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All-Cash Marijuana Businesses Push For Change In Banking Law

By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — At the Cannabis Club Collective in Tacoma, Wash., Brian Caldwell has installed a top-of-the-line alarm system, motion sensors and a safe, hoping to protect the cash he collects from the 200-plus customers who buy marijuana at his store on an average day.

“We pretty much had to make a bank within our walls,” he said.

And at Auntie Dolores, a marijuana edibles shop in Oakland, Calif., Julianna Carella uses pouches to bag her cash at the end of the day, then sticks it in her trunk, feeling nervous as she drives away.

“It’s actually a huge headache to have to deal with all that cash. … It’s horrible,” she said.

While voters in a growing number of states have embraced marijuana in recent years, federal law still prevents pot businesses from using checks and credit cards offered by banks. That means that by law, they can deal only in cash.

Reviving a fight that stalled last year, the all-cash establishments and their allies in Congress are pushing hard again to change the law, convinced that marijuana shops have become inviting targets for thieves.

“Quite literally, you have accountants stuff $50,000 worth of cash in their backpack and walk it to a depository,” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., a member of the House Financial Services Committee. “This is a recipe for mischief if we don’t solve it.”

There’s a new twist in this year’s debate, with some in the cannabis industry suggesting that foreign banks or American Indian-owned financial institutions could serve as alternative depositories if Congress doesn’t provide a fix.

Many say the situation is bound to worsen as marijuana grows in popularity and markets expand.

So far, voters in Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska have approved the use of marijuana for recreational purposes, while 23 states allow it for medical reasons. And California voters, who in 1996 made the Golden State the first to back medical marijuana, are expected to decide a ballot initiative on recreational pot in 2016.

“You’re talking about cash businesses that are in the hundreds of millions and approaching billions of dollars in state markets,” said Leslie Bocskor, founder of Electrum Partners, a marijuana consulting firm in Las Vegas. “And that’s just frightening from a community’s safety perspective.”

The issue is gaining some traction on Capitol Hill. Last week, seven senators — including Patty Murray, D-Wash., and presidential candidate Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bill that would allow state-sanctioned marijuana businesses to use banking services without prosecution.

While Paul has been busy courting legalization backers as part of his presidential campaign, it was the first time that Murray has lent her name to a pro-marijuana bill since joining the Senate in 1993.

“Patty is real emblematic of the momentum that’s been building,” said Heck, one of 27 House members backing a bill called the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015. “She’s been pretty deliberative about getting there but, to her great credit, she did.”

Murray said in a statement that she wanted to give “much-needed clarity and security” to banks, credit unions and marijuana businesses.

Bocskor said many investors are eager to capitalize on marijuana companies if they can be made confident that their investments will be safe. His company is exploring alternatives, including the use of foreign banks — he noted, for example, that pot establishments in the marijuana haven of Amsterdam already accept credit cards. And he said it’s possible that outside firms could sign agreements to operate banks on Indian reservations, taking advantage of their tribal sovereignty.

“We believe there are advantages in it,” said Bocskor. “We would like to see Native Americans be able to use banking as another method to bring a little more economic development to the tribal lands. That can happen, but it’s a pretty heavy lift.”

Scott Jarvis, director of Washington state’s Department of Financial Institutions, questioned whether such a system would work, saying tribes would still end up “with a whole bunch of money that they have to get somehow to the real world system.”

The possibility of tribal involvement surfaced in February at a marijuana conference at the Tulalip reservation in Washington state. It came only months after the U.S. Justice Department said it would not prosecute tribes that wanted to regulate marijuana for recreational use if they did a good job policing themselves.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re looking at it,” Jarvis said. “There are major banks that supply services to the casinos but won’t touch the marijuana. They might get very nervous. …. It’s not a clear path down the highway.”

Robert Odawi Porter, former president of the Seneca Nation of New York and one of the conference organizers, said most tribes are still in the early stages of deciding whether they want to enter the pot industry at all. He predicted that any decisions on banking would follow, coming “pretty far down the road.”

“It’s certainly true that tribes can establish their own regulatory systems, but the challenge is the degree to which you have to interact with and integrate with the commercial banking system in the U.S.,” Porter said.

Caldwell, who has operated his business in Tacoma since 2011, said he’d be open to the possibility of banking with tribes.

“Some of the tribes have done a great job of managing cash with casinos and everything else — they’ve obviously got the experience for it,” he said.

