Tag Archives: controlled substances act

DoJ Task Force Moves to Review Federal Cannabis Policy

By Aaron G. Biros
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In a memo sent throughout the Department of Justice on April 5th, attorney general Jeff Sessions outlines the establishment of the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. That task force, largely focused on violent crime, is supposed to find ways that federal prosecutors can more effectively reduce illegal immigration, violent crimes and gun violence.

The task force is made up of subcommittees, according to the memo, and one of them is focused on reviewing federal cannabis policy. “Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” the memo reads. “Another subcommittee will explore our use of asset forfeiture and make recommendations on any improvements needed to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.” Those existing policies that Sessions refers to in the memo could very well be the 2013 Cole Memorandum, an Obama administration decree that essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.

In the past, Sessions has said he thinks the Cole Memo is valid, but remains skeptical of medical cannabis. In the last several months, comments made by Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have sparked outrage and growing fears among stakeholders in the cannabis industry, including major business players and state lawmakers. As a general feeling of uncertainty surrounding federal cannabis policy grows, many are looking for a safe haven, which could mean looking to markets outside of the U.S., like Canada, for example.

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

Washington State’s former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington State’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran, and Maryland’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kay Winfree recently went on the record identifying the BioTrack THC traceability system as fully compliant with the Cole Memo. “The key to meeting the requirements of the Cole Memorandum is ‘both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation’s compliance with that system’,” says the former attorney general and chief deputy attorneys general in a press release. “As described above, Washington State has a robust, comprehensive regulatory scheme that controls the entire marijuana supply chain.

The email sent to Colorado prosecutor Michael Melito

The flagship component of this regulatory scheme is the WSLCB’s seed to sale inventory system, the BioTrackTHC Traceability System.” Those commendations from a former attorney general could provide some solace to business operating with the seed-to-sale traceability software.

Still though, worries in the industry are fueled by speculation and a general lack of clarity from the Trump Administration and the Department of Justice. In an email obtained by an open records request and first reported by the International Business Times, a DEA supervisor asked a Colorado prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office about a number of cannabis-related prosecutions. The DEA supervisor asked for the state docket numbers of a handful of cases, including one involving cannabis being shipped out of state, according to The Denver Post. “Some of our intel people are trying to track down info regarding some of DEA’s better marijuana investigations for the new administration,” reads the email. “Hopefully it will lead to some positive changes.” So far, only speculations have emerged pertaining to its significance or lack thereof and what this could possibly mean for the future of federal cannabis policy.

Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder

AG Sessions: Cole Memo is Valid, But Skeptical of Medical Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder

Answering questions following a speech in Richmond, Virginia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters he thinks the Cole Memo is a valid way to deal with state cannabis laws and said medical cannabis is “hyped, maybe too much.” According to a MassRoots blog post by Tom Angell, Sessions spoke yesterday regarding cannabis, addressing it as he tip-toed around his previous statements, like calling cannabis use unhealthy or the infamous “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” line.

This time around, Sessions’ words on legal cannabis were more carefully chosen. “The Cole Memorandum set up some policies under President Obama’s Department of Justice about how cases should be selected in those states and what would be appropriate for federal prosecution, much of which I think is valid,” Sessions told reporters. The Cole Memo essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.

AG Jeff Sessions (left), next to Eric Holder (right), who was the US Attorney General from 2009 to 2015 under Obama and when the Cole Memo was issued. Image: Ryan J. Reilly, Flickr

These comments do fall in line with some of his previous statements, like suggesting he wants to uphold federal law. During the speech in Richmond, Sessions denied any possibility that cannabis could be a solution to the opioid crisis. “I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store,” says Sessions. “And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.” These statements echo much of what White House press secretary Sean Spicer said weeks ago, citing the opioid crisis as possibly linked to recreational cannabis consumption.

Sessions admitted to reporters that he acknowledges the benefits of medical cannabis, but says he is still skeptical of the idea, saying it has been overhyped. “It’s possible that some dosages can be constructed in a way that might be beneficial,” says Sessions. “But if you ever just smoke marijuana, for example, where you have no idea how much THC you’re getting it’s probably not a good way to administer a medicinal amount- so, forgive me if I’m a bit dubious about that.” Sessions pontificating the medical efficacy of delivery methods for cannabinoids could suggest he is trying to familiarize himself more with the science behind medical cannabis.

