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Alabama Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Bill

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After hours of tense debate, the Alabama Senate voted on Wednesday to pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Lawmakers voted 22-11 in support of the legislation, which would allow qualifying patients to purchase certain medical marijuana products from state-licensed dispensaries. Cannabis intended for smoking or vaping would be prohibited under the proposal, meaning only preparations such as tablets, topicals and certain infused edibles would be available.

“I think in this day and time, with the opioid crisis, we need to try alternative medicines that will help people,” said Sen. David Sessions (R), who voted to pass the bill.

With the Senate’s approval on Wednesday, the proposal now heads to the House, where its prospects are unclear. Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R) has been noncommittal, telling reporters last month that he was in “wait and see mode.”

The state’s attorney general, meanwhile, has urged lawmakers to oppose any move to legalize.

The bill, SB 165, would establish a state Medical Cannabis Commission to register patients and oversee licensing businesses.

Under the measure, patients suffering from specified conditions would qualify for the program. Those include anxiety, cancer, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Patients would be able to purchase up to a 70-day supply at a time, and there would be a cap of 32 dispensaries allowed in the state.

Products would be tested for potency and contaminants, and sales from licensed dispensaries would be subject to a nine percent tax. Part of those funds would go toward creating a new Consortium for Medical Cannabis Research, which would provide grants to study the plant.

Medical marijuana would be tracked from seed to sale under the measure, which also contains a number of restrictions on advertising. Workers at cannabis facilities would be subject to background checks.

“Today’s landslide vote in the Alabama Senate shows lawmakers in even the most conservative states in the nation are starting to recognize that allowing medical cannabis is good politics and good policy. Voters of every political background overwhelmingly support allowing medical cannabis,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “That said, with polls showing upwards of 90 percent of Americans supporting allowing medical marijuana, it’s alarming that 27 states continue to criminalize patients for choosing a safer alternative to opioids.”

The bulk of opposition during Senate debate on Wednesday came from Sen. Arthur Orr (R). Orr, who admitted at times that he was unfamiliar with certain aspects of the bill as well as underlying research around medical marijuana generally, questioned virtually every element of the bill and its amendments.

At one point he demanded that Sen. Tim Melson (R), SB 165’s sponsor, produce medical literature in support of the legalization proposal. But Orr indicated that even such evidence wouldn’t change his mind: “What happened in the world of opioids, I don’t know that I really trust the medical community as a broad group,” he said.

Orr also attacked a successful amendment by Sen. Bobby Singleton (D) that would work to ensure diversity in the state’s new medical marijuana industry. When Orr complained that he wasn’t privy to what was in the proposal, Singleton replied: “You just told me you really didn’t get involved in it and didn’t look at it.”

In response to badgering from Orr, who described the relatively modest medical marijuana proposal as taking a “pedal to the metal” approach, Melton replied: “I’m beginning to wonder how long you left your training wheels on.”

The Senate also approved a raft of additional amendments to the bill during Wednesday’s debate. The most notable of the changes imposes a 75-milligram daily limit on THC intake, where previously the bill had no limit. (Orr proposed a lower, 50-mg limit, as well as a separate measure limiting cannabis products to 10 percent THC, but those amendments failed.) Another will prevent regulators from expanding the current list of qualifying conditions, instead requiring sign-off from lawmakers. Other approved changes will expand the number of available business licenses and restrict those licenses to in-state actors.

A measure to add menopause or premenstrual syndrome as qualifying medical conditions for cannabis was also approved after a brief delay in the chamber to consider other legislation.

Following the spurt of amendments, Orr threatened to kill the bill by speaking until midnight, especially if none of his amendments were accepted. He then introduced another proposal to remove some of the qualifying conditions but told members they were free to leave for the hour he was allotted to speak before coming back to vote. In effect, he was making good on his threat and engaging in somewhat of a filibuster to delay the legislation. That measure was defeated.

Another Orr amendment, which was approved, limits medical cannabis products for minors to 3 percent THC.

