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Judiciary Committee

  • by Randy Robinson, MERRY JANE August 19, 2019
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    The MORE Act, which was introduced to the US Congress last month, would completely decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. How will it work, and what will it do for cannabis consumers, pot convicts, and the burgeoning gray-market industry?

    On July 23, Rep. Jarrold Nadler (D-NY) and presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which is arguably the most revolutionary and socially conscious federal marijuana reform bill introduced to date. 

    Previous federal reform bills have, traditionally, died on the Congressional floors before ever getting a vote. Currently, public support for legalizing weed nationwide is at an all-time high: 62 percent of Americans favor legalizing the adult use of marijuana, while over 90 percent want access to medical cannabis. So, what’s taken Congress so damn long to make any changes? 

    The issue isn’t if marijuana will be legalized anymore. The question is how and when, but America’s elected leaders haven’t agreed on how legalization should be implemented. 

    The climate of disagreement prompted Nadler to draft his own legislation with input from marijuana organizations like NORML. The MORE Act addresses many of the issues stemming from marijuana prohibition, but it does not offer remedies for every issue. Instead, it takes a somewhat hands-off approach, leaving most regulatory questions up to the states.

    Under the MORE Act, marijuana would be completely removed from the Controlled Substances Act, which currently classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I is the most restrictive category, supposedly reserved only for the most deadly and addictive drugs that have no accepted medical use. With marijuana off federal scheduling, individual states can decide for themselves how they’ll reform their weed laws, if they reform them at all.

    Additionally, the MORE Act is the first piece of federal legislation that would establish social equity programs for cannabis entrepreneurs, and it would enact wholesale expungements of prior low-level weed offenses for federal convicts. Convicts currently serving time in federal prisons for cannabis violations would receive reductions to their sentences, too.

    On the business end, the MORE Act also sets a 5 percent federal tax on all cannabis sales. That’s it. There is no overly-complex, tiered taxation system that unfairly gouges cannabis consumers and companies, like what those seen in California or Colorado. The excise taxes collected would go toward regulatory oversight, funding expungements and resentencing procedures, and researching how legal cannabis will affect the population at large.

    But does the MORE Act have a real chance of passing through Congress? What will happen at the local levels if it does become law? And, most importantly, how will it benefit those most harmed by federal marijuana prohibition, which has disproportionately targeted impoverished communities and communities of color?

    To find out the answers to these questions, MERRY JANE called up Justin Strekal, the Political Director at NORML. Strekal has met with Nadler and other members of Congress to help refine the MORE Act’s language, as well as to garner more support for a bill that could finally end America’s century-long war against weed.

    “We’re very fortunate to have, in [Rep.] Jarrod Nadler, a judiciary chairman who’s been supportive of marijuana law reform since the 1970s. He says so himself,” Strekal said. “One of the first votes he cast as an elected official in the New York Assembly was to decriminalize the state of New York.”

    “Mr. Nadler and the judiciary committee were very thoughtful as they crafted the MORE Act,” Strekal continued. “We believe this is the first comprehensive and workable legislation that has a real shot at passing in a chamber of Congress.”

    MERRY JANE: Previous legalization bills in Congress tried to reschedule cannabis, usually by bumping it down to Schedule II or III, alongside drugs like morphine or cocaine. But the MORE Act completely removes weed from federal scheduling. How did the bill’s authors decide on descheduling altogether?

    Justin Strekal: It’s important to remember that none of the states that have reformed their cannabis policies — whether medical or adult-use — were predicated on if Congress decides to move marijuana to Schedule II or III or IV. These states have been operating in clear defiance of federal policy, and the only way to protect the existing marketplaces is to outright remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and regulate it as its own substance.

    Alcohol is not in the Controlled Substances Act, tobacco is not in the Controlled Substances Act, and McDonald’s is not in the Controlled Substances Act. And the Controlled Substances Act is not a place where cannabis belongs.

    The bill contains a section that relabels marijuana and marihuana as cannabis. Is this a move to get rid of the racially-loaded term marijuana from federal legalese?

    It’s actually a reestablishment of the legal term [for] cannabis. Through statute, we started calling it marihuana in the 1930s. That was largely contingent on the actions of Harry Anslinger, who changed the conversation and changed the title to marihuana as a way to heavily utilize the racial animus of the time which is, unfortunately, not too dissimilar to today. He weaponized the language against those who consume, and he used marihuana to play on fears related to Mexican immigrants.

    What kind of support is the MORE Act getting in Congress right now? 

