Anti-marijuana Attorney General Jeff Sessions tendered his resignation on Wednesday, one day after Republicans lost control of the House.
That left cannabis policy observers scrambling to find out where the temporary replacement at the top of the Department of Justice, Sessions’s Chief of Staff Matthew Whitaker, stands on marijuana.
Here’s what Marijuana Moment found in our initial review.
During a 2014 primary debate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination from Iowa, Whitaker sympathized with patients who benefit from marijuana ingredient cannabidiol (CBD). But, he also voiced concerns about the disconnect between state legalization efforts and the enforcement of federal law under the Obama administration.
During the debate, hosted by Iowa Public Television, he was asked about the state’s recent passage of a CBD-only medical cannabis law.
“First of all, I know a couple of families that are going to be positively impacted by what has happened in the state senate today,” he said. “And I applaud them for helping those families who need that help.”
Whitaker then turned to the Justice Department’s marijuana policy under President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder.
“But what we have is we have an attorney general that is telling state attorney generals, ‘if you disagree with a law, you don’t have to enforce it.’ And I am gravely concerned that we are now going to go back and forth between who’s in the White House and what their drug enforcement policy is, and you’ll see under what we have now—where you have Colorado and other states legalizing it really with no federal interference—and then when we come back, we may have a different regulatory scheme.”
Well, then, what should Congress do to resolve those differences?
“I think Congress should regulate things that harm people, and that is the hard drugs and the like that dramatically hurt citizens, cause violent crime in our communities, and those should be regulated,” he said.
“But not marijuana?” the debate moderator asked.
“For me, I saw the impact of marijuana on our border,” he said, presumably referring to his time as a U.S. attorney. “And if you go to any of the counties in Texas where there’s an illegal importation of marijuana, there’s a tremendous amount of violence.”
Marijuana reform advocates have generally applauded the announcement of Sessions’s resignation, as the now former attorney general has a long history of demeaning cannabis consumers, disregarding research about the benefits of medical marijuana and upholding federal prohibition.
“Attorney General Jefferson Sessions was a national disgrace, NORML hopes he finds the time during his retirement to seek treatment for his affliction of 1950’s reefer madness,” NORML executive director Erik Altieri said in a press release.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) called the move a “major step forward for marijuana reform,” also noting that Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who has obstructed votes on marijuana-related legislation as chair of the House Rules Committee, was defeated in Tuesday’s midterm elections. The two are not related despite sharing the same last name and a disdain for cannabis.
Losing two Sessions, Jeff and Pete, in 24 hours is a major step forward for marijuana reform. https://t.co/ykR8eT8Rid
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) November 7, 2018
However, there’s also an argument to be made that Sessions’s departure from the office could ultimately pose threats to the legal cannabis movement. Sessions and President Donald Trump have had a contentious relationship almost from the start of the administration, and the attorney general’s reluctance to crack down on legal cannabis states could theoretically be attributed, in part, to that dynamic. The next attorney general could enjoy some more flexibility when it comes to enforcing federal marijuana laws.
For his part, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said on Tuesday that he’s looking forward to “continuing to work with the President to fulfill his campaign position to leave the regulation of marijuana to the states.”
With respect to new leadership at DOJ, I will remain committed to defending the rule of law and the rights and decisions of Coloradans. I look forward to continuing to work with the President to fulfill his campaign position to leave the regulation of marijuana to the states.
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) November 7, 2018
Trump has already said he’s actively pursuing a permanent replacement for Sessions, so it’s unclear what, if anything, Whitaker could achieve during his temporary stint as acting attorney general, or how long his tenure will last.
….We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2018
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Iowa Public Television.
New York Legal Marijuana Push ‘Effectively Over’ For 2020, Governor Says
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded on Saturday that it’s unlikely marijuana will be legalized in the state this year.
“Marijuana and the gig economy were two of the more complicated initiatives that we wanted to work through that we didn’t get a chance to do,” he said in response to a question about which policy issues he would’ve liked to tackle in the annual budget bill that passed this week.
“Is the session effectively over? It’s up to the legislature, but I think it’s fair to say it’s effectively over,” he added, noting that several state lawmakers have been infected with coronavirus.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation
A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.
“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.
“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) April 3, 2020
“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”
Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.
“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”
“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.
Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.
“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”
🟢🟢 LEGALIZING COMMERCIAL MARIJUANA IN D.C. 🟢🟢
I spoke to D.C.'s Delegate @EleanorNorton
She's pushing for fully legal commercial marijuana sales in the District in a 4th Congressional stimulus package.
The District needs the money.
And people are smoking weed anyway. pic.twitter.com/PL9yoDKlrj
— Adam Longo (@adamlongoTV) April 3, 2020
Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.
For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.
Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus
North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.
“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”
Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.
“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”
The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.
The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.
Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.