Members of a criminal justice task force created to inform presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign have been discussing marijuana legalization—a policy the former vice president continues to oppose.
Most of the group—which consists of advisors appointed by both Biden and former primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—support ending cannabis prohibition, and advocates have held out hope that they would recommend that Biden adopt the policy platform in the run-up to the November election.
While some members have publicly talked about the issue since joining the task force, including Linn County, Iowa Supervisor Stacey Walker, who recently commented on the need for reform in light of racial disparities in marijuana criminalization, a new report from Politico appears to be the first confirmation that the group itself is actively considering a formal recommendation on the policy change.
“Multiple people said marijuana policy has been discussed on the criminal justice panel, one of the policy groups of the unity task force,” the outlet reported. “Sanders appointees have advocated for legalization. Some Biden appointees personally support legalizing pot and have debated putting the policy in the panel’s recommendations to the former vice president, according to two people familiar with its deliberations.”
A majority of panel members appointed from both camps have previously gone on record in favor of legalization. That includes Tennessee Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D), former federal prosecutor Chiraag Bains, former Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Walker.
“There’s an opportunity to advance a really bold agenda on criminal justice,” Bains, a Sanders-appointee to the task force, said. “This is part of envisioning a completely different future, not returning to a pre-Trump era. I say that as someone who served proudly in the Obama administration. We just have to be much more aggressive about rooting out systemic racism and injustice in the legal system.”
Biden should “end the War on Drugs, including by legalizing marijuana,” he told Politico.
Walker, whose position on the issue has been lesser-known than other members, also talked about the need for reform during an interview with Little Village that was published on Wednesday. The Iowa official said he knows many white people, including those from prominent families in the state, who consume cannabis and travel to legalized states to obtain it without concern about potential criminal penalties.
“It is no secret that African Americans use marijuana as a substance, recreational substance, just as much as everybody else. I often say, I operate in professional spaces. I know most of my white professional friends in this state use marijuana,” he said. “They do it without ever, ever, ever thinking they will face some sort of legal consequence. It doesn’t even cross their mind. They talk about it openly.”
Watch Walker talk about racial injustices in cannabis criminalization below:
“They don’t ever think about a legal consequences because it’s not real to them— because they can’t conceive of it because they’ve never faced a consequence,” he added. “We’ve just created a system that over-criminalizes people by their race and by their economic situation. That is not right. It is not fair. It’s an aberration of justice.”
He went on to say that decriminalizing cannabis would minimize police encounters that lead people, particularly from communities of color, to be incarcerated and enter the criminal legal system.
Biden has backed the modest reform of decriminalizing marijuana and said that people should be diverted to treatment instead of facing jail time for possessing drugs, but he’s declined to get on board with the majority of Americans, particularly Democrats, who embrace fully legalizing cannabis. He’s opted instead to draw the line at legalization for medical use, expunging prior records, allowing states to set their own policies and federal rescheduling.
Bains said earlier this month that decriminalization is not sufficient, as it “typically means that you don’t have a criminal penalty, but you could still be issued a civil fine. And then there are other kinds of consequences that could follow from that.”
“It’s still illegal conduct,” he said. “If possession of marijuana is just decriminalized and that is the hook for extensive police involvement in people’s lives, and if you haven’t addressed the underlying systemic problems in policing and the justice system overall, then people could continue to be stopped and searched and frisked and so forth.”
It’s not clear whether the task force will ultimately recommend that Biden adopt a pro-legalization platform—or if he would accept that recommendation even if they did. Pressed repeatedly on the issue, Biden has continued to argue that more research should be done before enacting broad reform.
He also recently indicated that his personal experience knowing individuals who consume cannabis has not convinced him that the plant should be legal for recreational use.
For what it’s worth, Sanders doesn’t seem especially optimistic that the former vice president will evolve further, declining in an April interview to list the policy among those from his own platform that he feels Biden will come around to.
That said, as President Trump’s reelection campaign pushes to frame the incumbent as the criminal justice reform candidate, there may be added pressure on Biden to align himself with more progressive policies such as legalization.
