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.
Top Trump Campaign Spokesman: Marijuana Must Be ‘Kept Illegal’
Asked in a new interview about President Trump’s position on changing federal marijuana laws, a top reelection campaign aide said the administration’s policy is that cannabis and other currently illegal drugs should remain illegal.
“I think what the president is looking at is looking at this from a standpoint of a parent of a young person to make sure that we keep our kids away from drugs,” Marc Lotter, director of strategic communications for the Trump 2020 effort, said in an interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS-TV.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Gets Closer To Governor’s Desk With New Amendments
One week after bills to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia were passed by both the House and Senate, they advanced again on Wednesday in committee votes, where they were revised in an effort to ease the path to the governor’s desk.
The goal was to make the language of the bills identical, with lawmakers hoping to streamline the process by avoiding sending differing pieces of decriminalization legislation to a bicameral conference committee to resolve differences.
The House of Delegates and Senate were under pressure to approve their respective versions of decriminalization ahead of a crossover deadline last week. After clearing floor votes in their respective chambers, the Senate-passed bill was sent to the House Court of Justice Committee, while the House’s legislation was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Those panels amended the bills and advanced them on Wednesday, with senators voting 10-4 to advance the revised legislation and delegates voting 8-5. However, the Senate panel also struck a part of the text of a compromise substitute version concerning a record clearing provision while the House committee accepted the substitute as offered.
That means it will be up to the Finance Committees to resolve the remaining differences if lawmakers hope to skip the conference step prior to full floor votes in both chambers.
Regardless of the unexpected complication, advocates said the new committee actions represent a positive development.
“Fortunately, the patrons were able to reach a consensus and move the bills forward,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginians have waited long enough for this important step, one that will dramatically reduce both marijuana arrests and the collateral consequences that follow such charges.”
The legislation as amended would make possession of up to one ounce a civil penalty punishable by a $25 fine without the threat of jail time. Currently, simple possession is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
A provision that would have allowed courts to sentence individuals to up to five hours of community service in lieu of the civil penalty was removed with the latest revisions. The bill also stipulates that juveniles found in possession of cannabis will be treated as delinquent, rather than go through a less punitive process for a “child in need of service.”
Language providing a means to seal prior records for marijuana convictions was successfully reinserted into the House Courts of Justice Committee-passed bill after it was previously removed and placed in a separate expungement bill. That latter legislation is stalled, so lawmakers put it back into the decriminalization measure via the substitute to ensure its enactment.
The Senate Judiciary moved to delete that section, however, creating complications for avoiding a conference committee.
Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee voted in favor of a separate Senate-passed resolution on Wednesday that calls for the establishment of a joint commission to “study and make recommendations for how Virginia should go about legalizing and regulating the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana by July 1, 2022, and address the impacts of marijuana prohibition.” That vote was 12-5.
That’s a significant step, as the legislature is generally reluctant to enact bold reform without first conducting a study on the issue.
While Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is in favor of decriminalization, including a call for the policy change in his State of the Commonwealth address last month, he’s yet to embrace adult-use legalization. That said, Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2021, said he’s optimistic that Northam will come around on the issue.
Herring organized a cannabis summit late last year to hear from officials representing states that have already legalized marijuana. That’s one tool he said the governor could use as he considers broader reform.
Also on Wednesday, the House Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee advanced another Senate-passed bill to formally legalize possession of CBD and THC-A medial cannabis preparations that are recommended by a doctor, an expansion of the current policy simply offers patients arrested with it an affirmative defense in court.
For now, Virginia seems to be on the path to become the 27th state to decriminalize marijuana, and the first to do so in 2020. Last year, three states—New Mexico, Hawaii and North Dakota—also approved the policy change.
Alabama Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill
An Alabama Senate committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.
The legislation would allow patients with qualifying conditions to purchase cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. It would be a limited system, however, prohibiting patients from smoking or vaping marijuana.
The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the bill in a 8-1 vote, with one abstention. The next stop for the legislation will be the Senate floor.
The proposal would establish the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, which would be responsible for overseeing a patient registry database, issuing medical cannabis cards and approving licenses for marijuana dispensaries, cultivators, transporters and testing facilities.
This vote comes two months after a panel created by the legislature, the Medical Cannabis Study Commission, issued a recommendation that Alabama implement a medical cannabis program.
The full Senate approved a medical cannabis legalization bill last year, but it was diluted in the House to only provide for the establishment of the study commission. Sen. Tim Melson (R) sponsored both versions of the legislation and served as chairman of the review panel.
The current bill has been revised from the earlier version. For example, this one does not require patients to exhaust traditional treatment options before they can access medical cannabis.
The committee also approved a series of amendments by voice vote, including several technical changes to the bill. Another one would shield physicians from liability for recommending medical cannabis. One would clarify that employees are ineligible for workers’ compensation for accidents caused by being intoxicated by medical cannabis, which is the same standard as other drugs.
Watch the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee debate and vote on medical cannabis below:
Members also agreed to an amendment creating a restriction on who can be on the cannabis commission.
While it’s not clear how the House would approach the bill if it advances to the chamber this year, the speaker said this week that he’s “in a wait and see mode” and commended Melson for his work on the measure. The state’s attorney general, meanwhile, sent a letter to lawmakers expressing opposition to the reform move.
Under the measure, patients suffering from 15 conditions would qualify for the program. Those include anxiety, cancer, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients would be able to purchase up to a 70-day supply at a time, and there would be a cap of 32 dispensaries allowed in the state.
Prior to the vote, committee heard from a series of proponents and opponents, including parents who shared anecdotes about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for their children. Interest in the reform move was so strong that an overflow crowd has to be moved to a separate hearing room.
“Sometimes people are not able to empathize with others who have gone through something. I guarantee you if one of relatives, members of the legislature, went through something like the testimonies that we’ve heard today, they would want it,” Sen. Vivian Figures (D) said. “But they would probably have the means to fly somewhere and get it.”
One thing we're watching on Goat Hill today is the medical marijuana bill. Alabama is one of only 17 states where medical cannabis remains illegal. https://t.co/V8CK8nm6mm
— Alabama Democrats (@aldemocrats) February 19, 2020
There would be a number of restrictions under the bill when it comes to advertising. It would also require seed-to-sale tracking for marijuana products, set packaging and labeling requirements and impose criminal background checks for licensed facility employees.
A nine percent tax would be levied on “gross proceeds of the sales of medical cannabis” sold at a retail medical cannabis dispensary. Part of those funds would go toward creating a new Consortium for Medical Cannabis Research, which would provide grants to study the plant.
Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee also approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.