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The New Congress Just Started And There’s Already A Bipartisan Marijuana Bill

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The 116th Congress went into session just hours ago and a bipartisan marijuana reform bill has already been introduced in the House.

Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Don Young (R-AK) re-introduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act on Thursday as one of their first acts in the new session. The legislation would let states establish their own medical cannabis programs free of federal intervention and also allow physicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs to issue medical cannabis recommendations for veterans.

“The national consensus on medical marijuana is solid and bipartisan, but our federal drug laws continue to treat patients and their doctors like criminals,” Cohen said in a press release. “Our bill would bring federal medical marijuana policy in line with the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans by allowing states to set their own marijuana laws, allowing patients, including veterans, to receive the treatments they need from their doctors and improving opportunities for research on marijuana.”

Young said that the bill represents “the kind of bipartisan effort that doesn’t happen every day but should serve as an example of how we can solve the problems that our constituents have sent us here to do.”

“I’m hopeful that this is going to be a productive Congress regarding the debate over national cannabis policy.”

The CARERS Act was first introduced in 2015 and again in 2017—by Cohen in the House and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in the Senate. During the 114th Congress, Cohen’s bill received 43 cosponsors, and during the last session, it had 30 cosponsors. The Senate bill also saw a lower number of cosponsors last Congress than in the prior one, perhaps a reflection that its backers have in the intervening years focused more on building support for now-achievable broader marijuana reform instead of the narrowly tailored medical cannabis fix.

Asked for a copy of the new bill’s text, Cohen communication director Bartholomew Sullivan referred Marijuana Moment to the prior version. The spokesperson did not immediately respond to a follow up question about whether the pieces of legislation are identical or if this new version differs, as was the case for past versions; the 114th Congress’s bill included provisions touching on rescheduling and banking access for cannabis businesses, but those were removed last time.

Booker is also quoted in Cohen’s press release, saying that existing “federal marijuana laws are broken—they don’t make us safer, they waste taxpayer dollars, and they lack both common sense and compassion.”

The senator’s communications director told Marijuana Moment that the new version of the CARERS Act hasn’t yet been filed in the Senate but that it will be introduced “soon.”

This story was updated to note that Booker has not yet filed the medical marijuana bill in the Senate.

Medical Marijuana Protected Under Democrats’ Spending Bill, But DC Blocked From Legalizing Sales

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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

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Pennsylvania Senators Release Details On Marijuana Legalization Bill

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Details of a soon-to-be introduced bill that would legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania were released on Monday.

The legislation, which is being sponsored by Sens. Daylin Leach (D) and Sharif Street (D), places an emphasis on not only legalizing cannabis for adult use but also implementing a variety of social equity and small business-focused provisions, according to an outline of the proposal.

Under the heading “Innovation,” the document details how the state’s medical cannabis seed-to-sale tracking system would be eliminated, home delivery and public consumption sites would be permitted and universities would be allowed to grow and process cannabis as part of classes on the marijuana industry.

Home cultivation of up to six cannabis plants per household would also be allowed.

While the tax rate for retail marijuana sales is not specified in the outline, and the formal legislative language has not yet been filed, the goal will be to set a rate that “balances the need to undermine any illegal market and the needs to both pay for regulation of the industry and invest in those harmed by prohibition.” Most of the revenue from those taxes will go toward funding public education programs.

“We’ve had a cruel, irrational and expensive policy on cannabis for more than 80 years,” Leach said in a press release. “Prohibition has destroyed countless lives and has cost our taxpayers millions of dollars. It’s time we walk into the bright sunshine of enlightenment and stop arresting our kids and funding violent drug cartels.”

“This will be a tough battle, but so was passing medical marijuana. We did that, and we will do this. The stakes are too high for us to fail.”

On the business side of things, there wouldn’t be a cap on the number of marijuana business licenses that could be approved. Micro licenses for cannabis cultivation would be available in a three-tier system, which is meant to help people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war participate in the legal industry.

According to a cosponsorship memo, the legislation would create a “statewide cannabis business incubator that provides free training to Pennsylvanians who want to learn how to start and run a cannabis business.” People who’ve been harmed by prohibition and complete the incubator program would also have access to state grants and low-interest capital loans.

