Cannabis Legalization Could Make New Strides in 2023

The effort to reform the nation’s cannabis laws made new strides in 2022 with the passage of recreational marijuana legalization ballot measures in Maryland and Missouri in the November midterm elections. Success was not universal, however, as similar propositions on the ballot in Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota failed to gain the approval of voters. 

Looking at 2023, new milestones have already been achieved this year, with Connecticut launching regulated retail sales of adult-use cannabis on January 10, a move that was preceded by the expungement of nearly 43,000 marijuana-related convictions in the state at the dawn of the new year. And as we head further into 2023, several states across the country are likely to make new ground in the struggle to end cannabis prohibition.

A New Focus

Brian Vicente, a founding partner at the cannabis and psychedelics law firm, Vicente Sederberg LLP, says that despite spending millions of dollars on lobbying federal lawmakers in 2022, the efforts of cannabis activists were unable to result in the passage of any meaningful marijuana policy reform at the next level. With the change in the political climate in Washington, D.C., efforts this year will take a new focus.

“With Republicans taking over the House, any federal reform in the two years seems exceedingly unlikely. Fortunately, movement leaders have begun coalescing around a strategy to cut back on federal lobbying and instead push resources toward state-level reform,” Vicente said in an email. “These efforts are aiming to flip as many as 10 states to adult-use in just three years, which would not only open new markets for consumers, but also create intense pressure on Congress to pass legislation aligning federal law with the thirty-odd states where cannabis is legal for adults.”

As the new year begins, more than a half-dozen states are likely to consider legislation to reform their marijuana laws, with most activity centering in the South and Midwest regions. Outside those broad areas, Hawaii could be poised to make progress on the issue with a new governor at the helm, Democrat Josh Green, who included support for expanding the state’s current legalization of medical marijuana to include adult-use cannabis as part of his campaign for office last year. On January 11, Democratic state Rep. Jeanné Kapela announced her plans to introduce a recreational marijuana legalization bill, saying, “this year, we stand on the precipice of history.”

“We now have a roadmap for legalizing recreational cannabis in our islands,” Kapela said in a statement quoted by Marijuana Moment. “Legalizing cannabis is not just a matter of money, it is a matter of moralities.”

Snowden Stieber, a regulatory analyst with cannabis compliance technology firm Simplifya, notes that the bill has some hurdles to clear before it can get to Green’s desk, however.

“The Hawaii Senate President, Ron Kouchi, has already come out with statements expressing skepticism on any fast movement for cannabis legalization, and many elected officials are still waiting on the upcoming report from the Dual Use of Cannabis Task Force to guide their votes in the new year,” he said in an email. “While it is of course possible that the task force recommends full legalization, prior experience in other states would suggest that legislators will take their time with any report’s findings and that a sudden move toward legalization is unlikely.”

The South

Vicente believes three states in the South—Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina—could pass legislation to legalize medical marijuana this year. With the nearby states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida already demonstrating that a regulated marijuana industry can provide jobs and tax revenue, other states in the region are likely not far behind.

South Carolina, where Rep. Nancy Mace has become one of the few Republicans in Congress advocating for cannabis policy reform at the national level, is one of the few remaining states that still hasn’t legalized marijuana in any form. But reform is popular with the state’s residents, with a Winthrop University poll conducted before last year’s midterm elections showing that more than 75% of voters support the legalization of medical cannabis. This year, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pre-filed separate medical marijuana legalization bills for the 2023 legislative session. But Simplifya regulatory analyst Justin Bedford isn’t optimistic about the fate of the legislation.

“Though these may seem like promising developments, history suggests that South Carolina still has a long way to go before any form of commercial legalization occurs,” he wrote in an email. “All 14 cannabis-related bills that were deliberated during the 2022 legislative session failed to pass, with most dying in the early stages of development. Nothing has changed in the state’s sociopolitical environment that would suggest anything will be different this year.”

In North Carolina, the state Senate passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in June 2022, but the House of Representatives declined to take up the legislation. Brian Fitzpatrick, chairman and CEO of cannabis software developer Qredible Inc, notes that public support for medical marijuana legalization is strong, and if a bill makes it to the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, he’s likely to sign it into law.

“A poll carried out in January 2021 by Elon University found that 73% of North Carolinians supported medical cannabis,” Fitzpatrick said in an email. “A subsequent poll in May 2022 showed that support had increased to 82% across bipartisan lines. I believe that the governor is aware of this and will fully support the legalization of a medical cannabis bill in 2023.”

