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Austin City Council To Vote On Ending Marijuana Possession Arrests

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The proposal is being pushed by four progressive members on the City Council. It needs two more votes to pass.

By Alex Samuels and Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

As Texas law enforcement grapples with how to determine if something is marijuana after lawmakers legalized hemp last year, one city’s officials are putting forward their own solution: effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot altogether.

The Austin City Council will vote on a proposal later this month that, if approved, would “virtually end arrests and fines” by city police for possession of personal amounts of cannabis, according to a summary and copy of the measure obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The resolution, raised by four progressive members of the 11-member council, would largely direct police to stop arresting people or issuing citations in low-level marijuana possession cases where officers won’t be able to get a lab report to chemically distinguish between now-legal hemp and illegal marijuana. It also would forbid the city from spending funds or using its personnel to perform such tests.

“If there’s no intent to sell or distribute, we’re not going to mess with it,” said Greg Casar, the lead sponsor of the proposal.

The move comes as a direct result of lawmakers legalizing hemp last June, the resolution states. That state law, while focusing on implementing a hemp agriculture industry in Texas, also narrowed the definition of marijuana from the cannabis plant to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant that produces a high.

The change in statute has led to numerous Texas prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, to now require lab reports on THC concentration levels before pursuing misdemeanor marijuana charges. They similarly argue circumstantial evidence like smell can no longer be used to authoritatively say something is marijuana.

Near Amarillo last month, for example, a man was arrested and jailed for a month suspected of hauling 3,350 pounds of marijuana, but testing and a lab report revealed the substance was in fact legal hemp.

El Paso’s district attorney has claimed this testing is not essential, and his argument was bolstered by Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders in a letter chastising prosecutors for dropping low-level marijuana cases or putting them on hold after the new hemp law. The hemp bill’s Senate sponsor said prosecutors have used the law as political cover to essentially legalize marijuana in their counties. Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Austin’s proposal.

Still, many prosecutors are requiring the piece of paper from a crime lab, and Texas’ government-run labs haven’t quite yet ironed out a method for testing hemp versus marijuana. They are able to determine if THC is in a substance, but not how much. In the meantime, new misdemeanor pot cases are being rejected by some prosecutors or held in limbo waiting for lab testing.

But that doesn’t mean police have stopped arresting or citing people, including in Austin. Some people are still taken to jail but then released and no charges are pursued.

Some city police departments are paying more money to go to the few private labs that can perform such testing. For example, Plano’s City Council in North Texas and Montgomery County’s commissioners near Houston have both approved providing more funding for local law enforcement to acquire these new tests that weren’t often required in personal-use pot cases before.

Casar said Austin shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money on the issue.

“Most Texas voters want to see marijuana legalized. Most Texas voters don’t want to see counties or cities dedicating extra resources to marijuana cases,” he said. “We’re simply doing what we believe is right given the situation.”

Two more members on the council would need to vote for the resolution to take effect. If approved on Jan. 23, the city would have until May 1 to update its guidelines and train Austin police officers to almost fully stop arresting or citing people for suspected marijuana possession.

The Austin Police Department did not respond to questions from the Tribune about marijuana policing or the proposal Friday. Last year, APD Chief Brian Manley told the Austin American-Statesman that he does not support nonenforcement.

“I do not believe as the police chief in Austin that I would be making our city any safer by not enforcing the law,” he told the Statesman.

In recent years, Austin police have pivoted toward a cite-and-release program for misdemeanor marijuana offenses, where officers may instead issue a ticket detailing when the person should arrive in court to face criminal prosecution instead of arresting them on site.

City police are still making those enforcement actions after the hemp law, but only four misdemeanor marijuana possession cases have been filed by the county attorney since July, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. More than 1,000 were filed in the first half of 2019.

In Dallas, where the local district attorney had already said he would not pursue first-time marijuana offenses before the hemp law, police are still making arrests as normal, according to a Dallas Police Department spokesperson. The cases, then sent to the prosecutors, are either being rejected or sent back until police conduct lab testing.

Other law enforcement agencies, like the Round Rock Police Department just north of Austin, have stopped jailing or citing people for small amounts of marijuana possession. The police chief told the Statesman that he wants to enforce the laws, but isn’t going to arrest someone who won’t be prosecuted.

The Austin council proposal would, by forbidding city funds to pay for testing in a county where the prosecutor requires it, essentially guarantee most low-level pot cases do not move forward. And the resolution would direct police to not make arrests or issue citations in such cases, since they would not be allowed for prosecution.

The measure would not prevent law enforcement from taking action when they believe there is an immediate threat to a person’s safety, and it would allow testing in felony-level trafficking cases. Casar said police would also still be able to confiscate suspected marijuana and pursue charges like driving under the influence of marijuana.

