The U.S. House’s top Republican on criminal justice issues is calling on the new Democratic majority to pass legislation to let states legalize marijuana without federal interference.
“The legal status of cannabis in the United States is in disarray. It is incumbent on Congress to clarify these issues and reform our federal laws,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter to the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), on Wednesday.
“More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medicinal and/or recreational use of cannabis. Other states have opted to decriminalize cannabis possession, or to legalize the consumption of certain cannabis-derived extracts. Some states still prohibit cannabis use of any kind,” Collins wrote, along with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who co-signed the letter. “Given that the substance is still a Schedule I drug under federal law, this conflicting patchwork of state and federal laws has created a unique set of legal challenges.”
The Republican lawmakers are endorsing the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, a bill to shield state cannabis laws from federal intervention.
“We believe this Committee and this Congress must act to clarify the rights and responsibilities, relative to cannabis, of individuals, physicians, businesses, medical patients, and law enforcement officials,” they wrote. “We support the STATES Act, which was recently re-introduced in the 116th Congress, and we urge you to promptly hold a legislative hearing on legislative solutions that will resolve the confusion surrounding the legality of cannabis in the United States.”
The STATES Act was introduced in both the House and Senate on Thursday. If enacted, it would block the federal government from punishing people for actions that are in compliance with state laws “relating to the manufacture, production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration or delivery” of marijuana.
President Trump voiced support for a previous version of the cannabis bill filed last year by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), which garnered nine other Senate cosponsors by the end of 2018. A companion House version had 45 members signed on.
Advocates are increasingly hopeful that the new legislation, or similar far-reaching marijuana reforms, are achievable this year.
Already, the House Financial Services Committee moved last month to approve a bill to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banks with a bipartisan vote of 45 to 15.
And Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the chairman of the powerful Rules Committee predicted in an interview last week that the House will pass legislation like the STATES Act “within the next several weeks.”
The road to passage of the bill on the floor begins in the Judiciary Committee, hence the GOP lawmakers’ letter to Nadler.
Support from a top Republican like Collins adds to pressure on Democrats to prioritize moving marijuana reforms, which are supported by a growing majority of voters, according to polls. Meanwhile, all of the Democratic party’s major presidential candidates have endorsed legalization.
The support for the STATES Act marks a shift for Collins, who was the lead sponsor of criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by President Trump late last year but has opposed most marijuana reforms that have come before the House since he joined Congress in 2013.
In 2015, for example, he voted against a floor amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with state marijuana laws as well as narrower proposals covering only medical cannabis programs that year and in 2014.
And whereas the STATES Act would ease the issue of marijuana businesses’ access to banks, Collins also opposed a 2014 amendment to shield financial services providers from being punished for working with the cannabis industry.
Between 2014 and 2016, he voted three times to oppose amendments that would allow military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations from their Department of Veterans Affairs doctors. And while Collins opposed two hemp amendments in 2014, he did back two similar measures in 2015. He also supported a 2015 amendment to shield people from being punished by the Justice Department for activity in compliance with state laws allowing limited access to CBD medical cannabis preparations.
The endorsement of far-reaching cannabis legislation by Collins, who has never before proactively signed his name onto a marijuana reform bill as a cosponsor, marks perhaps one of the biggest and most important conversions on Capitol Hill yet for legalization supporters.
A staffer for Collins said in January that he would be “unlikely to support” a move by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who worked with the Georgia Republican on the successful criminal justice reform legislation called the First Step Act, to include language descheduling marijuana in a followup sentencing reform bill tentatively called the Next Step Act.
While the legislation Collins is endorsing wouldn’t technically remove marijuana from the schedules of the Controlled Substances Act, it would specifically exempt anyone following a state cannabis law from being punished under the law.
“The STATES Act is a bipartisan solution to the biggest issue facing the cannabis industry today, which is the conflict between federal and state law and all of the negative repercussions that come with it,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said. “Rep. Collins is highly respected on both sides of the aisle, a true constitutional conservative and comes from a state with no industry.”
“If he can get behind the STATES Act, that only reinforces what we’ve been saying: this is the only piece of legislation that ends the untenable conflict between federal and state law that has a chance to pass into law during this Congress,” Levine said.
For his part, Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said earlier this year that his committee might be taking up the issue of marijuana “fairly soon.” Although he did not cosponsor last Congress’s version of the STATES Act, he has signed onto other legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition in years past.
He also suggested in an interview last year that he might support legalizing drugs beyond marijuana. “Certainly the softer drugs like marijuana, there’s no good reason at all that they cannot be legalized and regulated properly,” he said, distinctly using the plural term “drugs.”
