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.
Border Patrol Union Head Admits Legalizing Marijuana Forces Cartels Out Of The Market
The head of the labor union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents acknowledged on Friday that states that legalize marijuana are disrupting cartel activity.
While National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd was attempting to downplay the impact of legalization, he seemed to inadvertently make a case for the regulation all illicit drugs by arguing that cartels move away from smuggling cannabis and on to other substances when states legalize.
Judd made the remarks during an appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, where a caller said that “the states that have legalized marijuana have done more damage to the cartels than the [Drug Enforcement Administration] could ever think about doing.”
“As far as drugs go, all we do is we enforce the laws. We don’t determine what those laws are,” Judd, who is scheduled to meet with President Trump on Friday, replied. “If Congress determines that marijuana is going to be legal, then we’re not going to seize marijuana.”
“But what I will tell you is when he points out that certain states have legalized marijuana, all the cartels do is they just transition to another drug that creates more profit,” he said. “Even if you legalize marijuana, it doesn’t mean that drugs are going to stop. They’re just going to go and start smuggling the opioids, the fentanyl.”
One potential solution that Judd didn’t raise would be to legalize those other drugs to continue to remove the profit motive for cartels. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang made a similar argument in December.
Federal data on Border Patrol drug seizures seems to substantiate the idea that cannabis legalization at the state level has reduced demand for the product from the illicit market. According to a 2018 report from the Cato Institute, these substantial declines are attributable to state-level cannabis reform efforts, which “has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”
Additionally, legalization seems to be helping to reduce federal marijuana trafficking prosecutions, with reports showing decreases of such cases year over year since states regulated markets have come online.
In his annual report last year, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts also noted reduced federal marijuana prosecutions—another indication that the market for illegally sourced marijuana is drying up as more adults consumers are able to buy the product in legal stores.
Mike Bloomberg Attacks Marijuana Legalization In Controversial Resurfaced Recording
Before Mike Bloomberg launched his 2020 Democratic presidential bid, he really wasn’t shy about his disdain for marijuana legalization.
The former New York City mayor has been widely criticized this week after a recording surfaced of him defending controversial stop-and-frisk practices and racially disparate marijuana arrests during a 2015 Aspen Institute speech. But while that short clip went viral on social media, the full audio recording from the event also features Bloomberg condemning cannabis legalization efforts at length.
Asked by an audience member about his thoughts on Colorado’s decision to end marijuana prohibition, Bloomberg said, “I think it is just a terrible, terrible idea.”
Some of the remarks from the talk were previously reported by The Aspen Times, such as when Bloomberg asserted that marijuana use is associated with reduced IQ among young people—something President Trump also said in a recently revealed secret recording.
“What are we going to say in 10 years when we see all these kids whose IQs are 5 and 10 points lower than they would have been?” Bloomberg told the Aspen audience. “Kids’ brains are being formed while they are teenagers.
But much of his anti-cannabis commentary from the talk has not been reported until now.
“If you’re my age, of course you smoked a joint in the 60s—but it was very different and just because we did doesn’t make it right,” the former mayor, who has previously acknowledged his own past marijuana consumption, said. “It was not easily accessible compared to today. Today it’s much stronger and potentially much more damaging.”
Listen to Bloomberg’s anti-marijuana remarks below:
“We are making progress in reducing smoking. We are making progress in reducing obesity and diabetes. We are making progress in reducing automobile deaths and a variety of other things,” he said. But cannabis reform is going in “exactly in the other direction.”
Bloomberg also disparaged the idea that a regulated market can prevent youth from accessing cannabis, stating that “even if you have a law that says we’re not going to sell it to them, let’s get serious: if there’s more of it around, they’re going to get it.”
“I just can’t imagine why society is doing this,” he said. “I couldn’t feel more strongly about it, and my girlfriend says it’s no different than alcohol. It is different than alcohol. This is one of the stupider things that’s happening across our country.”
Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment that the newly revealed remarks show just how much work Bloomberg has ahead of him if he intends to reform his image as a tough-on-crime, anti-cannabis candidate.
