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Where Presidential Candidate Beto O’Rourke Stands On Marijuana

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Beto O’Rourke announced that he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination on March 14, 2019, and quickly signaled that marijuana reform would be a main feature of his campaign.

The former congressman, who dropped out of the race on November 1, has been a critic of the war on drugs for much of his political career, going back to his tenure on the El Paso City Council, and he’s spoken about the issue earlier and more often than many of his Democratic opponents.

His legislative track record earned him a “B+” grade from NORML in its 2016 congressional scorecard and the organization endorsed his 2018 Senate campaign.

This piece was last updated on November 5, 2019 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.

Legislation And Policy Actions

During his time in Congress, O’Rourke was the chief sponsor of one piece of drug reform legislation and cosponsored several others.

He introduced a bill that would have prohibited the federal government from withholding a state’s apportionment of federal funds for highway infrastructure if the state failed to enact and enforce laws requiring that individuals with drug convictions have their licenses revoked or suspended.

“Finding employment and earning legal income is crucial for people trying to stay out of the criminal justice system,” he said in a Medium post about the legislation. “Further, we know that license suspensions undermine recovery efforts for those with drug use problems and the formerly incarcerated.”

O’Rourke also cosponsored about two dozen drug reform bills focusing on federal cannabis and hemp laws.

He signed onto legislation to end marijuana prohibition and, on six occasions, to protect states that have legalized marijuana from federal intervention. He also cosponsored a bill that would automatically seal the criminal records of individuals convicted for non-violent federal marijuana offenses and another that would allow students to maintain their federal financial aid if they have a cannabis possession conviction.

“We stand a better chance of keeping kids from using marijuana if it is sold by regulated businesses instead of by teenagers on street corners and middle school playgrounds,” he wrote in a 2014 email to supporters, touting his cosponsorships. “Regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana would limit bloated black market profits from empowering murderous criminal enterprises that have grown too powerful in many U.S. neighborhoods and in neighboring Mexico.”

Other legislation that received O’Rourke’s cosponsorship included a broad bill to close the policy gap between federal and state marijuana laws, several others designed to expand research into medical cannabis, including for veterans, three to remove CBD from the list of federally banned substances and legislation to allow doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to recommend cannabis to veterans.

He’s also supported congressional efforts to legalize industrial hemp and provide banking access to state-legal marijuana businesses. The congressman cosponsored additional bills to allow cannabis businesses to take advantage of tax credits or deductions and also to require a federal study on the impact of state marijuana programs.

The congressman also voted in favor of House floor amendments to shield states with medical cannabis laws from federal enforcement in 2014 and 2015, and to extend that protection to any state with legal recreational cannabis or CBD medicines alone. O’Rourke voted for amendments to let VA doctors recommend medical cannabis three times, to protect states that have legalized industrial hemp four times and once to secure access to banks for marijuana businesses.

That was all during his six years in the House. But O’Rourke has a longer history of pushing for drug reform, including when he served as a member of the El Paso City Council.

In fact, it was O’Rourke’s bold stance on drug policy that helped launch his national political career, as The Intercept reported. As the drug war raged along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2009, the council member introduced an amendment that called for a conversation about legalizing marijuana and “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics.”

The measure passed 8-0, but then-Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX) pressured the mayor to veto it and told council members that the city would be at risk of losing federal funds in the veto was overridden. After an override vote narrowly failed, O’Rourke decided to primary Reyes for the congressional seat, ultimately defeating the incumbent in an upset that likely led many other politicians rethink their approach drug war politics.

O’Rourke’s surprise Democratic primary win came in spite of the fact that Reyes emphasized the challenger’s drug policy views in sensationalized attack ads.

Reyes Works — Say No to Drugs — from Silvestre Reyes on Vimeo.

Cruz also tried to use the resolution against O’Rourke during their 2018 Senate battle, characterizing his challenger as a supporter of legalizing “heroin and cocaine and fentanyl.”

On The Campaign Trail

Just hours into his campaign, O’Rourke spoke about cannabis reform at a coffee shop in Iowa, signaling that the issue would be front and center as he found his footing in an already crowded race.