Here’s an overview of where members of the Biden-Sanders criminal justice task force stands on cannabis policy:
Akbari, the Tennessee senator, has filed legislation to legalize marijuana in his state and he’s said the reform move is necessary both to promote social equity and to generate revenue that can be used to fund public schools.
Bains, who also serves as the director of legal strategies at Demos, has voiced support for Sanders’s cannabis legalization plan and emphasized the need for racial equity in the legal industry.
Justin Bamberg, a South Carolina lawmaker, has cosponsored legislation to decriminalize marijuana and legalize medical cannabis.
Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right, backs legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.
Holder, the former top prosecutor in the U.S., has said that he’d vote in favor of legalizing marijuana if he was in Congress and claimed to have internally tried to convince the administration to reschedule cannabis.
Symone Sanders, senior advisor to Biden, doesn’t have a clear public stance on legalization, but she’s characterized Biden’s modest marijuana reform plan as being progressive.
Scott, a current member of the House, has cosponsored legislation that called for marijuana descheduling and reinvestments in communities harmed most by prohibition.
Walker’s views on the issue became clearer in the recent interview, where he stressed that cannabis laws have been enforced in a racially discriminatory manner.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.
Michigan Prosecutor Won’t Pursue Psychedelics Possession Cases Following Local Decriminalization Vote
A soon-to-be county prosecutor in Michigan said his office will not be pursuing psychedelics possession cases following a City Council vote to decriminalize entheogenic substances in Ann Arbor.
Eli Savit, who won in a three-way Democratic primary for Washtenaw County prosecutor last month and is running unopposed in the general election, said in a statement to the advocacy group Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor that he supports the measure and will extend the policy county-wide, rather than just at the city level.
“I support the decriminalization of entheogenic plants. I believe the War on Drugs has been an abject failure, and I see no reason to criminalize—or prosecute—people for their use of such plants,” he said. “That was my position before the Ann Arbor City Council resolution, and it’s true with even greater force afterwards.”
The official, who campaigned on a pro-reform platform, said that drug criminalization has “created a cruel roulette wheel of sorts” and “it’s a weighted wheel, as the data clearly shows that Black people and people of color are far more likely to face criminal consequences related to drug use than white people.”
“The Ann Arbor City Council resolution of course applies only in Ann Arbor,” he said. “But, consistent with the resolution, I do not plan to prosecute the use or possession of entheogenic plants in any other part of the county.”
The unanimous City Council vote earlier this month made Ann Arbor the third city in the U.S. to make it so enforcement of laws against a wide range of psychedelics such as psilocybin, ibogaine and ayahuasca are among the lowest police priorities. Oakland was the first to do so, followed by Santa Cruz. Washington, D.C. could be next, as activists successfully placed the issue on the November ballot.
The broader reform movement kicked off in earnest shortly after Denver voters approved a measure last year focused on decriminalizing psilocybin.
Savit’s support for the Ann Arbor policy change stands out as an example of how the messaging behind these local reforms can have an impact beyond the individual jurisdiction it directly applies to.
“While we were not surprised, we were absolutely thrilled to find out that Eli Savit supports the DNA2 resolution! This left us feeling very hopeful for the future of our county,” Julie Barron, chair of Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor, told Marijuana Moment. “Mr. Savit spoke extensively during his campaign about ending the war on drugs. It is great to know that he will continue this promise to the county with an action plan not to prosecute the possession and use of entheogenic plants/fungi.”
“We have a strong drug reform advocate here, and we cannot wait for him to take his position of Washtenaw County Prosecutor,” she said.
Several other prosecutors have similarly enacted policy changes to avoid low-level marijuana cases. For example, the top cop in Fairfax County, Virginia said in January that he “directed my office to dismiss prosecutions of adults for simple possession of marijuana.”
