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CWCBExpo: Cut Ties with Roger Stone

By Aaron G. Biros
4 Comments

Earlier today, the Minority Cannabis Business Association published a Facebook post: “As a result of CWC choosing this guy as their keynote speaker, MCBA has decided to withdraw from attendance and speaking roles at this conference. CWC, you know better so there’s no excuse not to do better.” We at Cannabis Industry Journal would like to voice our support for the MCBA and join them in their withdrawal. We will no longer be a media partner of any CWCBExpo events, unless they remove Roger Stone from the keynote slot.

Roger Stone’s Shady Past

The Facebook post from MCBA

Stone is quite the polarizing figure with a mile-long political career rife with controversy and extraordinary clientele. He co-founded a lobbying firm with Paul Manafort in 1980. In the 1970’s, Stone helped Richard Nixon get elected, the man responsible for the War on Drugs, and proceeded to serve in his administration. In the 1980’s, he never strayed far from controversy. He helped bribe lawyers to help get Reagan elected, and even did lobbying work on behalf of two dictators.

Fast-forward to the 2016 presidential election and Stone’s racism starts to come to light. Although he left the Trump campaign in August of 2015, he remained a loyal supporter. In February of 2016, CNN banned Stone from their network for disgusting tweets about correspondents. He called one CNN commentator a “stupid negro” and another an “entitled diva bitch.” MSNBC subsequently banned him from their network two months later. While he said he “regrets” saying those, he never issued a formal apology. A majority of his tweets are too offensive to republish, but if you need more proof, click here.

Roger Stone
(Photo credit: Barbara Nitke, Netflix)

He accused Khizr Khan, a Pakistani-American whose son was a war hero in Iraq, of being a “Muslim Brotherhood agent helping Hillary.” That is far from the only conspiracy theory he has circulated. He also said Huma Abedin, an aide to Hillary Clinton at the time, was in the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s written a number of books with rampant, false allegations, like Jeb! and the Bush Crime Family, The Clintons’ War on Women and The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ. His role in the Trump campaign is a part of the Russian election hacking congressional investigation. He’s credited with introducing Alex Jones, the falsehood-spreading, InfoWars conspiracy theorist, to Donald Trump. On the night of the election, he tweeted a racist photo that is not fit for republication.

Why is this relevant?

Because all of a sudden he is an advocate for cannabis legalization. In 2013, he started working in Florida to help legalize medical cannabis there. According to a CWCBExpo press release, when he keynoted their New York conference this year, he announced that he was starting a sort of bipartisan coalition to persuade President Trump to follow through with his campaign promises to respect states’ rights with regard to legal, medical cannabis. “I am going to be working with a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, progressives and libertarians, liberals, and conservatives to persuade President Trump to keep his campaign pledge, and to remind the president that he took a strong and forthright position on this issue in the election,” says Stone at the New York show. Dan Humiston, managing partner of CWCBExpo, says, “We are thrilled to have Roger Stone keynote again during CWCBExpo Los Angeles & Boston.”

CIJ reached out to the CWCBExpo for comment and Dan Humiston, managing partner, stands by their decision to keep him booked as the keynote speaker:

“Our objective as a show producer in the cannabis industry is we are trying to do whatever we can to help grant access to this plant for anybody that needs it. And to do that we feel that we have to be as inclusionary as we can possibly be. It is nothing more than that. I think there are some real benefits to the cannabis movement that will be gained by getting as many people under our tent as we can. Its funny how this plant brings people together who aren’t together under any other topic; it creates the strangest of bedfellows. The more dialogue and more opportunities to speak with people we can’t agree on any other topic with, the better. I think he is an asset to this movement. He has raised a lot of money. He is pushing Jeff Sessions really hard and he’s got Donald Trump’s ear.”

CIJ also reached out to Reverend Al Sharpton, who is booked for a keynote presentation at the same conference, and he had this to say: “I was not aware that the minority cannabis business association pulled out from the conference,” says Rev. Sharpton. “I spoke at the conference in New York, and I am working with Senator Corey Booker on the legalization of cannabis. Our communities have been directly affected by the criminalization of the drug.” He said he was unaware of the MCBA’s statements and asked for them to get in touch with him as soon as possible.

There’s no place for racism in the cannabis industry.

Yes, it’s great to have an ally of cannabis legalization who might have Trump’s ear. But no, we don’t want Stone’s help. There is no place for someone like him in the cannabis industry.

The historical implications of racism in the cannabis legalization movement should speak for themselves, but allow me to try and quickly summarize why this is so important. The word marijuana is actually a dated racist epithet that Harry Anslinger used back in the 1930’s to promulgate myths that the drug was used by people of color and fostered violence. “Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind… Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage,” said Anslinger, testifying before Congress. And so begins the era of “Reefer Madness” when the drug became illegal. Fast-forward half a century and the racism with cannabis continues. According to the Minority Cannabis Business Association, the War on Drugs is the main reason behind the huge incarceration numbers for people of color. “The U.S. ‘war on drugs’ — a decades-long policy of racial and class suppression hidden behind cannabis criminality — has resulted in the arrest, interdiction, and incarceration of a high percentage of Americans of color,” reads their agenda.

