Steve Bullock announced on Tuesday that he is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The Montana governor, who previously served as the state’s attorney general, supports medical cannabis, but his stance on legalizing marijuana for adult use is unclear. NORML gives Bullock a “B” grade based on his record.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Montana’s medical cannabis program has undergone several revisions since voters first approved it in 2004.
As attorney general and a gubernatorial candidate in 2012, Bullock voiced opposition to a law that repealed the voter-led initiative and replaced it with a more tightly controlled system.
He said he voted in favor of the 2004 initiative and would also be voting to strike down the new law, SB 423, when voters got the opportunity in the form of a veto resolution initiative on the November 2012 ballot. (That measure did not succeed in repealing the law.)
“What we want to do is make sure those in legitimate medical need get the opportunity to get medical marijuana and those that don’t are precluded from doing so,” he said during an October 2012 gubernatorial debate.
“I don’t want unlimited grow operations and things like that. I don’t think anybody does,” he added. “I don’t think we want the chronic pain of ages 19 to 29 be the largest group [of medical cannabis patients]. We can put sideboards on this and we can actually make it as other states have done and it will make a difference.”
Days after that debate, Bullock was asked to respond to criticism from his opponent that he lacked leadership in the regulation of medical cannabis as attorney general. Bullock pushed back, noting that he organized meetings with law enforcement and sent a memo to the legislature outlining areas where he felt the system could be further reformed.
“We were working on solving the issue and we still have to do more to solve the issue,” he said. “We still have to make sure that we have a system where we can closely and tightly regulate it. Those that are entitled to it under the law, we want to get it, but we also don’t want abuses. And we can make that system.”
The year before he came out against the law to scale back the voter-approved medical cannabis system at the gubernatorial debate, Bullock argued in his capacity as attorney general that a lawsuit challenging the reform measure’s constitutionality was baseless.
The law, which was enacted without the then-governor’s signature, was meant to stymie the commercial market, prohibiting large scale manufacturers and shifting to a “grow-your-own” model that allowed registered patients to cultivate marijuana for personal use and let caregivers grow for up to three patients.
Industry advocates filed the lawsuit, calling the new system “unconstitutional.” In response, Bullock said “their arguments are based more on political and policy grounds than on sound constitutional principles.”
“Unfortunately, the narrow door the voters agreed to [in 2004] for compassionate use of medical marijuana was blown open by abuses and commercialization,” his office said at the time.
When that case was eventually settled in 2016, with the state Supreme Court upholding most of the law’s provisions, Bullock came to the defense of patients as governor. He sided with advocates who requested a 14-month delay of the enforcement of the court’s ruling.
“I am concerned about the ability of thousands of patients with serious medical conditions to access a treatment that has been approved by their doctors,” he said in a statement.
Voters approved a separate medical cannabis initiative in November 2016—eliminating patient limits for caregivers and the requirement for a second physician’s opinion before patients with chronic pain could access marijuana.
Bullock signed a bill in May 2017 that made a series of amendments to the new voter-approved initiative, including implementing seed-to-sale tracking systems, adding requirements for testing facilities and imposing fees on providers and dispensaries. It also removed a requirement that parents had to be the caregivers of minors.
Also that year, the Bullock signed a bill to impose the first taxes on medical marijuana sales. Cannabis providers would be taxed four percent on gross sales, dropping to two percent in June 2018.
In 2015, Bullock signed HB 463, a bill to dramatically reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which are often used against people accused of committing drug offenses. It would require a conviction before police seize the assets of a property owner suspected of engaging in criminal activity.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
In April 2017, Bullock criticized the Justice Department under the Trump administration for being out of touch on the issue of cannabis and for indicating that it would crack down on state-legal marijuana programs.
“When it comes to marijuana, and marijuana for medicinal purposes—which Montana has—I think [Attorney General Jeff Sessions] is dang near a decade late,” he said. “That cat is kind of out of the bag. We’ve been spending a lot of time in our legislature saying: Let’s look at our overall correctional system.”
Advocates have also applauded Bullock for standing up for the rights of medical cannabis patients to use and possess firearms.
In a 2011 letter to then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, he wrote that a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) memo explicitly stating that medical marijuana patients are disqualified from owning guns even if they use cannabis in compliance with state law “implicates serious legal issues under the Second Amendment, and the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fifth Amendment.” It also “raises serious policy and practical concerns.”
“I am willing and prepared to work constructively with your staff on exploring reasonable solutions to the problem created by the [ATF] letter,” he wrote. “By working creatively and cooperatively, I believe we can find an approach that works for the states that have authorized the use of marijuana for medical purposes.”
“This would be much better than the type of unilateral proclamation represented by the ATF letter, which was issued without any advance notice or discussion with the elected officials who represent more than one-fourth of this nation’s population, and one-third of its states,” he said.
Besides posting about his letter to Holder, Bullock has refrained from posting about cannabis policy on social media.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
It does not appear that the governor has spoken publicly about any personal experience with marijuana. While discussing his support for the 2004 medical cannabis legalization initiative, however, he said that voters “all had somebody in mind,” indicating that he knows people who’ve used cannabis medicinally.
Marijuana Under A Bullock Presidency
Bullock’s lack of commentary on broader marijuana reform casts doubts on whether he’d support wide-ranging legislation to end federal prohibition. It also generally implies that cannabis reform would not be at the top of his agenda if elected.