Gaetz, who coauthored the new letter with Collins, is one of a handful of congressional Republicans who have played an especially active role in pushing his party to evolve on cannabis issues. A bill he sponsored to increase research on medical cannabis was approved by the Judiciary Committee last year when the House was under GOP control.
Andrew Yang Wants To Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms For Military Veterans
Andrew Yang says he wants to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for military veterans to help them combat mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During a town hall event at an Iowa college on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked whether he would take initiative and allow veterans to access medical marijuana if elected. Yang replied he “will be so excited to be that commander-in-chief” that he would not only end federal cannabis prohibition but would go one step further by legalizing the psychedelic fungus for veterans as well.
“We need to get marijuana off of the Controlled Substances Act and legalize it at the federal level, make it freely available,” he said. “I say this because I’ve talked to hundreds of veterans and other Americans who benefit from marijuana as a pain relief treatment, and it’s much less deadly than the opiates that many, many people are using for the same conditions.”
“I’ve talked to veterans who’ve also benefited from psilocybin mushrooms,” he added. “They said it was the only thing that actually has helped combat their PTSD. I’m for legalizing psilocybin mushrooms for veterans as well. Pretty much if it’s going to help a veteran, we should make it easier, not harder, for them to get access to it.”
Yang’s drug policy reform platform is unique in that respect. While the majority of Democratic candidates support marijuana legalization, he’s pushed unique proposals such as decriminalizing possession of opioids and making psilocybin mushrooms “more freely available” for therapeutic purposes. The candidate also wants to invest federal funds in safe injection facilities where individuals can use prohibited drugs in a medically supervised environment and receive help getting into treatment.
He hasn’t gone so far as embracing the decriminalization of all drugs, as former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has, however.
That said, Yang did signal that he’s open to legalizing and regulating “certain drugs” beyond cannabis, which he argued would disrupt international drug cartels. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) recently said she backs “legalizing and regulating” currently illegal controlled substances to protect public safety and combat the illicit market.
At the Iowa town hall, Yang went on to say that he’s particularly interested in legalizing marijuana, and he again pledged to “pardon everyone who’s in jail for a non-violent marijuana-related offense because they shouldn’t be in jail for something that’s frankly legal in other parts of the country.”
“And I would pardon them all on April 20, 2021, high-five them on the way out of jail and be like, ‘things got a lot better in the last year,'” he said, referencing the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20.
Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Tom Steyer Calls For Marijuana Legalization And Opioid Decriminalization
Billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer is calling for the legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of opioid possession.
In a criminal justice reform plan released on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate laid out a vision for ending the drug war, which he said has contributed to mass incarceration and is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
“Tom believes we must end the failed War on Drugs. Based on the flawed idea that incarceration is the answer to addiction, federal and state elected officials passed severe sentencing laws that encouraged incarceration for low-level drug offenses,” the plan states. “Unfortunately, communities of color were and continue to be disproportionately affected and targeted by these laws, even when other ethnicities were committing the same drug crimes at the same rates.”
Today @TomSteyer announced a new criminal justice plan to:
– Reform the juvenile system
– Improve prison conditions
– Redirect funds to education
– Eliminate cash bail
– Release more rehabilitated people
– End the war on drugs
And much more! 👉 https://t.co/3VYRw7ioXB
— TeamTom 🌎 (@TomHQ) January 24, 2020
There are six proposals in the drug war section, including legalizing cannabis and expunging prior marijuana convictions, ending mandatory minimum sentences and empowering judges to use more discretion in non-violent drug cases, diverting people convicted of drug offenses to treatment or drug court, ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, sealing the records of certain drug convictions and decriminalizing opioids while investing $75 billion in treatment programs and holding pharmaceutical companies accountable.
Steyer specifically endorsed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would deschedule cannabis, expunge prior convictions and set aside tax revenue to support communities most impacted by the drug war.
“Policing marijuana use has led to too many unfair incarcerations and predominantly impacted communities of color,” the plan says. It also criticizes then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s 2018 move on “repealing leniency given to states for marijuana laws.”
Today, I'm meeting with formerly incarcerated individuals to talk about transforming the criminal justice system through police accountability, ending cash bail, providing adequate funding to re-entry programs, and so much more. pic.twitter.com/m9lDEKWwwU
— Tom Steyer (@TomSteyer) January 23, 2020
“A Steyer Administration will also open equitable pathways to banking for marijuana businesses,” it continues. “The federal government—including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—should not be a barrier to marijuana businesses receiving support from their local banks.”
