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Ben Jealous Talks Marijuana, Dave Chappelle And His Campaign For Maryland Governor

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Ben Jealous is serious about legalizing marijuana in Maryland if he wins the state’s gubernatorial election in November. And with early polls showing him in the lead as the June 26 Democratic primary approaches, the former NAACP president might just get his shot.

For Jealous, a progressive candidate endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), among others, his stance on cannabis policy has evolved over time—but he’s put full legalization front and center during his gubernatorial campaign.

Marijuana Moment reached Jealous by phone to learn more about his plans for marijuana reform if elected governor.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Marijuana Moment: You tweeted recently that comedian Dave Chappelle was the first person to tell you that cannabis should be legal. Can you describe that conversation and how it influenced your own personal views? 

Ben Jealous: We were young and we were 20 years old in Mississippi. And Dave had come down there. I was organizing to stop a governor from turning a black college into a prison, and I was stressed out because Dave wanted to fire up a joint, and I didn’t want to go to jail in Mississippi. Dave was like ‘well, this shit should be legal,’ and I was like, ‘yeah, but it’s not.’ That was basically the conversation.

And then it was just an ongoing conversation about the history of marijuana enforcement—the way it was targeted at our community and Latino communities, and that just sort of opened my eyes. And that led me as president of the NAACP pushing for decriminalization in a number of states and cities. That’s ultimately where that conversation led. Dave was the one who really first talked to me about the way in which marijuana enforcement had been targeted at our communities. It just so happened that that day in Mississippi, the stakes were so high, I wasn’t really having it.

MM: Let’s talk more about the evolution of your position on cannabis reform. Were there any other major factors that led you to adopt a pro-legalization stance? 

BJ: I did not start the campaign thinking that this was going to be one of the big issues that I was going to be talking about. However, I did start the campaign knowing that we were going to have to deal head on with the violence in Baltimore and the shootings elsewhere around the state, including places like Prince George’s County. And so around the second anniversary of the uprisings in Baltimore, I asked a retired member of the Baltimore Police Department to go talk to commanders that he knew across the city and just ask them, ‘why are the shootings surging? What’s going on with the violence?’

And he came back and he said, ‘Ben, you know, there were two big data points.’ I said, ‘OK, what are they?’ He said, ‘one, nobody can really agree why the shootings have been surging in recent years. However, everybody is in agreement that approximately half of the shootings in the past 10 years had been one set of marijuana dealers killing another set of marijuana dealers.’ That made me sit up straight, because it really laid bare that we could be saving lives if we legalized cannabis. And that added to the mountains of evidence of the good that could be done to advance racial justice, the good that could be done to increase revenues for universal pre-k.

MM: It’s estimated that full legalization would bring in upwards of $120 million in tax revenue for Maryland. What’s your top priority in terms of how you’d like to see that revenue allocated?

BJ: One of the things that excites me, as I look forward to the day when we legalize cannabis in Maryland, is that we know that when we do, we will be able to decrease the shootings in Baltimore and throughout the state, and we’ll be able to increase five-year-olds’ readiness to start kindergarten. It’s a great win-win. And it’s rare in politics, but it’s also urgently needed. We know that we have to end mass incarceration—and yet go further. We have to really get back to opening up the gates of opportunity for all of our children. And by legalizing cannabis, we get to make progress on both fronts.

We’ll be able to decrease the number of people going into prisons, we’ll be able to make our streets safer and cut the violence on our streets significantly, but we’ll also be able to generate tax revenues that will cover the costs of providing universal pre-k for every child in the state. And that itself will strike a blow against mass incarceration because we know that the better prepared a child is for kindergarten, the more likely they are to do well in school and stay in school and end up in a good job. It’s a true win-win.

MM: What would your message to Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 be when it comes to the issue of legalization?

BJ: Speaking as a Democrat, as party that is committed to being the party of working people, the party of economic justice, the party of racial justice, the party of civil rights, it should be an easy decision at this point. States like Colorado and Washington, D.C and Washington State have led the way, shown that it decreases violence, and it increases tax revenues, while taking the money out of the pockets of gangs and cartels that are engaged in a lot of other very dangerous criminal activities. It’s just common sense—and courage and common sense should be the hallmarks of the Democratic party.

MM: Can you speak to the importance of strengthening the state’s diversity requirements for marijuana licenses?

BJ: Let us never forget that this is the 21st century. Our Republican governor rolled out the new medical cannabis as if it were the 19th century. In a state that’s 53 percent women and 48.5 percent people of color, 100 percent of the licenses went to white-owned companies and virtually none went to women. That should never be allowed to happen again. When I’m governor, we will go further. We will make sure that the ownership is inclusive, but we’ll also make sure that people from the neighborhoods that have been adversely affected by the war on drugs are included in both ownership and employment. The illegal cannabis trade has been a steady employer in a lot of very poor neighborhoods like Upton, where my mom grew up in West Baltimore. We must build this industry in a way that lifts up the people from the places that have paid the steepest price in the war on drugs.

