press advisory on Tuesday that the hearing “will not focus exclusively on any one aspect of marijuana laws or any particular legislative proposal.” Rather, it “will address the breadth of the issue and inform future legislative efforts.”
“For the first time in recent history, the Judiciary Committee is going to be having a candid conversation about what reform should look like and how federal criminalization impacts the existing tension between state-legal programs and what changes in federal policy will impact and influence future reform efforts made at the state level to end the practice of otherwise law-abiding adults being put into handcuffs or discriminated against and treated like second-class citizens,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
For some advocates, the path to ending prohibition doesn’t lead to the STATES Act. Instead, it leads to more comprehensive reform legislation à la the MJA, a bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) that would not only remove cannabis from the CSA altogether—something STATES doesn’t do—but also provide for record expungements and penalize individual states that carry out cannabis prohibition in a discriminatory manner by withholding certain federal funds.
Booker, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, cosponsored last year’s version of the STATES Act. But he withheld his signature from this latest version, stating that he would no longer consider marijuana reform proposals that don’t address social equity concerns.
The path could also lead to legislation from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), whose Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act would deschedule marijuana and apportion some tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to a grant program aimed at incentivizing participation in the industry by individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition. It would also set aside funding to support the expungement of cannabis convictions.
A less-talked-about bill from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another 2020 presidential contender, would also remove cannabis from the CSA—and with Rep. Don Young (R-AK) as an original sponsor, it’s uniquely bipartisan descheduling legislation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) is also said to be crafting a far-reaching marijuana bill that is expected to include social equity provisions, though details are scarce and advocates expect it will be filed sometime in the wake of this week’s hearing.
The STATES Act, by comparison, is a modest reform proposal that social justice activists have argued is inadequate, especially as momentum builds across the country for wide-ranging measures that place an emphasis on equity.
That momentum was on full display on Tuesday, as 10 leading civil rights and criminal justice reform groups including the ACLU announced that they’d formed a coalition in order to advocate for comprehensive marijuana legislation. Among other things, the Marijuana Justice Coalition said that any reform plan should involve descheduling cannabis, expunging the records of those with past marijuana convictions and investing revenue from legal sales into communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
However, proponents of passing the STATES Act—including Cannabis Trade Federation CEO Neal Levine, who will testify as the minority party’s witness at the Judiciary hearing on Wednesday—aren’t arguing that Congress shouldn’t pursue bills like the MJA. Rather, he says, it’s a matter of timing and political calculus about what kind of reform is achievable and can help stop many ongoing harms of prohibition in the short term.
Levine, who previously served as the director of state campaigns and policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that his organization and its allies have a strategy in place proven to get positive cannabis reform legislation enacted: “We passed as much as we could as fast as we could and we built upon it,” he said, referring to incremental cannabis bills that were passed in states and were later expanded through more far-reaching reforms. “That is our general strategy.”
And for the time being, the bill that stands the best odds of getting enacted into law is the STATES Act, he argues. There’s “not a lot of political will to go far beyond” that bill in the Senate today, and Levine said that if it does pass, it wouldn’t take the wind out of the sails of broader reform legislation—it will add to it.
“What we want to see is the full end of prohibition with full expungements. Period,” Levine said. “If we took a whip count of the U.S. Senate and we found that the Marijuana Justice Act had 60 votes and a credible path, we’d be all in on the Marijuana Justice Act. We want to see prohibition end.”
Levine will make that case on Wednesday. An excerpt of his written testimony that was released on Tuesday reads:
“We have a long way to go with respect to reversing the harms caused by marijuana prohibition and need to begin the process as soon as possible. The question before this Subcommittee and before Congress is whether there is a willingness to advance a bill to the President’s desk that will immediately address nearly all of the issues I have raised. With strong bipartisan support for legislation like the STATES Act, it is possible during the current session of Congress to take major steps toward respecting state cannabis laws, protecting workers, and advancing a more secure, vibrant, and equitable cannabis industry. We hope that Congress will take advantage of the opportunity.”
Other advocates are concerned that with only so much time left on the congressional calendar, and an uncertain Capitol Hill and White House situation going forward after next year’s elections, they may only get one bite at the apple to change federal cannabis laws for the foreseeable future—and the STATES Act isn’t the bite they hope to savor.
