Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) unveiled a plan on Thursday that promotes a series of harm reduction policies, including decriminalizing drug possession, to tackle addiction and prevent overdoses. He also discussed aspects of the proposal with reform advocates at an event in Iowa.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said that in order to address a rise in misuse of opioids, as well as other illicit drugs like benzodiazepines and methamphetamine, the country must move away from the criminalization model and embrace policies that treat addiction as a public health issue.
Every day, more than 130 human beings overdose on opioids. 47,000 lose their lives to this epidemic every year. We need to be there for every victim of this crisis and hold accountable everyone who created it. Here’s our plan: https://t.co/XJ1wdhec5e
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) October 24, 2019
That means removing criminal penalties for drug possession and implementing harm reduction programs, he said.
On decriminalizing drugs: marijuana should be legalized, but other substances (like heroin, meth, etc) should be decriminalized for possession and use, but drug trafficking and dealing should remain in the justice system.
“It’s a tougher and more complex set of issues.”
— Robin SPOOKsahl 👻 (@robinlopsahl) October 24, 2019
Here are two of the main harm reduction proposals in the new plan:
“Creating needle exchanges and supervised consumption sites where people can consume drugs they have obtained elsewhere in a controlled setting, under the supervision of trained staff, and with access to sterile injecting equipment.”
“Implementing innovative models for health care and interventions related to substance use disorder such as that used in Portugal, particularly mobile vans that travel to areas of high consumption to distribute medicines or needle exchanges, where individuals caught with drugs are sent to treatment instead of jail.”
Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001, a policy widely viewed as a success that has had public health benefits.
Now, the concept is gaining popularity, with 55 percent of Americans in favor of decriminalization, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this month.
Another part of O’Rourke’s solution would involve reform at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Doctors at the VA should be allowed to “prescribe medicinal cannabis and non-opiates as a pain treatment medication alternative,” he said. The department should create “interdisciplinary pain management teams” at their facilities and also support “the compassionate use of medicinal cannabis as an effective remedy for many conditions.”
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, another Democratic presidential candidate, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that he also supports allowing VA doctors to prescribe cannabis to veterans.
“Beto will treat substance use disorder and opioid use disorder as the public health concerns they are,” his new plan states. “These are not criminal justice issues that warrant punishment. Beto understands that these are chronic brain diseases with the potential for both recovery and relapse.”
During an event at the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition office on Thursday, the candidate said he’d “decriminalize the possession and use of drugs in this country,” describing it as “fundamental, that we no longer pursue this as criminal justice problem.”
.@BetoORourke: "I would end cash bill… decriminalize the possession and use of drugs in this country. That is fundamental, that we no longer pursue this as criminal justice problem." https://t.co/5qNAAa0owu
— Zachary Siegel (@ZachWritesStuff) October 24, 2019
While most Democratic presidential candidates have embraced legalizing cannabis, both as a public health and criminal justice matter, broader drug decriminalization and harm reduction policies haven’t gotten as much attention.
Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) also support broad decriminalization, while entrepreneur Andrew Yang has floated decriminalizing opioids. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are in favor of creating safe injection sites, but Sanders has said he’s “not there yet” on outright decriminalization.
O’Rourke and Yang discussed opioid decriminalization during a Democratic debate last week, but now the former congressman has explicitly called for removing criminal penalties for possession of all drugs.
Two U.S. cities—Denver and Oakland—enacted decriminalization policies with respect to psychedelics this year. And activists are working to build on those success through local and state reform efforts, including a campaign to get psilocybin mushrooms decriminalized statewide in California next year.
Interest in decriminalization isn’t limited to the U.S., however.
A UK House of Commons committee issued a report this week calling on the government to remove criminal penalties for drug possession. Scotland’s ruling party unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for drug decriminalization earlier this month, a Canadian House of Commons committee approved a report in June urging the government to lift criminal penalties for low-level possession and a top Mexican lawmaker said last week that the country should go even further by legalizing and regulating all drugs in order to combat cartel violence.
Asked about safe injection facilities, O’Rourke said on Thursday that people “who use drugs are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect.”
.@sarah_ziggy, emotionally, asks @BetoORourke about opening supervised injection sites. He supports them as policy. "People who use drugs are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect." https://t.co/uNMyoUk7jN
— Zachary Siegel (@ZachWritesStuff) October 24, 2019
He also said he’d be willing to shift funding away from the Drug Enforcement Administration, stating that the “focus on the war on drugs going on 50 years in this country not only has deprived other federal agencies and departments… it’s also militarized our communities.”
Next q: is O’Rourke willing to move funding from the Drug Enforcement Administration?@BetoORourke: Yes.
“This focus on the war on drugs going on 50 years in this country not only has deprived other federal agencies and departments… it’s also militarized our communities.”
— Robin SPOOKsahl 👻 (@robinlopsahl) October 24, 2019
O’Rourke released a separate plan last month that also called for marijuana legalization, in addition to expunging prior records and using tax revenue from cannabis sales to directly compensate individuals who have previously served time behind bars for marijuana offenses.
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Circa.