There are still a lot of racial problems the legalization movement is working to address. There are dozens of reasons why people of color have been wrongly persecuted due to the illegality of cannabis, but the point is this: The cannabis legalization movement needs to be a diverse, inclusive community that promotes equality and embraces all religions, races and ethnicities.

In choosing Roger Stone to keynote, the CWCBExpo is making a Faustian bargain and we don’t believe this is right. We need to stand by our morals; the ends don’t justify the means. The cannabis industry is no place for racism and we would like to see Roger Stone removed from the keynote position at CWCBExpo.

How Science Is Going To Save Your Cannabis Business

By Kay Smythe
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Marketing cannabis and the products that accompany recreational use is set to become one of the biggest industries in the United States. With 29 states promoting legal medical cannabis, 14 with it decriminalized and 8 having legalized it completely, you might be thinking this will be the easiest ad-campaign of all time. Unfortunately, science suggests otherwise.

The Science of Marketing

You heard correctly, marketing is a science, but almost half of what we know about the process cannot be applied to cannabis. Why? Because cannabis lives in the grey area of the American psyche. How do I know this?

Science.

In 2015, I completed and published The Safe Haven theory, a socio-demographic linguistic analysis of attitudes toward recreational drug use in the United Kingdom. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of the study, but the findings are important.

The study, using theoretical sociological trends, found that even non-recreational drug users in the United Kingdom favor cannabis legalization. A great number of police jurisdictions have chosen to not longer punish cannabis users, meaning that the law is (mostly) on our side – the side of full legalization and taxation of cannabis as a product for recreational usage, not so dissimilar from alcohol.

In the UK, we could easily put a huge billboard of someone’s grandmother smoking a spliff and make a million on the first day.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be done in the United States.

Advertising law aside, Americans just don’t have the same view of cannabis as Brits. In the last two years, I applied the same framework to a host of American demographics, and – as I hypothesized – localism rules the American market.

If you live in a Red town and you’re a recreational cannabis user, stigma will prevail over the scientific data, and changing that stigma is almost impossible without hard scientific evidence to back-up the marketing campaign.

Qualitative research is key when understanding why people buy into particular industries. This might not be the general belief held by most folks in advertising, as stats and numbers are distinctly easier to work with. However, as last year’s General Election and Brexit vote showed: numbers can lie. Therefore, the best means of understanding what people really want is to actually talk to them – and I mean in-person.

Marketing rules are shifting. More and more, the heads of marketing departments are turning to scientific and scholarly data to assess the current trends in social development, molding their campaigns around this data as a means of showing that they are industry leaders in understanding the phenomena, as well as speaking to target buyers in their own language.

Am I being too wordy? Let me put it simply.

Say your new product is an indoor indica strain with sleep/stress aid properties, this is how you should market it to three specific demographics:

  • Californian recreational smoker in the 50+ age demographic with a moderate knowledge of cannabis strains, “Indoor indica, grown locally with minimal chemical input, good as a sleep aid and positive for stress reduction.”
  • New York medical user, 30+, business background, “This strain is an excellent sleep aid, can decrease stress without taking off the edge of your day-to-day workload; highly recommended for those employed in a full-time, private sector position.”
  • Small town with predominantly low-income demographic employed in blue-collar industry, “affordable means of relaxing after a tough day at work that won’t give you the same cancer risk as tobacco.”

We market the same strain to each of these demographics, but the language used in the campaign is more important than the product itself. In the UK, the same strain would be marketed across the country using something like:

“Dank strain with sleep aid and relaxation properties, best for chilling out at the end of the day – definitely not recommended prior to work!”

What this means for the United States cannabis marketing specialist is simple: you need to invest as much as you can in getting scholarly researchers out into the field and figuring out the local socio-demographic linguistic trends for your target buyers. Luckily, this can be a fairly affordable means of research.

Marketing specialists have two options in uncovering this data:

  • Use students currently enrolled in universities and colleges, either offering paid internships or college credit for bulk research.
  • Hire an academic consultancy corporation. This is rapidly becoming a norm in for companies looking to expand their marketing by using scientific data, particularly in industries related to sport and the outdoors.

Just like how Pepsi really missed the mark with their latest failed advertising campaign, cannabis companies are at significant risk of ostracizing themselves from a wealth of demographics that would otherwise be open to recreational or medical cannabis use as an alternative to harsh pharmaceuticals, alcohol and even some forms of therapy.

Language is key, and if you can’t talk to your buyers on their level then you’ve already lost your edge over the competition.

Is There a Medical Cannabis Crisis Brewing in Germany?

By Marguerite Arnold
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There is a great deal to be happy about with medical cannabis legalization in Germany. This is the first country that has mandated insurance coverage of the drug – at least at the federal legislative level.

However, as the government evaluates the finalists in the first tender bid for domestically grown and regulated cannabis, a real crisis is brewing for patients on the ground. And further one that the industry not only sees but is trying to respond to.

