Medical Cannabis In Alaska — Back In Play

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Medical Cannabis may be where it’s at after all, if legal Cannabis states want to side-step our federal government’s recent re-consideration of outright Cannabis prohibition. We all know that our nation’s top prosecutor seems to see nothing but red when it comes to the sacred green. Never mind that his position is in outright opposition to many of the fundamental underpinnings of our democracy, including majority opinion and state’s rights, and of capitalism itself.

It’s not just about the nonsensical over-regulation of a harmless plant that does nothing but positive things for humanity. We used to know this, during our greatest war, when the phrase “Grow Hemp for Victory” was more than an official slogan; it represented nothing less than a path toward a freer world. Now that this has all been flipped around, this useful plant is under attack by the some of the same forces in our government that once sang its praises.

Back in January, Anchorage Press columnist John Aronno penned a column titled “Alaska’s unlikely — but totally legit way to protect legal marijuana”. In it, Arrono summarized the recent history of federal Cannabis prosecutions, and how they gave rise to what is referred to as the Cole Memo, issued by President Obama’s Justice Dept. in 2012. This memo essentially made it the policy of the federal government to abandon the federal prosecution of marijuana users. While it wasn’t quite a change of law, this memo represented more than just an advisement of priorities.

Shortly after that YIELD column came out, a federal appeals court issued an opinion, determining that a congressionally-approved provision can be invoked to block the Department of Justice from spending money to defend against appeals from people convicted of medical marijuana activity that was in compliance with state laws. This is a big deal.

The Cole Memo was put forth as re-assurance that the federal government wouldn’t interfere in the incubation of what is fast-becoming our nation’s next multi-billion dollar industry. It was written largely in response to, and to protect the states of Oregon and Washington, who had both just passed recreational Cannabis laws. In seeming response to the Cole Memo California, representing our country’s largest economy, passed their landmark Proposition 64.

California isn’t just the largest and fastest-growing state economy in our union. It also represents the sixth-largest economy in the world. Under the promise of protection by various state and federal elected legislators, there’s been a lot of money invested; not just in California but also the entire Pacific Northwest, including the 49th state. While Alaska can’t compete with California’s GDP our economy is in a tougher spot, and we could use the income.

It’s been said that depending upon state politicians, to protect an activity that is illegal under federal law, is nothing short of a fool’s errand. I would suggest that that the rescinding of the Cole memo may well support this idea. Even if the Executive Branch of our federal government has decided to throw a big legal wrench into the works (the biggest!), we still have the court system protections, at least for medical Cannabis, at least for now.

The federal government was set to shut down on March 23rd at midnight, if action was not taken on this spending bill.

Unfortunately, in the rush to decriminalizing recreational Cannabis, Alaska did nothing to shore its Medical Cannabis protections. While these protection were semi-groundbreaking at the time they were passed back in 1998, AS 17.37.010 only provided for individuals with qualifying debilitating diseases to legally possess, use, and cultivate limited amounts of marijuana. The law did not provide any way for medical dispensaries to be licensed or operate legally.

Last year, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer appropriations amendment was initially included as part of a Senate appropriations bill thanks to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), yet was absent from the House’s funding proposal because House Rules Committee Chair Peter Sessions (R-TX) refused to allow House members to vote on it. In the past two days as the negotiations reached their peak, over 10,000 members of NORML (National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) contacted their federal officials to urge them to maintain these protections.

In a cruel twist, additional pro-Medical Cannabis language was stripped from the Senate version of the same appropriations bill, known as the Veterans Equal Access amendment. Originally passed last year in the Senate appropriations committee by a vote of 24-7, Republican Congressional leadership thought it prudent to deny American military veterans the ability to participate in state-lawful Medical Cannabis programs through their VA doctors.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, namesake on the Veteran’s amendment and the co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus said, “While I’m glad that our medical marijuana protections are included, there is nothing to celebrate since Congress only maintained the status quo. These protections have been law since 2014. This matter should be settled once and for all.”

Blumenauer continued, “Poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans, across every party, strongly favor the right to use medical marijuana. Instead, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doubling down on the failed War on Drugs and Republican leadership in Congress—led by Chairman Pete Sessions—is stonewalling. They’re ignoring the will of the American people.”

The bill did pass by 256 to 167 in the House, as they wrapped up what may be their last major legislative achievement ahead of the midterm elections in November. But the 2,232-page spending bill remains mired in controversy as it heads to the Senate, where leaders hope to speed the bill to a vote if they can persuade all 100 senators to sign off on the plan. Hopefully Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., won’t re-visit his shenanigans from this past February.

The U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services (HHS) seems to disagree with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA)’s Schedule I designation of Cannabis.

The language of this rider prevents the Justice Department from spending federal tax dollars to investigate, arrest and prosecute all law-abiding members of statewide medical marijuana programs. It’s the only document on the books that has even comes close to keeping the world of medicinal cannabis safe from random federal raids and shady harassment tactics.

As pointed out in January’s YIELD article, “there actually is already a way to protect Alaska’s marijuana industry. The legislation exists. And it comes from the unlikeliest place: the desk of arch-conservative Sen. John Coghill (R-North Pole).” Back in n early 2013, the president signed 23 executive orders addressing gun safety. Then-Speaker of the Alaska House, Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski), was watching. He introduced HB 69, which would have nullified any laws passed affecting gun rights in Alaska, in apparent violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Coghill swooped in to the rescue, offering an amended bill (SB 75). His edit was a much more laissez-faire approach, that directs the state to tell FBI agents to go right ahead enforcing new laws restricting firearms. But state officers aren’t allowed to help. Not with arrests, detainment facilities, technology – don’t even ask to borrow a cell phone. He used the Tenth Amendment toward blocking what he perceived to be threats to states’ rights on gun ownership. But it could work just as well for legal marijuana. But don’t take my our for it: Take California’s.

When Trump became president and nominated Sessions, California Assembly member Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) lifted Coghill’s bill language and applied it to marijuana. California’s Assembly Bill 266 mirrors Alaska’s HB 75, and would “prohibit a state or local agency, as defined, from… using [resources] to assist a federal agency to investigate, detain, detect, report, obtain information, or arrest a person for commercial or noncommercial cannabis activity that is authorized or allowed under state and local law” in California.

As John mentioned in January’s YIELD article, “It’s a legislative cut and paste job that would take one of our elected officials five minutes to put together”. All they would need to do is take the gun protections out, put Cannabis protections in their place, pass it and make it law.

Along these lines inside Alaska, Alaska Representatives David Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks), Jason Grenn (D-Anchorage), and Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) are asking citizens to help them rewrite a bill opposing federal prohibition, HJR 21, through a Facebook page entitled “Alaska’s Voice on Marijuana Policy.” It seems that the great State of Alaska is trying to step up to the plate.

HJR 21 “FEDS RESPECT STATE REG ON MARIJUANA” was just read across the floor and voted on a few days ago. Alaskan’s voices were heard loud and clear in the house, where it has been approved with 38 yeas and 0 nays. This was nothing less than a shot across the fed’s bow in support of state’s rights, hopefully our senate will have the courage to follow suit.

Our federal government still classifies Cannabis as Schedule I in the Controlled Substances Act. This means Cannabis is still viewed as severely as heroin, and treated worse than speed and cocaine, objectively much more harmful drugs. Just possession of any amount can get you up to one in year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000, repeat offenses can result in felony charges.

Much of our federal anti-Cannabis laws have been historically enforced with racist intention, and were reportedly written as a way to get anti-Vietnam war activists under control by the Nixon Administration. Indeed, Nixon aide John Ehrlichman said (much later), “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Illegal oppression then became legal ‘drug enforcement’.

Support for recreational Cannabis from our current federal executive branch’s administration is uncertain. I encourage all of our Cannabis-friendly state politicians, as well as our Cannabis business associations, to consider putting forth legislation that includes regulations and protections for Medical Cannabis dispensaries, caregivers, and healthcare providers.

It may be the best way to preserve our recreational marketplace, as unintuitive as that sounds.