A Key Senate Committee Is Becoming Less Marijuana-Friendly

A Key Senate Committee Is Becoming Less Marijuana-Friendly

For the past several years, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has been more responsible for marijuana reform victories in Congress than any other panel of lawmakers.

Bipartisan measures to protect state medical cannabis laws, allow medical marijuana for military veterans and shield state industrial hemp research programs from the feds have all advanced there.

Those wins have been especially valuable for legalization supporters because in the other chamber, the House Rules Committee has blocked cannabis-related amendments from advancing to the floor over the same period of time.

But in recent weeks the Senate committee, which handles funding levels and spending riders covering federal agencies, has begun to make a number of anti-cannabis moves.

Last week, for example, it prevented a measure to allow marijuana businesses to access banks from advancing by a vote of 21-10. Nearly identical amendments were approved by the committee in 2015 and 2016, but this time several Democrats who position themselves as supporters of cannabis law reform spoke out against the proposal on procedural grounds.

Earlier this month the panel released a report incorrectly alleging an increase in impaired driving in states that have reformed their cannabis laws.

In a separate report this month the committee expressed concern about illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands, singling out states with legalization.

And now, in a new development that hasn’t yet been reported elsewhere, the committee is making moves to block Washington, D.C. from further legalizing marijuana.

“No funds available for obligation or expenditure by the District of Columbia government under any authority may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes,” reads a provision of the Financial Services and General Government funding bill approved by the committee on Thursday.

Unlike the House Appropriations Committee, which has consistently moved to block cannabis reform in the nation’s capital, the Senate panel for the past several years has kept its version of funding bill free of marijuana-related D.C. riders (though the spending bans have been enacted into law anyway because the House language has prevailed in bicameral conference committees that reconcile both chambers’ bills into final legislation).

Now that the Senate committee has moved to adopt the D.C. cannabis prohibition as well, its continuance into Fiscal Year 2019 is a virtual certainty, meaning that local officials will not be able to spend locally raised funds adding a system of taxed and regulated marijuana sales to the city’s existing law that allows low-level possession and home cultivation.

“I am disappointed that the committee chose to depart from their past practice of not including anti-D.C. riders,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said in a press release. “I will be fighting here in the House and Senate to strike all anti-D.C. riders and prevent any new riders from being included in the final spending bill.”

Also, committee report attached to the new funding bill also goes out of its way to wag its finger at Indian tribes that might be considering entering the marijuana industry.

“The Committee expects the CDFI Fund to ensure no funding is allocated to tribes to support marijuana production, manufacturing, or distribution and report to the Committee on any Tribe who engages in such activities and receives funding appropriated by this act,” the report says, referring to the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which focuses on economic revitalization in distressed communities.

None of this is to say that the Senate panel has defeated all recent marijuana reform measures. For example, this month it opted to continue protecting states where medical marijuana is legal from federal interference and approved an amendment that would allow Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to veterans. And last month, it directed the Department of Agriculture to set aside half a million dollars to build a hemp seedbank.

Significantly, the language protecting state medical cannabis laws was included in the initial Justice Department bill as introduced by Republican leaders for the first time, whereas its enactment in past years has required a specific votes on amendments to add it.

But, in other ways noted above, the committee has clearly become less friendly to marijuana law reform efforts in recent months, and one major factor is its new chairman.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) ascended to the top position on the panel in April, following the retirement of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). While Cochran was not exactly a champion of cannabis legalization, he left advocates with the sense that he just didn’t care much about the issue by allowing amendments to be voted on without applying significant behind-the-scenes pressure.

Shelby, on the other hand, who for years served alongside U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in representing Alabama in the Senate, has made it clear that he doesn’t like the idea of attaching policy riders — marijuana or otherwise — to spending bills.

“Chairman Shelby was very anti-amendments this year,” Michael Liszewski of the Enact Group, told Marijuana Moment. “If you watched this year’s hearings, you probably noticed a decrease in the number of amendments offered. That’s because Shelby made it clear that he had very little tolerance for legislating through approps.”

And, he appears to be making deals with Democrats to accomplish his goal of reducing the number of policy riders on appropriations legislation.

