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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

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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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Lindsey Graham Challenger Jaime Harrison Backs Legalizing Marijuana

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The Democrat mounting a well-funded bid to oust Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) says he supports legalizing marijuana.

“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” Jaime Harrison argued this week. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”

The former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman said that the issue is also a matter of criminal justice reform.

“We know that marijuana arrests, including those for simple possession, account for a large number of drug arrests. The racial disparities in marijuana enforcement—black men and white men smoke marijuana the same rates, but black men are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession—is just unacceptable,” he said in an interview with CNBC. “Across the country, we are finding that states are legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana, and it’s just time for South Carolina to lead on this issue.”

Federal campaign finance disclosures filed on Wednesday show that Harrison, who also served as an aide to Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and a lobbyist with the Podesta Group, outraised Graham for the second quarter in a row.

The state Democratic party, on Harrison’s last day in office as chair in 2017, approved a resolution endorsing a pending medical cannabis bill in the South Carolina legislature.

“Caregivers and patients are searching for treatment options for unmet medical needs, particularly for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, cancers, and the effects of chemotherapy,” the measure said. “The cannabis plant in various forms including oils, creams, drops and liquids has shown some promise in treating these medical conditions.”

A South Carolina Senate committee advanced a medical marijuana bill last year but it never ended up advancing to a floor vote.

In 2018, the state’s Democratic primary voters approved an advisory medical cannabis ballot question by an 82 percent to 18 percent margin.

Graham, for his part, opposes marijuana legalization and hasn’t brought any pending cannabis legislation up for hearings or votes in his panel, which handles criminal justice issues.

That said, he has cosponsored a handful of reform bills in past years. For example, in 2016 he signed onto legislation to protect medical marijuana states from federal interference and reschedule cannabis, and in 2017 he cosponsored a bill to remove CBD from the list of federally banned substances.

He has a mixed record when it comes to votes on cannabis amendments.

In 2015, Graham voted against an Appropriations Committee amendment that would have allowed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical cannabis to patients; but the next year he reversed himself and supported a similar measure. Also in 2016, he backed an amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.

Shortly after it was announced he would be taking over the Judiciary panel’s gavel, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) joked that he would be sending marijuana-infused brownies to congratulate Graham, a quip that the incoming chairman seemed to appreciate.

While South Carolina typically isn’t seen as a state where Democrats are likely to pick up a U.S. Senate seat, this year’s contest between Harrison and Graham is attracting attention from national political observers due to the outsized funding haul the challenger has been able to bring in so far.

Illinois Collects $52 Million In Marijuana Tax Revenue In First Six Months Of Legal Sales

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GOP Congressman Withdraws Amendment To Block D.C. Psychedelics Decriminalization

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A GOP congressman filed an amendment to a spending bill on Wednesday, seeking to undermine a local Washington, D.C. ballot initiative to deprioritize enforcement of laws against a broad class of psychedelics.

But while Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) made the case that his proposed measure represented a reasonable compromise—making it so only psilocybin mushrooms would be low police priorities and only if a doctor recommended them for medical reasons—he ultimately withdrew the amendment rather than force a vote.

“This amendment deals with Initiative 81…which would make the use of hallucinogenic drugs a low priority for enforcement in the District of Columbia,” Harris said in his opening remarks before the House Appropriations Committee.

The congressman added that he’s particularly concerned about the scope of the ballot measure, acknowledging that “there is limited data that psilocybin may be useful in some circumstances” but asserting that the same can’t be said of the other entheogenic substances such as mescaline that would be covered under the activist-driven initiative.

Watch the debate over Harris’s D.C. psychedelics amendment below: 

It should be noted that while activists behind the initiative submitted their signatures last week and believe they have more than enough to qualify for the November ballot in the nation’s capital, the Board of Elections has yet to certify them. Harris acknowledged that but said “I suspect it might be [qualified for the ballot] by the time” the spending bill goes to a bicameral House and Senate conference committee that will finalize the Fiscal Year 2021 Financial Services and General Government bill for delivery to the president’s desk later this year.

It’s not clear if he was signaling that he planned to reintroduce his amendment, which also stipulates that driving under the influence of psychedelics would be prosecutable, on the House floor or if he plans to work to get a senator to tack it onto that chamber’s version of the legislation, which deals with funding for D.C.

“I think the District of Columbia is different from other cities because we have people coming in from all over the country—and we certainly, I would hope, don’t want to be known as the drug capital of the world,” he said.

There was some debate on the measure by the panel. House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee Chairman Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) voiced opposition while the subcommittee ranking member, Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke in favor of the proposal.

“If the district residents want to make mushrooms a lower priority and focus limited law enforcement resources on other issues, that is their prerogative,” Quigley said. “Congress has allowed jurisdictions in California and Colorado to exercise their sovereign right to set policy on mushrooms, the District of Columbia too should be allowed to use their local funds to support their local needs and their priorities.”

Graves argued that “we all can agree that policies that increase the availability of psychedelic drugs in our nation’s capital, that’s dangerous.”

“As the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, it should be a place where Americans come to see their government at work, for history, maybe go to a Braves-Nats game—it shouldn’t be a destination for illegal drugs,” he said.

McCollum said the amendment serves as another example of Congress attempting to impose excess regulations on D.C. and argued in favor of statehood for the district.