In Kentucky, where an executive order from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear decriminalizing medical marijuana went into effect on New Year’s Day, a bill to legalize both medical and recreational cannabis was unveiled by lawmakers on January 7. The measure, Senate Bill 51, would legalize and regulate the “possession, cultivation, production, processing, packaging, transportation, testing, marketing, sale and use of medical cannabis and adult-use cannabis,” according to a report from the online resource Business Insurance. With Kentucky being one of the nation’s largest hemp producers, industry insiders believe the legislation has a good chance of success this year.

The Midwest and Surrounding States

Several states in the Midwest could make advancements in cannabis policy reform in 2023. In Ohio, voters could get the chance to vote on a cannabis legalization measure championed by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which was kept off the ballot for the November midterm election after legal challenges. Last week, Secretary of State Frank LaRose reintroduced the proposal, which would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older and levy a 10% tax on commercial cannabis products. If the state legislature doesn’t approve the measure within four months, the coalition can collect signatures to put the proposal before the votes in the fall. Trent Woloveck, chief commercial director of cannabis commerce platform Jushi, believes legalization efforts have an even chance of success in Ohio this year.

“It is very unlikely that the legislature acts on the initiated stature in the next four months, but reasonably likely that the Coalition will be able to gather the additional required signatures for the effort to make the ballot,” he says. “While polling would suggest a ballot initiative legalizing cannabis would pass, the Senate president and other legislators disagree. And, even if voters approved an initiated statute, the legislature would have unrestricted authority to repeal or materially revise legalization.”

Like Hawaii, Pennsylvania has a new governor, Democrat Josh Shapiro, who has expressed support for legalizing recreational marijuana. The issue has been stymied in years past by Republican lawmakers, but a new Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives may help the chances at success.

“While we’ve heard some interest from both sides of the aisle in previous years, conversations about legalization seem to be happening among a much larger group of legislators with increased frequency and specificity,” Woloveck says. “It also sounds like many legislators, including several previously unwilling to engage in any cannabis-related discussions, now acknowledge something has to be done about the illicit market and to stop revenue from flowing to neighboring states where people can buy legal, regulated cannabis for non-medical purposes.”

After legalizing low-potency THC edibles last year, cannabis policy experts say Minnesota could be the most likely state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2023. The state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) is now in charge of both the legislative and executive branches of government, and party leaders including Gov. Tim Walz have said that cannabis legalization will be a priority for 2023. Last Wednesday, a bill sponsored by DFL lawmakers Rep. Zack Stephenson and Sen. Lindsey Port received the approval of a legislative committee, with more hearings on the measure to come.

In Oklahoma, where 10% of adults hold cards to participate in the state’s liberal medical marijuana program, voters will decide on a ballot measure to legalize recreational cannabis in March. If passed, State Question 820 would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older. The measure also contains provisions to expunge past convictions for marijuana-related offenses. Proponents of the measure had hoped it would appear before voters during the November midterm elections, but a delay in certifying petition signatures and legal challenges from opponents prevented its inclusion on the ballot.

Lawmakers in other states including Georgia and Delaware could also take up measures to legalize marijuana this year, although the prospects for success in 2023 seem unlikely given the political climate in those states. But progress in cannabis policy will probably continue if the trend seen over the last decade goes on.

“Since 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis, we’ve seen an average of two states per year pass adult-use laws,” Vicente notes. “I predict that 2023 will continue this trend with both Oklahoma and Minnesota looking very likely to legalize.”

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Inequality in the Cannabis Industry and the Push for Social Equity

Inequality in the cannabis industry exists, and some companies have tried to address this by pushing for social equity. Currently, representation in the cannabis industry is extremely uneven. A survey found that American cannabis companies were disproportionality White. According to the survey, about 87% of company owners are White, and other minority groups each made […]

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Thai Restaurant Chain Introduces Cannabis Pizza to Its Menu

Ever wanted a pizza with some weed on it? Well, this new Thai restaurant chain recently introduced cannabis pizza to its menu. The Pizza Company is a pretty popular chain in Thailand, and they operate in several other Asian countries, too. Recently, they released a new product called the “Crazy Happy Pizza.” The “happy” part […]

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Is Medical Marijuana a Misnomer in its Current Form?