    It is a bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives. Right now, we’re in the August recess, so we’re working with who we can to continue to advance the cause. We’ve received three additional co-sponsors since the introduction of the bill, and we plan on signing on a good number more when Congress comes back to session in September.

    And it’s important to note, that since the bill is carried by the Judiciary Committee Chairman, it had four different committee chairs on board when the bill was introduced: Rep. Nadler, Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez [of the Small Business Committee], Chairman Jim McGovern of the Rules Committee — which is an incredibly important committee in the process — as well as Chairwoman Maxine Waters of the House Financial Services Committee, which is the only committee in the House, to date, that has successfully marked up a cannabis-related bill.

    The MORE Act creates a new federal office, the Cannabis Justice Office. What is this office’s purpose

    The Department of Justice has a number of existing offices in their justice programs. This creates another similar office, which would be focused on addressing cannabis-related issues. It’s only logical, since the Department of Justice is an entity that is designed to promote the cause of justice and the rule of law. And since we’re changing the law, and marijuana [possession, cultivation, sales] would no longer be a crime, we must make sure that we’re no longer discriminating against our citizens who are burdened by the criminal records they received under prohibition.

    Social equity programs, which prioritize weed business licenses and business loans to pot entrepreneurs who were convicted of cannabis crimes, are laid out in this bill. How will these actually get off the ground, considering that state and local governments are still struggling to get their social equity programs running?

    One of the sizable contributing factors to why those programs are struggling to get off the ground are the structural problems that are stemming from federal prohibition in the first place: lack of access to bank accounts, and small businesses’ inability to receive standard tax treatments as every other sector of the economy. Those barriers would no longer be in place after we remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.

    This would provide additional revenue to incentivize experimentation and implementation of licensing regimes that acknowledge the harms done under criminalization. 

    It’s extremely frustrating that, right now, there are very well-intentioned regulators who are trying to fight with one hand tied behind their back, and their other arm is shoulder-strapped to their chest. Federal prohibition is severely hampering these folks to be able to get anything done.

    The Minority Cannabis Business Association is the only organization right now doing much in this space, and they’re primed to be in a terrific position to be a leader [for social equity if the MORE Act passes].

    The MORE Act contains a section that addresses immigration issues related to cannabis. If the bill removes cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, why do new immigration policies need to be clarified by law? 

    Right now, cannabis-related offenses are a significant contributor to deportable offenses. It’s important to make sure that we establish explicit protections for those who are already here. Even if we end federal prohibition, let’s say, hypothetically, in Idaho — which may never reform their state policies [against marijuana] — that a mere possession charge won’t turn into a deportable offense. 

    Removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act doesn’t legalize marijuana in every corner of this country. It simply ends the federal prohibition of marijuana and allows states and localities to set their own [marijuana] policies as they see fit. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure for conservatives or liberals or anyone at any point of the political spectrum to be able to come to that determination — that under our federalist society, cannabis should be locally controlled.

    While it would no longer be a federal offense, the violation of local law is something that’s still taken under consideration through federal administration, and that includes immigration.

    What kind of complications do you see arising from allowing states or cities to regulate cannabis however they want?

    [Sociologist] Max Weber said that the art of politics is the slow boring of hard boards. There is going to be an adjustment phase. As states and local governments identify what practices work best for their communities, and, collectively, as states and localities learn from each other, slowly but surely there will be a consensus that emerges when it comes to regulatory structures, consumer safety and protections, and the like. 

    Just as alcohol prohibition fell a hundred years ago, there are still dry counties dotting this nation where you cannot buy alcohol. We’ve reached a point where you can buy whiskey in a CVS in Florida, but you can’t legally buy beer at a CVS in a different state. 

    It’s going to be a process, and as long as that process ends the practice of treating individuals like second-class citizens, and threatening their freedom, simply because they choose to consume marijuana, then we’ll be in a much better position than we are today.

    Is there anything else you want people to know about the MORE Act that isn’t explicitly noted in the bill?

    Because of the way the tax regime is structured [in the MORE Act], we’re going to be able to provide relief to those who’ve suffered from minor cannabis convictions through expungement. We’re going to be able to grow a new community-centered small-business economy, and we’re going to be able to do it all without spending a nickel of taxpayers’ money

    The chairman [Nadler] was incredibly thoughtful at setting the tax structure up in a way that minimizes the burden on the industry and completely has this all paid for, which is unlike a lot of other proposals that are floating around in Congress. So, if we want to be thoughtful, and if we want to be fiscally responsible, then the MORE Act is the way to go.