Those changes came in addition to other amendments added during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month. One amendment approved by the panel shields doctors from legal liability for recommending marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. Another clarifies that workers who cause accidents while under the influence of cannabis don’t qualify for workers’ compensation.

While Melson and supporters pushed back some of the restrictive changes proposed on the floor, they embraced others as likely to help build political support for the bill.

The Senate approved a separate medical marijuana bill last year, but it was ultimately gutted in the House. As enacted, the legislation did not include provisions to legalize cannabis but instead set up a study commission to look into the issue and develop recommendations.

In December, the newly created study commission came back with its report, which recommended medical marijuana be legalized.

“Although some medical study results are inconclusive and some results are mixed,” the report found, “there is strong scientific evidence that both hemp and marijuana contain compounds that provide significant relief for symptoms of certain specified medical conditions.”

Melson, the sponsor of both SB 165 and last year’s legalization bill, says the new measure is an updated and more politically feasible version of last year’s legislation that incorporates the study group’s recommendations.

New NFL Policy Would End Suspensions For Testing Positive For Any Drug—Not Just Marijuana

Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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New Mexico Governor And Senate Leader Say Marijuana Legalization Can Pass This Year

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The governor of New Mexico and a top Senate leader are bullish about getting marijuana legalization passed this session, with both making recent comments about what they hope the soon-to-be-introduced legislation will accomplish.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who included the reform as part of her 2021 legislative agenda she released this month, said in a TV interview that she’s “optimistic” about cannabis reform adding that projections show the state gaining thousands of jobs and raising hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

“I’m still really optimistic about cannabis, which is 12,000 jobs,” she told KOB-TV, “and you know by the fifth year in operation, the projections are we would make $600 million a year.”

But while the “large economic boost” that the governor expects legalization to bring is an important component, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers are also taking seriously the need to address social equity.

Watch the governor talk about cannabis reform, starting around 4:40 into the video below: 

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D) said last week that he’s having ongoing conversations with multiple legislators who plan to sponsor legalization bills, and he’s conveyed to them that whatever piece of legislation advances must “address those fundamental underlying issues” of social justice.

In terms of process, the top lawmaker said it’s important for legislators to be talking about their respective bills early on to resolve as many differences as possible before the issue reaches committee or the floor. The failure to get those issues taken care of in a timely manner is partly why the legislature wasn’t able to pass legalization during last year’s short session.

A bill to legalize cannabis for adult use passed one Senate committee last year only to be rejected in another before the end of the 30-day session. Earlier, in 2019, the House approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but it later died in the Senate.

“This year I know the legislators have been working very hard, shaping and crafting these bills, and that kind of from the ground up versus the top down approach that I think is needed for a legislation of this kind,” Wirth told the Growing Forward podcast that’s a joint project of NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS. “Again, we just can’t get it into a final committee in a place where it’s not really ready to go.”

Watch the senator majority leader discuss the legislature’s work to legalize marijuana below: 

The new, post-election makeup of key committees has been helping to facilitate this dialogue and get ahead of disagreements, he said.

While Wirth said he expects some of the same voices coming out in opposition to the legislature’s push to enact legalization this session, he’s “feeling more confident” about passing the reform in the Senate this year.

Several anti-legalization Democrats, including the Senate president pro tem and the Finance Committee chair, were ousted by progressive primary challengers last year.

Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year is coming from neighboring Arizona, where voters approved legalization in November and where sales officially launched last week. New Mexico shares another border with Colorado, one of the first states to legalize for adult use. Cannabis is also expected to be legalized across the southern border in Mexico, with lawmakers facing a Supreme Court mandate to end prohibition by April 2021.

Wirth said it’s important to make sure that adult-use legalization doesn’t come at the peril of the state’s existing medical cannabis program.

“I just think that it’s a program that’s really been a model for how it’s been rolled out, how it’s worked, and we want to make sure that it stays intact and is still a functioning program,” he said. “That’ll be another a big issue.”

With at least five legalization bills being prepared in the state, Wirth said, there will be plenty for lawmakers to sift through and negotiate this session. The majority leader noted that another question is whether to put marijuana tax dollars in the state’s general fund or to earmark it for specific programs.