He said the country “should end the federal prohibition on marijuana” and observed that those most impacted by prohibition “do not look like this room. They are browner and blacker than most of America.”

In September, the candidate released a detailed marijuana-focused plan that included using federal cannabis tax revenue to fund a “Drug War Justice Grant” program to give direct monthly payments to formerly incarcerated people.

It would also promote equity in the cannabis industry by tying federal funds for states to requirements that licensing fees be waived for low-income people who have been convicted of cannabis offenses. Small marijuana businesses would be protected from predatory investors under the plan, and a majority of licenses would be awarded to companies owned by minorities and people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

Those cannabis proposals were reiterated in a broader criminal justice reform plan the candidate published in October, which also pledged to end mandatory minimum sentencing, cash bail and private prisons—positions the candidate had previously taken elsewhere.

That same month, O’Rourke released a substance use and addiction policy plan that called for broad decriminalization of drug possession, as well as the establishment of safe injection sites and other harm reduction measures to prevent overdoses.

During a campaign stop in Nevada in April, O’Rourke seemed to recommend medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids to a woman who said it was becoming more difficult to obtain the prescription for pain management in the midst of the drug crisis.

The former congressman has repeatedly argued that pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic.

“We are busting people for possession of marijuana—putting them in jail, forcing them to check a box on every employment application after their lease, making it impossible to attend [universities] because they no longer qualify for federally backed student loans,” he said during a CNN town hall in May. “And yet no one from Purdue Pharma has spent a night in jail or paid any significant consequence. We gotta do better.”

While O’Rourke would later voice support for decriminalizing drugs beyond marijuana in the plan noted above, he sidestepped a question about the policy during the event.

At a Democratic presidential debate in October, the candidate said he agreed that decriminalizing opioids could mitigate the overdose crisis. He also talked about the importance of providing military veterans with access to cannabis.

 

In an interview with ABC News, O’Rourke noted that he’s been in favor of “an end to the war on drugs and an end of the prohibition on marijuana years before any other major candidate did it.”

The former congressman’s longstanding support for drug policy reform was also featured in a campaign video released in September.

“Since my time on the El Paso City Council, I’ve been advocating for legalizing marijuana,” he said in a tweet. “We will never erase the damage done by the War on Drugs—the lives lost, the years spent behind bars—but we can end the cruelty today and begin to right the wrongs of our past.”

O’Rourke said during a trip to the Southern border that the war on drugs and the deportation of convicted individuals has contributed to violence that has led people in South American to flee north for refuge.

“Too many fathers are unjustly away from their kids today because of a failed war on drugs waged disproportionately on communities of color, a cash bail system that punishes people for being poor, and a private prison industry funded by needlessly putting more people behind bars,” he wrote in June. “To permanently reshape the justice system, we must not just end the prohibition of marijuana and expunge the records of those arrested for possession but we must end cash bail, prisons for profit, mandatory minimums, & the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline. As president, I will.”

 

“Mass incarceration begins in kindergarten—when a child of color is more likely to be suspended or expelled,” the O’Rourke said in October. “We need to end the school-to-prison pipeline, end for-profit prisons, end cash bail, end the War on Drugs, and bring about transformative justice.”

He also applauded a court ruling that ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the opioid crisis, writing that it’s “about damn time.”

“We can’t accept living in a country where Americans are in jail for possessing marijuana—but not a single Pharma exec has spent a night behind bars for the opioid crisis,” he said. “The least they can do is pay up.”

During a campaign event in Los Angeles, O’Rourke met with advocates for social equity in the legal cannabis market and tweeted that legalizing marijuana “isn’t enough.”

“We also need to make sure those most impacted by the War on Drugs have a chance to benefit from his growing industry,” he said.

Part of that involves ensuring that “those most impacted by the war on drugs are the ones benefiting from the economic activity related to marijuana,” he added.

 

O’Rourke also discussed restorative justice policies in a meeting with cannabis business owners in Oakland.

