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Applying The Lessons Of Legal Cannabis To Psychedelics Decriminalization (Op-Ed)

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“If the common person has the ability to grow and use their own healing plants, and share with friends, they can forever hold the corporate interests accountable.”

By Carlos Plazola, Decriminalize Nature

We’re getting decriminalization and legalization of our sacred plant allies all wrong. I was part of the process that screwed up our relationship with cannabis. And these are my lessons I carry to a new movement called Decriminalize Nature, born in Oakland and now spreading across the country in over 100 cities and 30 states.

In 2010, I sat at a meeting in Richmond, California lobbying the City Council to allow dispensaries to become permitted. My team presented a complex rubric of regulations they could place on the dispensaries to ensure the world would stay safe, and we seduced them with the staggering tax windfalls they’d receive once the dispensaries were fully operational. It helped that the unregulated mortgage derivate industry had just sucked trillions of dollars out of the economy, causing de-industrialized towns like Richmond to hemorrhage from their dwindling budgets. We brought to them smoke and mirrors, complex regulations and greed. And they ate it up.

I was part of a large group of second wave organizers following early-in pioneers who, for the love of the plant, sought to decriminalize cannabis for medical healing purposes throughout the 80s and 90s. Where their version of the story focused on the healing power of cannabis, the assistance it provided to heal trauma and all the medical benefits, our version of the story in the mid-2000s focused on the power of cannabis to create taxes, to create wealth, to heal the budgets of cities and make communities rich. In other words, the full-blown commodification narrative was set loose.

But, to be fair, the war on cannabis was stupid to begin with. We all knew it, and the fear held by officials at all levels of government was dumbfounding. All anyone had to do to understand that the hype behind Reefer Madness and the dangers of weed was nonsense was to do a news search on the history of cannabis and read a few news articles and scientific studies. Two hours on a computer googling “why did cannabis get on Schedule I?” would have shown that available scientific research showed marijuana should NOT have been on Schedule I. But elected officials live in fear. It’s almost a prerequisite to re-election. Always looking over the shoulder at the next up-start poised to take their seat. “Can’t make a stupid decision that will wreck my career.”

But here we found ourselves on familiar terrain. How do you overcome the innate fear of elected officials who refuse to look at things rationally and prefer to “do more studies!” or employ the standard delay tactic of “send it to committee,” instead of righting Nixon’s wrongs? I’d spent eight years in government, as a congressional aide and council chief of staff, and I understood that fear and paranoia was just part of the game. So, it seemed logical to fight fire with fire. The ends justify the means, don’t they? (It turns out they don’t.) How do you get over an irrational fear of a decision maker? Desire. Offer them something they can’t refuse. So, we did. And in the process, we destroyed our relationship to cannabis.

From this strategy of appeasing politician’s fear were born the three horsemen of the apocalypse on healing plants. The three horsemen emerged as Scarcity, Complexity and Greed. Together they are destroying the sacred relationship between humans and cannabis, and are poised to destroy our relationship to entheogenic plants and fungi—if we, as advocates, repeat our mistakes.

Horseman #1: Scarcity

“But weed will be everywhere and everyone will be smoking it, children will die from it, cars will drive off bridges because of it and hell will break loose! How will you prevent this?!” sang the chorus of anxious elected officials. Now, at this moment, we should have all united as advocates and stood strong and calmed them down, like a mother calms a terrified child and says, “show me where the monster is.” And we should have shown them that there are no monsters in the closet. “It was all Nixon’s hype. And since progressive elected officials all hate Nixon so much, join us in righting his wrong against our natural world and our consciousness.”

It could have been so beautiful. We could have forced the conversation toward the truths about this beautiful plant that has co-evolved with humans and provided so much healing over the eons but, instead, we took the bait and we did something very stupid. We said, “OK, we’ll limit the number of plants that individuals are allowed to grow.” The intention was good (to allay their fear) but the logic was flawed. By limiting the amount someone can grow, we sent the message that cannabis is dangerous and we created scarcity, especially for those who most needed it to heal.

