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Arkansas Marijuana Business Owner Works Against Medical Cannabis Initiative In Mississippi

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The owner of a major licensed marijuana cultivation company in Arkansas is lobbying against a ballot initiative to legalize medical cannabis in neighboring Mississippi.

Advocates suspect foul play, alleging that the individual is seeking to kill the initiative to secure better footing in the market with separate legislation that would better position him when legalization is eventually enacted.

Public records show that Stephen LaFrance, who owns the Arkansas-based Natural State Medicinals, hired lobbyists based in Jackson, Mississippi weeks after the secretary of state announced that reform advocates had collected enough valid signatures for their legalization measure to qualify for the state’s November ballot.

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy first reported the lobbying activity. “What LaFrance is seeking is obvious: To kill Initiative 65, which would create a medical cannabis program in Mississippi and mandate that the state Department of Health run the program,” the center’s article said.

Alex Gray, LaFrance’s attorney, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that his client opposes Initiative 65, which would allow patients suffering from debilitating medical issues to access cannabis after consulting with a physician and receiving a recommendation.

It’s not that he’s opposed to legalization, of course. Rather, Gray said LaFrance takes issue with the language of the initiative and believes it “appears to be irresponsible” and “does not appear to be a true medical” program.

“We are absolutely advocating for a true medical marijuana program that has pharmaceutical-grade medicine,” he said. “That’s why we’re involved in Mississippi, and we’re hopeful that that can be a reality because, at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to be best for both the patients in Mississippi and the state because with what is currently proposed, there’s no way you can regulate it.”

Among the changes LaFrance would like to see are licensing caps for cannabis businesses and a merit-based licensing scheme. That latter proposal would likely prove helpful to the medical marijuana business owner, who Gray says plans to enter the Mississippi market when it is legalized in the state.

Gray, who represents cannabis cultivators and dispensaries, said that his client “has proven to be a very responsible and successful owner of a cultivation facility that’s thriving in Arkansas” and noted that he’s “not guaranteed anything by trying to advocate for a system that provides a true medical marijuana program.”

But if Initiative 65 is defeated, the timeline for legalization could end up being much longer, as the legislature has historically shown no interest in pursuing the reform move. Advocates suspect that’s exactly what lawmakers are attempting to do by introducing alternative resolutions that could appear alongside the original measure on the ballot if the legislature approves any of them.

If an alternative resolution makes the ballot, there’s a risk that voters will be confused and the vote will be split. Language of the alternative resolutions are also more vague and open to interpretation, meaning if one of those passes over the activist-driven initiative, legislators could enact a much more restrictive program.

Jamie Grantham, communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care, put the situation in stark terms.

“Those alternatives would kill any hope that patients in our state have for being able to use medical marijuana,” she told Marijuana Moment. “The Mississippi legislature has had more than 20 years to implement a medical marijuana program. To put any alternative on the ballot at this point is to kill a medical marijuana program. It kills it.”

“We are deeply disappointed that any Mississippi lobbyists would work against a program that could help patients in Mississippi with debilitating medical conditions,” she said. “Clearly the alternatives backed by the Mississippi lobbyists seem to be instigated from a business person in Arkansas to exploit patients here in Mississippi to try to make a buck.”

During the interview, Gray responded to the allegations and said his client is simply “interested in a true medical marijuana program that requires pharmaceutical-grade cannabis, and he feels he can compete with a license and he’s interested in submitting an application in some kind of a merit-based program.”

Matthew Schweich, deputy director of Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the advocacy group “is strongly opposed to the legislation to place an alternative initiative on the Mississippi ballot.”

“This action creates the risk that neither initiative is enacted, which would delay urgently needed legal protections for medical marijuana patients in the state,” he said. “Initiative 65 is a well-crafted medical marijuana policy and there is no valid reason to imperil its success.”

Marijuana Moment sent Gray a list of alternative resolutions and statutory medical cannabis bills that have been introduced in recent weeks in Mississippi, requesting information about whether LaFrance was involved in, or supports, any of the measures. Following that, Gray did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him further via phone and email.

Lobbyists at the Thompson & Associates, LLC firm hired by LaFrance also did not respond to a request for comment.

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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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New Congressional Resolution Condemns Police Brutality And War On Drugs

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Twelve House members introduced a resolution on Friday condemning police brutality in light of the recent law enforcement killings of two black individuals that have galvanized mass protests. The measure specifically notes the racial injustices of the war on drugs.

