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Chronicle AM: Colombia Moves Backwards on Drug Policy, NYPD Pot Arrests Now Halted, More... (9/4/18)

Colombia's new president moves resolutely backward on drug policy, New York City's era of mass marijuana possession arrests is over, the California legislature has been busy, and more.

The era of New York City as the world's marijuana arrest capital has come to an end. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Lawmakers Pass Bill that Will Support Local Cannabis Equity Programs to Increase Representation in the Industry by Persons from Communities Most Harmed by Cannabis Prohibition. The legislature has approved Senate Bill 1294, which helps create equity in the cannabis industry through the distribution of grants to localities offering assistance to persons most harmed by cannabis prohibition and generational poverty. SB 1294 will offer grants to localities with existing equity programs -- such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco -- to support them as they offer equity-qualifying applicants and licensees business loans and grants, regulatory compliance and technical assistance, and licensing fee waivers. SB 1294 reflects a nationwide movement to ensure that this growing industry is representative and accessible to all persons, no matter their financial or criminal history background. Advocates, entrepreneurs, and local governments now call on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign this important measure.

Delaware Governor Signs Marijuana Expungement Bill Into Law. Gov. John Carney (D) last Friday signed into law Senate Bill 197, which "provides mandatory expungement eligibility to individuals who were convicted of the possession [of one ounce or less], use or consumption of marijuana prior to Delaware's decriminalization of these offenses." The provision only applies to people who have no other criminal convictions on their records.

New York City Change in Marijuana Arrest Policy Now in Effect. As of Saturday, the NYPD is no longer arresting people for small-time marijuana use or possession in most cases. The city arrested more than 10,000 people on such charges last year. Officials said the change came because the arrests had nothing to do with public safety and were racially disproportionate. "Our new policy, we're going to see a humongous drop in people in communities of color being arrested for marijuana," NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison said. "And that was one of the whole goals of this whole new policy."

New Psychoactive Substances

DEA Makes Synthetic Cathinone Schedule I Substance. The DEA last Friday announced it was placing the synthetic cathinone N-Ethylpentylone into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This is a temporary scheduling action good for up to 24 months, during which time research will be conducted to see if the drug should be permanently scheduled. DEA said the drug was linked to 151 deaths in the US since 2015.

Sentencing Policy

California Lawmakers Pass Bill Giving Judges the Power to Set Aside Ineffective and Punitive Five-year Sentence Enhancement. The legislature last Friday gave final approval to Senate Bill 1393, which would restore judicial discretion to the application of a five-year sentence enhancement for each prior serious felony on a person's criminal record. Current law requires judges to add an additional five-years to cases, even when the judge believes that the punishment is unjust and unwarranted. If signed into law, judges would have maximum flexibility during the penalty phase of a trail to impose, or not impose, the additional five-years. A coalition of people who are directly impacted, their families, service providers, and advocates now call on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign this important measure.

International

Colombian President Moves to Recriminalize Drug Possession. President Ivan Duque announced on Sunday measures to give police the power to seize personal use quantities of drugs that had previously been legalized. "This week will sign the decree through which, in development of the police code 02 of the 2009 legislative act, we will give the authorities tools to confiscate any dose of drugs or hallucinogens in the streets of Colombia, and thus face the root of micro-trafficking problems," said Duque. The measures would appear to contradict rulings by the country's Constitutional Court, which in 2012 approved the decriminalization of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana for personal use.

