Congress Passes Spending Bill Continuing Protections for State Medical Marijuana Programs


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The Justice Department will continue to be prohibited from interfering in state medical marijuana laws under the federal spending bill passed Thursday in the Senate. The bill has already passed the House, and President Trump has said he will sign it.

The legislation includes a provision that is intended to prevent the department, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, from using funds to arrest or prosecute patients, caregivers, and businesses that are acting in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.

The provision stems from an amendment originally sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and former Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), which was first approved by the House in May 2014. It was approved again by a larger margin in June 2015, then included in the continuing appropriations packages that have funded the federal government since October 2016.

Unfortunately, the spending package approved Thursday also includes a provision that prevents the District of Columbia from regulating the cultivation and distribution of marijuana for adult use. It was originally introduced by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland) and approved in 2015, after District voters approved a ballot initiative to make possession and cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana legal for adults 21 years of age and older.

MPP’s Robert Capecchi released the following statement:

“Congress appears to be growing increasingly comfortable with states adopting their own marijuana policies,” said Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Unfortunately, spending prohibitions like these expire at the end of the fiscal year, so there is still a need for a long-term solution.

“The time is right for Congress to adopt permanent legislation that protects individuals from federal enforcement if they are in compliance with state laws,” Capecchi said. “It is difficult to understand what they’re waiting for. The vast majority of U.S. voters oppose the federal government interfering in state marijuana laws, and there is now near-universal support for legalizing medical marijuana.”

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Jeff Sessions Confirmed as Attorney General


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On Wednesday, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was narrowly confirmed as the new Attorney General in a 51-47 vote, split largely along party lines.

MPP released the following statement from its federal policies director, Robert Capecchi:

“MPP remains cautiously optimistic that the Trump administration will refrain from interfering in state marijuana laws. When asked about his plans for marijuana enforcement, Attorney General Sessions said he ‘echo[es]’ the position taken by Loretta Lynch during her confirmation hearings. He repeatedly acknowledged the scarcity of enforcement resources, and he said he would ensure they are used as effectively as possible to stop illicit drugs from being trafficked into the country.

“President Trump has consistently said that states should be able to determine their own marijuana laws, and his spokesperson made it clear that the attorney general will be implementing the Trump agenda. We are hopeful that Mr. Sessions will follow the president’s lead and respect states’ rights on marijuana policy.

“A strong and growing majority of Americans think marijuana should be made legal, and an even stronger majority think the federal government should respect state marijuana laws. Eight states have adopted laws that regulate and tax marijuana for adult use, and 28 states now have laws that regulate marijuana for medical use. It would be shocking if the Trump administration attempted to steamroll the citizens and governments in these states to enforce an increasingly unpopular federal policy.”

Sessions was asked about marijuana policy on multiple occasions during the confirmation process. During his oral testimony, he conspicuously refrained from committing to enforce federal marijuana prohibition laws in states that are regulating marijuana for medical and adult use, noting the scarcity of resources available. In his written testimony, he said he “echo[es]” the comments made by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, when she was asked about marijuana enforcement during her confirmation hearing.

President Donald Trump has consistently said that he supports legal access to medical marijuana and believes states should be able to determine their own marijuana policies. During a January appearance on Fox News Channel, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer signaled that Sessions would adhere to Trump’s position that states should be able to establish their own marijuana policies. “When you come into a Trump administration, it’s the Trump agenda you’re implementing and not your own,” he said. “I think Senator Sessions is well aware of that.”

 

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Congress Extends Budget Protecting Medical Marijuana Programs Though April


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State medical marijuana patients can breathe a sigh of relief … for now. Congress just passed a spending bill that will keep the Department of Justice’s budget intact until April 28, 2017.united_states_capitol_-_west_front
This bill temporarily renews a spending provision that protects medical marijuana patients and businesses from being targeted by the DOJ as long as they follow state law.