These States Will Probably Vote On Marijuana In 2018

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

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.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Bipartisan Pennsylvania Senators File Bill To Let Medical Marijuana Patients Grow Their Own Plants

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A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania senators introduced a bill on Thursday that would allow medical marijuana patients to cultivate their own plants for personal use.

Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) first announced their intent to file the legislation in November, arguing that it is a necessary reform to ensure patient access by giving people a less costly alternative to buying from dispensaries.

Registered patients who are 21 and older, and who have been residents of the state for at least 30 days, could grow up to six plants in an “enclosed and locked space” at their residence, according to the text of the bill. They would be allowed to buy cannabis seeds from licensed dispensaries

 

In an earlier cosponsorship memo for the new home grow bill, the lawmakers said that letting patients cultivate their own medicine would “help ease the cost and accessibility burdens for this important medicine.”

The new legislation has three other initial cosponsors in addition to Street and Laughlin.

Street had attempted to get the reform enacted as an amendment to an omnibus bill this summer, but it did not advance.

The senators argue that patients in particular are deserving of a home grow option, as some must currently travel hours to visit a licensed dispensary and there are financial burdens that could be alleviated if patients could grow their own plants for medicine.

Late last year, Laughlin and Street also unveiled a separate adult-use legalization proposal that faces significant challenges in the GOP-controlled legislature. And Street is behind another recent cannabis measure to provide state-level protections to banks and insurers that work with cannabis businesses.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 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.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

In the interim, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate this year, said one of his key goals in his final year in office is to ensure that as many eligible people as possible submit applications to have the courts remove their cannabis records and restore opportunities to things like housing, student financial aid and employment through an expedited petition program.

Pennsylvania lawmakers could also take up more modest marijuana reform proposals like a bill filed late last year to expand the number of medical marijuana cultivators in the state, prioritizing small farms to break up what she characterized as a monopoly or large corporations that’s created supply problems.

Rep. Amen Brown (D) separately announced his intent to file a legalization bill that he’ll be working on with Sen. Mike Regan (R), who expressed his support for the policy change a day earlier.

Additionally, another pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing last year.

Philadelphia voters also approved a referendum on marijuana legalization in November that adds a section to the city charter saying that “the citizens of Philadelphia call upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Governor to pass legislation that will decriminalize, regulate, and tax the use, and sale to adults aged 21 years or older, of cannabis for non-medical purposes.”

Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said last year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.

The governor, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

A survey from Franklin & Marshall College released last year found that 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters back adult-use legalization. That’s the highest level of support for the issue since the firm started polling people about it in 2006.

An attempt to provide protections for Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients from being charged with driving under the influence was derailed in the legislature last year, apparently due to pushback by the state police association.

Nebraska Activists Say New GOP Medical Marijuana Bill Is A ‘Poison Pill’ Meant To Detract From Ballot Efforts

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Minnesota Democratic Leaders Preview Marijuana Legalization Plan For 2022

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Minnesota Democratic leaders are preparing for another push to legalize marijuana this session, with the sponsor of the House-passed reform bill saying he will be reworking the legislation in an effort to build further support—though it continues to face an uphill climb in the GOP-controlled Senate.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) and Senate Minority Leader Melisa Franzen (D) discussed the legislative strategy during a roundtable event hosted by the Minnesota Hemp Growers Cooperative on Wednesday.

Winkler said that his bill, which moved through 12 committees before being approved on the House floor last year, is the “product of hundreds of hours of work involving thousands of people’s input, countless hearings and public listening sessions—but it is not a perfect bill.”

“As we look ahead to this session…our goal is to go back and reexamine provisions of the bill,” he said. Licensing structures, public safety and substance misuse concerns are among the issues that lawmakers will be looking at to improve upon the legislation.

“We will be working with our colleagues in the Minnesota Senate,” Winkler added. “We’re interested in pursuing legalization to make sure that the bill represents senators’ priorities for legalization as well.”

The leader said that “any effort this year that would be successful would require Republican support as well.”

But while advocates are encouraged to hear that the House may again vote to pass the legalization legislation, the Senate minority leader tempered expectations about the bill’s prospects in her Republican-run chamber.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a path to legalization this year in the Minnesota Senate,” Franzen said. “It’s controlled by the Republican party, and they have there’s a few members who are really adamantly opposed to legalization.”

Gov. Tim Walz (D) is supportive of cannabis legalization, and while the broad reform didn’t advance last session, he did sign a bill to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, in part by allowing patients to access smokable cannabis products.

Winkler said on Wednesday that “it was because of the work done” by advocates on legalization that put pressure on Senate Republicans to advance that legislation.

Another cannabis issue playing out in Minnesota concerns CBD. The state agriculture department and pharmacy board have increased enforcement against the sale of the non-intoxicating cannabinoid in recent months, prompting calls for legislative reform.

Winkler said that the political dynamics around legalization that led to the expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program will be “a template for how we will address challenges with CBD this year.”

“My staff is working very closely with advocates, working with senators, working with other House members to get in a repair for the CBD industry, and I have every confidence that we will be able to do that with your help,” he said.

