Attorney General William Barr said on Wednesday that he would prefer that Congress enact legislation allowing states to legalize marijuana instead of continuing the current approach under which a growing number of states have ended cannabis prohibition in conflict with federal law.
The attorney general added that the Justice Department is actively reviewing legislation that would accomplish that, and he discussed the department’s current approach to marijuana enforcement as well as plans to add additional cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
During a Senate appropriations hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) asked Barr about the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, a bipartisan bill introduced last week that would protect legal marijuana states from federal intervention.
Barr reiterated previous comments indicating that his overall preference would be for marijuana to be prohibited across the country, but acknowledged that the approach is increasingly politically untenable.
“The situation that I think is intolerable and which I’m opposed to is the current situation we’re in, and I would prefer one of two approaches rather than where we are,” Barr said. “Personally, I would still favor one uniform federal rule against marijuana but, if there is not sufficient consensus to obtain that, then I think the way to go is to permit a more federal approach so states can make their own decisions within the framework of the federal law and so we’re not just ignoring the enforcement of federal law.”
Barr said that he hasn’t specifically looked at the STATES Act yet, but that the bill is currently being circulated internally through the Justice Department “for comment.”
“Once we get those comments, we’ll be able to work with you on any concerns about the STATES law, but I would much rather that approach—the approach taken by the STATES Act—than where we currently are,” he said.
Watch Barr’s marijuana comments, at about 1:12:10 and 1:55:30 into the video below:
The comments are the latest sign that Barr does not plan to dedicate Justice Department resources to enforcing federal cannabis laws to crack down on the legal industry. While he was being confirmed by the Senate, Barr repeatedly said he wouldn’t prosecute marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state law.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked Barr about the department’s current policy for marijuana enforcement since Obama-era guidance for federal prosecutors was rescinded by his predecessor, Jeff Sessions. The attorney general said he is going to have to “make some difficult choices” and said it was an “open question” as to whether the department will treat cannabis businesses that began operating after the guidance was removed the same way that it has for those in states that legalized while the Cole memorandum was in place.
“I would like to see Congress address this issue,” Barr said.
He also committed to expanding the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers within the next year, telling Schatz that it’s something he’s “been pushing very hard over the last few weeks.”
“I think we’re going to move forward on it,” he said. “I think it’s very important to get those additional suppliers.”
Legalization advocates reacted positively to the attorney general’s latest comments on the need for Congress to resolve conflicting state and federal marijuana laws.
“We agree wholeheartedly with [Attorney General] Barr—the conflict between federal and state cannabis law has become untenable and must end,” Neal Levine, CEO of Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment. “While today is yet another promising development, we have a long way to go. As an industry we must stay vigilant and continue to advocate for this sensible, bipartisan solution that our industry and the communities we operate in so desperately need.”
Michael Correia, government relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, agreed that it’s “a positive sign that Attorney General Barr has acknowledged that the current situation is untenable” and said the organization is “happy to hear that the STATES Act is being considered for comment by the Department of Justice.”
However, “we also recognize that there are multiple other pieces of legislation currently in Congress that would allow states to set their own policies and end federal cannabis prohibition,” Correia said.
Those pieces of legislation includes the Marijuana Justice Act, a bill sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) that would not only federally deschedule marijuana but also involve a number of social equity provisions designed to repair the damages of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially disproportionate manner.
Booker said on Tuesday that he wouldn’t be signing on to cannabis legislation that didn’t include such provisions, and that’s why he is not a cosponsor of the STATES Act like he was for the version filed during the last Congress.
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that while it’s “positive that DOJ seems willing to engage on marijuana reform,” he’s “reluctant to value William Barr’s input on marijuana legislation, just as I never valued Jeff Sessions’s input on sentencing reform legislation.”
“Feedback is always welcome, but Congress writes the laws,” Collins said. “DOJ just enforces them.”
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Barr and advocates.
Photo courtesy of Senate Appropriations Committee.
Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State
Oregon officials finalized a series of analyses this week on separate ballot measures to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and decriminalize drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that the decriminalization initiative would reduce felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug possession by 91 percent, and that reduction would be “substantial for all racial groups, ranging from 82.9% for Asian Oregonians to approximately 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.”
Overall, the policy change would result in a 95 percent drop in racial disparities for possession arrests, the panel projects.
“The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests.”
The conviction estimate was included in the panel’s draft analysis first released last month, but the final version was expanded to include the arrest data as well. The new document also notes that “disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others”—a point that activists hoped the panel would include.
That said, the commission noted it “lacks sufficient or appropriate data in each of these areas and therefore cannot provide estimates for these other stages.”
The new report, published on Wednesday, cites research indicating that the resulting “drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others.”