The STATES Act is, by most measures, one of the most practical pieces of marijuana reform legislation that stands any chance of being enacted in the 116th Congress. It has a states’ rights focus that has engendered bipartisan support, with notable Republicans signed on as original cosponsors for both the House and Senate versions. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH) are behind the bill, and both can exercise influence in their respective chambers to get it out the gate and onto the president’s desk.
That leads into another significant factor: President Donald Trump has said that he “really” supports the STATES Act. Following conversations with Trump on the issue, Gardner said he was left with the impression that there is “an ally in the president on this” and that he’d be inclined to sign the bipartisan bill.
The Colorado senator’s advocacy for the legislation could also open an essential window for advancement in the Senate, which is overseen by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a vocal proponent of hemp but a staunch opponent to the crop’s “illicit cousin” marijuana. McConnell might be compelled to bring the bill to a floor vote if he’s thinking strategically about how to minimize Gardner’s 2020 reelection risks in Colorado by giving him a win to bring home to voters who want the federal government out of the way of their state’s cannabis laws.
While it is far from certain that McConnell will end up allowing the STATES Act to advance under his watch, it seems much more unlikely that the Senate leader would be willing to give that courtesy to even more wide-ranging legislation focused on social equity.
The STATES Act also received an unexpected tacit endorsement in April: Attorney General William Barr said that while he does not support legalization, he would prefer for the modest reform legislation to pass rather than maintain the status quo of conflicting state and federal laws.
Levine said that getting the STATES Act passed wouldn’t represent the finish line for the reform movement. It would be a critical step forward, to be sure, but not the end game. He’s of the mindset that the bill would be a battle won in the war against prohibition, and it would demonstrate momentum that would bolster efforts to enact further legislation that addresses related issues like social equity.
Strekal said that Wednesday’s historic hearing—and particularly the Republican minority’s choice of Levine as their sole witness—shows “the evolution and the paradigm shift that has been made over just the last few years, where the new floor is the STATES Act and a bipartisan compromise is somewhere between the STATES Act and something along the lines of the Marijuana Justice Act.”
There are some concerns about just how far the STATES Act’s protections would extend, though. Without explicitly descheduling cannabis, the plant would remain a federally controlled substance in any states that haven’t legalized it, potentially resulting in enforcement complications.
Would the legislation offer protections for immigrants seeking citizenship and who work in a state-legal market, which is currently grounds for having naturalization applications rejected under federal immigration policy?
One could argue that it would, as the STATES Act specifies that conduct described in the legislation—including the manufacturing, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration or delivery of marijuana in states where it’s legal—”shall not be unlawful.” But because the federal government would still regard cannabis as illicit under the CSA and the bill doesn’t provide specific protections for immigrants, some question what practical impact, if any, the STATES Act would have.
“The STATES Act will not protect immigrants who work in the legitimate marijuana industry from the current severe immigration penalties,” the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) concluded in a May memo. “These penalties also will apply to their spouses and minor children.”
(See the full ILRC memo on the STATES Act embedded below.)
“In contrast, bills that remove marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance will protect against all the above consequences,” ILRC wrote. “They will remove severe immigration penalties from employees of the legitimate marijuana industry and their families. They will remove those penalties from people who use marijuana in accord with, or in violation of, state law.”
Without specific language addressing the immigration issue, it’s within reason to assume that it may be a matter taken up in court. And considering the difficulties that many immigrants face in securing effective legal representation, there are worries that the STATES Act alone wouldn’t be enough to protect them.
By contrast, CTF’s Steve Fox argued in a call-to-action email in April that the existing language and the protections if offers generally to those working in the state-legal cannabis market demonstrates that lawmakers can “help remedy this problem by passing the STATES Act.”
“We are upset by the suggestion that hard-working cannabis industry employees lack good moral character simply for working in our industry,” Fox wrote in the message urging supporters to contact lawmakers about the STATES Act. “It is even worse that some employees may be denied citizenship for this work.”
Separately, some have raised questions about what the STATES Act would do to resolve banking issues in the cannabis industry.
The bill does note that “proceeds from any transaction in compliance with this Act and the amendments made by this Act shall not be deemed to be the proceeds of an unlawful transaction,” but there are still questions about how it would impact banks that operate in multiple states and transfer cash between branches, including those situated in jurisdictions that still prohibit marijuana.
It’s possible that some of these potential limitations will be discussed at Wednesday’s hearing. But don’t expect the STATES Act to be the only object of legislative interest. Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that all signs point toward a conversation centered on social equity and racial justice—something that the STATES Act doesn’t address.
“I get that impression from the hearing, the way it’s structured, the witnesses they’ve called,” Collins said. “[Democratic] leadership in the House is not open to moving the STATES Act, otherwise the hearing would be different and the witnesses would be different. Some Republicans are open to STATES Act in the House, but it doesn’t have a path” in the Senate.
Levine said he sees the fate of the STATES Act in the Senate differently. The path might be precarious, but it’s achievable, he said.
While the two advocacy camps hold differing views on the best next step toward advancing cannabis reform, one possibility would be to try a dual approach, pushing the STATES Act to a vote in the Senate while the House weighs a broader bill like the MJA. Such activity could open dialogue between the chambers about potential compromises, or at least push social equity provisions closer to the forefront of the conversation.
Collins said that, in his view, “there’s recognition that we can do better than STATES” among Democrats. And if there’s not a clear path for the legislation to get passed and on the president’s desk, it’s in the party’s interest to take up bills that do include provisions focusing on social and racial justice—that do more than protect business interests in legal states and also acknowledge and seek to repair the damages of the war on drugs.
(Full disclosure: CTF, DPA and NORML, or their staffers, have all sponsored or supported Marijuana Moment through Patreon pledges.)
Read the full ILRC memo on marijuana bills and immigration below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
House Democrats Keep Marijuana Banking Protections In Revised COVID Bill After Delaying Legalization Vote
A slimmed-down coronavirus relief bill that House Democrats released on Monday again includes marijuana banking protections.
Despite pushback from GOP lawmakers who challenged the germaneness of including the cannabis language in a prior version that the House approved in May, the text of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was again inserted into the new legislation. It could get a floor vote as early as this week—and that would mark the third time the chamber has taken up the banking measure in some form in the past year.
The SAFE Banking Act would protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, and on its own has significant bipartisan support. But its inclusion in the COVID-19 relief legislation was widely criticized by Republicans who insisted that it was part of an expansive Democratic wishlist of items not related to the health crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been particularly critical of the House proposal, specifically taking issue with industry diversity reporting provisions of the SAFE Banking Act, for example. Other vocal opponents include Vice President Mike Pence and Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and John Kennedy (R-LA).
The Senate did not add cannabis banking language to its own version of COVID relief legislation filed in July.
“We appreciate that Democratic leadership is standing firmly behind the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act, despite some Republicans in Congress preferring to treat this public safety issue like some kind of comic relief,” Steve Fox, president of VS Strategies, told Marijuana Moment. “Far from being non-germane, the pandemic has only underscored the importance of this legislation.”
“At a time when businesses all across the country are relying on electronic transactions to protect public health, cannabis businesses are being forced to exchange currency. This bill is timely and necessary,” he said.
A summary of the banking provision prepared by House leaders states that it would “allow cannabis-related legitimate businesses, that in many states have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential services, along with their service providers, to access banking services and products, as well as insurance.”
Notably, the document highlights the diversity reporting language that some Republicans have slammed, signaling that Democrats are not shying away from those components despite the criticism. It explains that the legislation “requires reports to Congress on access to financial services and barriers to marketplace entry for potential and existing minority-owned cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
Advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers have argued that providing marijuana banking protections will mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by making it so cannabis businesses don’t have to rely on cash transactions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she agrees that the measure is an appropriate component of the bill.
“The inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES 2.0 package is a positive development,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “In the majority of states that regulate the marijuana marketplace, cannabis businesses have been deemed essential during this pandemic.”
“Unfortunately, at the federal level, prohibition compounds the problems that this emerging industry faces,” he said. “Small cannabis businesses in particular are facing tough economic times and access to traditional financial tools will help ensure that they can weather this pandemic.”
While the incremental reform measure would help alleviate financial complications in the cannabis market, news that House Democrats opted to stick to their guns on the industry-focused marijuana banking legislation could frustrate advocates who were disappointed when the chamber’s leadership decided to postpone a planned vote on a comprehensive cannabis legalization and social equity bill earlier this month.
