Increase military veterans’ access to access medical cannabis. Shield state marijuana laws from federal interference. Protect industrial hemp growers’ water rights. Allow marijuana businesses to be taxed fairly and to access banking services.
That describes just some of the nearly three dozen cannabis-related amendments that Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives has blocked from even being voted on during the current Congress, a new analysis by Marijuana Moment finds.
On at least 34 occasions, lawmakers—Democrats and Republicans alike—filed marijuana and drug policy reform proposals only to be stymied by the powerful Rules Committee, which decides which measures can advance to the House floor.
One Man Is The Biggest Obstacle To Congressional Marijuana Reform.
That panel, led by Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), has for the past several years instituted an effective roadblock to cannabis law reform by refusing to make any amendments dealing with the plant “in order.” That means the full 435-member roster of House never even gets an opportunity to vote on the measures.
This analysis only covers the current 115th Congress, which began in January 2017. Republican leaders have made a practice of blocking cannabis amendments since the previous summer.
The last time the House was allowed to vote on marijuana, in May 2016, a measure to allow military veterans to get medical cannabis recommendations from Department of Veterans Affairs doctors was approved by a overwhelming vote of 233 to 189. Several other marijuana measures were approved on the House floor in the two years preceding that, including proposals to let marijuana businesses store their profits in banks and to protect state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department interference, the latter of which made it into federal law and is still on the books.
In June 2015, an amendment to expand that protection to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with all state marijuana laws—including those allowing recreational marijuana use and sales—came just nine flipped votes short of passage.
Since that time, the number of states with legal marijuana has more than doubled, meaning that far more legislators now represent constituents who would stand to be protected. Advocates are confident they could get the measure approved if given another opportunity, but the cannabis blockade by Sessions’s Rules Committee has meant that no more votes on it have been allowed.
While House Republicans have instituted a broader policy of blocking amendments deemed to be “controversial” after floor disputes on gay rights and gun policy measures threatened the passage of several spending bills in 2015, Sessions, who is not related to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, seems to have a particular problem with marijuana.
“I, as probably everybody in this rooms knows, have a strong opinion on drugs, illegal drugs, alcohol,” he said just before stymying a measure to prevent federal intervention in state cannabis laws earlier this year. “Marijuana is an addictive product, and the merchants of addiction make it that way. They make it for addiction. They make it to where our people, our young people, become addicted to marijuana and keep going.”
On another occasion, Sessions claimed that cannabis is now more potent than it was when he was a young man—by a mathematically impossible factor.
“When I went to high school…in 1973, I graduated, marijuana, on average, is 300 times more powerful,” he said. “That becomes an addictive element for a child to then go to the next thing.”
Legalization Supporters Target Sessions For Defeat.
Sessions, like all members of the House, is up for reelection this year. The Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races, moved his seat—Texas’s 32nd congressional district—from being rated “Lean Republican” to the closer “Toss Up” status last month. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district.
Sensing an opportunity, marijuana reform advocates are targeting Sessions for defeat in 2018.
Pro-legalization Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who has authored several of the blocked amendments, started a PAC and pledged to fund in-district billboards spotlighting Sessions’s anti-cannabis tactics.
Six of the amendments blocked by Sessions and his committee concerned military veterans’ access to medical cannabis. Five had to do with marijuana businesses’ ability to use banking services. Seven would have allowed states and Washington, D.C. to implement their own marijuana laws without federal interference.
“These are not controversial measures. They have bipartisan support,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in an emailed statement. “By blocking our amendments, Sessions is standing in the way of progress, commonsense, and the will of the American people—and that includes Republican voters.”
Sessions faces Democrat Colin Allred, a former NFL player, in November.
“I support the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to the habit-forming opioids that have become a national crisis,” the challenger told Politico. “This common-sense approach to alternative treatments has been opposed by Pete Sessions, and is something I will fight to expand.”
It is unfortunate that Pete Sessions refuses to acknowledge that medical marijuana can help our veterans coming back from war who are struggling with PTSD and chronic pain. https://t.co/NxpfE55Xzr
— Colin Allred (@ColinAllredTX) June 7, 2018
The willingness to see Sessions go extends even to dedicated Republicans who could risk seeing control of the House tipped to Democrats in what is expected to be a very close midterm election overall.
“More often than not, elected officials respond to carrots and sticks. So if making Pete Sessions an electoral casualty is what it takes to advance drug policy reform, so be it,” Don Murphy, a Republican former Maryland state lawmaker who now serves as federal policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment. “If the GOP loses control of the House by one vote, it won’t be my fault. I tried to warn them.”
Former MPP executive director Rob Kampia says he’s aiming to raise half a million dollars to pour into the effort to defeat Sessions with his new outfit, the Marijuana Leadership Campaign, and a related political action committee.
