Today was a big day for the marijuana movement. Today was the day that the White House would have to answer questions from members of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee about marijuana policy. No more ducking, no more dodging, no more delaying.
I wasn't able to watch it live because I was at work, but believe I was glued to my cell phone inside of my cubicle trying to follow the hearing, which was very easy because every marijuana fan and their grandma on social media was covering just about every comment made during the hearing. I have never seen my Twitter and Facebook feeds have so many comments from activists; it was truly an amazing thing to watch unfold.
While I don't believe that this is the nail in the coffin others do, I think that it's still very significant. I am still holding out until there is actual laws on the books respecting states rights in regards to marijuana, or even better, nationwide legalization. However, the very fact that there was a hearing in the United States Senate regarding marijuana legalization - that's extremely awesome. You know what's not awesome? Kevin Sabet. Is that guy going to be Harry Anslinger for Halloween this year you think?
By the time I got off of work, my e-mail inbox was full of reactions about the hearing from friends and colleagues. One person's reaction that I was very eager to read was from one of my heroes and friend of the blog Tom Angell from the Marijuana Majority:
"It's about time our federal lawmakers took up this issue. Polls show that the majority of voters support legalizing and regulating marijuana, but far too many elected officials continue to act like this issue is still some dangerous third-rail of politics that's too dangerous to touch. This is a serious, important and mainstream issue, and it's good to see politicians finally treating it as such.
"As senators made clear today with important questions about legal marijuana providers' access to banking, armored car services and tax write-offs that are available to any other business, the Obama administration's recent memo to prosecutors is a good first step, but it will not remove all of the roadblocks that stand in the way of effective implementation of state marijuana laws. The next step is for Congress to amend the Controlled Substances Act to make it clear that America is moving in a new direction when it comes to marijuana policy.
"As Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse pointed out today, the Obama administration has repeatedly shifted its marijuana policy since 2009, when it released a memo saying that medical marijuana providers operating in 'clear and unambiguous compliance' with state law would not be a focus for federal law enforcement. Since that time, though, this president has overseen the closure of more state-legal marijuana businesses in one term than were shuttered during two terms of the Bush administration. It remains to be seen whether prosecutors will follow through this time and finally help the president uphold his campaign pledge to respect state marijuana laws.
"One thing the the president could do right now to signal that he's serious about this most recently announced shift in policy would be to use his commutation powers to release some of the medical marijuana prisoners that have been put behind bars by his federal agencies."
Another stellar analysis was sent to me by my friends at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition:
Today the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws that included Deputy Attorney General James Cole; Sheriff John Urquhart of King County, Washington; Colorado governor John Hickenlooper's chief legal counsel Jack Finlaw and others. The move comes shortly after major announcements from the Department of Justice limiting the use of mandatory minimums and declaring that the federal government will respect democratically enacted state marijuana laws as long as states smartly regulate the trade. Advocates hope these announcements signal a shift in administration policy toward more sensible drug laws, though federal laws remain unchanged.
Cole did not challenge states' rights to make their own drug laws, only restated the federal government's right to challenge their regulatory schemes in pursuing certain priorities, such as preventing sales to minors, trafficking to other states, impaired driving, and increases in violence.
Senators Leahy and Whitehouse and both state representatives repeatedly stated the need for greater clarification of federal policy, particularly in relation to guidelines which prohibit financial institutions, security services, landlords and others from doing business with marijuana providers. Cole responded that they were working on establishing regulations for financial institutions, landlords would be protected, and that the DEA had merely asked questions of armed car and other security services, and had not issued an injunction forbidding them from working with marijuana businesses.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D, RI) also brought up the federal government's conflicting instructions on marijuana enforcement in the past, but Deputy Cole merely affirmed the government's right to intervene on a case-by-case basis.
Both state representatives were fully supportive of their states' new laws and repeatedly affirmed their belief that sensible regulations (restrictions on advertising, regulation of place and manner of sale, security requirements, laws against vertical integration, etc.) would ensure they complied with the federal government's areas of concern.
Representatives from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs watched the hearing with interest. LEAP board member and 36-year Denver cop Tony Ryan commented on the hearing that "For years, the legalization movement has been gaining traction as people learn this is neither a fringe issue nor a partisan one, but one responsible for deep inequities in our justice system, the expansion of criminal gangs and the increase in unsolved violent crimes. There's a long road ahead, and this hearing leaves many questions unanswered, but this historic discussion means we are on our way to a more rational and effective drug policy."
"While I would have liked to have seen a substantive change in policy, what we were really listening to in that hearing was the sound of a changing political climate," said retired Seattle police chief and LEAP speaker Norm Stamper. "People who can't agree on any other political issue are coming together over this one, and politicians on both sides of the aisle ignore that at their own peril."
Steve DeAngelo from Harborside Health Center had the following to say:
"I hope California legislators were listening to James Cole when he called on states that have legalized cannabis---for adult or medical uses---to regulate its sale and cultivation. The CA legislature should immediately pass AB 604 and SB 439, and authorize the Alcohol Beverage Control agency to develop and implement a rigorous system of regulation for state-legal cannabis businesses.
I hope US Attorneys like Melinda Haag were listening when Cole stated that property owners who lease to state-legal cannabis businesses would not be subject to federal enforcement actions. She should immediately cease her attempts to seize the properties in which Harborside and other dispensaries are located, and all other efforts to impede our ability to operate legitimately.
And the DEA should listen to the repeated calls by multiple witnesses and senators for the immediate restoration of armored car services to state-legal cannabis businesses---before somebody is seriously injured or killed.
The overall message of today's hearing is clear: cannabis businesses can and will bring benefits to communities, instead of harms---as soon as they are properly regulated by state government. It is long past time for the CA legislature to exercise leadership this issue, and pass common sense regulation of medical cannabis businesses. For once, it seems like the federal government is ahead of California."
What was your reaction to the hearing? Did you see it? If not, below is both hours of the hearing courtesy of friend of the blog and content contributor Russ Belville: