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This Obscure 45-Year-Old Federal Law Exempts State-Legal Marijuana

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Most observers of marijuana policy are aware of the annual budget rider that has protected state medical cannabis laws from federal interference since late 2014. But many incorrectly assume that it is the only federal provision that makes an exemption for state-legal marijuana.

Actually, there is another, much more obscure U.S. regulation that carves out a manner of legitimacy and protection for cannabis activity that is legal under state law.

And, it’s 45 years old.

Enacted just two years after the founding of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws, the 1972 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule banning pilots from operating aircraft with illegal substances on board specifies that it “does not apply to any carriage of narcotic drugs, marihuana, and depressant or stimulant drugs or substances authorized by or under any Federal or State statute or by any Federal or State agency.” [Bolded emphasis added.]

An earlier, 1969 version of the regulation did not contain the clause protecting state-legal activity.

It is unclear what occurred during the three-year window between the versions that prompted FAA to make exemptions for state marijuana laws, but the 1972 revision does contain explanatory text showing that the penalty-setting provision preceding the clause with the state exceptions was also amended. Previously, it, too, only concerned federal laws and violations thereof.

“Since the adoption of Amendment 91-66, information available to the FAA indicates that the illicit carriage of drugs by aircraft may be occurring in various places within the United States and involve violations of State as well as Federal statutes,” the agency wrote in the Federal Register. “Accordingly, in order to cope effectively with the threat to safety in air commerce from such illicit carriage of drugs, it is proposed to amend § 91.12(a) and make the prohibition therein apply to the operation of civil aircraft within the United States with knowledge that narcotic drugs, marihuana, and depressant or stimulant drugs or substances as defined in Federal or State statutes are carried in the aircraft.”

When it comes to the subsequent exemption clause, it is remarkable that the federal government may have contemplated as far back as 1972 not only that states would begin legalizing marijuana but that activity in accordance with those laws should be shielded from a federal penalty on airplane pilots.

It wasn’t until 24 years later, in 1996, when California became the first state to enact a broad medical cannabis policy, and full-scale adult-use legalization didn’t arrive until Colorado and Washington State ended their prohibition laws in 2012. (Beginning in 1978, a number of states enacted mostly symbolic and ineffective medical marijuana laws that didn’t provide patient access, but that was still six years after the FAA rule change.)

While it is possible that FAA didn’t actually mean in 1972 to protect consumers carrying future-legal cannabis in the sky — and may have just meant to make sure law enforcement could legally transport seized contraband — a plain reading of the regulation would seem to have that perhaps unintended effect today.

In any case, it is still on the books. And very few people working on cannabis issues, if any, seem to have ever noticed it.

None of a half-dozen longtime D.C.-based marijuana policy reform advocates that Marijuana Moment reached out to for this story said they were aware of the FAA exemption’s existence.

But the provision could nonetheless have huge implications for the growing number of states that are making marijuana legal for medical or recreational purposes.

Much has been made, for example, of licensed cannabis producers’ difficulties in transporting their wares in states with populated islands.

A 2014 Seattle Times story on legal cannabis access by Washington State residents living on islands mentions the FAA’s ban on using aircraft to transport illegal drugs, but makes no mention of the decades-old exemption for state-legal marijuana products.

A 2015 Martha’s Vineyard Times piece describes difficulties in getting Massachusetts-legal cannabis to the island and raises federal concerns, but it, too, ignores the FAA exemptions for state laws.

While crafting medical cannabis regulations, Hawaiian legislators included their own state-level prohibition on interisland transportation. A lawmaker indicated in a 2016 Associated Press interview that she and colleagues were “trying to figure out how to get around federal laws that prevent marijuana from being transported by sea or air,” according to the news organization’s paraphrase of her remarks.

And earlier this year, a Boston Globe story even linked to the relevant section of FAA regulations to cite the ban, but the reporter apparently didn’t notice the state carve-out in the following clause.

States could potentially be able to solve their local transport issues by citing the little-known exemption. But, depending on the Trump administration’s response, the issue could end up being settled by courts.

And while the provision in question only concerns the ability to operate aircraft and doesn’t directly implicate broader interstate drug trafficking issues under the Controlled Substances Act, the fact that the exception exists could provide some room for arguments about Transportation Security Administration policies on the transport of marijuana on commercial planes, for example, as well as other gray areas at the intersection of conflicting federal and state drug laws.

After this story was published, a reader pointed out that Marijuana Business Daily briefly discussed the FAA regulation’s state-legal exemption in an earlier piece about transportation issues.

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

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Senate Votes To Send Hemp Legalization To President Trump’s Desk

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The Senate approved a far-reaching agriculture bill that includes a provision to legalize industrial hemp on Tuesday.

The vote gets the U.S. one step closer to ending its decades-long prohibition of a non-psychoactive plant in the cannabis family, empowering farmers to cultivate and sell a lucrative crop that can be used to create an exceptional range of products—from cosmetics to concrete.

The Senate and House Agriculture Committees had reconciled their respective versions of the 2018 Farm Bill last month, and lawmakers said they hoped to get it passed before the year’s end.

It seems Congress is positioned to meet that projection. The bill passed 87-13 in the Senate, and the House is expected to take it up soon. If the House approves the bill, it will be sent to President Donald Trump’s desk to be signed into law.