The resolution is partly motivated by the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, where a police officer suffocated him to death, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, where she was fatally shot by police during a botched drug raid.

Protests have erupted across the U.S. this week, with calls for justice and law enforcement accountability. The new House measure, if adopted, would formally align the body with that sentiment, condemning police brutality, racial profiling and excessive use of force.

The drug war has contributed to those problems, the lawmakers said, with people of color being more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than white people despite similar rates of consumption.

The “system of policing in America, and its systemic targeting of and use of deadly and brutal force against people of color, particularly Black people, stems from the long legacy of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the War on Drugs in the United States and has been perpetuated by violent and harmful law enforcement practices,” a provision of the resolution states.

In addition to condemning “all acts of brutality, racial profiling, and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and calls for the end of militarized policing practices,” the resolution urges the Justice Department to investigate individual cases of police violence and racial profiling and establish all-civilian review boards to provide community oversight of policing.

The measure also “calls for the adoption of sound and unbiased law enforcement policies at all levels of government that reduce the disparate impact of police brutality and use of force on Black and Brown people and other historically marginalized communities.”

Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Karen Bass (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) led the resolution. Other cosponsors include Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), James McGovern (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA).

“From slavery to lynching to Jim Crow, Black people in this country have been brutalized and dehumanized for centuries,” Omar said in a press release. “The war on drugs, mass criminalization, and increasingly militarized police forces have led to the targeting, torture and murder of countless Americans, disproportionately black and brown.”

“The murder of George Floyd in my district is not a one-off event. We cannot fully right these wrongs until we admit we have a problem,” she said. “As the People’s House, the House of Representatives must acknowledge these historical injustices and call for a comprehensive solution. There are many steps on the path to justice, but we must begin to take them.”

Advocacy groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Drug Policy Alliance, Color of Change, ACLU chapters and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have endorsed the resolution.

This measure is being introduced one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor.

In that letter, the legislators cited prior excessive force incidents with two of the three officers involved in Taylor’s shooting—as well as prior alleged improper enforcement by the department’s SWAT team in a botched marijuana raid—as evidence of the need for an investigation.

“For too long, Black and brown bodies have been profiled, surveilled, policed, lynched, choked, brutalized and murdered at the hands of police officers,” Pressley said about the new resolution. “We cannot allow these fatal injustices to go unchecked any longer. There can be no justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or any of the human beings who have been killed by law enforcement, for in a just world, they would still be alive. There must, however, be accountability.”

Federal Judge Gives Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Activists A Boost With Signature Gathering Ruling

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Joe Biden’s New Disability Plan Includes Boosting Medical Marijuana Research

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Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s new plan for people with disabilities involves promoting research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana.

The former vice president, who remains opposed to broader cannabis legalization, said he will “ensure people with disabilities have a voice in their government and are included in policy development and implementation.” That includes cannabis policy.

“A Biden Administration will prioritize the research needed to advance science-based federal policies related to the use of marijuana for medical conditions, chronic pain, and disabilities,” the plan, released on Thursday, states.

This is another example of Biden featuring marijuana issues in broader policy platforms. Earlier this month, he released a plan on racial justice that included his existing modest cannabis reform proposals for decriminalization and automatic expungements.

But while advocates agree with the need for those policy changes, they’ve remained disappointed about Biden’s ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization—something they argue should go hand-in-hand with the social justice principles he’s touted.

The presumptive nominee has argued that more research needs to be done on the potential risks and benefits of marijuana before he’s be open to legalization. In a recent interview, a host pushed back and said, anecdotally, there have been decades of research given that millions of people consume cannabis.

Biden agreed and said he knows “a lot of weed smokers” but, in agreeing to that premise, he seemed to signal the people he knows who consume marijuana have demonstrated the need to maintain prohibition.

While he’s given no indication that he’s willing to embrace legalization ahead of the November election, some are holding out hope that a criminal justice task force he formed with former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will push him in that direction. Most of the members of that group support legalization.

The former vice president does support legalizing medical marijuana, rescheduling cannabis under federal law, decriminalizing the plant, providing for automatic expungements and allowing states to set their own laws.