Horseman #2: Complexity

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” Einstein was right. As it pertains to cannabis, we wanted to allay the fears of the elected officials, so we offered them complex regulatory frameworks, and they ran with it.

In the early 2000’s, the herd began its stampede toward greater and greater regulatory complexity, and hasn’t stopped since. Everyone had to put their fingerprints on the regulations. By the time the California state cannabis regulations were completed and published in January 2019, only a few well-paid lawyers understood what the hell was going on, and most of them were faking it. Their $500 hourly billing rate wasn’t really all that attainable for that black or brown person in East or West Oakland who’d been cultivating the sacred plant for 20 years as their livelihood, did time in the 80s for having a baggy of weed in their car and would eventually get pushed out of the industry because of the cost of complexity.

Again, the intentions were good, but we were reacting to fear. How do we keep babies from going up in flames? Create new regulations. And while the stampede was running full-speed ahead toward Complexity Cliff, it seemed no one had the fortitude to just raise their hand and say, “uh, guys, gals, we have all these pre-existing regulations that have been working perfectly fine for well, about a hundred years or more. Why don’t we just apply these regs to cannabis, like we do to herbs, or tomatoes, or oranges, or Heinz Ketchup, or Newman’s Own lemonade?”

The initial reaction would have been predictable. “What?! Don’t you understand this plant is the devil’s weed! We must contain this THC/CBD Beast and tame it so it doesn’t destroy civilization!” But, over time, had we held to our message long enough, we could have convinced the decision-makers that “nope, cannabis is a loving and friendly plant that heals. You don’t have to treat it with disrespect. Just treat it like any other plant and relax.” The winners would have been everyone except lawyers and lobbyists. But alas, here we are. Weekly conference calls to make sure we’re meeting the most recent iteration of a regulatory requirement. A growing underground market of people telling the state to piss off. A bunch of angry advocates who helped create this complexity demanding justice. And the few true believers watching their mission of bringing the healing effects of cannabis to those in need become harder and harder.

Horseman #3: Greed

Create Scarcity. Check.

Create Complexity. Check.

OK, perfect. Launch Venture Capital! The final wave of total annihilation of our sacred relationship to cannabis.

To be fair, this was not some grand master plan by venture capitalists. I’ve been watching the cannabis industry take a big giant crap since 2000. Watching it all unfold. Paying my own heavy price for participating in this fool’s game of defilement. Venture capital wasn’t sitting on the sidelines waiting for their dastardly plan to finally unfold so they could rush in and collect their winnings. This is just how things work when we legislate from fear. It’s an inevitability.

Ruthless capitalism was created in response to fear hundreds of years ago. It feeds off fear and all the fear-based responses that emerge—well, like hoarding, for example. So, it was natural that the process we began in the early 2000s that started from a place of pandering to the fear of decision-makers would eventually end in the ultra-competitive world of venture capital. We did it. We came from love. We reacted to fear. We justified it by thinking the ends justified the means. And we set it down the road of destruction, so now the weed advocates hold conferences asking, “Where did cannabis go wrong?” and lamenting the lack of people of color in the industry, while down the road the capitalists hold conferences with panel titles such as, “Desktop and Mobile Technologies: CRM, POS, Blockchain, Digital Payment—what’s Hot and Needs to Disrupt?” in a room filled with primarily white entrepreneurs.

We did this. But we can learn from this to make sure we don’t destroy our relationship with our plant allies of the entheogenic type. Cannabis was the sacrificial lamb to the altar of human frailty. But here is our opportunity to get it right with our plant and fungal allies that lovingly heal our consciousness—ayahuasca, sacred mushrooms, ibogaine, mescaline cacti and the like, because if we fuck this one up, once knowledge, what forgiveness? None. Game over.

To Decriminalize Nature

Think about this for a moment. To Decriminalize Nature. Nature. Us. We’re Nature. We’re of Nature. Nature is Us. How did it come to pass that we would even need to create a movement that in essence says, “Decriminalize Us”? We, as humans, have become so embedded in fear that the absurd concept of criminalizing nature now actually makes sense to many people in the world. The logic is simple in their minds: “We must stop people from doing stupid things to themselves, and we can do this by declaring it illegal! And now, let’s throw them in prison for using these substances to protect them from themselves. There. Sit in a cage so you don’t harm yourself.”

