With most of Congress consumed in the Syria maelstrom, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., took a brief break Tuesday to chair a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on conflicts between federal and state marijuana laws.
The event, which was moved to larger room to accommodate a large showing, didn’t attract much of a crowd — only a handful of senators attended. Leahy said the scant showing was due to a Syria briefing at the same time, and he himself had to duck out toward the end.
Leahy used the nearby empty chairs to hold up a large map of the country, color-coded to show the 20 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana, and the 16 states that have decriminalized the drug. Vermont is a member of both crowds.
“We can’t be satisfied with the status quo,” Leahy said in his opening remarks, pointing to the need to reconcile state and federal laws and redirect prosecutorial resources away from marijuana crimes.
The hearing was held several days before the U.S. Justice Department announced in a memo that it would not interfere with state marijuana laws, for the time being, as long as proper regulatory structures are put in place.
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which describes itself as the “nation’s largest marijuana policy organization,” made an announcement of its own, minutes after Leahy kicked off the hearing.
MPP identified Vermont as one of 10 states it will target for marijuana legalization initiatives. Its goal is to legalize the drug in Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine, Nevada, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont by 2017.
MPP has already been a presence in Vermont’s Statehouse halls — the advocacy group spent $24,000 on lobbying for the decriminalization law that the Legislature passed last spring. Gov. Peter Shumlin has not definitively said whether he’ll support legalization in Vermont, but as As Seven Days writer Paul Heintz reported, he is scheduled to be the keynote speaker on Sept. 19 for a fundraising conference call to discuss MPP’s “strategy for legalizing marijuana nationwide over the next four years.”
The Marijuana Policy Project has held Shumlin up as its No. 1 national spokesman on legalization; the organization has also made large donations to Shumlin’s campaigns totaling about $20,000 over the last two campaign cycles. Last week, the governor told the Burlington Free Press that he’s happy to let other states lead on marijuana legalization.
Judiciary Committee hearing
The panel in front of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday included Deputy Attorney General James Cole and legal and law enforcement representatives from Colorado and Washington.
Leahy chose to bore into an area that went unaddressed in that Justice Department memo — financial barriers for marijuana operations. Leahy did not press Cole on more sweeping reform measures, such as revoking the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.
He asked Cole to address the reluctance of the banking industry to offer loans and other financial services to state-authorized marijuana operations, which remain illegal under federal law. The current financial landscape, Leahy said, “is a prescription for problems” such as crime and tax evasion.
“We agree it is an issue we need to deal with,” Cole responded. “… Obviously there is a public safety concern when businesses have a lot of cash sitting around, there’s a tendency that there’s guns associated with that.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, took a similar line of questioning, asking Cole whether the Justice Department has taken a position on how dispensaries should fit into the tax code. Specifically, Blumenthal wanted to know if Cole thought they should qualify for business exemptions.
That ball falls in Congress’ court, Cole responded. “There are obviously other issues that spin off of that, that do need to be dealt with. … We think that’s something Congress should take up and debate.”
Leahy said he received information indicating that Drug Enforcement Agency agents were discouraging armored car companies from serving dispensaries.
“We’re hearing that the DEA agents, in what seems to me like a step away from reality, are instructing armored car companies to cease providing services to marijuana dispensaries almost as if they are, ‘Get out of there so we can have some robberies’,” Leahy said. “What’s the department going to do to address these concerns?”
Cole said the agents were “merely asking questions of the armored car companies as to what their practices were,” and that this activity took place prior to the DOJ memo. He assured a skeptical Leahy that the DEA was not currently instructing companies to shun dispensaries.