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Volume 5, Issue 6
Workshops and Stakeholder Meetings Across the CountryFollowing the unveiling of Americans for Safe Access's new national strategy at the two-day workshop in Rhode Island last month, Executive Director Steph Sherer is traveling the country helping patients and activists build a stronger grassroots base. Last month, Sherer conducted workshops and stakeholders' meetings for medical cannabis patients and activists in both New Mexico and Colorado. Similar events are scheduled this month for Maine and San Diego, with upcoming meetings in Michigan and elsewhere around the country.
In New Mexico, ASA outreach drew together a disparate group of 40 patients and activists from Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and rural areas to participate in the workshop and stakeholders meeting. The events, which were made possible by the generous support of a local ASA supporter and an organization named Allay, began with a workshop discussion of how to improve the state's current medical cannabis program. The outpouring of specific suggestions on improving access and awareness in the state boiled down to either rewriting the existing regulations or drafting new legislation.
The participants described a program that is extremely backed up, with long waits for patient approval and insufficient supply from the licensed producers. But they also see political opportunities in the next election, as the new governor will appoint a new secretary of health, who will oversee the program and can fix it to better meet patient needs.
ASA's stakeholders' meeting focused on ways of moving beyond administrative complaints to creating an infrastructure for community activism within New Mexico. ASA will be working with these and other patients and activists in the state to create a framework for effective political action during the election. This will include facilitating the local grassroots network, developing additional ASA chapters, and drafting improved regulations and legislation.
In Colorado, well over 100 activists from around the state gathered in Denver to meet with Sherer for a workshop and stakeholders' meeting. Presented in partnership with Sensible Colorado, the events helped participants identify problems and devise strategies for improving Colorado's medical cannabis program. Lunch was provided courtesy of event space sponors Toni and Barry Fox.
Treasury Asked to Protect Services for Cannabis ProvidersLobbying by Americans for Safe Access resulted in 15 members of Congress asking the Treasury Secretary to help protect banking services for medical cannabis providers. After receiving dozens of reports of banks closing the accounts of state-qualified medical cannabis providers, ASA worked with members of the House of Representatives to draft a letter to Secretary Geithner. The letter, signed by 15 members of Congress, urges him to provide 'written guidance for financial institutions,' assuring them that the Treasury Department would not target either the institutions or account holders who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
'[L]egitimate state-legal businesses are being denied access to banking services, which does not serve the public interest,' says the letter authored by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and co-signed by representatives from Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. They point out that the denial of financial services produces 'an increased risk to public safety with potential theft or robbery that any cash-only or cash-reliant business faces,' and is 'an affront to fundamental fairness.' Federal law technically considers the deposit of any reimbursements or other money related to medical cannabis to be 'money laundering.' But many states with medical cannabis laws expect patients and dispensaries to pay sales tax, with the state of California estimating it has collected in excess of $100 million this year alone.
'State agencies reasonably expect medical cannabis patients and providers to pay their taxes and be financially responsible,' said ASA Government Affairs Director Caren Woodson. 'Yet outmoded federal law is being used to prevent them from using basic financial services.'
A spokesperson for Chase, one of the banks that has closed accounts, told a Colorado paper that they refuse to do business with dispensaries due to 'financial operational and compliance risk,' but was unable to explain what that meant.
'Americans for Safe Access is working with Congress to obtain a Treasury policy similar to that of the Department of Justice,' said Woodson. 'We appreciate the leadership of Representative Polis and others as we attempt to remove federal obstacles from the implementation of safe access to medical marijuana at the local and state levels.'
Congressional letter to Treasury Secretary Geithner
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's recent statements before Congress
October 2009 DOJ directive
Congress Challenges Cannabis Scheduling, EnforcementU.S. Attorney General Eric Holder faced tough questions about medical cannabis at a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, thanks to ASA's work with two of the committee members. Rep. Steve Cohen (D, TN) and Rep. Jared Polis (D, CO) each pressed the AG on issues that affect medical cannabis patients.
Rep. Cohen challenged Holder on the Department of Justice's approach to rescheduling cannabis to make it available by prescription everywhere in the nation. Rep. Cohen asked Holder to respond to the recent federal sentencing order in the case of California medical cannabis provider Charles C. Lynch, quoting the judge's comments that Lynch was 'caught in the middle of shifting positions' on the medical use of cannabis, and that 'much of the problems could be ameliorated…by the reclassification of marijuana from Schedule I.'
Holder responded without addressing the specifics of the Lynch case, but said that 'so far as state medical marijuana laws are concerned, we will not use federal resources to target medical marijuana patients or their providers.'
ASA had urged Rep. Cohen to ask this question because a rescheduling petition is currently waiting for review by the Department of Justice.
Rep. Polis, one of the newest members of the House Judiciary Committee and another representative with whom ASA worked closely on developing questions, then asked Holder to clarify federal medical cannabis policy. After voicing his support for the DOJ memo discouraging US Attorneys from prosecuting individuals in clear and unambiguous compliance with state law, Rep. Polis asked the attorney general to 'describe the objective processes DEA and US Attorneys are using in order to make a determination about whether individuals are in 'clear and unambiguous' compliance with state law.'
Holder said that he expects U.S. Attorneys to evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether individuals are acting 'consistent with state law.'
Rep. Polis replied that 'the question of whether or not its consistent with state law be left to state enforcement actions,' and pressed Holder to clarify what steps he is taking to ensure that the policy outlined in the memo is not undermined or contradicted by field agents, as happened recently in Rep. Polis' district in Colorado.
The attorney general admitted that it is his responsibility 'to make sure that what we've set out as policy is being followed. To the extent DEA or US Attorneys are not following that policy, my responsibility is to make sure the policy is clear, disseminated, and that employees of the Justice Department act accordingly.'
'We're grateful that medical cannabis patients now have strong allies in Congress, such as Reps. Cohen and Polis,' said ASA Government Affairs Director Caren Woodson after the hearing. 'ASA has worked hard to ensure that members with oversight over federal policy have all the information they need to ask the tough questions and help formulate more sensible approaches to medical cannabis.'
New Interpretation Creates More HardshipFollowing a contentious regulatory process, Americans for Safe Access last month filed an appeal of the zoning administrator's interpretation of the new medical cannabis ordinance in Los Angeles. The zoning appeal challenges the city's position on parking and nonconforming use status for medical cannabis collectives. The new rules say that medical cannabis dispensaries in LA must have at least one parking space per two hundred square feet of floor space.
'That is a tough standard for collectives to meet,' said ASA California Director Don Duncan. 'Combined with the other restrictions, this makes it even more difficult for them to find places they can be located.'
ASA's appeal argues that the parking requirement should be based on the square footage of the facility used for retail and manufacturing use - a less restrictive computation that would make finding a new location easier.
ASA is also challenging the city's contention that medical cannabis collectives have no status as prior nonconforming uses. Nonconforming status is a significant component of the lawsuit filed by ASA on March 2 seeking to overturn some of the more restrictive portions of the city's medical cannabis ordinance.
'Our research and experience show that sensible regulations reduce crime and complaints around collectives, while preserving access for legal patients,' said Duncan. 'We must not let those who oppose medical cannabis or misguided city staff use the regulatory process to roll back safe access to medicine. That is why ASA remains committed to fighting for reasonable regulations in Los Angeles and other jurisdictions.'