Marijuana reform advocates scored two victories on Tuesday after a key congressional committee approved a spending bill that included a cannabis banking provision and excluded another rider that previously impeded legalization in the nation’s capital. The moves came in spite of impassioned objections from a handful of Republican lawmakers.
For the first time ever, the House Appropriations Committee passed spending legislation that would provide protections for banks that service marijuana businesses. And a longstanding provision prohibiting Washington, D.C. from using its own local tax dollars to implement a legal cannabis sales system was not included in the bill.
The banking provision states that no funds distributed through the legislation “may be used to penalize a financial institution solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity that is a manufacturer, a producer, or a person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling marijuana, marijuana products, or marijuana proceeds” in a jurisdiction where it’s legal.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) introduced an amendment at the meeting that would have limited the banking protection to the medical cannabis market only, but following extensive pushback from a bipartisan coalition of members, he ultimately withdrew the amendment before forcing a losing vote.
The congressman said that he supports medical cannabis, which voters in his state legalized last year, but felt providing a safeguard for businesses operating in compliance with broader state recreational marijuana laws sends the wrong message from the federal government. He went so far as to say that he didn’t mind if these businesses and their employees are at risk of robberies because they’re operating on a largely cash basis.
“I guess I’m just willing to say a company that’s selling recreational marijuana to our youth and to others, I don’t really care if they have a threat of cash sitting in their basement, if they’re paying their employees in cash,” Stewart said. “I don’t want to make life easier for them. I want to make it more difficult.”
Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL), Tom Graves (R-GA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) and David Joyce (R-OH) all voiced opposition to the amendment.
Graves and McCollum argued that excluding the adult-use market from the banking provision would create even more confusion and uncertainty in the financial sector. How would banks be able to differentiate revenue derived from medical versus recreational cannabis sales at shops that sell both, they asked, for example.
“This really isn’t about the issue of medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. The issue is more about states’ rights, quite frankly,” Graves said. “It’s really, really important in my viewpoint that we eliminate some gray space—that we make sure that the rules are defined.”
“It becomes very complicated very fast,” McCollum said of the proposed amendment. “What we want to have is transparency, accountability and confidence in our tax system and our banking system.”
Reps. Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Andy Harris (R-MD) said they supported the amendment, with both focusing on marijuana’s legal status under federal law and warning that approving the provision would encourage more usage.
“Bottom line is what we’re going to do here today is send a message: Is recreational marijuana a thing that the federal government should be promoting?” Harris said.
“There is no state where it’s legal under federal law. It is a gateway drug,” he said. “This is a huge money-making industry. This is Big Cannabis.”
While more financial institutions have been willing to accept cannabis business accounts, many banks still fear being penalized by federal regulators given the lack of clarity on the issue. In 2014, a similar amendment addressing the issue was approved in a House floor vote but it was never enacted into law. The Appropriations Committee rejected a marijuana banking amendment after it was introduced before the panel last year.
Bipartisan legislation that cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March would resolve the problem, but that bill represents a permanent fix whereas this appropriations provision must be annually renewed.
The standalone Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is expected to go before the full House in coming weeks. It currently has 206 cosponsors—nearly half of the chamber.
“Today’s small victories demonstrate an appetite for greater protections of the reform movements progress,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Our staying power is undeniable in the effort to end federal prohibition and criminalization.”
Reform advocates secured another victory with the bill’s passage: A provision that has blocked the District of Columbia from spending local taxpayer dollars to legalize and regulate cannabis was excluded from the legislation.
Earlier years’ versions of the bill stipulated that D.C. couldn’t use appropriated funds “to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.”
Voters in Washington, D.C. legalized marijuana possession and cultivation in 2014, but the congressional provision left lawmakers with their hands tied when it came to regulating the plant.
Harris, who first introduced the provision, was expected to introduce an amendment get his language back into the spending legislation during Tuesday’s committee markup, but instead focused on introducing amendments to block the decriminalization of sex work in D.C. and creating regulatory exceptions for private schools in the District, while declining to mention the cannabis provision. The panel rejected both of his D.C. proposals.
“The man who has unapologetically been offering up this rider and fighting for it for years didn’t even bother to introduce the amendment,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance. “He knew it was going to lose and lose badly. His waving white flag gives us optimism on our ability to secure this win and free D.C. to implement legalization through a racial justice lens the way D.C. residents intended.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the cannabis rider’s removal from the bill is “a win for the voters of the District, and although it may be low hanging fruit, it sure tastes sweet.”
The appropriations process—which has historically been the only vehicle through which Congress has enacted marijuana policy changes—is being leveraged to address a wide range of cannabis reform proposals this session.
Reports that have been released by the Appropriations Committee this year include calls for medical cannabis research expansion, implementing hemp regulations, establishing regulations for CBD, preventing impaired driving and protecting benefits for military benefits.
On Monday, the panel also published a report urging the federal government to reconsider its employment policies as it concerns federal workers who use cannabis in compliance with state law.
The same day, the House Rules Committee, another powerful panel, cleared an amendment for floor consideration that was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), eliminating a rider prohibiting the use of federal funds for “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.”
The purpose of the legislation is to remove barriers to research into the potential therapeutic use of such substances, including cannabis, psilocybin and MDMA, the congresswoman said.
But the panel declined to advance a separate amendment from Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) that would have barred the Department of Education from denying or limiting “any funding or assistance to institutions of higher education” where the use or possession of cannabis is permitted.
The committee chairman, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), told Marijuana Moment the amendment wasn’t made in order for procedural reasons and that he will “continue to welcome and encourage debate on marijuana policy.”
The spending bill covering the Treasury Department and funding for Washington, D.C. that was approved the the appropriations panel next heads to the Rules Committee, which will decide which further amendments, potentially including cannabis-related ones, can be considered on the floor.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.