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The Debate Over How, Not Whether, Congress Should Legalize Marijuana Is Heating Up

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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 Ă  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:

Marijuana Immigration STATES Act by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Congress Schedules Hearing To Discuss Ending Marijuana Prohibition

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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.

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Trade Associations And Civil Rights Groups Send Mixed Messages On Marijuana Banking To Senate

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A coalition of trade associations sent a letter to Senate Banking Committee leadership on Thursday, urging a vote on legislation to protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses.

But those senators are also feeling pressure from leading civil rights groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, which sent an earlier letter insisting that they not allow cannabis banking to detract from more comprehensive reform that addresses social equity.

The organizations involved in the latest letter—including the American Bankers Association and Credit Union National Association—said that advancing the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act or similar legislation is pivotal to ensuring that stakeholders receive needed clarity and are shielded from being penalized by federal regulators.

The letter, addressed to Banking Chair Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-OH), emphasized the bipartisan nature of the House passage of the bill in September and the growing movement at the state level to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes.

“Our organizations support an initial legislative step that allows the legal cannabis industry into the banking system,” the groups, which also include the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, International Council of Shopping Centers and National Association of REALTORS, wrote. “Ultimately, protecting law-abiding financial institutions and ancillary businesses from their currently untenable position and addressing increasing public safety concerns.”

As more states reform their marijuana laws, however, “distribution, sale, possession, research, transaction, housing, employment, and a broader landscape of cannabis is becoming increasingly problematic” for stakeholders under federal prohibition.

“Ultimately, this creates more legal and security concerns that impact the operations and safety of businesses and consumers,” they said. “Finally, the lack of an available safe harbor for cannabis will continue to challenge the full adoption and deployment of the legal hemp and CBD products market in the U.S. due to the inextricable link between hemp and cannabis.”

“To resolve this, we urge the Committee to vote on the SAFE Banking Act or similar measures. Such measures are meant to create a safe harbor for depository institutions that provide a financial product or service to businesses in a state permitting the use of cannabis. A safe harbor will enable law enforcement and states to effectively monitor and regulate businesses while simultaneously bringing billions into the regulated banking sector.”

The letter, also signed by Americans for Prosperity and R Street, recognizes that creating a federal regulatory scheme for marijuana will take time but says that the SAFE Banking Act represents “a critical first step to ensure that legal cannabis marketplaces are safe, legal, and transparent.”

Crapo has said that he’s interested in holding a vote on resolving the cannabis banking issue in his panel before the year’s end, but so far nothing has been scheduled. The chairman told Marijuana Moment in earlier interviews that there are several changes to the House-passed bill that he’d like to see but that he’s worried impeachment proceedings against the president will interfere with plans to hold a vote.

All that said, pressure from civil rights advocacy groups could complicate congressional efforts to get the banking bill approved. In October, several organizations including the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch and Center for American Progress sent a letter to Senate leadership, as well as Crapo and Brown, demanding that “marijuana legislation considered in the Senate include provisions that will guarantee equity in the industry.”

The letter, which doesn’t appear to have been previously reported and was obtained by Marijuana Moment, states that while the coalition agrees the SAFE Banking Act “is an incremental step toward rolling back the federal prohibition of marijuana, it fails to help communities that have been historically and disproportionately devastated by United States’ punitive drug laws.”

“As the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs considers similar legislation, we insist that the legislation include provisions that ensure equity in the marijuana industry by creating opportunities for individuals who have been prohibited from this growing business either by legal or financial means,” the letter, which was also signed by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and National Association of Social Workers, states.

“Indeed, this Congress has shown it understands the economic impact of legalization. But while progress on the business side of legalization is promising, it is not sufficient. Federal marijuana legislation must be comprehensive and lead with equity, addressing past and current harms to communities of color and low-income communities who bore the brunt of the failed war on drugs. We demand that any marijuana reform or legalization bill considered by the Senate] include robust provisions addressing equity. More than simply adding equity provisions to bills that address industry concerns, we need comprehensive reform that deschedules marijuana and addresses the inequities and harms continually inflicted by the failed war on drugs.”

In other words, the groups are insisting on broad reform prior to a vote on a bill viewed as largely beneficial to the cannabis industry—similar to a request they made of House members prior to the legislation’s passage in the chamber.

Read the marijuana banking letters from the trade associations and civil rights groups below:

Industry SAFE Senate Bankin… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Senate Leadership Letter Re… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications

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.
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GOP Congressman Knocks His Party For Failing To Pass Marijuana Reform

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A Republican congressman says that whichever party is responsible for passing federal marijuana reform will “instantly” shoot up in the polls, while lamenting the fact that the GOP failed to do so when they controlled the House.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), a vocal advocate for hemp, was asked by Fox Business host Kennedy on Wednesday whether cannabis should be rescheduled under federal law.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The first party that does this—and I don’t understand why either party won’t do it—is going instantly gain 10 points in the general poll on which party versus the other.”

“We should have done it when we were in the majority,” he added. “The liberals should be asking Pelosi why she hasn’t put it on the floor yet.”

The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation last month to end federal marijuana prohibition, but it hasn’t yet been scheduled for floor action.

Massie made similar points during an interview with Marijuana Moment earlier this year, stating that if Republicans had advanced states’ rights-focused marijuana legislation, “I think we might still be in the majority.”

Of course, while Massie has supported legislation to allow states to set their own cannabis policies without federal intervention, as well as other more modest reform measures such as protecting banks that service marijuana businesses, he’s so far declined to cosponsor any bills that seek to deschedule cannabis.

The congressman has also expressed interest in changing federal gun control laws to allow cannabis consumers to purchase firearms.

Though it’s not clear exactly how much of a boost either party would get by passing a marijuana reform bill, a Pew poll released last month does show that there’s majority support for legalization among those who lean Republican (55 percent) as well those who lean Democratic (78 percent).

Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications

Photo courtesy of YouTube/Rep. Massie.

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.
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State Department Warns Travelers About Flying With Cannabis Oil Internationally

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The U.S. State Department is warning international holiday travelers that while hemp-derived CBD might be legal in the U.S., it can land you in trouble if you take it certain places abroad.

“Make sure your gift isn’t a fa la la la la la la la la fail,” the department said in a tweet on Thursday. “Bringing along gifts like drones, CBD oils, and firearms can land you in trouble in foreign countries. Research what is and isn’t allowed before you travel.”

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

MLB Officially Removes Marijuana From Banned Substances List For Baseball Players

Photo courtesy of Flickr/DHS.

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