President Joe Biden nominated a White House drug czar who previously played a key role in overseeing the implementation and expansion of a state medical marijuana program. The official, whose confirmation is now pending by the Senate, has also publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.
Rahul Gupta, the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board who also served as the lead on drug policy in Biden’s presidential transition team, is being selected to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
The ONDCP director, commonly known as “drug czar,” is explicitly required under statute to oppose efforts to legalize currently controlled substances.
Having someone fill that role who has repeatedly touted the medical value of marijuana—saying, for example, that it can “help citizens suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer”—and who has worked to institute a state-legal cannabis program that authorizes people to carry out activities that are in contravention of federal law is a departure from the norm for White House drug czars.
The Biden administration touted that fact that Gupta is a medical doctor and argued he can uniquely help lead the nation’s drug policy efforts amidst an overdose crisis.
“President Biden’s nomination of Dr. Rahul Gupta to be the first physician ever to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is another historic step in the Administration’s efforts to turn the tide of our nation’s addiction and overdose epidemic,” the White House told the Washington Post, which first reported on the impending nomination earlier on Tuesday. “Dr. Gupta brings firsthand experience as a medical doctor and public health official using evidence-based strategies to address the overdose epidemic in West Virginia. We hope he will be confirmed by the Senate soon.”
The drug policy publication Filter first reported in March that Gupta was the leading candidate for the ONDCP nomination.
Despite his warmness to medical cannabis, harm reduction advocates have been quick to criticize Gupta’s broader record, pointing out that, during his time as commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) Bureau for Public Health, he oversaw the decertification of a syringe access program that was designed to mitigate the spread of diseases like HIV and offer resources to people with substance misuse disorders.
Prohibitionists had held out hope that the president would select someone whose views more closely align with their own, such as former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a cofounder of anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM), who had personally lobbied for the nomination.
Even so, they’re optimistic about Gupta and feel he will maintain the status quo, regardless of his state record on cannabis.
“Rahul has a strong public health background, but he also knows how to work with law enforcement and other stakeholders,” Kevin Sabet, president of SAM, said in response to news of the nomination. “He has a record of convening different constituencies, which will serve him well in this role. It’s a strong selection.”
A spokesperson for the group added in a comment to Marijuana Moment that they “fully expect him to share the President’s opposition to legalization.”
Gupta’s views on adult-use legalization are not clear, but he was proactive in promoting patient access to medical cannabis before leaving the state government to join the nonprofit March of Dimes, which is focused on public health issues related to mothers and children.
Rusty Williams, who served as a patient advocate on the West Virginia medical marijuana board alongside Gupta, told Marijuana Moment in an earlier interview that he once had a personal conversation with the official about the origins of marijuana prohibition. He said that the then-chair broached the topic of why marijuana was criminalized in the first place, and then agreed that federal officials intended to use prohibition as a tool to oppress communities of color.
Gupta was “willing to make things happen a year early,” Williams said at the time, referring to the issuance of the board’s report on the state medical cannabis program. “I was encouraged with the conversation that he and I had about the roots of prohibition.”
In 2018, the West Virginia medical marijuana board released a report that included series of recommendations on the state program. Led by Gupta, the body advised that patients should have access to marijuana in flower form for “administration by vaporization or nebulization”—something that was not initially allowed in the program as approved by lawmakers.
When it comes to smoking that raw plant material, Gupta noted, that patients “can combust themselves if they want, but that’s not what we’re advocating or recommending.”
The report also called for the removal of “limitations on the number of permits the Bureau for Public Health may issue for growers, processors, and dispensaries,” as well as the removal of “the limitation that a grower or processor may not also be a dispensary to permit the vertical integration of growers, processors and dispensaries.”
When medical marijuana legalization was approved by the West Virginia legislature in 2017, Gupta said that, like most people, he was “surprised.”
“It’s an understatement,” he said at the time. “However, what we have in front of us today is a law as it stands in an attempt to compassionately address a number of disorders with chronic pain at the heart of it.”
When members of the state medical cannabis advisory board were appointed, the official said the panel will help facilitate “a transparent and accountable process critical to ensuring a comprehensive system that will help citizens suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer.”
“I am fully committed to making this particular piece of legislation successful,” he said of the medical marijuana legalization bill. “This bill was put together very quickly and, obviously, no bill is perfect. We certainly discussed the shortcomings, but that doesn’t mean the program won’t be successful and be on track.”
“We want to do it because lives are at stake. They are depending on the program to be successful,” he added. “Many people are in chronic pain. We want to take on that challenge.”
Gupta said that the board had received feedback from a range of stakeholders interested in the implementation of the cannabis program, but they’d also “received calls from people who are suffering who want to have some sort of relief. They are asking when they can get their patient ID card and go to their doctors to get certification.”
