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Biden Pick For Top Justice Department Role Backpedals On Decriminalizing Drugs

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Drug policy advocates were encouraged when President Joe Biden nominated a civil rights activist with a history of supporting policies like marijuana legalization and broad decriminalization of other substances to a top Justice Department role. But they were sorely disappointed this week when she backpedaled on the issue—saying she’s “not too proud to admit” the policy shift—when questioned by GOP senators at her confirmation hearing.

Vanita Gupta—who has worked in the Justice Department during the Obama administration in addition to serving in top positions at the ACLU, NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—was selected by Biden to serve as assistant attorney general. The news was celebrated by advocates who felt that having someone with that background and who has promoted progressive drug policies could translate into administrative reform.

But when pressed on her stance on drug decriminalization by three Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Gupta said she no longer supports the policy. She did say in response to other Democratic senators, however, that she still believes racial disparities in marijuana enforcement are a national problem and there should be alternatives to incarceration for low-level drug offenders.

“Is it true that you advocate decriminalization of all drugs?” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) asked.

“No, senator, I do not,” she replied.

But that was far from the only time at the hearing that Gupta would be asked about her former support for the reform. Cornyn followed up to clarify, based on a questionnaire she submitted to the committee, what her position is today on decriminalization.

“Senator, I have advocated—as I believe President Biden has—for decriminalization of marijuana possession,” she said. “I believe that substance use disorder is both an enforcement problem and a public health problem, but I do not support decriminalization of drugs.”

Typically for drug reform advocates, the messaging around substance issues is that they should be treated within the framework of public health, rather than “enforcement” or criminalization. That has historically been Gupta’s stated position as she’s aligned herself with advocacy groups like the ACLU and Leadership Conference—but during the hearing, she was quick to couple the approaches.

“Given her robust civil rights record, it is very disappointing to hear Vanita Gupta changed her mind from supporting drug decriminalization,” Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “This is a civil rights issue.”

“We know people of color and other marginalized individuals bear the brunt of drug enforcement. We know that the war on drugs has failed by every measure. We know that jails, prisons, and the criminal justice system exacerbate harm in communities of color. We also know what works: investment in harm reduction tools and services,” she said. “As a leader in the Department of Justice and in the civil rights community, Vanita will have an opportunity to influence this country’s course on drug policy.”

“We encourage her to reach out to directly impacted individuals and advocates to discuss why drug policy must be grounded in harm reduction and public health,” Perez added. “What is clear from today’s hearing is that it is our job as advocates to change her mind back to supporting all drug decriminalization.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) reminded the nominee of a 2012 op-ed that she wrote for The Huffington Post, advocating for the decriminalization of simple possession and argued that her response to Cornyn was misleading.

“Senator, I was not misleading. I was speaking for my position today after having been at the Justice Department, after having family members and experiences inform my thinking on this,” Gupta replied. “I do not support the decriminalization of all drugs. I have spoken about substance use issues and drug possession and substance use disorders as both a public health problem and an enforcement problem. I continue to believe that very much.”

And again, in response to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), she said:

“That was a prior position. I am very clear that I do not support decriminalization of all drugs. There are many drugs that are having a devastating impact on and ravaging communities, and I believe, however, that substance use disorder is both a public health problem and an enforcement problem and that it is important to treat those things as such. But I don’t support decriminalization of drugs.”

Asked in a follow up question from Cornyn about the reason she’s shifted positions, she reiterated that it was “through the course of both working at the Justice Department, as well as experiences that my family has had related to these issues.”

“My family like probably every family, or too many families, in America has experienced the ravages of opioid addiction and the impact of that, and so that evolution has happened,” she said. “I’m not too proud to admit that evolution, but that is the explanation behind the statement.”

When it was hi turn to question the nominee, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) didn’t bring up the broader drug decriminalization issue, but he did briefly mention racial disparities in marijuana arrests during his questioning in the confirmation hearing. The senator asked if those disparities serve as an example of systemic problem in the nation’s criminal justice system, and Gupta agreed that “that’s right.”

Later in the meeting, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) talked about substance use disorders and the need to give people alternatives to incarceration.