There is no disputing that cannabis provides medicinal relief to scores of people. However, federal regulations limit the scope of testing for marijuana recommended for patients, unlike the rigorous testing standards held for other medicines. As such, only a few cannabis-esque medicines have been able to reach the U.S. market to date. With a handful…

More Than 500 People Have Commented On USDA Hemp Rules So Far

Less than two weeks after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) opened a public comment period on proposed hemp regulations, more than 500 people have already weighed in.

USDA issued an interim final rule last month, laying out basic regulatory guidelines for hemp manufacturers. It contains information on a wide-range of issues, including licensing, THC testing requirements and the disposal process for crops the exceed potency limits.

Advocates and industry stakeholders have expressed mixed feelings about the rules. While the release of the regulations represents a positive development, with farmers soon to be equipped with the tools needed to fully enter the market, there are certain provisions that businesses have regarded as excessively restrictive and possibly damaging to the industry.

Those concerns, and others, are reflected in the comments submitted so far. Here are some highlights:

Frustration over THC limits and ‘hot’ hemp. 

Christopher Gromek, a Washington State-based hemp business owner, said that USDA should allow growers to address so-called “hot” hemp containing excess THC before the crops are ripped up and thrown out.

“The USDA should allow farmers to remediate THC levels in ‘hot’ hemp by allowing them to (through sunlight/time etc. degrade the THC levels in their hemp until they are suitable for sale,” he said. “If farmers are allowed to remediate ‘hot’ hemp prior to sale, they’ll still be able to utilize most currently available genetic stock, while simply adding a processing requirement to ensure hemp of required THC levels is being sold.”

A significant number of people voiced frustration over the THC limit and how it will be tested for, with multiple stakeholders saying that testing should be limited to delta-9 THC, not the entire spectrum of THC content.

“As a farmer and someone who has worked in the processing of hemp,” Barbara Sisson said. “I am concerned with the matter of the total THC being used against farmers within the industry. This is something that needs much further research.”

“Testing of hemp to determine compliance with the 0.3% THC limit should not be done post-decarboxylation,” Zachary Farber wrote. “Doing so will make it significantly harder for hard-working hemp farmers to produce legal hemp.”

“The current testing requirements are already sufficient to ensure no psychoactive effects will be elicited from smoking the plant material,” he said. “The current available genetics would make it incredibly difficult for farmers to comply with the regulations.”

Several commenters recommended that the allowable THC content be increased from 0.3 percent to 1 percent, and some advised that the timeline for testing should be amended.

“We absolutely need a 30 day or more prior to harvest testing window, 15 days is not enough time to harvest,” one person said

Issues with equity and testing labs.

Another person weighed in on the proposed ban on being a “key principal” of a hemp business for those with felony drug convictions. While the ban expires after 10 years — a compromise that advocates hashed out with lawmakers — an anonymous commenter said “it is inconceivable that those most negatively impacted from prohibition would be barred from participating in the new legal economy.”

An Oregon-based hemp farmer raised an interesting point with respect to the requirement stipulating that only Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-registered facilities can test the crop. Jesse Richardson said the only such facility in the state is the Oregon State Crime Lab.

“From our understanding, many existing labs are unable to be DEA certified because they also service marijuana businesses, which is still a Schedule 1 Substance under the CSA,” Richardson said. “A single lab cannot handle 750+ growers in Oregon. Existing labs should be permitted service providers. These are quality, trusted labs we have worked with for years.”

In a related development, the advocacy organization U.S. Hemp Roundtable sent a letter on Tuesday thanking USDA for developing the interim rule and allowing stakeholders to submit input on the proposals. It pointed to a number of elements that the group “applaud[s]” such as one stipulating that interstate transportation of hemp products is permissible and another that provides some flexibility in THC testing.

But group’s message to USDA Under Secretary Greg Ibach also makes clear it is concerned about provisions that penalize farmers for cultivating hemp with more than 0.5 percent THC, require farmers to destroy unauthorized crops that could instead be used as a “soil amendment” or for research purposes, force hemp to be tested only in laboratories registered with the DEA and mandate that testing be done within 15 days from harvest.

“Resolution of these issue could have a positive impact on the developing hemp market, as well as promote future innovation,” the group wrote, adding that it  plans to formally submit a comment to USDA soon.

More comments to come. 

People can submit comments through December 31, after which point USDA will work to finalize the interim final rule for hemp. It’s not clear to what extent it will take submitted recommendations into consideration and amend the regulations; however, as U.S. Hemp Roundtable pointed out, the department appears to be receptive to feedback.

