Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Senator Al Franken sees the light

For the second time in as many days, U.S. Sen. Al Franken just added his name to a marijuana bill.

On Tuesday, the Democratic lawmaker from Minnesota became the fifth cosponsor of legislation to allow cannabis cultivators and sellers operating in accordance with state laws to be taxed just like any other business.

The day before, he signed onto a bill that would allow those businesses to access financial services from banks.

Earlier this month, the former Saturday Night Live star was one of six senators to introduce a broad bipartisan bill that would amend federal laws so states can enact and implement their own medical cannabis laws without federal interference.

The leadership on marijuana issues is a far cry from when Franken said on a BuzzFeed podcast last year (in response to a question I submitted) that he was "not the guy to ask" about cannabis policy.

In his answer then, he did acknowledge that he should probably study up on the issue because the state he represents is one of more than two dozen that allows medical marijuana. "I should know more," the senator said, jokingly adding, "or it's not important or somewhere in between."

A month later, Franken added his name to an earlier, now-expired version of the comprehensive medical marijuana bill that he is an original cosponsor of in the new 115th Congress. But he never did add his name to the 114th Congress's versions of the cannabis taxation and banking legislation.

Now, the senator is on a bit of a marijuana bill cosponsorship spree, and some observers think it's good politics -- in addition to good policy -- at a time when Franken's name is being floated as a possible 2020 presidential candidate.

"With clear public support in favor of outright legalization, presidential aspirants now recognize that marijuana reform is something that can no longer be ignored," Justin Strekal of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said in an interview.

A Quinnipiac University poll released in April found that 60% of U.S. voters -- and 72% of Democrats -- support legalizing marijuana.

When it comes to medical cannabis, 94% of all voters and 96% of Democrats are on board. Just 13% of Democrats and 21% of voters overall want the federal government to interfere with state marijuana laws.

Other potential Democratic presidential candidates such as fellow Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have increasingly taken on leadership roles in the fight for marijuana law reform.

Franken, who discussed his past marijuana, cocaine and LSD use in a book he published earlier this year, also joined four other senators in writing a July letter asking U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to go after state-legal industrial hemp growers.

But Strekal, of NORML, wants Franken to do even more, saying, until he "puts his name on a bill that outright deschedules cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, I remain uninspired."

In July, Booker filed legislation to do just that, and more. And in the last Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a 2016 presidential candidate, filed cannabis descheduling legislation.


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Don't Blunt the Marijuana Revolution

America is undergoing a somewhat silent revolution concerning the prohibition of marijuana usage.

A 2017 poll of 1,122 adults conducted by Marist found that only 14 percent of those surveyed still oppose medicinal marijuana, a number so overwhelming as to allow the suggestion a clear consensus exists among the American people.

On the issue of what is now called "recreational use," things are not as clear. The same poll found the nation divided "on whether they support or oppose the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, 49 percent to 47 percent."

A majority of parents, the survey said, oppose recreational use but, among those who have tried it at one time or another or who currently use it today, at 70 and 89 percent support respectively, the pro-legalization movement is gaining ground fast. Attitudes in the hinterlands are clearly changing.

The same can be said of Washington. During the 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump expressed more than once his belief the nation's marijuana laws needed to be reformed. California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon have, on a bipartisan basis, fought for and won – at least for the moment – a prohibition on the use of taxpayer dollars by federal authorities to prosecute medical marijuana patients or providers who are in compliance with state-based medical marijuana laws.

Another effort by GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California, which would bar federal prosecutions in states that have legalized recreational use, is for the moment stalled but, say those who follow the issue, is likely at some point to pass for no other reason than the ability of politicians to read polls – including the April 2017 Quinnipiac Poll showing 71 percent of those surveyed believed state law should take precedence over federal law where cannabis policy within the states is concerned.

The stumbling block in all this is United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who not only wants to enforce the laws already on the books but has advised the federal prosecutors under his jurisdiction he expects it to be done ruthlessly and with little regard for their discretion concerning what cases are to be brought into court.

Sessions is, clearly enough, behind the times. Nonetheless, he's still in the position to have things his way – or at least he was until Congress passed and the president signed legislation increasing the federal debt ceiling and for other purposes – because the U.S. Department of Justice has access to funds not appropriated for them by the Congress.

Under a program originally designed to bring large criminal enterprises dealing mostly in cash to heel, the Justice Department has expanded to the point of abuse civil asset forfeiture which, as the American Civil Liberties Union describes it, "allows police to seize – and then keep or sell – any property they allege is involved in a crime" without the person in possession of the property at the time it is seized being convicted of a crime or even arrested.