According to a Politico article, Sessions privately told senators that he would respect states’ rights on the issue and uphold Obama-era policies, perhaps referring to the Cole Memo. While Sessions’ most recent remarks could signal a less aggressive approach toward legal cannabis, he still makes his position clear as a Drug War stalwart. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life,” Says Sessions.

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.

Hoban Law Group Files Lawsuit Against DEA

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Hoban Law Group filed a petition on behalf of three clients against the DEA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District on January 13th, according to a press release. The clients represented by Hoban Law Group in the suit are Hemp Industries Association, RMH Holdings, LLC and Centuria Natural Foods, Inc. The companies are based in California, Colorado and Nevada respectively and are all active in the legal hemp trade. The press release says RMH Holdings “sources its products from industrial hemp lawfully cultivated pursuant to the Agricultural Act of 2014 (also known as the Farm Bill).”

San Francisco's United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Photo: Ken Lund, Flickr
San Francisco’s United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Photo: Ken Lund, Flickr

In December, the DEA published a ‘Final Rule’ that classifies cannabis-derived extracts, such as CBD oil, in their own category with a code number to “better track these materials and comply with treaty provisions.” The announcement by the DEA ultimately serves to make any cannabis extract a Schedule 1 narcotic. “Extracts of marihuana will continue to be treated as Schedule I controlled substances,” says the document.

BobHobanAttorney
Bob Hoban, managing partner

Bob Hoban, managing partner of Hoban Law Group says the action is clearly beyond the DEA’s authority. “This Final Rule serves to threaten hundreds, if not thousands, of growing businesses, with massive economic and industry expansion opportunities, all of which conduct lawful business compliant with existing policy as it is understood and in reliance upon the Federal Government,” says Hoban.

The lawsuit states that they want a judicial review of the DEA’s actions “on the grounds that the Final Rule is (1) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law, e.g. the CSA, the Farm Bill, and the DEA’s regulations; (2) contrary to constitutional right, power, privilege, or immunity; (3) in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations; and, (4) without observance of procedure required by law.” The suit also claims that the ‘Final Rule’ conflicts with other federal laws like the Data Quality Act, Regulatory Flexibility Act and Congressional Review Act.

According to Garrett Graff, associate attorney at Hoban Law Group, the entire Cannabis genus is not unlawful and the DEA is overstepping its authority. “As the Ninth Circuit found in 2003 and 2004 there are certain parts of the plant like the stalk and seed that are congressionally exempted from the Controlled Substances Act and thus the DEA’s rulemaking authority,” says Graff. “By creating a drug code for ‘marihuana extract’, the DEA is saying that they are a controlled substance, but that goes against a number of existing laws.”

Garrett Graff, associate partner at Hoban Law Group
Garrett Graff, associate partner at Hoban Law Group

The definition of ‘marihuana extract’ under the ‘Final Rule’ also references extracts containing one or more cannabinoids, which goes beyond the realm of cannabis altogether, according to Graff. “The DEA and many other sources have acknowledged and confirmed that cannabinoids can be derived from other varieties of flowers, cacao and other sources, making it virtually impossible to distinguish which cannabinoids would be subject to this drug code,” says Graff. “The DEA’s rule effectively makes the presence of cannabinoids a determinative factor of a controlled substance, which is inconsistent with what Congress has said.”

The petition filed is essentially the initiation or commencing of a lawsuit. Graff says their case is rooted in statute. “We hope to accomplish a striking of the rule, permanent injunction of the rule and for the DEA to engage in the appropriate processes and procedures when making rules in the future,” says Graff. “Alternatively, an amendment to the rule to make the definition of ‘marihuana extract’ consistent with existing law and reflect those portions and varieties of the plant which are in fact lawful could be considered.” It may still be roughly 30 days before the DEA responds with briefing and possibly an oral argument to follow on the various issues surrounding the petition, says Graff. The Ninth Circuit petition, including briefings and hearings, is likely to take at least several months.