A poll conducted by Minnesota lawmakers that was released last year found that 58 percent of residents are in favor of legalization. That’s a modest increase compared to the chamber’s 2019 survey, which showed 56 percent support.

Winkler said in 2020 that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.

Rhode Island Governor Includes Marijuana Legalization And Expungements In Budget Request

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Nebraska Activists Say New GOP Medical Marijuana Bill Is A ‘Poison Pill’ Meant To Detract From Ballot Efforts

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A Republican Nebraska senator introduced a bill on Thursday that ostensibly seeks to legalize medical marijuana in the state—but activists have raised concerns that the restrictive measure may be an attempt to subvert an effort to pass even broader patient protections on the 2022 ballot.

Sen. Mike Groene (R) filed the legislation, which would allow certain patients to buy and possess cannabis oils, pills and up to two and a half ounces of flower at a limited number of dispensaries. Smoking or inhaling marijuana would be banned, however, as would making edibles—so it’s not clear how patients would consume the flower they could possess.

But the main problem is, the bill would maintain that cultivating marijuana in Nebraska for commercial or personal use is illegal, meaning dispensaries wouldn’t even have a legal means of obtaining cannabis products for patients.

The bill is also severely restrictive in terms of who would qualify for cannabis. It would only permit access to people with stage IV cancer, uncontrolled seizures, severe muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy or a terminal illness with less than a one year probable life expectancy.

It’s being backed by the Nebraska chapter of the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), leading some advocates to suspect that the lack of cultivation provisions is designed to be a “poison pill” while misleading voters into thinking that there is a good faith effort to legalize medical cannabis legislatively.

“This appears to be a political stunt,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Opponents of medical cannabis know there is a viable campaign to put medical cannabis on the ballot, and they know Nebraskans will overwhelmingly support that effort.”

“This is an attempt to take our focus away from that,” he said. “But it won’t succeed because it’s clear that this proposal is not a good faith effort to find some middle ground on the issue.”

The bill comes as Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana (NMM) continues to work to collect signatures for a pair of medical cannabis legalization initiatives that advocates hope to place on the November ballot. They have until July to collect 87,000 valid signatures to qualify each of their complementary measures.

Activists with the group collected enough signatures to qualify a medical marijuana legalization measure for the 2020 ballot, but the state Supreme Court invalidated it, finding that the proposal violated the single-subject rule for citizen initiatives.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 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.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Now this legislation from Groene is entering the mix for the 2022 session. And SAM Nebraska co-chair John Kuehn told The Lincoln Journal-Star that it’s “a good faith effort and we are willing to look at this as an acceptable alternative to creating a marijuana industry in the state of Nebraska.”

While advocates aren’t necessarily buying that argument given that it would authorize dispensaries without providing the ability to cultivate marijuana products, some like NMM co-chair Sen. Anna Wishart (D) are willing to work with the senator to get the bill into a more acceptable shape for patients.

“It would be the status quo,” Wishart said. “I want a safe system, but there are practical realities patients are living with every day. No one wants a system that doesn’t work.”

Notably, Groene did support a procedural motion to advance Wishart’s more expansive medical cannabis bill last session.

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democrats, pounced on the restrictive nature of Groene’s bill and said it makes it “not easy or feasible for most” to obtain a medical cannabis recommendation from a doctor.

Shari Lawlor, a member of Nebraska Families for Medical Cannabis, said that the group is “grateful that Sen. Groene recognizes the importance of medical cannabis,” but as drafted, “this is a medical cannabis bill with no cannabis.”

“It envisions a system with dispensaries but no farmers or cultivators who actually produce the medical cannabis that patients need,” she said. “And since patients are not allowed to cultivate medical cannabis themselves under this proposal, there is effectively no way for patients to get the relief they need.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) is no fan of legalization. He partnered with SAM Nebraska on a recent ad urging residents to oppose cannabis reform in the state. Given the organization’s support for this new GOP proposal, there’s some suspicion that he might back it to give the appearance that the administration isn’t deaf to calls for reform by voters.

Advocates aren’t going to be deterred by the bill’s introduction. They will be moving forward with the complementary medical cannabis initiatives in hopes to getting the issue to voters.

The campaign deliberately chose to take a bifurcated approach because of the state Supreme Court invalidation over the single-subject rule.

One of the statutory initiatives would establish legal protections for patients and doctors around cannabis, while the other would allow private companies to produce and sell medical marijuana products.

Lawmakers attempted to advance medical cannabis reform legislatively last year, but while the unicameral legislature debated a bill to legalize medical marijuana in May, it failed to advance past a filibuster because the body didn’t have enough votes to overcome it.

Wishart and NMM co-chair Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) announced in late 2020 that they would also work to put the question of legalizing marijuana for adult use before voters in 2022. But for now their focus appears to be on the medical cannabis effort.

For what it’s worth, Nebraska’s attorney general argued in an opinion in 2019 that efforts to legalize medical marijuana legislatively in the state would be preempted by federal law and “would be, therefore, unconstitutional.”

Rhode Island Governor Includes Marijuana Legalization And Expungements In Budget Request

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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