“The human side of it—you can’t ignore that piece,” he also said. “Science explains some of it, but not all of it.” He went on to say that there is a potential economic benefit to legalize for medical use, noting that “rarely are there policies enacted that are win-win,” and if done right, “you can actually get a true win-win on this.”
But Gupta isn’t necessarily a fan of marijuana use for everyone. In 2019, he teamed up with then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams on a public education campaign meant to warn against the use of cannabis during pregnancy and adolescence.
“March of Dimes applauds today’s release of the US Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of marijuana use during pregnancy for both mom and baby,” he said. “The evidence clearly shows that no amount of marijuana has been proven safe to use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Unfortunately, this message is not resonating with all expecting women and maternity care providers, and marijuana use among pregnant women has doubled between 2002 and 2017.”
Gupta has also periodically posted on social media about marijuana policy developments, such as the enactment of regulations for Colorado’s marijuana program and a 2010 report that more teens were smoking cannabis than tobacco.
— Rahul Gupta, MD, MPH, MBA (@DrGuptaMD) May 29, 2013
More teens smoke marijuana than cigarettes http://usat.ly/frkZ7N
— Rahul Gupta, MD, MPH, MBA (@DrGuptaMD) December 15, 2010
Part of the reason that advocates are monitoring each of Biden’s nominations is because skepticism prevails about how his administration will approach cannabis policy considering that the president remains opposed to legalization, and so each development sheds light on what to expect in the coming years.
Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony before the Senate, for example, that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws. He reiterated the point in May.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Top Rhode Island Lawmakers Signal That Marijuana Legalization Deal Is Close, With Key Issues Being Agreed Upon
A deal on a bill to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island is finally coming together, legislative leaders said this week.
While there are still certain outstanding issues to resolve such as which agency should be tasked with regulating the market, lawmakers have made significant progress and have reached compromises on a number of topics, Sen. Josh Miller (D), sponsor of one legalization proposal, said during a panel hosted by Johnson & Wales University.
Miller warned that he couldn’t be especially specific on details given that negotiations are ongoing, but he expressed optimism that legislators are nearing an agreement.
One issue that’s nearing consensus concerns the number of marijuana business licenses that could be authorized. Miller’s bill, which was approved by the Senate earlier this year, proposed as many as 150 cannabis shops, whereas Gov. Dan McKee’s (D) plan called for 25 and Rep. Scott Slater (D) wanted just 15 in his separate House bill.
The senator said that “we’re probably down to more in the 30, 40 range.”
Expungements is another issue that’s being sorted out. There’s agreement that the social justice component should be included in whatever legislation ultimately passes, but Miller explained that there are some challenges when it comes to processing.
For example, conviction records for possession don’t always specify the amounts, which could complicate any automated expungement procedure to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses made legal under the reform.
“What we’re trying to do is create a mechanism to give the attorney general or the court system a time component—maybe 90 days—to find a quantity component that would disqualify them,” the senator said.
Negotiators have also reached an agreement to place a temporary moratorium on approving additional cannabis cultivator licenses. Some have protested adding cultivators beyond the existing medical marijuana licensees because they say there’s already a sufficient supply to meet demand in the adult-use market.
These are all positive developments that signal a forthcoming deal, but the sponsor said that negotiators still need to figure out which body should be charged with regulating the adult-use market.
Some like Miller want to set up an independent cannabis commission, whereas others feel the recreational market should be overseen by the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR), which currently regulates Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program.
According to WPRI-TV, whose reporter Steph Machado also participated in Tuesday’s panel, negotiators are leaning toward a hybrid model, with responsibilities being divided by DBR and a separate commission.
House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D) would be open to a compromise, a spokesperson for the leader told the TV station. Lawmakers have been reviewing regulatory models in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.
A spokesperson for McKee said that “the governor supports recreational cannabis and his team has been actively working with our partners in the General Assembly on a bill that is equitable and benefits Rhode Island. The conversations are ongoing and we are hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D), for his part, said last month that lawmakers are “very close” to reaching a deal on a marijuana legalization bill that could be taken up during a special session this fall.
“We sent legislation—which we think is a very good piece of legislation—over to the House before we left in June,” the senator said, referring to a legalization bill that his chamber approved in June. “They are working on that legislation with some of the House people at this point in time.”
The prospects of holding a special session could be bolstered if the legislature decides to take up separate legislation dealing federal with coronavirus relief, Miller said during Wednesday’s panel.
What remains to be seen is whether the negotiated legalization bill that’s ultimately produced will satisfy advocates and progressive lawmakers, some of whom have rallied behind an agenda for reform that emphasizes the need for bold social equity provisions.