Rep. Javier Martinez (D), who has consistently sponsored cannabis reform bills in past sessions, said recently that the “biggest change you’ll see in this bill, which is one of the main points of contention last year, was the creation of a number of different funds, earmarks, tax coming in from cannabis.”

In any case, there’s economic urgency to pass and implement a legal cannabis program. And while no bills have been introduced so far this session, lawmakers expect several to be released as early as this week.

“I’m hopeful that this is the year to get this done,” Wirth said. “I just think the longer we wait, the less of an economic impact it’s going to have, as all of our sister states around us in the country really reach in this direction at pretty high speed.”

Polling indicates that voters are ready for the policy change. A survey released in October found that a strong majority of New Mexico residents are in favor of legalization with social equity provisions in place, and about half support decriminalizing drug possession more broadly.

In May, the governor signaled that she was considering actively campaigning against lawmakers who blocked her legalization bill in 2020. She also said that she’s open to letting voters decide on the policy change via a ballot referendum if lawmakers can’t send a legalization bill to her desk.

Anti-Marijuana Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill In North Dakota To Avoid Activist Ballot Measure

Photo by Kyle Jaeger.

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GOP Congressman Files Bill To Protect Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana From Losing Benefits

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A Republican congressman has filed the second piece of marijuana reform legislation to be introduced so far in the new 117th Congress—this one aimed at ensuring that military veterans aren’t penalized for using medical cannabis in compliance with state law.

The proposal from Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL), who filed a more expansive version of the measure last year, would also codify that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are allowed to discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.

VA doctors are currently permitted to discuss cannabis with patients and document their usage in medical records, and those veteran patients are already shielded by agency policy from losing their benefits for marijuana use—but the new bill would enshrine these policies into federal statute so they could not be administratively changed in the future.

That said, the version Steube introduced last year contained a notable provision that further allowed VA physicians to formally fill out written recommendations for marijuana.

But that language was omitted from this year’s bill, which could create barriers to access given that most state medical cannabis programs require a written recommendation, meaning many veterans would have to outsource their healthcare to a non-VA provider in order to qualify for legal access to marijuana.

Carson Steelman, communications director in Steube’s office, told Marijuana Moment that removing that component was politically necessary to advance the previous version through a House committee last year as an amendment to another bill.

“This bill was able to pass through markup with the removal of that portion,” he said. “Many members had concerns regarding it so in order to move this bill swiftly this Congress, we introduced it without that portion.”

Doug Distaso, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, applauded Steube for the overall bill, saying that  “we consistently see, on a daily basis, a denial of veteran benefits ranging from medical prescriptions to VA loans, solely because a veteran is participating in a state-approved marijuana program or working in the cannabis industry.”

“However, we are disappointed that specific language on Veterans Affairs provider-issued cannabis recommendations was removed from this bill, since these are the providers upon whom veterans rely for full, integrated treatment and care—including cannabis,” he told Marijuana Moment.

But while the absence of language around discussing and recommending medical marijuana isn’t ideal from advocates’ perspective, the bill would still be a modest step for veterans, making it so VA could not move to deny them benefits for using cannabis in accordance with state law.

The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act had 19 cosponsors last session, including eight Republicans and 11 Democrats.

This is the second piece of marijuana reform legislation that’s been introduced so far in the new Congress, both of which are sponsored by Steube. His first bill would simply require that cannabis be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act—a move that the congressman said would free up research into the plant.

That proposal is identical to legislation he filed last year.

While rescheduling is backed by President Joe Biden, who remains opposed to adult-use legalization, it’s not the reform that advocates are getting behind. There are high hopes that a more comprehensive completely remove marijuana from the CSA—while promoting social equity—will move through the 117th Congress.

A bill to accomplish that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives last year, but it died in the GOP-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats have control of both chambers, activists are waiting for the legislation to be taken back up with a better chance of making it to Biden’s desk.

That bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—was sponsored by now-Vice President Kamala Harris, though she’s indicated that she would not necessarily push the president to adopt a pro-legalization position.

Read the text of the veterans-focused marijuana bill below: 

Marijuana veterans bill by Marijuana Moment

Washington Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Homegrow Bill In Committee

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Anti-Marijuana Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill In North Dakota To Avoid Activist Ballot Measure

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North Dakota’s secretary of state on Friday approved the format of a proposed marijuana initiative, clearing the way for activists to collect signatures to place it on the 2022 ballot. Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker is pushing a cannabis legalization bill he introduced even though he does not support the underling policy change.

Rather, Rep. Jason Dockter (R) said he recognizes the seeming inevitability of legal marijuana reaching the state as more neighboring jurisdictions enact reform and as activists gain momentum for their agenda. If the state is going to enact legalization, he wants the legislature to dictate what that program looks like instead of leaving it in the hands of advocacy groups.

Dockter’s House Bill 1420 would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use, but home cultivation would not be allowed.

Licensed cultivation facilities that provide cannabis products to retailers “may grow an amount of marijuana sufficient to meet the demands of the public.”

Under the proposal, legal cannabis sales would begin on February 1, 2022.

The bill is being supported by the pro-reform campaign Legalize ND. The group placed a legalization measure on the 2018 ballot that was defeated by voters. They tried to qualify another initiative last year but signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.

It’s not clear if they will now still pursue previously announced plans for 2022 in light of the new bill, which they said they are “proud of” and is the result of engaging lawmakers in more than six months’ worth of conversations.

Meanwhile, a separate activist group has already filed its own 2022 legal marijuana measure that would make it so adults could possess marijuana and grow up to 12 plants (up to six of which could be mature). Secretary of State Al Jaeger said on Friday that the group can begin working to gather the 26,904 valid signatures from registered voters they will need to place the measure on the ballot.

“I am glad the North Dakota legislature is coming to the realization that legalization will move forward with or without them,” Jody Vetter, chairwoman for that effort, the ND for Freedom of Cannabis Act, told Marijuana Moment.

She added that while the Dockter’s bill is “a step in the right direction toward ending prohibition, there are concerns,” pointing to the lack of legal home cultivation and remaining criminal charges for certain cannabis-related activity.

“Criminal charges surrounding possession should only apply if someone is found to be selling cannabis without proper license or contributing to minors,” Vetter said. “We are moving forward with the ND For Freedom of Cannabis Act. Home growing is essential for any legal program and an overwhelming majority of North Dakotans are ready to stop criminally charging citizens for simply possessing cannabis.”

Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the national Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that “though this isn’t an ideal legalization bill, it’s a significant testament to the strength of our movement that legalization opponents are now preemptively filing their own legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults.”

“These lawmakers are aware that a majority of their constituents support legalization, and you have to give them some credit for acknowledging that,” he said.

The bill contains a number of restrictions on labeling and advertising, as well as penalties for impaired driving. A health council would be tasked with developing further regulations on issues such as the allowable amount of THC in edibles and testing standards.

“I’m not for [legalization] at all, but I understand that it’s coming, and we have to address the issue,” Dockter told Inforum. “I’m trying something different in government—we’re trying to be proactive and not be reactive.”

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said that he’s not “a marijuana person,” but he acknowledged that cannabis legalization is coming. While he would have previously been inclined to oppose Dockter’s bill, Pollert said voter approval of a legalization initiative in South Dakota has given him pause, adding that the legislature should “take a long, hard look” at the policy change.

Neighboring Montana also moved to legalize marijuana for adult use during the November election, adding to the regional pressure to get on board. Canada, which also borders the state, has a national legal cannabis market.

North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.

Aside from the new broad legalization legislation, state lawmakers also recently introduced a separate bill to significantly expand the decriminalization of marijuana possession in the state. The proposal, which was filed last week, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.

Read the North Dakota cannabis legalization bill below: 

North Dakota marijuana lega… by Marijuana Moment

Virginia Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Senate Committee, With Home Cultivation Provisions Intact

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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