Though the resolution doesn’t technically decriminalize marijuana — the proposal’s summary notes that cities aren’t allowed to do that while the drug remains illegal in Texas — it aims to do so effectively. Last year, Texas lawmakers considered but ultimately did not pass a bill to replace criminal penalties for people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana with a civil fine.

If approved, Casar expects the proposal would have an immediate policy impact: In Austin, Class B marijuana possessions have decreased nearly 85% since 2017, and were reduced further after the Legislature’s hemp law went into effect, he said.

Casar also said he hopes the implementation of the proposal will help Austin’s citizens of color, who are disproportionately arrested or punished for violating marijuana possession laws.

“We can be using our limited resources on making things better for people instead of derailing people’s lives for having a small amount of pot,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas Marijuana Prosecutions Have Dropped By More Than Half Following Hemp’s Legalization

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Politics

California Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Is A ‘Civil Rights’ Matter Amid Mass Protests Over Racial Injustice

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The governor of California discussed systemic racism and injustice that is inspiring mass protests across the country in a Friday speech, and he touted the state’s legalization of marijuana as an example of how it has addressed racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said at a press conference that he’s “very proud of this state” for going beyond issues such as implicit bias in policing and the “deadly use of force.” California’s leadership helped advance “a conversation about broader criminal justice reform to address the issues of the war on drugs” and “race-based sentencing,” he said.

“That’s why the state was one of the early adopters of a new approach as it relates to cannabis reform. Legalization around adult-use of marijuana,” he said. “It was a civil rights call from our perspective.”

“I was proud to be out in front in those efforts,” he added. “It was about addressing the disparities. It was about addressing incarceration. It was about addressing the ills of this war on drugs.”

Newsom also discussed the racially discriminatory sentencing of crack versus powder cocaine and other mandatory minimum sentencing policies. While the federal disparity was reduced over time since Congress passed the sentencing provision—a policy presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden helped enacted during his time in the Senate and later sought to undo—California eliminated the distinction in terms of state sentencing in 2014.

Even so, the governor recognized that the reforms the state has enacted to date are “not enough” and more work needs to be done. He’s also not alone in drawing a connection between drug policy reform and racial justice.

Earlier this week, the governor of Virginia said that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.

Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs. It now has 160 cosponsors.

The measure came 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 a botched drug raid.

In New York, there’s a renewed push to pass a package of criminal justice reform legislation that includes a bill to legalize marijuana. Sen. Julia Salazar (D) told Marijuana Moment that “in this particular moment, I think what’s the important factor here is that [criminalization] disproportionately impacts black and brown New Yorkers.”

“Because of the criminalization of the use of marijuana, more black and brown New Yorkers have interactions with police than they need to,” she said. “More people end up in the criminal justice system in the first place than is necessary at all.”

New Jersey Lawmakers File Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Ahead Of Broader Legalization Referendum

Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

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American Bar Association Says Firms Working ‘Indirectly’ With Marijuana Industry Should Get COVID Relief

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The American Bar Association (ABA) sent a letter to the heads of the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration (SBA) on Friday, urging them to end a current policy preventing law firms that service state-legal marijuana businesses from receiving federal coronavirus relief.

SBA has made clear that cannabis companies are ineligible for its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans—but its policy also bars those that work with marijuana businesses indirectly from getting the aid. ABA, which has nearly 200,000 dues-paying members, said it wants clarification or a formal policy change to make it so indirect businesses are not impacted.

“The ABA supports amending federal law to ensure that lawyers do not face the threat of criminal charges when they represent clients in states that have legalized marijuana,” the organization said. “Even before those changes are made to federal law, lawyers should also not be penalized for providing legal services to cannabis-related businesses that comply with state laws.”

ABA also argued that the policy is excessively broad in that it stipulates that companies that derive any revenue from servicing a cannabis business cannot receive relief during the pandemic. “Thus, a law firm where a single lawyer provided advice to a single marijuana business client on legal issues for a nominal fee would arguably be ineligible under this language for the SBA PPP loan program,” the organization wrote.

ABA’s letter further notes that 78 percent of firms are located in states where marijuana is legal in some form.

“We urge SBA to provide further guidance that it will not treat otherwise eligible businesses, including law firms, as disqualified from the PPP program based solely on having provided legal, financial/accounting, policy, or regulatory advice to a Direct Marijuana Business,” Judy Perry Martinez, ABA’s president, wrote.

Steve Fox, strategic advisor at the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “wonderful to see an organization with the reputation and stature of the ABA engage on this issue.”