That’s the conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from an exchange between Shelby and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who has been a champion of marijuana law reform efforts in the committee, that could be faintly heard on the committee’s audio feed just moments after the Vermont Democrat helped lead the charge to kill the cannabis banking measure last week:

SHELBY: “Thank you, Pat.”

LEAHY: “I told you I would.”

While Leahy said during a debate before the vote to table the measure that he objected to its advancement on procedural grounds concerning the alleged inappropriateness of legislating policy on spending bills, the fact is that Leahy himself is more responsible than any other senator for the continuance of the separate rider preventing Justice Department interference in state medical cannabis laws, so his public argument seems at least a little disingenuous.

Advocates who did not wish to be quoted for this story speculated that Democrats may have extracted some concessions on immigration policy in exchange for not pushing the marijuana banking rider, but that could not be immediately confirmed.

Another key change on the appropriations panel is the fact that Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), a vocal cannabis opponent, recently became chair of its Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, which handles Washington, D.C.

His ascendancy to the subcommittee chairmanship likely explains the panel’s inclusion of anti-marijuana language in the relevant funding bill for the first time in years. (Of note, however, the Senate bill covering D.C. doesn’t contain language from the House version of the legislation that would add a new restriction on the use of funds to support opening safe consumption facilities where people could consume illegal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals.)

Justin Strekal of NORML told Marijuana Moment in an interview that the committee’s seeming shift away from support for marijuana law reform in recent weeks may, perhaps counterintuitively, have to do with cannabis legalization’s growing political support.

“We’ve gained more momentum,” he said, referring to the fact that numerous lawmakers — including party leaders like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — are embracing legislation that would provide more permanent fixes to the federal-state cannabis law gap than annual appropriations riders can.

“The stark realities are much crisper now,” he said. “Every amendment that tinkers with [cannabis enforcement] is still dancing around the fact that we still live under a regime of complete prohibition.”

“It’s increasingly going to be more difficult to get lawmakers to be OK with cutesy little fixes when the need for comprehensive reform is crystalizing.”

But in order to enact broader solutions, it’s going to take movement by committees that set federal drug policy and enact authorizations for relevant federal agencies.

Unfortunately, those panels — the House and Senate Judiciary Committees — at least for now, are controlled by ardent legalization opponents. But with a midterm election coming up that observers believe could reverse party control of one or both chambers, anything can happen in 2019.

See the original article published on Marijuana Moment below:

A Key Senate Committee Is Becoming Less Marijuana-Friendly

Senate Committee Keeps Medical Marijuana Protections In Place

Senate Committee Keeps Medical Marijuana Protections In Place

Protections for state medical marijuana laws and people complying with them have survived an attempt to gut the provisions in a key Senate committee.

Earlier this week, for the first time ever, the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies included the medical marijuana protections in the initial version of the legislation as introduced by Republican leaders.

But on Thursday, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), filed an amendment before the full Appropriations Committee that would have prevented the rider from taking effect until the government removes cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

“States are running over the top and this issue continues to grow,” said the anti-legalization senator, who recently appeared in a TV ad opposing the medical cannabis ballot measure that voters in his state will consider during this month’s primary election. “As opioids are increasing, and we are leaning into fighting against opioids, we sending a double standard message to say less opioids, but more marijuana.”

But Lankford decided not to force a vote on his amendment.

“I understand I do not have the votes, and so I will withdraw it,” he said.

The medical marijuana measure has been federal law since 2014, but in past years its continuance has required specific votes in committee or on the House floor. The subcommittee’s move to include the provision in introduced base legislation signals cannabis reform’s maturation as a political issue.

The House Appropriations Committee adopted the medical marijuana protections in a voice vote last month. Since the language is now in both chambers’ Justice Department funding legislation, it is all but certain to end up in the final Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations bill sent to President Trump later this year.

If so, people complying with state medical cannabis laws would be safe from federal harassment through at least September 2019.

In other marijuana news from the Thursday Senate markup, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) offered an amendment to provide broader protections to states that allow recreational marijuana and not just medical cannabis.