Spektrum Cannabis GmbH, formerly MedCann GmbH began trying to address this problem when they obtained the first import license for Canadian cannabis last year. They are also one of the apparent five finalists in the pending government bid to grow the plant domestically for medical purposes. According to Dr. Sebastian Schulz, head of communications for Spektrum, “Shortly after the new cannabis law was reformed we experienced a huge increase in demand from the side of patients. We had prepared for that. The German population is very curious about cannabis as a medicine and in general very open to natural remedies.”

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowly. Much like Israel, the government has allowed a trickle of patients to have access to cannabis by jumping through multiple, time consuming hoops. The process of getting cannabis prescribed, much less getting a pharmacy to stock it, was difficult. Patients had to pay out of pocket – a monthly cost of about $1,700. While that is expensive by American standards, to Germans, this is unheard of. The vast majority of the population – 90% – is on public health insurance. That means that most Germans get medications for $12 a month, no matter what they are. Allegedly, German patients were supposed to get about 5oz a month for this price. At least that is what the law says.

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowlyAs in other countries, no matter what Germans think about recreational reform, the clear majority of them at this point support medical use. And at this point, both legislatively and via the courts, the government has said and been required to provide the drug to Germans patients at low cost.

Unintended Effects & Consequences

Since the law went into effect in March of this year however, things have suddenly turned very dire for patients.

The handful of people who had the right to grow at home – established under lawsuits several years ago – were suddenly told they could no longer do so. They had to go to a doctor and regular pharmacy. Even regular patients in the system found that their insurance companies, allegedly now required to pay, are refusing to reimburse claims. Doctors who prescribed the drug were abruptly informed that they would be financially responsible for every patient’s drug cost for the next two years (about $50,000 per patient).

Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

To add a final blow to an already dire situation, German pharmacies that carried the drug, then announced an additional fee. It is about $9 extra per gram, added at the pharmacy, pushing the price of legitimate cannabis north of $20 dollars per gram. This is justified as a “preparation fee.” Cannabis bud is technically marked as an “unprocessed drug.” This means the pharmacies can charge extra for “processing” the same. In reality this might be a little bud trimming. If that. The current distributors in the market already prep and pre-package the drug.

What this bodes for a future dominated by infused products, oils and concentrates is unclear. However the impact now is large, immediate and expensive in a country where patients also must still go to the pharmacy in person for all prescription drugs.

There is no mail order here, by federal law. Online pharmacies are a luxury for Auslanders.

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow.While nobody has challenged this situation yet en masse, it is already a sore point not only for patients but across the industry. It means that an already expensive drug has gotten even more expensive. It also means that the government regulations are not working as planned.

At least not yet. For the large Canadian companies now coming into the market with multimillion-dollar investments already sunk in hard costs, Germany will be a loss-leader until the system sorts itself out.

According to Schulz, whose company is now in the thick of it, the new law is very vague. “Currently, there are almost no cannabis flowers available in German pharmacies because companies like us are not allowed to sell them,” says Schulz. “Various different regulatory demands come up that seemed to change on a monthly basis. We are ready to deliver even large amounts of cannabis for a market that might well explode soon – but we first need to overcome the regulatory nightmare that leads to the suffering of so many patients here these days.”

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow. Black market costs for cannabis are about $10-15 a gram. In other words, exactly the situation the government was hoping to avoid.

What Is Causing The Situation?

The intended effect of the legislation was twofold, according to industry insiders: To legalize cannabis in such a way to meet a rising public demand and, in the face of a court decision, to limit the home grow movement. The latter of which, despite federal regulations, is thriving here. Germans like to grow things, and cannabis is a rewarding plant to nurture.

High attendance at the Mary Jane Grow Expo in Berlin in June is just one sign that the genie is out of this particular bottle. BfArM – the federal agency in charge of regulating narcotics and medical devices – cannot stuff it back.Patients are going back to the way things were

However home grow does not build a professional, high volume cannabis market, much less a highly regulated medical one make. The government also made clear that it is going to have strict inspections and quality controls, and will technically buy all the cannabis produced, per the terms of the bid application process.

However, it is not entirely clear when the government will start actually doing the buying. And why the buying has not started yet. If insurance companies are refusing to pay, this means the government is not reimbursing them. The same government, which has also agreed to do so, as of March 2017.

What Gives On Good Old German Efficiency?

On the streets, patients are going back to the way things were. Many are used to fighting for the only drug that makes them feel better. The euphoria in May, for example, has been replaced with weary acceptance that things might get a bit worse before they really improve.

That said, there is also a realization that more activism and lobbying are required on just about every front. If an extrapolation of data from say Colorado or California is applied to Germany, there are already at least a million eligible patients here, based on the qualifying conditions. The government is planning for an annual increase in medical patients of about 5-10,000 a year, including in the amount of cannabis they are planning on buying from the licensed producers they choose. The numbers, however, are already not matching.Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

Added to this wrinkle is the other reality that is also looming, particularly now.

With one exception, all of the firms now apparently in contention as finalists for the German government bid will also be supplying a domestic market in Canada that is going rec next summer. One year, in other words, before the German companies even begin producing.

What Is The Upshot For Patients?

