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Marijuana reform advocates win 3 of 4 in House

Marijuana reform advocates won three of four battles in the House on Wednesday, as lawmakers approved amendments that forbid federal interference in state laws allowing medical use of marijuana and marijuana-based oils or industrial hemp uses.

“There’s unprecedented support on both sides of the aisle for ending the federal war on marijuana and letting states set their own drug policies based on science, compassion, health, and human rights,” Bill Piper, the Drug Policy Alliance’s national affairs director, said in a news release. “The more the DEA blocks sensible reforms the more they will see their agency’s power and budget come under deeper scrutiny.”

California is one of 23 states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam, that have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.

The House voted 242-186 for an amendment by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, and Sam Farr, D-Carmel, that prohibits the federal government from using any funds to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana patients or providers that are in a compliance with their state’s laws. This amendment also passed the House last year with strong bipartisan support – after a decade of failed efforts – and made it into the final spending bill signed into law, but because it was attached to an annual spending bill, it will expire later this year unless Congress renews it.

“The majority of the states have said they want medical marijuana patients to have access to the medicine they need without fear of prosecution,” Farr said in a news release. “For the second year in a row, the people’s house has listened to the will of the people and voted to give them that access.”

The House voted 297-130 to pass an amendment by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., that protects laws in 16 states allowing use of CBD oils, a non-psychotropic marijuana component that’s been shown to be effective in managing children’s epileptic seizures.

And the House voted 282-146 to pass an amendment by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kent., prohibiting the Drug Enforcement Administration from undermining state laws allowing the industrial use of hemp. A similar amendment passed the House last year.

Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and voters in California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada are expected to face legalization ballot initiatives next year. But an amendment by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., to bar the DEA and Justice Department from undermining such state laws narrowly failed on a 206-222 vote.

Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy staffer who now is president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said his anti-legalization group is “re-energized” by the recreational amendment’s defeat.

“This is a victory for the science, and it’s a victory for our nation’s kids,” Sabet said in a news release. “It’s a crushing blow to the new Big Marijuana industry special interest group. Legalization is not inevitable and we will continue to discuss why today’s high THC marijuana runs counter to mental health and basic principles of public health and road safety.”

But Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, issued a statement saying “now that the House has gone on record with strong bipartisan votes for two years in a row to oppose using federal funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, it’s time for Congress to take up comprehensive legislation to actually change federal law.”

“That’s what a growing majority of Americans wants, and these votes show that lawmakers are on board as well,” Angell said. “Congress clearly wants to stop the Justice Department from spending money to impose failed marijuana prohibition policies onto states, so there’s absolutely no reason those policies themselves should remain on the lawbooks any longer.”

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Rand Paul, Cory Booker to team up on marijuana

U.S. Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. – an unlikely couple if ever there was one – are teaming up to introduce the same amendment the House approved in May ordering the Justice Department to stop targeting medical pot clubs that comply with state law.

The 219-189 vote in the Republican-led House on May 30 might eventually bring relief for some targeted California operations while emboldening other states to adopt marijuana legalization laws of their own — if it can survive a difficult path in the Democrat-led Senate. Even California’s Democratic senators don’t seem to be behind it.

California in 1996 was the first state to legalize medical marijuana; 21 states plus the District of Columbia have followed. But marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and many facilities in these states have been subject to federal raids, warning letters to landlords or civil property seizure lawsuits.

This amendment to the Justice Department’s spending bill – first offered in 2003 and voted upon several times since but never approved by House until now – would forbid the department from spending money on any such actions.

“The House just made history last month by voting to stop the DEA from interfering with state marijuana laws,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a news release. “Now every U.S. Senator has the opportunity to provide relief for the sick and dying – and to be on the right side of history, not to mention public opinion.”

Piper noted polls show voters from both parties support letting states set medical marijuana policies without federal interference. “No American should have to live in fear of arrest and prosecution for following their doctor’s advice. We’re going to make sure voters know which Senators vote to protect their states and which do not.”

The House version of the amendment made similarly strange bedfellows, offered by six Republicans and six Democrats: Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach; Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz; Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay; Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; Don Young, R-Alaska; Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; Paul Broun, R-Ga.; Steve Stockman, R-Texas; Justin Amash, R-Mich.; and Dina Titus, D-Nev.

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Feds ease banking restrictions for marijuana biz

The Obama administration issued new guidelines Friday that’ll make it easier for banks to work with marijuana-related businesses.

This had been a big problem for businesses in the 20 states – including California – plus the District of Columbia where medical use of marijuana is legal under state law, and particularly in Washington and Colorado, which have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Marijuana is generating millions of dollars in those states, but because it’s still banned by federal law, many banks and credit card issuers were loath to let such businesses open accounts. That left many marijuana businesses to do all their transactions in cash, and having so much cash around increases the risk of robbery and other violent crimes.

But on Friday, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network in coordination with the Justice Department issued guidelines to clarify “how financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses” consistent with their Bank Secrecy Act obligations.

“Now that some states have elected to legalize and regulate the marijuana trade, FinCEN seeks to move from the shadows the historically covert financial operations of marijuana businesses,” Jennifer Shasky Calvery, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network’s director, said in a news release. “Our guidance provides financial institutions with clarity on what they must do if they are going to provide financial services to marijuana businesses and what reporting will assist law enforcement.”

Banks should check with state authorities whether the business is duly licensed and registered and review the information it provided to get that license; learn as much as possible about the business’ owners, products and customers; and monitor the business for any suspicious activity or news reports of legal problems, the memo advised.

Even so, banks must file “suspicious activity reports” on any funds derived from marijuana, the memo says – but they can file special “limited” reports for businesses that are believed to be complying with state law.

Drug reform and marijuana legalization advocates are pleased.