 

He said during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session that he will “end the war on drugs and treat it “not as a criminal justice challenge but as a public health opportunity.”

“People need help, treatment, support, long term recovery,” he said. “They don’t need to go to jail or be locked up in prison.”

Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts

O’Rourke has been ahead of the national drug reform conversation for some time, and his embrace of ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana has been frequently emphasized in speeches and social media posts.

About a year after O’Rourke’s resolution passed the council but was later vetoed, he told audience member at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference that the congressman threatening council members about the vote “was the best thing that could possibly happen to move the debate forward.”

That’s because “it drew so much attention and so much criticism and so much coverage nationally and internationally that it did much more than a unanimously passed resolution left on its own could have ever done,” he said.

O’Rourke became something of a face of bold drug policy reform, speaking at a Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference in 2010 and recalling his experience with the resolution.

But there was a moment, as he launched his challenge against Reyes, that he and his advisors considered softening his position.

Before his book, Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico, was published, members of his campaign committee worried about drawing too much attention to his views on marijuana. But O’Rourke was apparently convinced that doing so would make him just like any other politician, according to Politico, and he pushed ahead.

And by the time he got to Congress, there was no more questioning where he stood. He promised, shortly after taking office, that he would be “getting more involved” in the issue and that he’d “do so through the perspective of the community I represent.”

True to form, he signed onto a bipartisan letter in 2014 imploring President Barack Obama to deschedule marijuana.

“You said that you don’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, a fully legalized substance, and believe it to be less dangerous ‘in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. This is true. Marijuana, however, remains listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act at Schedule I, the strictest classification, along with heroin and LSD. This is a higher listing than cocaine and methamphetamine, Schedule II substances that you gave as examples of harder drugs. This makes no sense.”

In another letter, he and several colleagues proposed cutting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) funding for its cannabis eradication program. And O’Rourke joined lawmakers in a separate letter urging Obama to promote ending the global war on drugs at a United Nations meeting.

Veterans access to medical cannabis was a priority for O’Rourke, who not only cosponsored legislation to accomplish that but also circulated a petition on the question of expanding access to send a message to Congress.

“We’ve agreed that when these veterans come back and transition into civilian life that we’re going to be there for their medical needs whatever they are,” he said. “Right now we’re talking about making sure that in those states where marijuana is already legal,  VA doctors are able to discuss marijuana as a possible treatment option.”

He sent out an email blast in 2014, fundraising on his drug reform platform.

“As a rational and humane country, we can decide, as we did with alcohol that the harms in the prohibition of marijuana far outweigh any gains in security and in our efforts to keep these drugs away from our fellow citizens,” he wrote.

And weeks before announcing his presidential bid, he sent out another email asking supporters to join him in the fight to legalize cannabis.

In an interview with Texas Monthly, O’Rourke stressed the need for federal legislation to end the war on drugs, and not just leave it up to states to legalize on an individual basis.

“Ending the prohibition on marijuana—not making it a state-by-state issue and hiding behind this baloney states’ rights defense, but instead making the tough but important decision to federally end the prohibition on marijuana—is gonna save lives, save billions of dollars, move us from a country that imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country on the face of the planet into one that sees more of those same citizens leading productive, taxpaying, constructive lives in communities all over our state.”

In an appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, O’Rourke reiterated his support for ending marijuana prohibition, saying the country has “the chance to do the right thing.”

“We have the world’s largest prison population bar none,” he said.

In his Senate run against Cruz where O’Rourke’s pro-reform agenda became a central feature of his candidacy. In his announcement speech, he said the country has “an opportunity to end this failed war on drugs.”

“We have an opportunity, after more than half the states in this union have stopped locking people up for marijuana convictions—have filled our jails so that we imprison more of own people than any other country—and make sure that we help those who are struggling with addiction, with drug use, find a better way, a connection to the help and the care that they deserve,” he said.

In numerous interviews, and in road trip videos posted on his social media accounts, O’Rourke talked about the need to legalize marijuana. While he made sure to stress that he wasn’t endorsing its use, he has framed the issue as necessary to repair injustices within our criminal justice system.