“Senator, President Biden has also spoken about the importance of alternatives to incarceration for people with substance use disorders,” Gupta replied. “It is something that I have spent my life working on to ensure that there’s available community-based drug courts, drug treatment facilities and I think that would be a shared priority for the Justice Department.”

The nominee was not specifically asked during the hearing whether her position on marijuana legalization has changed to align with Biden’s opposition. She seemed to signal that, like Biden, she backs decriminalizing cannabis on its own, but she didn’t proactively offer up any stance on the broader reform, despite having strongly advocated for legalization, including a bill touted by advocates that cleared the House last year.

That legislation—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—was sponsored by Vice President Kamala Harris during her time in the Senate. And coincidentally, while Harris dedicated significant energy toward advocating for legalization as a lawmaker and presidential candidate, she’s dialed back her rhetoric since joining the Biden administration, calling for decriminalization instead.

Bloomberg reported recently that an aide Harris’s team said her “positions are now the same as Biden’s” when it comes to marijuana, signaling that, like the president, she no longer supports legalization. Biden is in favor of medical cannabis reform, modest rescheduling, expunging prior marijuana convictions and letting states set their own policies—but he’s maintained firm opposition to adult-use legalization.

While advocates might be frustrated over Gupta’s comments on drug decriminalization, there has been some enthusiasm over her would-be boss’s recent remarks during his own confirmation hearing. Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws.

Rhode Island Senate Leaders Unveil Marijuana Legalization Bill As Governor Prepares Competing Plan

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

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Louisiana Marijuana Decriminalization Officially Takes Effect As Lawmaker Launches Awareness Campaign

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Marijuana decriminalization took effect in Louisiana on Sunday—and advocates and lawmakers are working to ensure that residents know what they can and cannot do without going to jail under the new law.

Gov. John Bell Edwards (D) signed the legislation in June, and he emphasized that it was “not a decision I took lightly,” but he recognized that criminalization has had significant consequences for families and taxpayers.

Under the law, possession of up to 14 grams of cannabis is now punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of jail time. The governor has pushed back against the definition of the policy as “decriminalization,” but that’s exactly how advocates define policies that remove the threat of incarceration for low-level possession.

Now, the sponsor of the decriminalization bill, Rep. Cedric Glover (D), is partnering with the advocacy group Louisiana Progress on an awareness campaign to educate people about the new reform.

They’ve already put out a FAQ on the law and will be using social media and other informational materials to inform the public while also engaging in outreach to law enforcement and legislators.

“When I saw two city council members in my hometown of Shreveport—one conservative and one progressive—come together to decriminalize personal-use marijuana possession there, I knew it was time to take this reform to the state level,” Glover said. “Criminalizing marijuana possession is harmful to the people of Louisiana in so many ways, but it’s been particularly harmful for Black and Brown communities, lower-income folks, and young people. My fervent hope is that this new law will finally bring some relief and a feeling of freedom to those communities.”

Louisiana Progress says lawmakers shouldn’t stop at simple decriminalization and should enact broader cannabis legalization in an upcoming session.

“Marijuana decriminalization is an important victory for criminal justice reform in Louisiana, especially for the traditionally marginalized communities that have been disproportionately criminalized under prohibition,” the group’s new FAQ says. “But we need to keep fighting to end marijuana prohibition altogether. Doing so could be hugely beneficial, including bringing dozens of new small businesses and hundreds or even thousands of new jobs to Louisiana.”

Meanwhile, national advocates are cheering the new law’s taking effect.

“This is a much-needed policy change for Louisiana,” NORML State Policies Manager Carly Wolf said in a press release. “The enactment of this legislation is great progress toward ending the racially discriminatory policy of branding otherwise law-abiding Louisianans as criminals for minor marijuana possession offenses when law enforcement should instead be focusing on fighting legitimate crime.”

Separately, the governor also signed a bill in June to let patients in the state’s medical cannabis program legally smoke whole-plant marijuana flower.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

The legislation marks a notable expansion of the state’s limited medical marijuana program. As it stands, patients are able to vaporize cannabis preparations via a “metered-dose inhaler,” but they cannot access whole-plant flower and smoking is not allowed.