For now, Caldwell said, he has one small bank account that he uses carefully to avoid getting “flagged.” He has 10 employees and draws from 200 to 300 customers per day, with 85 percent to 90 percent of his business done in cash.

“We’ve learned to deal with it,” Caldwell said. “You never have all your cash in one spot.” He’s hoping that Congress will approve Heck’s bill, which he said could even open the door for bank loans. “Oh, my gosh, I would be doing cartwheels.”

The Obama administration last year advised U.S. attorneys in states where the sale of marijuana is legal not to prosecute banks that allow pot stores to open accounts and accept credit card payments.

U.S. Treasury Department officials say that dozens of banks and credit unions across the country changed course and now do business with pot establishments. But most remain skittish, fearing the rules could easily change with a new administration in 2017.

Carella, who has run her Oakland shop since 2008, said her bank account was seized and she lost $8,000 last year when bank officials discovered they were doing business with a marijuana company.

Carella, who has 18 employees, said she sells products laced with marijuana to roughly 250 dispensaries in California, with 75 percent of them paying in cash. She said the administration’s promises have had little effect in persuading banks to do business with California operators.

“We cannot get a bank account,” she said. “It’s not the first time the Obama administration has given us false hopes.”

In Washington state, Jarvis said that nearly a dozen state-chartered banks and credit unions are now working with marijuana businesses.

“They’re pretty quiet about it,” he said. “Nobody wants to be known as a marijuana bank.”

Photo: Marijuana businesses aren’t allowed to deal with banks, but advocates want that to change. Rambling Dream via Flickr

Marijuana Gets Lift As 2016 Presidential Race Takes Shape

By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Early signs indicate that marijuana entrepreneurs may have little to worry about as the 2016 presidential campaign takes shape, with some top-rung hopefuls warming to the idea of letting states decide whether to legalize recreational pot.

On the Republican side, those potential candidates include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both of whom have admitted to using the drug during their younger years, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has said he was no “choir boy” in college.

On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she never experimented with marijuana but appears open to the idea of allowing states to legalize it.

It’s all good news for Tim Thompson, who commits a felony under federal law every time he sells marijuana to his customers at Altitude, the retail pot shop he opened last July in Prosser, Wash.

With Thompson’s store legal under Washington state law, he said it would be a mistake for anyone running for president in 2016 to try to shut down his operation.

“They’d be alienating themselves from a large majority of people who are for legalization if they took a hard line against it,” Thompson said.

While the push for legalization has gained great momentum in the past two years, the next president will have to decide whether to enforce the federal law that bans marijuana or follow the Obama administration’s lead in allowing states to tax and regulate it, as long as they do a good job policing themselves.

Legalization emerged as a big winner at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, where nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 activists who voted in a straw poll said it should be legal for either recreational or medical purposes.

Nationally, the most recent Gallup poll, conducted in October, found 51 percent of Americans backing legalization. But less than a third of conservatives said it should be legal.

The growing popularity of legalization was not lost on the parade of politicians at CPAC.

“Well, I was told Colorado provided the brownies here today,” Cruz told his audience, a reference to the first state that allowed recreational pot sales in January of last year.

At the gathering, Paul, Bush and Cruz all said that legalization should be left up to the states, responding to questions from talk-show host Sean Hannity of the Fox News Channel. Clinton disclosed her views in June on CNN.

Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, based in Washington, D.C., said it’s obvious that presidential candidates are paying attention to polls.

“Letting states set their own marijuana laws without federal interference is quickly becoming the default position among ambitious politicians in both parties. … When voters lead, politicians have to follow or get left behind,” he said.

To be sure, not all of the likely contenders in the top tier are jumping on the bandwagon. Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a crowd-pleaser at CPAC who’s scoring high in early polls, is among those who have consistently opposed legalization.

And others say it’s far too early to draw any conclusions on how the issue would fare in 2016.

Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that with the general election still 20 months away, it’s hardly a surprise that candidates are using what he called “the states’ rights card” as often as possible. But he noted that even George W. Bush, as a Republican presidential candidate in 1999, said states should have the right to decide whether to legalize medical marijuana. As president, Bush backed the federal law outlawing marijuana.

“I doubt that any of these candidates will want to run as the pro-marijuana candidate,” Sabet said. “Even Rand Paul stopped short of endorsing legalization, and he is the most libertarian of the bunch.”