“It appears that the Obama administration is trying to provide as much protection as possible for the marijuana industry, given the constraints of federal law,” Ethan Nadelmann, the Drug Policy Alliance’s executive director, said in a news release. “The assurances the administration have provided appear fairly substantial and will hopefully prove sufficient so that banks will feel safe doing business with the marijuana industry. I have to say I’m impressed by how the White House is trying to make this work, especially given the inability of Congress to do anything constructive in this area.”

Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, said advocates have been pushing for such concessions for years, but it’s still a piecemeal approach.

“We will certainly be working with banks, credit unions, and credit card companies to ensure proper implementation of this federal guidance,” she said. “Removing the risks of operating as an ‘all-cash’ business cannot be overstated, but we will also continue to put pressure on the Obama Administration to wrap these types of discrete practices into a more comprehensive medical marijuana policy.”

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Assembly passes drug sentencing reform bill

The Assembly approved a bill Wednesday that would reform California’s sentencing laws for simple drug possession, a move supporters say would reduce costly jail populations, get more people into rehab and let authorities focus on more serious crimes.

SB 649 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would give county prosecutors flexibility to charge low-level, nonviolent drug crimes either as misdemeanors or felonies – making them what’s known as “wobblers.” It also would give judges discretion to deem a non-violent drug possession offense to be either a misdemeanor or felony after consideration of the offense and the defendant’s record.

This wouldn’t apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. SB 649 now returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote before heading for Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Mark Leno“We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite,” Leno said in a news release Wednesday.

“We give non-violent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they’re incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education,” he said. “SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reduced penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million per year. Leno notes that 13 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government treat drug possession as a misdemeanor, but don’t have higher drug-crime rates.

Though introduced earlier, the bill moves California in the same direction as the new federal policy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month in San Francisco: Federal prosecutors will stop seeking longer mandatory sentences for many nonviolent drug offenders, part of a broad new effort to focus on violent crimes and national security while reducing the nation’s gigantic prison population.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli – senior criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California, which is among the bill’s sponsors – said Wednesday that SB 649 “is just the kind of common sense solution to California’s incarceration crisis that voters have been demanding, and the legislature deserves credit for choosing to be smart on crime.”

“Felony sentences don’t reduce drug use and don’t persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release – three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, another sponsor of the bill. “I was heartened to see some Assembly Republicans standing in favor, or at least not opposed, to this common sense solution.”

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Feds to let WA, CO implement marijuana laws

In what could be a sea change for federal marijuana policy, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has told the governors of Washington and Colorado – which recently legalized recreational use, in conflict with federal law – that the Justice Department will let them implement their laws.

In addition to Holder’s joint phone call with the two governors Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole has issued a memo to U.S. attorneys across the country outlining priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws – including those in the 20 states including California that have legalized marijuana for medical use.

The memo says federal law enforcement will still prioritize targeting distribution of marijuana to minors; revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels; diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states; use of state-authorized activity as a smokescreen for other illegal activity; violence and use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana; drugged driving and other adverse public health consequences; growing marijuana on public lands; and preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

But “in jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form and that have also implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale and possession of marijuana, conduct in compliance with those laws and regulations is less likely to threaten the federal priorities set forth above,” Cole wrote in the memo.

The memo also says federal prosecutors “should not consider the size or commercial nature of a marijuana operation alone as proxy for assessing whether marijuana trafficking implicates the Department’s enforcement priorities listed above.” Instead, it says, prosecutors should make case-by-case judgments as to whether operations are complying with a state’s regulations.

“Today’s announcement demonstrates the sort of political vision and foresight from the White House we’ve been seeking for a long time,” Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann said in a news release. “I must admit, I was expecting a yellow light from the White House. But this light looks a lot more green-ish than I had hoped. The White House is basically saying to Washington and Colorado: Proceed with caution.”

Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, issued a statement saying his group is encouraged by the memo.

“At the heart of the guidance is a willingness to respect the voters who have decided a regulated marijuana market is preferable to a criminal market in their states. Cannabis-related businesses in these states are creating thousands of jobs and generating tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. These are clear public benefits,” Smith said. “Now is not the time to push marijuana sales back under ground. The new voter-approved, regulated systems in Colorado and Washington should be allowed to proceed. We have full confidence the businesses in these states will comply with any requirements put forth by the Department of Justice.”

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Senate to probe state-federal marijuana conflicts

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said Monday he’ll hold a hearing Sept. 10 on the conflict between federal and state marijuana laws.

That’s big news for 20 states including California that have legalized medical marijuana, as well as for Colorado and Washington, which have legalized it for recreational use.

Leahy, D-Vt., has invited Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to testify. Perhaps someone will ask them why President Obama’s rhetoric and action haven’t matched up on this issue: Though he has said that federal law enforcement resources are better targeted toward violent elements of the drug trade, federal agents and prosecutors have continued to pursue dispensaries that are in compliance with California law.

Leahy wrote to White House “drug czar” Gil Kerlikowske last December, asking how the federal government intended to deal with states like Colorado and Washington. In that letter, Leahy also suggested that federal legislation could be introduced to legalize up to an ounce of marijuana, at least in states that have legalized it; he also sought assurances that state employees would not be prosecuted for implementing state laws.

Congress’ efforts to address this haven’t advanced. H.R. 1523, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, would protect those operating under medical-marijuana laws in 18 states including California plus the District of Columbia, or under the recreational legalization laws enacted last year in Colorado and Washington state. Introduced in April, the bill has 18 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle yet has never had a hearing.

“Ending marijuana prohibition not just in the states but also nationally is going to require the sort of leadership that Senator Leahy is now providing,” Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann said Monday. “Now is the time for his colleagues to stand up as well in defense of responsible state regulation of marijuana.”