While the governor has made clear his willingness to approve more modest reforms, he predicted that he would not be the one to sign adult-use legalization into law before he leaves office in early 2024—even though he does expect the policy change to happen in his state at some point.

An effort in the legislature to pass a bill to legalize recreational cannabis stalled in the House this session after the chamber failed to pass a complementary measure on taxing adult-use marijuana. Edwards also said in May that he believes the reform “is going to happen in Louisiana eventually.”

“It’s on the march, and that certainly might happen here in Louisiana,” he said last week. However “I would be surprised if there’s a consensus in the legislature to do that while I’m governor.” (Edwards is term-limited and cannot run again in 2023’s upcoming gubernatorial election.)

In April, the governor also said that he had “great interest” in the legalization proposal, and he pledged to take a serious look at its various provisions.

Last year, the Louisiana legislature significantly expanded the state’s medical marijuana program by passing a bill that allows physicians to recommend cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.

Edwards signed the measure in June 2020 and it took effect weeks later.

The developments on various cannabis-related legislation come after recent polling showed that constituents in some of the most firmly Republican districts in the state support legalizing marijuana.

Two other recent polls—including one personally commissioned by a top Republican lawmaker—have found that a majority of voters are in favor of legalizing cannabis for adult use.

Senate’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Aims To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries

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Senate’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Aims To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries

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Senate leaders released a massive and long-anticipated infrastructure bill late on Sunday—and after weeks of bipartisan negotiations, the legislation includes provisions that aim to allow researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.

The bill also encourages states that have enacted legalization laws to educate people about impaired driving.

The language on scientists’ access to retail cannabis products was attached to an earlier version of infrastructure legislation in a Senate committee, and it’s substantively the same as a provision included in a House-passed infrastructure bill.

The measure makes it so the transportation secretary would need to work with the attorney general and secretary of health and human services to develop a public report within two years of the bill’s enactment that includes recommendations on allowing scientists to access retail-level marijuana to study impaired driving.

The cannabis provision stipulates that the report must contain a recommendation on establishing a national clearinghouse to “collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research that includes marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully available to patients or consumers in a state on a retail basis.”

It specifies that scientists from states that have not yet enacted legalization should also be able to access to dispensary products that are being sold in jurisdictions that have ended prohibition.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) sponsored the committee amendment that contains these reforms, and he argued that the changes are necessary in order to promote research into impaired driving and create a national standard for addressing such activity.

Advocates have been waiting to see whether the committee-approved language would make it into the bipartisan negotiated bill. And the fact that it did stay intact following extensive negotiations between Democrats and Republicans who worked to craft the deal is significant. The Senate is expected to take up the bill on the floor this week.

If it passes, the amended legislation would then need to go back to the House for consideration before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The bill says the cannabis research report must also broadly examine “federal statutory and regulatory barriers” to studies on marijuana-impaired driving.

The transportation legislation also contains a separate section that would require legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider methods of educating people about and discouraging impaired driving from cannabis. Advocates take issue with that language simply because it targets legalized jurisdictions while ignoring the fact that marijuana-impaired driving takes place regardless of its legal status.

An earlier version of the transportation bill cleared the House last Congress with identical marijuana provisions but did not advance in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Since its initial introduction last year, some steps have been taken to resolve that issue. Most notably, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

That marks a significant development—and one of the first cannabis-related moves to come out of the Biden administration. There is currently a monopoly on federal cannabis cultivation, with the University of Mississippi having operated the only approved facility for the past half-century.

But that move from DEA would still not free up researchers to access marijuana products from state-legal retailers in the way the transportation legislation would encourage if enacted.

While advocates are supportive of measures to reduce impaired driving, some have raised issues with the implication that legalizing cannabis increases the risk of people driving while under the influence. Research isn’t settled on that subject.

A federally funded study recently promoted by the National Institute of Justice also found that the amount of THC in a person’s system after consuming marijuana is not an accurate predictor of impairment.