“[W]e are doing to almost ensures that marijuana’s going to be more available to them in middle school and certainly in high school than if it were controlled and regulated in its sale,” he said. “We have to reform our drug laws. We have to end the war on drugs.”

“Who’s going to be the last black man to be behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in the rest of the United States?” O’Rourke asked at a campaign stop. “We need to end the war on drugs that’s become a war on people.”

Speaking at a Baptist church, O’Rourke talked about racial disparities in marijuana enforcement amidst an outcry over the death of Botham Jean, a Texas man who was killed by a police officer who entered his apartment.

“How can it be in this day and age—in this very year, in this community—that a young man, African American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?” O’Rourke asked. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what is released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen? How can that be just in this country?”

“Let me ask you this: in a country where the majority of the states in the union have already decided to make marijuana legal in one form or another—where people in California and Colorado and the Northwest are getting filthy rich legally selling marijuana today—who is going to be the last African American boy or man to rot behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in almost every other single part of the country?”

Legalization quickly proved to be a winning issue among voters, O’Rourke told Roll Call.

“If I don’t bring it up in a meeting, it is brought up by a constituent,” he said. “I can be in a small town [or] big city, and it cuts across party lines.”

Throughout the race, though, Cruz attempted to cast O’Rourke as a radical who supports legalizing fentanyl at a time that the U.S. is grappling with an opioid crisis. After PolitiFact deemed that characterization “FALSE,” the senator called the organization a “liberal parody site.”

In an attack ad, Cruz said that O’Rourke’s comments on the drug war showed that he was “just too reckless for Texas.”

“I don’t want to legalize narcotics,” O’Rourke said at a CNN town hall event. “I do think we should end the prohibition on marijuana and effectively control and regulate its sale and make sure those who need it for medicinal purposes are able to obtain it.”

The two candidates clashed on marijuana and drug policy at a debate.

“I want to end the war on drugs and specifically want to end the prohibition on marijuana,” O’Rourke said. “What I do want to ensure is that where, in this country, most states have decided that marijuana will legal at some form—for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes or at a minimum be decriminalized—that we don’t have another veteran in this state, prescribed an opioid because the doctor at the VA would rather prescribe medicinal marijuana but is prohibited by law from doing that.”

Cruz’s campaign attacks didn’t seem to intimidate O’Rourke. He even played alongside legendary musician and cannabis enthusiast Willie Nelson, strumming and singing to the song “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” at a concert in the midst of the campaign.

In an op-ed for The Houston Chronicle, O’Rourke again called for the end of the drug war, which he said “has long been a war on people, waged on some people over other people.”

“Who is going to be the last man—more likely than not a black man—to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in more than half of the states in this country? We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to their full potential and to the greatness of this country.”

The candidate has also supported decriminalizing marijuana possession in his home state of Texas and expunging criminal records for prior cannabis possession convictions.

“Not only must we end the prohibition on marijuana, we must expunge the arrest records of those who arrested solely for the possession of something,” he said.

O’Rourke’s embrace of ending the drug war also extends globally, according to a list of action items he proposed as part of his immigration platform.

“End the global war on drugs,” he wrote. “An imprisonment- and interdiction-first approach has not worked, has accelerated the erosion of civil society in much of Latin America and has militarized a public health issue to the detriment of all concerned.”

After then Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama era guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities last year, O’Rourke posted a video calling the decision a “terrible policy for our state and our country” that “sends us backwards.”

He also discussed cannabis reform during a roundtable discussion with other pro-reform lawmakers.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

“Like many people in this country, I’ve used marijuana,” he said during a campaign stop in September 2019. “Like many white people in this country, I was never stopped or frisked or arrested or put behind bars or had to check a box on every employment application form saying that I had a conviction because that never happened to me.”

“It wasn’t my experience. Disproportionately that experience has fallen to people of color in this country,” he said.

During his time in New York City, O’Rourke said he was around people who occasionally smoked cannabis and admitted that he was one of those people.