The banking provisions are generally considered industry friendly without addressing the systemic problems resulting from the war on drugs. In the past, some activists have made the case that lawmakers should’t approve the SAFE Banking Act until marijuana is descheduled and restorative justice policies are implemented.
The House was expected to hold a floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act to federally legalize cannabis last week, but leaders announced they were delaying it after certain centrist Democrats expressed concern about the optics of advancing marijuana reform legislation without first passing additional COVID relief.
All that said, others do view the banking protections as a boon for social equity in that they would help minority-owned cannabis businesses that currently struggle to get access to capital and financial services.
“Without access to much needed capital to maintain throughout the crisis, it is possible that we could see an acceleration of the corporatization of the cannabis industry in a manner that is inconsistent with the values and desires of many within the cannabis space,” Strekal said. “Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would ensure that small businesses could compete in this emerging marketplace.”
In July, bipartisan treasurers from 15 states and one territory sent a letter to congressional leadership, urging the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any COVID-19 legislation that’s sent to the president’s desk. Following GOP attacks on the House proposal, a group of Democratic state treasurers renewed that call.
The House last year approved the standalone SAFE Banking Act. For months, the legislation has gone without action in the Senate Banking Committee, where negotiations have been ongoing.
Where President Trump Stands On Marijuana
With the 2020 presidential election underway, people interested in legalizing marijuana and ending the war on drugs may find themselves wondering which candidate will do more to advance their causes: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden or incumbent President Donald Trump.
While Trump has not pursued a full-scale crackdown of state-legal cannabis programs and has voiced tentative support for modest reform legislation, his administration has made a number of hostile anti-marijuana actions—from rescinding Obama-era guidance on cannabis prosecutions to implementing policies making immigrants ineligible for citizenship if they consume marijuana or work in the cannabis industry.
Put simply, the president is a drug policy enigma. His past comments on drug policy, attitude toward state-level legalization efforts and administrative actions as president offer a dizzying portrait of a person who once said all drugs should be legal but who also appointed a vociferous anti-cannabis attorney general as one of his first acts in the White House.
Over the course of his first term in office, reform advocates have struggled to peg the president. On the one hand, he has not launched an all-out offensive on state-legal cannabis businesses and, in fact, said it was his administration’s policy that they could continue to operate unencumbered by the federal government despite prohibition remaining on the books. Trump also signed a bill federally legalizing hemp following decades of its prohibition. On the other hand, he’s declined to use his power to enact changes to legitimize the industry and has appointed several officials who hold hostile views toward reform.
In any case, the Trump reelection campaign has made clear it wants to depict the president as the criminal justice reform candidate, repeatedly attacking Biden over his record as an “architect” of punitive drug laws during his decades in the Senate, for example.
To help sort out where Trump stands on marijuana and drug policy in general, here’s an overview of policy actions his administration has taken and remarks he’s made both before and during his presidency.
Policy Actions And Comments As President
Support for states’ rights.
In 2018, the president gave advocates reason to celebrate. Asked whether he supports a bipartisan bill filed by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), which would allow states to set their own marijuana policies, Trump said “I really do.”
“I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re looking at it,” he said, referring to Gardner. “But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”
He reiterated his support for a states’ rights approach to marijuana in August 2019, saying it’s “a very big subject and right now we are allowing states to make that decision. A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.”
Gardner, who held up Justice Department nominations in protest of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s move in order to generate a cannabis commitment from the president, told Marijuana Moment in an interview that Trump typically makes “very supportive” comments about cannabis reform when they’ve talked.
“It’s all been positive. And I think we’re seeing that,” he said. “Had they wanted to do something, they’d do what Jeff Sessions did and mess around with that and they haven’t.”
Current Attorney General William Barr has said that he’s not interested in upsetting “settled expectations” as it concerns policies in place while the Cole memo was still effective.
“However, I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law,” he said during a hearing last year, later adding that he would prefer that Congress pass legislation codifying protections for states that have legalized cannabis rather than maintain the status quo of conflicting state and federal policies.
To date, no large-scale marijuana raids against licensed businesses in legal states have taken place under the Trump administration.
Trump’s personal opinion on cannabis consumption and drug policy reform is a mixed bag.