Paul, who won the straw poll Saturday at CPAC for the third consecutive year, had plenty of backing from pro-marijuana activists at the conference. Many of his supporters said they believe Paul would move to legalize marijuana if he won the presidency.

“He’s more receptive to it than any other candidate,” said Dave Hargitt of Fayetteville, N.C., president of the North Carolina chapter of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, a group that had a booth at the exhibit hall at CPAC. “God gave us all free will, and that’s free will to make good decisions or bad decisions — it’s not the government’s place to tell me what I can and cannot do.”

Paul, who backs reduced penalties for drug offenses, appears ready to make marijuana a campaign issue. Last week at the political conference, he accused Bush of hypocrisy for opposing medical marijuana as governor even though he had smoked pot as a prep student.

John Baucum, president of the Houston Young Republicans, said that’s a message that resonates with the large group of voters under 40.

“First of all, I think he’s somebody who can win,” Baucum said of Paul. “We don’t see a lot of the candidates reaching out for that demographic, except for Rand.”

Paul has skipped around the question of whether he has ever used marijuana.

“Let’s just say I wasn’t a choir boy when I was in college and that I can recognize that kids make mistakes, and I can say that I made mistakes when I was a kid,” he told Louisville, Ky., television station WHAS in December.

Thompson, co-owner of the Washington state pot store, said it would be a relief to not have to worry about the federal law prohibiting marijuana after Obama leaves office in January 2017.

“Having it controlled by the state is a good idea,” he said. “In this area — and it’s a conservative area — most people like it when the federal government has less control of what we do in our day-to-day lives, especially something like this. It’s basically adults just trying to enjoy themselves.”

Pot Shots

Here’s what some of the prospective 2016 presidential hopefuls have to say about the legalization of marijuana:

Former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, all Republicans, made their comments at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland last week, responding to questions from talk-show host Sean Hannity of the Fox News Channel. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, disclosed her views in June in an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN.

Jeb Bush:
Asked what he thought of Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana in 2012, Bush replied: “I thought it was a bad idea, but states ought to have the right to do it.”

Ted Cruz:
Asked the same question, Cruz said: “If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. I personally don’t agree with it, but that’s their right.”

Rand Paul:
He said it’s “yet to be determined” whether legalization is a good or bad idea in Colorado, but he added: “I think freedom for the most part is a good thing. States’ rights is a good thing.”

Hillary Clinton:
In the CNN interview, she said: “On recreational (marijuana), states are the laboratories of democracy. We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In New Role, Sen. Patty Murray Is Eager To Push Obama’s Spending Plans

By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As a former preschool teacher, Democratic Senator Patty Murray is none too pleased with her state’s performance when it comes to educating 4-year-olds.

With only 8 percent of them enrolled, Washington state ranked 32nd in preschool access, according to a national report last year. And the state failed to make the cut in December when the U.S. Department of Education gave grant money to 18 other states to start or expand their preschool programs.

That number would expand to 40 as part of President Barack Obama’s $4 trillion budget for next year. And his 2016 spending plan envisions spending $75 billion over 10 years to pay for “Preschool For All,” an effort to eventually get all states on board.

Murray, a fourth-term senator who is up for re-election in 2016, likes the sound of that. She’s also happy that Obama wants to scrap automatic spending cuts and spend more on subsidized day care, paid leave and middle-class tax credits.

“I’ll be taking them all on,” Murray said in an interview Tuesday.

While she has promoted similar issues for years, Murray will be in prime position to try to shepherd the president’s plans through Congress as the new top-ranked Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

She’s eager to get started, calling the proposals “absolutely vital.” And she said that Washington state’s poor ranking in preschool access “sends a dramatic message to all of us that this is an area that we have to focus on.”

Obama’s budget, released Monday, is considered dead on arrival, and many Republicans said it called for far too much spending.

Illinois Republican Rep. Peter Roskam called it “the worst play call we’ve seen” from Obama, likening the budget to quarterback Russell Wilson’s last-minute intercepted pass that led to a loss for the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Murray called the spending document “a strong starting point” for Congress. She said she’s expecting the preschool plan to win backing from Republicans, too.

In what would come as major change for U.S. education policy, Murray wants the new preschool money included in an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law. That’s the federal blueprint for public schools passed by Congress in 2001 at the request of President George W. Bush.