Chronicle AM: NYC Overdose Action March, US Sentencing Commission Sets Priorities, More... (8/31/18)

The police chief in Oklahoma City wants pot busts downgraded, the US Sentencing Commission sets policy priorities for the next 18 months, marchers demand New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo take action on the state's overdose crisis, and more.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in the crosshairs Thursday as marchers demanded action on the state overdose crisis. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Oklahoma City Police Chief Wants to Quit Arresting Pot Possessors. Police Chief Bill Citty is calling for adjusting city ordinances so that police officers will not have to jail people caught with small amounts of marijuana. He is backing a move to reduce the penalty for possession from a $1,200 fine and up to six months in jail to just a $400 fine. "Right now, we're taking all possessions of marijuana, and it would be a Class B offense and it would actually, they would be arrested," said Citty. "We've been arresting every single one of them. This would stop that practice. By lowering it to $400, this allows us to basically take it out of that court of record trial and we're able to assign citations for the possession of marijuana. Now, that will be if they don't have a state permit or license that allows them to have it for medical use." The proposed ordinance will be up for discussion on September 11 and again on September 28.

Utah Governor Calls for Federal Rescheduling of Marijuana. As voters in the state prepare to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a medical marijuana initiative in November, Gov. Gary Herbert (R) is calling on Congress to reschedule it. "I'd like to see the federal government get out of the way," he said on Thursday during his monthly news conference. "We ought to call upon our congressional delegation (to) take it off the Schedule I list. Let's do the studies, let's do the clinical trials. Are they not paying attention in Washington? Evidently not," he said.

Wisconsin Voters Will Have a Chance to Weigh in on Legalizing Marijuana. Voters in 16 counties and two cities will have a chance to vote on non-binding advisory referenda for or against legalizing marijuana for either medicinal or recreational purposes. The referenda are on local ballots scattered across the state, from Milwaukee and Dane to LaCrosse and Langlade counties, as well as the cities of Racine and Waukesha.

Harm Reduction

New York Activists March from City Morgue to Governor's Office to Call for Action on Overdose Crisis. Activists and family members who have lost loved ones to overdose marched through Manhattan on International Overdose Awareness Day to demand Gov. Cuomo (D) take action on the overdose crisis. Amid the seventh straight year of increased overdose deaths in NYC -- 2017 being the deadliest year on record -- the community brought pictures and stories of their loved ones to Governor Cuomo's Manhattan office and demanded he takes action with evidence-based public health interventions to end the crisis.

Sentencing

Sentencing Commission Finalizes 2018-2019 Priorities. In a notice printed in the Federal Register Thursday, the US Sentencing Commission laid out is policy priorities for the remainder of 2018 and into 2019. The priorities include reexamining sentencing guidelines in the wake of the Booker decision, implementing its 2016 recommendations on sentencing enhancements to focus on actual violent offenders, and continuing its efforts to implement reforms in mandatory minimum sentencing, among others.

Chronicle AM: White House's Anti-Pot Committee, IL Gov OKs MedMJ for Opioids, More... (8/29/18)

The Trump administration has a secret committee to trash pot, Canada okays a roadside drug testing device for motorists, Illinois becomes the latest state to allow medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Trump Administration Has Secret Committee to Trash Pot. The White House has created a multi-agency committee to combat rising public support for marijuana legalization and make legalization initiatives look bad, according to a report today in Buzzfeed News. The Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee has instructed federal agencies including the DEA to come up with and submit "data demonstrating the most significant negative trends" about marijuana and the "threat" in poses to the country. Reports from the committee will be used to brief Trump "on marijuana threats." The committee is being coordinated by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

New Jersey Attorney General Issues Guidance on Marijuana-Related Prosecutions. The Office of the Attorney General issued guidance to municipal prosecutors regarding prosecution of marijuana-related cases. This guidance comes after Attorney General Gurbir Grewal convened a working group on marijuana prosecutions earlier this summer. The guidance reaffirms that local prosecutors cannot decriminalize marijuana possession, but they can use their discretion on a case-by-case basis "based on the particular facts and applicable law, and consistent with their ethical obligations to the state, the defendants, and the courts." The guidance merely highlights the need for the state to actually pass marijuana legalization, advocates said.

New York Assembly to Hold Public Hearings on Marijuana Legalization. The Assembly will hold four public hearings this fall on whether and how to legalize marijuana. These hearings will follow a well-attended hearing in the Assembly on the topic earlier this year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has recently embraced legalization, and a legalization bill is before the Assembly.