AOC Blasts Biden’s ‘Reagan-Era’ Marijuana Talking Points
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s suggestion that cannabis could be a gateway drug was “risky” and a “Reagan-era talking point,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said in an interview with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.
While the congresswoman said she acknowledged that “there are folks, when it comes to the marijuana issue, that have a wide range of opinions within the Democratic party,” she also feels that “we have moved on as a country” on the need to end cannabis prohibition.
“These are Reagan-era talking points that were behind one of the worst and most shameful phases of American policy, which is mass incarceration,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referencing the former Republican president’s anti-drug crusade that largely relied on fear-mongering and campaigns such as “Just Say No.”
“That rhetoric is rhetoric of mass incarceration. The only thing that marijuana, due to the failures of U.S. policy, is a gateway to is our mass incarceration system.”
“That needs to end, marijuana needs to be legalized, drugs need to be decriminalized for consumption,” she said. “These are very simple issues of public health.”
The congresswoman first voiced support for decriminalizing all drugs in a tweet on Sunday; she previously called for decriminalizing the consumption of psychedelics alone in a video taped for activists at a drug policy reform conference earlier this month.
Biden, who played a central role in enacting punitive drug laws during his time in the Senate, has been sharply rebuked by reform advocates after he said on Saturday that “there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not [cannabis] is a gateway drug” and that he wanted to see more debate on the issue “before I legalize it nationally.”
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), both presidential candidates, also seemed to criticize Biden, implicitly contrasting his comments with their respective plans to end federal marijuana prohibition. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang told CNN that he thinks “Joe actually will end up evolving on this issue over time if he sees the same evidence that I have.”
Ocasio-Cortez, in the new interview with Marijuana Moment, said she feels as if “any person who has had, like me, family, friends, neighbors that have been stopped, frisked, incarcerated and trapped in this system would know how risky of a statement that is,” referring to Biden’s “gateway drug” comments.
She also weighed in on the debate over what kind of marijuana reform legislation should be pursued in Congress, as the House Judiciary Committee prepares to mark up legislation from Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) that would federally deschedule cannabis and address social equity issues.
While some have voiced concerns that pursuing a wide-ranging legalization bill—as opposed to something more narrowly tailored and states’ rights-focused—will slow down the reform process given the current makeup of the Senate, the congresswoman said that with “matters of justice, it’s not about slowing it down, it’s about doing it right.”
“The problem is that if we don’t pass a bill with the social elements inside it then we compound on the racial wealth gap, we compound on the same folks who got rich off of private prisons are going to turn around, invest those profits into legal marijuana and we’re going to have the same economic discrimination that we had,” she said.
“If we just pass the financial piece, it’s just going to be another Wall Street market that’s going to exploit people so we can’t go down that road,” she added, referencing a House-passed bill that would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.
Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed For 2020 After Democrats Reclaim Legislature
A Virginia lawmaker prefiled a bill on Monday for the 2020 session that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana—a piece of reform legislation that stands a much better chance of passing after voters elected Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature earlier this month.
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) introduced the proposal, which would make possession of up to one ounce of cannabis punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty. Currently, simple possession carries up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
Decriminalization was among the campaign promises made by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who also called for the policy change in his State of the State address in January, but reform efforts have stalled to date in the Republican-controlled legislature.
The governor said earlier this month that decriminalization is a 2020priority for his administration, a goal that now appears much more achievable since Democrats have reclaimed control of both the House of Delegates and Senate.
“The new majority creates a real pathway for the passage of decriminalization in the 2020 General Assembly,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “SB2 is a common sense approach to a policy supported by three out of four Virginians.”
Here’s how the bill would amend the state’s law on cannabis possession:
“Any person who violates this section is
guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be confined in jail not more than 30 days and fined not subject to a civil penalty of no more than $500, either or both; any person, upon a second or subsequent conviction of a violation of this section, is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor $50. Any civil penalties collected pursuant to this section shall be deposited into the Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund.”
Additionally, the legislation would make it so that only individuals who’ve committed criminal violations, or juveniles who’ve committed civil violations, would be subject to penalties such as a suspended sentence, substance abuse screening or driver’s license suspension.
“The bill also allows a person to petition for expungement of convictions and deferred disposition dismissals for marijuana possession when all court costs and fines and orders of restitution have been paid,” a summary states.
While it’s yet to be seen whether the new legislature will pursue broader reform such as adult-use legalization or an expansion of the state’s limited medical cannabis program, recent polling indicates that Virginians are ready to move ahead. Sixty-one percent of Virginia residents favor recreational legalization, according to a survey released in September.
Marijuana Legalization Will Get A Floor Vote This Congress, Key Chairman Predicts
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said on Tuesday that he’s optimistic about the prospects for getting his comprehensive marijuana legalization bill out of committee and onto the floor by the end of this Congress.
During a press conference with lawmakers and advocates, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) also told Marijuana Moment that part of the reason he expects floor time is because he’s actively communicating with other committee chairs, requesting that they waive jurisdiction of the reform legislation to expedite its progress.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, introduced by Nadler, would federally deschedule cannabis and provide for expungements and reinvestments in communities most impacted by the war on drugs. The panel confirmed that members will mark up the legislation on Wednesday at 10:00 AM ET.