Despite his pledged support for states’ rights to legalize, Trump evidently holds some negative views toward cannabis consumption, as evidenced in a recording from 2018 that was leaked two years later. In that recording, the president said that using marijuana makes people “lose IQ points.”
In August 2020, Trump weighed in on Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) prior comments on marijuana shortly after she was announced as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. While the president declined to explicitly discuss the senator’s cannabis policy positions, he said “she lied” and “said things that were untrue” when presented with details about an interview she gave last year in which she discussed smoking marijuana in college.
He also urged Republicans not to place marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots out of concern that it could increase Democratic turnout in elections. A Republican strategist told The Daily Beast that, as far as Trump is concerned, the “pot issue is one of many that he thinks could be a danger.”
“He once told me it would be very ‘smart’ for the Democrat[ic] Party to get as many of these on the ballot as they could,” the source said.
In February 2020, the president applauded countries that impose the death penalty for people who sell drugs—a point he has repeatedly made. “I don’t know that our country is ready for that,” Trump said in the more recent comment, “but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty—death penalty—with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem.”
That said, the president in 2019 seemed to acknowledge the failure of policies prohibiting drugs during a meeting on vaping, stating that banned products are “going to come here illegally” even if they’re prohibited.
Curiously, Trump proposed mandating that he and Biden take drug tests prior to participating in general election debates.
I will be strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night. Naturally, I will agree to take one also. His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly. Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2020
Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 28, 2020
The president signed “right to try” legislation in 2018 that allows terminal patients to access drugs that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but have cleared a phase one trial—a move that some advocates say could let a limited number of people use marijuana, psilocybin and MDMA for therapeutic reasons.
Administrative marijuana and drug policy actions.
One of the administration’s most widely publicized actions—and one that caused acute panic among marijuana advocates and stakeholders—happened in January 2018, when Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole memo. Under that policy, federal prosecutors were advised to generally not pursue action against individuals for state-legal cannabis-related activity, except under a limited set of circumstances.
Its revocation worried many that a federal crackdown was looming, especially with longtime prohibitionist Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department. However, that fear was not realized—and according to Gardner, Trump personally opposed the move and said “we need undo this.”
“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” Trump reportedly said, referencing Sessions’s rhetoric when rescinding the policy.
The Justice Department recently asked a federal court to force California marijuana regulators to disclose documents about certain licensed cannabis businesses, and a federal court ruled that they must comply.
Another controversial administrative action concerns immigrants and marijuana. In April 2019, 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 it’s legal—makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship because it means they don’t have “good moral character.”
In December 2019, the Justice Department issued a notice that it was seeking to make certain marijuana offenses, including misdemeanor possession, grounds to deny asylum to migrants.
That month, officials with Trump’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also testified against several pieces of legislation that would increase access to medical cannabis for service members and also require the department to conduct clinical research into the therapeutic benefits of marijuana for conditions that commonly afflict veterans.
Using funds provided by a salary donation from Trump, the Surgeon General issued and publicized a warning in August 2019, cautioning against marijuana use by adolescents and pregnant women. The notice also suggested that the state-level cannabis legalization movement was enticing young people to consume marijuana by normalizing the plant.
BuzzFeed News reported in 2018 that the Trump administration created a secret committee that requested agencies across the federal government submit memos on how to combat public support for cannabis reform.
Trump’s Justice Department in 2019 sided with a Mississippi student who filed a lawsuit against his school after he was allegedly prevented from talking about the issue earlier this year, arguing that the First Amendment protects students who discuss legalization and that restrictive policies prohibiting such free expression at public schools are unconstitutional.
The Internal Revenue Service in September 2020 released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.
Administration’s hemp regulatory actions following Trump signing legalization into law.
One of the most significant cannabis developments to occur under the Trump administration was the federal legalization of hemp that was accomplished when he signed the 2018 Farm Bill—unleashing a massive market for a crop that had been prohibited for more than 80 years as a federally controlled substance. The move elicited bipartisan praise, and Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture has put significant resources into implementing the reform.
That said, advocates, lawmakers and industry stakeholders have raised several concerns about proposed rules for hemp such as requiring that the crop be tested for THC contents by only Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-certified labs.