Medical Marijuana

Illinois Governor Signs Bill to Allow Medical Marijuana as Alternative to Opioids. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) on Tuesday signed into law a bill to allow patients to use medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids. "Opioid abuse disorder is taking the lives of Illinoisans, thousands of lives. Opioid abuse disorder is disrupting and destroying families across our state and across the country," Rauner said at the bill signing at the Chicago Recovery Alliance. "We've got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic, and today, I'm proud to sign a bill that helps us stop this epidemic. Medical cannabis creates an opportunity to treat pain in a less intrusive, less obstructive way than opioids."

International

Canada Approves First Roadside Drug Test Device for Marijuana. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has approved a device designed to detect whether drivers are under the influence of marijuana. The device is the Drager Drug Test 5000, which allows police to check drivers' saliva for the presence of THC, as well as amphetamines, opioids, cocaine, and methadone. The device has plenty of critics, who say it is prone to false positives and false negatives. Officials will also have to determine what level of THC indicates impairment and whether the results will hold up in court.

Chronicle AM: DOJ Takes Aim at SISes, States Demand Congress Act on Pot Banking, More... (8/28/18)

Even as a California safer injection site bill approaches final passage, the Justice Department takes aim at the harm reduction practice; state financial regulators want Congress to act on marijuana banking, and more.

Vancouver's InSite safer injection site. Coming soon to San Francisco? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

State Financial Regulators Call on Congress to Deal With Marijuana Banking Problems. The top financial regulators in 13 states sent a letter last week to congressional leaders demanding that they take action to protect banks working with marijuana businesses. The conflicts between state-level legalization and federal prohibition have created confusion in the financial sector and jeopardized public safety, the regulators said. "It is incumbent on Congress to resolve the conflict between state cannabis programs and federal statutes that effectively create unnecessary risk for banks seeking to operate in this space without the looming threat of civil actions, forfeiture of assets, reputational risk, and criminal penalties," the regulators wrote. "While Congress has taken some action, such as the Rohrabacher amendment prohibiting federal funds being used to inhibit state medicinal marijuana programs, this has been an impermanent approach that requires a permanent resolution." Regulators from Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington State signed the letter.

Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Proposed Medical Marijuana Regulations Now Open for Public Comment. State officials are now asking the public for its input on the regulation and implementation of medical marijuana in the state. "Lawmakers in the legislative working group are seeking a path forward to implement State Question 788 in a way that conforms to the desires of voters who passed the law," said Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka). "To do that effectively, the working group needs as much input as possible from citizens -- supporters, advocates, patients, health-care providers, public safety and law enforcement officers and even those who have concerns. I would encourage all Oklahomans who have an interest in this issue to use this opportunity to share input and have their voices heard." Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Messages will then be shared with members of the working group.

Harm Reduction

Justice Department Attacks Safer Injection Sites. In an op-ed in the New York Times titled "Fight Drug Abuse, Don't Subsidize It," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein attacked safer injection sites as "very dangerous" and argued they would "only make the opioid crisis worse." He also points out that they are federally illegal and warns that violations are punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison. His op-ed comes as cities such as New York, Seattle, and San Francisco advance plans to open such facilities in a bid to reduce harms.

California Safer Injection Site Bill Passes Senate. The Senate voted Monday to approve Assembly Bill 186, which will allow the city of San Francisco to undertake a three-year, pilot safer injection site program. The bill now goes back to the Assembly for a final concurrence vote before heading to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Chronicle AM: Good NJ, WI Pot Polls; OH Drug Defelonization Initiative, More... (8/24/18)

New polls in New Jersey and Wisconsin show solid support for marijuana legalization, Chicago harm reduction pioneer Dan Big has died too early, the FDA approves clinical trials of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, an Ohio drug defelonization initiative is on the November ballot, and more.