For the DOJ and for other federal agencies, this has become a revenue generator above and beyond funds appropriated to them by Congress. Cash, cars, even real estate has been taken permanently by the government on the basis of suspicion alone.

The courts may eventually rule civil asset forfeiture as it is currently practiced violates due process but, until they do, it creates a pile of money Sessions can use to have the DOJ pursue medical marijuana users despite what the Rohrabacher/Blumenauer or any other amendment to a piece of legislation may say.

That's the practical side, which on its own would be enough. There's also a basic Constitutional principle at stake – as a number of organizations set out in a Sept. 1 letter to the House Rules Committee requesting the Rohrabacher/Blumenauer amendment "be made in order as it has in past years."

"Under our Constitution states are granted broad police powers because the founders understood that states, not the federal government, would be on the front lines of protecting health, safety, and the general welfare," the groups, headed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote. "As a nation of diverse populations and opinions, state legislatures and local law enforcement must be free to decide how best to use their limited resources to protect public safety, raise funds, and fight crime within their borders."

The heart of the matter, for them and for us, is the preservation of a system of government where federal powers are defined, narrowly, by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the powers not given to it explicitly are left to the states. The Congress may have authorized and the executive branch may have approved of the war on drugs, broadly speaking, but this does not mean by fiat that the states much accept its decision in such matters. They have the power to make their own rules, applicable inside their individual borders only, that the federal government should respect – even when a conflict may exist.

This principle may seem esoteric, but is in fact vitally important, especially for advocates of limited government. It carries over into other areas running the gamut from Second Amendment rights to spending and tax policy. Sessions, even if his mind cannot be changed on the matter, owes it to us all to exercise more sensitivity to what the public wants, as expressed by the way they vote on the issue as well as the sentiments expressed in the Marist survey and other polls. The future of our democratic republic may rest on such things.


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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Trump is getting tired of Sessions

After President Donald Trump was informed in May that special counsel Robert Mueller had been appointed to oversee the Trump-Russia investigation, Trump unleashed a torrent of insults upon Attorney General Jeff Sessions and told him he should resign, The New York Times reported on Thursday.

Trump reportedly said he believed Mueller's appointment was Sessions' fault for recusing himself in March from the Russia investigation.

Current and former administration officials told the Times that Trump accused Sessions of "disloyalty," called him an "idiot," and said his appointment as attorney general was the worst decision Trump had ever made, leaving Sessions, in the words of the Times, "ashen and emotional."

Sessions later told associates that Trump's demeaning tone during the conversation was the most humiliating experience he's undergone in decades of public life, the Times reported.

The Oval Office conversation reportedly took place on May 17, after White House counsel Don McGahn was told in a phone call with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Rosenstein had decided to appoint Mueller. McGahn then delivered the news to Trump, who immediately began raging at Sessions.

Yet after Sessions complied with Trump's demand and submitted a resignation letter, Trump eventually rejected it. Top advisers -- including Vice President Mike Pence, then-chief strategist Steve Bannon, and then-chief of staff Reince Priebus -- had reportedly convinced Trump that dismissing Sessions would only exacerbate the public scrutiny around Trump, who at that point had also fired the FBI Director James Comey and the national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Trump has made little secret of his disdain for Sessions in recent months, publicly berating the attorney general throughout the summer after telling the Times he would not have chosen Sessions for the job had he known Sessions would recuse himself. Trump also criticised Sessions' decisions at the Justice Department and referred to him on Twitter as "weak" and "beleaguered."

Sessions later described Trump's public tirade against him as "hurtful," but added that he intended to remain Attorney General unless Trump "wants to make a change." Sessions allies told the Times he wants to remain in the position because he believes he has a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to crack down on illegal immigration.


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Senator Orrin Hatch is starting to see the light

A conservative Republican U.S. senator spoke about the "possible benefits of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids" on the Senate floor on Wednesday afternoon, and introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at expanding cannabis research.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has represented Utah in Congress since 1977, has historically not been a champion of marijuana law reform, and continues to oppose full recreational legalization.

But in a floor speech he said that "in our zeal to enforce the law, we too often blind ourselves to the medicinal benefits of natural substances like cannabis."

While I certainly do not support the use of marijuana for recreational purposes, the evidence shows that cannabis possesses medicinal properties that can truly change people’s lives for the better," the senator said. "And I believe, Mr. President, that we would be remiss if we threw out the baby with the bathwater.