Currently, the law only applies to kindergarten through 12th grade, but Murray said one of her top priorities is to get Congress to expand it as a way to force the federal government to focus more on preschool students.

“Look at other countries — China, India — that are very focused on making sure every one of their young kids gets access to early learning,” Murray said. “That’s who our competitors are in a global marketplace. … The evidence is 50 years in the making that this is the best investment we can make.”

White House officials make the same arguments, noting that the U.S. currently ranks 25th in the world in early education access, with millions of children cut off and kids in Mexico, France and Singapore much more likely to be enrolled in preschool.

A study released in May by the National Institute For Early Education Research ranked Washington state “far below average” in access to preschool, 32nd among states for enrolling 8 percent of 4-year-olds and 20th among states for enrolling 1 percent of 3-year-olds.

“I’m not surprised at all — we’re clearly behind where we should be,” said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and Early Childhood Education Assistance Program. “We’re still spending less than 1 percent of general fund dollars on early education in the state.”

But Ryan called the president’s plan “terrific” and said more children will be enrolled if Washington state legislators approve Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal to spend $80 million on more than 6,000 new preschool slots. More children will be served in Seattle after voters in the state’s largest city passed a $58 million property-tax levy in November to pay for more preschool education.

Convincing the Republican-led Congress to spend more on early childhood education won’t necessarily be an easy task.

When the House Committee on Education and the Workforce took up the issue last year, Russ Whitehurst, an education expert from the left-leaning Brookings Institution, told the panel that taxpayers have not gotten their money’s worth from early childhood programs and that there’s no proof that they’ve produced lasting educational gains.

But Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute For Early Education Research, said preschool education has become a bipartisan issue in many states, with Republicans often leading the call for more spending.

He said that how much the new Congress will spend on preschool could depend on the level of lobbying that Republicans on Capitol Hill receive from state and local leaders in their own party.

“I do think they want more at the state level,” Barnett said.

Murray’s counting on it.

“They know they need a federal partner in this,” she said.

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

Republicans Tell Obama To Get More Aggressive On Trade

By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Abandoned by many congressional Democrats who vow to kill his trade plans, President Barack Obama is banking on the new Republican majority to advance his ambitious proposal to sell more U.S. goods throughout the Pacific Rim.

To get it done, Obama wants special trade-promotion authority, known as TPA, that would force Congress to take an up-or-down vote on trade pacts once they’re negotiated, with no amendments or filibusters allowed.

Obama made the request in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, but many key Republicans say the president needs to step up his personal lobbying within his own party if he expects to prevail.

“The biggest need to push TPA across the line is the further hands-on involvement by the president himself,” said Republican Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington state, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and the President’s Export Council, which advises Obama on trade issues.

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, cited trade as a possible area of “common ground” for the White House and the new GOP Congress. But he said Obama needs to follow through.

“He needs to convince his party to vote for TPA — and soon,” Ryan said.

It could be a tough sell.

On Thursday, the Senate’s top Democrat, Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said he’s opposed to the president’s request, adding that he’s “always been suspect” of trade agreements.

“Until it’s shown to me that trade agreements help the middle class, I’m not going to be jumping on the bandwagon,” Reid said at a news conference.

The president faces a big fight from many of his longtime backers in Congress, along with labor and environmental groups, who want more details on his Pacific Rim trade plan, known formally as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP for short.

Negotiations are taking place behind closed doors, and many members of Congress complain that they’ve been kept in the dark, given only skimpy details in official briefings.

At a news conference earlier this month, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) said he had received a call from a constituent who wanted him to send a copy of the new trade deal.

“Of course, I cannot do that because I haven’t seen it. … If it’s so awesome, let us see it,” Ellison said.

Obama and his team say the plan would create thousands of new American jobs by creating the largest trade pact in history.

Opponents, many Democrats among them, fear the 12-nation pact, which includes Japan, would aid large corporations at the expense of middle-class Americans and only lead to more outsourcing of U.S. jobs.

And they’re in no mood to give Obama any trade authority that would speed up a final vote.

“We are going to fight this tooth and nail. … We’re going to win,” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said at news conference Wednesday at the Capitol.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s considering a 2016 presidential run, said U.S. trade policies have resulted in a “race to the bottom,” arguing that U.S. workers should not be forced to compete with low-wage workers in Vietnam.

Earlier this month, Sanders said he would introduce a bill that would force the Obama administration to release the entire contents of any trade pact if details of the TPP agreement are not made public.