More Cannabis Amendments Are Likely To Be Blocked Soon.
In the meantime, it seems likely that even more cannabis proposals will be added to the blocked tally when the Rules Committee considers a broad funding package this week which includes the Financial Services and General Government bill. Earlier versions of that annual appropriations legislation have been used as vehicles for measures concerning Washington, D.C.’s ability to spend its own money regulating marijuana and to allow cannabis growers, processors and retailers to access financial services.
Marijuana Moment’s analysis of blocked marijuana amendments relies heavily on a report issued in late May by Rules Committee Democrats, which tallied all blocked amendments across issues up to that point. (Marijuana Moment identified several subsequent cannabis measures that were prevented from reaching the floor following the Democratic report’s release.)
“Shutting down amendments and preventing debate is bad for the Congress as an institution, but is even worse for the country,” the Rules Committee minority, led by Congressman James McGovern of Massachusetts, wrote. “The inevitable result is partisan legislation written by a small number of Members, staff and lobbyists, with many bipartisan priorities left out in the cold.”
“Blocking amendments shuts out members of Congress from offering their ideas to improve legislation, and in doing so silences the voices of the millions of Americans they are elected to represent. So far during this record-breaking closed 115th Congress, 380 Members have had at least one amendment blocked from consideration by the Republican-controlled Rules Committee and Republican Leadership.
“These districts account for 270 million Americans. In other words, Representatives from roughly 80 percent of the county have been blocked from offering an idea for debate on the House Floor – the ideas their constituents sent them to Congress to advocate for on their behalf.”
In the report, which dubs the 115th Congress “the most closed Congress in history,” Democrats call out Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who pledged to “uphold the rights of the minority” and “have a process that is more open, more inclusive, more deliberative, more participatory.”
“You are the first Speaker in history to have never allowed a truly open rule, which would permit all Members to offer their ideas on the floor of the House,” McGovern and Democratic colleagues wrote.
“The People’s House is meant to operate as a deliberative body. Shutting out the voices of the representatives of hundreds of millions of Americans erodes the foundation of our democracy, and makes the job of governing increasingly more difficult.”
While the Democrats highlight several issue areas such as guns, immigration, the environment, veterans affairs and criminal justice reform in their report narrative, they do not specially discuss the blocked marijuana amendments, which are included in an appendix that lists every submitted measure not “made in order” by the Rules Committee.
Among the cannabis-related amendments impeded during this Congress were measures to reduce funding for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s marijuana eradication efforts, shield military veterans from losing their benefits due to cannabis use, expand research on marijuana’s medical benefits, allow Indian tribes to enter the cannabis industry and create a federal excise tax on marijuana sales.
There were also measures that would have granted an official congressional apology for the damage done by the war on drugs and ceased the practice of punishing states that don’t automatically revoke drivers licenses from people convicted of drug offenses.
At a time when marijuana law reform enjoys overwhelming support from voters, and more states are modernizing their cannabis laws, lawmakers in the so-called “People’s House” are not even allowed to vote on the issue.
The Senate Saves The Day. Maybe.
For the past several years, cannabis reform advocates have been largely relying on the Senate to advance their proposals. Last month, for example, that chamber’s Appropriations Committee approved measures on veterans’ medical cannabis access and preventing Justice Department intervention in state medical marijuana laws. (The panel, however, blocked an amendment on banking for marijuana businesses.)
Meanwhile, advocates this year for the first time advanced a marijuana amendment out the House Appropriations Committee, circumventing the Pete Sessions floor blockade. That measure, to shield state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, has historically required House floor votes—now impossible, thanks to Sessions—or Senate action to advance.
The ultimate fate of the various Senate-approved marijuana measures now rests with bicameral conference committees that will merge the two chambers’ bills into single proposals to be sent to President Trump’s desk.
For example, both the Senate and the House approved separate versions of large-scale food and agriculture legislation known as the Farm Bill this year, but only the Senate version has hemp legalization language in it. Sessions’s Rules Committee blocked a House vote. It will be up to the conference committee to decide which version prevails.
Regardless of which party controls the chamber when the 116th Congress is seated in January, Ryan, who is retiring, will be gone. And if legalization supporters have their way, so will Sessions.