“An end to the prohibition of cannabis is overdue,” Street said. “It is time for us to join the emerging cannabis economy with the legalization of the Adult Use of Cannabis in PA., which should not be a crime when responsibly used by adults nor mandate medical oversight.”

“The economic imperatives are too great. We also have a moral mandate to correct the damage that disparate enforcement of our Marijuana Laws has done and is still doing to communities across the commonwealth.”

A separate bill to legalize marijuana in the state was introduced in the House last month. It currently has 27 cosponsors. It remains to be seen whether such legislation has enough support to pass in either Republican-controlled chamber of the legislature.

That said, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) recently shifted from saying the state is not ready for legalization to arguing that “it is time for Pennsylvania to take a serious and honest look at recreational marijuana.”

In the meantime, Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is vocally supportive of legalization and was endorsed by NORML in his election bid last year, is in the process of visiting all of the state’s 67 counties as part of a listening tour that’s meant to collect public input on marijuana reform.

“Cannabis prohibition was built on lies and racism and has resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians suffering criminal convictions merely because they chose a plant instead of an alcoholic beverage,” Pittsburgh NORML executive director Patrick Nightingale said in the press release. “Adult-use reform will save almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians from arrest and prosecution annually. Reform will also help affected Pennsylvanians expunge cannabis-related offenses from their record.”

“We are confident that an open and honest conversation about the risks and rewards of adult-use reform will help those critical of legalization to understand that it can be done responsibly and in a manner that protects our youth and our motorists,” he said.

Pennsylvania Governor Announces Statewide Marijuana Legalization Listening Tour

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Trump Budget Proposes Loosening DC Marijuana Legalization Restrictions

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A budget request released by the White House on Monday proposes scaling back restrictive language that has prevented the city of Washington, D.C. from spending its own money to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana.

While District of Columbia voters approved a ballot measure in 2014 that makes it legal to possess and grow small amounts of cannabis, there is no mechanism by which consumers can legally buy marijuana in the nation’s capital (outside of medical cannabis dispensaries that only serve registered patients). That’s because although D.C. councilmembers and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) would like to add in a legal sales component, longstanding congressional appropriations riders have blocked them from doing so.

In 2017, Congress tightened up the ban even further, taking away a potential loophole that city leaders had considered using to support a commercial legalization system.

But President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request asks Congress to revert to an earlier, less-restrictive version of the language that leaves the workaround on the table as an option.

The relevant section of the new document reads:

“SEC. 809. (a) None of the Federal funds contained in this Act may be used to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative.

“(b) None of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.”

Two years ago, Congress changed that second subsection to instead bar use of funds “available for obligation or expenditure by the District of Columbia government under any authority” to lower penalties for cannabis.

The reason that matters is because under the “none of the funds contained in this Act” version, the city would still be able to use separate contingency reserve funds to pay for legalization even while monies contained in the annual appropriations legislation would be restricted.

It’s unclear if White House officials consciously made the change to the earlier, less-restrictive version or if staffers inadvertently did so by simply copying and pasting language from prior budgets. Trump’s FY19 request made the same proposed change, but Congress, through a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus appropriations legislation, has extended the more expansive “under any authority” language through at least this September.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees will soon begin crafting their own spending bills for FY20, and legalization advocates expect that the new House Democratic majority will propose removing all restrictions on D.C.’s ability to spend its own money on cannabis policy changes and implementation.

Trump’s new budget request also proposes cutting funding for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy—commonly referred to as the drug czar’s office—by more than 93 percent by moving its key projects, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas and Drug-Free Communities programs, to the Department of Justice and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, respectively.

Trump’s FY2019 request made a similar request, but it was rejected by Congress.

The president’s new budget document also proposes continuing a congressionally approved provision that prevents the federal government from interfering with state industrial hemp research programs:

“SEC. 711. None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be used—

“(1) in contravention of section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (7 U.S.C. 5940); or

“(2) to prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp that is grown or cultivated in accordance with subsection section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014, within or outside the State in which the industrial hemp is grown or cultivated.”

But it does not contain a current rider that protects state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department interference. Trump’s previous annual budget also did not include it. President Obama, following the measure’s initial enactment in 2014, requested its deletion in his subsequent budgets, but Congress has continued to extend it through at least the current fiscal year.