When Trump’s pick for attorney general, anti-marijuana Senator Jeff Sessions, steps into office, he will not be able to go after lawful medical marijuana patients and entities for several months (if he opts to do so at all).

Since these protections are only temporary, we must push strongly to keep intact the current federal policy that allows states to regulate marijuana without intrusion by the federal government.

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Marijuana Policy Reformers Wary of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General


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Sen. Jeff Sessions (PHOTO: Gaga Skidmore)

President-elect Trump’s pick for the top law enforcement position is known for making some disturbing statements, particularly about marijuana, that have made activists extremely nervous about federal marijuana policy in the next administration. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), who is likely to be confirmed as attorney general in the coming months, has been pretty clear that he is no fan of marijuana, legalization, or marijuana consumers.

The Week reports:

Sessions has called for more federal prosecutions of marijuana growers and businesses in states where it is legal. He said in April that it’s important for the government to send a “message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He declared that “we need grownups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger.”

One of the major difficulties in the burgeoning pot industry has long been the federal government’s ability to prosecute businesses that the states say are legal. Making Sessions the head of the agency in charge of federal law enforcement and prosecutions has many in the cannabis community quite concerned.

Robert Capecchi, the director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, noted that Sessions would face at least one stumbling block: The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to the annual appropriations bill (which has to be renewed annually) prohibits the Department of Justice and the DEA from using money to target or prosecute state-compliant medical marijuana businesses. But other than that hurdle, Capechhi said, the only thing standing between Sessions and a crusade against states’ legal pot industries is “just DOJ policy.” And policies are not laws. “There’s nothing set in stone.”

Capecchi, though, is holding out hope, noting that Trump had suggested on the campaign trail that he supported medical marijuana and the states’ rights argument in favor of full legalization. “I think the business man in Mr. Trump can see if you go after these businesses you drive all this legal and regulated marijuana market back underground.”

Many marijuana policy reform supporters, including MPP, are hopeful that Sessions will respect the rights of states to establish their own marijuana policies — a position President-elect Trump took during the campaign). Of course we will be closely monitoring the situation, defending the progress we have made so far, and continuing to pressure the administration and Congress to end marijuana prohibition.

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What Does a Trump Presidency Mean for Marijuana Policy?


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On the same night that voters in eight states were approving marijuana policy reform initiatives, Donald Trump was on his way to being elected the next President of the United States. the_white_house_in_washington_dcWhile this divisive election has left some people jubilant and others outraged, many are wondering what a Trump presidency will mean for the future of marijuana policy reform efforts as well as the progress we have made so far.

While it is difficult to tell what will happen in the next administration, MPP is hopeful that the current federal policy of not targeting people and businesses in compliance with state marijuana laws will continue in the next administration. Read the rest of this entry »

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Federal Court Ruling Gives Hope to Medical Marijuana Patients and Providers


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In a decision released on August 16, a federal court ruled that the Department of Justice cannot spend funds to prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers who are in compliance with state law.2000px-US-CourtOfAppeals-9thCircuit-Seal.svg

Time Magazine reports:

The ruling comes after a 2014 Congressional law that prohibited the DOJ from interfering in state implementation of marijuana laws. That law led people being prosecuted by the federal government to seek the dismissal of their charges, arguing they were in compliance with state law. On Tuesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, sending their cases back to lower courts to determine if they were in compliance with state laws. Some of the defendants ran Los Angeles based marijuana stores and faced charges for distributing 100 marijuana plants.

Tuesday’s decision by a three-judge panel was unanimous. But in its opinion, the court warned Congress could change its mind and again allow federal funding for prosecution of state-sanctioned marijuana use. “DOJ is currently prohibited from spending funds from specific appropriations acts for prosecutions of those who complied with state law,” the Court wrote. “But Congress could appropriate funds for such prosecutions tomorrow.”

John Hudak at the Brookings Institute agrees that this ruling is a positive development, but warns against celebrating too much. You can read his detailed analysis here.