That we have to explain this to elected officials can, at times, be maddening. Often the response is, “Do more studies! Send it to Committee!” Fear-based responses. But we must stay the course, be patient, build a movement and hold to our message this time, and our message is simple:

Build Abundance, Not Scarcity:

Any initiatives that seek to legalize, regulate or end the war on drugs must first, or simultaneously, decriminalize our relationship with natural healing plants without limits on growing, gathering or gifting of entheogenic plants for non-commodified uses. We must treat these plants as we would treat tomatoes, oranges or everyday garden herbs. By enabling anyone to grow as much as they want for non-commodified uses, we even the playing-field for the inevitable commodification down the road. If the common person has the ability to grow and use their own healing plants, and share with friends, they can forever hold the corporate interests accountable. They will retain the ultimate leverage of the freedom to home-grow if the products of corporations become unattractive or undesirable, or if they simply prefer to grow their own and not rely on corporate products—just like with oranges or tomatoes.

Don’t Reinvent The Regulatory Wheel:

Like oranges or tomatoes, it is likely that commodified products from healing plants and fungi will emerge. But we don’t need to create complexity where the only winners are lawyers and lobbyists. Keep it simple. Use pre-existing regulatory frameworks that work just fine.

Transform Capitalism:

Ok. This is a tall order. And will likely take a couple of centuries for us to achieve, presuming we can get there as a species. It is also inevitable that this single-motive technology (capitalism) will eventually evolve to encompass other values, such as compassion, ecological protections and empathy. But, until then, we will all have to work together to push full decriminalization without caps on amounts as a balancing force, keep regulations simple and work together to encourage any for profit venture capitalist or corporation to approach nature with reverence.

This next great frontier of humanity is not out there in space, on Mars or on some new undiscovered continent. The next great frontier of humanity is inward. It involves conquering our fears; the fears that have us treating ourselves, each other and nature with disdain, allowing the emergence of destructive policies and practices that hurt only us. The next move is to decriminalize our relationship with nature which, when we finally wake, we’ll understand was really about decriminalizing our own relationship with ourselves and letting go of fear.

Carlos Plazola is the chair of the board of Decriminalize Nature. He formerly worked as a lobbyist in the cannabis industry from 2008 to 2012 and as chief of staff to the Oakland City Council president from 2000 to 2006.

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Photo elements courtesy of carlosemmaskype and Apollo.

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Louisiana Senate And House Both Approve Significant Medical Marijuana Expansion

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The Louisiana Senate approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program on Wednesday, and a committee advanced separate legislation on banking access for cannabis businesses.

The expansion proposal, which the House of Representatives approved last week, would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced the proposal last week and now the full chamber has approved it in a 28-6 vote. Before the bill heads to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for signature or veto, the House will have to sign off on an amendment made by the Senate to require dispensaries to record medical marijuana purchases in the state prescription monitoring program database.

As originally drafted, the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R) would have simply added traumatic brain injuries and concussions to the list of conditions that qualify a patient for a marijuana recommendation. But it was amended in a House committee to add several other conditions as well as language stipulating that cannabis can be recommended for any condition that a physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”

Under current law there are only 14 conditions that qualify patients for marijuana.

“House Bill 819 is the new standard for medical marijuana programs. The bill allows any doctor who is licensed by and in good standing with the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners to make medical marijuana recommendations for their patients,” Bagley told Marijuana Moment. “The bill also ends the Legislature’s task of picking medical winners and losers each session, and instead allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any condition that a physician, in his medical opinion, considers debilitating to an individual patient.”

Bagley also introduced a House-passed bill to provide for cannabis deliveries to patients, but he voluntarily withdrew it from Senate committee consideration last week and told Marijuana Moment it’s because he felt the medical marijuana expansion legislation would already allow cannabis products to be delivered to patients like other traditional pharmaceuticals.

