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20 ways to address marijuana reform amid COVID

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As Congress returns to address the global coronavirus pandemic, it should not leave out relief for cannabis workers, employers, patients, and individuals directly impacted by marijuana prohibition. 

The worst impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately impacted the populations that were already the most vulnerable before the virus hit U.S. shores. Given the far-reaching consequences of marijuana criminalization, communities harmed by prohibition are at an elevated risk to economic and health challenges during this crisis. 

However, the problems of marijuana prohibition have been long-standing and should not be taken off the table as elected officials continue to make policy this year. Policy changes that were needed before COVID hit have only become more urgent as the crisis stresses pre-existing tensions. 

Below are 20 things that Congress could address when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reconvene the House and Senate. Many of these ideas are already featured in the bills that have had favorable committee or floor action, such as the MORE Act or SAFE Banking Act.

Short of passing both of those bills, Congress could include some of the following as part of COVID relief or a broader economic stimulation package. Other suggestions may not directly deal with cannabis policy but would likely result in changes at the state level where most marijuana enforcement takes place.

1. Remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. This one change would end federal prohibition and solve most of the other issues below. De-scheduling cannabis was considered “politically impossible” just months ago. Still, it was a global pandemic that would put the U.S. in at least $3 trillion in debt and the most substantial unemployment numbers in history. 

2. Release all persons incarcerated for cannabis convictions. As former SSDP and NORML leader Kris Krane recently wrote, “a cannabis offense should never be a death sentence.” Sadly, it’s becoming clear that populations forced to live in close proximity, such as nursing homes and prisons, are the most vulnerable to rapidly spreading the virus. Releasing individuals with marijuana convictions is a sensible way to mitigate the spread of the virus, thereby reducing risk to both prisoners, corrections staff, and the public at-large.

3. Automatically expunge all federal cannabis convictions. At a time when the nation is facing mass unemployment, the federal government can and should do all that it can to remove needlessly cruel barriers to gaining employment, such as required disclosures of drug convictions. 

4. Provide resources for state and local governments to expunge non-violent marijuana convictions. The overwhelming majority of criminal charges for marijuana-related infractions have been issued by state or local jurisdictions, not federal agents. Because of this, it will take these already resource-strained operations to facilitate no-cost expungements. One easy way to encourage them to do so would be to provide a federal financial incentive to do so, as the MORE Act includes. 

5. Create access to Small Business Administration funds for cannabis businesses. At a time when owning a small business seems further and further out of reach for would-be community leaders, the legalization of cannabis provides desperately needed pathways to local opportunity, ownership, and economic growth. 

6. Create dedicated community health and job training funding for communities disproportionately harmed by cannabis criminalization. It should not be a surprise that communities that have been overpoliced for generations have suffered adverse health and economic consequences due to drug war enforcement are in a worse position to deal with the coronavirus crisis. Such funding can address the current situation and provide a foundation to mitigate the potential harm of future outbreaks. 

7. End the practice of deportation of otherwise law-abiding immigrants due to marijuana-related charges. Due to the Schedule 1 status of marijuana, individuals who are legal residents of the United States are subject to deportation for a violation of the Controlled Substances Act, which can be something as minor as a marijuana possession charge for a single joint. 

8. Remove the Aid Elimination Penalty and ban on Pell grants for prisoners from the Higher Education Act. Currently, an arrest for a controlled substance while receiving federal student loan money jeopardizes that students’ access to federal student aid. For example, in states where marijuana is legal for adults 21 and over, a 20-year old student arrested with one joint would lose their financial assistance, while students arrested for underage possession of alcohol do not risk losing their loan. Reducing educational opportunities at this or any time is bad economic and social policy.

9. End the ability for ICE and other federal agents to initiate deportation of an undocumented individual triggered by a marijuana-related interaction. An undocumented individual who is currently residing in the United States could be subject to detention and deportation for merely being in proximity of cannabis-related charges. 

10. End the restrictions on international travel on those who conduct cannabis-related business. There have been multiple instances of international travelers who are involved in the legal cannabis market in Canada being denied entry to the United States and even prohibited from future entry, merely due to their association with state-legal marketplaces. 