DEA also released proposed rules for hemp and CBD in August 2020 to put the federal agency officially in compliance with the 2018 Farm Bill. However, some industry players suspect that the agency is really setting the stage to crack down on the newly legal market.
In September 2020, USDA announced that hemp farmers could qualify for coronavirus relief loans, reversing an earlier decision to exclude the crop based on price decline data amid the pandemic.
Also in 2020, the department made hemp farmers eligible for relief programs if they’ve experienced damage or losses due to a natural disaster.
White House officials met with several hemp industry groups in the summer of 2020 to discuss pending FDA guidance on enforcement policies for CBD products.
Speaking of FDA, the agency has similarly been in the process of developing regulations for CBD to be marketed as a food item or dietary supplement. In the meantime, it has used enforcement discretion to keep the market in check.
The agency has continued to issue warnings to cannabis businesses in certain cases—such as instances in which companies claimed CBD could treat or cure coronavirus—and provide public notices about recalls.
FDA also recently closed a comment period on separate draft guidance on developing cannabis-derived medications.
Cannabis and the Trump budget.
While Trump has spoken out in favor of medical cannabis legalization, on several occasions he has released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore a long-standing rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs.
He also proposed deleting the rider altogether in multiple annual budget proposals to Congress, though Obama did the same thing when he was in office.
In 2019, the White House released a budget request that proposed slightly scaling back restrictive language that has prevented Washington, D.C. from spending its own tax dollars to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana.
Under several budget proposals, the administration has called for significant cuts to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a central agency when it comes to setting federal drug policy and upholding prohibition.
Trump administration personnel and cannabis.
A top spokesperson for Trump’s reelection campaign raised eyebrows in February 2020 when he said that the administration’s policy is that currently illicit drugs, including cannabis, “need to be kept illegal.”
During a press briefing in July 2018, then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the newly elected Mexican president’s suggestion that legalizing and regulating drugs could curtail cartels. She said the administration didn’t have any policy announcements to that end; however, “I can say that we would not support the legalization of all drugs anywhere and certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that would allow more drugs to come into this country.”
The president also named then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), as his chief of staff in March 2020. As a member of Congress, Meadows consistently voted against marijuana reform amendments and was one of only a handful of lawmakers who cheered Sessions’s move to rescind the Obama-era cannabis guidance.
Trump’s stance on cannabis legalization became the jumping off point for a spat between a top White House aide, Republican operatives and a reporter in June after Meadows laughed off a question about the prospects of broad marijuana reform advancing before the election in November.
In April 2020, Trump hired a new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who has a long record of speaking out against legalization.
Barr, the current attorney general, allegedly directed the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to carry out investigations into 10 marijuana mergers out of personal animus for the industry. A whistleblower who testified before a key House committee claimed the investigations were unnecessary and wasted departmental resources. But the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division later argued that the investigations were actually “consistent with protecting consumers’ access to cannabis products, not with animosity toward the industry.”
During a speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention at which Trump was renominated for a second term, the granddaughter of Evangelical preacher Billy Graham took issue with Democratic governors who designated cannabis dispensaries as essential services amid the coronavirus pandemic while imposing restrictions on churches. In a separate convention speech, an advisory board member for Trump’s reelection campaign claimed that Democrats’ push for universal health care is really about ensuring a right to cannabis access.
Meanwhile, the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC), who was recommended for the position by Trump, dodged a question about where the party stands on medical marijuana and stressed that the issue should be addressed at the state level.
After House leadership announced in August 2020 that the chamber would be voting on a bill to federally legalize marijuana, the director of press communications for the president’s reelection campaign tweeted, “House Dems—more worried about pot dealers than providing relief for the American people.” (That vote was ultimately postponed.)
House Dems — more worried about pot dealers than providing relief for the American people. https://t.co/wJAGDJuaCs
— Erin Perrine (@ErinMPerrine) August 31, 2020
It might come as a surprise, but 30 years ago, Trump argued in favor of legalizing all drugs.
“We’re losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars,” he said. “What I’d like to do maybe by bringing it up is cause enough controversy that you get into a dialogue on the issue of drugs so people will start to realize that this is the only answer; there is no other answer.”
Then, 25 years later, he was at the Conservative Political Action Conference stating that he thinks marijuana legalization is “bad” and that he feels “strongly about that.”
“They’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems,” he said.