“Bloomberg and his wealthy friends may be able to sit around and joke about how he was able to smoke a joint in the 60’s and be just fine, but that is cold comfort to the over 440,000 Americans who were put in handcuffs for marijuana possession in New York City during his tenure as mayor,” Altieri said. “He is painfully ignorant and out of touch with sound public policy and basic scientific facts.”
“If he expects voters to treat him as anything other than an awful relic of a bygone drug war era he needs to correct himself on marijuana law reform issues immediately and somehow attempt to make amends for the countless lives he had a role in ruining,” he said. “Unfortunately, given the number of other candidates vying for the presidency who are leaps and bounds ahead of him on this, that still might be too little too late for his self-funded presidential aspirations.”
Bloomberg has been sharply rebuked this week over a different clip from the same 2015 recording where he defended the use of stop-and-frisk policing that disproportionately impacted communities of color.
An “unintended consequence” of targeting policing in those communities, he said, is that “people say, ‘oh my god, you are arresting kids for marijuana that are all minorities.’”
“Yes, that’s true. Why? Because we put all the cops in minority neighborhoods,” he said. “Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is.”
Bloomberg has taken steps since launching his campaign to pivot away from his reputation as anti-reform, voicing support for decriminalizing cannabis possession and allowing states to set their own policies.
But he continues to oppose cannabis legalization, and his past comments haven’t been forgotten. A Denver-based reporter brought up the candidate’s 2019 statement that legalization is “perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done” and asked whether that meant he felt Colorado voters were stupid for approving the policy change.
“Colorado has a right to do what they want to do,” he replied. “I would advise going slowly to any other state because it’s not clear, doctors aren’t sure whether or not it’s doing damage. But if a state wants to do it, and Colorado and Washington were the first two that did it, that’s up to the state.”
“But what I really object to is putting people in jail for marijuana,” he added. “That’s really dumb.”
Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden are the only two Democratic candidates in the 2020 race who oppose federally legalizing cannabis.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Ask Colleagues To Cosponsor Medical Marijuana Research Bill For Veterans
A bipartisan duo of lawmakers sent a letter to fellow members of the House this week, asking for additional cosponsors on a bill to promote research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana for veterans.
Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Clay Higgins (R-LA) cited a survey from the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) that showed 83 percent of its members support medical cannabis legalization and 90 percent are in favor of researching medical marijuana.
“Therefore, medical research into the safety and efficacy of cannabis usage for medical purposes is timely, necessary, and widely supported by the veteran community,” the lawmakers, who are the sponsors of the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, wrote in the Wednesday letter.
Thank you @RepLouCorrea and @RepClayHiggins for continuing to push the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act. Thanks for asking Members of Congress to co-sponsor this important legislation and highlighting #IAVA's work in your letter! #CannabisForVets pic.twitter.com/loHHQmaKAj
— IAVA (@iava) February 13, 2020
That legislation currently has 102 cosponsors—representing nearly one-forth of the House’s membership. It would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct double-blind clinical trials on the safety and effectiveness of various forms of marijuana in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
“Congress made great progress in reforming our cannabis laws in 2019, proving that Americans are ready for change. Veterans deserve to be a part of this change and have their medical needs taken seriously by the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Correa told Marijuana Moment. “My bill puts veterans’ health front and center. With over 100 bipartisan co-sponsors, it’s time to move the Medicinal Cannabis Research Act and take care of our vets.”
After the bill’s introduction last year, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee On Health and the full panel held hearings on the issue, but it has not received a vote yet. During the subcommittee meeting, VA officials voiced opposition to the proposal, arguing that the scope of its research requirements is too large.
“As many veterans are currently using cannabis for medicinal purposes, it is important that clinicians be able to fully advise veterans on the potential impacts, harms, and benefits of cannabis use on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain,” the letter from Correa and Higgins states.
The bill would also “authorize a long-term observation study of participating veterans,” require the VA to “preserve all data collected or used and require the department to submit reports on the implementation of the legislation annually for five years.
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