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Justice Dept. to Release Thousands of Low-Level Offenders


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Yesterday, the Department of Justice announced that it would be releasing approximately 6,000 federal prisoners early as a means of alleviating some of the damage done by years of overly harsh drug sentencing.

Washington Post reports: 

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — that reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.USSC_Logo

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

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The releases are part of a shift in the nation’s approach to criminal justice and drug sentencing that has been driven by a bipartisan consensus that mass incarceration has failed and should be reversed.

Along with the commission’s action, the Justice Department has instructed its prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.

It is unclear how many of the prisoners being released had been sentenced for marijuana-related violations, but this is surely a step in the right direction toward more just and humane drug policy.

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DOJ Misled Congress to Influence Medical Marijuana Vote


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In a Marijuana.com exclusive, Tom Angell reports that the Department of Justice intentionally misled Congress to discourage2000px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Department_of_Justice.svg passage of a budget restriction that would prevent them from spending funds to interfere with state implementation of medical marijuana programs.

 

Justice Department officials misinformed members of Congress about the effects of a medical marijuana amendment being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives, according to an internal memo obtained by Marijuana.com.

The amendment, which lawmakers approved in May 2014 by a vote of 219-189 despite the Obama administration’s objections, is aimed at preventing the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws.

But in the days leading up to the vote, department officials distributed “informal talking points” warning House members that the measure could “in effect, limit or possibly eliminate the Department’s ability to enforce federal law in recreational marijuana cases as well,” according to the document. [Emphasis added.]

The newly obtained memo, drafted by Patty Merkamp Stemler, chief of the Criminal Division’s Appellate Section, admits that the talking points were “intended to discourage passage of the rider” but do not “reflect our current thinking.”

Basically, the DOJ told Congress that a piece of legislation they did not like would have more impact than intended. Now that it has been enacted, despite their efforts, they are saying that it does less than intended!

Please take the time to read the full report.

We need laws based on facts. Congress should be able to count on law enforcement to give them accurate information, not propaganda to support their policy preferences.

If you would like to tell the DOJ what you think about these tactics, you can contact the DOJ Office of Legislative Affairs at (202) 514-2141 or via email.

 

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Pres. Obama Commutes Sentences for Nonviolent Drug Offenders


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On Monday, President Obama announced the commutation of 46 prisoners who were convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

From The New York Times:

President Obama announced on Monday that he was commuting the sentences of 46 federal drug offenders, more than doubling the number of nonviolent criminals to whom he has granted clemency since taking office.

“These men and women were not violent criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years; 14 of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses, so their punishments didn’t fit the crime,” Mr. Obama said in a video released on the White House Facebook page, in which he is shown signing the commutation letters. “I believe that America, at its heart, is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance.”

Mr. Obama’s action on Monday brought the total number of commutations he has issued to 89, exceeding that of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 80 sentences during his tenure. It also meant that he has commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

While it is unclear how many of those people were in prison for marijuana charges, this is a good sign that the administration, and the greater public, is open to substantive drug policy and criminal justice reform.

Most marijuana arrests do not result in jail time, but the collateral consequences can be still negatively impact a person for life.

However, there are a number of people serving long sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses, some of them for life. The Department of Justice needs to reexamine these cases immediately.

For more information on the recent commutation, visit Whitehouse.gov.

(Image: Dietmar Klement)

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Holder Restricts Asset Forfeiture Laws, Dealing Blow to War on Marijuana


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AG Eric Holder

Earlier today, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that local and state law enforcement would no longer be able to use federal asset forfeiture laws to seize and keep property without evidence of a crime.

According to the Washington Post:

Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund.

A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”

The old policy allowed law enforcement to take and keep people’s cash and property on the pretense of things like the scent of marijuana, even if none is found in their possession. Since the proceeds go directly to local police budgets, some argue that this was one of the primary reasons for law enforcement’s continued opposition to marijuana policy reform.

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