See below for the full list of cannabis amendment blocked by Pete Sessions and the Rules Committee during the 115th Congress:
|Prohibits the use of funds to prevent any of various states from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possessions, or cultivation of marijuana on non-Federal lands within their respective jurisdictions.||Polis (CO), McClintock (CA)|
|Specifies that cannabis-related businesses may utilize federal financial institutions when they are compliant with the law or regulation of their state or political subdivision of their state.||Gaetz (FL), Rohrabacher (CA)|
|Permits the District of Columbia to spend its local funds to regulate and tax recreational marijuana.||Norton (DC), Rohrabacher (CA), Blumenauer (OR), Lee, Barbara (CA)|
|Prohibits funds from being used to limit or interfere with the ability of VA healthcare providers to make appropriate recommendations, fill out forms or take steps to comply with a medicinal marijuana program approved by a state.||Blumenauer (OR), Amash (MI), Curbelo (FL), Gaetz (FL), Garrett (VA), McClintock (CA), Reed (NY), Rohrabacher (CA),
Cohen (TN), Young, Don (AK), Lee, Barbara (CA), Perlmutter (CO), Polis (CO), Titus (NV), Hunter (CA), Pocan (WI), DeFazio (OR), Correa (CA)
|Prohibits funds from being used to limit or interfere with the ability of VA healthcare providers to make appropriate recommendations, fill out forms or take steps to comply with a medicinal marijuana program approved by a state.||Blumenauer (OR), Amash (MI), Curbelo (FL), Gaetz (FL), Garrett (VA), McClintock (CA), Reed (NY), Rohrabacher (CA),
Young, Don (AK), Cohen (TN), Correa (CA), Lee, Barbara (CA), Perlmutter (CO), Polis (CO), Titus (NV), Hunter (CA), Pocan (WI), DeFazio (OR)
|Prevents the denial of water rights to a legal owner of an absolute or conditional water right, or an entity that receives or distributes water contracted from the Federal government for the cultivation of industrial hemp.||Polis (CO), Comer (KY)|
|Prevents the denial of water rights to a legal owner of an absolute or conditional water right, or an entity that receives or distributes water contracted from the Federal government for the cultivation of industrial hemp.||Polis (CO)|
|Prevents denial of federal water rights to hemp and marijuana farmers and growers.||Polis (CO), Blumenauer (OR), Young, Don (AK), Bonamici (OR)|
|Prohibits the Department of Justice from prosecuting individuals who are in compliance with their state’s medical marijuana laws, or otherwise interfering with the implementation of such laws.||Rohrabacher (CA), Blumenauer (OR), Young, Don (AK), Polis (CO), McClintock (CA), Lee, Barbara (CA), Joyce (OH), Cohen
(TN), Gaetz (FL), Titus (NV), Coffman (CO), Lewis, Jason (MN), Rosen (NV), Correa (CA)
|Prevents funds to the Department of Justice from being used in preventing or delaying the applications of research of schedule I controlled substances for conducting medical research in states and jurisdictions that said substance is legal for medicinal use pursuant to State law||Gaetz (FL)|
|Prohibits funds from being used to pay the salaries or expenses of personnel to fail to act on a marijuana research application.||Polis (CO)|
|Prohibits any funds from being used to prevent a state from implementing any law that makes it lawful to possess, distribute, or use cannabidiol or cannabidiol oil.||Perry (PA)|
|Reduces funds in the DEA Salaries and Expenses used for the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Marijuana Suppression Program. Increases the spending reduction account by the same amount.||Lieu (CA), Polis (CO), Young, Don (AK), Titus (NV)|
|Provides that none of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana on non-Federal lands within their respective jurisdictions.||McClintock (CA), Polis (CO), Blumenauer (OR), Amash (MI), Coffman (CO), Cohen (TN), Curbelo (FL), Heck, Denny (WA), Lee, Barbara (CA), Perlmutter (CO), Pocan (WI), Sanford (SC), Rohrabacher (CA), Young, Don (AK), Hunter (CA), Smith, Adam (WA|
|Prohibits any DOJ funds from being used to prevent a state from implementing its own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of industrial hemp||Bonamici (OR), Polis (CO), Blumenauer (OR), Soto (FL), Comer (KY), Pocan (WI)|
|Prohibits the Department of Justice from prosecuting individuals from federally recognized Indian tribes who are in compliance with their tribal medical marijuana laws, or otherwise interfering with the implementation of such laws||Titus (NV), Polis (CO), Blumenauer (OR)|
|Permits the District of Columbia to spend its local funds to regulate and tax recreational marijuana.||Norton (DC), DeSaulnier (CA), Blumenauer (OR)|
|Blocks FinCEN from revoking guidance on how financial institutions should provide banking services to legitimate marijuana businesses.||Heck, Denny (WA), Young, Don (AK), Perlmutter (CO), Lee, Barbara (CA), Titus (NV)|
|Prohibits funds from being used to penalize a financial institution for serving a legitimate marijuana business.||Heck, Denny (WA), Young, Don (AK), Perlmutter (CO), Gaetz (FL), Lee, Barbara (CA), Titus (NV), Rosen (NV), McClintock (CA),
Blumenauer (OR), Correa (CA)
