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Why Did Pro-Legalization Lawmakers Vote To Ban People With Drug Convictions From Employment?

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Drug policy reform advocates are wondering why several of their most trusted allies in Congress voted last week to bar people with controlled substances convictions from being able to land certain jobs.

An amendment that broadly prohibits child care providers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from employing individuals with felony drug convictions and other criminal records passed with a strong bipartisan vote of 401-19 on support on the House floor last week. And that includes yes votes from several lawmakers who are especially supportive of marijuana legalization and broader drug law reform efforts.

The amendment to the Veterans’ Access to Child Care Act stipulates that VA child care facilities “may not provide child care…if the center, agency, or provider employs an individual who has been convicted of a sex crime, an offense involving a child victim, a violent crime, a drug felony, or other offense the Secretary determines appropriate.” (Italicized emphasis added.)

The ban also applies to non-VA facilities that participate in the VA child care program.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a leading proponent of marijuana legalization, voted for the amendment. So did Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who called for federal cannabis descheduling after the House passed a bipartisan sentencing reform bill he helped lead efforts to pass. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), now co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, voted “aye,” as well.

Other pro-legalization members who voted for the amendment include Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

As shown by the text above, the amendment in question also bans people with convictions for violent crimes, sex offenses and crimes involving children from working at a VA child care facility, so it’s possible that some lawmakers felt pressured not to vote against those restrictions. But beside the felony drug conviction ban, the amendment also gives the VA secretary discretion to exclude people for any crime he deems relevant—an entirely open-ended category that criminal justice reform advocates strongly oppose.

“I thought we were beyond this type of gotcha vote garbage,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “These bans do nothing to improve safety, and only serve to demonize people—mostly people of color—who already struggle to gain employment and reintegrate into society.”

“House Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for using their new majority to promote Willie Horton politics.”

The proposal seemed to reveal fissures in the Democratic party’s attitude toward drug policy and reentry, with several newly elected members voting against the amendment.

Freshmen congresswomen including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) all opposed the amendment, as did Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who serves as a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Another standout “no” vote was cast by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee who indicated recently that he will use his position to bring cannabis legislation to votes.

A handful of Republicans also opposed the measure.

“Only 19 of us, Republicans and Democrats, think a 65-year-old grandma shouldn’t be prohibited from working an office job at a Veterans Affairs child care facility simply because she had a marijuana conviction at age 18,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) wrote on Friday.

While there’s a growing recognition in Congress that the drug war is a policy failure that has caused long-term harm, particularly to marginalized communities, people with drug convictions continue to be targeted in exclusionary legislation.

A recent example of that comes from the 2018 Farm Bill, which included a provision federally legalizing hemp but at the same time bars people with felony drug convictions from participating in the industry for a period of 10 years. Earlier versions of the bill made that ban indefinite, but drug reform advocates fought for and won a compromise in the final legislation.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), who introduced the VA child care amendment, said in a press release that the legislation “means less stress for our veterans who would need to otherwise arrange for childcare to make an appointment.”

Veterans “have also told me that this bill will help veterans make and attend appointments because they wouldn’t have to worry about arranging childcare,” she said. “This acknowledges both the needs of our veterans and creates a support network for them.”

But that’s not how criminal justice reform advocates see it.

“There’s all of this wonderful rhetoric about how there’s bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform and the need to give people second chances, but when they pass overwhelmingly these restrictions on employment or benefits, it’s a continuing policy approach of being ‘tough on crime’ and banishing people permanently because of their record,” Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at the Sentencing Project, told Marijuana Moment.

“It’s very tiresome and it’s completely counterintuitive to what we know about how to successfully reintegrate people into communities after a conviction and helping them get back on their feet,” she said. “Making these blanket bans doesn’t do that.”

Representatives for Blumenauer, Jeffries and Gabbard did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Congressional Committee Could Take Up Marijuana Reform ‘Fairly Soon,’ Chairman Says

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Where Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Stands On Marijuana

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is making another run for the Democratic presidential nomination, he announced on Tuesday.

From his time as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, to his years in the U.S. Senate, Sanders has established himself as a champion of drug policy reform, particularly when it comes to marijuana. NORML gave the senator an “A+” grade based on his legislative track record.

And it didn’t take long for Sanders to incorporate drug reform into his latest presidential bid. In his announcement video, he reiterated that the government “needs to end the destructive war on drugs.”

Legislation And Policy Actions

Sanders has been behind some of the first and most wide-ranging legislative efforts to fundamentally change federal cannabis laws. He was the first major presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization during his last bid and, in 2015, filed the first-ever Senate bill to end federal cannabis prohibition.

He’s also attached his name to a number of reform bills in Congress, going back to his time in the House, as well as during his Senate tenure. That includes recent pieces of legislation such as the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and punish states with discriminatory enforcement, as well as the the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would federally deschedule cannabis.

More than 20 years ago, Sanders cosponsored a House bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. He also signed onto legislation that would reschedule cannabis and protect states with legal medical cannabis. He cosponsored versions of that bill in the 107th, 108th and 109th Congresses.

When Sanders arrived in the Senate, he began supporting efforts to reform federal hemp laws. He cosponsored three versions of a bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to remove hemp from the definition of marijuana under the CSA, for example. And last Congress, he put his name on legislation to legalize industrial hemp.

The senator also backed bills to shield banks from federal prosecution if they choose to accept marijuana business accounts in legal states.

On four occasions in the House, Sanders voted in favor of amendments to protect legal medical marijuana states from federal intervention. He voted against a resolution in 1998 that was meant to express “the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.”

Quotes And Social Media Posts

Sanders has been outspoken about his support for marijuana reform in speeches, during debates and on social media. His messaging around the issue typically falls into one of three categories:

1. Marijuana is not comparable to other drugs listed in Schedule I of the CSA, and it should be removed from that list, accordingly. 

“Right now, marijuana is listed by the federal government as a Schedule I drug—meaning that it is considered to be as dangerous as heroin. That is absurd,” he said during a rally at George Mason University in 2015. “In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana.”

He lamented that “marijuana is listed side-by-side with heroin” during a campaign event at the University of Iowa.

“I know that you are an intelligent group of people and, very seriously, I know and I hope very much that you all understand what a killer drug heroin is,” he said. “There are two ways out when you do heroin: Number one, you’re gonna get arrested and go to jail. Number two, you’re gonna die. Stay away from heroin.”

“But in terms of marijuana what we are seeing is a lot of lives have been really hurt, because if you get a criminal record for possession of marijuana it could impact your ability to get a job,” he said. “And that is why I have introduced legislation and will move forward as president to take marijuana out of the Controlled Substances Act.”

And when then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton proposed rescheduling cannabis and placing it in Schedule II, Sanders said he appreciated that she was addressing the issue but that her proposal “ignored the major issue,” which is that it would place “marijuana in the same category as cocaine and continue to make marijuana a federally regulated substance.”

2. Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war and are more likely to be arrested for marijuana despite the fact that usage rates are roughly the same among different racial groups. 

“We must recognize that blacks are four times more likely than whites to get arrested for marijuana possession, even though the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana,” Sanders said in a press release. “Any serious criminal justice reform must include removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.”

“I am glad to see Baltimore will no longer prosecute marijuana possession and will move to vacate some convictions,” Sanders said after the city’s top prosecutor made that announcement in early 2019. “Thousands and thousands of people across the country have had their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use—and it’s disproportionately affecting people of color. It is time to decriminalize marijuana and end the failed war on drugs.”

“Where it becomes a racial issue, it turns out that whites and blacks utilized marijuana roughly equal,” Sanders said during an interview with rapper Killer Mike in 2015. “Four times as many blacks are arrested for possession as whites. It becomes a racial issue.”

“The reality is that both the African-American community and the white community do marijuana at about equal rates,” he emphasized at a debate in Wisconsin. “The reality is four times as many blacks get arrested for marijuana.”

3. It is an injustice that young people can have their lives upended by a non-violent cannabis conviction while Wall Street bankers avoid prosecution for financial crimes. 

“If some kid in Iowa or Vermont today is picked up possessing marijuana, that kid will get a police record that will stay with him for the rest of his life,” Sanders said at a rally in Iowa in 2016. “But the executives on Wall Street who drove this country into the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, whose greed and illegal behavior resulted in millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes, their life savings, these executives who pay billions of dollars in settlement agreements with the government, not one of them has been prosecuted. Not one of them has a criminal record.”

“It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but oddly enough not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy,” he said during a speech before the National Urban League. “Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Before he got behind full marijuana legalization, Sanders’s position on drug policy has varied somewhat.

When he was campaigning to be governor of Vermont in 1972, he seemed to embrace legalizing all drugs in an attempt to pushback against what he described as the “gradual erosion of freedoms and the sense of what freedom really means” under the administration of President Richard Nixon, writing that the government should “abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior.”

As states like Colorado began legalizing cannabis for adult use, Sanders said in interviews that he recognized that the issue was gaining popularity and pledged to study it closely. He voiced support for Vermont’s decriminalization policy and medical marijuana legalization generally.

Sanders also complained about how federal laws impede the effective implementation of state-level marijuana programs, stressing that cannabis businesses struggle to access banking services, for example.

“I think there are things that the federal government can do that would make it easier for states that want to go in that direction to be able to do so,” he said in 2015. “What the federal government can do is say to the state of Colorado that if you choose to vote to legalize marijuana, we will allow you to do that without restrictions.”

He also called for federal decriminalization as a response to the “continuation of millions of people over the decades getting police records because they were caught possessing marijuana.”

Sanders has criticized moves from the Justice Department under President Donald Trump to dismantle guidelines on federal marijuana enforcement priorities.

“No, Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions. Marijuana is not the same as heroin,” he said in a statement last year before Sessions rescinded the Cole memo. “No one who has seriously studied the issue believes that marijuana should be classified as a Schedule I drug beside killer drugs like heroin.”

“Quite the contrary. We should allow states the right to move toward the decriminalization of marijuana, not reverse the progress that has been made in recent years,” he said.

He also congratulated Canada when the country passed a law legalizing cannabis for adult use and said “it is long past time that we in the United States end the federal prohibition on marijuana.”

And he congratulated Seattle when the city’s judges decided to green light expungements for past marijuana possession convictions.

“We must decriminalize marijuana nationally and expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes,” he wrote.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

Sanders said that he smoked marijuana decades ago but that the plant “didn’t do much for me.”

“I smoked marijuana twice and all I did was cough my guts out, so it didn’t work for me,” he said at a rally in Las Vegas. “But I do understand other people have had different experiences.”

That said, the senator has made a point of emphasizing that his efforts to reform marijuana laws is not meant “to encourage anybody to smoke marijuana.”

Marijuana Under A Sanders Presidency

As the first major presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization—and as someone who has introduced and cosponsored some of the most far-reaching cannabis bills in Congress—Sanders has already made marijuana history in his career. He signaled again in his announcement speech that addressing the harms of the drug war would be a priority if he’s elected, and part of that agenda would likely involve seriously considering legislation to end the federal prohibition of marijuana.

While most 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have backed legalization at this point, Sanders’s long-standing record of standing up for drug policy reform gives voters relatively strong assurance that marijuana legalization would be near the top of his priorities as president.

Where Presidential Candidate Amy Klobuchar Stands On Marijuana

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Lawmakers Push FDA To Allow CBD-Infused Food Products

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A bipartisan group of members of Congress is pushing the Trump administration to provide a legal pathway for food products infused with the marijuana compound cannabidiol, better known as CBD.

In a letter sent to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday, the lawmakers wrote that a series of recent actions by state and local officials in New York City, Maine and Ohio to crack down on the sale of CBD foods and beverages have “spurred a tremendous amount of confusion among product manufacturers, hemp farmers, and consumers of these products.”

FDA has so far refused to say whether it was involved in the local crackdowns in any way.

