Advocates Demand Biden Take Marijuana Action After Brittney Griner Sentenced To Nine Years In Russian Prison For Vapes | Big Indy News
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Advocates Demand Biden Take Marijuana Action After Brittney Griner Sentenced To Nine Years In Russian Prison For Vapes

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American basketball player Brittney Griner was been sentenced on Thursday to nine years in Russian prison after being found guilty of possessing cannabis vape cartridges.

The case has captured international attention, placed pressure on the White House to secure her release and prompted calls from advocates and lawmakers to reform U.S. marijuana laws that similarly criminalize people over cannabis.

In a statement on Thursday, President Joe Biden said that Griner’s sentencing “is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney.” The State Department classified Griner as a “wrongfully detained” person and maintained that designation even after she pleaded guilty to the cannabis possession charge.

“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan [who is serving a 16-year sentence over alleged espionage in Russia] home safely as soon as possible.”

At a White House press briefing on Thursday afternoon, Griner’s case was a central focus. National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said that the athlete “shouldn’t have even been on trial” because she was “wrongfully detained.”

“Absent that, we find the sentence reprehensible in its scope,” he said, adding that there’s a trend in Russia’s judicial system where foreigners generally face more severe sentences compared to Russians over similar drug offenses.

Still, while a majority of U.S. states have legalized marijuana in some form, including Arizona where Griner is a registered medical cannabis patient, federal law still strictly prohibits marijuana. A first offense for possession of any amount of cannabis under federal criminal code is punishable by up to one year in prison, with sentences increasing for subsequence offenses.

U.S. law might not be as severe, or enforced as consistently, but advocates argue that Griner’s case demonstrates the urgent need for federal marijuana reform, even if it might not directly affect the athlete’s overseas case. Russian officials have been unwilling to accept a prisoner swap that U.S. officials have reportedly floated, which would involve releasing Griner in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer.

“Today’s sentencing of Griner underscores the need for domestic cannabis reform,” Martiza Perez, director of the office of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “The U.S. is responsible for exporting the drug war across the globe. It still arrests, incarcerates, and deports people for low-level cannabis arrests and convictions.”

“This makes it incredibly challenging to protect U.S. citizens abroad. We cannot stand on a moral or legal high ground because we don’t have it,” Perez said. “The US must end marijuana prohibition and remedy the harms of mass cannabis criminalization.”

Russian officials have strongly contested the U.S. characterization of the appropriateness of Griner’s prosecution. A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry went so far as to point out that the U.S. position is somewhat hypocritical given that people are still criminalized over cannabis in both countries.

At her sentencing hearing, Griner pleaded with the judge not to “end her life” over the cannabis offense, saying she “made an honest mistake,” according to Reuters.

“This is playing out on the world stage for everyone to see,” U.S. Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA) told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Thursday, adding that Griner has found herself caught in a “political battle that she shouldn’t have been in, as with many, many Americans who have found themselves in similar situations.”

“This gives us an opportunity to highlight the complexity, the hypocrisy and the urgency to level the field on these misdemeanors and criminal on cannabis charges,” the congressman said. “We should use this as a shining example of the things that are wrong in our world, in our country, and recognize that we have opportunities now to fix them.”

Justin Strekal, founder of the BOWL PAC, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “a sad state of affairs that Brittney Griner is a political pawn to one of the few countries that criminalize cannabis more heavily than the United States.”

“As President Biden continues to declare Griner wrongfully detained, he should take steps to uncouple the fact both the U.S. and Russia incarcerate Americans for cannabis possession,” Strekal said.

Steven Hawkins, CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council, called Griner a “political prisoner” and said the sentence is “an outrage.”

But he also told Marijuana Moment that it should be a “wakeup call for Americans.”

“Her trial and sentence in Russia may seem like an outlier at a time of sweeping acceptance and legalization, but it isn’t. Cannabis remains illegal and possession is harshly punished around the world. The US is no exception,” he said, pointing to a recent Mississippi Supreme Court ruling upholding a life sentence for a cannabis possession charge.

“Thousands of Americans are in prison at this moment for cannabis charges,” Hawkins said. “We call on President Biden to get Griner home safely and clean up our own affairs by granting a blanket pardon for cannabis offenses and encouraging state and local expungement efforts.”

While Biden has taken no meaningful steps to decriminalize marijuana or broadly free cannabis prisoners as he promised on the campaign trail, he did make his first public comment on marijuana policy since taking office last month, reiterating that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over the plant.