|Blocks FinCEN from altering guidance on how financial institutions should provide banking services to legitimate marijuana businesses.||Heck, Denny (WA), Young, Don (AK), Perlmutter (CO), Lee, Barbara (CA), Titus (NV), Collins, Chris (NY), King, Peter (NY)|
|Eliminates Section 159 of title 23, which reduces highway funding for states if they did not automatically suspend drivers licenses of anyone convicted of a drug offense.||O’Rourke (TX), Amash (MI), Jeffries (NY), Nadler (NY)|
|Exempts Cannabis businesses from 280e of the federal tax code||Polis (CO)|
|Applies a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana sales for the purposes of deficit reduction||Correa (CA)|
|Prevents the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from prosecuting anyone for using, selling, or possessing marijuana in compliance with state laws, thus protecting the legal marijuana industry across the country from Federal interference.||Polis (CO)|
|Allows small businesses located in states that have legalized marijuana to utilize tax deductions||Polis (CO)|
|Creates a safe harbor for financial institutions that provide services to hemp legitimate businesses authorized under the pilot program in the 2014 Farm Bill and affiliated third parties.||Barr (KY)|
|Amends the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of “marijuana.”||Massie (KY), Polis (CO)|
|Removes industrial hemp from the definition of marihuana under the Controlled Substances Act and places it under the jurisdiction of the USDA as an agricultural commodity.||Comer (KY), Blumenauer (OR), Polis (CO), Barr (KY), Taylor (VA), Bonamici (OR)|
|Requires the VA to study medicinal marijuana as an alternative treatment option to prescription opioids.||Polis (CO), Correa (CA)|
|Forbids the VA from discriminating against veterans who use cannabis consistent with the laws of their state.||Crist (FL), Blumenauer (OR)|
|Prevents denial of federal water rights to hemp and marijuana farmers and growers.||Polis (CO), Blumenauer (OR), Bonamici (OR), Young, Don (AK)|
|Prohibits funds from being used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to deny VHA benefits to veterans, their dependents, and their survivors if they use marijuana in compliance with state law.||Blumenauer (OR), Correa (CA)|
|Prohibits funds from being used to limit or interfere with the ability of VA healthcare providers to make appropriate recommendations, fill out forms, or take steps to comply with a medicinal marijuana program approved by a state.||Blumenauer (OR), Amash (MI), Lee, Barbara (CA), Curbelo (FL), Crowley (NY), Gaetz (FL), Titus (NV), Jones (NC), Cohen (TN), McClintock (CA), Correa (CA), Reed (NY), Perlmutter (CO), Rohrabacher (CA), Pocan (WI), Young, Don (AK), DeFazio (OR), Sanford (SC)|
|Provides congressional apology for its role regarding the War on Drugs.||Watson Coleman (NJ)|
Virginia Lawmakers Send Marijuana Legalization Bill To Governor’s Desk Just Hours Before Deadline
Virginia lawmakers approved a bill to legalize marijuana with just hours left before the deadline to get legislation to the governor this session.
The Senate and House of Delegates approved differing reform proposals earlier this month, and negotiators have since been working to reconcile the bills in conference committee—a contentious process that at times appeared as if it would end without a deal.
But on Saturday, lawmakers agreed to the bicameral compromise plan.
The Senate voted 20-19 to approve the conference committee report on its bill as well as the identical version for the House legislation. The House voted to approve the conference report on its bill, 48-43, with two abstentions. When considering the Senate version, the House voted 47-44, with one abstention.
“It’s been a lot of work to get here,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the legislation, said prior to the Senate vote. “But I would say that we’re on the path to an equitable law allowing for responsible adults to use cannabis.”
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D), the chief sponsor of the her chamber’s legalization bill, said that “racial justice is about more than addressing penalties for simple possession.”
“It is about reformative justice that provides equitable and social economic opportunity for individuals and communities which have been harmed by disproportionate policing and prosecution of cannabis,” she said. “Legalizing cannabis does not end systematic racism but it does remove one of the tools used in advancing systematic racism.”
The compromise legislation now goes to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who supports ending cannabis prohibition.
Among the most pressing issues for lawmakers to negotiate in recent weeks was the timeline for crafting regulations for the cannabis market. The Senate has pushed for a reenactment clause to be included which would extend the process into next session, whereas the House side wanted to complete legislative work during the current session, arguing that enough research has already been done to effectively decide the issue. But Senate negotiators won out, meaning that the legislature will revisit cannabis regulations and post-legalization penalty structures next session.