The delivery bill would have required a government regulatory body to develop “procedures and regulations relative to delivery of dispensed marijuana to patients by designated employees or agents of the pharmacy.”

It’s not clear if regulators will agree with Bagley’s interpretation, as doctors are still prohibited from “prescribing” cannabis and marijuana products are not dispensed through traditional pharmacies. That said, they recently released a memo authorizing dispensaries to temporarily deliver cannabis to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s possible officials will be amendable to extending that policy on a permanent basis.

State lawmakers also advanced several other pieces of cannabis reform legislation last week.

A bill introduced by Rep. Edmond Jordan (D) to protect banks and credit unions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by state regulators cleared the full House in a 74-20 vote.

That measure was approved by Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs on Wednesday, setting it up for floor action in the chamber.

Also last week, the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee unanimously approved a resolution to establish “a task force to study and make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry projected workforce demands.”

Text of the legislation states that “there is a need to study the workforce demands and the skills necessary to supply the cannabis industry with a capable and compete workforce, including physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners.”

Legislators have until the end of the legislative session on June 1 to get any of the measures to the governor’s desk.

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Former Attorney General, Lawmakers And Police Leaders Call For Federal Marijuana Legalization Waivers

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A task force comprised of former lawmakers, federal prosecutors and reform advocates issued a series of recommendations on Wednesday about criminal justice policy changes that should be enacted, and that includes creating a waiver system to allow states to set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.

The Council on Criminal Justice task force was established prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but its new report said the health crisis has “underscored the urgency” of the recommendations. While the group is far from the only criminal justice-minded organization to push for cannabis reform, it’s especially notable because of the backgrounds of its membership.

Sally Yates, who served as deputy attorney general and interim attorney general, is on the task force. So is former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and former Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Mark Holden, who was senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, and David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union, are also members.

Together, the group agreed on 15 reform recommendations.

While they didn’t endorse federally legalizing cannabis outright, the group said the current conflict between local and national policy is untenable and should be addressed in the interim by creating waivers for states to proceed with marijuana legalization without the fear of federal intervention.

“The federal government must act to resolve this conflict and confusion, by creating an environment that respects sovereignty and by providing a responsible framework in which states can make policy choices,” they said. “Without federal action, the cannabis industry will continue to operate without consistent guardrails and guidance for testing, labeling, and marketing—to minors and all consumers.”

“The Task Force concludes that neither a federal crackdown nor a hands-off approach is advisable. In the absence of cannabis rescheduling, or its legalization at the federal level, the Task Force recommends that Congress and the Administration develop a state waiver process or contractual framework. Without it, states and the industry will continue to exist under an illusion of sovereignty where circumstances can change at any moment. A balanced and thoughtful accommodation from the federal government would provide confidence to states, stabilize the market, and help address many of the myriad safety and health problems.”

To implement the recommendation, the group wants the federal government to create an interagency task force including representatives of the Departments of Justice, Treasury and Health and Human Services, among other agencies. Members would be charged with creating policies and standards on best public health practices regarding issues such as product availability, testing, labeling, marketing and child-resistant packaging.

It would also lay out guidelines for banks that work with the cannabis industry as well as guidance, grant funding and assistance to aid law enforcement efforts to crack down on illicit marijuana distribution. Also recommended is an expansion of National Institute on Drug Abuse-supported research on the potential benefits and risks of cannabis as well as the effects of regulatory legal models.

New federal legislation “should provide guidance and assurances to all stakeholders legally operating under the waiver and/or contractual agreement, shielding them from civil and/or criminal liability,” the report says.

Beyond marijuana, the Council on Criminal Justice task force also proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all federal drug crimes in order to reduce the prison population, automatically sealing public criminal records for non-violent federal convictions “including simple possession of controlled substances, following a conviction-free period of no longer than seven years” and establishing “independent oversight of the federal prison system.”

Due to the high rate of substance use disorders in prisons, the task force also recommended enhancing access “to evidence-based treatment services” that can “help break the cycle of substance use and incarceration.” Medication-assisted treatment would be an example of such a service, the report said.