11. Allow marijuana businesses to be entitled to federal bankruptcy protection. Enabling marijuana businesses access to federal bankruptcy protections means that struggling cannabis entities could have the same opportunity to reorganize their debts and negotiate with creditors on the same footing as ordinary businesses. This could help preserve jobs while businesses are treading water through this difficult time.

12. Provide “Safe Harbor” for banks to offer accounts and loans to licensed cannabis businesses and ancillary businesses that provide service for them. This is a simple fix that has already passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 321-103 last September. 

13. Ease out of pocket health expenses for veterans and medical cannabis patients. The cost of purchasing medical cannabis is not covered by traditional health insurance for civilians, nor is it covered by the Veterans Administration for those who served. Even worse for veterans, the AVA forbids its doctors from filling out state recommendation forms, forcing vets with PTSD and other conditions to incur additional out of pocket expenses. Moreover, medical cannabis has the potential for tremendous Medicare Part D savings that we are failing to take advantage of. Until health insurance covers medical cannabis expenses, Congress could allow patients to deduct their medical cannabis expenses and pass the Veterans Equal Access Act to allow VA doctors to provide the same level of service civilian doctors can offer in this area.

14. Repeal the senseless incentive for states to suspend drivers’ licenses for a marijuana-related violation. As a result of a decades-old appropriations rider, many states have a policy of automatically suspending an individual’s driver’s license for six months for a cannabis charge, regardless of whether or not a vehicle was involved at the time of the infraction. 

15. Allow state-licensed cannabis businesses to deduct all or some of their business expenses. Due to marijuana’s Schedule I status and 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, cannabis businesses cannot deduct ordinary business expenses, resulting in effective tax rates around 50 percent -70 percent. We could encourage cannabis businesses to retain employees and provide better benefits by addressing the 280E issue completely or by allowing these employers to deduct employee-specific benefits such as health insurance expenses from their federal tax bill.

16. Remove barriers to researching cannabis. As the Trump administration looks to eliminate regulations to spur recovery, one area which should be a no-brainer for both sides is eliminating long-standing barriers to cannabis research. At a minimum, Congress could approve the VA Medical Cannabis Research Act which was approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee last month.

17. Provide funding for research on if there are harmful or beneficial relationships between cannabis and COVID-19. Millions of Americans are using cannabis, whether it be legal under state laws or in states where criminalization fails to deter use. Medical cannabis patients and adult-use consumers currently do not have reliable information on whether smoked or other forms of cannabis put them at elevated risk for adverse COVID symptoms. Conversely, if there is any potential for cannabis to help with treating immediate acute symptoms of COVID or assist in long-term recovery for those experiencing trauma during their COVID illness (for example, health care workers experience PTSD from agony, the American public deserves to have good information on whether this is a viable or harmful treatment option.

18. Provide funding for states to facilitate voting by mail and remote signing for ballot measure petitions. As of this writing, voters in New Jersey, Mississippi, and South Dakota are set to vote on a marijuana ballot initiative, be it for either medical or adult-use. Voters in Arizona and possibly Montana and other states will likely join them. Given the recent challenge we saw for voters in Wisconsin, it would be critical to allow those who wish to make their civic voices heard to be able to do so while complying with CDC recommendations. 

19. Affirmatively break up the University of Mississippi research monopoly. The so-called NIDA Monopoly on the supply of cannabis for clinical research has prevented research by providing inferior cannabis that neither meets the standards of researchers nor is comparable being produced and consumed under-regulated programs. NIDA and the DEA made some good faith efforts to expand the number of producers, but DOJ has demonstrated regulatory couchlock. Even if cannabis was de-schedule, this issue would remain and needs explicit legislation to end the foot-dragging at DOJ.

20. Allow those receiving federal housing assistance to consume cannabis in compliance with state law in their own homes. Finally, as millions of Americans celebrate 420 from the comfort of our couches, we must remember that those who live in Section 8 housing risk eviction for using marijuana in their own homes, even in states where it is legal. Just as nobody deserves to go to jail for marijuana, nobody should lose the roof over their head over it either.

The public now overwhelmingly believes that the mere consumption of cannabis should not lead to a loved one being arrested or adversely affected by discriminatory housing, educational, or policing policies. It’s time for Congress to amend the federal law in a manner that reflects these values.

Justin Strekal is the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Mike Liszewski is the policy advisor for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP)

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 marijuana reform Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi

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