Meanwhile, the industry is still awaiting draft rules for hemp-derived CBD products from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Officials from the agency have indicated that there are complicating factors that make it difficult to develop regulations for the cannabis compound, and former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said it may take years for rules to be released without congressional action.

Feature image from Shutterstock. 

This article has been republished from Marijuana Moment under a content-sharing agreement. Read the original article here.

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5 Facts Veterans Need to Know About the VA and Cannabis

Jeff Staker faced chronic pain after his service in the Persian Gulf in the 1990s.

His doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) relied on opioids to manage that pain. In a recent interview with Weedmaps News, Staker, an Indiana native, said he needed to continually increase his doses to get the same results.

Staker then heard of the potential benefits of cannabis for pain management, but his federal job would be put at risk over marijuana use, even for a medical reason. He was ready to try a different approach and retired from his federal job in 2018, after almost 34 years of service, and started using cannabis to manage his chronic pain.

“It was like getting my life back,” he said. Now 54, Staker said cannabis did not eliminate his pain but allowed him to control it.

Staker has become an advocate for legalization and founded Hoosier Veterans of Medical Cannabis. He’s joined a growing number of veterans and organizations advocating for cannabis’ promise in both pain management and in easing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, two conditions a far larger percentage of veterans face than do other Americans. A National Institute of Health study found 65.6% of veterans report having pain. According to the VA, between 11% and 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans deal with PTSD every year, and 15% of Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with PTSD. 

But because cannabis is still a Schedule I drug, a classification reserved for the most dangerous substances said to have no useful clinical application, research into its effectiveness is still lacking. This makes it difficult for medical professionals to recommend cannabis for PTSD or anxiety

“Cannabis prohibition kills veterans,” said Eric Goepel, one of the founders of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition. “That may sound like a harsh way to put it, but it’s the way things are.” 

Goepel believes that the VA relies on far more dangerous drugs, such as opioids and antidepressants, to address veterans’ health issues when cannabis could be a useful medicinal tool for veterans. But Goepel argues that the VA and the federal government have an institutional opposition to cannabis.

(Jessica Radanavong/Unsplash)
Veterans have become vocal advocates for the research into cannabis’ potential to help with pain management and PTSD, two conditions that affect a large number of veterans.

Lindsay Rodman, the executive vice president for communications and legal strategy at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said an overwhelming 83% of IAVA’s members support cannabis being legal for medicinal use.

For now, she said, IAVA is pushing for more testing on the effects and effectiveness of marijuana as medicine.

“Once it’s shown to have real benefits, it would be very hard not to give it to veterans,” she said. Rodman spent eight years on active duty in the Marine Corps and remains in the reserves, which means she has never tried marijuana herself. But in speaking to other veterans and from what she’s seen, she believes it has real potential to help veterans. Regardless of the need for more studies, thousands of veterans and others are already using cannabis. They should have the facts.

As far as the VA is concerned, marijuana remains illegal by federal law, which binds its policy.

“Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and until federal law changes, VA is not able to prescribe it,” said Randall Noller, a VA spokesman. 

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, “The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is required to follow all federal laws including those regarding marijuana. As long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule I, VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist veterans to obtain it.”

An American Legion survey found overwhelming support for medical cannabis among veteran households, with 92% of responders supporting medical cannabis research, while the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization supports further research as well. The VA says it may research marijuana’s benefits and risks. The IAVA is pushing legislation that would mandate that research take place.

But according to Noller, any research involving a Schedule I substance must also involve several other federal entities, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services, the National Institute of Health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the DEA. 

Right now, limited research means there is little hard data on the benefits and potential harms of cannabis, while continued prohibition in many states and at the federal level may mean consequences for users, including veterans, that have nothing to do with its health effects.

For veterans who decide the benefits are worth the risks, there are a few things to keep in mind: 

Veterans Cannot be Denied VA Benefits for Cannabis Use

“Veteran participation in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services,” reads the department website. The VA encourages veterans to disclose marijuana use to their providers. The staff will note a patient’s self-disclosed marijuana use, the VA states.

“VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with veterans as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary,” reads the VA’s statement.

Sources interviewed for this story said the reaction from doctors and other medical staff can vary greatly. In states where adult use is legal, most doctors are knowledgeable about cannabis and its effects. It should be noted that sources also said some areas where medical cannabis remains illegal, some veterans have reported a hostile reaction from doctors.