While debate on the legislation extended over several months, it quickly became apparent that the hemp legalization provision had bipartisan support. Separately, a compromise was reached over a provision that would ban people with felony convictions from participating in the hemp industry. The ban would be lifted after 10 years under the current legislation.

Hemp would no longer be controlled by the Justice Department if it’s ultimately approved. Instead, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would lightly regulate the crop.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and others cheered the inclusion of legal hemp in the Farm Bill.

You can read the full text of the hemp legalization provisions in the Farm Bill here.

Next House Agriculture Committee Chair Might Grow Hemp On His Farm

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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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Trump Threatens Government Shutdown, Raising Concern For Legal Marijuana Industry

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President Donald Trump is threatening to shut down the government if Democrats refuse billions of dollars in funding for a border wall—but the consequences of that action would extend far beyond border security.

If the president makes good on his promise to withhold his signature from essential appropriations bills this time, that could inadvertently leave the legal marijuana industry vulnerable to federal drug enforcement actions. A spending bill rider that has protected state medical cannabis programs from federal intervention since 2014 would expire, while the Justice Department and prosecutors would generally remain operational.

That’s because the Department of Justice has a contingency plan in place in the event of a government shutdown, and it exempts many employees, including U.S. attorneys and those who work for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), from furlough.

“Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an activity essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property,” the Justice Department explains in its contingency plan. U.S. attorneys are protected because they’re presidentially appointed and “are needed to address ongoing criminal matters and civil matters of urgency throughout the nation.”

“All agents in DEA field organizations are excepted from furlough because they support active counternarcotics investigations,” the document says.

The so-called Rohrabacher-Farr amendment would not be exempted, though. The legislation—which bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to interfere with state medical cannabis laws—is part of the the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) appropriations bill. While five out of the 12 annual appropriation bills for Fiscal Year 2019 have already been signed into law by the president, the CJS bill is yet to receive House of Senate floor votes.

Typically, the deadline to get appropriations passed is the end of the preceding fiscal year, September 30. But rather than hold a vote or allow federal departments to lose funding, lawmakers have passed a series of continuing resolutions this year, providing temporary funding and pushing back the deadline. The most recent two-week continuing resolution passed on December 7, so the new deadline is December 21.

It lawmakers don’t pass, or President Trump doesn’t sign, either a full-year or temporary extension of funding by then, the medical cannabis rider will expire, but federal drug enforcement capabilities will not. And that would leave medical marijuana patients and the businesses that serve them in a dicey position.

Similar concerns about the prospect of federal marijuana enforcement have been repeatedly raised under the Trump administration. In January, things seemed especially precarious, as the president’s threat of a government shutdown came weeks after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo that provided guidance on federal cannabis enforcement practices.

That decision stoked fears that a shutdown would empower the Justice Department to act on the attorney general’s vehement opposition to marijuana reform. But after fewer than three days, a continuing resolution passed and state-legal marijuana activities continued unimpeded.

This time around, as the deadline approaches, the Justice Department head is Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who had served as Sessions’s chief of staff. Whitaker has said he sympathizes with medical cannabis patients, but he’s also criticized the Obama administration for its marijuana enforcement policies.

There’s no telling at this point whether Whitaker, the DEA or federal prosecutors would take advantage of broad exemptions from furlough and crack down on legal medical marijuana states in the event of a shutdown. But as always, the possibility puts the cannabis industry is an uncomfortable position.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Push For Marijuana Protections In Funding Bill

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

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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Lawmakers From Both Parties Celebrate Hemp Legalization In The Farm Bill

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Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are celebrating a hemp legalization provision that made it into the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Perhaps no one is more pleased than Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who fought for the provision over months of debate on the wide-ranging agriculture legislation. He even signed the conference report finalizing the bill language with a hemp pen on Monday.

In opening remarks from the Senate floor on Tuesday, McConnell said the inclusion of hemp legalization is “a victory for farmers and consumers throughout our country.” It builds on the progress of the hemp pilot program he helped put in the 2014 Farm Bill, the results of which he said “have been nothing short of extraordinary.”

“Now American-grown hemp can be found in your food, in your clothes and even in your car dashboard,” he said. “The results mean jobs, economic growth and new opportunity.”

“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) helped McConnell secure hemp legalization in the agriculture legislation and said “the outrageous and outdated ban on growing hemp has hamstrung farmers in Oregon and across the country” in a press release Tuesday.

“Hemp products are made in America, sold in America, and consumed in America,” Wyden said. “Now, hemp will be able to be legally grown in America, to the economic benefit of consumers and farmers in Oregon and nationwide.”

Fellow Oregon lawmaker Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) also cheered the “good news” that the provision made the cut.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) touted hemp legalization in a tweet Tuesday.

“The finish line is in sight,” Bennet wrote. “Now Congress needs to do what’s right for Colorado & send this bill to [President Trump’s] desk by the end of the year.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) celebrated the hemp provisions as well.

As did Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).

Lawmakers are hoping to put the Farm Bill to a full House and Senate vote and deliver the legislation to the president this week. McConnell said on Tuesday that members of Congress should be prepared to work through the holiday break to make sure this and other bills, including criminal justice reform and legislation to fund parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2019, are seen all the way through.

Next House Agriculture Committee Chair Might Grow Hemp On His Farm

Via YouTube/Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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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