But even with the executive authority to grant mass pardons to people with federal cannabis convictions, the administration is still in the process of exploring its clemency options, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week.

“A sentence of nine years for possession of a minuscule amount of cannabis product—clearly without ‘criminal intent’—is a travesty, but not especially surprising,” NORML Political Director Morgan Fox told Marijuana Moment. “Brittney Griner is obviously being used as a political pawn, and as such has become yet another victim of the global war on cannabis consumers which has been largely perpetuated by her home country.”

“The chickens of prohibition are coming home to roost, and people like Brittney Griner are paying the price.”

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state lawmakers and congressional candidate, said that Biden must do all that he can to secure Griner’s release in light of the harsh sentencing, and he must also “correct that injustice here in America, too.”

“Far too many people are locked up over non-violent drug offenses,” she said.

Derek Kitchen, a Democratic state senator in Utah said that “marijuana propaganda and disinformation has led to inappropriate criminalization of natural medicine around the world.”

“Now [Griner] is paying the price behind bars in Russia,” he said. “She deserves to come home.”

Several lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), called attention to Griner’s case on Thursday, condemning the outsized penalty she’s currently facing without specifically mentioning the cannabis-related nature of the offense.

“Absolutely wrong. Brittney, her family, and friends have been through so much during this ordeal—we must end this,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) said. “We must do everything in our power to end this injustice — and force Putin and Russia to release her immediately.”

While Biden only mentioned Griner and Whelan by name in Thursday’s statement, a senior administration official also recently said that they are actively looking into another case of a U.S. citizen, Mark Fogel, who is being held in Russia over a marijuana-related offense to see if the administration can secure his release.

Fogel has not been designated as a “wrongfully detained” person at this point, however. That classification generally escalates diplomatic engagement to secure a U.S. citizen’s release.

There are several factors that can lead the U.S. to classify someone as such, so it’s possible that officials haven’t based the Griner designation on the question of innocence of guilt, per se. It could be the case that they believe she is being held for political reasons as Russia faces international condemnation over its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has taken a particularly strong stance against reforming cannabis policy at the international level through the United Nations. And it condemned Canada for legalizing marijuana nationwide.

The deputy of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in March that legalization efforts in the U.S. and Canada are matters “of serious concern for us,” according to a social media post from the office’s official account. “It is worrisome that several Member States of the [European Union] are considering violating their drug control obligations.”

Booker Says There’s Republican Support For ‘SAFE Banking Plus’ Marijuana Compromise

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New Jersey Marijuana Regulators Approve Rules For Public Cannabis Consumption Areas

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New Jersey marijuana regulators approved rules for “public cannabis consumption areas” on Friday, bringing the state one step closer to providing the social use option to adults and patients.

Adult-use cannabis shops opened in April, but advocates have emphasized the need to implement regulations that give people additional spaces for where they can lawfully consume.

On Friday, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) moved closer to achieving that goal by approving requirements for the consumption sites and fees for businesses that operate them.

“Equitable access to cannabis means everyone who wishes to consume has some place they can do that—legally, safely, and responsibly,” CRC Chair Dianna Houenou said in a press release. “When regulated properly, cannabis consumption areas can strengthen the industry, while giving people more choices on where they consume.”

Food items could not be sold on-site under the draft rules, though people would be able to bring their own food or have it delivered. Alcohol and tobacco could not be sold or consumed at the cannabis consumption sites.

The proposed application fee and microbusiness and standard license fees for the facilities would be $1,000. They could operate indoors or outdoors, but the latter would need to be enclosed.

“I’m very excited that we’re pushing this forward because it is a safe space for consumers and patients,” one commissioner said ahead of the vote to approve the draft rules. “It’s definitely another stride for the commission, so I’m really excited that we were able to put this together on a timely manner.”

Before the rules are finalized, they will be posted in the New Jersey Register, after which point they will be subject to a 60-day public comment period.

CRC further approved 113 conditional cannabis licenses, eight annual licenses and six conversations from conditional to annual at their meeting on Friday.

The public consumption development in New Jersey comes just days after Nevada regulators announced the winners of the state’s first cannabis lounge licensees.

In 2019, Alaska became the first state to enact regulations that provide for the on-site use option at dispensaries.

Colorado followed suit with legislation approved that legalized cannabis “tasting rooms” and “marijuana hospitality establishments” where adults could freely use cannabis.

Social consumption sites are also provided for in New York’s recently enacted marijuana legalization law, though it’s not clear how long after the first retailers open that such activity will be authorized.


Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,500 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

In New Jersey, the governor also recently said that the state should “revisit” its current criminalization of homegrown marijuana for personal use—but he thinks that conversation should happen at a later point after the commercial market has matured.

In October, the New Jersey Assembly separately approved a bill that would allow licensed marijuana businesses to deduct certain expenses on their state tax returns, a partial remedy as the industry continues to be blocked from making federal deductions under Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code known as 280E.

While the adult-use market is still developing, it’s already proven profitable, with the state reporting about $80 million in marijuana sales in the first ten weeks after retailers opened shop in April.

A bill filed by Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D) over the summer would also authorize the governor to enter into agreements for interstate marijuana commerce with other states that have legalized cannabis. However, the agreements could only be forged if federal law changes, or if the Justice Department issues guidance permitting such activity.

The Senate president separately filed legislation to legalize psilocybin in New Jersey, and it includes provisions that would allow people to cultivate the psychedelic at home.

Biden Signs Marijuana Research Bill, A Historic First For Federal Cannabis Reform

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Biden Signs Marijuana Research Bill, A Historic First For Federal Cannabis Reform

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President Joe Biden has officially signed a marijuana research bill into law, making history by enacting the first piece of standalone federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history.

The bill cleared the House in April and the Senate last month, and a White House spokesperson confirmed to Marijuana Moment that the president intended to sign it. On Friday, he did just that.

The law gives the U.S. attorney general 60 days to either approve a given application or request supplemental information from the marijuana research applicant. It also creates a more efficient pathway for researchers who request larger quantities of cannabis.

The president remains opposed to federal cannabis legalization, but he campaigned on a number of more modest marijuana reforms, including promoting research, decriminalization and rescheduling cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

Biden also issued a mass pardon for Americans who’ve committed federal marijuana possession cases in October and directed an administrative review into cannabis scheduling. The White House recently listed those actions among the “top accomplishments” for the president.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Andy Harris (R-MD) sponsored the House version of the research legislation, which is substantively identical to a Senate bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that previously cleared that chamber.

“Thank you to Representatives Blumenauer, Harris, Griffith, Joyce, Mace, and Perlmutter, Delegate Norton, and Senators Feinstein, Grassley, Schatz, Durbin, Klobuchar, Tillis, Kaine, Ernst, Tester, and Murkowski for their leadership,” the president said on Friday.

Blumenauer and Harris previously championed a separate cannabis research bill that advanced through their chamber in April. Unlike that legislation, however, the newly approved bill notably does not include a provision that scientists had welcomed that would have allowed researchers to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries to study.

The research legislation further encourages the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop cannabis-derived medicines. One way it proposes doing so is by allowing accredited medical and osteopathic schools, practitioners, research institutions, and manufacturers with a Schedule I registration to cultivate their own cannabis for research purposes.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is now mandated to approve applications to be manufacturers of marijuana-derived, FDA-approved drugs under the bill. Manufacturers will also be allowed to import cannabis materials to facilitate research into the plant’s therapeutic potential.

Another section requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to look at the health benefits and risks of marijuana as well as policies that are inhibiting research into cannabis that’s grown in legal states and provide recommendations on overcoming those barriers.

The bill further states that it “shall not be a violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) for a State-licensed physician to discuss” the risk and benefits of marijuana and cannabis-derived products with patients.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis published in July found that the proposal would reduce direct spending by less than $500,000 and would have a “negligible net change in the deficit.”

There are only a few changes in this new bill compared to the original version the Senate passed earlier this year.

For example, the text now says that researchers won’t need to notify or receive a review from DEA if change study protocols, as long as they already have a Schedule I registration. The previous language said broadly that researchers wouldn’t need to reapply for approval. Also, the new version makes more explicit references to cannabis in the text, rather than “drug” generally.

Another revision deals with a section that mandates the attorney general to conduct an annual review of the supply of cannabis that’s available for research purposes. The new bill says DOJ must carry out that review in consultation with HHS, and says that the latter department will need to submit a report to Congress if it determines that the supply is inadequate.

Finally, a section of the original bill concerning the importation of CBD for research purposes was removed from the new measure.


Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,500 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Both the House and Senate passed earlier versions of their separate but similar cannabis research bills in late 2020, but nothing ended up getting to then-President Donald Trump’s desk by the end of the last Congress.

Congressional researchers separately released a report in March that details the challenges posed by ongoing federal prohibition and the options that lawmakers have available to address them.

DEA has taken steps in recent years to approve new cultivators of marijuana to be used in studies, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently published a solicitation for applications from those authorized growers as it looks for new contractors to supply the agency with cannabis for research purposes.