“Now we’re not even allowing the District of Columbia to move forward and decide whether or not this is a good idea,” she said. “I oppose the amendment.”

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) celebrated the amendment’s withdrawal with a taunt on Twitter, saying, “Regular #homerule offender @RepAndyHarrisMD tried to bar DC from using its own funds to enact a proposed ballot initiative on entheogenic plants + fungi or any similar law, but then withdrew it before the committee could defeat it.”

That prompted Harris to reply that the “process of educating Congress about how dangerous this initiative is has begun. DC has enough of a drug abuse problem without becoming the drug capital of the country.”

Harris’s office didn’t respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment about whether he withdrew the amendment because he sensed he didn’t have the votes to pass it in committee.

In his closing remarks at the markup, the congressman said that his measure “is more than just mushrooms. That’s my whole point.”

“Mushrooms is psilocybin—that has a medical use. This includes mescaline, peyote, three other substances [that] have no medical use at all,” he said.

Melissa Lavasani, who proposed the D.C. ballot measure and is part of the Decriminalize Nature D.C. group working to pass it, said in a press release that “our campaign is about helping D.C. residents by enacting common sense reforms to police priorities that ensure that those using healing plant and fungi medicines are not law enforcement targets.”

This isn’t Harris’s first go at pushing for legislation that leverages Congress’s control over the D.C. budget to interfere in local drug policy issues.

Harris has been a consistent opponent of cannabis reform, repeatedly backing a long-standing congressional rider that bars D.C. from using its tax dollars to implement a legal marijuana marketplace. Last year, however, it was not included in the annual spending bill as introduced by House Democratic leaders and the congressmen didn’t attempt to introduce an amendment to reinsert it. It was included in the Senate version and was included in the final enacted bill following conference committee negotiations, however.

The Drug Policy Alliance sent a letter to committee leadership in advance of Wednesday’s hearing, urging them to oppose any attempts to interfere in D.C.’s ability to vote on the psychedelics reform initiative.

Colorado Marijuana Regulators Propose ‘Franchise’ Business Model For Equity Applicants

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.

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Colorado Marijuana Regulators Propose ‘Franchise’ Business Model For Equity Applicants

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Colorado marijuana regulators are looking for feedback on a proposal to create a franchise cannabis business model to promote equitable participation in the industry by people from communities harmed by the war on drugs.

When legislators initially approved a bill to create an accelerator program for marijuana businesses, it was only designed to give eligible entrepreneurs an opportunity to share a cannabis facility with an existing company. But following stakeholder meetings, regulators laid out a proposal to let those entrepreneurs functionally serve as franchises of current larger marijuana businesses, operating out of separate facilities but sharing branding, advertising and intellectual property under certain conditions.

“The Division contemplates certain components of this alternative ‘separate premises’ model will be similar to a franchisor-franchisee business relationship,” the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division said in a notice last month.

In order to participate under the new model, the division said it would require a series of disclosures, including initial investments from both parties, terms of any financial arrangements and obligations for the licensee such as non-compete requirements.

Additional requirements could still be developed. For example, the department is considering whether franchisees should be offered reduced or waived rent to use facilities owned by existing businesses that agree to be “endorsement holders.” Regulators are also contemplating limitations for the amount of money a franchise can charge an accelerator licensee as a fee for use of their facilities, as well as liability rules.

“Available incentives for accelerator-endorsed licensees to support the ‘separate premises’ model may also include fee reductions resulting from increased financial assistance and no-cost rent arrangements, and reduced accelerator-endorsed licensee liability,” the division said.

Beyond potentially collecting fees from licensees, the benefit of becoming an endorsement holder under this separate premises model seems to be that they get to indirectly expand their business and exposure while supporting entrepreneurs who might not have the immediate resources to break into the industry.

That said, some advocates are weary of the proposed based on past experience.

“While accelerator programs sound good on paper, they so often create terrible long term power dynamics for smaller businesses that we can not endorse this approach,” Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment.

“Any relationship that puts a small business owner at the whim of a larger conglomerate makes us concerned that the power dynamic there does not favor the smaller business, who will now have their operation tied to the success of the larger entity,” he said. “We instead encourage any business to invest in grant based programs that allow for smaller businesses to operate on their own premises and to run their business how they see fit.”

At the same time, Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment that the proposal “looks like it could create a lot of opportunities for people to get into the industry without having large amounts of capital and could generally lower the barriers of entry significantly.”

“Judging from the comments in the feedback solicitation, it appears that the possibility of predatory or unfair franchise relationships is at the front of the Marijuana Enforcement Division’s priorities and it intends to make it very difficult for endorsement licensees to exploit accelerator licensees,” he said. “However, we’ve learned from the shortcomings and abuses in other equity programs around the country that it is important to continually monitor and assess these programs to ensure their effectiveness.”

Stakeholders can fill out an online form to submit input on the proposal. A hearing to finalize the rulemaking is tentatively set for July 30.

At the same time, the division is also working on the implementation of a bill that defines who qualifies as a social equity cannabis business applicant for the accelerator program. Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed that legislation, which also gives him authority to streamline pardons for prior marijuana convictions, last month.

The division is scheduled to hold a separate hearing on implementing the new bill on July 28.

Illinois Collects $52 Million In Marijuana Tax Revenue In First Six Months Of Legal Sales

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Lawson.

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