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Lawmakers And Witnesses Clash On Strategy During Congressional Hearing On Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition

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Members of a key congressional committee convened for a first-ever hearing on ending marijuana prohibition on Wednesday, engaging in informed conversations about the issue that largely embraced evidence and avoided resorting to fear mongering, demonstrating a broad consensus that major cannabis reforms are needed.

But there was some disagreement and debate over what reform legislation should look like and the best strategy to advance it.

The meeting of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee marks a significant development in the marijuana reform movement. As advocates suspected in advance, lawmakers seemed to regard the question of whether to reform federal marijuana laws as a given and used the hearing to discuss how to regulate cannabis.

Those issues included social equity in the legal industry, repairing the harms of prohibition and investing in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

“Applying criminal penalties with their attendant collateral consequences for marijuana offenses is unjust and harmful to our society,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said. “The use of marijuna should be viewed instead as an issue of personal choice and public health.”

Watch the hearing, titled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform” below:

While the meeting didn’t largely focus on specific cannabis bills, multiple relevant proposals have been introduced this session—ranging from bipartisan legislation that would simply allow states to set their own marijuana policies to bills that would fully deschedule cannabis and include social equity provisions—and there was some discussion and disagreement raised about certain legislation.

“The war on drugs was racially biased from its inception and has been carried out in a discriminatory fashion with disastrous consequences for hundreds of thousands of people of color and their communities,” Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-CA) said in her opening statement.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), the acting ranking member of the subcommittee, said that marijuana decriminalization “may be one of the very few issues upon which bipartisan agreement can still be reached in this session” and that it “doesn’t require endorsing cannabis.”

The congressman also argued that Democratic leadership “has decided to play the race card in this hearing” by framing the issue in terms of racial justice and that the “left does enormous harm every time it tries to divide Amerians along racial lines.”

Nadler pushed back against McClintock’s characterization, emphasizing that “marijuana laws had been done in racially disparate manner.”

“To point that out and to seek to cure that is not to inflame racial divisions,” he said. “It’s simply to point out a fact of life and try to cure it.”

“Personally I believe cannabis use in most cases is ill advised,” he said. “But many things are ill advised that should not be illegal but should rather be left to the informed judgement of free men and women.”

Malik Burnett, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health physician and former Washington, D.C. policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, testified at the hearing.

“It is an unmitigated fact that the state of cannabis policy today in best described as a tale of two Americas,” Burnett, who serves as the Chief Operating Officer of the minority owned multi-state cannabis business Tribe Companies, said in his written testimony. “In one America there are men and women, most of them wealthy, white and well connected, who are starting cannabis companies, creating jobs and amassing significant personal wealth, and generating billions in tax dollars for the states which sanction cannabis programs.”

“In the other America, there are men and women, most of them poor, people of color, who are arrested and suffer the collateral consequences associated with criminal conviction,” he said. “Drug policy in America is, and has always been, a policy that is based on racial and social control.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby also appeared before the panel. Her office announced in January that her office would no longer prosecute cannabis possession cases.

“The test of time has provided us with ample data that there is little public safety value related to the current enforcement of marijuana laws,” Mosby said in written testimony. “The data indicates that the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws and overall drug laws not only intensifies already existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but exacerbates distrust among communities and law enforcement without increasing overall public safety.”

“We have to go beyond decriminalization,” she later said during the hearing. “We have to actually legalize this drug.”

David Nathan, a physician and board president of the pro-legalization group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, also shared his perspective with the committee.

“As physicians, we believe that cannabis should never have been made illegal for consenting adults. It is less harmful to adults than alcohol and tobacco, and the prohibition has done far more damage to our society than the adult use of cannabis itself,” Nathan said in his testimony.

Finally, Neal Levine, CEO of Cannabis Trade Federation, the minority party’s witness, offered testimony. Advocates view his inclusion as the Republican’s sole witness at the meeting to be a positive sign, as Levine supports broad marijuana reform.

“The most immediate path to resolving the state-federal cannabis conflict is passage of the STATES Act,” Levine said, referring to bipartisan legislation that would allow states to set their own mariijuana policies without fear of federal interference but would not broadly deschedule cannabis. “Immediate passage of the STATES Act could also help spur economic activity in disadvantaged areas in our country.”

“With strong bipartisan support for legislation like the STATES Act, it is possible during the current session of Congress to take major steps toward respecting state cannabis laws, protecting workers, and advancing a more secure, vibrant, and equitable cannabis industry,” he said. “We hope that Congress will take advantage of the opportunity.”

Debate over the best approach to take when it comes to advancing federal marijuana policy legislation has been a subject of strong interest among advocates, some of whom feel pursuing modest reform proposals such as the STATES Act that stand a better chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Senate for now would be more prudent, while others argue that the House should use the opportunity presented by broad support for legalization among its Democratic majority to take up more comprehensive bills.

That conversation reared during the hearing. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) pressed witnesses on whether they would vote in favor of the STATES Act, which would not deschedule cannabis and does not include social equity provisions.

Burnett stressed the need to pursue legislative fixes that are more comprehensive and emphasize restorative justice. But he did ultimately say he’d vote for the STATES Act “to make progress.”

“My deep concern is that concerns over how far to go on some of the restorative elements of our policy could divide our movement,” Gaetz said. “If we further divide out the movement then I fear that we’ll continue to fall victim to that which has plagued other Congresses where we don’t get anything done.”

Levine argued that passing the STATES Act “would actually clarify it and focus the conversation” as lawmakers work on more wide-ranging cannabis legislation.

But Mosby emphasized “the need to reinvest into those individuals and those communities that have been disproportionately impacted” and said the STATES Act “does not do that, and that is one of the reasons I’m opposed to it.”

Members and witnesses also discussed access to banking services, deterring youth consumption and impaired driving, mitigating opioid abuse and addressing interstate commerce.

Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-GA) said that the “legal status of marijuana in the United States is in complete disarray,” noting conflicts between federal and state law as well as international treaty obligations that encourage prohibiting cannabis. He said that the STATES Act is “an excellent foundation for legislative reforms.”

There were also some lighter moments during the meeting, with some lawmakers reflecting on the progress that the hearing represented.

“Everything in politics seems impossible until it happens,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), said. “If 15 years ago I were to tell you, in 15 years we would have gay marriage in 50 states and, in some of those states, we’d be smoking weed, you’d think I was crazy—but that is in fact what is happening now.”

“This has been a historic hearing. I don’t think the Judiciary Committee has had a hearing on marijuana,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), said “I’ve been working on this issue for 40 years, and it’s just crazy that we don’t just get it all done.”

“I appreciate Mr. Gaetz’s work on the issue—and I understand incremental— but after 40 years, it’s time to just zap straight up, get it all done, Schedule I done,” Cohen said.

On Tuesday, 10 leading civil rights and criminal justice reform groups including the ACLU added to that conversation by announcing that they’d formed a coalition designed to promote cannabis reform legislation that places an emphasis on social justice.

“Not since the days of Harry Anslinger has cannabis been such a serious topic on Capitol Hill,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release, referring to the former federal anti-drug official who stirred up anti-cannabis hysteria in the 1930s. “With bipartisan support in both chambers, there is no good reason why Congress cannot address this issue before the 2020 election.”

Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said that state cannabis programs are “successfully replacing criminal markets with well regulated businesses across the country and public support for ending prohibition continues to rise.”

“It’s long past time for Congress to align federal policies with modern state marijuana laws and public opinion by removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act so that we can begin the process of developing federal policies that will not only respect state laws, but will defend public health and safety, protect small businesses, and help repair the damage prohibition policies have inflicted on communities of color,” Smith said.