Reichert said it would be a mistake to disclose details of the proposed pact until a deal is finalized, arguing that transparency could jeopardize the outcome of negotiations.

In a speech Wednesday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Michael Froman, Obama’s trade representative, said the TPP already has been the subject of more than 1,600 briefings for members of Congress.

And even if Congress passes trade-promotion authority, Froman said, there will be plenty of time for a long debate.

“Even when Congress begins its work, the process is designed to take up 90 legislative days, which is typically five calendar months or more,” Froman said. “That is hardly rushing to ram something through in the dead of night.”

In his speech, Obama said Congress needs to approve his trade plans because U.S. businesses “export more than ever” and need the protection of a trade pact to prevent China from calling the shots in the world’s fastest-growing region.

“Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense,” Obama said. “But 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities.”

Many of the president’s allies on other issues say they’re ready to campaign in individual congressional districts to make sure that TPA, also known as “fast-track” authority, is derailed.

“The AFL-CIO doesn’t just oppose fast track, we’re going to fight actively to kill it,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said when he joined Ellison and other congressional opponents at a news conference two weeks ago.

With so much opposition, Republicans want the president more involved in the nitty-gritty work of arguing for individual votes on Capitol Hill.

But Reichert, the co-founder of the Friends for TPP Caucus, complained that the bipartisan group of lawmakers hasn’t even been able to line up a strategy meeting with Obama, put off for months.

“He recognizes the political difficulty in moving this forward on his side of the aisle, and so I think there’s some hesitancy to get too close to it,” Reichert said. “But I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to meet with him.”

At the White House on Friday, press secretary Josh Earnest said that the TPP caucus already has heard from Froman and other senior administration officials, but nothing is planned with Obama.

“I’m not aware of any specific meetings that are on the books,” Earnest said. “But I’m confident that if Congressman Reichert wants to have a conversation with somebody at the White House or somebody inside the administration about the status of the talks, that he’ll get a phone call returned.”
___

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Wilderness Photo Plan Draws More Fire

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has put the brakes on a plan to charge hundreds of dollars in fees for commercial filming and photography on U.S. forest lands, but critics are far from satisfied.
“There is no doubt, as you look at this, that there is way too much confusion over what the Forest Service is trying to do here,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., whose district includes nearly a million acres in the Olympic National Forest.
While the Forest Service said the new rule would not apply to journalists, Kilmer said the agency still needs to clarify what’s at stake for all wilderness visitors. And he said the agency should be encouraging more visitors, not creating more bureaucratic hurdles to keep them away.
“Putting people through a bunch of unnecessary hassles, like paying hundreds of dollars and requiring them to get a permit, doesn’t in my view make a lot of sense,” Kilmer said in an interview.
The plan sparked plenty of outrage on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
Among the critics:
––Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called the proposal an example of “federal overreach.”
––Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., responded on Twitter, urging the Forest Service to “think again.”
––Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said he wants a “detailed clarification” of what the Forest Service intends to do.
––Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., chairman of the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on National Parks, said the rule is misguided and “defies common sense.”

Seeking to head off the firestorm, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the proposal would not apply to either the news media or recreational photographers.
And because of the high level of interest in the issue, he said the agency would give the public another month to respond to the photo plan, extending the official comment period to Dec. 3.
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
“We’re looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we’ve been hearing and clarify what’s covered by this proposed directive,” Tidwell said.
The American Civil Liberties Union joined the critics, saying the agency’s plan is flawed because it “needlessly picks on photography” instead of imposing limits on all commercial activity.
“That it’s being singled out here is a problem,” the ACLU said in a statement.

Kilmer, a first-term congressman, said he’s happy that the Forest Service “is acknowledging that they need to do a better job of providing clarity.”
He called it a particularly important issue for the tourism industry in the Pacific Northwest, noting that the Olympic National Forest had 3 million visitors last year alone.
“Listen, I represent a region that has had millions of visitors because people are captivated by our natural resources,” Kilmer said.
Tidwell called the plan an attempt to protect public land by creating consistent criteria to evaluate requests for commercial filming on wilderness sites.
The uproar began after the federal agency published a notice in the Federal Register on Sept. 4, seeking public comment on its plan.
After critics immediately accused the agency of trying to violate the First Amendment by forcing journalists to pay fees, Tidwell issued a statement saying that the new plan would not apply to any news-gathering activities.
“The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” he said.