Trump Issues Signing Statement On Medical Marijuana Provision Of Funding Bill

Photo courtesy of YouTube/The White House.

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Cory Booker Appears To Call Out Kamala Harris’s Marijuana Jokes

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Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) explained why marijuana legalization is no laughing matter on Sunday and seemed to take a dig at Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) over the way she lightheartedly admitted to smoking cannabis in college.

During a campaign stop in Iowa, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked where marijuana fits in his criminal justice agenda. Booker emphasized that “a lot of people have a very different perspective on marijuana than I do.”

His next comment appeared to be a veiled criticism of Harris, a rival presidential candidate, who spoke about her personal experience with cannabis and relatively newfound support for legalization on a radio program last month.

“We have presidential candidates and congresspeople and senators that now talk about their marijuana use almost as if it’s funny,” he said. “But meanwhile, in 2017, we had more arrests for marijuana possession in this country than all the violent crime arrests combined.”

While Booker didn’t call Harris out by name, her recent admission—which was followed by a light back-and-forth about what kind of music she listened to when smoking—garnered dozens of headlines and also some backlash (including from her own father). “Half my family is from Jamaica,” she said at the time, laughing. “Are you kidding me?”

Watch Booker’s marijuana comments, about 37:40 into the video below:

(Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also recently talked about his cannabis experience, but the conversation wasn’t as humorous in comparison and received significantly less media coverage.)

Booker’s jab may offer a window into future Democratic presidential debates, with support for legalization increasingly being seen as the bare minimum requirement on the issue and candidates competing to address its implementation more thoughtfully.

It could also be an early sign that Harris’s record as a prosecutor who oversaw the sentencing of people for nonviolent drug offenses is a vulnerability that Booker and other candidates may seek to exploit before the Democratic electorate, which overwhelmingly supports legalizing marijuana.

Harris’s giggle-filled admission of her past cannabis consumption in the February radio interview wasn’t the first time she treated the marijuana issue as a laughing matter.

In 2014, she dismissively laughed off a reporter’s question about legalization instead of providing a substantive response on her position.

Harris also made an attempt at a cannabis joke in a January appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show, saying that the reason she looks so happy on the cover of her book is “not because I smoked a joint or anything, even though we legalized.”

In his comments on Sunday, Booker spoke about marijuana for several minutes, noting the racially disproportionate arrest rate for cannabis possession and the long-term consequences of having a non-violent drug conviction on a person’s record.

“In Newark, I’m sorry, the margins for error for my kids to experiment with drugs, like people often do, that margin is not there,” he said. “And then one kid gets one charge for possession of marijuana for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing, and what happens to their lives?”

There are tens of thousands of “collateral consequences” of drug arrests and convictions, he said, ranging from ineligibility for public housing to lost employment opportunities.

“So I’m all for legalizing marijuana. I have the premiere bill in the Senate to do it,” Booker said. “But you know what my bill says? It doesn’t say just that we should deregulate marijuana on the federal level, we should make it legal and let the states do what they want. But it doesn’t stop there, because do not talk to me about legalizing marijuana unless in the same breath you talk to me about expunging the records of the millions of people that are suffering with not being able to find a job.”

“And then on top of that, people who are in prison should be able to petition their way out under the new laws. And more than that, all of this tax revenue that we’re going to get from marijuana should be reinvested in those communities that have been disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs—for education, for drug treatment, for job training programs.”

Booker also talked about an issue that his legislation doesn’t directly address: equity in the marijuana industry. He said he gets “very upset about” about the fact that communities historically targeted by the war on drugs are largely left out of opportunities to participate in the increasingly legal cannabis economy.

“We need to start talking about what I call restorative justice in our system and make sure that when we look at our laws, we create commonsense laws because right now we are spending billions of dollars in this drug war, with this money that could go to infrastructure, it could go to education, it could go to so many more positive things than warehousing human potential in the country that is the leading nation for incarceration when we should be the leading nation for education,” he said.

Kamala Harris Tries To Tell A Marijuana Joke, But Stephen Colbert Isn’t Amused

Photo courtesy of Facebook/ABC News.

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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