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Bernie Sanders Launches Marijuana Petition

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U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is asking his supporters to pressure Congress to legalize marijuana and end the broader “war on drugs.”

In an email sent to the former (and possibly future) presidential candidate’s campaign e-mail list on Wednesday night, the senator wrote that the federal government’s anti-cannabis approach is “an issue of grave consequence.”

Citing racial disparities in enforcement, Sanders said that “marijuana prohibition is part of a larger failed war on drugs that has led to the great national crisis of mass incarceration.”

He’s asking supporters to sign an online petition calling on federal lawmakers to treat drugs as a health issue instead of a crime and “invest in programs that focus on treatment and prevention.”

Calling the rescheduling of cannabis a “a first step,” he said that marijuana’s current classification in a more restrictive category than cocaine “doesn’t make any sense.”

“Let’s have states decide the issue of marijuana for themselves like they do with alcohol,” he wrote. “More and more states are moving in the direction of decriminalization. Let them make those decisions without federal interference.”

In late 2015, amidst his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders filed the first-ever marijuana descheduling bill to be introduced in the U.S. Senate.

The legislation ended up going nowhere after earning zero co-sponsors.

Sanders hasn’t introduced any new marijuana bills during the current 115th Congress, which began  more than a year ago, but he has signed on as a co-sponsor of cannabis banking legislation filed by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

The Vermont senator hasn’t yet co-sponsored a bill Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) filed that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, similar to Sanders’s 114th Congress proposal. The Booker legislation goes even further by withholding funding from states with racially discriminatory cannabis enforcement.

In addition to Sanders, other potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) are signed on to the banking bill. Warren and potential presidential contender Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are also co-sponsors of a separate comprehensive medical cannabis bill that Booker, himself a rumored 2020 candidate, introduced.

Read the full text of Sanders’s marijuana e-mail below:

I am writing you about an issue of grave consequence that affects the lives of millions of Americans and greatly impacts our democracy – namely the continued federal prohibition on marijuana and the need for reform of our criminal justice system.

As you know, a number of states (including my state of Vermont) have decriminalized or legalized the possession, use and sale of marijuana in recent years. Under the Obama Administration, the Justice Department took no action against these states or the people in those states. However, the Trump Administration has taken a very different stance with Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatening to prosecute. That would be a huge mistake and move us in exactly the wrong direction.

Here’s why:

Millions of Americans have had their lives impacted by the federal prohibition on marijuana – arrests, convictions and even jail time. Even when people don’t go to jail, the criminal record they receive makes it harder for them to find a job, get housing or go to college. Is this a widespread problem? It sure is. In 2016 alone, over half a million people were arrested for marijuana possession.

These harmful impacts are felt far more acutely in communities of color and poor communities because enforcement of marijuana laws is much stricter there than in more affluent, white communities. Incredibly, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana even though marijuana usage rates are basically the same across racial lines.

Of course, marijuana prohibition is part of a larger failed war on drugs that has led to the great national crisis of mass incarceration. Some 1.5 million people were arrested for a drug related offense in 2016 – over 80 percent of which were for possession alone. We need to stop criminalizing addiction. We need to stop criminalizing recreational marijuana use.

The criminal justice system is not the answer to drug abuse. Addiction is a health problem and we should start treating it that way. While communities all across the country lack adequate resources for treatment or prevention, we are spending approximately $50 billion a year on the war on drugs. That’s absurd. We need to get our priorities right.

And that starts with making our voices heard:

Sign my petition if you agree it is long past time for the government to end its failed war on drugs and instead invest in programs that focus on treatment and prevention of drug abuse. This is an important issue that impacts almost everyone and we should all make our voices heard.

This so-called war on drugs has led us to have over 2 million people in prison – disproportionately poor and from communities of color. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world – higher even than authoritarian countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

Further, what is not often discussed is how the war on drugs and mass incarceration is impacting the essence of our democracy. People with felony convictions cannot vote in many states. Today, for that reason alone, over 6 million Americans are denied access to the ballot.

