Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) is asking his supporters to join him in calling for marijuana legalization just as many political observers expect he may be about to launch a bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The former congressman, who galvanized Democrats in the conservative stronghold of Texas during his failed 2018 Senate race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), sent out an email blast to his supporters on Monday with the subject line, “End the prohibition on marijuana.”
The message outlines how drug policy fits within a broader criminal justice reform agenda, which also involves ending cash bail and eliminating private prisons.
The email includes a link to a petition that lists five “ideas for reforming our justice system.” The first item on the list reads, “End the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who are locked away for possessing it.”
It seems O’Rourke has identified the value of embracing cannabis reform—which polls show that voters, especially Democratic ones, increasingly support. If he does decide to toss his hat into the presidential ring, he will be able to leverage the email addresses of those who sign his new petition for fundraising in support of his candidacy.
“I am more convinced than ever that we can and must build a criminal justice system that is more fair and that urgently puts our country closer to the words written above the highest court in our land: equal justice under law,” O’Rourke said in the email.
“First, we need to end the failed war on drugs that has long been a war on people, waged on some people over other people. Who is going to be the last man—more likely than not a black man—to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in some form in more than half of the states in this country? We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to the greatness of this country.”
While cannabis legalization didn’t play a central role during O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, he has been a vocal supporter of marijuana reform since his days as an El Paso city councilman in 2009.
That year, he proposed an amendment saying that the federal government should consider ending the prohibition of all drugs, for example. Later, in Congress, he introduced and cosponsored several cannabis reform bills.
Whether or not O’Rourke runs in 2020, it’s increasingly clear that marijuana will be front-and-center as candidates compete for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Some candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) even incorporated ending the drug war into their announcements.
And last week, five competing Democratic presidential candidates teamed up to cosponsor legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition and punish states that have discriminatory cannabis enforcement rates.
Read O’Rourke’s full email blast below:
———- Forwarded message ———
From: Beto O’Rourke <[email protected]>
Date: Mon, Mar 4, 2019 at 3:44 PM
Subject: End the prohibition on marijuana
It’s unacceptable that our country has the world’s largest prison population, disproportionately comprised of people of color. One-third of that prison population is there for nonviolent drug crimes, and though we know that people of all races use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate, some are being locked away for it more than others.
Many have called this part of the New Jim Crow, and for good reason.
One in four black children have had a parent in the criminal justice system, compared to just four percent of white children. That rate is nearly two times what it was in the 1980s. And it begins with a school-to-prison pipeline that starts as early as kindergarten, where a black child is four to five times as likely to be suspended or expelled as a white child.
I am more convinced than ever that we can and must build a criminal justice system that is more fair and that urgently puts our country closer to the words written above the highest court in our land: equal justice under law.
This is how I propose we do it.
First, we need to end the failed war on drugs that has long been a war on people, waged on some people over other people. Who is going to be the last man — more likely than not a black man — to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in some form in more than half of the states in this country? We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to the greatness of this country.
Second, we end the broken system of cash bail that punishes people for being poor. This is a tactic that wastes resources on incarcerating those who are not a threat to anyone, not a flight risk, not likely to be repeat offenders. In the Harris County Jail alone, it’s estimated that 500 to 600 of the inmates at any given time fit this description. And that’s not an outlier — 75% of people in Texas jails have not been convicted of any crime but many can’t afford bail.
Third, we should eliminate private, for-profit prisons from our justice system to ensure we’re always putting people before profits. Locking someone up is a power that should be reserved for our government — the people, not outsourced to corporations that have the perverse incentive of getting more men and women behind bars so that there are more profits for their shareholders.
Fourth, we must stop using mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses — a practice that costs taxpayers dearly and destroys lives in the process by locking up people who could safely re-enter society. And we replace this practice with policies that begin treating addiction like the public health concern it is.
Finally, we should provide meaningful reentry to help people who have been incarcerated resume their lives and contribute to their full potential. That starts with strong rehabilitation services, counseling and access to preventative health care. It continues by banning the box on job applications so those formerly incarcerated can work and pay taxes, returning drivers licenses so they can get to that place of employment, allowing them to apply for loans that can unlock skills trainings, and ensuring their constitutional right to participate in civic life by voting is protected.
As a congressman, I worked with colleagues across the aisle to introduce legislation that aims to do these things, to achieve real reforms. I know we can get this done but only if we all work towards these goals together.
At the end of the day, this is about ensuring that every single one of us can live to our full potential and contribute to our maximum capacity. Giving low-level offenders a second chance no matter the color of their skin or the economic status they hold can create opportunity for all of us.
It will help build a future that is more just, more fair, and more prosperous for every single person in this state and this country.
We imprison more of our own people than any other country on the planet, disproportionately African Americans and Latinos. Let’s build a criminal justice system Americans can trust and that puts our country closer to the words written above the highest court in our land: equal justice under law.
1. End the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it.
2. End the current system of cash bail that punishes people for being poor.
3. Eliminate private, for-profit prisons from our justice system.
4. End the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses.
5. Provide meaningful reentry to help people who have been incarcerated resume their lives and contribute to their full potential.
After you’re done signing your name, make sure to share this email with friends and family so we can get more people on board with this forward thinking, equitable vision for reforming our country’s justice system.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Beto O’Rourke.
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.