magic mushrooms (Flickr/Green)
Marijuana Policy

California Legislature Passes Bill to Overturn Old Marijuana Convictions. The state Senate Wednesday approved Assembly Bill 1793, which directs prosecutors throughout the state to overturn convictions for acts that are no longer illegal under the state's Prop 64 marijuana legalization initiative. The bill would also reduce many felony convictions for marijuana-related crimes to misdemeanors. It was approved by the Assembly in May and now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

New Jersey Poll Shows Strong Support for Legalization. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday has support for marijuana legalization at 62%. Among respondents between 18 and 34, that figure was 90%. The poll comes as Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and legislative leaders push to get a legalization bill passed next month.

Wisconsin Poll Shows Strong Support for Legalization. A new Marquette Law poll has support for legalization in the Dairy State at 61%. Gov. Scott Walker (R) is opposed to marijuana legalization, calling it a gateway drug. He's polling at 46% in the same poll.

Medical Marijuana

Mormon Church Sends Out Letter Opposed Utah Medical Marijuana Initiative. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Latter Day Saints has mailed a letter to church members urging a "no" vote on the state's November medical marijuana initiative. The letter claims the measure would create "a serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults, by making marijuana generally available with few controls."

Psychedelics

FDA Approves Psychedelic Magic Mushrooms Ingredient Psilocybin for Depression Trial. The Food & Drug Administration has approved the use of psilocybin for a drug trial in treatment-resistant depression. Compass Pathways, a life sciences firm, now has a green light to perform the clinical trials. The phase two trial with 216 patients will get underway next month.

Harm Reduction

Chicago Harm Reduction Pioneer Dan Bigg Dead at 59. Dan Bigg, a co-founder of the Chicago Recovery Alliance and a long-time activist died Tuesday at his home. The cause of death remains undetermined pending further tests. He was a pioneering needle exchange worker in the 1990s and pushed for putting naloxone in the hands of drug users and their loved ones as opioid overdose deaths began to soar more than a decade ago. Friends and colleagues said that thousands of people who could have died from overdoses or infectious disease are alive today because of Bigg's stalwart activism. He will be missed.

Sentencing

Ohio Initiative Would Defelonize Drug Possession, Cut Sentences. Voters in the Buckeye State will vote on a constitutional amendment that would reduce penalties for non-violent drug crimes by making drug use and possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Issue 1 also bars the jailing of probationers merely for drug use or possession and allows sentence reductions of up to 25% for inmates who participate in rehabilitation, work, or educational programming.

Trump's Tariffs and Trade War Will Hit the Marijuana Industry, Too

The Trump administration has included vaping devices and their components among the Chinese products subject to punitive tariffs, and that's going to have an impact on the marijuana industry. But it's not just vaping devices: Many other products made in China, from fixtures to packaging materials and more that are used in the pot industry, are also subject to increased tariffs.

The bottom line will be increased costs for legal marijuana companies and increased prices for their customers. To the degree that tariffs subdue growth in legal marijuana markets, they could also end up putting a hit on marijuana tax revenues for states and localities.

Companies selling vaping products are on the front line, said Arnaud Dumas de Rauly, co-CEO of the Blinc Group, which develops and sells technology and products related to vaping and runs an incubator program to research, develop, and brand technologies for marijuana and nicotine vaping. Dumas de Rauly made his comments in July 24 testimony at public hearings on the tariffs held by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The vast majority of vaping devices, as well as batteries, filters, and cartridges, are manufactured in China, Dumas de Rauly noted, and there are currently few alternatives for producing them. But the profit margin on such devices is only 10 to 15 percent, and that means companies will either have to find alternative sources, eat the hit to their bottom lines, or, more likely, pass the increases on to consumers.

And that will have an impact on the "entire cannabis consumption market -- including medical and recreational marijuana," Dumas de Rauly said.