Uneven enforcement and the fact that people of color receive longer sentences for the same offenses than white defendants means more felony convictions in those communities. And that means – surprise, surprise – fewer voters.

In other words, the war on drugs is robbing those minority and lower income communities of their political power. In Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee over 20 percent of voting age African Americans are disenfranchised because of felony convictions. It’s not too hard to figure out what’s going on here. The communities most impacted by these policies are systematically stripped of their ability in our democratic system to politically fight back.

Why hasn’t something been done to fix this problem? You know the reason. The sad truth is that some politicians benefit from people not being able to vote. All too often these are the same politicians who are trying to disenfranchise voters in other ways, such as restrictive voter ID laws or extreme gerrymandering.

This has got to change.

We need the highest voter turnout in the world, not the highest incarceration rate. We need to provide treatment for people with substance abuse problems, not lock them up.

As a first step, we need to remove marijuana from Category 1 of the federal Controlled Substances Act where it is currently ranked alongside drugs like heroin. In fact, marijuana is classified more harshly than cocaine. That doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s have states decide the issue of marijuana for themselves like they do with alcohol. More and more states are moving in the direction of decriminalization. Let them make those decisions without federal interference.

Let’s invest in the prevention and treatment of substance abuse.

Let’s reform our criminal laws and take other steps to dismantle mass incarceration. Among other steps forward we need to ban private prisons and create new federal policing standards.

Let’s restore the voting rights of all Americans.

If you share my goal of making these important reforms please sign this petition:

Sign my petition if you agree it is long past time for the government to end its failed war on drugs and instead invest in programs that focus on treatment and prevention of drug abuse. This is an important issue that impacts almost everyone and we should all make our voices heard.

In Solidarity,

Bernie Sanders

Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.

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.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Idaho Senator Files Bill To Decriminalize Drug Possession

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A new bill filed by an Idaho senator would decriminalize possession of currently illegal drugs in the state, though it also contains a provision that advocates consider troubling, allowing the government to involuntarily commit people convicted of certain offenses to treatment.

Sen. Grant Burgoyne (D) introduced the legislation, which would remove criminal penalties for drug use and possession by “requiring intention to deliver for criminal trafficking.”

Burgoyne told Marijuana Moment the bill has been referred to the Judiciary and Rules Committee, where Chairman Todd Lakey (R) has agreed to hold a hearing on it.

“We have too much of a focus on prosecution and punishment and not enough on treatment,” Burgoyne said in a separate interview with KTVB. “We don’t have a functioning mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment capability for the needs of our people. We need new strategies, how we draw the lines between what is criminal conduct and what is not criminal conduct when it comes to drug possession and usage.”

The bill sets different possession thresholds for different drugs. Having just two grams of heroin could be considered trafficking, while for cocaine and methamphetamine, the amount is set at 28 grams. One pound of marijuana, or 25 plants, could be treated as a trafficking offense.

Any amount of LSD could be considered a trafficking offense, as could any amount of a “simulated controlled substance,” possibly referring to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Using drugs with friends would also be harshly penalized, as “sharing or providing a controlled substance for use by another person shall constitute intent to deliver.”

“This will reduce arrests, but how much is very hard to predict,” Burgoyne told Marijuana Moment. “Unfortunately, illegal drug use, even in private, is too often accompanied by the commission of other crimes, which my bill does not excuse and which could lead to arrest.”

Burgoyne’s bill would also allow people using drugs to be “placed in protective custody” or “admitted for community-assisted behavioral health treatment.” This would apply to people under the influence and in various circumstances, such as being pregnant, posing a risk to themselves or others or in withdrawal.

But existing research on mandatory drug treatment suggests it is not helpful for people with substance use disorder. A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal, for example, found that when people are ordered to undergo drug treatment without their informed consent, the practice does more harm than good and does not reduce their drug use. The researchers explained that harm reduction efforts like syringe exchanges and drug education were more effective.

