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.
Senate Marijuana Hearing Highlights How Schedule I Status Blocks Research
A major focus of a U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control hearing on the health impacts of marijuana turned out to be how cannabis’s current federal classification makes it harder for researchers to shed light on those effects.
The Wednesday event—titled “Marijuana and America’s Health: Questions and Issues for Policy Makers”—featured testimony from Surgeon General Jerome Adams and National Institute On Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow.
Panel co-chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has long opposed broad marijuana reform but acknowledged in her opening remarks that the substance is “much more complex than I thought” and revealed that she has personally witnessed the medical benefits of cannabis for people dealing with chemotherapy.
“I know that for a fact from family issues,” she said.
And while she expressed serious concerns during the hearing about marijuana’s potentially harmful effects, particularly on young people, she also said that the drug’s current restrictive status under the Controlled Substances Act impedes scientific studies.
“Much of what we know about marijuana is anecdotal,” she said, which is “problematic for us in terms of making policy.”
“That’s due in part to the fact that marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug makes it difficult to research,” the senator added, pointing to legislation she has filed that would lift some barriers to investigations. “It’s my belief that science should inform our policy.”
Co-chair Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) suggested that he’s open to working with across-the-aisle colleague on the legislation, but also voiced concerns about legalization.
“We lack definitive evidence on the short- and long-term health implications of marijuana use,” he said. “There seems to be a lot of folk myths and other idiosyncratic ideas that really haven’t gone through the sort of peer review that most scientific evidence has to go through in order to be accepted by policymakers.”
Watch the Senate marijuana hearing below:
Volkow laid out a number of concerns about marijuana’s impact but also testified that its Schedule I status impedes and slows down research.
Preclinical studies of THC exposure during adolescence have shown greater subsequent sensitivity to the rewarding effects of other drugs, which could be one reason why those who use marijuana at a young age are more vulnerable to addiction later in life. – Dr. Nora D. Volkow
— NIDAnews (@NIDAnews) October 23, 2019
“DEA registration can take, if you’re lucky, one year to obtain,” she said. “That delays the process enormously.”
She also criticized the fact that there is currently only one legal source in the U.S. for scientists to obtain cannabis to use in studies. “The process is very slow” to get marijuana from the facility, which is at the University of Mississippi.
Frequent marijuana use during adolescence is associated with changes in areas of the brain involved in attention, memory, emotions, and motivation – Dr. Nora D. Volkow
— NIDAnews (@NIDAnews) October 23, 2019
Another problem she pointed out is that researchers cannot legally study the cannabis products that consumers in a growing number of states are actually purchasing from licensed retailers.
“We are interested in understanding what people are taking out there,” she said. “We cannot fund research that relates to products that are actually being bought through these dispensaries because it’s illegal.”
Adams, who in August issued a warning the public about marijuana use by adolescents and pregnant women, said during his testimony that legalization is a “poorly-informed national public health experiment” but agreed that “we need to make it easier to do research.”
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) October 23, 2019
It’s important that we all take action to ensure a healthy next generation.
Know the risks. Take action. Protect our future.
Read my advisory to learn more: https://t.co/ZccTPyzl37
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) October 23, 2019
Cornyn compared claims about cannabis’s medical benefits to decades-old ads about tobacco, saying that there are “some parallels perhaps here in the way we are wading into this debate.”
Adams agreed. “We’ve seen this play before,” he said. “Many of the indications people are using marijuana for are unproven. We are overstating the benefits and in my view we are downplaying the risks.”
In a Senate floor speech on Tuesday in which he previewed the hearing, the senator made similar remarks.
“There’s no shortage of people who claim that marijuana has endless health benefits and can help patients struggling from everything from epilepsy to anxiety to cancer treatments,” he said. “This reminds me of some of the advertising we saw from the tobacco industry years ago where they actually claimed public health benefits from smoking tobacco, which we know as a matter of fact were false and that tobacco contains nicotine, an addictive drug, and is implicated with cancers of different kinds.”