Meanwhile, large-scale infrastructure legislation that was signed by Biden last year contains provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal businesses instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) sought an update this week on the status of a federal report into research barriers that are inhibiting the development of a standardized test for marijuana impairment on the roads, as required under that infrastructure legislation.

NIDA Director Nora Volkow told Marijuana Moment last year that scientists have been unnecessarily limited in the source of cannabis they’re permitted to study—and it makes sense to enact a policy change that expands their access to products available in state-legal markets.

Also, last month, congressional lawmakers held a hearing to discuss federal marijuana legalization and state cannabis developments, hearing testimony from a panel of broadly pro-reform advocates.

The chairman of the subcommittee that held that hearing also said on Tuesday that he will soon be introducing a bill aimed at protecting federal workers from being denied security clearances over marijuana.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) filed a bill last month that would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to access certain federal Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and services that are available to companies in any other industry.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the 2024 president election last month.

In a speech announcing his candidacy, Trump signaled that drug policy will be a focal point of his campaign—but not by advocating for reform. He talked about waging “war on the cartels” and working with Congress to pass legislation to impose the death penalty on “drug dealers” who are “responsible for death, carnage and crime.”

Biden’s Health Secretary Gives Update On Marijuana Scheduling Review Directed By The President

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Biden’s Health Secretary Gives Update On Marijuana Scheduling Review Directed By The President

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The head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says that the Biden administration is committed to supporting evidence-based policies for marijuana as it works to complete a review of federal cannabis scheduling that was directed by the president.

That science-focused approach also applies to policy decisions on other drugs, he said.

At an event on overdose prevention on Friday, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra was asked about broad drug decriminalization efforts. And while he said that it isn’t within the department’s “jurisdiction” to make policy decisions like that, the government won’t be using “20th century modalities and ways of thinking to drive what we do if we have evidence that tells us we go a different direction.”

“We would not be the ones who would be proposing [decriminalization], but we certainly would weigh in on any issue involving decriminalization of any controlled substance,” he said before specifically addressing President Joe Biden’s marijuana scheduling directive.

“We’re going to take a look at what science tells us and what the evidence tells us,” Becerra, who has a considerable record supporting cannabis reform as a congressman and as California’s attorney general, said. “That will guide what we do—and we hope that will guide what the federal government does.”

Watch the discussion on marijuana and broader drug policy, starting around 27:40 into the video below:

 

Following the president’s cannabis pardons and scheduling announcement in October, the secretary said that the department would “work as quickly as we can” to carry out the scientific review. And he’s already discussed the issue with the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to that end.

More broadly on drug policy, the official said on Friday that, “at the end of the day, we should all be about keeping people alive and letting those people thrive.”

“At HHS, we took a turn with our new strategies on drug overdose and drug use, because we think at the end of the day, each one of our loved ones deserves a chance to, as I said, stay alive and thrive,” he said.

Becerra was joined at Friday’s event by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who also responded to the drug policy question.

The senator said that she’s “long supported decriminalization of marijuana,” going back to her time as a state lawmaker in Wisconsin. Her support is based on “a number of different reasons, including the ramifications when use and possession is criminalized,” she said.

“As a federal official now in the U.S. Senate, I am observing the fact that there is a lack of coordination as you have state after state that are reexamining their laws through referenda or through action in the state legislatures—that we have a conflict between federal law and state law,” Baldwin, who has cosponsored several marijuana reform bills over her tenure, including banking and legalization proposals, said.

Meanwhile, with respect to the president’s scheduling directive, the White House drug czar said recently that that the action was “historic,” adding that there are “clearly” medical benefits of cannabis.

Like HHS, DOJ has similarly committed to quickly carrying out the separate scheduling review the president directed, which could result in a recommendation to place cannabis in a lower schedule or remove it altogether, effectively legalizing the plant under federal law.

Separately, Biden recently cheered a move by Oregon’s governor to grant tens of thousands of marijuana pardons this week, which followed his own federal clemency action last month. And he says other states should “follow Oregon’s example.”

A White House spokesperson also told Marijuana Moment last month that the president intends to sign a bipartisan marijuana research bill that was recently passed by Congress.

A series of polls have shown that Americans strongly support the president’s pardon action, and they also don’t think that marijuana should be federally classified as a Schedule I drug.

DOJ Has Concerns About Marijuana Banking Bill, Newly Surfaced Memo Reveals, But Sources Say They’ve Been Resolved

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