It's not just consumers who will feel the impact, Dumas de Rauly warned. Higher prices mean decreasing sales and shrinking tax revenues and "25 percent of sales come from cannabis vaping products," he said.

The business press, which now actually treats the marijuana business as a real industry, found plenty of people who echoed Dumas de Rauly's sentiments. In an interview with Forbes, Brooke Davies, executive director of Cannabis Organization of Retail Establishments, a non-profit trade association representing cannabis retailers in Washington State, said that tariffs were already having an impact. Small growers there, already under pressure from dropping marijuana prices, will see profit margins shrink even further because the glass jars they buy from China to package their buds are being hit by tariffs.

"The Trump tariffs will undoubtedly hurt the rural parts of Washington State," Greg James, publisher of Marijuana Venture and Sun Grower magazines, told Forbes. "There could well be a snowball effect that results in the outdoor growing community having an even harder time selling their crop," he said.

It's not just growers or vaping companies taking a hit. "Any items essential to the day-to-day operations of a cannabis business, from construction equipment to cell phones, will likely increase in price," Kevin Hagan of the Princeton Public Affairs Group told Forbes.

Meanwhile, CNBC reported that unlike other sectors targeted for tariffs, such as imported steel, aluminum, solar panels, and washing machines, whose impacts are slower to show up (how often do you buy a washing machine?), the tariffs on vaping products will have an almost immediate impact. That means consumers will quickly see price increases and adjust their behavior accordingly.

But for some people -- medical marijuana patients -- marijuana isn't a luxury, but a necessity.

"For those who need it, they don't have a choice," Mary Lovely, a professor of economics at Syracuse University and nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., told CNBC.

Maybe they can comfort themselves by reading Donald Trump's tweets. As he exclaimed in a tweet the same day as the Office of U.S. Trade Representative hearings, "Tariffs are the greatest!... All will be Great!"

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Chronicle AM: PA Gov Says State Not Ready for Legal Pot, New FDA Guidelines on MATS, More... (8/9/18)

The FDA has issued new draft guidance aimed at expanding the use of medication-assisted treatments (MATs) for opioid addiction, Pennsylvania's governor says the state isn't ready for legal weed, the Oklahoma medical marijuana fight isn't over yet, and more.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) isn't on the same page as his counterparts in New York and New Jersey. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Pennsylvania Governor Says State Not Ready for Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said during a radio interview on Tuesday that he doesn't think the state is ready to legalize marijuana. "There are, what, six states that have legalized recreational marijuana in the United States," Wolf said. (The actual number is nine.). "I don't think the citizens of Pennsylvania are ready for it, and so the answer I would say is no… I don't think Pennsylvania's actually ready for recreational marijuana." The position puts Wolf at odds with two neighboring Democratic governors, Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who is strongly pushing legalization, and Andrew Cuomo of New York, who just signed off on the notion.

Los Angeles Won't Vote on Raising Pot Tax in November. The city council has reversed a decision to place a 1% marijuana tax increase on the November ballot. The city estimated it would raise approximately $30 million per year from the tax increase, but faced immediate blowback from industry groups who said pot taxes were already too high and are driving consumers to the black market.

Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Agencies Still Have "Concerns" Over Legal Medical Marijuana. Interim health commissioner Tom Bates told lawmakers Wednesday that the Health Board still has concerns about how medical marijuana will be implemented and that a special session of the legislature may be needed to see the program properly implemented. The board wants lawmakers to amend the law so that, among other changes, commercial grows are indoor only, patient home grows are prohibited or require a special license, smokable marijuana is prohibited, THC levels are limited to 12% or less, a pharmacist is required on-site at dispensaries, and that a list of qualifying conditions for patients be created. Some of the changes are among those recommended in the Health Board's first try at setting interim rules, which were retracted in the face of loud public opposition. Any effort to re-adopt them is certain to lead to renewed clamor.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

FDA Seeks to Expand Use of Medication-Assisted Therapies for Addiction. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday released new draft guidance aimed at promoting the creation and more widespread use of medication-assisted therapies (MATs) for opioid use disorder. The guidance adjusts how FDA evaluates new treatments for opioid addiction. Instead of only determining whether a treatment lowers opioid use, the agency will now assess whether the medication could help lower overdose rates and limit the spread of infectious disease. "We must consider new ways to gauge success beyond simply whether a patient in recovery has stopped using opioids, such as reducing relapse overdoses and infectious disease transmission," said Scott Gottlieb, FDA commissioner.

