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Bill To Federally Legalize Marijuana Approved By Key House Committee

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A key House committee on Thursday approved a bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity.

The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act cleared the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by the legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), on a 26-15 vote. The tally fell largely along party lines, with all Democrats supporting the measure and all but two Republicans voting against it.

The development comes one week after the full House voted in favor of a defense spending bill that includes an amendment that would protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

“This long overdue and historic legislation would reverse failed federal policies criminalizing marijuana. It would also take steps to address the heavy toll this policy has taken across the country, particularly among communities of color,” Nadler said in opening remarks. “I have long believed that the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake. The racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has only made it worse, with serious consequences, particularly for communities of color.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said that “this is an important criminal justice reform bill, and I commend the chairman for once again introducing this bill and bringing it before the committee. In fact, it consolidates the discussions that we’ve had about the overincarceration of individuals who were addicted or caught up in the cycle of drugs, many of them people of color in inner city neighborhoods.”

Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-OH) voiced opposition to the proposal, calling it a “radical, out-of-touch Democrat priority” and a “marijuana stimulus bill.”

Watch lawmakers debate and vote on the legalization proposal in the video below:

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) discussed how cannabis criminalization has been historically used to target communities of color. He said the time for legalization “has come, and time came a long time ago.”

Nadler also emphasized the racial disparities in marijuana enforcement by pointing out that his own son was caught selling cannabis in high school but was brought back to his home rather than incarcerated. The chairman said if his son was black, police “would have arrested him.”

Although most Republicans who spoke argued against the bill, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is a cosponsor of it, made the case for reform.

“I am a proud co-sponsor of the MORE Act because the federal government has screwed up marijuana policy in this country for a generation,” he said. “We lied to people about the effects of marijuana. And then we used marijuana as a cudgel to incarcerate just wide swaths of communities, and particularly in African-American communities.”

“We cannot honestly say that the war on drugs impacted suburban white communities in the same way it affected urban black communities. We can’t say that marijuana enforcement was happening the same way on the corner than it was happening in the fraternity house,” he said. “We have an opportunity to fix that problem. The war on drugs, much like many of our forever wars, has been a failure. If there’s been a war on drugs, drugs have won that war.”

However, he expressed certain concerns about provisions of the legislation such as the proposed federal excise tax on cannabis sales. While Gaetz also said that while he supports the MORE Act, he doesn’t feel it stands a chance in the Senate and recommended advancing more modest reform.

While the legislation has largely stayed intact compared to the prior version that passed the chamber last year in a historic vote, there were some modest revisions that were incorporated upon its reintroduction in May.

The panel on Thursday considered additional changes before moving the measure forward, although much of the time was spent debating unrelated issues such as COVID-19 vaccines, abortion policy and protests against police violence.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) sought to remove the bill’s tax provisions as well as grant funds it would create to help repair the harms of the war on drugs.

A libertarian-leaning lawmaker, Massie backs the general idea of ending cannabis prohibition but is not in favor of creating new government programs.

“If you want a bill that is not politically paralyzed, if you want a bill that can reach across the aisle, if you want a bill that can pass the Senate—that they’ll be motivated to bring up in the Senate—then please vote for my amendment, which leaves most of the bill intact.” Massie said. “Let’s work across the aisle and let’s get a serious bill to the floor.”

The amendment was ruled out of order by the chairman, however, because it proposed changes to sections of the bill that are under the jurisdiction of other committees.

A proposed amendment from Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) would have prohibited people with convictions for rioting, looting or destruction of property from benefiting from justice-related grants established under the bill. It was defeated in a 19-15 vote.

Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) filed an amendment that would have similarly restricted grant funds from going to people who have been convicted of trafficking drugs while possessing firearms. It failed by a vote of 20-15. Fitzgerald also put forth a proposal aimed at blocking people who have cheated on their taxes from benefitting from the grant programs. That too was rejected, by a 20-16 tally.

An amendment from Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC) would have made it so the awarding of marijuana revenue-funded grants could not “discriminate against or otherwise disfavor an individual or entity on the basis of the COVID-19 vaccination status of an individual or the advocacy by an individual or entity with respect to any COVID-19 vaccination mandate.” It was defeated in a 21-18 vote.

Bishop also filed an amendment to require the Department of Transportation to develop best practices for detecting marijuana-impaired driving, but it was deemed to be not in order because it falls under the jurisdiction of another committee.

Nadler’s cannabis legislation passed the House last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control. This time around, advocates are optimistic that something like the chairman’s bill could be enacted now that Democrats run both chambers and the White House, and as more states are moving to enact legalization.