“As they note, the SBA guidance is overly broad and unjustly punishes companies and firms all across the country. In fact, in some states, the cannabis industry is so ingrained in the economy, you have many hundreds of companies providing goods or services to cannabis businesses,” he said. “According to the plain language of the SBA guidance, they are all, with very minor exceptions, ineligible for PPP loans.”

“We stand with the ABA in urging the Treasury and Small Business Administration to issue further guidance, clarifying that ‘indirect marijuana businesses’ are eligible for PPP loans. If they fail to do so, Congress should remedy this situation at the earliest possible opportunity,” he added.

In February, ABA’s House of Delegates voted in favor of proposals endorsing pending federal legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses and calling for a clarification of rules to ensure that lawyers will not be penalized for representing clients in cases concerning state-legal marijuana activity.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill last month that would fix the COVID-19 relief access problem, calling for SBA eligibility for cannabis businesses and ancillary companies. That came after he led a letter with 34 bipartisan members of the House urging leadership to include the policy change in future coronavirus-related bills.

Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) made a similar request to Senate leaders in a separate letter.

Separately, the ABA-supported Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was included in a House-passed COVID-19 relief package last month.

A bipartisan coalition of 34 state and territory attorneys general asked Congress to pass the bill with that language, which would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said this week that marijuana business banking represents one of the most “challenging issues that I have encountered” at the agency.

Read ABA’s letter to the Treasury and SBA below: 

ABA letter to SBA on PPP by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Federal Financial Regulatory Agency Head Says Marijuana Banking Among Most Challenging Issues

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Bermuda Government Releases Marijuana Legalization Bill For Public Feedback

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The government of Bermuda released a draft bill on Wednesday to establish a legal marijuana market in the self-governing British overseas territory.

“Surprising for some, public attitudes have evolved apace with global legislative reforms and in recognition that opening up pathways for new economic opportunities and activity is needed,” Attorney General Kathy Simmons said in a video on the proposal.

Under the proposed legislation, adults 21 and older would be able to possess and purchase up to seven grams of cannabis from licensed retailers.

A regulatory body called the Cannabis Advisory Authority would be responsible for issuing licenses and regulating the market. There would be seven types of licenses available: cultivation, retail, research, import, export, transportation and manufacturing.

Individuals with prior marijuana convictions would not be barred from participating in the industry.

Fees for the licenses would be set in a way designed to both stimulate the territory’s economy while also ensuring that they are not prohibitively expensive for “underserved and marginalized communities,” a summary of the bill states.

People with convictions for possessing seven grams or less would be eligible for expungement.

Last year, Bermudan lawmakers unveiled draft legislation to create a medical cannabis program. Public feedback signaled that people felt the bill imposed excessive regulations and that the territory should more broadly legalize marijuana altogether for adult use.

Now that this new draft legislation has been released, the government is again asking for public input up until July 3. On its site, individuals are prompted with seven specific questions that feedback is being sought on. That includes queries about licensing requirements and penalties.

Premier David Burt, who pledged last year to introduce marijuana legalization legislation, also encouraged individuals to weigh in on the proposed regulations.

“The Government has made a commitment to progressively liberalize cannabis laws in Bermuda and to create economic opportunities for citizens wishing to participate in a regulated cannabis scheme,” the site states. “The Government again wishes to ‘take it to the people’ by commencing a one month public consultation exercise on the proposed scheme.”

The attorney general said in her video that the government plans to “move ahead with a more simplified, regulated cannabis scheme, which builds on the strength of the original medicinal cannabis policy and which embraces the public feedback.”

“The revised proposal with provide for a regulated cannabis program which has been hybridized to meet Bermuda’s requirements while modeling the best available legal provisions in Canada, both provincial and federal, and to a lesser degree, examples from the Caribbean,” she said.

Several Caribbean nations have started exploring marijuana reform in recent years. Importantly, in 2018, the heads of 19 Caribbean nations agreed to “review marijuana’s current status with a view to reclassification,” emphasizing “human and religious rights” issues stemming from criminalization as well as “the economic benefits to be derived” from legalization.

Since then, lawmakers in the dual-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis said they would be introducing legalization legislation. The government of Trinidad and Tobago brought two cannabis reform bills before Parliament last year—one to decriminalize low-level possession and another to legalize cannabis for medical and religious purposes.

Meanwhile, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands has been stressing the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the U.S. territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Jamaican government also recently announced that it will be allowing medical cannabis patients to make marijuana purchases online for pickup at “herb houses” as a means to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Read the draft bill to legalize marijuana in Bermuda below:

Bermuda marijuana legalizat… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Touts Legal Marijuana’s Economic Potential At Revenue Meeting

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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