Hatch's new bill, the Marijuana Effective Drug Study (MEDS) Act of 2017 would ease researchers' access to marijuana for studies on its medical benefits and would require the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to develop recommendations for good manufacturing practices for growing and producing cannabis for research.

In a pun-filled statement about the legislation, Hatch said it is "high time to address research into medical marijuana," adding:

"Our country has experimented with a variety of state solutions without properly delving into the weeds on the effectiveness, safety, dosing, administration and quality of medical marijuana. All the while, the federal government strains to enforce regulations that sometimes do more harm than good. To be blunt, we need to remove the administrative barriers preventing legitimate research into medical marijuana, which is why I’ve decided to roll out the MEDS Act.”

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chris Coons (D-DE), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) are initial cosponsors of the bill.

In his floor remarks, Hatch spotlighted impediments to research that currently exist because of marijuana's status under federal law.

We lack the science to support use of medical marijuana products like CBD oils not because researchers are unwilling to do the work, but because of bureaucratic red tape and over-regulation," he said. "Under current law, those who want to complete research on the benefits of medical marijuana must engage in a complex application process and interact with several federal agencies. These regulatory acrobatics can take researchers over a year, if not more, to complete. And the longer researchers have to wait, the longer patients have to suffer.

Cannabis is currently classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. That's the most restrictive category, and is supposed to be reserved for drugs with no medical value and a high potential for abuse. Researchers have long complained that the classification creates additional hurdles that don't exist for studies on other substances.

The Senate Appropriations Committee issued a report last week expressing concern about Schedule I's research roadblocks.

There are several other pending marijuana bills in the Senate that would change federal laws to allow protections to people who use medical cannabis legally in accordance with state laws, but Hatch has not yet added his name as cosponsor of any of them. One such comprehensive bill has three Republican and three Democratic cosponsors.

Activists in Hatch's home state of Utah are currently collecting signatures to qualify a medical cannabis ballot initiative for 2018. A recent poll found that 79% of the state's likely voters support the concept.

Hatch is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is opposing the pending Utah ballot initiative.

"We believe that society is best served by requiring marijuana to go through further research and the FDA approval process that all other drugs must go through before they are prescribed to patients," the Church said in a statement earlier this year.

While Hatch hasn't revealed his position on the ballot measure, he did speak of a young Utah constituent who suffers from seizures and could benefit from medical cannabis.

"This poor family is seeking help, yearning for a way for their child to live a safe and healthy life," he said. "Compounds found in marijuana could significantly mitigate the severity of my friend’s seizures and even help him lead a normal life. But current regulations prevent the development of any such treatment from going forward. So this young man is left to suffer."

But despite Hatch's support for research and acknowledgment of marijuana's medical benefits, he isn't exactly a fan of how many state laws regulate the drug.

"If we make medical marijuana accessible to those who really need it, we should not increase access to recreational marijuana, nor should we do anything to promote the industry that has developed around marijuana dispensaries," he said, adding:

Mr. President, the recreational marijuana industry has its fair share of budding entrepreneurs. But these men and women are in no way qualified to issue prescriptions or give any medical advice whatsoever to people suffering from chronic conditions. Only experienced medical professionals who have undergone years of education and formal training are qualified to consult patients seeking a marijuana-derived treatment. Only licensed professionals know how to accurately diagnose illnesses and use approved medical treatments to safely treat disease.

The senator also expressed discomfort with the smoking of medical cannabis, saying he believes that "treatment options should focus on non-combustive forms of marijuana."

Hatch introduced a similar marijuana research bill last year, but did not so clearly endorse cannabis's medical potential in the related press release as he did in his floor remarks this time.

A growing body of research suggests that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid addiction and overdose rates.


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Let's thank Senator Orrin Hatch for taking this stand. Let's tell him the positive things associated with marijuana and why marijuana should be legal at the federal level.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

From Congressman Dana Rohrabacher

Not long ago, a supporter of mine, visiting from California, dropped by my Capitol office. A retired military officer and staunch conservative, he and I spent much of our conversation discussing the Republican agenda.

Finally, I drew a breath and asked him about an issue I feared might divide us: the liberalization of our marijuana laws, specifically medical marijuana reform, on which for years I had been leading the charge. What did he think about that controversial position?

“Dana,” he replied, “there are some things about me you don’t know.” He told me about his three sons, all of whom enlisted after 9/11.

Two of his sons returned from the battlefield whole and healthy. The third, however, came home suffering multiple seizures each day. His prospects were bleak.

His medical care fell under the total guidance of the Department of Veterans Affairs, whose doctors came under federal restraints regarding the treatments they could prescribe. (Among the treatments allowed were opioids.) Nothing worked.