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Biros' Blog

No Surprise Here: Federal Gov’t Still Butting Heads With States Over Cannabis Legalization

By Aaron G. Biros
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On August 11, 2016, the widely anticipated Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announcement on federal cannabis policy yielded fairly anticlimactic results. According to the statement, the federal agency denied two petitions to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducted a scientific and medical evaluation that deemed cannabis “does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.” The announcement reiterates the agency’s previous statements on the matter, stating that they believe clinical trials under the investigational new drug (IND) applications and the drug approval process are how the FDA can assess the safety and effectiveness of cannabis-derived medicine.

This avenue for bringing a cannabis-based drug to market is extraordinarily cost-prohibitive, allowing only pharmaceutical companies with deep coffers in the space. The DEA did however make one announcement in the statement that has the potential to lift many barriers to researching the plant’s medical value. The policy change allows more institutions to grow cannabis for research, which was previously allowed only at the University of Mississippi under a contract with NIDA. This is a very significant policy change that could be viewed as a step in the right direction. There is plenty of research currently that proves cannabis’ medical value and its safety and efficacy, but allowing more research opportunities signals that the DEA could be open to revisiting a rescheduling recommendation in the future.

One can speculate endlessly about when the DEA may reschedule cannabis, but in reality, no one knows when that might happen, no one knows what a new administration would do, if Congress would act on it or if the courts would. It seems even the FDA and DEA are sitting on their hands as the federal government does what they do best– inaction.

However, one important ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit highlights the baby steps taken toward some form of federal acceptance of legal cannabis. The court ruled that the Department of Justice couldn’t prosecute individuals in states where cannabis is legal. More specifically, the court ruling “prohibits the Department of Justice from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their medical marijuana laws.” The ruling basically reaffirms the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which states that the DOJ cannot interfere with states where cannabis is legal, but this time also for those individuals complying with state law.

The DEA’s inaction on rescheduling cannabis should not be perceived as a loss to the legalization movement, rather as an upholding of the asinine status quo. Policy change in the United States is an arduous and very slow process. These things take time. One can look to the same-sex marriage movement and find striking similarities to the cannabis legalization movement. For example, Massachusetts and California were some of the first states to introduce legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and are also some of the first states that have introduced legislation legalizing cannabis. These states that are typically drivers of national policy have opportunities to pass important ballot initiatives this November that could have ripple effects throughout the country. Five states have ballot initiatives for recreational legalization and potentially up to eight states with initiatives for medical legalization, all being voted on this November.

What can the average citizen do to help with progress in cannabis legalization? For starters, you can vote. If you live in a state that has a ballot initiative for legalizing cannabis, show up at the polls and make your voice heard. If you live in a state where no such ballot initiative exists, you can still take action to get cannabis legalized. You can sign this petition or write your member of Congress to support the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act (S. 683). The CARERS Act, among many other important changes, would most notably reschedule cannabis to Schedule II.

So not all is lost with the DEA’s inaction. As more states legalize cannabis, we are seeing a rising tide lift all boats.

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NCIA Guest Post: Waiver Program Could Clear Path for State Legalization

By Aaron G. Biros
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In last week’s guest post on the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) blog, I discussed The State Marihuana [sic] And Regulatory Tolerance (SMART) Enforcement Act, bill H.R. 3746, and its potential to alleviate a number of problems in the cannabis industry.

The bill would exempt states from the federal prohibition of cannabis via a waiver program. The Attorney General could grant those waivers to states that operate a robust regulatory framework and oversight of the cannabis marketplace. It also has measures in place to help prevent diversion of cannabis into the black market, protecting consumer safety and public health, eliminating criminal enterprise involvement and more.

Cody Stiffler, vice president of Government Affairs at BioTrackTHC, believes this bill could be a panacea for many ailments facing the cannabis market. “They [Congress] plan to give the U.S. Attorney General powers to offer waivers to state governments, exempting that state from federal law regarding cannabis, allowing banks and other institutions to take part in the industry without fear of federal backlash under the Controlled Substances Act,” says Stiffler. Perhaps the most significant effect this bill could have on the cannabis industry is knocking down the burden of the 280E tax code on cannabis businesses primarily because it would exempt states from The Controlled Substances Act. Click here to read the full guest post on the NCIA blog.