“Pot, yeah, there was definitely, you know,” he told The New York Times. “There was, uh, I don’t know how to put this, but yeah. People smoked pot, but not habitually.”

And beyond marijuana, O’Rourke revealed that in the 1980s he used the handle “Psychedelic Warlord” to post as a member of an online hacking group. That said, he did say in response to a voter’s question that he has never tried LSD.

Marijuana Under An O’Rourke Presidency

O’Rourke stands out among many of the current Democratic presidential candidates as someone who has long challenged prohibitionist drug policies and floated bold reform ideas before marijuana legalization entered the political mainstream. His track record and talking points are consistent, and he reiterated his call for ending cannabis prohibition within hours of announcing his candidacy. Therefore it is likely that he would to some extent prioritize federal marijuana and drug policy reform if elected president.

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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 Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Full-Page Washington Post Ad Calls For Marijuana Prisoner’s Freedom While Celebs Make Money In Industry

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Supporters of a 26-year-old man who is currently incarcerated while awaiting sentencing for a federal marijuana charge took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post on Thursday, blasting the hypocrisy of his imprisonment while celebrities like Beyonce, Jay Z, Seth Rogen and Willie Nelson stand to profit off the legal cannabis industry.

Jonathan Wall faces up to 15 years in prison on charges that he and other conspired to traffic marijuana from California to Maryland over two years. His family says this is a flagrant miscarriage of justice that highlights the need for relief for Wall and for broader federal marijuana reform.

The ad has the headline, “Who will be the last person incarcerated for marijuana in the United States?”

“Cannabis corporations are in Maryland and 26 other states making billions in revenue growing, manufacturing and distributing pot,” it says. “Cannabis conglomerates wonderfully engaged in branding, licensing , product innovation, research and development.”

Click to access washington-post-marijuana-ad.pdf

It notes that, just miles away from where Wall is being held, consumers can buy marijuana from major marijuana businesses like Curaleaf or Acreage Holdings, which counts former GOP House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) among its board members.

“But then you—along with the likes of Jay Z, Seth Rogen, and Willie Nelson—would be in violation of U.S. federal law and subject to incarceration,” the ad says. “26-year-old Jonathan Wall faces life in prison while Beyonce says that she’s starting a cannabis farm. This is not the way the law is supposed to work.”

“President Biden recently gave a speech about how 20 years in Afghanistan was too long and that our continued involvement there was a mistake. Well, what about more than 50 years of proven failure, 50 years of gross economic waste, 50 years of caging our own citizens, 50 years of asset forfeiture abuse, 50 years of enforcement disparity and evisceration of the constitutional rights of people of color. In a country where you can guy an assault rifle and fifth of whiskey, federal prohibition of cannabis has never been about more than fear, bias, race, stigmatization and control.”

This isn’t the first time that the Biden administration has faced demands to provide relief for people criminalized over marijuana.

Congressional lawmakers have also recently pushed President Joe Biden to grant clemency to nearly 20,000 people in the federal prison system—including those with drug convictions.

A group of more than 150 celebrities, athletes, politicians, law enforcement professionals and academics separately signed a letter that was delivered to Biden, asking him to issue a “full, complete and unconditional pardon” to all people with non-violent federal marijuana convictions.

While advocates are looking for more, the Biden administration is asking a fraction of people with drug convictions who were placed on home confinement amid the coronavirus pandemic to apply for the relief.

“It is time for our government to admit that it has made a mistake,” the new ad says.

Mississippi Lawmakers Reach Deal On Medical Marijuana Legalization, Plan To Request Special Session

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House Officially Passes Defense Bill With Marijuana Banking Protections, But Key Senators May Block Path Ahead

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The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a large-scale defense spending bill that includes an amendment to shield banks that works with state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Now advocates and industry stakeholders are left wondering: what’s the fate of the reform in the Senate? And can it make it to the president’s desk?

New comments from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)—who’s helping lead the charge to advance comprehensive marijuana legalization and who has been severely critical of efforts to enact banking reform first—signal that the path to pass the incremental policy change through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could be in jeopardy in the Senate. Other key senators have also expressed skepticism about the reform’s prospects through this process.