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Federal Judge Gives Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Activists A Boost With Signature Gathering Ruling

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Activists behind a marijuana legalization initiative in Arkansas are seeing glimmers of hope that they will be able to qualify for the November ballot despite serious setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A federal judge ruled on Monday that the secretary of state must accept signatures that were not collected in-person or notarized, as has been required by existing policy, because of excessive burdens that imposes on campaigns amid the health crisis. Legalization advocates say the temporary injunction, which comes before a final ruling, gives them confidence their measure can qualify ahead of a July 3 deadline to submit signatures.

Now people can download, print and mail in signed petitions—significantly bolstering the chances the legal cannabis campaign can make up for the petitioning deficit created by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements enacted due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the April lawsuit that brought about the federal injunction (which was not filed by legalization activists but by another initiative campaign), plaintiffs also made the case that full-scale electronic signature gathering should be permitted. U.S. District Judge P. K. Holmes empathized with that request in his order, noting that in many scenarios outside the ballot process, officials have recognized the validity of digitally signed documents—including in legal proceedings he oversees.

“It is not that electronic signatures cannot similarly be determined to be genuine. In fact, electronic signatures are commonplace and accepted for all manner of official business, and not only by the State, but by this Court,” he said. “Counsel for Plaintiffs and the Secretary of State electronically signed the briefing on this very motion, and the Court has electronically signed this opinion and the order.”

However, the judge said there must be a balance that takes into account the state’s interest in ensuring the validity of signatures and so he’s doubtful the final ruling will provide for digital signatures.

In any case, the court’s temporary injunction bodes well for the marijuana reform campaign, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, which says it was on the path to qualifying before in-person signature gathering was suspended. Melissa Fults, executive director of the group, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Wednesday that she’s confident the new policies will help the initiative get placed before voters.

“I am still confident. We’re going to give a hard push these next four-and-a-half weeks—hoping and praying that we get signatures and get them turned in and get on the ballot,” she said. “And I think it’ll pass once it gets on the ballot.”

Arkansas voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.

As the state begins the process of reopening, Fults said the campaign will also be engaging in limited in-person collection with enhanced safety mechanisms in place, as well as “drive by” gathering for people to sign the initiative from their vehicles.

In order to make the ballot, the group needs to submit about 90,000 valid signatures from registered voters by July 3. Fults said they’ve collected roughly 20,000 so far, and so these last five weeks will prove critical.

Under the proposal, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to four ounces of cannabis flower and grow up to six plants and six seedings.

A minimum of one dispensary must be licensed per county, and there must be at least 30 shops per congressional district.

Tax revenue from marijuana sales would first go toward implementation. After that, 60 percent would be used to fund public pre-K and after school programs and 40 percent would fund the operations of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Another campaign that was working to put cannabis legalization on the state’s ballot told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Tuesday that it is ending its effort for the year and will shift its focus to 2022. An Arkansas True Grass spokesperson said “we weren’t able to do any of our spring events” because of the virus, leaving them without an opportunity to qualify.

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform efforts throughout the country: 

Activists in Montana and Nebraska have resumed signature gathering with new safety measures in place for campaigns to legalize adult-use marijuana and medical cannabis, respectively.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort asked the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office. That request was denied but in March the campaign expressed optimism that they had amassed enough signatures to qualify anyway.

Separate Oregon campaigns to decriminalize drug possession while significantly expanding substance misuse treatment and to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes recently submitted more than enough raw signatures to qualify for ballot access, though they must still be verified.

Activists in Washington State are continuing to work on a drug decriminalization and treatment measure.

Washington, D.C. activists behind a psychedelics decriminalization campaign are more confident that they will be able to make the ballot after the District Council voted in favor of a series of changes to signature gathering protocol.

A federal judge recently ordered Ohio officials to accept electronic signature submissions to place local marijuana decriminalization measures on the ballot—a decision that could potentially have positive implications for a statewide legalization campaign in the works.

California activists had hoped to get a measure to legalize psilocybin on the state’s November ballot, but the campaign stalled out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A California campaign seeking to amend the state’s cannabis law asked for a digital petitioning option, but state officials haven’t signed on.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists said they plan to continue campaign activities for a marijuana legalization initiative, but it’s more likely that they will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Idaho medical cannabis activists announced that they are suspending their ballot campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

Read the federal judge’s order on Arkansas signature gathering below: 

20-5070 Miller Et Al v. Thu… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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