But the candidate clarified that he supports states’ rights to set their own marijuana laws, saying, “If they vote for it, they vote for it.”
“Medical marijuana is another thing,” he added. “I think medical marijuana, 100 percent.”
“Medical I agree with. Medical I like,” he said similarly in 2016. “Medical is OK.”
Trump on medical marijuana: "Medical I agree with. Medical I like."
— Jeremy Diamond (@JDiamond1) January 6, 2016
Asked about Medical Marijuana, Trump says "Medical is ok."
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) January 6, 2016
“I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I mean I think so,” he said at a 2015 rally in Nevada. “I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason, the marijuana really helps them.”
He went on to say that “I really believe you should leave it up to the states” when it comes to recreational legalization. “It should be a state situation… In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state.”
Trump reiterated in a radio interview in 2016 that adult-use legalization has “got to be a state decision.”
“Colorado did it as you know and I guess it’s very mixed right now, they haven’t really made a final determination,” he said. “There seems to be certain health problems with it and that would be certainly bothersome.”
“I do like it, you know, from a medical standpoint — it does do pretty good things,” he added “But from the other standpoint, I think that should be up to the states. Certainly, from a medical standpoint, a lot of people are liking it.”
Legalization of drugs is “something that should be studied and maybe should continue to be studied,” Trump told ABC’s This Week in 2015.
“But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now,” he added. “I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don’t want to build walls. We don’t want to do anything. And if you’re not going to want to do the policing, you’re going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it’s not something that I would want to do. But it’s something that certainly has been looked at and I looked at it. If we police properly, we shouldn’t do that.”
In a 2016 radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, Trump seemed more skeptical about cannabis legalization, saying that “there are a lot of bad things happening in Colorado with people’s health. And if you look at the results, you know, they’re getting some pretty bad results.”
“Plus, it’s being taken all over the place. I mean, I would have to look at it very seriously,” he said. “Now I think if you talk about medical, you’re talking about a different ball of wax. But there are a lot of bad results happening in Colorado, and people are talking about it. I’m reading about it. So I would be looking at a couple of different things, but I really would want to study it further, because they’re doing a lot of studies. But you know, some bad medical reports and some bad, bad things are happening with what’s going on in Colorado.”
Discussing legalization during a Fox News interview, Trump said that “in Colorado, the book isn’t written on it yet.”
“There’s a lot of difficulty in terms of illness and what’s going on with the brain and the mind and what it’s doing,” he said. “In some ways I think it’s good and in other ways it’s bad.”
But he reiterated that he supports medical cannabis, saying that “I know people that have serious problems and they did that and it really does help them.”
“By the way, medical marijuana—medical—I am in favor of it 100 percent,” he said.
At a Wisconsin campaign rally in 2016, Trump said he is “watching Colorado very carefully, see what’s happening out there. I’m getting some very negative reports, I’m getting some OK reports, but I’m getting some very negative reports coming out of Colorado as to what’s happening, so we’ll see what happens.”
“There’s a lasting negative impact [from marijuana use]. You do too much of it… There’s a loss of something, so that book has not been written yet but it’s gonna be written pretty soon and I’m not hearing very positive things,” he said, adding that on medical cannabis, “I think I am basically for that. I’ve heard some wonderful things in terms of medical.”
Trump told MSNBC in 2015 that “I don’t really think” people should go to jail for marijuana. However, he added that “I think that maybe the dealers have to be looked at very strongly.”
“You have states all of a sudden legalizing it. So it’s sort of hard to say that you’re in one side of the border and you go to jail and you’re on the other side and can you go into a store and buy it,” he said. “So there is going to be changes made there, Joe, and there has to be… That is a very tough subject nowadays, especially since it’s been legalized and will continue to be legalized.”
In another interview with Fox News, he drew a contrast between recreational and medical marijuana consumption.
The former is “a big problem” that has “tremendously damaging effects to the mind, to the brain, to everything,” he said. But he also said he’s “all for medical marijuana and its help.”
In July 2016, Trump was asked whether he would allow former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) crack down on legal marijuana states if he were to become attorney general.
“I wouldn’t do that, no,” Trump said. “I think it’s up to the states. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”
— Brandon Rittiman (@BrandonRittiman) July 29, 2016
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Trump said in a radio interview in 2016 that “I never have smoked it.”