    Follow Randy Robinson on Twitter and read more of their work at MERRY JANE here

  • by NORML September 13, 2018

    Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted today in favor of legislation (HR 5634: The Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2018) to facilitate federally-approved clinical trials assessing the efficacy of whole-plant cannabis. The vote marks the first time that lawmakers have ever decided in favor of easing existing federal restrictions which limit investigators ability to clinically study marijuana in a manner similar to other controlled substances.

    “The federal hurdles in place that currently discourage clinicians from engaging in clinical cannabis research have long been onerous and irrational,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. “It is high time that lawmakers recognize this problem and take action to amend it so that investigators may conduct the same sort of high-quality clinical research with cannabis that they do with other substances.”

    Currently, federal regulations mandate that investigators participating in FDA-approved clinical trials involving cannabis must obtain marijuana from a single, federally-licensed source, the University of Mississippi. However, many of those familiar with their product have criticized its quality, opining that it possesses subpar potency, is often poorly manicured, and that it does not accurately reflect the wide variety of cannabis products and strains available to consumers.

    As the result of a lawsuit, DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner in 2007 ruled that expanding the pool of federally licensed providers would be “in the public interest.” The agency ultimately rejected that decision. In 2016, the DEA publicly changed its stance and amended regulations in a manner to permit additional applicants to apply for federal licensure to grow marijuana. However, the United States Attorney General’s office has failed to take action on any pending 25 applications submitted following the 2016 rule change.

    House Bill 6534, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and 40 cosponsors mandates the Attorney General to take action on these pending federal applications, and to approve at least two additional marijuana manufacturers within a year. The measure also explicitly permits the Veterans Affairs office to engage in clinical trials involving the cannabis plant.

    While some Democrats on the Committee, as well as some drug policy reform organizations, expressed criticism with regard to a provision in the bill restricting applicants with a drug-related conviction, lawmakers indicated that they would consider revising this language prior to the bill receiving a vote on the House floor.

    Armentano concluded: “While this vote marks a step forward, it must also be acknowledged that despite existing barriers to research, ample studies already exist to contradict cannabis’ federal, schedule I status as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse. More clinical research is welcome, but unfortunately science has never driven marijuana policy. If it did, the United States would already have a very different policy in place.”

  • by Carly Wolf, NORML State Policies Coordinator March 15, 2018

    I’m Carly, and I’ve been a Political Associate with NORML in Washington, DC for about 7 months now. I recently testified (for my first time ever!) before the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee in favor of House Bill 1264 – a constitutional amendment that would put a question on this November’s ballot to let the voters decide on the issue of marijuana legalization and retail sales.

    When I first found out I was going to testify, I was excited. I knew this was a unique opportunity that not everyone would have in their lives, and a chance to make my own voice heard before a committee of legislators in a state I felt a deep connection to – being a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, I spent some of the best years of my life living in College Park, MD.

    What was I going to say? How was I going to say it? Were they going to take me seriously, being so young? Is 2 minutes enough to communicate the extremely important message I was trying to convey? There was only one thing I knew for sure – I was really nervous.

    I arrived at the Maryland State House around noon that day, and was instantly greeted by my colleagues from Maryland NORML. Everyone brought positive vibes and good energy, which I needed. The hearing began at 1pm, and I thought it would only be a couple hours, at most, before they called our bill. Little did I know, this was all just a waiting game.

    Then came 5pm, 6pm, 7pm… and still no mention of HB 1264. By that time, I was losing energy and hope, wondering if the committee would even end up getting to our bill that day. Luckily, I was surrounded by an optimistic, upbeat group of activists that kept my spirits high. By the time 10pm rolled around, it was finally our turn.

    I entered the committee room, and Delegate Moon (the bill’s sponsor) had the microphone, explaining different provisions of the bill and answering a boatload of questions from the committee members, with a representative from the Marijuana Policy Project, and a former law enforcement officer joining him on the panel.

    My nerves were surprisingly eased as I sat in that room waiting for my turn to testify. The committee members were cracking light-hearted jokes – one of them even joked about Delegate Moon providing samples to the committee. This made me feel a lot more comfortable speaking in front of them. After all, they are just regular people, and concerned residents of MD like I once was.

    I was on the next panel, with Luke Jones, Director of Maryland NORML, and attorney Eric Sterling beside me. We each had our 2 minutes, and that was that. I felt confident in my testimony, focusing on the right to home cultivate and how perceived youth access to cannabis has declined in the states that have legalized.

    The other panels testifying in favor included victims of the current laws who were arrested for simple possession and a medical patient who had to revert to the black market because of high costs and poor accessibility.