The legislation would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), allow people with cannabis convictions to have their records expunged and create a federal tax on marijuana with the revenue going to support community reinvestment and other programs.

It also contains language to create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for cannabis offenses, protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over marijuana and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearance due to its use.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), who cochair the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, released a joint statement calling the Judiciary Committee vote part of a “monumental effort to get the federal government in step with the rest of America, and [a] move toward modernizing our federal cannabis policies and realizing restorative justice.”

“This is the most comprehensive piece of cannabis legislation Congress has ever seen, and continuing its momentum couldn’t be more important to our fight to address the fact that Congress continues to lag behind 37 states that have legalized either adult-use or medical cannabis,” they said. “We will continue to build a broad coalition of support in Congress and work closely with our allies in the Senate to put forth a successful framework to finally reform our outdated, out-of-touch cannabis laws, because it’s time for Congress to catch up with the American people.”

The ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—which includes NAACP, Human Rights Campaign, Anti-Defamation League, National Organization for Women and People for the American Way, National Urban League, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and the AFSCME and AFL-CIO labor unions—wrote a letter of support for the legislation ahead of the markup.

The groups said the MORE Act “addresses the collateral consequences of federal marijuana criminalization and takes steps to ensure the legal marketplace is diverse and inclusive of individuals adversely affected by prohibition.” It also “takes significant steps to right the wrongs of decades of federal marijuana criminalization by providing for the expungement and resentencing of marijuana offenses.”

But while advocates have broadly embraced the legislation and urged its passage, some have raised concerns about certain provisions and hope the bill can be revised as it moves through the process.

ACLU and the Leadership Conference, for example, expressed concerns about a component that was added to render so-called drug “kingpins” ineligible for expungements, pointing out that such language “has been interpreted broadly by courts and would prevent individuals who are not high-level participants from seeking relief under the bill’s expungement and resentencing provisions.”

“If the exclusion remains, individuals excluded from the expungement process will continue to be blocked from accessing employment, housing, and an education based on their prior convictions,” it said. “We believe the bill should be amended to ensure that those with excluded convictions are eligible for expungement within five years, assuming there have been no new convictions in the intervening time. Such a change will stay true to the intent of the bill and provide relief to those caught up in outdated enforcement efforts.”

Meanwhile, there’s been some contention between advocates and stakeholders on which reform should come first: the bipartisan banking legislation that’s cleared the House in some form five times now or the comprehensive legalization bill that passed the chamber for the first time late last year.

Legalization advocates do want to see legislation from Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) become enacted, as there are public safety problems caused by all-cash businesses and it would take an important step toward normalizing the growing industry. But social equity-minded activists argue that advancing the incremental reform first would mainly benefit large marijuana businesses without addressing the harms of cannabis criminalization.

The fate of the banking proposal will likely be decided in conference with the Senate, which has not included the policy change in its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and where key lawmakers have insisted that they will push for broader reform before allowing the incremental change to be enacted.

Separately, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (R-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are also leading the charge on a legalization bill in their chamber. But weeks after a public comment period on a draft version of the proposal closed, finalized text has yet to be formally filed—and it’s far from certain that Schumer will be able to find enough votes to advance the comprehensive reform through his chamber.

It should be noted that President Joe Biden remains firmly opposed to adult-use marijuana legalization. While he supports more modest reforms such as decriminalizing cannabis, expunging prior records and letting states set their own marijuana policies, there’s an open question about whether he would be moved to sign a broad bill like the MORE Act or the Senate legalization legislation should such a proposal reach his desk.

With respect to the MORE Act, the latest version does not include language that was added just before last year’s House floor vote that would have prevented people with previous cannabis convictions from obtaining federal permits to operate marijuana businesses. That was a contentious provision that appeared at the last minute and which advocates strongly opposed.

And whereas the the prior version of the legislation contained language to help economically disadvantaged people enter the legal marijuana market, that language was revised to extend Small Business Administration (SBA) aid—such as loans, financial literacy programs and job training—to help people who have been harmed by the war on drugs pursue business opportunities in any industry, not just cannabis.

Advocates are encouraged by the new revisions to the bill, but there are still additional components they hope to see changed as it goes through the legislative process. For example, they also took issue with provisions added to the MORE Act prior to last year’s vote that would have stipulated that cannabis can still be included in drug testing programs for federal workers.