Chronicle AM: Three MO MedMJ Inits Qualify for Ballot, House Panel Queries Big Pharma, More.... (8/3/18)

Oregon's US Attorney fires a warning shot over pot, three different Missouri medical marijuana initiatives qualify for the November ballot, a House panel wants answers on opioids from three big pharmaceutical companies, and more.

Show Me State voters will be voting on three separate medical marijuana initiatives in November. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon US Attorney Says Marijuana Industry There Is Out of Control. Oregon US Attorney Billy J. Williams fired a warning shot across the bow of the state's pot industry on Thursday. Responding to a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) report this week that accused the state's marijuana growers of overproduction, Williams minced few words: "The recent HIDTA Insight Report on marijuana production, distribution, and consumption in Oregon confirms what we already know -- it is out of control," he said. "The industry's considerable and negative impacts on land use, water, and underage consumption must be addressed immediately. State officials should respond quickly and in a comprehensive manner to address the many concerns raised by this assessment," said Williams. "To date, we've seen insufficient progress from our state officials. We are alarmed by revelations from industry representatives, landowners, and law enforcement partners describing the insufficient and underfunded regulatory and enforcement structure governing both recreational and medical use. A weakly-regulated industry will continue to detract from the livability and health of communities throughout the state."

Medical Marijuana

Illinois Governor Signs Bill Allowing Medical Marijuana Administration in Schools. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) has signed into law a bill that requires public schools to allow the parents of sick children to administer medical marijuana to them at school. The law allows parents to administer "cannabis-infused products" if both the child and the parents have been approved under the state's medical marijuana law.

Missouri Will Vote on Not One, Not Two, But Three Medical Marijuana Initiatives. The secretary of state's office on Thursday certified three different medical marijuana initiatives for the November ballot. There is a constitutional amendment from New Approach Missouri, as well as a constitutional amendment from Find the Cures and an easier to amend statutory initiative from Lowell Pearson, a Jefferson City attorney.

Oklahoma Health Board Approves New Medical Marijuana Rules. The Board of Health on Wednesday adopted new rules to govern the state's medical marijuana system. The new rules amend or totally revoke the original proposed rules, which included a ban on the sale of smokeable marijuana, a requirement that a pharmacist be present at dispensaries, and a requirement that women of childbearing age take a pregnancy test before using medical marijuana. Also gone are guidelines that limited THC levels.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

House Panel Presses Drug Companies on Opioid Crisis. The leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have sent letters to three companies that manufacture opioids requesting they appear before the committee to answer questions about how they marketed opioids and whether they ignored evidence of abuse of their products. The companies are Insys Therapeutics, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, and Purdue Pharma. The letters make no mention of ensuring that chronic pain patients continue to receive adequate supplies of opioids.

Why Marijuana Will Play a Major Role in the Next Two National Elections [FEATURE]

Last week, the San Jose Convention Center hosted the National Cannabis Industry Association's (NCIA) 2018 Cannabis Business Summit and Expo. More than 7,000 marijuana industry players and hopefuls crammed into exhibition halls and conference rooms for the three-day confab, located squarely in the heart of the world's largest legal marijuana market -- California.

The variety of stuff on display was mind-boggling: Armored cars, safes, "California compliant" marijuana delivery vans, multi-thousand-dollar extraction devices of gleaming metal and shining glass, lighting systems, cooling systems, myriad forms of packaging, business management systems, POS systems, cannabis industry talent headhunters, greenhouses, modular grow fixtures, insurance companies, law firms, real estate firms -- vegan CBD gummies -- and much, much more. And while a few tie-dyes could be spotted in the crowds, they were few and far between.