Kilmer said he’s glad the Forest Service moved quickly to exempt the news media from its plan, but he said the agency has a history of poor dealings with the press. He said the agency has even forced some public television outlets to pay fees for filming.
“If you look at the history here, there’s been a tendency to have a kind of an overmanagement of the media,” Kilmer said.
But Kilmer’s satisfied with the delay, saying it will give the public more time to respond to the rule’s shortcomings while giving the agency more time to fine-tune its proposal.
“If we have a clear, transparent process, the hope is that we can end with a solution that can protect these areas without trampling on peoples’ rights,” Kilmer said.

Photo via Gwillhickers via Wikicommons

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New Rules Might Recognize More Tribes, Create New Casinos

By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As a proud Chinook Indian, Gary Johnson rejects the claim that his tribe in southwestern Washington state is extinct, even though that’s what the Bureau of Indian Affairs declared more than 12 years ago.

“They couldn’t be more wrong,” said Johnson, a former chairman of the tribe that helped Lewis and Clark navigate the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s.

Rob Jacobs of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe said it was silly that he couldn’t legally wear his eagle feathers because his tribe wasn’t among the 566 federally recognized tribes.

“We have to ask for permission to be Indian,” said Jacobs. “Think about it. It’s so sad.”

While no one bothers to count the tribes that have long gone unrecognized by the U.S. government, experts estimate the number at well over 200.

That might change, under new rules proposed by the Obama administration. They would give more tribes a faster track at joining the ranks of the recognized by making it easier for them to prove their legitimacy.

“This opens the door of opportunity,” said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, the director of the Indian legal program and a professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

It also opens the door to money. Winning such recognition makes a tribe eligible for more federal benefits and is a prerequisite to apply for the biggest prize of all: the right to run a casino.

While the rules have won backing from large tribal groups, they’re generating lots of controversy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has set a deadline of Sept. 30 for the public to weigh in and will then decide whether to adopt the rules.

Gambling opponents say the rules are too lenient and should be scrapped. Some smaller tribes say the rules are too onerous, fearing they’ll still be denied the recognition they’ve sought for decades.

Under the new rules, tribes would be required to document political influence or authority only since 1934, rather than as early as 1789. And they’d no longer be required to demonstrate that third parties have identified them as tribes since 1900.

The National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s largest organization of tribal governments, passed a resolution endorsing the new rules “as a matter of long-overdue justice and fairness.” The group said the current rules, adopted in 1978, had “severely deteriorated,” causing decades long delays and containing “irrational documentation requirements.”

When the Obama administration published the new rules in May, Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, called the changes “long overdue.”

Even if they’re approved, the bureau says it’s uncertain how many more tribes might get recognized, how much it might cost taxpayers, or whether any of the newly sanctioned tribes would get to open casinos.

“Whether to grant federal recognition and whether a tribe is eligible for Indian gaming are two wholly separate questions, governed by wholly separate standards and evaluated under wholly different processes,” said Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Photo: MCT/Rob Jacobs

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With Funding For Training Set To Expire, Rural Doctor Shortage Persists

By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — After two years as a medical school resident for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Aaron Rhyner sees 14 patients a day, works 50 to 80 hours a week, and earns roughly $50,000 a year.

Rhyner, 29, of Tacoma, Wash., calls his work “something special,” a chance to make a difference. He’s also doing his part to help fix a growing national shortage of primary-care physicians, which is expected to approach 52,000 by 2025, hitting rural regions and Indian reservations the hardest.

Experts say the national shortage is fueled by more doctor retirements, an aging and more rapidly growing population, and more people having health insurance. Many worry that if the government doesn’t intervene, too many low-income Americans will be locked out of the U.S. health-care system.

“If you call up and you can’t get an appointment because there aren’t any primary-care physicians, you’re not getting access to health care,” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state said in an interview.

Rhyner owes his job to Congress, which four years ago included $230 million in the Affordable Care Act to pay for training 550 graduate residents in 24 states.

With that funding set to expire next year, Murray wants Congress to spend $495 million more to keep the training going until 2019.

Murray, the head of the Senate Budget Committee and a veteran Senate appropriator, said her home state is expected to be nearly 1,700 doctors short by 2030.

She called the Puyallup tribe in western Washington state “a prime example” of a community that needs government help.