“Incarceration is not the answer to addiction, and low-level drug offenses should not carry a severe sentence. Tom will legalize marijuana, let states pass their own policies, expunge past records, and direct the federal government to open banking services to the marijuana industry. Tom’s administration will end the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences, decriminalize opioid possession, and invest $75 billion to address the opioid crisis.”
The opioid decriminalization proposal is similar to that of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, another 2020 candidate who said removing criminal penalties for possessing the substance is necessary in order to help get people into treatment and curb the opioid crisis. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have gone further, calling for the decriminalization of all drug possession and, in Gabbard’s case, also the legalization and regulation of illicit drugs.
“Tom supports decriminalizing small amounts of opioid possession for personal use at the federal level,” the plan states. “He will address the opioid crisis through $75 billion in new funding over ten years to resource state and local treatment programs, hold big pharmaceutical corporations and their executives accountable, and strongly enforce laws that end the illicit distribution and sale of opioids.”
This is a notable development for Steyer, who hasn’t discussed drug policy reform as much as many other candidates in the race and whose views on decriminalization of substances beyond marijuana were previously unknown.
Last year, Steyer said he supported creating a national referendum process so that Americans can made decisions about a wide range of policy issues, including cannabis legalization.
He also previously discussed his support for ending marijuana prohibition and providing the industry with access to banking, saying that he and his wife wanted to provide financial services to minority- and women-owned cannabis firms through their community bank, but federal prohibition means the business would be put at risk if they did that.
Steyer’s new plan also calls for juvenile justice reform, ending cash bail, banning facial recognition technology in policing, demilitarizing law enforcement, improving prison conditions and eliminating the death penalty, among other reforms.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
Austin City Council Approves Measure To End Most Marijuana Arrests
The decision to back away from pursuing criminal charges against people with small amounts of pot comes after state lawmakers last year legalized hemp in a way that threw marijuana prosecution into chaos.
The Austin City Council approved a resolution Thursday that will largely end arrests and fines for low-level marijuana possession. This comes after Texas’ legalization of hemp last June threw marijuana prosecution into chaos since the plants look and smell identical.
The resolution directing Austin police not to spend city resources on newly necessary lab tests to distinguish marijuana from now-legal hemp passed unanimously with nine votes. Council member Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Steve Adler were absent. Debate on the measure lasted just under an hour and a half. Of about 20 people who spoke on the resolution, only Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday was against it.
The council’s resolution states that it stems directly from Texas’ new law legalizing hemp. Last summer, following a federal hemp bill, state lawmakers approved a measure to create an agricultural industry for the crop in Texas. But the law also complicated marijuana prosecutions by narrowing the legal definition of the drug from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant.
Joint Effort: #ATXCouncil takes steps to eliminate the use of arrest or other enforcement action for low-level cannabis-related possession offenses + ensure City resources are focused on citizens’ public safety priorities. View the draft resolution: https://t.co/qNJ6L2ZPjJ. pic.twitter.com/rdwiLjx0w8
— City of Austin (@austintexasgov) January 23, 2020
All of a sudden, some district attorneys were dropping hundreds of low-level pot possession cases and not accepting new ones, arguing they couldn’t tell without lab testing if something was marijuana anymore. New misdemeanor marijuana cases filed by Texas prosecutors have dropped by more than half. And numerous Texas prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, require police to submit lab reports on a substance’s THC concentration before they will pursue misdemeanor marijuana charges. They argue circumstantial evidence like smell can no longer be used to authoritatively say something is marijuana.
Part of what prompted the Austin resolution — which prohibits spending city funds on such testing except in felony cases — is that public state labs are still working on establishing a way to test for that THC concentration. Right now they can only tell if something is cannabis. For some counties and cities, that has meant putting more money into shipping seized cannabis to private labs that can tell if it’s hemp or marijuana.
Even in places where police don’t have or aren’t spending funds on such testing and new cases aren’t being accepted by prosecutors, people are still being cited or arrested. They are sometimes taken to jail but then released with no charges being pursued. Austin police said this month that they still arrest or cite people who are suspected of possessing marijuana.
This resolution changes that, directing the city to get as close as possible to eliminating enforcement action for low-level cannabis possession.
The measure prohibits spending city funds on testing in low-level possession cases, and it directs police not to arrest or cite people in such cases — unless there is a safety concern — if they know the district attorney will automatically reject the charges or testing won’t be approved. It clarifies that lab testing can be used for suspected felonies or when the cannabis is not for personal use, like trafficking cases. A revised version also specifies that the measure will not affect toxicology testing.
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