Today the Caucus on International Narcotics Control will hold a hearing entitled "Marijuana and America's Health: Questions and Issues for Policy Makers." It is worth recalling how health benefits of tobacco use were once touted and its negative health impacts were obscured. pic.twitter.com/q0tbBCthzc
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) October 23, 2019
In August, Cornyn said that he wanted to hold a hearing focused on cannabis’s health effects before the Senate moves to consider a proposal to allow state-legal businesses to access banking services. A bill to do so passed the House of Representatives last month and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) says he’d like to advance similar legislation by the end of the year, though he has indicated he wants some changes to the version approved by the other chamber.
Feinstein cosponsored a bill to let states set their own cannabis laws without federal interference during the course of her reelection campaign last year, but has not yet signed onto a new version filed in the current Congress.
A second panel at the hearing featured Robert Fitzgerald of the University of California at San Diego, Staci Gruber of Harvard Medical School, Sean Hennessy of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Madeline Meier of Arizona State University.
Cornyn—who at one point revealed he has a friend who feeds his dogs CBD-infused food—said that the caucus may issue a white paper based on what was discussed at the hearing.
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) made a brief appearance and mentioned the need to improve military veterans’ access to medical cannabis.
“In too many cases they’re becoming addicted to medications prescribed to them,” she said. “They have given so much to their country.”
This story was updated to include quotes from the hearing.
UK Parliament Committee Endorses Decriminalizing Drugs
A UK House of Commons panel is calling on the government to decriminalize drugs and adopt other harm reduction approaches to address a growing overdose crisis.
“We recommend a radical change in UK drugs policy from a criminal justice to a health approach. A health focused and harm reduction approach would not only benefit those who are using drugs but reduce harm to and the costs for their wider communities,” reads a report issued on Wednesday by the Health and Social Care Committee. “Decriminalisation of possession for personal use saves money from the criminal justice system that is more effectively invested in prevention and treatment.”
“Every drug death is avoidable. However, the United Kingdom, and in particular Scotland, have amongst the highest drug death rates in Europe. The evidence we have heard leads us to conclude that UK drugs policy is failing.”
The panel said that decriminalization alone “will not be effective without investing in holistic harm reduction, support and treatment services for drug addiction.” To that end, it is also voicing support for syringe exchange programs, drug checking services, naloxone, safe consumption facilities and heroin assisted treatment—components that it says “can all play an important role in preventing deaths amongst drug users as well as protecting their communities by reducing the harm from discarded syringes and drug related crime.”
The committee also wants to move responsibility for drug policy from the Home office, which handles crime, to the Department of Health and Social Care. “We strongly recommend this move,” the report says.
Our report on #drugspolicy is now published.
Read it here: https://t.co/wOPXr17Ews
— Health and Social Care Committee (@CommonsHealth) October 22, 2019
When it comes to the proposal to remove criminal penalties for drug possession, the committee wrote about witnessing the success of that policy in Portugal, where it was enacted in 2001.
“On our visit to Portugal we saw a system marked by a positive attitude to service users which recognised the impact that chaotic lifestyles could have on engagement with support and treatment,” the report says. “There was a striking ethos of holistic, non-judgemental treatment and access to services focused on the needs of individuals rather than the convenience of the system.”
The lawmakers said that UK-based treatment professions share “a similar ethos, but their capacity to deliver is compromised by inadequate funding and the policy framework.”
The Portuguese model, they write, has “had an impact on stigma” and has led to a “dramatic drop in drug related deaths…without significant increases in drug use.”
“All those we met in Portugal involved in this policy area were very positive about their model,” the lawmakers said. “On introduction, there had been significant opposition, but there is now political consensus and nobody would want to go back. Some of those we met were now of the view that the next step should be legalisation and regulation, to enable the generation of taxation revenue and quality control.”
“Efforts to improve the unacceptably high rates of drug-related deaths would be strengthened by explicitly reframing drug use as a health rather than a criminal justice issue.”
The panel’s report also recounts how members toured supervised drug consumption facilities in Frankfurt, Germany, and recommends that they be “piloted in areas of high need” in the UK.