Guenther Weiglein is one of the five patients who sued for home grow rights in 2014. He is now suing again for the right to extend home grow privileges until the government figures out its process. He is not the only one. Earlier this year he was told he had to stop his home grow and integrate into the “mainstream” system. So far, he, along with other patients who are suing, including for insurance coverage, have not been able to get cannabis easily through the system, although they are starting to make progress.

Weiglein’s situation is made even more frustrating by the fluidity of the situation. As of late July, he had finally gotten agreement from his insurance company to cover the drug. But now he cannot find a doctor willing to accept the financial risk of prescribing it to him. And in the meantime he has no access to medication.

Talk to any group of advocates right now, and there is one ongoing story. Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

And those that can’t afford it? They are out of luck. Some patients say a tragedy like someone dying will create the impetus to move this into public eye. A hunger strike here by a leading cannabis doctor earlier this summer has so far not had much impact on policy. There is a great deal of pessimism here, as promised change earlier this year has turned into a long and drawn out multiyear question mark.

If this sounds like a bubbling and untenable situation, especially before a national election, it is. The prospect of another four years of Angela Merkel does not bode well for fast cannabis reform.

That said, the German government is now in an interesting situation. The law has now clearly changed to say that sick Germans are allowed to use cannabis as a drug of choice for chronic diseases when all else fails. Further, the national government has bound the insurance industry to cover it. So far, every patient who has sued for coverage has won. That has not, however, moved the insurance industry altogether. Nor has it solved the problem with doctors prescribing the drug.

Many now ask what will? It is clear, however, that it will change. The question is when, how fast, and in what situations.

The problem will undoubtedly ease by 2019, when the first German crops are finally ready, although it will be far from completely solved.

Nevada Rec Sales Launch Makes a Big Splash

By Aaron G. Biros
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On July 1st, dispensaries in Nevada began recreational cannabis sales, where thousands flocked to retail shops on opening day throughout the state. In Las Vegas, 38 dispensaries were flooded with customers in long lines, with waits up to three hours, according to the Las Vegas Sun. Nevada joins four other states, Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska, in legal recreational cannabis sales.

38 dispensaries are open for rec sales in Las Vegas
Photo: David Stanley

Another article on the Las Vegas Sun claims the state did a total of $3 million in total rec cannabis sales in the first four days of it being legal. Over the next six months, it is estimated the state will do $30 million in total cannabis sales. According to that article, that generated roughly $500,000 in tax revenue for the state in those first days.

An article in the Reno Gazette Journal quotes Nevada Dispensary Association Executive Director Riana Durrett as estimating roughly $1 million in tax revenue for the state in the first four days. The four dispensaries in Reno that are open for recreational cannabis sales reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars within a few days, according to Will Adler, executive director of the Sierra Cannabis Coalition.

Blum, a dispensary with locations in Las Vegas and Reno, owned by Terra Tech, did roughly $100,000 in revenue on the first day at their Reno location, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. On Friday, July 7th, after a week of record sales, the state acknowledged there might be a shortage of cannabis, with growers unable to meet market demands. In an email sent on Friday, the Nevada Department of Taxation announced Governor Brian Sandoval endorses a ‘statement of emergency’, giving officials the ability to consider more applicants for distribution licenses, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. “Based on reports of adult-use marijuana sales already far exceeding the industry’s expectations at the state’s 47 licensed retail marijuana stores, and the reality that many stores are running out of inventory, the Department must address the lack of distributors immediately,” says Department spokeswoman Stephanie Klapstein. “Some establishments report the need for delivery within the next several days,” says Klapstein. Nevada legalized recreational cannabis on Election Day in 2016, when voters approved Ballot Question 2.

Election Day last year also yielded legal recreational cannabis in Maine, Massachusetts and California, all of which are expected to roll out regulations and implement recreational sales in 2018. Given Nevada’s massive numbers in sales and tax revenue in the first week, many anticipate high opening day sales revenue numbers in Maine, Massachusetts and California.

European Cannabis News Roundup- Summer 2017

By Marguerite Arnold
1 Comment

Obstacles to American cannabis reform are creating a quirky if valuable market. Cannabis is still a “Schedule I” drug. From a practical perspective, this has created a multi-billion dollar industry that as of yet, cannot get reliable banking services. It also means that patients cannot get the drug covered under health insurance. There are no national safety requirements for growing, packaging, labelling or consumption.

This is certainly not the case elsewhere. Other countries are rapidly outpacing the U.S. in such regards even if their commercial markets are not (yet) of the same size. Outside of Canada right now, Europe is the place where most of these things are happening.

Just as in the U.S., however, there is no one single path to reform.

Who Is Interesting In Europe?

This is an evolving question, but here, for the moment are the market leaders and what is going on locally:

Germany. Cannareform auf Deutsch currently underway makes this the most exciting country in Europe right now. The country is basically the “California of the EU” as it were, with about 20 million more people.

German Parliament Building
Photo: NH53

As of January 19, the lower house of the German parliament voted unanimously to legalize cannabis for medical use. Further, they voted to cover it under public health insurance which covers 90% of Germans. Yes, this is a system in process. Yes, there are problems. Health insurance companies appear to have launched a tepid attempt to slow this down, but just as in Canada, they are already facing court challenges. It is a losing battle here. Both legal and legislative mandate are very clear.