The top prosecutor in Baltimore is proactively closing warrants and dismissing hundreds of cases for certain offenses, including simple drug possession, that her office is no longer pursuing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Montana Marijuana Legalization Initiative Endorsed By Environmental Conservation Groups
Montana activists behind a marijuana legalization initiative are being backed by a uniquely “Big Sky Country” coalition: environmental conservation groups.
The state—widely known for its public lands and parks that attract tourists from across the country—would see a significant influx of revenue for environmental conservation programs from cannabis taxes if the legalization measure passes in November. Half of the public revenue from marijuana sales would be earmarked for such purposes.
Organized by the legalization campaign New Approach Montana, a new Public Lands Coalition (PLC) is comprised of four conservation organizations, including the Montana Conservation Voters and Montana Wildlife Federation.
“All Montanans share the values of open space, as Montanans we collectively own and steward some of the most special places on earth. We are in fact, the Last Best Place, and that’s a central part of our identity as Montanans,” Pepper Petersen, political director for New Approach Montana, told Marijuana Moment.
“The allocations in I-190 reflect our values as Montanans and you see that in the initiative,” he said. “Montanans know that marijuana revenue should be invested wisely, and our public lands in Montana are a great investment.”
The group said in an op-ed published in The Missoulian newspaper on Sunday that there is currently $60 million in “unmet conservation needs in Montana” for services such as “funding for landowners who want to offer access for hunting and fishing.” Legalizing cannabis could help fill that gap, the coalition said.
“In order to continue to offer Montanans and our millions of guests an experience worth coming back for, we need to invest in our public lands,” PLC, which also includes Wild Montana Action Fund and the Trust for Public Land, wrote. “A vote for 118 and 190 is a vote to maintain and create trails, protect land for wildlife, and fund our state parks.”
The new coalition’s website says that legalization “would provide more than $18 million per year to benefit our public lands; both maintaining current access and opening up new opportunities for recreation.”
“These additional funds would help to address the state’s backlog of repairs to campgrounds, trails, wildlife habitat, opening access and increasing maintenance on our public lands,” the groups said.
Interestingly, the campaign is also making the case that legalizing federally illegal cannabis on the state level will help open up access to additional federal funding.
“The Land and Water Conservation fund is the largest piece of federal funding for our public lands. Now that the LWCF is fully and permanently funded, there are $900 million federal dollars per year that can be leveraged with matching state resources,” the coalition website says. “Tax revenue from I-190 could allow Montana to access more of this funding through matched federal grants. Montana should take every opportunity to use this money, and I-190 represents a golden opportunity to do so.”
There will be two separate marijuana measures on the state’s November ballot.
One initiative, a statutory change, would create a system of legal cannabis access for adult-use. A separate constitutional amendment would ensure only those 21 and older can participate in the market.
If the statutory measure is approved by voters, possessing up to an ounce of cannabis would be allowed, and people could cultivate up to four plants and four seedlings at home.
The Montana Department of Revenue would be in charge of regulating the legal industry and would issue business licenses by January 1, 2022. Existing medical cannabis businesses would be first in line to enter the adult-use market.
There would be a 20 percent sales tax on recreational marijuana, while the tax on medical cannabis products would be reduced from two to one percent. Besides public land funding, those tax dollars would also go toward veteran services, substance misuse treatment, health care, local governments that allow cannabis businesses and the state general fund.
“We are excited to have the support of our neighbors and friends from the PLC,” Petersen said. “Countless Montanans will continue to enjoy this special place because of the funding I-190 is creating and because of the hard work of the folks like those who make up the Public Lands Coalition who believe and invest in Montana’s public lands and waters.”
Montana voters approved a medical cannabis legalization initiative in 2004 and later passed a 2016 expansion measure.
For the current cycle, New Approach Montana submitted their petitions for the cannabis initiatives in June. That came after they initially suspended signature gathering activities amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which they later relaunched with social distancing measures in place.
In July, the group announced that data from county officials indicated they would make the ballot. And in August, state officials officially qualified the measures.