When the tribe created its residency program for medical school graduates three years ago, it had only two medical residents, including Rhyner.

This year the tribe is training 10 doctors, using $1.5 million in federal grant money. Its facility opened as the first osteopathic family medicine residency in the country with a Native American focus. Now there are two, with Oklahoma’s Choctaw Nation running a similar program. In Washington state, federal officials this year also paid for training programs in Yakima, Spokane, and Toppenish.

Nationwide, 60 graduate programs are operating in two dozen states this year, including California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Rhyner said most of his medical school classmates at Pacific Northwest University wanted to work in specialty fields that pay more, but he wanted to focus on family medicine and “get a chance to do everything.”

He grew up in Alaska but traveled extensively. He said he liked the idea of working on a reservation and joining a startup residency program he could help shape.

“I have kind of an eclectic background in the sense that my mom is from Pakistan and my dad is from Minnesota,” Rhyner said. “So I’ve lived all over the world. … I’ve experienced Third World countries and areas where they don’t have an opportunity to get access to good health care. It makes such a huge difference when we are there and we can help them.”

When he came to the reservation, Rhyner said, he wanted to “experience the community.” He has done just that, attending powwows, and participating in sweat-lodge ceremonies.

While the Affordable Care Act that expanded health-care coverage has become a political target for many Republicans, ridiculed by many critics as “Obamacare,” Murray said the teaching program deserves to be extended.

“Look, this was part of the bill that has turned out very successful,” she said. “We are expanding on that.”

On July 31, Murray introduced a bill — the Community-Based Medical Education Act of 2014 — to keep the program running at its current level through 2019. At that point, her bill would establish permanent funding under Medicare to train primary-care physicians in community-based settings, creating 1,500 more residency slots nationwide.

Murray has her work cut out for her, even though no opposition has emerged. She introduced her bill right before Congress left Washington for its long summer recess. So far, she has yet to line up any co-sponsors, and no similar legislation has been introduced in the Republican-led House.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

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Veterans Push To Smoke Pot To Ease PTSD, Other Ailments

By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — After flying helicopters in Vietnam for 30 months, Perry Parks couldn’t stop the panicked dreams.

“I was flying through wires all the time and I never hit the wire,” said Parks, 71, a retired military commander from Rockingham, N.C. “I’m a helicopter pilot, so wires scare the hell out of you.”

Parks, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, said he took sleeping pills for years after he retired. Then he found a more satisfying alternative: two or three bong hits at least three times a day.

“I don’t have the dreams anymore,” he said.

Faced with a skyrocketing suicide rate in their ranks, many of the nation’s veterans hope that marijuana will be their salve. Federal officials and veterans groups estimate that nearly 31 percent of Vietnam veterans and 20 percent of returning service members from Iraq and Afghanistan are grappling with PTSD.

Veterans such as Parks increasingly are taking their case to statehouses and to Capitol Hill, where they plan to lobby members of Congress next Monday.

They scored a win in March when federal officials ended a three-year fight with a University of Arizona research team, agreeing to provide government-grown pot from Mississippi for a PTSD study. Only days before the study won approval, organizers had planned to mobilize veterans for a protest in Washington.

“Truthfully, it’s the activism from veterans all around this country that’s really moved this forward,” said Suzanne Sisley, a clinical assistant professor of internal medicine and psychiatry at the University of Arizona’s medical school. She’ll lead the study, which calls for giving 50 veterans the equivalent of two joints per day.

Sisley said veterans were helping to overcome opposition from those who feared pot research because they thought it would lead to legalization.

“They think that marijuana research is going to prove that this drug is safe and effective, and they don’t want that,” she said of opponents to the research. “They don’t want any of that data to ever see the light of day. So they’re going to fight it at every turn.”

Parks said he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2002, five years after first seeing a psychiatrist who eventually told him he had all the symptoms. In addition to dealing with nightmares and chronic back pain, he said he was easily startled and would “jerk big time” at any noise.

“A lot of things like that, I just didn’t understand,” he said. “I’m in excellent shape — that’s what always bothered me: How can you be disabled if you can ride on a Jet Ski?”

Parks may have found his relief, but he’s violating federal and state law. The federal government’s official position is that marijuana, as a Schedule I substance, has no medical value. And the North Carolina Legislature most recently rejected medical marijuana in 2013.

While thousands of Americans go to jail each year for violating marijuana laws, Parks is confident he won’t get arrested.