This is an industry that will also begin to grow, per government estimates, at between 5-10,000 patients per year for the next couple of years. It could grow faster than that. With over 1 million potential patients already, and a high interest in plant-based and natural medicine, this is a market more than ready for cannabis products. There are now up to ten growing bids up for grabs here and those who have applied are waiting anxiously as the government is set to announce the winners this summer. The big push right now on the ground is doctor and patient education as well as getting patients signed up for trials.

Recreational reform is also far from dead here. The medical question, in fact, has only inspired activists to redouble their efforts to get recreational reform finalized sooner than later. Especially given developments elsewhere, including locally.

Bern, the capital of Switzerland
Photo: martin_vmorris

Switzerland. The Swiss are approaching the question of legalization in another unique way not seen anywhere else. That said, they are clearly inspired by events in other places. Since 2011, low-THC cannabis has been for sale in regular shops. However in the last quarter of 2016 and into the first of this year, the market all of a sudden seems to have woken up. There are now over 160 shops either selling the drug or applying to sell it. This is all product that is taxable.

Thanks to this, reformers are now pushing a bill federally that would legalize and tax the sales of all THC products – no matter their concentration. In effect, in other words, the Swiss are looking at tax revenue first. If they succeed, they will be the first country to enter the market this way. It will also push other countries, starting with their closest neighbours, to examine the question of legalization just on this front. The economic justification alone is compelling. Expect Austria to also look at the problem this way.

Spain. The country is widely billed as the “next Holland.” Why? Cannabis reform has been very similar procedurally. Due to loopholes in the current law, the Spanish have been able to establish a thriving “cannabis club” market. These clubs are member-driven and non-profit. However locals who are over the age of 21 can sign up and smoke in “semi-private.” Legislation now pending in the Spanish legislature would focus on better regulation of both the clubs and the existing grows that support them. The way the Spanish seem to be approaching the issue is to give larger cities and regions direct control over regulation of the industry. However for now, this is a market that is steadfastly resistant to commercial development on the scale seen in other places. Investors – especially from overseas, are avoiding the market because of this uncertainty.

De Wallen (Red Light District) in Amsterdam, where a number of cannabis shops are.
Photo: Bert Kaufmann

Holland. Generation X reformers are used to the idea of the grey market created by the unique nature of Dutch culture and the plant. For the better part of 40 years, the entire industry here has been based on a unique market of seed producers and growers. That, in turn, supports the coffee shop culture. There are many proposals to change the law here, and the industry will probably begin to better regulate – starting with cultivation, as the rest of Europe turns its attention to this issue. It was Holland after all, that started this. What is next for Holland 2.0? It is likely that regional developments will also shape this market too. It is still part of the EU.

Italy. While a bit of an outlier, the Italians are also in the game now. How further reform will proceed here, however is anyone’s guess. The Italian military began growing and distributing cannabis to pharmacies last year. The first medically focused canna café has now opened in Rome.

The Eastern Bloc

Eastern European countries are all over the map on legalization – although most are approaching this as a medical issue. In Czech Republic, legalization has moved forward here steadily in large part because of existing national drug policy. Croatia began importing from Canada last year in the form of cannabis concentrates. Both of those countries have digital prescription systems to integrate with medical cannabis, as part of the legislation legalizing medical use in 2015. This digital dispensation system is also unique so far in Europe, although other countries will be entering this area quickly. Even Turkey has begun to implement reform, allowing producers to begin to grow the plant domestically for local medical use.

What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Cannabis Reform Proposals and the 115th Congress

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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As CIJ readers are probably aware, last month Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017—the annual budget, in other words. Lying within this 1,665-page document is Section 537, which for one year restricts the Department of Justice from using any funds to prevent states from implementing their medical cannabis laws. Medical cannabis businesses and patients can take some solace in this restriction. Last summer, the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting in San Francisco, confirmed that this appropriations rider prevents federal prosecutors from bringing suit against medical cannabis businesses and users operating in compliance with state law. Two problems remain glaring, however: one, the protection only applies to medical cannabis activity, not recreational; and two, it is only guaranteed to last for one fiscal year.

To be sure, for the 115th Congress to address the profusion of issues emerging from the nationwide legalization movement, they must do something more. Various reform proposals have in fact been introduced during the current congressional session, and in order to fully digest where they stand and what they have the potential to accomplish, it will help to make sure that we know how they fit within federal legislative procedure.