“Although there is some theoretical danger of adverse consequences to mandated drug treatment, we already mandate it for prisoners with drug issues,” Burgoyne said. “I’d like to shift treatment out of our jails and prisons to a more appropriate place. Furthermore, a civil commitment is not an easy thing to obtain, and I think our courts will be conservative in how they handle them.”

If the senator’s legislation passes, it remains to be seen what effect it would have on drug arrest rates in Idaho. According to the FBI, in 2017 Idaho had 8,432 arrests for “drug abuse violations,” which is a little over 16 percent of all arrests that year.

Burgoyne’s reform proposal comes amid a growing national debate about the value of decriminalizing drug use over more arrests. Last year in May, Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms. Oakland’s City Council followed the next month by decriminalizing a wide range of psychedelics.

Advocates are also raising the issue on the national stage. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) proposed decriminalizing drug consumption in November. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed decriminalizing drug possession and reducing sentences. His primary opponent, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), recently called for legalizing and regulating drugs in order to treat substance misuse as a public health issue.

Tulsi Gabbard Endorses Legalizing Drugs

Photo coutersy of Markus Spiske.

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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Politics

U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In Annual Speech

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The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) repeated his call for marijuana legalization in his annual State of the Territory address.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who called the legislature into a special session last month to begin taking up cannabis reform legislation, stressed that establishing a commercial marijuana market would bring in needed tax revenue to support a variety of government programs.

The proposed amendment to the territory’s existing medical cannabis law, which Bryan signed last year, would allow adults 21 and older to obtain a license from the government in order to purchase and cultivate marijuana. It would also promote participation in the industry by small farmers and local businesses, as well as providing for automatic expungements of prior cannabis convictions.

“Most importantly, it creates a taxing regime for the local industry that will generate higher revenues than the current law allows,” he said in the speech last Monday, noting that tax revenue will be distributed between the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) fund (75 percent), implementation of regulations (20 percent) and services for senior citizens (5 percent).

“The revenues generated from this industry can benefit the system as a direct contribution,” the governor said. “However, the goal is to create a funding stream that is reliable enough to ultimately support a revenue bond that can provide a needed cash infusion to the system.”

Watch Bryan’s marijuana comments, first reported by Vibe High, about 36:24 into the video below:

“This is by no means the panacea or final solution for the GERS crisis, but a small part of a larger solution,” he continued. “It begins the process of generating the new revenues required to stave off the insolvency of the System. It takes existing policy, approved by this body, and leverages it to support this critical area of need.”

“We must acknowledge the opportunities that regulated expansion of this industry can bring to the territory and the potential benefits to the GERS,” he said. “I urge this body to take the necessary action to approve the amending legislation we have proposed.”

Bryan’s proposal calls for a 30 percent tax on marijuana sales, with revenue expected to be upwards of $20 million annually. His administration is also expecting the policy change to stimulate tourism, and visitors interested in participating in the market would be charged a $10 per day fee to access legal cannabis.

If approved, that would make USVI the third U.S. territory to legalize cannabis for adult use—after Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

This year has seen several governors voice support for marijuana reform during their high-profile annual addresses and in legislative agendas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) reaffirmed his commitment to legalization in his State of the State speech and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) pledged to pursue decriminalization, for example.

In New Mexico, the governor included legalization in her 2020 agenda, and lawmakers followed suit by filing a cannabis reform bill on Thursday. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) proposed legalizing marijuana through a state-run model in a budget proposal released on Thursday.

Rhode Island Governor’s Budget Includes Legal Marijuana Sales In State-Run Stores

Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.

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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Politics

Tulsi Gabbard Endorses Legalizing Drugs

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Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is calling for the U.S. to legalize currently illicit drugs.

“If we take that step to legalize and regulate, then we’re no longer treating people who are struggling with substance addiction and abuse as criminals and instead getting them the help that they need,” the 2020 presidential candidate said at a campaign stop in Merrimack, New Hampshire on Friday.

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

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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