The Montana Democratic Party adopted a platform plank endorsing marijuana legalization in June.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
House Democrats Keep Marijuana Banking Protections In Revised COVID Bill After Delaying Legalization Vote
A slimmed-down coronavirus relief bill that House Democrats released on Monday again includes marijuana banking protections.
Despite pushback from GOP lawmakers who challenged the germaneness of including the cannabis language in a prior version that the House approved in May, the text of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was again inserted into the new legislation. It could get a floor vote as early as this week—and that would mark the third time the chamber has taken up the banking measure in some form in the past year.
The SAFE Banking Act would protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, and on its own has significant bipartisan support. But its inclusion in the COVID-19 relief legislation was widely criticized by Republicans who insisted that it was part of an expansive Democratic wishlist of items not related to the health crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been particularly critical of the House proposal, specifically taking issue with industry diversity reporting provisions of the SAFE Banking Act, for example. Other vocal opponents include Vice President Mike Pence and Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and John Kennedy (R-LA).
The Senate did not add cannabis banking language to its own version of COVID relief legislation filed in July.
“We appreciate that Democratic leadership is standing firmly behind the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act, despite some Republicans in Congress preferring to treat this public safety issue like some kind of comic relief,” Steve Fox, president of VS Strategies, told Marijuana Moment. “Far from being non-germane, the pandemic has only underscored the importance of this legislation.”
“At a time when businesses all across the country are relying on electronic transactions to protect public health, cannabis businesses are being forced to exchange currency. This bill is timely and necessary,” he said.
A summary of the banking provision prepared by House leaders states that it would “allow cannabis-related legitimate businesses, that in many states have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic as essential services, along with their service providers, to access banking services and products, as well as insurance.”
Notably, the document highlights the diversity reporting language that some Republicans have slammed, signaling that Democrats are not shying away from those components despite the criticism. It explains that the legislation “requires reports to Congress on access to financial services and barriers to marketplace entry for potential and existing minority-owned cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
Advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers have argued that providing marijuana banking protections will mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by making it so cannabis businesses don’t have to rely on cash transactions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she agrees that the measure is an appropriate component of the bill.
“The inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES 2.0 package is a positive development,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “In the majority of states that regulate the marijuana marketplace, cannabis businesses have been deemed essential during this pandemic.”
“Unfortunately, at the federal level, prohibition compounds the problems that this emerging industry faces,” he said. “Small cannabis businesses in particular are facing tough economic times and access to traditional financial tools will help ensure that they can weather this pandemic.”
While the incremental reform measure would help alleviate financial complications in the cannabis market, news that House Democrats opted to stick to their guns on the industry-focused marijuana banking legislation could frustrate advocates who were disappointed when the chamber’s leadership decided to postpone a planned vote on a comprehensive cannabis legalization and social equity bill earlier this month.
The banking provisions are generally considered industry friendly without addressing the systemic problems resulting from the war on drugs. In the past, some activists have made the case that lawmakers should’t approve the SAFE Banking Act until marijuana is descheduled and restorative justice policies are implemented.
The House was expected to hold a floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act to federally legalize cannabis last week, but leaders announced they were delaying it after certain centrist Democrats expressed concern about the optics of advancing marijuana reform legislation without first passing additional COVID relief.
All that said, others do view the banking protections as a boon for social equity in that they would help minority-owned cannabis businesses that currently struggle to get access to capital and financial services.
“Without access to much needed capital to maintain throughout the crisis, it is possible that we could see an acceleration of the corporatization of the cannabis industry in a manner that is inconsistent with the values and desires of many within the cannabis space,” Strekal said. “Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would ensure that small businesses could compete in this emerging marketplace.”
In July, bipartisan treasurers from 15 states and one territory sent a letter to congressional leadership, urging the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any COVID-19 legislation that’s sent to the president’s desk. Following GOP attacks on the House proposal, a group of Democratic state treasurers renewed that call.
The House last year approved the standalone SAFE Banking Act. For months, the legislation has gone without action in the Senate Banking Committee, where negotiations have been ongoing.