The hearing represents a first step that’s expected to lead to a markup of one or more bills in the coming months. Nadler is rumored to be working on his own legalization legislation, and his position as the full committee’s chairman gives his sizable influence in getting such reform measures to the House floor.

“Today’s hearing is monumental in our fight to end cannabis prohibition,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment.

“As outlined in our blueprint, every major committee has a role to play in this effort in Congress,” he said, referring to a document he circulated to Democratic leadership last year making the case for how the body can advance marijuana reform in the 116th Congress. “We have outlined a pathway forward, and with a Democratic majority, we are making the progress needed.”

“We must show the resolve to address the harsh racial injustice that the War on Drugs has inflicted on communities of color,” he added. “The federal government needs to get out of the way of the states, get in touch with the American people, and make right its wrongs. We need comprehensive reform to include everyone—cannabis businesses, veterans, and communities of color. Today, is an important step.”

The Debate Over How, Not Whether, Congress Should Legalize Marijuana Is Heating Up

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.

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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Majority Of Connecticut Residents Back Marijuana Legalization And Expungements, Poll Finds As Reform Bills Advance

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As bills to legalize marijuana in Connecticut move through the legislature, a new poll finds that the reform has strong support among residents.

The survey from Sacred Heart University (SHU), released on Tuesday, found that about 66 percent of people in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, while 27 percent are opposed.

If the policy change is enacted, 62 percent said those with prior marijuana convictions should have their records expunged.

Via SHU.

Younger people and those who identify as Democrats were more likely to back ending prohibition, compared to those 65 and older or Republicans.

Further, the poll asked about perceived harms of cannabis, and 77 percent said they felt the plant carried “fewer effects” or comparable effects as alcohol. About 72 percent drew the same contrast between marijuana and other drugs such as heroin, amphetamines and prescription painkillers.

Via SHU.

These figures are largely consistent with a previous poll that SHU conducted in February.

And like that prior survey, nearly half of Connecticut residents again expressed that they still believe that there are potential negative public safety implications of legalization, even if they support the policy. In this case, 48 percent said they agree that allowing recreational cannabis would lead to a “significant” increase in impaired driving.

Two in five respondents said they agree that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs. The poll involved interviews with 1,000 residents from March 23-31.

But while these figures largely align with the last SHU survey, one thing that has changed is that reform legislation has started to advance in the legislature, including a bill being backed by the governor.

The Judiciary Committee approved Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) proposal, which was amended to more comprehensively address social equity issues, last week. That said, legislative leaders have indicated that the bill is fluid and will likely see additional revisions down the road.

A competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D) was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee last month.

One amendment that was adopted to the governor’s bill would provide for the free erasure of past marijuana convictions for possession or sales of up to four ounces of cannabis or six mature plants—a policy that is evidently backed by most residents in the state.

Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, initially described his legalization plan as a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”

For his part, House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) said last month that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.

Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said “in principle, equity is important to both the administration and the legislature, and we’re going to work through those details.”

To that end, the majority leader said that working groups have been formed in the Democratic caucuses of the legislature to go through the governor’s proposal and the committee-approved reform bill.

In February, a Lamont administration official stressed during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee that Lamont’s proposal it is “not a final bill,” and they want activists “at the table” to further inform the legislation.

The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. Those bills stalled, however.

Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.

Ritter said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.” The governor said in an interview earlier this year that he puts the odds of his legislation passing at “60-40 percent chance.”

Should that effort fail, the speaker said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. Lamont made similar remarks last week.

The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”

He also said that legalization in Connecticut could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to purchase legal cannabis in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Illinois Gets More Tax Revenue From Marijuana Than Alcohol, State Says

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Remembering Cannabis Legalization Pioneer Steve Fox

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This post is a remembrance of longtime cannabis policy activist Steve Fox from his colleagues at VS Strategies and Vicente Sederberg LLP.

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

We are truly heartbroken to share news of the passing of our partner and dear friend Steve Fox. Steve served as managing partner of VS Strategies since co-founding it in 2013, and he was a leader at Vicente Sederberg LLP since its formation in 2010.