Another major area of contention dealt with how the state would approach cannabis possession in the time between the bill’s signing and implementation of legal sales going into effect. Under both versions, the adult-use market wouldn’t launch until January 1, 2024 to give the state time to establish a regulatory agency to oversee the program. While the Senate had wanted to make the legalization of simple possession and home cultivation take effect starting on July 1 of this year, negotiators ultimately agreed to delay it to coincide with commercialization in 2024.
In the meantime, under the deal, a new Virginia Cannabis Control Authority will begin work this July to lay the ground for a legal marijuana industry.
Here are some of the other major provisions that were resolved in conference:
Referendum—The Senate version of the bill would have asked voters to weigh in on legalization through a nonbinding referendum on this November’s ballot. But the issue became increasingly contentious in recent days and conference negotiators decided to drop the idea.
Local control—Whereas the Senate measure called for individual cities to be able to ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area, the House version did not include an opt-out provision. Conferees decided to allow municipalities to elect to ban cannabis commercialization, but they must do so by December 31, 2022.
Penalties for youth—Under the House bill, minors caught possessing cannabis would be subject to a $25 fine with a referral to substance misuse treatment. The Senate, meanwhile, proposed a $250 fine for youth possession for the first offense and then criminal charges and even jail time for subsequent convictions. The agreed-upon final legislation would continue the current approach of treating youth possession as a delinquency, subject to a civil penalty of up to $25, but add a mandatory substance misuse treatment or education program or both. There would be no interaction with courts for such youths. For people between the ages of 18 and 20, the conference deal would continue the existing $25 fee that exists under the state’s decriminalization law and add that they may be ordered to enter a treatment or education program or both.
Social equity—Both versions of the legislation called for licensing priorities for social equity businesses, but there were differences in how each chamber defined what constitutes a social equity applicant. The final legislation defines an equity business as one that has at least 66 percent ownership by people who have been convicted of misdemeanor marijuana offenses (or have family members with such convictions) or people who live in a geographic area that is economically distressed or has a disproportionate rate of cannabis policing. People who graduated from a historically black college or university located in the state would also qualify. Also, beginning on July 1, the state would establish Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund and a Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund.
Vertical integration—The House’s measure would ban vertical integration, a process that would allow a single company could control aspects of growing, processing and selling marijuana products. The Senate, meanwhile, wanted to allow vertical integration only if a cannabis business paid a $1 million fee into a state equity fund. Under the final legislation, vertical integration will be generally limited but will allow existing medical cannabis and hemp businesses to partially vertically integrate. Micro-businesses will also be able to vertically integrate.
In general under the legislation, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use. It also allows people to petition for suspended or modified sentences for marijuana convictions and establishes criteria for sealing past records.
The bill would set a cannabis excise tax of 21 percent and allow localities to add an additional 3 percent tax on top of the state’s existing 6 percent retail sales tax. Revenue would partly fund pre-K education programs for at-risk youth and would support the new equity funds as well as addiction prevention and treatment services and public health initiatives.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 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.
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The proposal would create a new cannabis-focused state agency to regulate the legal market as opposed to having it fall under the existing alcoholic beverage authority as was the case under the governor’s original plan.
Post-legalization penalties set to go into effect in 2024, which are subject to renewal by the legislature next session, would include a $25 fine for possessing between one ounce and one pound in public. For public consumption, there would be a civil penalty of no more than $25 for first offense. A second offense would come with a $25 civil penalty and an order to enter a substance misuse treatment or education program, or both. Third or subsequent offenses would constitute a Class 4 misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time. Meanwhile, bringing marijuana across state lines would be a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Now that the final bill is headed to Northam’s desk, the governor will have the opportunity to suggest amendments to lawmakers, who can then adopt the suggestions as is or change or reject them, at which point the bill would go back to the governor for final action.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, said the bill’s passage “is another historic step for cannabis justice” that will “replace the failed policy of cannabis prohibition with one that promotes Virginia’s economy as well as Virginians’ public health and safety.”
“This effort remains a work in progress and our efforts in Virginia are far from over,” Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said. “NORML is dedicated to continuing our work with lawmakers and regulators to advance legislative reforms that are most closely aligned with the views of the majority of Virginians who desire a safe, legal cannabis market. In particular, we hope to expedite the timeline with which Virginia adults will no longer face either criminal or civil penalties for the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis.”
Matt Simon, senior legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said it’s “exciting that Virginia is on track to end cannabis prohibition and replace it with sensible regulation.”
“Lawmakers in other states are already taking notice and seeking to learn from Virginia’s example,” he said.
Earlier on Saturday, the ACLU of Virginia and other groups had urged lawmakers to defeat the final proposal prior to the release of its actual text, saying that the provisions as described in media reports showed it to be a “symbolic marijuana legalization bill made behind closed doors that does not advance the cause of equal justice and racial justice.”