The chairman—as well as Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and the executive directors of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP)—spoke at the event.
Watch lawmakers discuss the federal marijuana legalization vote below:
While the MORE Act has been referred to seven additional committees, Nadler told Marijuana Moment that his panel is “carrying on conversations” about getting other panels to waive jurisdiction.
“I don’t anticipate that to be a big problem,” he said. “We are looking forward to moving this to the floor at an appropriate time when we’ve done some more educational work and have the votes.”
“For too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past,” Lee, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said, adding that this bill is “rooted in equality, justice and fairness.”
For too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past! Proud to work with @RepJerryNadler on the MORE Act, which decriminalizes marijuana at the federal level, enacts restorative justice, and makes the cannabis industry more diverse and equitable. #WeWantMORE pic.twitter.com/w3narSOOP8
— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) November 19, 2019
Blumenauer said that the country has “seen more progress is the last 40 months than we’ve seen in the last 40 years” when it comes to marijuana policy.
“We shouldn’t settle any longer for incremental change,” he said. “We must commit to the restorative justice that’s in this.”
“This is the Congress that can end the failed prohibition of cannabis.”
Nadler said that he expects the bill to clear his panel with bipartisan support, predicting that more Republican members will sign onto the legislation as it advances.
To that end, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is so far the lone GOP cosponsor of the MORE Act, told Marijuana Moment that he’s “pleased to see historic steps being taken in the Judiciary Committee on the issue of cannabis.”
“The MORE Act is not perfect, but it advances the discussion on cannabis reform and allows the Congress to take much-needed action on this important issue,” the congressman, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said. “I look forward to participating in the discussion this week.”
Nadler left open the possibility that lawmakers could make compromises on the legislation later down the road, but he added that he doesn’t believe it will have to come to that, and that it would be a mistake to scale down the legislation at this early stage of the process.
“This will remove a stain on people’s record but really a stain on the United States of America,” Cohen said. He also joked that when Blumenauer described the bill as the “best piece of cannabis legislation” he’s seen, another way of putting it is that the MORE Act is the “Acapulco Gold of marijuana legislation,” referencing a variety of cannabis popular in the 1960s.
— NORML (@NORML) November 19, 2019
More than 650K people are arrested for marijuana offenses every year. The failed War on Drugs is a stain on our country, and we must work to undo the damage it caused. The #MOREAct would legalize #marijuana & require resentencing and expungement of old convictions. #WeDeserveMORE pic.twitter.com/s9S7Lm565V
— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) November 19, 2019
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of DPA, said that “marijuana prohibition has, for millions of black and brown people in the U.S., been the gateway to arrests, incarceration, loss of livelihoods and lives.”
“Those are concrete, real harms, that affect real people every day,” she said. “Continuing the status quo of prohibition is not just inaction: it means turning your back on those harms, and condemning hundreds of thousands every year to continuing that misery and oppression.”
“What is most important here [is] this will free up law enforcement resources to a great level,” Neill Franklin of LEAP said. “I hope that others realize what this will do for public safety coast-to-coast in this country.”
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) tweeted support for the MORE Act during the press conference and said that “[a]s more states fully legalize cannabis, it’s time for Congress to decriminalize it.”
As more states fully legalize cannabis, it’s time for Congress to decriminalize it. The MORE Act will:
✅ Deschedule cannabis
✅ Expunge low-level offenses
✅ Create 5% federal tax on cannabis
I’m proud to be a co-sponsor of this bill. It’s time to move forward. https://t.co/85cnQUuwJF
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) November 19, 2019
There’s been significant pressure from reform advocates to advance the legislation, especially since the full House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would protect banks servicing marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Several reform groups, including the ACLU, wrote a letter to House leadership ahead of that vote asking for a delay, arguing that Congress must pass comprehensive legalization that addresses social equity concerns before moving ahead with legislation viewed as largely favorable to the industry.
Historic vote planned in @HouseJudiciary. The MORE Act would deschedule marijuana & provide restorative justice to those hurt by the failed War on Drugs.
— Progressive Caucus (@USProgressives) November 19, 2019
Meanwhile, some feel that the House would be better off voting on a more limited, states’ rights-focused reform bill such as the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would simply carve out an exception in federal law allowing states to implement cannabis programs, because they believe it stands a better chance at passing in the GOP-controlled Senate.
While observers generally expect the MORE Act to pass out of committee as well as the House, there are still questions about what kind of amendments members might offer and how that will impact the vote.
#WA voters recognized the harm of the war on drugs in 2012 when they voted to legalize cannabis. Now, I’m proud to support the MORE Act, so we can give back to minority communities adversely impacted by this futile crackdown. https://t.co/UyIdgvUMDB
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) November 19, 2019
In any case, Wednesday’s vote will be one of the most highly anticipated congressional developments in the cannabis reform movement, with members not just debating the end of federal prohibition—which happened in a House subcommittee in July—but actually voting on a bill that would accomplish that, and more.
Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C. This post was updated to include remarks from the press conference.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.