“Police representatives told us that these facilities should not be viewed simply as allowing people to take illicit drugs–they are about safety, stopping drug overdoses, and very importantly, providing access to a wraparound of other services to eventually stop that person’s drug use,” they wrote. “Harm reduction approaches such as [drug consumption rooms] reduce the wider harms to local communities as well as for those using drugs.”
A government spokesperson rejected the committee’s recommendation to remove criminal penalties for low-level drug offenses, saying that it “would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery that this can cause to families and communities.”
But Dr. Sarah Wollaston MP, chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, said that “a holistic approach centered on improving the health of and reducing the harm faced by drug users, as well as increasing the treatment available, must be a priority going forward.”
“This approach would not only benefit those who are dependent on drugs but benefit their wider communities,” she said in a press release. “The Government should learn lessons from the international experience, including places like Portugal and Frankfurt. It should consult on the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use from a criminal offence to a civil matter. Decriminalisation alone would not be sufficient. There needs to be a radical upgrade in treatment and holistic care for those who are dependent on drugs and this should begin without delay.”
James Nichols, CEO of the pro-reform Transform Drug Policy Foundation, praised the report but also suggested its recommendations didn’t go far enough in that they would leave the market unregulated by simply decriminalizing possession.
“We need to think about drugs as a health issue, not a criminal justice agenda. This isn’t simply a matter of thinking differently. It’s about creating an entirely new policy landscape. It means action, not just words,” he wrote in a blog post. “Decriminalisation is essential in moving drug policy away from the simplistic, ineffective and often prejudicial approach we have today. Ultimately, though, we need to bring the whole market under legal regulation in order to really get drugs under control and reduce the violence and exploitation that prohibition creates.”
The UK committee’s endorsement of decriminalization is just the latest sign that broad drug policy reforms beyond marijuana legalization are gaining traction around the globe.
This month, Scotland’s ruling party unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing “decriminalization of possession and consumption of controlled drugs so that health services are not prevented from giving treatment to those that need it.”
In Canada, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health issued a report in June recommending the government “work with provinces, territories, municipalities and Indigenous communities and law enforcement agencies to decriminalize the simple possession of small quantities of illicit substances.”
In the U.S., presidential candidates such as Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard have voiced support for drug decriminalization during the course of their campaigns for the Democratic nomination, and businessman Andrew Yang and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) spoke in favor of removing criminal penalties for at least opioids during a debate this month.
A poll released this month found that a majority of Americans—55 percent—support decriminalizing drugs.
Last week, a top Mexican lawmaker proposed going further by legalizing the production and sales of drugs in order to undercut the violent, cartel-controlled underground market.
USDA Outlines Rules For Importing Hemp Plants And Seeds From Other Countries
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) quietly updated guidance last week to clarify that hemp seeds and plants may be imported from other countries.
As was the case under a previous announcement focused on seeds, the requirements for importing the full plant from Canada are different than for other countries. Plants from Canada are allowed if they’re “accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate from Canada’s [national plant protection organization” to verify the origin of the plant and to confirm no plant pests are detected.” For other countries, importers must fill out an additional permit application.
Companies can also import hemp seeds from Canada if they produce a “Federal Seed Analysis Certificate.”
In addition to a phytosanitary certificate, those who seek to import seeds from countries other than Canada are subject to a Custom and Border Protection inspection at the port of entry in order “ensure they meet [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] regulations, including certification and freedom from plant pests.”
Prior to last week, USDA had only offered guidance on the rules for importing seeds, which it released in April. Both updates are in response to the federal legalization of hemp and its derivatives under the 2018 Farm Bill.
USDA has taken an incremental approach to the implementation process for hemp since the legislation was signed into law last December. The department said in April that it’s accepting applications for intellectual property protections for seed-propagated hemp.
In August, USDA said farmers operating under the 2014 Farm Bill are eligible for federal crop insurance for the 2020 planting season. That coverage will extend to all hemp farmers after USDA releases its final regulations for the crop.
USDA Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky said on Monday that the department plans to release its interim final rule on hemp within “the next couple of weeks.”
The latest development comes after more than three months of interagency review of the regulations, which included input from the Justice Department and White House Office of Management and Budget.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.