BREAKING: We, @thcjusticenow, @RISEforYouth, and @JusticeFwdVa urged Virginia lawmakers to vote no on a symbolic marijuana legalization bill made behind closed doors that does not advance the cause of equal justice and racial justice in Virginia. https://t.co/kS47X9qK7g
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) February 27, 2021
The Virginia NAACP argued that the bill, based on press accounts, “includes Systemically Racist probable cause provisions” and pledged that its members “will not stand by while Jim Crow’s sister Jane tries to creep her way into Virginia law.”
We will not stand by while Jim Crow’s sister Jane tries to creep her way into Virginia law.”
— Virginia NAACP (@NAACPVirginia) February 27, 2021
But after the bill’s text came out, NAACP issued an updated statement saying that while the final legislation “is not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction.”
The Virginia NAACP will not rest until full equity and restorative justice is achieved.”
— Virginia NAACP (@NAACPVirginia) February 28, 2021
The ACLU, for its part, maintained its opposition, saying that lawmakers “failed to legalize marijuana for racial justice” and “paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist War on Drugs with legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice.”
The new changes, which would not legalize simple possession until 2024, do nothing to break the chains of marijuana prohibition.
It would delay & deny justice to all those whose lives have been upended & who are still being harassed by police on the streets every day.
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) February 28, 2021
All of this legislative action comes a little over a month after Northam and top lawmakers initially unveiled their legalization proposal.
The cannabis legislation’s structure was informed by separate studies conducted by a legislative research body and a working group made up of state cabinet officials.
Support for legalizing marijuana is strong in Virginia, according to a poll released this month. It found that a majority of adults in the Commonwealth (68 percent) favor adult-use legalization, and that includes most Republicans (51 percent).
The legislature has also taken up a number of other more modest cannabis reform proposals this session.
Bills to allow medical patients to access whole-flower cannabis in addition to oils, facilitate automatic expungements for certain marijuana convictions, protect employment rights of medical cannabis patients and allow those in hospice and nursing facilities to access medical marijuana have also advanced this session.
Virginia lawmakers passed separate legislation last year that decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, replacing existing penalties with a $25 civil fine and no threat of jail time. The law took effect last July.
Read a summary of the provisions of the Virginia marijuana legalization conference report below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Mexico House Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill, With Senate Action Imminent
The New Mexico House of Representatives on Friday approved a bill to legalize marijuana in the state, one day ahead of a scheduled Senate committee hearing on that chamber’s separate proposals to end cannabis prohibition.
The legislation that cleared the House—which would allow adults 21 and older to possess “at least” two ounces of cannabis and grow up to six mature and six immature plants for personal use—recently sailed through two committees before moving to the floor, where it was approved in a 39-31 vote.
The measure is favored by reform advocates because—unlike other House and Senate reform measures that have been introduced this session—it would prioritize using tax revenue from marijuana sales to support reinvestments in communities most impacted by the war on drugs. It also stands out for including provisions to automatically expunge prior cannabis convictions.
Meanwhile, the Senate Tax, Business & Transportation Committee will take up three separate legalization bills on Saturday.
Rep. Javier Martinez (D) introduced the House legislation, which would establish a system of regulated marijuana sales. It would require rules for the market to be implemented by January 2022.
“As I dove into this work years ago, I realized that, to me, legalizing recreational cannabis is not about the money,” Martinez said on the floor prior to the vote. “It’s a great revenue source for the state, but that’s not why I’m doing it.”
“Legalizing adult use of cannabis is probably going to be good for tourism. Legalizing is probably going to be good in terms of creating jobs and a new homegrown industry,” he said. “But really when you get to the core of why I’m doing this and why I’ve worked on this for so long, it’s because I have seen the faces of the people who have most been impacted by this terrible and unwinnable war on drugs. It’s one that we cannot win.”
The Taxation & Revenue Committee approved a substitute version of the measure on Wednesday that includes a number of changes, including moving the start of legal sales back to January 1, 2022 from October 1 of this year. That would apply to existing medical cannabis dispensaries and microbusinesses, with sales for other retailers set to start September 2022.
Language was also removed in committee that earmarked tax revenue for a community reinvestment fund and a low-income patient subsidy program. The fund accounts will still be created, but it would be up to lawmakers to steer money to them in future sessions once cannabis revenue starts coming in.
Other modifications include language on regulatory authority for the cannabis market, allowing health and safety inspections of businesses, addressing workplace and employment issues, replacing fines and fees for youth who violate the law with a civil infraction penalty, stipulating that people can petition for resentencing for offenses made legal and adjusting the state excise tax on marijuana from nine percent to eight percent while giving local jurisdictions the option to levy an additional four percent tax.
