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Top Democratic Senator Calls Medical Marijuana A ‘Laughing Matter’

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A top-ranking Democratic senator called into question the therapeutic value of marijuana on Tuesday while also making a broader point about how the federal drug classification system inhibits medical research.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) made the comments during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the opioid epidemic and federal moves to restrict powerful fentanyl analogues.

Before getting into his views on the potential consequences of permanently placing those opioids in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Durbin, the Senate Democratic whip, took a hit at medical cannabis.

“My state just decided in the last few days to make marijuana legal in my state for recreational purposes, starting January 1,” he said, referencing the passage of a cannabis legalization bill through the Illinois legislature last week. “We’ve had medical marijuana. I’ve been to one of those clinics. It was almost a laughing matter.”

“The medical claims they make about marijuana go way beyond anything that’s been proven,” he said. “There are no clinical trials going on.”

Watch Durbin’s medical cannabis comments around 1:00:00 into the video below:

 

Durbin’s views on medical cannabis and marijuana reform in general are at odds with those expressed by many of his Democratic colleagues—not to mention a majority of voters. He said earlier this year that he opposed criminalizing cannabis use, but he cautioned against the other “extreme” of legalizing the plant.

Legalization advocates took issue with Durbin’s characterization of medical cannabis.

“Senator Durbin’s comments surrounding the efficacy and therapeutic benefits of cannabis are ignorant at best and cruel at worst,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “There are over 30,000 peer-reviewed studies hosted on pubmed.gov on the effects of cannabis, including many showing declines in cases of opioid abuse and overdose fatalities.”

“If Mr. Durbin is serious about addressing the opioid crisis, then he ought not to disparage the role or lives saved that legal marijuana can play,” Stekal said.

Michael Liszewski, principal of The Enact Group, a lobbying and consulting firm that focuses on cannabis, told Marijuana Moment he agrees that the “Schedule I status has prevented more robust medical cannabis research,” but that “it’s disappointing that Senator Durbin is characterizing it as a ‘laughing matter.'”

“To imply that patients need to look sick enough in order to obtain relief from medical cannabis ignores at least two points: First, many ailments that are treated by medical cannabis are not readily visible to observers, such as Crohn’s, lupus, and PTSD (all of which are qualifying conditions in Illinois). And second, it ignores the very real possibility that these individuals look healthy because their medical cannabis therapy is providing them with benefit.”

David Mangone, director of government affairs and counsel at Americans for Safe Access, also criticized the lawmaker’s remarks.

“Senator Durbin’s comments about the medical cannabis program in Illinois are an insult to the thousands of people in his state’s program who use cannabis as a life-saving medicine,” he told Marijuana moment.

“Ignoring the fact that there are nearly 400 [National Institutes of Health] supervised clinical trials on cannabis either underway or recruiting participants, and comparing cannabis to fentanyl analogues, is disingenuous, ill-informed, and dangerous for public policy,” Mangone said.

While the senator was dismissive of medical cannabis at the hearing, arguing that we “are not establishing whether marijuana is in fact medically appropriate in so many circumstances where they claim they are,” he also said that the Schedule I status of cannabis is the reason, in his view, that evidence about its therapeutic benefits of cannabis is insufficient.

“Why don’t they [research cannabis]? Because we’ve moved marijuana to Schedule I—the same place we’re about to move all fentanyl analogues,” he said.

“Under a blanket Schedule I framework, which is being asked for today, we could imperil research into more powerful naloxone—a stronger and better treatment to save lives of those who have used fentanyl analogues,” he added. “Is that what we want to do? I don’t think so.”

Liszewski said there “simply was no need for the senator to slander medical cannabis therapy while making his valid point about how Schedule I status harms medical research.”

Durbin later questioned the Drug Enforcement Administration’s opioid production quota, stating that there’s no need to manufacture such a high volume of prescription painkillers. In one of his closing remarks, he made a play on a Reagan-era anti-drug message.

It’s time to say no,” he said. “Just say no—to pharma when they want that kind of production.”

Though the senator made his thoughts on the scheduling system clear, he’s so far declined to sign on to legislation that would amend the issue, by rescheduling or descheduling cannabis. In fact, Durbin has only cosponsored two marijuana-focused bills over the course of his 36 years in Congress to date.