“Let’s leave this to the states. Let’s restore the Cole Memo,” he said, referring to Obama-era guidance protecting state marijuana laws that was rescinded earlier this year by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Let’s not sustain this conflict.”

But out of apparent uncertainty about the result of a vote on protecting non-medical marijuana laws, the senator also withdrew his amendment.

Last week, the Senate appropriations panel approved an amendment to allow military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations through their U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors.

https://massroots.wpengine.com/news/senators-approve-medical-marijuana-military-veterans/

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee rejected an amendment to provide protections to banks that work with the marijuana industry.

See the original article published on Marijuana Moment below:

Senate Committee Keeps Medical Marijuana Protections In Place

Senate Committee Ignores Key Facts About Marijuana And Driving

Senate Committee Ignores Key Facts About Marijuana And Driving

A Senate committee that has historically supported marijuana reform measures released a report last week that included a misleading claim about the impact of cannabis legalization on road safety.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s report on the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill for Fiscal Year 2019 contained a section on “impaired driving,” which reads, in part:

“The Committee remains concerned about the increasing rates of impaired driving, particularly in States that adopt measures to decriminalize marijuana.”

“The Committee recognizes the importance of impaired driving countermeasures at the community level in protecting public safety, and encourages [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] to expand its efforts with law enforcement to increase awareness and use of Drug Recognition Expert [DRE] and Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement [ARIDE] training, particularly in States that have adopted recreational or medicinal marijuana laws,” the committee wrote.

While taking steps to reduce the rate of impaired driving seems like a no-brainer, the claim that states where marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized have seen increased incidents of driving under the influence ignores key facts, Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“While some studies have identified a slight uptick in the prevalence of THC in the blood of motorists, there are several reasons for this change,” Armentano said. “Specifically, more adults are using cannabis now than in the recent past, THC possesses a prolonged detection period compared to many other controlled substances and, most importantly, law enforcement are engaging in greater efforts than ever before to assess drivers for drug use.”

“But, ultimately, this uptick in prevalence has not been associated with a corresponding increase in motor vehicle accidents.”

That’s a key distinction. If you smoke a joint, THC or its inactive metabolite, carboxy THC, can show up in roadside drug tests for weeks after consumption. So the presence of those compounds in someone’s body does not necessarily indicate that they were high while behind the wheel.

There aren’t currently any reliable drug tests to detect active impairment—though researchers around the country are working to develop that technology. So law enforcement agencies often depend on officers trained as “drug recognition experts” to identify impaired driving.

That said, the Senate committee report overlooks a growing body of research that has failed to identify independent relationships between marijuana legalization and traffic accidents or fatalities.

For example, a paper published this year by the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that “states that legalized marijuana have not experienced significantly different rates of marijuana- or alcohol-related traffic fatalities relative to [states that haven’t legalized].”

And a 2016 study that looked at rates of traffic fatalities from 1985 to 2014 actually found that “[medical marijuana law] states had lower traffic fatality rates” compared to states that haven’t legalized medical cannabis. The researchers said it was “possible that this is related to lower alcohol-impaired driving behavior” in states with legal medical marijuana.

Anti-legalization proponents frequently flag concerns about the public health impact of cannabis reform measures, particularly when it comes to impaired driving. But the Senate Committee on Appropriations’s report on the issue stands out, as the committee has traditionally embraced marijuana reform efforts.

On Thursday, for example, the same committee upheld protections for states where marijuana is legal from federal interference.

The committee also voted in favor of an amendment last week that would allow Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to veterans.

In a separate report attached to the bill to fund the Department of Interior, released on Thursday, the committee expressed some concern about illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands, singling out states with legalization.

“The Committee is deeply concerned by reports of significant illegal marijuana grows on public lands, particularly those linked to transnational criminal organizations,” the panel wrote. “The Committee directs Forest Service Law Enforcement to prioritize working more closely with local law enforcement to identify, eradicate, and clean up illegal marijuana grows on public lands, particularly in those states that have legalized recreational marijuana.”

See the original article published on Marijuana Moment below:

Senate Committee Ignores Key Facts About Marijuana And Driving

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