As other candidates compete to demonstrate a strong interest in the issue, sponsoring or cosponsoring bills to fundamentally change the country’s marijuana laws with some talking about going beyond cannabis in terms of drug policy reform, Bullock stands out for his relative silence.
That said, Bullock has been relatively consistent in his support for patient access to medical marijuana and it appears likely that states with such programs would be protected from federal interference under a Bullock administration.
Senate Schedules Second Cannabis Hearing For Next Week
A key Senate committee will hold a hearing next week to discuss hemp production, featuring witnesses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In the months since hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s been strong interest in developing USDA and FDA regulations for the crop and its compounds such as CBD, and lawmakers have repeatedly pressed the agencies to speed up the rulemaking process to unlock the industry’s potential.
While the hearing notice doesn’t go into detail about what will be discussed, the meeting’s title—”Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill”—and list of witnesses indicate that the conversation will revolve around the development of federal guidelines for hemp businesses.
— Sen. Ag Republicans (@SenateAgGOP) July 17, 2019
USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs Under Secretary Greg Ibach, USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy and EPA Assistant Administrator of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Alexandra Dunn will appear before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on July 25.
I am honored to be called by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry to testify next week (7/25) on “Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill.” As FDA, we recognize how important the topics of hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) are to Americans. https://t.co/bHMBGth1bL
— Dr. Amy Abernethy (@DrAbernethyFDA) July 18, 2019
Other invited witnesses include Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish, National Hemp Association Executive Director Erica Stark and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki.
The Senate Agriculture Committee meeting will mark the chamber’s second cannabis-related hearing of the week. The Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs announced on Tuesday that it will meet to discuss marijuana banking issues on July 23.
FDA and USDA have both recently signaled that they were cognizant of widespread interest in creating regulatory pathways for hemp and its derivatives, with USDA stating that it planned to release an interim final rule on the products in August and FDA’s Abernethy writing that the agency is “expediting” its rulemaking process. FDA added that it hoped to release a report on its progress by early fall.
That said, heads of the departments have also tried to temper expectations. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that USDA wouldn’t be expediting regulatory developments but that he expected them to be issued ahead of the 2020 planting seasons.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, meanwhile, cited policy complications that would make it difficult for the agency to create an alternative regulatory pathway for hemp-derived CBD products to be lawfully marketed as food items or dietary supplements. He said that without congressional action, it may take FDA years to establish those rules.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
As More States Legalize, DEA Chops Down Fewer Marijuana Plants, Federal Data Shows
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized far fewer marijuana plants in 2018 compared to the previous year but made significantly more cannabis-related arrests, according to federal data released this month.
More than 2.8 million indoor and outdoor marijuana plants were seized last year as part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That marks a 17 percent decline from 2017 levels.
NORML first noted the DEA report, which also shows that marijuana-related arrests the agency was involved with increased by about 20 percent in a year. And while the overall number of plants that were seized dropped, DEA said that the value of the assets totaled about $52 million—more than twice as much as it reported the previous year.
State-level legalization efforts appear to have played a role in the declining number of plant seizures, particularly those cultivated outdoors. In the same year that retail cannabis sales started in California, DEA confiscated almost 40 percent fewer outdoor plants in the state compared to 2017.
That data point is consistent with recent research showing that legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of illicit cannabis grows in national forests, which are often targets for DEA enforcement action.
It’s not clear why there was a significant uptick in marijuana-related arrests, but those increases generally did not occur in states where legal cannabis systems were recently implemented.
For example, arrests in Kansas, where marijuana is strictly prohibited, increased by more than 3,500 percent—from 15 to 544—from 2017 to 2018. Louisiana likewise experienced a 168 percent increase in cannabis arrests.
The data covers federal law enforcement actions and does not include those of local police agencies that did not partner with the agency.
Year-over-year decreases in cannabis seizures through DEA’s eradication program have been viewed by advocates as evidence that state-level legalization systems effectively displace the illicit market, removing the incentive to illegally cultivate cannabis.
Similarly, a separate recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showed that federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking dropped precipitously in 2018—another sign demonstrating that state-level legalization is disrupting the illicit market, advocates argue.
NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment that “federal eradication programs are a holdover from a bygone era.”
“At a time when roughly one-quarter of the country resides in a jurisdiction where adult marijuana use is legal, and when members of Congress are openly discussing removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is time for these federal anti-marijuana efforts to be put out to pasture and for federal agencies to take positions that more closely comport with cannabis’ rapidly changing cultural status in America,” he said.
DEA has also faced criticism of its cannabis eradication efforts from a non-partisan federal watchdog agency last year for failing to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners funded through the program.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report that DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals.”
At the same time that DEA is seizing fewer plants grown illicitly, it’s also setting higher goals for federally authorized cannabis cultivation for research purposes. In 2019, the agency said it hoped to grow approximately 5,400 pounds of marijuana to meet research demand, which is more than double its quota for 2018.
Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access
In one of the clearest signs of marijuana reform’s growing momentum on Capitol Hill, a Republican-controlled Senate committee has scheduled a hearing for next week that will examine cannabis businesses’ lack of access to banking services.
The formal discussion in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Tuesday comes as legislation aimed at resolving the marijuana industry’s financial services problems is gaining momentum. A House cannabis banking bill that cleared that chamber’s Financial Services Committee with a bipartisan vote in March now has 206 cosponsors—nearly half the body—while companion Senate legislation has 32 out of 100 senators signed on.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)