“The pandemic engulfing the world has exposed more fully than ever the deficiencies in our nation’s criminal justice system, and how those deficiencies endanger people, communities, and public safety,” Nutter said in a press release. “Let us honor the pain, suffering, and loss of life that has occurred during this crisis by sharpening and refocusing our work for change.”

Another task force that advocates are eyeing was recently formed to make criminal justice recommendations to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who dropped out of the race in April, teamed up to create the group, and most members are in favor of marijuana legalization, in contrast to Biden’s current position. It remains to be seen whether they will formally recommend adopting broader cannabis reform as part of the former vice president’s platform.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Marijuana Dispensaries Excluded From New York’s Coronavirus Loan Program

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Not only are marijuana businesses excluded from federal coronavirus relief funds, but medical cannabis dispensaries in New York are also ineligible for a new COVID-19 loan program that the state is offering.

Under the New York Forward Loan Fund (NYFLF), marijuana shops are specifically excluded, alongside payday loan providers, pawn shops, strip clubs, liquor stores and astrologers. Information pages about the program don’t provide a reason for why dispensaries are considered ineligible.

“The working capital loans are timed to support businesses and organizations as they proceed to reopen and have upfront expenses to comply with guidelines (e.g., inventory, marketing, refitting for new social distancing guidelines) under the New York Forward Plan,” a description of the program states.

This eligibility requirement restrictions come despite the fact that most states, including New York, have deemed cannabis businesses as essential services that can continue to operate during the pandemic.

For the industry in the Empire State, the loan exclusion is another gut punch in a crisis. There have been widespread calls from stakeholders, advocates and legislatures to provide the market with equitable relief from the federal Small Business Administration and, while that so far has not panned out, there’s been hope that states could help fill the gap.

“Given that cannabis businesses are ineligible for federal relief, it is unconscionable for the state of New York to deny them access to state-based relief efforts,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “These businesses have been going above and beyond to provide continuous healthcare, protect jobs, and generate revenue for the state under terrible conditions just like other essential services.”

“Leaving them in the lurch like this is a tremendous disservice to the people who risked their health to provide medical cannabis to the people that need it, and will stunt the ability of the industry to recover and grow at a time when the economy needs it most,” he said.

Katie Neer, chair of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association and director of government relations for Acreage Holdings, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “unfortunate that medical cannabis operators, which are licensed and regulated in New York, and help thousands of patients manage a wide range of ailments, conditions, and illnesses, continue to be lumped in with other so-called ‘sin’ businesses, like pay-day loan stores, massage parlors, and strip clubs.”

“The reality is that New York’s medical cannabis program, established by the governor and Legislature in 2014, is one of the most restrictive in the nation,” she said. “As a result, the industry was struggling prior to the pandemic, even as it was deemed ‘essential’ and continues to serve patients throughout the crisis.”

“While we are eager to participate in the economic recovery at both the state and federal levels, accessing capital has long been a struggle for cannabis operators due to cannabis remaining a federally illegal schedule I drug. We applaud the state’s $100 million New York Forward Loan fund to support small businesses, but we regret not being able to participate due to inconsistencies between state and federal law. To that end, we urge the US Senate to include the SAFE Banking Act in the next federal aid package, which would improve the cannabis industry’s access to capital and ensure that state administered efforts like this one can include state-legal cannabis operators.”

It’s possible that because this loan program is the product of a private-public partnership involving several large national banks, the cannabis exclusion could be related to perceived risks associated with providing financial services to a federally illicit market.

While New York might not be extending state-level relief to cannabis businesses, lawmakers in Massachusetts are actively considering legislation that would establish a coronavirus relief program for marijuana firms and other companies that are left out of federal aid.

In the meantime, at the federal level, the House passed a COVID-19 package that does contain language that would protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Advocates argue that this would mitigate the spread of the virus in a heavily cash-based industry.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) also introduced a bill last month that would extend SBA access to marijuana companies.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was recently asked why the state hasn’t legalized cannabis for adult use as a means to generate much-needed tax revenue during the pandemic. He said it’s a policy change he expects will happen, but it’s a “complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way.”

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