On the floor on Friday, members additionally accepted a technical amendment to add back in a section of the bill that had been inadvertently deleted by committee staff.
Rep. Randal Crowder (R) offered an amendment to allow local jurisdictions to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses. But after it was pointed out to him that its broad language would have unintentionally impacted medical cannabis operations as well as recreational ones, he withdrew it. A second, revised version, was more narrowly drafted to focus only on adult-use operations, but it was blocked by a successful motion to table it.
“Cannabis legalization in New Mexico is one step closer to the finish line,” Emily Kaltenbach, senior director of resident States and New Mexico for the Drug Policy Alliance, said after the vote. “After tonight’s debate, we’re even more optimistic that this bill has a path to the governor’s desk.”
She argued that the House bill is superior to the three measures the Senate panel will take on Saturday.
“Given HB 12 puts the lives of New Mexicans ahead of solely business interests, it is critical it be the vehicle for legalization as the issue moves forward,” she said. “HB 12 legalizes cannabis in an equitable way that begins to repair the harms that have disproportionately impacted Hispanic/Latinx, Black, Native and Indigenous people in New Mexico. New Mexicans are absolutely ready to see marijuana legalization become a reality in the state, but they have made it clear that repairing the damage done by the drug war is non-negotiable.”
For her part, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has repeatedly talked about the need to legalize as a means to boost the economy, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. She said during a State of the State address last month that “a crisis like the one we’ve experienced last year can be viewed as a loss or as an invitation to rethink the status quo—to be ambitious and creative and bold.”
The governor also included cannabis legalization as part of her 2021 legislative agenda that she released last month and said in a recent interview that she’s “still really optimistic about cannabis” this session.
That optimism is bolstered by the fact that 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 earlier this month.
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.
Earlier, in 2019, the House approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but it died in the Senate. Later that year, Lujan Grisham created a working group to study cannabis legalization and issue recommendations.
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.
Last 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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Connecticut Marijuana Hearing Shows Governor’s Legalization Bill Likely To Be Amended After Equity Pushback
Connecticut lawmakers took a full day’s worth of public testimony on Friday about Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) plan to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults. The legislation has drawn harsh criticism from social equity advocates since its unveiling earlier this month as part of the governor’s budget, and the bill’s supporters said at Friday’s hearing that they’re open to making changes to address those concerns.
“This is not a final bill,” Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, told equity advocates during his testimony to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “We want to sit at the table. We want you at the table.”
Before Friday’s official legislative hearing, a group of reform advocates critical of the governor’s proposal held a press conference to bring attention to what they say are shortcomings of the bill’s licensing, equity and criminal justice provisions. Among them, they argue the governor’s plan, SB 888, would give an overwhelming advantage to businesses in the state’s existing medical marijuana system by allowing them early control of the legal adult-use industry. That would likely make it hard for smaller applicants or Black and brown people trying to enter the new market as business owners rather than as employees.
One speaker at the press conference, Rep. Anne Hughes (D), said she would be willing to vote against the governor’s bill if it doesn’t end up including a stronger emphasis on equity.
“If we put equity applicants at the back of the line,” Hughes said, “I don’t think we can ever repair that. I don’t think we can catch up.”
Critics of the governor’s plan have drawn attention to a separate legalization bill, HB 6377, which includes additional equity measures, such as early registration for equity license applicants and funding for low-interest business loans.
Supporters of the governor’s bill struck a conciliatory tone at Friday’s hearing, denying that the two proposals are in conflict. “These bills aren’t competing,” said Jonathan Harris, a senior advisor to the governor. “They’re actually complementary.”
Jason Ortiz, a drug policy advocate and president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association who served as chair of the governor’s cannabis licensing working group last year, has been critical of Lamont’s proposal, arguing that the administration effectively ignored his suggestions for how to build an equitable industry. In a Facebook post on Thursday, he said the governor’s legalization plan “creates a white only market for an indefinite period of time.”
At Friday morning’s press conference, Ortiz said equity advocates would be happy to help strengthen Lamont’s proposal.
“We were available months ago and we’re available now. The governor just needs to pick up his phone and call Reps. [Robyn] Porter and her colleagues,” he told Marijuana Moment after the event, referring to backers of the separate legalization bill, HB 6377.
State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D), meanwhile, has said the cannabis legalization bills need to be “pulled apart and put back together,” according to The Connecticut Examiner, adding that there’s still “a lot of work to be done.”
“We need to be start taking all of these different ideas and putting them together,” House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) told the Examiner, “so we can have an actual bill to rally the votes behind.
For her part, Porter, who chairs the Labor Committee, said during Friday’s hearing that she’s confident that HB 6377’s provisions will be considered in an eventual compromise bill.