For supporters, things may have been more simple if the Senate had moved to include cannabis banking reform in its own version, but the text of NDAA released by Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday does not contain that language. That means the matter will need to be settled in a bicameral conference committee after the full Senate formally passes its bill. At that point, negotiators from both chambers will work to resolve differences between their separate proposals.

Already, there’s pushback from key senators to including the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in the NDAA that’s ultimately sent to President Joe Biden. That’s not especially surprising considering that leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has insisted on passing comprehensive justice-focused marijuana legalization first rather than advance an incremental reform on banking. But recent statements do raise questions about the prospects of enacting the reform through the defense bill.

It’s not that the SAFE Banking Act is partisan or especially controversial on its face; it’s a matter of legislative priorities for certain senators and a question of germaneness in NDAA. As of Tuesday, when the reform amendment was officially attached to the House version of the bill, it has now passed five times in the chamber, usually along largely bipartisan lines.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, spoke with Marijuana Moment about the process moving forward in a phone interview on Wednesday. He was optimistic about the measure’s prospects with NDAA as the vehicle, though he conceded that he hadn’t spoken with Schumer or other key senators who are actively finalizing legalization legislation that they hope to see move first.

“I think the fifth time is the charm,” he said. “I mean, obviously, we still have to do some work to make sure that it remains part of the NDAA as the House and the Senate go to conference. So we still have work to do with the Senate to make sure that it remains part of it. But I think that it will.”

“I mean, the fact that it deals with cartels and national security, on top of the need for the public safety piece of this thing, I think that we’ll be able to convince the conference committee and the conferees generally to keep it in,” he said. “But we still have work to do.”


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Some advocates have expressed support for enacting the achievable banking policy change while working to build support for more comprehensive reform.

“Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would improve public safety and business efficiency in the 36 states that currently permit some form of retail marijuana sales,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “The Senate should ensure this provision remains in the final version of this funding package and enact it swiftly.”

“The SAFE Banking Act is only the first step toward making sure that state-legal marijuana markets operate safely and efficiently,” he said. “The sad reality is that those who own or patronize these currently unbanked businesses would still be recognized as criminals in the eyes of the federal government and by federal law. This situation can only be rectified by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances.”

Schumer and certain other senators, meanwhile, have insisted the banking issue should be tackled by holistically ending marijuana prohibition. They argue that it is inappropriate to pass what is seen as an industry-focused reform that helps businesses and investors while leaving unaddressed the harms of decades of racially disparate prohibition enforcement that should be addressed with equity-focused legalization.

Booker, who is helping Schumer alongside Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) to produce a final legalization bill has said he would proactively work to block any senators who attempt to get marijuana banking reform passed before enacting social justice-focused legalization legislation.

And Booker told Politico on Wednesday that cannabis banking is “something that should not be included” in NDAA.

“It undermines the ability to get comprehensive marijuana reform and the kind of things that are harder to get done like expungement of people’s records,” he said, echoing a point that Schumer made in an interview with Marijuana Moment in April. And a spokesperson for the majority leader affirmed that his position has not changed in light of the House development.

Should a senator propose a floor amendment to the chamber’s version of the defense bill to incorporate SAFE Banking, Booker left open the possibility of standing in its way.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), sponsor of the standalone Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act, also declined to say whether he would push to attach the reform to NDAA and told Politico he’d “love to see if we can even do the more comprehensive [reform]—that’d be even better.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI), meanwhile, told Roll Call that the issue hasn’t been discussed by members of his panel. And bipartisan supporters of the reform—including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Rand Paul (R-KY)—told the outlet they weren’t certain that the Senate would pursue marijuana banking through NDAA.

Schatz also said that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “doesn’t like” the marijuana banking proposal, and so “he’s going to have to consult with the Republicans in his conference who are in favor of this reform, but so far he’s been blocking it.”

Based on these comments, it seems increasingly clear that the effort to enact SAFE Banking through the must-pass defense bill faces a tough road ahead. And despite bipartisan support for the proposal on its own, it’s an open question as to whether the negotiators in committees of jurisdiction will be able to reach a consensus.

At an initial meeting of the House Rules Committee about NDAA on Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), who is managing the bill for the chamber, acknowledged that while some members might consider certain amendments “superfluous” to defense spending matters, the annual legislation has been used as a vehicle to advance non-germane legislation in the past. He added, though, that doing so has historically required the issues at hand to have broad bipartisan support in order to survive the House-Senate conference committee process.

He didn’t specifically cite the cannabis banking proposal, but Perlmutter himself said earlier in the hearing that “whether something is superfluous is always in the eyes of the beholder,” signaling that he feels his measure’s germaneness in this context is up for interpretation.

Smith said that “whatever superfluous items the Rules Committee decides to put in order and get attached to this bill, we go to conference, and in conference, we work in a bipartisan fashion.”

But beyond Smith and Reed, it will also be up to leading members of key committees that handle banking issues to decide whether the measure gets a ride to the president’s desk in NDAA.

“We’re not going to pull one over on anybody here. We’re going to have to work with committees of jurisdiction—not just the chairs, but the ranking members as well—to come to some agreement on those before we go forward,” he said. “So if you see an item that you consider to be superfluous being added to the bill, don’t freak out.”

The chair’s comments about needing support from leaders of committees of jurisdiction raise questions about whether the amendment stands a chance in conference with the Senate following House approval. Not only did House Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC) vote against the standalone SAFE Banking Act this year and in 2019, but on the Senate side, even Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has been generally unenthusiastic about advancing the reform.

On the flip side, House Finance Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) is a supporter of the banking reform and brought it through her panel last Congress. Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA), for his part, has previously voiced support for advancing the SAFE Banking Act.

Perlmutter has said that he appreciates that Senate leadership is pushing for a more comprehensive end to federal marijuana prohibition—and he agrees with Booker that promoting social equity is an important objective—but he feels the SAFE Banking Act is urgently needed to address public safety issues resulting from the industry’s lack of access to traditional financial institutions.

Some of the strongest proponents for broad reform like Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) voted in favor of the SAFE Banking Act in April despite the body yet having taken up a legalization measure this session.

FBI Clarifies That Using Marijuana More Than 24 Times Disqualifies Would-Be Agents

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Mississippi Lawmakers Reach Deal On Medical Marijuana Legalization, Plan To Request Special Session

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Lawmakers reached a deal on key provisions such as which agencies should be responsible for regulating the medical cannabis market.

By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today

Legislative negotiators and leaders have agreed on a draft of medical marijuana legislation, and are anticipated to ask Gov. Tate Reeves (R) as early as Friday to call the Legislature into special session, sources close to the negotiations said Thursday.

Legislative leaders on Thursday released some details of the proposal—which had been kept close to the vest for months—such as that cities and counties will be allowed to “opt out” of having medical marijuana cultivation or dispensaries, although local voters can override this.

Negotiations have dragged on throughout the summer on crafting a medical marijuana program to replace one passed by Mississippi voters in November but shot down in May by the state Supreme Court on a constitutional technicality.

House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) in a Thursday interview on a Supertalk radio show said he believed the House and Senate leadership and negotiators are “in agreement” on a draft bill, and he believes both chambers have the votes to pass such a measure. He said he planned to get together with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R), then barring any last minute glitches “inform the governor we are ready.”

Other sources close to the negotiations on Thursday told Mississippi Today they anticipate that request to the governor would happen as soon as Friday. Reeves has sole authority to call lawmakers into special session, and would set the date and parameters of a special session. Although legislative leaders have expressed interest in dealing with COVID-19 and other issues in a special session, Reeves has appeared unwilling but said he would call a session for medical marijuana, pending lawmakers are in agreement and he agrees with the measure.

Gunn in his radio interview on Thursday gave some particulars of the bill, but said “don’t hold me to it” and deferred to Rep. Lee Yancey, (R), the lead House negotiator on the measure. Yancey has worked with Sen. Kevin Blackwell, (R), the lead Senate negotiator. Blackwell could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.