    Then came the opposition panel. It consisted of two AAA representatives (as expected), along with another representative from the organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. They brought up concerns of impaired driving and youth access, which we had previously addressed. We left the committee room around 11:30pm feeling cautiously optimistic and eager to see how this would all play out.

    All in all, besides the anticipation of waiting for 10 hours, I had an incredibly positive experience testifying at the Maryland State House. I felt empowered, like I was making a difference. If there’s ever a hearing for a bill on an issue that you care about – go. Testify. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to do so, and as a result, Maryland is one step closer to ending the prohibition of marijuana.

    If you live in MD, tell your lawmakers to support HB 1264

  • by Justin Strekal, NORML Political Director February 7, 2018

    On February 7th, Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), requesting a hearing on the recent revocation of the Cole Memo by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

    The Cole Memo, was a Justice Department memorandum, authored by former US Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2013 to US attorneys in all 50 states, directing prosecutors not to interfere with state legalization efforts and those licensed to engage in the plant’s production and sale, provided that such persons do not engage in marijuana sales to minors or divert the product to states that have not legalized its use, among other guidelines.

    In their letter, the Democrats wrote:

    “We fear that the elimination of the Obama Administration’s marijuana enforcement guidance will promote an inefficient use of limited taxpayer resources and subvert the will of voters who have clearly indicated a preference for legalized marijuana in their states.”

    Rep. Goodlatte has refused to hold a hearing on marijuana since he took over as the Chair of the powerful Judiciary Committee, where any serious reform legislation would originate.

    Recently, Congressman Jerry Nadler was elected by his colleagues to be the ranking member of the minority party on the committee. Rep. Nadler has earned an “A+” rating on the NORML Scorecard for his support of ending the federal prohibition of marijuana, positive votes when given the opportunity, and his co-sponsorship of legislation including the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act in the previous session of Congress.

    The current Chairman of the committee is Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), a longtime opponent of marijuana reform who has earned a “D” on the NORML scorecard for voting against reform amendments when given the opportunity. However, Rep. Goodlatte had announced earlier this year that he will not be running for reelection, which will leave a wide-open race on the Republican side who will be the top member in the next Congress.

    Given the political climate, in order to secure hearings on legislation that would end prohibition, it is essential that the next Chairman of the Judiciary be willing to address the issue.

    In the meantime, we simply will have to wait and see how Rep. Goodlatte responds.

    You can reach Congressman Goodlattes DC office by phone at: (202) 225-5431. If you call his office, let us know what his staff said in the comments below.

    Here is the full letter by the Judiciary Democrats:


    The Honorable Bob Goodlatte
    Chairman
    House Committee on the Judiciary
    2138 Rayburn House Office Building
    Washington, D.C. 20515

    Dear Chairman Goodlatte:

    We are deeply concerned by the recent action by Attorney General Sessions rescinding Department of Justice (DOJ) marijuana enforcement guidance issued during the Obama Administration.  We write to request a hearing of the full Judiciary Committee regarding this decision.

    On January 4, 2018, Attorney General Sessions issued a memorandum to U.S. Attorneys eliminating marijuana enforcement priorities set forth under President Obama.  Previous memoranda issued during the Obama Administration, such as the memorandum issued in 2013 by then Deputy Attorney General James Cole (Cole Memo), made clear the considerations the federal government should use when deciding to prosecute violations of the Controlled Substances Act related to marijuana. Rather than targeting individuals in states that had legalized marijuana and consequently set up complex regulatory systems, the government focused on priorities that were significant to the federal government. These included preventing gangs and cartels from profiting from marijuana sales and ensuring that state-authorized marijuana was not used to hide other illegal activities.

    We fear that the elimination of the Obama Administration’s marijuana enforcement guidance will promote an inefficient use of limited taxpayer resources and subvert the will of voters who have clearly indicated a preference for legalized marijuana in their states.  Further, the January 4 memorandum by Attorney General Sessions fails to provide any evidence that prosecuting marijuana in states where it has been legalized will make Americans safer.  DOJ should instead pursue enforcement strategies that are sensible, effective, and enhance public safety, and the Judiciary Committee should be included in these discussions.

    The Judiciary Committee has a fundamental duty to conduct oversight on the Department of Justice.  It is critical that the members of our committee have an opportunity to ask questions about this recent rescission in a formal setting and evaluate potential legislation related to marijuana. Therefore, we respectfully request a hearing by the full Committee on these issues.

    Sincerely,

    Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)
    Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA)
    Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX)
    Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN)
    Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA)
    Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY)
    Representative David Cicilline (D-RI)
    Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA)
    Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA)
    Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD)
    Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)