Finally, a sympathetic doctor advised our young hero to see him in his private office, where he could prescribe medication derived from cannabis. The prescription worked. The seizures, for the most part, ceased.

“Dana,” said my friend, “I could hug you right now for what you’ve been doing, unknowingly, for my son.”

What had I been doing? With my Democrat friend Sam Farr, the now-retired California congressman, I wrote an amendment to spending bills that prohibits the federal government from prosecuting medical marijuana cases in states where voters have legalized such treatment. The amendment passed two consecutive years, the second time with a wider margin than the first, and has been extended through continuing resolutions and an omnibus spending bill.

Surprisingly, given the Obama administration’s generally liberal approach to marijuana, its Justice Department tried to interpret the amendment in such a convoluted way as to allow counterproductive raids on marijuana dispensaries. The courts — most recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — repeatedly ruled that our amendment meant exactly what it said.

Unfortunately, my longtime friend Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, has urged Congress to drop the amendment, now co-sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). This, despite President Trump’s belief, made clear in his campaign and as president, that states alone should decide medical marijuana policies.

I should not need to remind our chief law enforcement officer nor my fellow Republicans that our system of federalism, also known as states’ rights, was designed to resolve just such a fractious issue. Our party still bears a blemish for wielding the “states’ rights” cudgel against civil rights. If we bury state autonomy in order to deny patients an alternative to opioids, and ominously federalize our police, our hypocrisy will deserve the American people’s contempt.

More than half the states have liberalized medical marijuana laws, some even decriminalizing recreational use. Some eighty percent of Americans favor legalization of medical marijuana. Only a benighted or mean-spirited mind-set would want to block such progress.

Despite federal efforts to restrict supply, studies continue to yield promising results. And mounting anecdotal evidence shows again and again that medical marijuana can dramatically improve the lives of people with epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, arthritis and many other ailments.

Most Americans know this. The political class, not surprisingly, lags behind them.

Part of the reason is the failure of too many conservatives to apply “public choice economics” to the war on marijuana. Common sense, as well as public choice theory, holds that the government’s interest is to grow, just as private-sector players seek profit and build market share.

The drug-war apparatus will not give ground without a fight, even if it deprives Americans of medical alternatives and inadvertently creates more dependency on opioids. When its existence depends on asset seizures and other affronts to our Constitution, why should anti-medical-marijuana forces care if they’ve contributed inadvertently to a vast market, both legal and illegal, for opioids?

I invite my colleagues to visit a medical marijuana research facility and see for themselves why their cultural distaste might be misplaced. One exists near my district office at the University of California at Irvine, another at the University of California at San Diego.

Better yet, they might travel to Israel — that political guiding light for religious conservatives — and learn how our closest ally in the Middle East has positioned itself on the cutting edge of cannabis research. The Israeli government recently decriminalized first use, so unworried it is about what marijuana might do to its conscript military.

My colleagues should then return to Washington and keep my amendment intact, declaring themselves firmly on the side of medical progress. Failing that, the government will keep trying to eradicate the burgeoning marijuana business, thereby fueling and enriching drug cartels. Trust me: Hugs from grateful supporters are infinitely better.


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We are safe until December 8

A budget deal approved in Congress on Friday extended federal protections for state-legal medical marijuana patients and providers until Dec. 8, potentially creating another opportunity to ensure they are inluded in the FY 2018 budget.

Earlier this week, the House Rules Committee blocked an amendment introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) from being heard by the House during the rest of the budget negotiations. This made it very likely that the amendment, which prevents the Department of Justice from targeting state medical marijuana programs, would not be included in the final budget for next year. Without inclusion, these protections would have expired Sep. 30.

This budget deal gives us a little more time to put pressure on Congress to do the right thing. Please contact your lawmakers and urge them to support medical marijuana.


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Congressman Sessions blocks marijuana vote

Congressman Pete Sessions

Meet Congressman Pete Sessions (R),prohibitionist extraordinaire. Most prohibitionist Congresspersons get to vote on a pro-marijuana bill or two. Sessions has the power to block not just one but two pro-marijuana bills. Those bills are the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment and the Amendment To Expand Veterans’ Access to Medical Marijuana. It seems when you are the chair of the Congressional Rules Committee you get to do what you want. That is bullshit. Since when does one politician get to thwart the will of the people? if you are a constituent of Pete Sessions let him know you are less than pleased with what he has done. If you are not contact your Congressperson and protest what Sessions has done to these bills. The more of us they hear from the better.