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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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Marijuana Industry Groups Ask States For Coronavirus Relief Loans That Feds Won’t Provide

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A coalition of marijuana industry associations sent a letter to governors and state treasurers on Wednesday, asking them to help secure financial relief that cannabis businesses are being denied by the federal government amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The letter emphasizes that marijuana companies are providing jobs and essential services during the pandemic, and some are producing needed medical supplies like hand sanitizer. Despite this, the cannabis industry is specifically ineligible for federal disaster loans and other relief programs due to their product’s ongoing status as an illegal controlled substance. The groups said the treasurers could provide assistance to that end.

“Like all essential businesses, cannabis businesses are facing significant uncertainty and costs to provide for our employees and to maintain the medical supply chain during this pandemic,” the groups said. “Yet, unlike every other essential business, there is an underlying federal-state tension which puts our businesses in a uniquely vulnerable and dire operational and financial position. This is particularly true of our small and minority-owned businesses.”

They made two requests to the state officials: 1) encourage congressional delegations to insert language into future COVID-19 legislation that would enable marijuana companies to access federal Small Business Administration (SBA) relief loans and disaster assistance, and 2) consider creating state-level lending programs for the industry to help fill the gap in the meantime.

“Although cannabis businesses operate in strict compliance with state law and comply with a broad range of federal mandates, including paying federal corporate taxes at a much higher effective rate than other businesses due to a quirk in the tax code, their activity is still considered illegal under federal law,” the letter states. “This creates all kinds of hardship, including this current prohibition on SBA assistance.”

“While the underlying federal issues with banking, taxes, and capital access remain, our businesses need access to some additional liquidity to ensure reliability in the medical supply chain for patient access and employee retention in these uncertain times,” they said.

The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), Marijuana Policy Project, Minority Cannabis Industry Association, Cannabis Trade Federation, National Cannabis Roundtable and Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce each signed the letter.

“The cannabis industry is under the same strains as many other industries in these difficult times, in addition to existing unduly burdensome regulatory and financial requirements,” Morgan Fox, NCIA media relations director, said on behalf of the groups in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “Given the increasing recognition of cannabis businesses as necessary components of healthcare and economic stability, it is absolutely vital that they can access relief loans to continue to provide services effectively.”

SBA has made clear that its services are not available to marijuana businesses, or even those that indirectly work with the industry. While eleven senators recently requested that a key committee approve spending bill language allowing SBA program access to cannabis companies, the request was targeted at future spending legislation in the works, rather than bills concerning the coronavirus outbreak that will likely be enacted in short order.

In a separate letter to governors and regulators in states with medical cannabis programs, another set of industry and advocacy organizations stressed the need to maintain access to medical cannabis for patients. They thanked the states for deeming dispensaries to be essential services and said, additionally, they should allow home deliveries, curbside pickup, recommendations via telemedicine and remove or reduce caregiver application fees, among other steps.

“On behalf of medical cannabis businesses, patients, and our communities, we again express our gratitude for your leadership and work to ensure continued access to safe and effective medicine,” the groups, which includes all of those in the aforementioned letter as well as Americans for Safe Access and NORML. “We welcome the opportunity to help identify and implement safe means to ensure continued access to medicine.”

Read the letter concerning financial relief below:

Cannabis industry letter to… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Read the letter concerning medical cannabis access below: 

Industry group on medical c… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Lawmakers Mourn Loss Of Charlotte Figi, Whose Story Inspired National CBD Movement And Helped Change Policies

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Lawmakers Mourn Loss Of Charlotte Figi, Whose Story Inspired National CBD Movement And Helped Change Policies

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Advocates and lawmakers are mourning the loss of a young icon in the medical marijuana reform movement. Charlotte Figi, who showed the world how CBD can treat severe epilepsy, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 13 due to complications from a likely coronavirus infection.

Across social media, people are sending their support to the Figi family and sharing anecdotes about how Charlotte’s battle against Dravet syndrome—and the success she demonstrated in treating it with the cannabis compound—changed hearts and minds. Her impact has been felt across state legislatures and in Congress, where her story was often told as a clear example of why laws prohibiting access to cannabidiol needed to change.

The domino effect Charlotte’s story helped set off—with states, particularly conservative ones, passing modest reform bills for CBD access—paved the path for a successful congressional rider that ended up protecting more far-reaching medical cannabis programs across the U.S., advocates say.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who has become one of the leading GOP champions for broad marijuana reform on Capitol Hill, said he was personally influenced by Charlotte and, as a state lawmaker in 2014, her story motivated him to support legislation to reform Florida’s medical cannabis policies.

“Charlotte lived a life of tremendous significance. Her story inspired me to completely change my views on medical cannabis and successfully pass legislation so that patients could get help in Florida,” the congressman said. “I’m so sad she is gone, but the movement she has ignited will live forever.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), another top marijuana reform advocate who has raised the issue directly with President Trump on several occasions, wrote that Charlotte “made a positive and everlasting change in the world by the age of 13, and her inspirational courage will always be remembered.”

“Charlotte changed the way the nation thinks about CBD through her grace and advocacy,” he said. “We should honor her by fixing our federal cannabis laws as soon as possible.”

Florida state Rep. Rob Bradley (R) agreed with the sentiment, writing that “Charlotte Figi was a bright, beautiful light that changed how our state and country views cannabis. I am saddened to hear that this sweet soul has left us.”

In Illinois, state Rep. Bob Morgan (D) said Charlotte, who is the namesake of one of the most well-known CBD brands, Charlotte’s Web, “singlehandedly transformed how the world viewed medical cannabis and children with epilepsy.”