One would have required the DEA to conduct clinical trials on cannabidiol (CBD) and later determine whether the compound should be a controlled substance. The other would have allowed defendants in federal court cases to introduce evidence showing that any marijuana activity was in compliance with a state medical cannabis law.

Notably, during his time in the House, Durbin cosponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which included provisions that expanded the criminalization of drugs as well as a section tied to the problem he complained about at Tuesday’s hearing. That provision amended the CSA “to provide that controlled substance analogues shall be treated as a schedule I substance.”

“I appreciate Senator Durbin’s comments about limiting federal research,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “I’d feel even better about it if he channeled that energy and interest by putting his name on legislation to fix the problem”

Congressional Funding Bill Protects Cannabis Banking And Lets DC Legalize Marijuana Sales

Photo courtesy of Senate Judiciary Committee.

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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Kamala Harris Touts ‘Commitment’ To Marijuana Decriminalization And Expungements Under Biden Administration

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (D-CA) again pledged in a new interview that decriminalizing marijuana would be an administrative priority if she and Joe Biden are elected.

Speaking to The Grio on Saturday, the senator discussed the would-be Democratic administration’s criminal justice agenda, contrasting it with that of President Donald Trump. She reiterated the cannabis reform would be among their policy goals.

“We have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses,” Harris said. “When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits.”

Watch Harris discuss criminal justice and marijuana reform, starting around 12:00 into the video below: 

While reform advocates have appreciated the senator’s repeated calls for cannabis reform on the campaign trail, they’ve taken issue with her tendency to refer to the drug war in the past tense—as she did here by talking about the impact the policy “had”—as though those prosecutions and enforcement disparities haven’t persisted.

In fact, recently released FBI data shows that there were 1,558,862 drug-related arrests in the U.S. last year, about a third of which were for marijuana. That amounts to a new drug bust every 20 seconds on average.

There’s also some frustration that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization—a policy not supported by the former vice president despite its popularity among Democrats.

Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.

In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”

In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.

Top Senate Democrat Includes Marijuana Banking Protections In New Coronavirus Relief Bill

Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

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Top Senate Democrat Includes Marijuana Banking Protections In New Coronavirus Relief Bill

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The top Democrat in the Senate introduced a coronavirus relief bill on Monday that contains provisions to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

As Congress and the White House continue to negotiate details of a potential COVID-19 relief deal, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) seemed to take a page from a recently passed House version that also includes language of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act.

It’s unclear whether the Trump administration or Republican-controlled Senate will be amenable to including cannabis provisions in any package that has a chance of being enacted, but advocates view Schumer’s move in the meantime as a positive signal that Democrats will continue to press the issue.

If lawmakers hope to pass the next round of coronavirus relief ahead of the election, Tuesday appears to be the last opportunity to strike a deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been actively attempting to find common ground on COVID-19 aid, but it remains to be seen whether they will reach an agreement that can be approved by both chambers and signed by the president.

The cannabis banking language has twice appeared in House-passed COVID-19 proposals, and the chamber has approved it both times. That said, it hasn’t advanced without controversy, as multiple Republican lawmakers and White House officials have criticized its inclusion, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in particular has been a vocal opponent of the measure, though he’s largely tailored his criticism to certain provisions of the SAFE Banking Act that require industry diversity reporting.

Democrats and reform advocates have defended adding the marijuana-related components to a coronavirus bill, stressing that it would mitigate the spread of the virus by giving cannabis businesses access to the banking system and minimizing cash-only transactions. It could would also increase access to financial institutions in a way that could give small businesses access to needed capital, they say.

Senate Republicans did not add cannabis banking language to their own version of COVID relief legislation filed in July.

But Democratic leaders in both chambers are evidently willing to keep up the fight, and the House even highlighted the diversity component in a summary of its legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in July that she agrees that the banking measure is an appropriate component of the bill.

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 the newly filed Senate COVID-19 bill goes from here is uncertain—but its introduction gives some reason to believe that Schumer sees a potential path forward. It also signals that the cannabis issue, including broader legislation to end federal prohibition, is poised to advance in 2021 if Democrats win control of the chamber in next month’s elections.