The decriminalization proposal was the first ballot initiative in the state’s history to receive a report on the racial justice implications of its provisions under a little-utilized procedure where lawmakers can request such an analysis.
This information will be included in a voter pamphlet as a factual statement from the secretary of state’s office.
“Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more,” Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign, said in a press release.
Both the psilocybin therapy and drug decriminalization measures also received final explanatory statements and fiscal impact statements this week.
For the therapeutic psilocybin legalization initiative, the Financial Estimate Committee said that it projects the measure will have an impact of $5.4 million from the general fund during the two-year development period. After the program is established, it will cost $3.1 million annually, “which will be covered by the fees and tax funds for the administration and enforcement of the Act.”
The explanatory statement says the measure “directs the Oregon Health Authority to regulate the manufacture, delivery, purchase, and consumption of psilocybin, a psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms, at licensed psilocybin service centers” and that a “person would be allowed to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin only at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
It also describes an initial two-year development period during which officials will research and make recommendations on “the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat mental health conditions,” after which time the new law will allow “a client who is at least 21 years of age to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin initiative, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “satisfied with the explanatory statement and believe it captures the thoughtful approach we took that led to psilocybin therapy being on the ballot this November.”
“Specifically, we were happy to see the regulations and safeguards that are built into the measure highlighted in the explanatory statement,” he said. “We also believe that the fiscal committee saw and respected our approach to keep the psilocybin therapy program revenue neutral once up and running.”
The drug possession decriminalization measure is expected to cost $57 million annually, according to state officials, but it will be covered by marijuana tax revenue, which is “estimated at $61.1 million in 2019-21 and $182.4 million in 2021-23” and would therefore be “sufficient to meet this requirement.” Cannabis revenue to cities and counties would be reduced under the measure.
The reform would also save money through reduced drug enforcement. “These savings are estimated at $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23,” the analysis says. “This will reduce revenue transferred from the Department of Corrections for local government community corrections by $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23. The savings are expected to increase beyond the 2021-23 biennium.”
The initiative “mandates the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each existing coordinated care organization service area in the state,” the separate explanatory statement says, and describes how they would be funded with marijuana tax revenue.
“The measure eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles,” it says. “Instead, possession of these specified quantities of controlled substances becomes a non-criminal Class E violation for which the maximum punishment is a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.”
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
A measure to effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics has officially qualified for the November ballot in Washington, D.C.
Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last month.
Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Read the full state analysis of the Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin therapy measures below:
Top White House Official Blasts Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ Coronavirus Bill
Vice President Mike Pence’s top staffer on Thursday joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing House Democrats for including marijuana banking provisions to the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief bill.
Marc Short, who is Pence’s chief of staff and previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, discussed the COVID-19 legislation during an interview with Fox Business, and he described the Democratic proposal as a “liberal wish list” with “all sorts of things totally unrelated to coronavirus.”
“In one instance they have provided guarantees for banking access for marijuana growers,” Short said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus.”
He’s referring to language that was inserted from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Numerous Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have been critical of the provision, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.
Democrats, for their part, have made the case that granting cannabis businesses with access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview this week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.
“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.
While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.
The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.
USDA Approves Hemp Plan For Maryland And One More Indian Tribe
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved hemp regulatory plans for Maryland and the Lower Sioux Indian Community on Thursday.
With this latest development, the total number of approved plans across states, territories and tribes is 55.
“USDA continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes,” the agency said in a notice.
While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.
USDA announced in February that it will temporarily lift two provisions that the industry viewed as problematic. Those policies primarily concern testing and disposal requirements. The department declined to revise the THC limit, however, arguing that it’s a statutory matter that can’t be dealt with administratively.
Last week, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to the head of USDA, expressing concern that testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said on several occasions that the Drug Enforcement Administration influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.
State agriculture departments and a hemp industry association also wrote to Congress and USDA this week, seeking an extension of the 2014 Farm Bill pilot program for hemp to give states more time to develop regulatory plans to submit to the agency.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still in the process of developing regulations for CBD. It sent an update on its progress to Congress in March, explaining that the agency is actively exploring pathways to allow for the marketing of the cannabis compound as a dietary supplement and is developing enforcement discretion guidance.
An FDA public comment period was reopened indefinitely for individuals to submit feedback on CBD regulations.
Last month, the White House finalized a review of FDA CBD and cannabis research protocols, but it’s unclear when or if the document will be released to the public.
Also last month, FDA submitted a report to Congress on the state of the CBD marketplace, and the document outlines studies the agency has performed on the contents and quality of cannabis-derived products that it has tested over the past six years.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.
However, USDA has previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While the department initially said it would not reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.
Two members of Congress representing New York also wrote a letter to Perdue in June, asking that the agency extend access to that program to hemp farmers.
Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department recently released guidelines for processing loans for the industry.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.