Catching Up to Speed with the Legislative Process 

How A Bill Becomes A Law
Photo: Mary-Frances Main

Whenever confronting a question about government and politics, it is never a bad idea to start at the source of authority. In America, that source is of course the Constitution, and in Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2, We The People have given to Congress the power to “determine the rules of its proceedings”.  When we remember back to the School House Rock cartoon for How A Bill Becomes A Law, the majority of political maneuvering behind the basic process taught in the cartoon actually happens according to these ‘rules’ or ‘resolutions’. In fact, at the beginning of each new Congress (every two years) each chamber, and each committee and subcommittee within each chamber, votes on the rules that will govern how they are to go about their legislative business. Traditionally, the rules from the previous Congress are carried over by this vote with only minor tweaks. On top of that, both parties in each chamber have their own internal rules and procedures for setting their policy agenda, directing political strategy, and determining which members will be nominated to certain leadership positions and committee posts. Playing the game of politics according to this layer cake of rules is a necessary part of the work of a legislator, and is often as important a factor in how our country is actually governed as is who wins election to office and what substantive provisions are formally enacted into law. So for the purposes of understanding federal cannabis reform, let’s take a quick look into the procedural status of the relevant legislation and who is in a position to influence what happens to it; then, when reviewing the policies they stand to codify, we will also understand the legislative landscape they must navigate.

Rep. Rohrabacher launches the Cannabis Caucus, Photo via Earl Blumenauer/YouTube

A good place to start is February 16, 2017 when Republican Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Don Young (R-AK) along with Democratic Congressmen Earl Blumenaur (D-OR) and Jared Polis (D-CO) launched the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. Under House and Senate rules, such a caucus must formally register with the House Committee on Administration as a Congressional Member Organization (CMO), disclosing its officers and members and declaring its purpose. These CMOs are sometimes referred to by different names: caucuses, conferences, coalitions, task forces, etc. The best known of these are the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses and the House and Senate Republican Conferences. By setting party policy, driving legislative strategy, promoting party cohesion and rewarding party loyalty, these largest of CMOs dominate partisan activity on Capitol Hill. Smaller CMOs, on the other hand, advance only specific interests and often cross the partisan divide. The Cannabis Caucus, for instance, was formed to catalyze a federal response to the nationwide legalization movement, and its “Path to Marijuana Reform” is a large part of the spate of bills that have been dropped into the congressional hopper over the past six months.

All in all there are twenty cannabis reform bills currently pending in Congress. In the House, all but two of the fourteen bills there have been referred to either the Energy & Commerce Committee or the Judiciary Committee, and all but one of the six in the Senate have been referred to either the Finance or Judiciary Committees.

A Note on Committees & Procedure

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), is on the Ways and Means Committee
Photo: Michael Campbell

Under House and Senate rules, bills are referred to committees by matching the former’s subject matter to the latter’s jurisdiction. In the House, the Speaker may attach time limits for committee action, refer a bill or portions of a bill to multiple committees and determine the sequence in which they are to be considered. The Speaker may also convene an ad hoc committee to consider a bill, and “make such other provision as may be considered appropriate.” As can be gleaned, the Speakership holds substantial procedural powers, and is in fact the only congressional leadership position created by the Constitution. The Senate’s counterpart, the majority leader, has in comparison less discretion in moving along legislative business.

At the next step, both the House and Senate grant each committee the authority to make their own rules on how they are to consider bills. Once referred, committee chairs generally decide to further refer a bill to a subcommittee, hold hearings, subpoena evidence and witnesses, call ‘markup’ sessions to propose and debate amendments, and finally to schedule a vote to report bills back to the chamber floor. If a committee chair wishes to kill a bill, these procedural powers provide wide, though not absolute, authority to do so. Jockeying for a chairmanship is therefore big game in the life of a legislator. Ultimately, members are nominated and elected to their respective committees and chairs according to the rules of their parties’ caucus or conference, and upon a vote of approval on the floor. Seniority is only one factor in these votes, and so because nothing is predetermined, these intraparty contests can explain a great deal about member behavior.

With that background to help triangulate Capitol Hill politics, we should now be better equipped to look into the cannabis bills pending before the 115th Congress, the committees to which they have been referred, and their procedural status. Stay tuned for the next article in this series when we will begin our bill-by-bill review.

What Does The Constitution Have To Say About Cannabis Legalization?

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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With the Trump Administration sending mixed signals on legal cannabis, and with Congress beginning to ramp up efforts for reform, in order for industry stakeholders to best understand where we are headed, it will be helpful to remember how we got here. As readers may be aware, the current status of federal cannabis law can be traced back to the legislative prong of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. His Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) made it a federal crime for anyone to use or possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the U.S. Current federal cannabis policy, on the other hand, complicates the matter, and can be traced back to a memorandum issued in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole Memo instructed U.S. attorneys general in states that have legalized marijuana to use their limited resources in prosecuting CSA offenses only if they violated specific federal enforcement priorities. The highest of these priorities include diverting legal marijuana business revenues to illegal drug operations, transporting marijuana over state lines, making marijuana accessible to minors, and growing marijuana on federal lands. The problem is that the Cole Memo is only a policy, it is not law; and so not only can the current administration unilaterally change it whenever it wants, but state-legal cannabis businesses, their employees and customers are breaking federal law every single day!

Former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole
Photo: Shane T. McCoy

This is a very unusual situation to be in for both the states and the feds, and it raises two basic constitutional questions: What gives the feds the right to make cannabis illegal everywhere in the U.S.? And how can states simply defy the prohibition?