As introduced by Lamont in his budget proposal earlier this month, SB 888 would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and purchase products from licensed stores, which would be scheduled to open in May 2022.
Homegrow would be forbidden under the plan, and some but not all marijuana-related convictions from before October 2015 would be automatically expunged. Fiscal estimates project the market could make the state more than $33 million in revenue in fiscal year 2023, growing to $97 million by 2026. Beginning in 2024, half of all state excise tax would be earmarked for municipal aid and equity spending.
Ortiz—whose criticisms were acknowledged by Lamont advisor Harris at Friday’s hearing—identified a number of criminal justices areas of the bill he said were “lacking” during his testimony to the panel, noting that SB 888 does not decriminalize home cultivation or expunge an array of cannabis convictions, including for possession of more than for ounces of cannabis.
“At the core of equity is decarceration, getting folks out of prison; decriminalization, making sure we’re not putting more people in prison; and expungement, making sure the records of whatever interaction they have don’t follow them,” he said. “SB 888 acknowledges the need for all of those, but then doesn’t actually do it in policy.”
Fascinating to watch what's unfolding in Connecticut between the cannabis bill that represents equity (HB 6377) and the cannabis bill that represents a whole lot of lip service and nothing else (SB 888, hearing now). Follow @therealcurect to stay updated and show support. https://t.co/UB6AxrC8wv
— Shaleen Title (@shaleentitle) February 26, 2021
Friday’s hearing—the first to consider the governor’s legalization proposal—drew extensive written and oral testimony. Among those who submitted statements ahead of the hearing were a number of state officials expressing their support for legalization, which is expected to bring tens of millions of dollars in state revenue.
“S.B. 888 will help create jobs, foster an emerging and growing industry in our state, and help support the state and local tax base—all areas that are critical as our state emerges from the pandemic,” wrote David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development and a senior economic advisor to the governor.
Officials also said the policy change would align Connecticut with other nearby states, ensure limits on advertising and products designed to appeal to children, protect the rights of employers to prohibit cannabis use and support social justice.
“Legalizing cannabis means taking meaningful strides to address our state’s criminalization of cannabis to date and the disproportionate impact this has had on communities of color,” said Marc Pelka, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management.
Commissioner of Consumer Protection Michelle Seagull and others noted that nearby sources of legal, regulated cannabis are increasingly available to state residents. “Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont already have some form of a market for adult-use cannabis,” she wrote, “bills were just signed into law by New Jersey’s Governor, and New York and Rhode Island are poised to legalize adult-use this year. We cannot ignore or avoid this fact.”
That was a sentiment echoed by Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella, who pointed out that surrounding states are enacting legalization and that “cannabis is already among us and law enforcement is dealing with it and expending resources on it.”
Department of Banking Commissioner Jorge L. Perez similarly said the governor’s proposal “recognizes that the trend nationally and in nearby states is to legalize the adult use of recreational cannabis” and that it regulates marijuana in way that “prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon said she appreciates that the bill “protects public health by providing adult access to safe products and preventing advertising and retail locations that would appeal to children.”
Others who submitted testimony in support include Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Mark D. Boughton, Department of Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby and Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Sibongile Magubane.
Some in law enforcement and health care submitted testimony against the legalization plan.
“The rush towards legalization of recreational marijuana ignores how profit-driven corporations hooked generations of Americans on cigarettes and opioids, killing millions and straining public resources,” said the Connecticut State Medical Society. “Connecticut has an obligation to protect the health and welfare of its citizens and rushing to legalize a potentially unsafe drug abdicates this responsibility.”
The state Police Chiefs Association, meanwhile, said it opposes the bill primarily because no qualified roadside test exists to detect cannabis-impaired driving. “While the presence of a police officer trained in Advanced Roadside Impairment Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) or the presence of a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) may potentially assist in the evaluation of a motorist,” the group said, “there is presently no legal device in which to test such operators. The DRE evaluation mentioned in this [bill] is a process which occurs after the arrest is made.”
The governor’s own written testimony ahead of Friday’s hearing underscored the drug war’s failure. “The war on cannabis did little to protect public health and safety, and instead caused significant injustices for many residents, especially people in black and brown communities,” Lamont wrote.
“One thing on which most of us agree is that social equity must be included in any adult-use market we create. While there is significant consensus around that goal, there are many different approaches as to how to best accomplish it,” he added. “This hearing is the continuation of this critical conversation.”
Despite disagreement over policy details, many expect legalization to happen Connecticut’s near future. Ritter, the speaker, said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.”
Should this year’s effort fail, Ritter said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. A poll released last year found that nearly two-thirds of voters (63.4 percent) either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported recreational legalization.
Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor