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.
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. Here again is the roll call: https://t.co/NGfZRrZZmt https://t.co/mEvji6oEog
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) February 8, 2019
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.
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.)
Congressman Files Marijuana Bill After Leaving Republican Party
In one of his first legislative acts since leaving the Republican Party earlier this month amid a feud with the president, Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) filed a bill on Monday that would let states set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because bipartisan legislation that would accomplish the same goal has already been filed this Congress.
But unlike the nearly identical Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, Amash’s new bill excludes one provision that would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the effects of cannabis legalization on road safety and issue a report on its findings within a year of the law’s enactment.
That language states that the GAO must study “traffic crashes, fatalities, and injuries” in legal cannabis states, actions taken by those states to “address marihuana-impaired driving,” testing standards being used to detect impaired driving and federal initiatives “aiming to assist States that have legalized marihuana with traffic safety.”
Given Amash’s libertarian leanings, it stands to reason that he opposes spending government dollars to conduct the research and simply supports the broader states’ rights intent of the original legislation.
That would also put him at odds with social justice advocates who feel that the STATES Act itself doesn’t go far enough and are pushing for more comprehensive legislation that includes additional provisions addressing social equity and restorative justice for people harmed by drug law enforcement.
Members of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee heard that debate play out during a historic hearing on ending federal marijuana prohibition last week.
A newly formed coalition of civil rights and drug reform organizations, including the ACLU, is also insisting on passing wide-ranging legislation to deschedule cannabis entirely that also invests in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
Amash is a long-standing critic of the war on drugs and earlier this year signed on as a cosponsor of a separate bill that would federally deschedule marijuana. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, filed that legislation, which is also silent on social equity provisions.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 8, 2019
Gabbard also introduced a separate bill that would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies to study the impacts of legalization. True to form, Amash declined to add his name to that measure as well.
Read the text of Amash’s new cannabis bill below:
Photo courtesy of Kyle Jaeger.
Berkeley City Council Considers Decriminalizing Psychedelics This Week
A resolution to decriminalize psilocybin and other psychedelics will go before a Berkeley, California City Council committee on Wednesday.
Decriminalize Nature, the group behind the measure, also led the charge to successfully get a measure decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi approved by the City Council in neighboring Oakland last month.
In Berkeley, the Public Safety Committee will discuss the proposal and can either decide to hold it for a future meeting or advance it to the full Council. The public is able to attend Wednesday’s special meeting and share their perspective on the resolution, but Decriminalize Nature stressed in a tweet that this “is a small meeting, so you do NOT need to attend.”
Is it time for #DecriminalizeNature #Berkeley? Agenda 4 at the public safety meeting this Wed. July 17, with the Decriminalize Nature team! This is a small meeting, so you do NOT need to attend. But if you live in Berkeley, write your City Council! https://t.co/gMSDkegMPU
— Decriminalize Nature (@DecrimNature) July 15, 2019
However, city residents are being encouraged to write to their Council members and urge them to vote in favor of the measure, which would codify that “no department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Berkeley Police Department personnel, shall use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of Entheogenic Plants by adults of at least 21 years of age.”
The resolution defines the covered substances as “plants and natural sources such as mushrooms, cacti, iboga containing plants and/or extracted combinations of plants similar to ayahuasca; and limited to those containing the following types of compounds: indoleamines, tryptamines, phenethylamines.”
Councilmembers Rigel Robinson and Cheryl Davila are sponsoring the resolution, which does not allow for commercial sales or manufacturing.
The lawmakers provided background information on the measure in a report to their colleagues and the mayor, describing the medical potential of various psychedelics as well as the success of decriminalization measures in Denver and Oakland.
“It is intended that this resolution empowers Berkeley residents to be able to grow their own entheogens, share them with their community, and choose the appropriate setting for their intentions instead of having to rely exclusively on the medical establishment, which is slow to adapt and difficult to navigate for many,” they wrote.
While efforts to eliminate criminal penalties associated with psilocybin and other psychedelics have so far centered in jurisdictions that have historically embraced marijuana legalization and broader drug reform, the conversation around decriminalizing psychedelics is spreading nationally.
Shortly after Oakland approved its measure, Decriminalize Nature received inquiries from activities in cities from across the country. The group has kept track of each city where organizers are pursuing decriminalization.
Nature lovers are organizing coast to coast (and Hawaii)! Is your city on the map? Connect to join with your local community, or if you have the motivation to propose a similar initiative in your city/town/county, let’s start growing! contact [email protected] #DNUSA pic.twitter.com/38UxLKK9RN
— Decriminalize Nature (@DecrimNature) July 2, 2019
On Monday, a conversation around changing laws governing psychedelics reared during a City Council meeting in Columbia, Missouri. One resident implored the body to take up a resolution to decriminalize the natural substances, pointing to their therapeutic benefits.
Councilmember Mike Trapp said that the student’s proposal should be considered and that a government advisory board on public health should provide input on the medical potential of psychedelics, describing it as “very promising.”