The first question was in fact answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 when two California women (Diane Monson and Angel Raich), both with very serious illnesses, sued the federal government for confiscating their state-legal medical cannabis. The feds defended their actions by claiming that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave them the authority to march into California, march into the homes of these women, and enforce the CSA. Diane and Angel argued that the Commerce Clause only gives the feds the authority over interstate commerce; and since their cannabis was grown by themselves, used by themselves, never bought or sold, or transported out of the state, it was therefore wholly intrastate cannabis and had nothing at all to do with interstate commerce. The Court sided with the feds, ruling that even though the cannabis was intrastate, when you take all intrastate cannabis activity like that and add it together, it will have a substantial impact on the interstate cannabis market. Because of that connection it was ‘necessary and proper’ for the feds to enact the CSA and enforce it anywhere in the country they wanted. Although there is still much debate over this ruling, it remains the law of the land to this day.

United States Constitution
Photo: National Archive

Fast forward to 2014. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado claiming that by legalizing marijuana, Colorado was violating federal law under the CSA. Because federal law overrides state law when they conflict, then Colorado’s cannabis laws must be struck down, or so they argued. In response Colorado took a very interesting position that built on the hard realities of the cannabis market. It is best to explain it in four parts. First, they cited the fact that the federal government lacked the resources to enforce the CSA, a claim which the feds have admitted to themselves. Second, Colorado pointed to a constitutional doctrine called ‘anti-commandeering’, which says that they have no obligation to criminalize cannabis at all. If the feds want to make it a federal crime, that is one thing; but that does not mean CO must make it a state crime as well. Third, Colorado said that by regulating cannabis as extensively and strictly as they have done, they are reducing the amount of cannabis activity compared to not regulating it at all. Taken together, this means that because Colorado does not have to criminalize cannabis, and because the federal government cannot enforce their own criminalization, then Colorado is actually helping out the feds by regulating the drug instead of allowing for a free-for-all under state law.

The Congressional Cannabis Caucus Announced

In March of 2016 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in full or issue an opinion, which had the effect of giving a default victory to Colorado. Among political and legal commentators the speculation is that enough justices on the Court either agreed with the logic of Colorado’s position or wanted to wait for this federal-state controversy to be worked out by Congress. Because it was only a default victory, the constitutional status of the legal cannabis industry remains on unprecedented and unstable ground. The Controlled Substances Act has not yet been found to preempt state law, so cannabis businesses are still able to operate legally in their state. But because the CSA still applies to everyone, they do so at the whim of the Trump Administration’s policy preferences. The confusion that this presents has put cannabis businesses in many difficult situations, and it serves as the legal backdrop for such familiar problems as access to banking and contract enforcement.

Currently, legislative and judicial fixes are in motion. Related cannabis litigation is pending in federal court at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. And a Cannabis Caucus has formed in the U.S. Congress to address the shortcomings of the CSA. In the coming articles we will explore both of these routes to reform, the likelihoods of various possible outcomes, and the impact they will have on the legal cannabis industry.


Editor’s Note: For readers interested in learning more about this topic click here for Brian’s research article published by the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law

Homeland Security Sec. Kelly Says Marijuana is a Gateway Drug

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to The Washington Examiner, Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly said that marijuana is a gateway drug during a speech at George Washington University on Tuesday. “And let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs,” says Kelly. “[U.S. Customs & Border Protection] will continue to search for marijuana at sea, air and land ports of entry and when found take similar appropriate action.” The DEA recently dropped any mention of the gateway drug theory. Many argue it is a myth propagated by drug war stalwarts and even the National Institute on Drug Abuse won’t call it a gateway drug anymore.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly
Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

During a crime committee meeting this morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned a link between the illegal marijuana trade and cartel violence. “We have quite a bit of marijuana being imported by the cartels from Mexico- this is definitely a cartel-sponsored event,” says Sessions. According to The Washington Times, Sessions mentioned violence involving marijuana distribution in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., where cannabis is legal. “So it remains a significant international criminal organization, the marijuana network,” says Sessions. This is not the first time the Attorney General has suggested a link between the plant and violence. Back in February, Sessions claimed that legal cannabis has led to an increase in violence.

The statements made this morning are the latest in a series of contradictory and uncertain messages on federal cannabis policy by the Trump administration. “DHS personnel will continue to investigate marijuana’s illegal pathways along the network into the U.S., its distribution within the homeland, and will arrest those involved in the drug trade according to federal law,” says secretary Kelly. That message, however, contradicts statements he made earlier in the week.

During a Sunday interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” secretary Kelly told Chuck Todd “marijuana is not a factor in the drug war.” In that interview, he went on to add that methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are the real culprits they are after, noting the high death tolls associated with the drugs and connection to organized crime in Mexico. The Trump administration still has not issued a clear, consistent position on federal cannabis policy.

AG Sessions Ties Legal Cannabis to Violence, States React

By Aaron G. Biros
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At the Department of Justice on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters he believes cannabis use is unhealthy and leads to more violence, according to Politico. “I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot,” Sessions told reporters. “I believe it’s an unhealthy practice and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago.” Those comments come a week after press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the opioid crisis is tied to recreational cannabis use and seemed to hint that President Trump is okay with legal medical cannabis, but that the administration might not approve of recreational cannabis.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

During a press conference last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters “I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it,” referring to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act on recreational cannabis. He went on to make the distinction between medical and recreational use clear, while deferring to the Department of Justice, saying they will be looking further into the matter.