He also wrote in one of his books, “The America We Deserve,” that’s he’s never used cannabis or any other drug. “I’ve never taken drugs of any kind, never had a glass of alcohol. Never had a cigarette, never had a cup of coffee,” he said.
In an interview with Fox News in 2016, Trump said, “No I have not [smoked marijuana]. I would tell you 100 percent because everyone else seems to admit it nowadays… I’ve never smoked a cigarette either.”
Part of his aversion to drug use seems to be linked to his brother’s death from alcoholism. “He had a profound impact on my life, because you never know where you’re going to end up,” Trump said.
That said, the president said on several occasions during his first election bid that he personally knows people who have benefitted from using medical cannabis.
Marijuana Under A Second Trump Term
It’s hard to say how Trump will approach marijuana policy if elected to a second term. The past four years have given good reason to assume that a federal crackdown is unlikely, but at the same time, the president hasn’t signaled at any point that he’d be proactive at pursuing reform. From an administrative standpoint, it seems possible that the status quo would be maintained.
What the second term’s impact on cannabis may largely come down to is the makeup of Congress. If Democrats hold the House and retake control of the Senate, there’s broad expectations that they will advance some form of marijuana reform legislation to the president’s desk—whether it be occupied by Trump or Biden. It’s not clear whether Trump would sign or veto a far-reaching bill that House Democrats have signaled they want to advance which would deschedule cannabis and fund social equity efforts to repair some of the harms of the war on drugs. If Republicans maintain their Senate majority, a more limited bipartisan bill to simply exempt state-legal marijuana activity could get a shot—and the incumbent president has already indicated he would support it.
Then again, this president has been inconsistent in his views on marijuana and drug policy over the years, so it’s hard to predict where he might come down on the issue if given another four years in the White House.
American Medical Association Asks Mississippi Voters To Reject Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative
A medical marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on Mississippi’s November ballot is being targeted by two medical associations that are pushing voters to reject the policy change.
With weeks left until the vote, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) and American Medical Association (AMA) are circulating a sample ballot that instructs voters on how to reject the activist-led measure. For supporters and opponents alike, the way the ballot is structured can be confusing—a product of the legislature approving an alternative that appears alongside Initiative 65.
“The purpose is to defeat Initiative 65. Initiative 65A will allow the legislature to enact changes to the law, which would not be possible with Initiative 65,” the opposition campaign document states. “MSMA is asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
This marks the latest obstacle that reform advocates are facing as they work to inform the electorate about how to fill out the ballot to pass their proposal. Despite polls that show support for medical cannabis legalization at 81 percent in Mississippi, opponents aren’t acquiescing to public opinion.
MSMA President Mark Horne told WLBT-TV last week that the organization was asked to review the initiative and that “it was immediately clear that this is an effort focused on generating profits for an industry that has no ties to the medical or health care community in Mississippi.”
But according to Jamie Grantham, communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care (MCC), that talking point has only recently been aired and the campaign didn’t receive that feedback until MSMA mounted this opposition push. She told Marijuana Moment on Monday that the group’s steering committee is composed of several physicians who also had a hand in drafting the measure’s language—and that includes doctors who are part of MSMA.
“Ultimately, it boils down to patients being able to have access to this through their physician. They need to be able to have that conversation with them,” she said. “If certain physicians don’t see a benefit to that, that’s fine. But lots of other physicians do, and that’s evidenced undeniably in the 34 other states with medical marijuana programs where patients are receiving relief.”
AMA President Susan Bailey argued that “amending a state constitution to legalize an unproven drug is the wrong approach,” adding that there are concerns about youth exposure and impaired driving.
That said, a scientific journal published by AMA has printed research showing the advantages of broad marijuana legalization, however, with one recent study showing that people in states where recreational cannabis is legal were significantly less likely to experience vaping-related lung injuries than those in states where it is prohibited.
The organization has long maintained an opposition to legalization but has called for a review of marijuana’s restrictive federal Schedule I status.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA for comment, but a representative did not respond by the time of publication.
If the Mississippi campaign’s measure passes, it would allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
In June, lawmakers introduced yet another medical cannabis alternative resolution that would’ve posed an additional threat to the activist-driven reform initiative. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.