We welcome the celebration of Steve’s life through the sharing of thoughts and memories, and we ask for respect and privacy for his family, friends, and coworkers who are still reeling from this loss. We have also started a GoFundMe page to support Steve’s wife and daughters as they navigate their way through this extremely difficult time—https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-the-family-of-steve-fox

With wisdom beyond his years and a pioneering spirit, Steve was an “old soul” with a knack for seeing things in a new light. He was strongly principled, deeply empathic, and fiercely kind. And despite his usually soft-spoken and lighthearted demeanor, his opinions rarely went unheard and always carried significant weight.

His passion for politics and policy were exceeded only by his passion for people—his family, friends, and colleagues, as well as the multitude of strangers that he knew were being affected every day by politics and policy. He had a burning desire and uncanny ability to envision and effect positive change, both societally and in those closest to him. He was not just a remarkable human being, but a truly transformational leader.

Steve was always the first to volunteer and the last to seek credit. He was beyond generous with his time and patience, and perpetually understanding. He relished opportunities to provide counsel and guidance, and the feeling was mutual for those who received it. He was warmly regarded as a mentor by no fewer than a dozen current and former members of our firm, including all seven of us.

Steve was one of the first political professionals to enter the marijuana advocacy space. At a time when cannabis policy was just a blip on the political radar and most savvy up-and-comers were unwilling to dip a toe into the space, Steve dove in headfirst. While many viewed it as a losing cause that wasn’t worth the fight, he saw it as a cause worth fighting until it was won. And in working to legalize and regulate cannabis for medical and adult use, he found a way to fight simultaneously for several of his core values: To promote justice and compassion, to advance freedom and liberty, and to nurture and inspire the human spirit. Humbly righteous, judiciously aggressive, and relentlessly ethical, he was committed to doing the right thing, doing it the right way, and doing whatever it takes to get it done.

When he joined the Marijuana Policy Project in 2002, Steve was the only full-time cannabis lobbyist on Capitol Hill. He would remain at the forefront of the cannabis policy reform movement for nearly two decades, playing pivotal roles in several major victories at the federal and state levels.

Steve was a lead drafter of Colorado’s historic Amendment 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use, and he managed all aspects of the successful campaign behind its passage and implementation. He also conceptualized and co-founded Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), which laid a lot of groundwork for the legalization effort and contributed to a seismic shift in the U.S. cannabis policy debate. In 2009, he co-authored the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink?,” which is based on the SAFER strategy.

Steve was always thinking step ahead of the rest. Long before cannabis was legalized, he envisioned a legal, organized, and responsible cannabis industry. He played leading roles in conceptualizing and establishing several of the nation’s largest and most influential cannabis trade organizations, including the National Cannabis Industry Association, the Cannabis Trade Federation, and the U.S. Cannabis Council. He regularly led working group meetings and calls, and he was a frequent speaker at cannabis conferences.

Steve’s role in cannabis community cannot be overstated. He was a trailblazer in the movement to end prohibition, and he was an architect and caretaker of the legal industry that is quickly replacing it. He beat the path, built the shelter, and worked tirelessly to make it as welcoming, accessible and beneficial as possible. He always put the mission—the wellbeing of others and the betterment of society—ahead of himself.

No one was more reluctant to sing their own praises while being so deserving of a louder refrain.

In 2013, Steve received a highly esteemed award from the Drug Policy Alliance in recognition of his long-term spearheading of the Colorado legalization effort. With an audience of hundreds and the spotlight squarely on him, he used the better part of his brief acceptance speech to give recognition to the people and organizations who had supported and worked alongside him. He reserved only the final thought for his own personal message and dedication. It was to his parents, for raising him to believe in the Jewish philosophy “Tikkun olam”—to “repair or heal the world” through beneficial and constructive acts. That is what drove Steve to take on the cause of cannabis policy reform. And it was what drove Steve to be the person he was.

Tikkun olam. Mission accomplished, dear friend.

Shawn Hauser
Josh Kappel
Andrew Livingston
Christian Sederberg
Mason Tvert
Brian Vicente
Jordan Wellington

And the entire VSS and VS family

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Biden’s Pick To Lead DEA Voiced Openness To State Medical Marijuana Program

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President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) previously described a New Jersey medical marijuana bill as “workable” while serving at the state’s attorney general.

Although the former top state prosecutor, Anne Milgram, doesn’t appear to have publicly detailed her personal views on cannabis reform, the limited comments she made over a decade ago signal that, at the very least, she’s open to allowing states to enact their own marijuana policies despite federal prohibition.

That’d be a big deal, as far as advocates are concerned. Having a DEA administrator who appears flexible with respect to state cannabis reform efforts would be a notable development given the role that the official plays in federal marijuana policy.

However, Milgram’s on-the-record remarks on the issue are admittedly minimal. In 2009, when the New Jersey legislature was considering a medical cannabis legalization bill, she called the proposal “workable,” according to a one-word quote included in an Associated Press report.

After the legislation was amended, a spokesperson for the then-attorney general said the change “tightens up the provisions…that could have become loopholes by people seeking to divert marijuana for illicit purposes.”

Biden announced Milgram as his pick to be the next DEA administrator on Monday, and now her nomination heads to the Senate. It is possible that she will be asked to elaborate on her views during a confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

Milgram’s prior statements are far from an explicit endorsement of medical cannabis legalization, but they do indicate that the nominee is not vociferously opposed to state-level reforms as has been the case for prior DEA administrators. And in combination with other Biden cabinet picks, that bodes well for advocates.

Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony before the Senate, for example, that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws. That stands in contrast with President Donald Trump’s first selection for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who rescinded Obama-era guidance deprioritizing prosecutions over state-legal cannabis activity.

The DEA, with authority delegated from the Department of Justice, plays an important role in determining the schedule status of marijuana and other drugs. If the agency’s administrator were to acknowledge the medical benefits of cannabis, it would deeply undermine its current classification in Schedule I, which is supposed to be reserved for substances with no therapeutic value.

That said, while the Justice Department and DEA play a key role in federal scheduling, a medical and scientific review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration is binding on the attorney general’s classification decision.

To that end, the former attorney general of California, Xavier Bacerra, was confirmed by the Senate to lead HHS, and he has a considerable record supporting cannabis reform and working to protect California’s legal program from federal interference.

Meanwhile, Biden has yet to nominate someone to run the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), despite earlier reporting that a selection was imminent.

The presumed leading candidate to be White House drug czar—Rahul Gupta, the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board—has played a critical role in overseeing the implementation and expansion of a state medical marijuana program and has publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.

But while any pro-reform appointment is notable in the new administration, the DEA administrator has played a historically antagonistic role opposing federal or state policy changes as they concern cannabis. And so Milgram would stand out as an especially significant pick to that end.

The nominee would be taking over the defense to a number of pending lawsuits from marijuana and psychedelics reform advocates and patients if confirmed.

For example, Seattle doctor hoping to expand access to psilocybin mushrooms for terminally ill cancer patients is taking DEA to court over the agency’s recent denial of an application to legally use the psychedelic in end-of-life treatment.

Scientists and veterans sued the federal agency last year, arguing that the legal basis DEA has used to justify keeping marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional. They asked for a review of its decisions to reject rescheduling petitions in 2020, 2016 and 1992. DEA subsequently requested that the court dismiss that suit.

The agency has also been taken to court over delays in approving additional cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.

The Scottsdale Research Institute alleged that DEA has been deliberately using delay tactics to avoid approving cultivation applications. A court mandated that the agency take steps to make good on its promise, and that suit was dropped after DEA provided a status update.

In March 2020, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party.

New Mexico Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Bill, Making State Third To Enact Reform Within Days

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