Pelosi has said that she will decide by the end of Tuesday whether the negotiations with the Trump administration can lead to a relief package that could be passed before Election Day.

Marijuana Legalization In Texas Would Generate Billions In Tax Revenue, New Economic Analysis Shows

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Marijuana Legalization In Texas Would Generate Billions In Tax Revenue, New Economic Analysis Shows

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Texas stands to generate billions of dollars in marijuana tax revenue and create tens of thousands of jobs if the plant is legalized, according to a new economic analysis.

While the legislature has been resistant to pursue the policy change, the report from Vicente Sederberg LLP makes a compelling case for legalizing and regulating cannabis sales in the state, at least from an economic perspective.

It finds that, given the estimated adult-use marijuana market, there would be $2.7 billion in cannabis sales annually in Texas. And if the state followed Colorado’s tax model, it could bring in more than $1.1 billion in marijuana tax dollars per biennium.

Further, the comparative analysis projects that 20,000-40,000 jobs would be directly created in the legal industry, in addition to ancillary positions for “contractors and construction firms, electrical and water service providers, HVAC manufacturers and installers, processing equipment producers and retailers, and other professionals.”

“We also expect it would bolster the hospitality industry, which would benefit communities that rely on tourism; especially those that have recently been severely impacted by the novel coronavirus, such as San Antonio, Houston, and Corpus Christi,” the report states.

Beyond tax revenue from cannabis sales, Texas could also see an extra $10 million annually if business licensing fees are set at $5,000.

“In addition to generating revenue and creating jobs, regulating cannabis for adult use would also realize significant criminal justice savings,” the report says, adding that Texas would save an estimated $311 million per year in criminal justice resources if marijuana was legalized.

“States across the country are seeing the benefits of legalizing and regulating cannabis,” Shawn Hauser, a partner at Vicente Sederberg, said in a press release. “It is inspiring lawmakers in prohibition states to reexamine the efficacy and costs of their current policies and take a closer look at the alternatives.”

“A regulated cannabis market would be an economic boon for the Lonestar State,” she said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue and tens of thousands of new jobs would be especially helpful in overcoming the losses stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Texas is leaving an enormous amount of money on the table by keeping cannabis illegal.”

Marijuana reform could also potentially clear up regulatory complications that have resulted from the state’s legalization of the plant’s non-intoxicating cousin, hemp.

Because the crops are virtually indistinguishable, it appears that hemp’s new legal status has made it difficult for police to determine whether a given seized substance is allowable hemp or still-illegal marijuana, and that has led to fewer cannabis cases overall.

Prosecutors have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases since hemp was legalized. And state officials announced in February that labs wouldn’t be performing testing in misdemeanor cases, with the Texas Department of Public Safety saying it “will not have the capacity to accept those.”

Marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, according to state data released last month.

The Texas House speaker in July acknowledged that legalizing cannabis could help resolve the state’s budget shortfall—but he doesn’t support the policy change regardless.

“Repealing marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a reasonably regulated market is a win-win for Texas,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Even with modest taxation, legal cannabis for adult use would bring in much needed revenue and free up valuable public safety resources.”

“Considering our projected budget shortfall, Texas lawmakers should consider this a big opportunity for our pro-business state,” she said. “The people of Texas will also benefit when we are no longer saddling responsible cannabis consumers with criminal records that often keep them from accessing education and employment.”

Last year, the House voted to approve a decriminalization bill that would’ve made possession of one ounce or less of cannabis punishable by a $500 fine and no jail time, but it failed to advance to a Senate floor vote by the end of the session.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of State Health Services attempted to impose a ban on the sale of smokeable hemp, but they were sued and a judge gave the plaintiffs a procedural victory in July, temporarily lifting the prohibition. The judge said last month that the ban can’t be enforced until the case is heard in court in 2021.

Read Vicente Sederberg’s report on the economic impact of legalization in Texas below: 

Economic Benefits of Regula… by Marijuana Moment

Legalizing Marijuana Is Risky, Trump-Appointed Prosecutor Warns Montana Voters Ahead Of Election

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