While each of the competing bills contain components meant to address the harms of marijuana criminalization, the coalition led by Reclaim Rhode Island says they’re insufficient. Advocates and supportive lawmakers have laid out specific items that they want to see incorporated such as setting aside half of cannabis business licenses for communities most impacted by prohibition.
“We can’t reverse the harm of the war on drugs, but we can start to repair it by passing automatic expungement and waiving all related fines, fees and court debt,” Rep. Karen Alzate (D), chair of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said last month. “This bold legalization plan offers us the chance to turn a new leaf for the Ocean State, and it’s time we take it.”
Ruggerio, for his part, said he does feel that the legalization bill that was approved in the Senate contained “very strong social justice provisions” and the expungements provision is “as close to automatic as practical.”
Reclaim Rhode Island isn’t the only group pushing lawmakers to expeditiously work to pass legalization. It’s part of a coalition of 10 civil rights and drug policy reform advocacy groups—including the Rhode Island chapters of the ACLU and NAACP—that recently demanded that lawmakers move ahead with enacting marijuana reform in the state before the end of 2021.
Shekarchi said in July that while there’s not yet a consensus among legislators and the governor on a deal to legalize marijuana, it’s still a “workable” issue and would be prioritized if negotiations succeed this summer and a special session is convened this fall.
Slater recently told Marijuana Moment that “things are still where they were” prior to the end of session—but lawmakers are “trying to figure out a reconciliation between my bill, the Senate’s and the governor’s.”
Meetings over the summer had been “mostly informal,” the representative said. “I think we can get there before next year. It will not be perfect, and I am sure a work in progress.”
Ruggerio said in July that he’s not disappointed the House hasn’t advanced legalization legislation yet and that “what we really wanted to do was send it over and have them take a look at it” when his chamber passed its cannabis reform measure.
Shekarchi, for his part, previously said that he feels reform is “inevitable.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D) was also recently asked about provisions related to allowing local municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is passed in, the communities have an opportunity to opt out.”
“They have an opportunity to opt out if the community doesn’t want to participate in it,” he said. “That’s their decision—however, they don’t get the funds that would come from the sales in that community.”
The majority leader also noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, and that adds impetus for the legislature to pursue reform in the state.
Shekarchi, meanwhile, said in July that he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, the speaker said.
The House Finance Committee held a hearing on Slater’s legalization measure in June.
The governor previously told reporters that while he backs legalization it is “not like one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we’re not in a race with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.”
“I think we need to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and Senate.
The House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at an earlier hearing in April.
Both the governor and the leaders’ legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.
McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”
Shekarchi, meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and also leans toward privatization.
Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.
Meanwhile, the governor in July signed a historic bill to allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse. Rhode Island is the first state to allow the facilities.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
New York Regulators Move To Let Medical Cannabis Patients Grow Their Own And Give Marijuana Expungements Update
New York marijuana regulators are finally moving to allow medical cannabis patients in the state to grow plants for personal use, and they’ve provided an update on progress toward expunging prior marijuana conviction records.
At their second meeting on Thursday, New York’s Cannabis Control Board (CCB) voted unanimously to file the proposed regulations, which would allow qualified patients to cultivate up to six plants—indoors or outdoors—for their own therapeutic use.
There will be a 60-day public comment period after the rules are published. Then the board will review those comments, make any necessary revisions and officially file the regulations to take effect.
“We are proud to present those proposed regulations,” former Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright (D), who chairs CCB, said. “The home cultivation of medical cannabis will provide certified patients with a cost-effective means of obtaining cannabis through personal cultivation while creating a set of standards governing the conduct and activities relating to the personal cultivation of cannabis.”
A slide presented by the board states that the rules would impose “a duty on patients to take reasonable measures to ensure that cannabis plants, and any cannabis cultivated from such plants, is not readily accessible to anyone under the age of 21.”
Caregivers for patients under 21 “whose physical or cognitive impairments prevent them from cultivating cannabis” could also grow up to six plants on their behalf. For caregivers with more than one patient, they can “cultivate 1 additional cannabis plant for each subsequent patient.”
Landlords would have the option of prohibiting tenants from growing marijuana on their properties. Cannabis products could not be processed using any liquid or gas, other than alcohol, that has a flashpoint below 100 degrees.
Rules for home cultivation for patients were supposed to be released earlier, but officials failed to meet the legislatively mandated deadline. Recreational consumers, meanwhile, won’t be able to grow their own marijuana until after adult-use sales begin, which isn’t expected for months.
Prior to signing legalization into law—and before resigning amid a sexual harassment scandal this year—then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) put forth a reform plan that proposed maintaining a ban on home cultivation.