Cannabis Use Could Affect Veterans’ VA Treatment Plan

While benefits cannot be denied, treatment plans may, under VA rules. VA staff are not allowed to recommend cannabis for any reason but can consider its reported use as part of a treatment plan. 

In some instances, that has led doctors to taper patients off other scheduled substances, including painkillers, or even cut off the supply. Some doctors have a positive response and are interested in understanding their patients’ cannabis use. That’s the best-case scenario, according to Goepel, but the treatment plan is entirely the discretion of the doctor. 

Whether in a state with laws that allow for the medical use of cannabis, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs operates by federal law, under which marijuana is a Schedule I drug. This means VA physicians are prohibited from recommending cannabis for medicinal use.

Changes are not supposed to be punitive, Goepel stated. But in some instances, he said, staff that is particularly hostile to its use see it as a sign of addictive behavior and restrict access to other drugs.

“We do not want to recommend that veterans are not honest with their health care providers. Unfortunately, there are going to be situations where we would advise veterans to use their best judgment,” Rodman said. Rodman suggests veterans who have a concern about their provider ask for someone different, someone they feel they can trust.

“You need to have a good relationship with your provider,” she said. “I have found that most people that are in the VA system get great care and don’t have complaints.”  

Veterans Cannot Possess Cannabis on VA property. Even in the Legal States.

Regardless of whether veterans are in a state with laws that make cannabis use legal, they cannot bring it to any VA property. According to the VA website, the “use or possession of marijuana is prohibited at all VA medical centers, locations, and grounds. When you are on VA grounds it is federal law that is in force, not the laws of the state.” This makes it difficult for veterans who decide to use cannabis medicinally to discuss with VA physicians without putting themselves at risk of being punished by federal law. 

“If you’re on federal property with marijuana, you’re in violation of the law,” Goepel said. That’s true in adult-use states like Colorado and California. “It’s obviously a huge pitfall for some veterans.” 

The VA will not Recommend Cannabis. Or Help Pay for it.

In states where marijuana is legal for medical use, the high cost can become a big obstacle. In New Jersey, for instance, access to the medical marijuana program requires a recommendation from a doctor, and cannabis itself is relatively expensive.

For veterans who rely on VA doctors and prescription coverage, those costs may be out of reach, even if there is evidence that cannabis may be more helpful than the medicines currently covered.

“VA clinicians may not complete paperwork/forms required for veteran patients to participate in state-approved marijuana programs,” reads the VA website. “VA pharmacies may not fill prescriptions for medical marijuana. VA will not pay for medical marijuana prescriptions from any source.”

Goepel’s group is supporting the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, a bill that allows veterans to legally use and possess medical marijuana and discuss its use for medical treatment with a VA physician

There may be Other Consequences

Sources interviewed for this story mentioned that a disproportionate number of veterans hold jobs that involve regular drug screening, with the federal government or with law enforcement. The VA states that its employees are subject to regular drug testing under their terms of employment.

Even those following all of the rules of their state’s medical cannabis program can be fired or disciplined. There are other risks, Goepel said. A job in the cannabis industry, even at state-licensed operations, can disqualify veterans for VA home loans, and firearms permits.

Feature image by Hannah Skelly/Unsplash

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Wisconsin Lawmakers File Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Wisconsin lawmakers filed a bill on Oct. 30, 2019, to decriminalize marijuana possession.

The legislation, introduced by Reps. David Crowley (D) and Shelia Stubbs (D), would decriminalize possession of up to 28 grams, which amounts to about one ounce. Currently, possession is treated as a misdemeanor offense that can carry up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“The weaponization of drug possession laws, particularly marijuana, has been the driver of the state of ramped mass incarceration in which we find ourselves,” Crowley said in a press release. “This bill should have been passed years ago — Wisconsin is now an island of antiquated drug policy in a sea of decriminalization.”

“It is absolutely wrong to continue this needless cycle of disparate enforcement that continues to feed mass incarceration—I have seen firsthand the devastating effect of our unjust and racially inequitable criminal justice system,” he added. “We have lost a generation of men and women to the failed war on drugs and mass incarceration—how many more must be lost before we have the courage to do something about it?”

The legislation also contains provisions to facilitate the expungement or dismissal of prior marijuana possession convictions.

The sponsors held a press conference announcing the legislation on Wednesday, appearing alongside Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), who also spoke in favor of the policy change.

Sen. Fred Risser (D), who also appeared at the event, said “I believe it is important to emphasize the distinction between decriminalization and legalization.”

“Decriminalizing marijuana simply means we are asking law enforcement to stop arresting folks for having small amounts of marijuana,” he said. “Under this bill, the manufacture and sale of the drug itself would remain illegal.”

It stands to reason that Gov. Tony Evers (D) would be supportive of the bill, as he called for the decriminalization of low-level possession, as well as medical cannabis legalization, as part of his budget proposal earlier this year. However, Republican leaders voted to strip those marijuana reform provisions from the plan.

Supporters can expect to face similar resistance from the Republican-controlled Senate and Assembly as this new bill moves forward. Following the announcement, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said, “I’ve long been an opponent to any type of marijuana legalization and doubt that any proposals currently being floated will gain support from Republicans in the Senate.”

He’s made similar remarks in the past concerning efforts to legalize medical cannabis.

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said that he also opposes decriminalization.

Vos, meanwhile, has expressed some openness to allowing patients to access medical marijuana; however, he stipulated that he’d want products to be available exclusively in pill form and said that legislation would have to be implemented in “a very controlled environment.” Broader legalization is a “non-starter,” he said.

But while the prospects of action in the legislature seems dubious at this point, it’s increasingly clear that Wisconsin residents are ready for change. Three jurisdictions in the state voted in favor of non-binding resolutions expressing support for the legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes in April. That followed the approval of other cannabis ballot measures in 16 counties last November.

Wisconsin stands in strong contrast to neighboring Illinois, where a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill was passed by lawmakers and then signed by the governor in June.

Feature image by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock. 

This article has been republished from Marijuana Moment under a content-sharing agreement. Read the original article here

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Veterans Call for Legal Marijuana Access During Policy Summit at Weedmaps Museum of Weed

Against the backdrop of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed, on Sept. 14, 2019, representatives of three leading veterans advocacy groups, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, and Weedmaps Chief Operating Officer Steven Jung, discussed the benefits of medical cannabis for veterans and the barriers that make it difficult for veterans to access it.

Along with Ma and Jung, an Army veteran, the panel participants at the Hollywood, California, event included, Aaron Augustis, founder of Veterans Cannabis Group (VCG); Sean Kiernan, chief executive officer of Weed for Warriors Project; and Ryan Miller, founder of Operation E.V.A.C. (Educating Veterans About Cannabis). 

Ma began the wide-ranging discussion by pointing out the hurdles that face anyone trying to open and operate a legal cannabis business. Federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which places it in the same category as heroin and ecstasy and categorizes it as having no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse and addiction. Subsequently, banks, payroll companies, accounting firms, bookkeepers, and lawyers often refuse to service cannabis businesses. 

“Since dispensaries and other cannabis businesses can’t open bank accounts, they’re forced to handle transactions in cash, including paying their taxes, their rent and their employees,” Ma said, “That’s a huge barrier to success in this industry.”  

High taxes are another hurdle. In California, for example, taxes in dispensaries are close to 40%.

California State Treasurer Fiona Ma tells an audience at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed how she has worked to address veterans’ concerns about difficult access to legal medical marijuana. (Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)

“When people have to pay that extra 40% in a dispensary, they often choose to go down the street or make a phone call and purchase illegal marijuana instead,” Ma said. 

She noted several actions that would address these concerns on a state level, including the establishment of a state-backed financial institution devoted exclusively to the cannabis industry, and legislation that would allow cannabis companies to deduct the same business expenses as any other business.

With a father-in-law who’s a Navy veteran and a brother-in-law currently serving in the Navy, Ma is aware of the challenges veterans face accessing medical cannabis to treat chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Along with Augustis and the Veterans Cannabis Group, she’s promoting a bill in the California Legislature, AB 1569, that would give veterans an exemption from sales taxes on medical cannabis products.

Getting any legislation passed, federal, state or local, requires mobilizing veterans and their advocates to make the issue a pressing one for politicians. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Ma said. “If legislators don’t see a lot of people walking the halls, emailing them, texting, and phoning, showing up day after day on an issue, they’re not going to feel it’s a priority.”

At a panel at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, left, joins Weedmaps Chief Operating Officer Steven Jung, second from left, and representatives of U.S. veterans groups to address how veterans can access medical cannabis. (Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)

But, as others on the panel pointed out, open advocacy on cannabis issues poses risks for veterans. 