“She suffered so much so that others would not have to,” he said. “May her memory be a blessing.”

Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach (D) also said Charlotte “inspired me to get involved in the cannabis movement” and “showed the world that Cannabis is medicine and the trail she blazed has helped millions.”

“The world lost a fighter,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who previously advocated for CBD reform as a state senator, said. “Charlotte Figi-who helped inspire passage of CBD Oil legislation for epilepsy treatment nationwide-passed away. I worked w/her mom/others in 14 in MO. My speech in the Senate was a tribute to her, June Jesse, my son & many others.”

Beyond championing a successful CBD bill in Florida, Charlotte’s family also captivated national audiences and became a household name in the reform movement. Her story was featured on a popular CNN documentary, “Weed,” hosted by Sanjay Gupta, that introduced people from diverging political ideologies to an issue that’s since become a focus of legislation across the country.

A bipartisan congressional bill named after her—the Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act—was first introduced in 2015.

But while that standalone legislation didn’t advance, the growing number of state-level policy changes that were inspired by Charlotte and other young patients could help to explain why Congress, including members who oppose legalization, has consistently supported a budget rider that prohibits the Justice Department from interfering in state-legal medical cannabis programs. It was first approved in 2014—after repeatedly failing on the House floor—and has been renewed each year since.

With CBD-only states included on an enumerated list of those that would be protected from legal action, it became increasingly difficult for lawmakers to defend voting against a measure to prevent federal harassment of their own constituents. Support from more conservative-minded Democrats and a handful of Republicans, including those from states that had recently enacted or were debating their own CBD laws, allowed the amendment to narrowly advance for the first time when it had been handily defeated two years earlier.

Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and South Carolina stand out as examples of states where cannabis reform came online between those votes and where support for the measure also increased among their congressional delegations.

The measure as approved by Congress and first signed into law law President Obama, has given explicit protection from federal prosecution not just to people complying with limited CBD-focused state laws but also medical cannabis growers, processors and retailers in states with more robust policies such as California and Colorado (though it does not protect recreational marijuana businesses or consumers).

“Charlotte Figi personalized this issue in a way that few others have, and her story humanized the medical cannabis fight to such a degree that many politicians could no longer ignore it,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “There is little doubt that Charlotte’s story, arguably more than any other, paved the way for politicians in several southern and midwestern states to finally move forward to recognize the need for CBD, and in some cases, whole-plant cannabis access.”

Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said even opponents of cannabis legalization “can’t say ‘no’ to young mothers pushing sick kids in strollers,” referencing the many other patient advocates who helped usher the reform to victory.

“There’s no doubt it helped move the debate in our direction,” he said. “Truth is, I was once told that CBD hurt our effort [for broader reform]. I don’t think so.”

A person writing on behalf of the family on Tuesday said that “Charlotte is no longer suffering” and will be forever seizure-free.

CBD Prescription Drug Is No Longer A Federally Controlled Substance, DEA Says

Image element courtesy of Paige Figi.

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FBI Policy On CBD Use By Agents Is ‘Under Review’

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is apparently looking into changing internal policy when it comes to the use of CBD products by its agents and other employees, the agency said on Tuesday.

While workers are prohibited from using marijuana—and applicants can be disqualified for consuming cannabis within the past three years—it seems FBI is open to loosening rules for the non-intoxicating cannabis compound, which has become more widely available since hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, creating a massive market for its derivatives.

During a Q&A on Twitter, FBI’s Newark office was asked two marijuana-related questions. One person wanted to know why the agency says “you cannot use marijuana within 3 years of applying, even with a medical card/prescription.”

“The policy regarding CBD oil is currently under review,” FBI replied. “Check the other eligibility requirements.”

The overall thread was about questions people had about the process of becoming a special agent, so it’s not clear if the CBD policy is being reevaluated for applicants only regarding past use, or if any change would cover active agents as well. Marijuana Moment reached out to FBI and its Newark division for clarification, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.

Another person asked whether the three-year cannabis abstinence requirement applies to positions other than special agents and FBI said: “Yes, that policy applies to all positions within the FBI.”

The simple fact that FBI fielded multiple marijuana questions while promoting recruitment seems to speak to a point that the agency’s former director, James Comey, made in 2014. He suggested that he wanted to loosen the agency’s employment policies as it concerns marijuana, as potential skilled workers were being passed over due to the requirement.

“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said at the time.

Last year, FBI said it wanted the public to send tips on illicit activity in state-legal marijuana markets, stating that restrictive licensing policies could open the door to corruption.

While FBI’s CBD policy is in review, other federal agencies—particularly for within the military—have strongly discouraged or outright banned its use.

The Department of Defense made clear that CBD is off limits for service members.

The Air Force issued a notice last year stipulating that its members are prohibited from using the compound.

The Navy told its ranks that they’re barred from using CBD regardless of its legal status.

And the Coast Guard said last year that sailors can’t use marijuana or visit state-legal dispensaries.

Meanwhile, NASA said that CBD products could contain unauthorized THC concentrations that could jeopardize jobs if employees fail a drug test.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued guidance to federal agency drug program coordinators last year, expressing concern about excess THC in CBD products, which seems to have prompted the various departments to clarify their rules.

The Department of Transportation took a different approach in February, stating in a notice that it would not be testing drivers for CBD.

While much of the CBD found in markets across the U.S. is largely unregulated, as the Food and Drug Administration is in the process of developing rules for the compound, a CBD-based prescription medication for epilepsy was entirely removed from the Controlled Substances Act this week, which should lead to easier access for patients.

People Could Still Be Denied These Jobs Over Marijuana Use Under New York City Drug Testing Exemptions

Photo by Kimzy Nanney.

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