The current version of the MORE Act has 76 cosponsors. In addition to the Judiciary Committee, it has been referred to eight other panels. While last Congress’s version of the bill went straight to the floor after clearing its first stop because other committees waived their jurisdiction, it’s not clear if that will happen again this time.

NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said a floor vote should be scheduled immediately.

“Never before has public support from every corner of the political spectrum been so aligned as to demand that Congress take action to end the shameful experiment with marijuana prohibition,” he said. “The continued criminalization of marijuana by the federal government is an affront to our professed ideals of freedom, liberty and justice. By advancing the MORE Act, the House will demonstrate that the majority of our political leaders are ready to correct this injustice and enact cannabis policy reform that undoes the harms that have been inflicted upon millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens.”

Separately, a proposal to federally deschedule marijuana that does not include social equity components was filed by a pair of Republican congressmen in May.

Chuck Schumer Says Key Senators Have ‘Agreement’ Not To Advance Marijuana Banking Reform Before Legalization

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Bipartisan Lawmakers Push VA To Allow Medical Marijuana Access For Veterans ‘As Soon As Possible’

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must urgently institute a policy change to ensure that military veterans can access cannabis for therapeutic use, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers said in a new letter.

Writing to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Wednesday, the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus urged the official to consider “a change in policy to allow access to medical cannabis fro VA patients” and to “act swiftly and implement this change as soon as possible.”

The lawmakers pointed to surveys showing high rates of opioid addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the veteran community.

“Research has shown that cannabis can be safe and effective in targeted pain-management. Additionally, cannabis has proven benefits in managing PTSD and other health issues, including multiple sclerosis (MS) and seizure disorders,” the letter states. “Despite its efficacy, antiquated bureaucratic red-tape continues to deny veterans these life-altering treatments.”

“Congress and several administrations have enacted various well-intentioned intervention attempts, however, over twenty veterans continue to die by suicide each day—it is past time we stop barring access from these innovative therapies. We therefore respectfully urge you to ensure no veteran can be denied medically prescribed cannabis treatments.”

The letter comes weeks after McDonough participated in a Veterans Day Q&A where he said that VA officials are “looking at” the possibility of an internal policy change and have discussed it with the White House and Department of Justice. The secretary also talked about being personally moved by stories from veterans who’ve found relief using medical marijuana.

“We’re trying to explore what more we can do,” he said at the time. “And I’ve talked to our friends in the rest of the federal government, including the Department of Justice, on what we can do on this, and with the White House.”

The Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs—Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), David Joyce (R-OH), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK)—want McDonough to speed up the policy change process.

“America’s veterans have risked life and limb to preserve our freedoms, so we must not allow the unnecessary politicization of medical cannabis to hinder their lifesaving therapies,” they wrote. “We stand ready to work with you and your administration in advancing these necessary treatments.”

While congressional lawmakers are working to advance legislation to end marijuana prohibition, McDonough’s department has resisted even modest proposals meant to promote veteran access and clinical research into the medical value of cannabis.

One such research bill was approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this month, despite testimony from the department opposing the reform. VA’s David Carroll told lawmakers that the legislation was overly prescriptive and argued that the department is already conducting robust research into marijuana.

Some had held out hope that VA would back the reform this session after the sponsor, Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA), said that he’d had a conversation with McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans.

On the Senate side, a coalition of lawmakers recently filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would federally legalize medical cannabis for military veterans who comply with a state program where they live. VA doctors would also be explicitly allowed to issue marijuana recommendations.

Read the letter to the VA secretary on marijuana access below: 

Click to access caucus-letter-to-va-secretary-december-2021.pdf

Biden Treasury Secretary Says ‘Of Course’ Marijuana Banking Would Make IRS’s Job Easier

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Biden Treasury Secretary Says ‘Of Course’ Marijuana Banking Would Make IRS’s Job Easier

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The secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department said on Wednesday that freeing up banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses would “of course” make the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) job of collecting taxes easier.

At a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) referenced recent comments from an IRS official about the “special type of collection challenge the IRS undertakes regarding tax collection from cannabis-related businesses forced to operate in cash only.”

“Do you agree if these business were simply allowed to access the banking system and didn’t have to transact business only in cash it would make the IRS job easier?” Perlmutter asked Secretary Janet Yellen.

“Yes, of course it would,” she replied matter-of-factly.

The congressman also talked about his bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—which has passed the House in some form five times now and would resolve the issue by protecting financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses.

Numerous financial, labor and insurance associations, as well as key lawmakers, are pushing the Senate to attach the measure to must-pass defense spending legislation, as the House already has. Bipartisan members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as senators representing Colorado, made the same request in recent letters.