While for most attendees the expo was all about business, the legal marijuana business still has to ponder the specter of federal marijuana prohibition actually being enforced. And even at the state level -- where the industry can make money -- it is still constrained by the annoying fact that adult use marijuana is only legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. One panel of experienced marijuana watchers zoomed in on the politics of pot law reform to try to divine what the near future holds -- not so much for the industry, but in terms of consolidating the political victories that have already seen marijuana move from the back alleys to, well, shiny big city convention centers.

The discussion among panelists NCIA director of governmental relations Mike Correia; Jolene Forman, staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance; and John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute, covered a variety of topics and sketched the outlines of what pot politics could look like and achieve between now and the 2020 elections.

Federal Legislation

DPA attorney Forman pointed to three pieces of federal marijuana legislation:

  • The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, S. 3032, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) with five Republican and four Democratic cosponsors. The bill would modify the Controlled Substances Act so that it would not apply to people acting in compliance with state laws in states where it is legal.
  • The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, S. 3174, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). The bill would federally decriminalize marijuana by removing it from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
  • The Marijuana Justice Act, S. 1689, sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and cosponsored by a virtual who's who of Democratic 2020 presidential contenders, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). It would remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act and eliminate federal criminal penalties for marijuana commerce.

While both the Schumer bill and the Booker bill would decriminalize marijuana, the STATES Act, which would only apply in places it's already legal, is more likely to gain traction, said Forman, a position seconded by Correia.

"The STATES Act is most likely to move," said Correia, who spends his days haunting the corridors of power on Capitol Hill as he lobbies for the industry. "Congress is incremental."

Movement could come faster if Democrats take the House or Senate, he said. "Maybe the Democrats will be more aggressive," Correia suggested, drawing a comparison with movement on gay and lesbian issues in recent years.

Not so fast, said Hudak, noting that key congressional committee chairs have bottled up marijuana bills so far. "Until both parties stop putting in foes of reform in leadership positions, there will be no progress," he said. "And it's not just the GOP." (Until a few months ago he might have been referring to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who represents the world's largest legal pot market but who only dropped her opposition to legalization last May in the face of a primary challenge and is only beginning to shed last century's prohibitionist ideology.)

There is no reason for Democrats to put enemies of reform in leadership positions, Hudak said. "Cannabis is already a Democratic core value."

"Marijuana legalization could pass Congress right now," Correia argued, "but it doesn't get any hearings; it doesn't get any votes."

If Congress Fails to Act

DPA's Forman explained that while it is now clear that states have the right to not criminalize marijuana and not enforce federal prohibition, a hostile Justice Department could still potentially wreak havoc.

"What is untested in the courts is whether federal preemption could block regulation," she said. In other words, it's possible that the Justice Department could blow up states' ability to tax and regulate the industry.

Forman noted that medical marijuana states are currently protected from Justice Department interference by the repeated passage of amendments to spending bills blocking the DOJ from using its funds to go after medical marijuana where it is legal.

"We need the same for adult use," she said.

Without legislation protecting marijuana, "the executive branch can do things, it could be more aggressive," said Hudak. But he added that doing so would have a price. "That could affect the department's working relationship with the states," he warned.

Correia thought Justice Department meddling was unlikely, despite Jeff Sessions' druthers. "It makes zero sense politically to interfere," he argued, pointing to marijuana's popularity in opinion polls.

Hudak pointed out a possible flip side to a hostile executive power. "A reform-minded president could do a lot," he said, perhaps thinking of the Obama administration's Cole memo laying out how federal prosecutors would lay off legal marijuana in the states. Despite Sessions having nullified the Cole memo, it still seems to be largely the approach of the land.