“In light of the aforementioned state enforcement actions and the resulting confusion, we are calling on FDA to swiftly provide guidance on lawful pathways for food products with CBD,” the 12 lawmakers, led by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), wrote to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

Following the federal legalization of hemp and products derived from it late last year through the Farm Bill, FDA released a lengthy statement saying that it reserves the right to regulate cannabis-based products. The agency would take action against businesses making unsupported claims about CBD’s therapeutic potential, it said, even if the products in question were derived from legal hemp crops, and it warned against introducing such products into interstate commerce.

Gottlieb did say in the statement, however, that “pathways remain available for the FDA to consider whether there are circumstances in which certain cannabis-derived compounds might be permitted in a food or dietary supplement.”

He also said that FDA would hold a public meeting on the issue to “gather additional input relevant to the lawful pathways by which products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds can be marketed, and how we can make these legal pathways more predictable and efficient.”

Now, the group of House members is urging him to hurry it up, and they want answers to the following questions by Friday:

1. When will FDA provide guidance on lawful pathways for food products with CBD? For example, it would seem the GRAS Notification Program would be one such pathway.

2. Has FDA advised states—such as New York, Maine or Ohio—that have recently taken enforcement actions against food products with CBD?

3. When will FDA hold a public hearing on the regulation of products containing CBD?

“States are looking for immediate leadership from the Federal Government to eliminate confusion around this issue,” the House lawmakers wrote. “Furthermore, numerous states are pursuing legislative efforts that would allow for the intrastate commerce of food products with CBD, potentially leading to a patchwork of state regulations.”

Lawmakers joining Pingree on the letter include Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Don Young (R-AK), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Peter Welch (D-VT), among others.

Separately, lawmakers have sent a number of other letters to federal agencies recently about aspects of the Farm Bill’s hemp legalization provisions.

For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who together championed hemp legalization to passage, wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week urging that it move “expeditiously” to implement regulations on the newly legal crop.

Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also sent a separate letter to the FDA last month criticizing “outdated regulations,” that “limit producers from taking full advantage of the industrial hemp market” such as the development of hemp-derived CBD products.

Read the full text of the new CBD letter to the FDA below:

Lawmakers Push FDA On CBD F… by on Scribd

FDA To Take Steps Toward Allowing CBD Products Following Hemp Legalization

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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Legalization Supporters Slam Kamala Harris Endorsement From Marijuana Reform Champion Barbara Lee

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Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) is facing backlash from marijuana legalization advocates over her early endorsement of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) in the 2020 presidential race.

The congresswoman, who last month became the first woman and first person of color to co-chair the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, and who has long been one of Capitol Hill’s most dedicated marijuana reform supporters, said in a statement that Harris has exhibited a “deep passion for justice and opportunity” throughout her career as a prosecutor.

But others have been critical of the senator’s time in the criminal justice system and particularly her role in enforcing harsh drug laws as a prosecutor. That sentiment was on full display after Lee tweeted about how marijuana criminalization has fueled mass incarceration on Saturday—two days after her endorsement of Harris.

“More people are arrested for marijuana than for all other violent crimes combined,” Lee wrote. “Marijuana has long been a driving force for mass incarceration in this country and I’m fighting to end it.”

Hundreds of Twitter users replied that the statement and her endorsement of Harris don’t line up.

“That candidate for 2020 you’re endorsing has been a driving enforcement for exactly this,” one user said in a tweet that generated more than 300 likes.

Harris has tried to rectify her image as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, going so far as to cosponsor wide-ranging legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition. She even admitted to using marijuana during college in a recent interview.

Still, her former offices’ involvement in punitive action against low-level drug offenders during her time as a San Francisco prosecutor and California state attorney general has created a lingering perception among many reform advocates who question her motivations. And for some, the memory of Harris laughing off a reporter’s question about marijuana legalization in 2014 burns bright.

The replies to Lee’s tweet didn’t quite rise to the level of a “ratio” (a Twitter phenomenon in which a post gets more angry replies than retweets or likes), but the overwhelming pushback against her endorsement makes clear that the Democratic presidential candidate will likely continue to face skepticism from marijuana legalization supporters and the broader criminal justice reform crowd as her campaign expands and the presidential race heats up.

Lee’s office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment on this story.

Kamala Harris’s SnoopGate Is What A Political Marijuana Controversy Looks Like In 2019

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