Colorado Could Vote On Marijuana Tax Hike To Fund Education Programs After Campaign Submits Signatures

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Colorado Could Vote On Marijuana Tax Hike To Fund Education Programs After Campaign Submits Signatures

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A Colorado campaign appears to have submitted enough signatures to place a ballot initiative before voters in November that would raise marijuana taxes to fund programs that are designed to reduce the education gap for low-income students.

The Colorado Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) measure would give low- and middle-income families a $1,500 stipend to have school-aged children participate in after-school programs, tutoring and summer learning activities.

The state excise tax on sales adult-use cannabis products would increased from 15 percent to 20 percent to fund the effort.

Supporters say this policy is especially needed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated income-related learning gaps for students. But some marijuana industry stakeholders—and even the state’s largest teachers union—have expressed concern about the proposal.

In any case, the LEAP campaign turned in about 200,000 signatures for the measure to the secretary of state’s office on Friday. It only needs 124,632 valid signatures to qualify.

Monica Colbert Burton, a LEAP campaign representative, told Colorado Public Radio that the sizable signature turn-in “really demonstrates the broad support around the state for this issue.”

“The learning loss that we’ve seen during the pandemic is so much higher than we’ve ever seen before particularly for our low-income families and our students that don’t have access to the same resources,” Colbert Burton said.

Beyond imposing the extra five percent tax on cannabis, the initiative also calls for a repurposing of state revenue that it generates from leases and rents for operations held on state land. Advocates estimate that the measure would translate into $150 million in additional funding annually.

But according to an analysis from Westword, adding the tax to the existing 15 percent special tax would’ve only created $80 million in added revenue based on 2020 sales figures.

Some stakeholders and cannabis advocates have come out strongly against the proposal.

“That this initiative is being pushed at a moment in Colorado when the cannabis industry is trying to create more equity and bring economic growth to marginalized communities harmed by the racist Drug War is especially tone deaf,” Hashim Coates, executive director of the trade group Black Brown and Red Badged, said in a press release. “But that is to be expected when the backers of this measure are affluent white men.”

“Let’s just be perfectly clear: this is a regressive tax—which always harms Black and Brown consumers the most. This is going to a voucher program—which always harms Black and Brown communities the most,” Coates said. “And it’s targeting the marijuana industry as a magical bottomless piggy bank—which will devastate the Black and Brown owned cannabis businesses the most. Can we just let the black community breathe for a moment after this pandemic before we start taxing them to death?”

The measure is being endorsed by a two former governors, about 20 sitting state lawmakers, several former legislative leaders and several other educational organizations.

But in June, the Colorado Education Association withdrew its support for the proposal over concerns about how it would be implemented.

The next step for the initiative is for the secretary of state’s office to verify that there are enough valid signature in the batch LEAP supporters turned in.

This development comes days after Colorado officials announced the launch of a new office to provide economic support for the state’s marijuana industry.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

The division, which was created as part of a bill signed into law in March, is being funded by cannabis tax revenue. It will focus on creating “new economic development opportunities, local job creation, and community growth for the diverse population across Colorado.”

Gov. Jared Polis (D) had initially asked lawmakers back in January to create a new a new cannabis advancement program as part of his budget proposal.

Beyond this program, the state has worked to achieve equity and repair the harms of prohibition in other ways.

For example, Polis signed a bill in May to double the marijuana possession limit for adults in the state—and he directed state law enforcement to identify people with prior convictions for the new limit who he may be able to pardon.

The governor signed an executive order last year that granted clemency to almost 3,000 people convicted of possessing one ounce or less of marijuana.

Funding for the new office is made possible by tax revenue from a booming cannabis market in the state. In the first three months of 2021 alone, the state saw more than half a billion dollars in marijuana sales.

The lack of access to federal financial support for marijuana businesses became a pronounced issue amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the Small Business Administration saying it’s unable to offer those companies its services, as well as those that provide ancillary services such as accounting and law firms.

Polis wrote a letter to a member of the Colorado congressional delegation last year seeking a policy change to give the industry the same resources that were made available to other legal markets.

California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals

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