The 2018 Midterms

"This is an exciting year for cannabis policy politics," said Hudak, pointing to the example of Texas, where progressive Democratic challenger and legalization advocate Rep. Beto O'Rourke is closing in on incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R).

"Beto is getting close to Cruz, and the whole time, he's screaming about his support for cannabis reform. That's transformational," he said. "Politicians lag behind; they've been terrified of this issue. Now it's politically beneficial. If you're against cannabis, the best thing to do is shut up about it. Nobody is with you."

It's still an uphill battle in Texas, though. Cruz is leading O'Rourke by 8.4 points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. But that's only half as much as Cruz's 16-point victory in his 2012 Senate race, and O'Rourke has three more months to move up. And just today, a new Texas Lyceum poll had Cruz leading only 41% to 39%, well within the poll's margin of error.

According to Correia, trying to work with Republicans on Capitol Hill has led to lessons learned: "We see no point in trying to work with the GOP any longer," he said. "We'll be giving money to challengers in competitive races. The Democrats are thinking about this; they will run on marijuana."

The 2020 Election

It looks like marijuana is going to be a popular issue in 2020 -- or at least the people thinking about running for the Democratic presidential nomination seem to think so.

"Potential Democratic candidates are getting their names on big pot bills," Forman noted.

Marijuana is also likely to be on state ballots in 2020, and that will be good for Democrats, said Hudak.

"There will be more initiatives, and those drive Democratic turnout," he argued. "In 2012, Democrats in Colorado voted for cannabis -- and for president, too. Democratic politicians are seeing this."

But Correia said the current president could be a wild card here (as in so many other places): "Trump might just decide to steal the issue, to take it off the table."

Given that Trump has signaled support for the STATES Act, and given Trump's willingness to adopt any position if he thinks it brings him political gain, that's not impossible. And it would take some immeasurable oomph out of Democratic sails.

The Next States to Legalize

Michigan will vote on a legalization initiative in November, and there will be efforts in Arizona and Ohio in 2020, the panelists said. But grassroots initiatives could also bubble up in places like North Dakota and Oklahoma, both of which saw serious efforts this year that will almost certainly not make the November ballot but do lay the groundwork for the next cycle.

Vermont became the first state to free the weed via the legislative process (although it does not allow retail sales), but Correia sketched out how the next couple of years could see Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island fall in line behind it. By the time November 2020 rolls around, most of New England and the mid-Atlantic states could be legal, with Illinois and Michigan creating a major toehold in the heart of the Midwest.

When it comes to marijuana policy and ending pot prohibition, it looks to be a very interesting and fruitful next couple of years.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Watch: Jeff Sessions Acknowledges States Have the Right to Pass Their Own Marijuana Laws

Even as he defended federal marijuana prohibition, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last Thursday conceded that states have the right to pass their own marijuana laws.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (senate.gov)
Sessions, an avowed foe of marijuana legalization, has moved to rescind Obama-era guidance to prosecutors that gave some protection to state-legal marijuana operations, but the reality on the ground is that even when given a green light by the Justice Department to go after state-legal marijuana, federal prosecutors in those states are largely leaving it alone.

Sessions has also been left isolated by President Trump, who has signaled support for legislation that would end federal marijuana prohibition.

Last Thursday, Sessions was in Massachusetts, where voters in 2016 approved marijuana legalization and where sales in pot shops are expected to begin sometime this year. A reporter asked Sessions about his stance on legalization.

"We'll enforce the federal law; the federal law remains the law of the land," he replied. "Personally, my view is that the American republic will not be better if there are marijuana sales on every street corner, but states have a right to set their own laws and will do so, and we will follow the federal law," he said.

After the press conference, a Department of Justice spokesperson told MassLive.com the comments did not represent a shift for Sessions. This is true: Sessions remains committed to federal marijuana prohibition, but he can't seem to get his US attorneys in states where marijuana is legal to do much about it. And now, he's at least admitting that states have the right to craft their own pot laws.

Here's the video:

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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