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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.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Presses Housing Secretary About Marijuana Eviction Policies

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pressed the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) about policies that cause public housing residents and their families to be evicted for committing low-level offenses such as marijuana possession on Tuesday.

During a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, the congresswoman first quoted HUD Secretary Ben Carson from a 2017 speech where he acknowledged that the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted minority communities.

“Do you acknowledge that the war on drugs disproportionately impacted black communities and communities of color despite marijuana and other drug use levels being comparable to white communities?” she asked the secretary for the record.

“Traditionally that has been the case,” Carson replied.

Ocasio-Cortez went on to say that she was concerned that “the negative impact of the war on drugs has not been limited to incarceration” and that “we had legislative rippling effect that also seems to have been codified in our housing system”

She pointed to two specific HUD policies: the “one strike” rule, which allows property managers to evict people living in federally assisted housing if they engage in illicit drug use or other crimes, and the “no fault” rule, which stipulates that public housing residents can be evicted due to illicit drug use by other members of their household or guests—even if the resident was unaware of the activity.

Carson said that property owners in individual jurisdictions have discretion when it comes to enforcing the policy, but he conceded that these rules are in effect under federal law.

“So a person could be stop and frisked and be found in possession of a small amount of marijuana and then be evicted or have their entire family evicted from public housing?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.

“That is a possibility,” Carson said.

The congresswoman then asked if Carson was aware of the “no fault” rule, to which he replied that the “use of such activity is extremely limited, if ever used.” Ocasio-Cortez responded by stating that the policies “are still codified in federal law” and asked whether the official supports “reversing some of these provisions” such as the “no fault” rule.

Carson said he was willing to talk about individual cases, and the congresswoman followed up by noting that there’s a lack of holistic review for these cases. Given Carson’s interest in hearing details about individual cases, she wondered if he’d “support being able to move some of these policies to a more holistic review.”

“Should that case-by-case consideration be codified in federal law instead of having blanket, one-strike or no fault policies?” she asked.

“I’m always in favor of more flexibility,” he said, signaling that he’d be open to reforming some of the anti-drug policies in effect federally at HUD.

Should Carson decline to take action, legislation introduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) in April would protect public housing residents who use marijuana in compliance with state law from being evicted.

Ocasio-Cortez herself has filed a bill that would prevent public housing applicants from being denied due to a low-level drug conviction that resulted in a sentence of under ten years and prohibit drug testing of applicants “as a condition of such housing assistance,” among other reforms.

People Could Use Marijuana In Public Housing Under New Congressional Bill

Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.

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Presidential Candidates Are Cosponsoring A New Marijuana Descheduling Bill

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Four 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have signed onto new legislation to federally deschedule marijuana—while a handful of other White House hopefuls are notably missing as original cosponsors.

The companion bills introduced on Monday by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and use some tax revenue from marijuana sales to provide grants to socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals to participate in the legal industry.

It would also set aside money to support efforts to expunge past marijuana convictions.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—who are each seeking the Democratic presidential nomination—are cosponsoring the bills.

But Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) have so far declined to give the legislation their signature, despite their overall support for marijuana reform.

Bennet was an original cosponsor of a similar bill that Schumer filed during the 115th Congress.

The reasons he and other candidates decided against joining as original cosponsors of the new legislation are unclear, though some of them may end up adding their names at a later date.

For Booker, it’s possible that the senator doesn’t feel that the bill goes far enough in terms of promoting social equity—which is why he hasn’t supported separate cannabis reform legislation introduced this Congress.

Outside of the presidential candidates, Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Tom Carper (D-DE) also cosponsored last year’s version but are not yet on the new proposal.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are moving ahead with plans to pass more modest cannabis reform legislation, including a bipartisan bill to give marijuana businesses access to banks that cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March.

Democratic Congressional Bill Protects Medical Cannabis But Not Broader State Marijuana Laws

Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.

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Two Federal Agencies Schedule Meetings To Discuss Marijuana-Related Issues

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Two federal agencies recently announced that they will be holding meetings this summer to discuss public health and safety issues related to marijuana.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a notice published in the Federal Register last week that its Board of Scientific Counselors will convene on July 16 and 17 to tackle a wide variety of topics, including how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and how to balance intramural and extramural research initiatives.

On the second day of the meeting, which will be open to the public, the panel of experts will also discuss the role of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in “addressing public health concerns related to marijuana.”

The notice is light on specifics, but the CDC has historically weighed in on the impacts of cannabis use on pregnancy, driving and young people.

Separately, on June 11 and 12, members of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Drug Testing Advisory Board will meet for a conversation about federal workplace drug testing policies. Part of that meeting will involve a discussion of “emerging issues surrounding marijuana legalization.”

While the Federal Register filing does not spell out which “emerging issues” will be specifically addressed during the first day’s public session, it also notes that the board will discuss the “impact of cannabis laws on drug testing and future direction” in a closed session on the second day of the meeting.

The federal discussion comes as marijuana reform advocates have stepped up efforts to end the employer practice of penalizing workers who test positive for THC metabolites.

In New York City, for example, a City Council measure prohibiting pre-employment drug testing for cannabis in specific industries and another barring such tests for people on probation were both enacted this month without the mayor’s signature.

While federal marijuana laws continue to strictly prohibit cannabis, the growing legalization movement has forced various agencies to address the issue. Officials from some federal divisions have observed in recent months that the scheduling status of marijuana under federal law has inhibited research into its public health benefits and risks.

In December, representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration and National Institute on Drug Abuse were part of a workshop focusing on cannabis research.

U.S. government agencies have also used Federal Register notices to solicit the public’s help in identifying studies about the effects of cannabis on disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

NAACP And ACLU Ask Congress To Suspend DEA’s Drug Enforcement Activities

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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