Yancey gave Mississippi Today some highlights of the draft bill, which would be subject to changes by the full Legislature. They include:

Cities and counties could opt out. Voters could opt back in. City councils or aldermen, or county boards of supervisors, within 60 days of passage of legislation, could opt out from allowing cultivation or dispensing of medical marijuana within their borders. However, voters could gather 1,500 signatures, or signatures of 20 percent of voters, whichever is less, and force a referendum on the issue. If such a referendum to allow it fails, voters could try again in two years, similar to state alcohol referenda. Yancey said that under the draft measure, “Once it’s in, it’s in,” meaning once approved, a locality could not come back and ban it.

“This gives businesses the certainty they need to get started,” Yancey said. “No licenses will be issued the first 60 days after passage for cultivation and processing, and licenses (for cannabis use) and dispensaries wouldn’t start until the 90th day.”

Smoking cannabis would be allowed. There had been debate on whether Mississippi’s program would allow smoking of cannabis by patients, as most states with programs allow, or prohibit it, as Alabama does with its recently approved program.

“There are those who have certain debilitating conditions who need the effects of medical cannabis to take effect immediately,” Yancey said. “Ingesting a gummy or something like that could take 45 minutes to an hour. Whether it’s terrible seizures or pain and suffering or not being able to eat, there are those who need relief as immediately as possible… There are those who look at this from a bias of recreational use, but that’s not apples to apples, not fair. There are people who are suffering, who need the palliative relieve medical cannabis can provide, and our main goal is to allow people who are suffering terrible illnesses to get relief.”

Medical marijuana would be subject to sales tax and an excise. The state’s sales tax, currently at 7 percent, would be levied on medical marijuana, as well as a $15 an ounce excise. Yancey said the goal was to have a 5 percent excise, but that going rates for marijuana vary by potency and product, so the weight-based tax was the easiest way to get near that mark. Weight for edibles and other product would be based on the cannabis weight, not food or other product. Yancey said this tax rate would put Mississippi roughly in the middle of states with legalized medical cannabis.

“The going rate for mid-range (marijuana flower) is about $300 an ounce, so if you do the math, $15 an ounce would be around the 5%,” Yancey said. “If a product sold for lower, you would pay higher than that rate, if sold for more, you would pay less.”

Outdoor growing would not be allowed. Lawmakers during hearings this summer were told by officials from other states that regulating growing and safety of medical marijuana is easier with indoor growing facilities.

State Health Department would be in charge, with Department of Revenue, Agriculture Commission sharing some responsibilities. The Mississippi State Department of Health would oversee the state’s medical marijuana program, but the state’s taxing and agriculture agencies would share some regulatory duties. State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson has told lawmakers he will not participate in regulating medical marijuana because marijuana is still federally illegal. Gipson has threatened to sue if lawmakers try to force him to participate.

Yancey said the proposal would allow Gipson to subcontract growing regulations to someone else.

“For instance, if the Board of Pharmacy said it was interested in regulating the plants—like they do with compounding pharmacies—they could do it,” Yancey said. “In a sense Andy wouldn’t have to do it himself, he could farm it out, no pun intended.”

Preference would be given to in-state companies. Yancey said cultivators would be licensed in tiers—from “micro cultivators” to large ones, based on square footage of canopy space. Micro growers, under 2,000 square feet, would have to be “100 percent Mississippi resident participation.” Larger ones initially would have to have 35 percent Mississippi ownership, but that requirement would be repealed after one year. Yancey said this could help Mississippians be involved in the business, but help the state avoid lawsuits other states have faced from out-of-state growers. Yancey said there would be a similar setup for processors, based on amount of pounds of product they produce.

Potency would be regulated. Yancey said there would be THC potency limits of 30 percent on flower, 60 percent on concentrates and infused products. He said any product above 30 percent THC would have to have a warning label.

This story was first published by Mississippi Today.

Mississippi Agriculture Department Should Have No Role In Medical Marijuana Regulation, Commissioner Tells Lawmakers

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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