“Many veterans are afraid that they’ll lose their veterans medical benefits if they testify in public,” Augustis said. “Right now, the policy of the VA toward cannabis use can be summed up at its best as ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Kiernan said. He’d found relief in cannabis from PTSD so severe it led him to attempt suicide.

Augustis agreed. After returning home from serving in an Iraqi war zone, he found himself reliving the stress and trauma of active combat.

“Cannabis would calm me down,” he said. “It helped bring me back to the present.” 

Today, when he tells a VA counselor about his cannabis use, he said, “They’ll ask ‘Is it helping you?’ I tell them yes. ‘Is it hurting you?’ I say no, and they’ll say, well, then, continue to do it.”

This ambiguous stance is reflected on the VA’s website. As long as marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the website states, “VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist Veterans to obtain it.” But, “VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with Veterans as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary.”  In addition, “Veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use,” however, the use will be noted in medical records. What’s more, VA clinicians cannot write a recommendation for medical marijuana and VA pharmacies will not fill prescriptions for medical cannabis and “will not pay for medical marijuana prescriptions from any source.” 

“That’s why the black market is thriving among vets,” Kiernan said. “Many people have no choice if they don’t want the opioids and other pharmaceutical drugs that the VA willing to pay for.”   

Miller is hoping that might change. “If the VA could distribute cannabis,” he said, “the three of us on this panel would be out of jobs. I’m looking forward to that. That’s my exit strategy.”

Veterans fought for liberty and we should have liberty of choice when it comes to cannabis use.
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With more than 18 million veterans in the U.S., “you’re not going to find a homogenous voice on the issue of cannabis,” Kiernan noted. “But we can find common ground. Whether conservative, liberal, libertarian, or whatever, we can all agree that cannabis works and that it’s a good subtitle for addictive opioids. Veterans fought for liberty and we should have liberty of choice when it comes to cannabis use.” 

Featured Image: Representatives of military veterans’ groups discuss legal access to medical marijuana at a panel at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed Sept. 14, 2019. From left, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma Aaron Augustis of Veterans Cannabis Group, Sean Kiernan of Weed for Warriors Project, and Ryan Miller of Operation E.V.A.C.. (Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)

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Trump Administration Officials Meet To Discuss Possible Ban On Flavored Vapes

Officials with the Trump administration said on Wednesday that the federal government would ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes, according to media reports. Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Ned Sharpless, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, made the announcement with President Trump in the Oval Office Wednesday morning.

“The vaping has become a very big business, as I understand it, like a giant business in a very short period of time. But we can’t allow people to get sick and we can’t have our youth be so affected,” the president said.

“We’re going to have to do something about it,” he added.

Azar said that in the coming weeks the administration would announce a plan to remove most flavored e-cigarettes from the US market. Few details of the plan were revealed on Wednesday, but officials said that it may include a ban on menthol and mint-flavored e-cigarettes, which have been some of the most popular flavors for vaping products.

Administration Hopes Ban Will Protect Kids

Azar said in a statement that the administration was acting to protect the health of children.

“The Trump Administration is making it clear that we intend to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes to reverse the deeply concerning epidemic of youth e-cigarette use that is impacting children, families, schools, and communities,” Azar said. “We will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth.”

Azar also said that further action would be taken if it becomes apparent that kids are switching to other nicotine products after the ban on flavored vapes goes into effect.

“If we find that children start surging into tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes or if we find marketing practices that target children and try to attract them into tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes, we will engage in enforcement actions there also,” Azar told reporters.

Earlier this week, Michigan became the first state in the US to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. California, Massachusetts, and New York are considering similar bans on flavored vapes. In San Francisco, where a ban on e-cigarette sales was passed earlier this year, vape manufacturer Juul is hoping to reverse the prohibition through a ballot initiative planned for November.

Lung Illnesses Spur Ban

Government action against e-cigarettes has been spurred by a spate of lung illnesses across the country that have been linked to vaping either nicotine, THC, or both. The Trump administration and the FDA have been under pressure to remove flavored vape products, which are seen as more attractive to children, from the US market. Earlier this week, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois warned that he would call for Acting FDA Commissioner Sharpless’ resignation if the agency did not take action to ban flavored products.

Over the past several weeks, hundreds of people have been taken ill with serious lung problems after vaping. At least six people have died, with the latest death being reported in Kansas on Tuesday.

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