While Yellen’s response was quick, it’s yet another example of a federal official recognizing the untenability of the status quo.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary under the Trump administration, repeatedly addressed the issue, saying the current policy conflict creates “significant problems” for IRS and financial regulators. It “creates significant risk in the communities for collecting this amount of cash. It’s problematic,” he said last year.

IRS, for its part, said in September that it expects the cannabis market to continue to grow, and it offered some tips to businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.

With respect to the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan coalition of two dozen governors recently implored congressional leaders to finally enact marijuana banking reform through the large-scale defense legislation.

A group of small marijuana business owners also recently made the case that the incremental banking policy change could actually help support social equity efforts.

Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a recent Marijuana Moment op-ed that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications now.

Federal data shows that many financial institutions remain hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients, however, which is likely due to the fact that the plant is a strictly controlled substance under federal law.

Texas Activists Turn In Signatures To Put Marijuana Decriminalization On Austin’s 2022 Ballot

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Texas Activists Turn In Signatures To Put Marijuana Decriminalization On Austin’s 2022 Ballot

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Texas activists on Wednesday turned in signatures to place a marijuana decriminalization initiative on Austin’s 2022 ballot.

Ground Game Texas, a progressive organization that was established earlier this year, submitted more than 30,000 signatures to qualify the local measure to go before voters in the May 7 election next year.

While Austin, as well as other Texas cities like Dallas, have already independently enacted law enforcement policy changes aimed at reducing arrests for cannabis-related offenses by issuing citations and summons, the Austin Freedom Act of 2021 would take the reform a step further.

The initiative seeks to end arrests and citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession within Texas’s capital city. Also, it says police cannot issue citations for residue or paraphernalia in lieu of a possession charge.

“Thanks to the tireless efforts of on-the-ground organizers from Ground Game Texas and partner organizations, Austin residents will soon have the ability to make lasting change to our antiquated and racist criminal justice laws,” Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas, said in a press release. “With successful campaigns like these, Ground Game Texas will continue to empower and excite communities around progressive change—and deliver for the marginalized communities that too often get left behind.”

The measure would further prohibit the use of city funds to request or test cannabis to determine whether it meets the state’s definition of a lawful product. Hemp is legal in the state, creating complications for law enforcement, as they are now tasked with determining if seized cannabis products are in compliance with state statute.

Under the initiative, the execution of no-knock warrants would also be prohibited in the city—a policy that generated significant national attention last year after it led to Kentucky officers entering Breonna Taylor’s apartment and fatally shooting her in a botched drug raid.

Activists were joined by Austin City Council members Greg Casar and Vanessa Fuentes for Wednesday’s signature turn in.

Game Ground Texas previously attempted to place the measure on this year’s ballot, but they did not meet the signature turn-in deadline and shifted their attention to 2022.

While the measure is now set to appear on the May ballot, it’s also possible that the Austin City Council could independently move to adopt the ordinance prior to the election.

“Austinites continue to work towards reducing the decades of negative impacts prohibition has caused by any means available,” Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, told Marijuana Moment.  “During the interim, local actions like this create pressure for more action during the next legislative session. With a majority of Texans supporting the creation of a regulated cannabis market, it is important to continue pushing this conversation forward.”

Elsewhere in the state, activists in San Marcos launched a campaign in September to put marijuana decriminalization on the November ballot next year.

Ground Game Texas told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it is also planning to place a cannabis decriminalization measure before voters in Killeen next fall.

There is no statewide, citizen-led initiative process that would enable advocates to put an issue like decriminalization or legalization on the Texas ballot. But at the local level, there are limited cases where activists can leverage home rule laws that allow for policy changes.

A recent poll found that a strong majority of Texans—including most Republicans—support even broader reform to legalize marijuana for adult use.

The survey from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University found that 67 percent of Texas residents back the broad reform. Fifty-one percent of participants who identified as Republican said they back legalization.

In Texas, drug policy reform did advance in the legislature in the latest session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.

A bill to expand the state’s medical cannabis program and another to require a study into the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics for military veterans were enacted.

Advocates remain disappointed, however, that lawmakers were unable to pass more expansive cannabis bills—including a decriminalization proposal that cleared the House but saw no action in the Senate.

The House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session.

The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018.

Another Texas poll that was released over the summer found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use.”

Jamaican Government Launches ‘Good Ganja Sense’ Campaign To Debunk Marijuana Myths

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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