“I’m a white, successful person; they don’t mess with people like me,” said Parks, a former president of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network.

When an officer at the North Carolina Statehouse once complained that he smelled pot upon Parks’ arrival, Parks admitted that he had smoked and suggested that he be arrested, figuring it would produce a good public spectacle. Parks said the officer told him: “You’re not going to use law enforcement to further your efforts.”

Reflecting on the incident later, Parks said it made him cry: “If I had been black or young or an immigrant or a Mexican, I would have been spread-eagle on the floor.”

According to the advocacy group Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, it’s legal to smoke marijuana for PTSD in 11 states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Twenty states have passed medical marijuana laws, but some of them don’t cover PTSD.

Al Byrne, a Navy veteran with PTSD who’s a co-founder of a Virginia nonprofit group called Patients Out of Time that promotes therapeutic uses of marijuana, said the federal government faced “a conundrum” after sending conflicting messages. Notably, he said, the Veterans Affairs Department allows patients treated at its facilities to use medical marijuana so long as it’s legal in the states where they live.

“I call it medical treatment by geography: You can live in the wrong ZIP code to get treatment from your government, even though you’re a veteran and you’ve been wounded,” Byrne said.

In Washington state, Rick Rosio, a medical marijuana provider, said the country needed to move on beyond the political debates. He’s aiming to sign up 100,000 veterans in a program he’s developed that he calls “compassionate care.” It would help them gain access to both marijuana and better job opportunities, he said. Rosio said cannabis therapy could help many of the veterans reduce their dependency on opiates.

“Politics should not be played with veterans’ suffering,” said Rosio, of Spokane, who was sentenced last year to five years of probation on a felony charge of growing more than 50 pot plants. “And without question the veterans carry a mighty voice.”

Veterans groups predict that medical marijuana will become available soon in more states, including Florida, where a vote is set for November.

They say they’ve found a key ally in pushing their message: CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, who previously opposed medical marijuana, has done two in-depth reports on the issue. In the first one, which aired last year, Gupta apologized for once dismissing the potential of medical marijuana. In the second one, which aired last month, he touted the benefits of marijuana for epilepsy patients who’d moved to Colorado to get the drug.

“When it got on CNN, finally, the rest of the public was able to catch up,” said Michael Krawitz, an Air Force veteran who heads Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access in Elliston, Va.

Sisley said her project won approval only days after Gupta’s documentary touched off a flurry of interest: “You can’t ignore the time sequence here.”

In many states, however, medical marijuana remains a tough sell.

“You’ve got to look at the bottom line: Every major medical association does not believe that there’s such a thing right now as medical marijuana — it’s a falsehood, it doesn’t exist,” Republican state Rep. Robert Benvenuti of Lexington, Ky., said in an interview.

Benvenuti, a leading opponent of a medical marijuana bill that stalled in Kentucky this year, said the issue was best left to federal regulators. He said more research was needed, with many psychiatrists thinking that smoking marijuana could worsen PTSD, leading to paranoia and isolation. And he said it would be “arrogant and irresponsible and reckless for a handful of legislators to decide what a medicine is.”

Byrne said marijuana clearly was medicine. And with government statistics showing 22 veterans committing suicide each day, he said: “This is a war we’re in.”

Many veterans say they’re in a Catch-22: Federal officials admit they’ve done relatively little to fund pot research projects looking for benefits, following their mandate to focus on the abuse of and addiction to an illegal drug.

“It’s an outrageous situation, where the federal government says that you can’t have access to cannabis as a medicine because it’s totally untested, and then you try to study it and they say you can’t because it’s illegal,” Krawitz said. “They got away with that for a very long time.”

Krawitz smokes pot for chronic pain after a motorcycle accident in Guam nearly killed him, forcing him to undergo 13 operations.

After spending 30 years in the military, Parks has become a fierce advocate for his cause, personally lobbying more than 50 legislators in his home state and meeting and getting photographed with President Barack Obama when the president visited Winston-Salem in 2010.

He called himself a born-again Christian who goes to church three times a week but said he’d chosen “to disobey man’s law” by smoking pot. He hopes that the Arizona study will help more veterans, though he’s shocked that it took years to get it approved.

“If there’s any chance that it could be a positive influence, how could we wait this long?” Parks asked. “How long have we got to wait?”

AFP Photo/Desiree Martin