Much like press secretary Spicer incorrectly tied legal cannabis to the opioid crisis, Attorney General Sessions incorrectly tied legal cannabis to an increase in violence. “We’re seeing real violence around that,” says Sessions. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.” He did not discuss who those experts were or how he came to that conclusion. There are a number of studies refuting his claims, suggesting no causal link between legal cannabis and violence, with one study even suggesting a reduction in violent crimes after legalizing cannabis.

WH press secretary Sean Spicer during a press conference Image via Youtube
WH press secretary Sean Spicer during a press conference
Image via Youtube

Sessions has not mentioned any specific policy actions that he would take on the enforcement of federal law. “We’re going to look at it. … And try to adopt responsible policies,” says Sessions. Jeff Sessions making these comments should come as no surprise as he expressed his disdain for cannabis a number of times and has been known to be a Drug War stalwart. President Trump promised during his campaign that he supports medical cannabis and the matter should be left up to the states. These recent comments by his newly appointed press secretary and attorney general suggest the administration may not honor that campaign promise.

Politicians in states that have legalized cannabis were quick to condemn the comments and uphold this as an issue of states’ rights. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper told reporters legal cannabis is in their state’s constitution and he intends to uphold the will of the voters. Oregon State Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend) said in a press release, “I hope the new President and Attorney General keep their hands off Oregon’s marijuana law.” Regulators in Nevada have also said they plan to move forward with implementing legal recreational cannabis regulations, despite any federal actions or comments. Bob Ferguson, Washington State attorney general told the Associated Press, “We will resist any efforts to thwart the will of the voters in Washington,” and has requested a meeting with Sessions to discuss his policies. California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom wrote a letter to President Trump telling him not to follow through on those threats of greater enforcement. “The government must not strip the legal and publicly supported industry of its business and hand it back to drug cartels and criminals,” Newsom wrote to Trump. “Dealers don’t card kids. I urge you and your administration to work in partnership with California and the other eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana for adult use in a way that will let us enforce our state laws that protect the public and our children, while targeting the bad actors.”

At this time, it remains unclear exactly how the Trump administration will address federal cannabis policy, but these vague and ominous statements from top federal officials continue to raise eyebrows in the cannabis industry. Until President Trump comes out with a clear stance on legal cannabis, those in the cannabis industry fear a federal crackdown on legal recreational cannabis is looming.

States in Northeast Push Legalization Bills Following Massachusetts, Maine

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Election Day in November, two major states in the Northeast legalized recreational cannabis: Maine and Massachusetts. It seems that a handful of other states in the region are looking to legalize recreational cannabis now that their neighbors have done so.

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New Hampshire Capitol Photo: Jim Bowen, Flickr

In New Hampshire, a bipartisan bill was introduced on January 4th to establish “a commission to study the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana.” The commission formed by House Bill 215 aims to “study the experiences of states that have or are in the process of legalizing and regulating the recreational use of marijuana by adults, with particular attention to be given to the ways the changes in marijuana laws in Maine and Massachusetts, as well as Canada, impact our state,” the bill states. Notably, the bill provides for a representative from the Marijuana Policy Project to be a member of the committee.

Photo: David L, Flickr
Photo: David L, Flickr

New Hampshire Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn (D) says he plans to sponsor a recreational legalization bill separate from House Bill 215. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Woodburn would work with lawmakers and stakeholders to set a timeline and regulatory framework.

In Connecticut, a number of lawmakers have sponsored bills this session that would legalize recreational cannabis. Senate President Martin Looney (D) filed a bill that would legalize, regulate and tax cannabis, with the tax revenue going to the state’s general fund, according to the New Haven Register. State Rep. Melissa Ziobron (R) introduced a piece of legislation that would legalize adult use over the age of 21. Lawmakers are optimistic that with Massachusetts legalizing it, perhaps the outcome will be different than previous failed attempts to push cannabis legalization.

Providence, RI Photo: David Wilson, Flickr
Providence, RI
Photo: David Wilson, Flickr

Lawmakers in Rhode Island told reporters they want to be the first state to legalize recreational cannabis via the state legislature, rather than a ballot initiative, the most common path to legalization for other states. Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Scott Slater of Rhode Island, both Democrats, plan to introduce a legalization bill, the seventh year in a row that such a bill has been introduced in the state. They are also hopeful that after Massachusetts’ legalized it in November, they will have more success this time around. “Our constituents think it is time for lawmakers to pass this legislation, and we should listen to them,” says Miller. “If we fail to pass the bill this year, we will lose significant ground to Massachusetts.” Their bill would tack on a 23% tax on cannabis sales.

In each state’s case, lawmakers are keeping a close eye on Massachusetts and Maine’s regulations and tracking their progress. While the bills in the state legislatures are nascent in their journey to becoming law, the important takeaway is that geographic proximity to states with legalized cannabis is a catalyst for reform in New England.