In 2019, Marijuana Moment obtained documents showing that a New York-based marijuana business association led by the executives of the state’s major licensed medical cannabis providers had previously sent a policy statement to Cuomo’s office arguing against allowing patients to grow their own medicine.
At the meeting on Thursday, the Office of Cannabis Management also provided an update on efforts to expunge cannabis records.
There have been 45 expungements for cases related to marijuana possession, though most remain “under custody or supervision for additional crimes,” another slide reads.
“Approximately 203,000 marijuana related charges are presently being suppressed from background searches and in process to be sealed or expunged,” it continues. “This will add to the approximately 198,000 sealing accomplished as part of the first round of marijuana expungements for the 2019 expungement legislation.”
At their first meeting earlier this month, CCB announced that medical marijuana dispensaries will now be allowed to sell flower cannabis products to qualified patients. The $50 registration fee for patients and caregivers is also being permanently waived.
Members of the board, who were recently appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, also discussed ethical considerations for regulators, approved key staff hires and talked about next steps for the panel.
Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who replaced Cuomo, has repeatedly emphasized her interest in efficiently implementing the legalization law that was signed in March.
At a recent event, she touted the fact that she had quickly made regulatory appointments that had been delayed under her predecessor. “I believe there’s thousands and thousands of jobs” that could be created in the new industry, the governor said.
CCB is responsible for overseeing the independent Office of Cannabis Management within the New York State Liquor Authority, which is also responsible for regulating the state’s medical marijuana and hemp industries.
As it stands, adults 21 and older can possess up to three ounces of cannabis or 24 grams of concentrates in New York—and they can also smoke marijuana in public anywhere tobacco can be smoked—but there aren’t any shops open for business yet.
The state Department of Labor separately announced in new guidance that New York employers are no longer allowed to drug test most workers for marijuana.
The first licensed recreational marijuana retailers in New York may actually be located on Indian territory, with one tribe officially opening applications for prospective licensees earlier this month.
In July, a New York senator filed a bill to create a provisional marijuana licensing category so that farmers could begin cultivating and selling cannabis ahead of the formal rollout of the adult-use program. The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee.
Because the implementation process has been drawn out, however, one GOP senator wants to give local jurisdictions another year to decide whether they will opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area—a proposal that advocates say is unnecessary and would create undue complications for the industry.
Under the law as enacted, municipalities must determine whether they will opt out of permitting marijuana retailers or social consumption sites by December 31, 2021. Sen. George Borrello (R) introduced legislation earlier this month that would push that deadline back one year.
Legalization activists aren’t buying the argument, however.
Adding pressure to get the market up and running is the fact that regulators in neighboring New Jersey recently released rules for its adult-use marijuana program, which is being implemented after voters approved a legalization referendum last year.
For the first year of cannabis sales, the state is expected to see just $20 million in tax and fee collections. That will be part of an estimated $26.7 billion in new revenues that New York is expected to generate in fiscal year 2021-2022 under a budget that the legislature passed in April.
Meanwhile, a New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to research the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
Activists Push D.C. Lawmakers To Decriminalize Drugs And Promote Harm Reduction With New Campaign
Activists in Washington, D.C. on Thursday launched a new campaign to urge local lawmakers to broadly decriminalize drugs, with a focus on expanding treatment resources and harm reduction services.
DecrimPovertyDC—a coalition of advocacy groups like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy—will be imploring the District Council to take up the cause, and members have already met with the offices of each legislator and have gotten a generally positive reception.
Today, @DrugPolicyOrg, @HIPS, @Defund_MPD & over 40 civil rights, justice reform, public health, & faith groups join forces to launch the #DecrimPovertyDC campaign. We are urging for @councilofdc to treat drug use like a public health issue. Learn more: https://t.co/KFXc7su9Pu pic.twitter.com/TwWACpAsUU
— #DecrimPovertyDC (@decrimpovertydc) October 21, 2021
“Through ongoing advocacy, we aim to replace carceral systems with harm reduction-oriented systems of care that promote the dignity, autonomy, and health of people who use drugs, sex workers, and other criminalized populations,” the campaign site says.
People of color are disproportionately impacted by drug criminalization, and the group said the impact “extends far beyond the criminal legal system, as people face an array of punishments in employment, housing, education, immigration, child welfare, and public benefits—all of which can trap people in poverty.”
An outline of the legislative proposal starts with drug decriminalization. People who possess small amounts of controlled substances would face no criminal or civil penalties. An independent commission would decide what the possession limit should be, and those who possess more than that amount would face a $50 fine, which could be waived if the person completes a health assessment.
Further, the mayor would be required to establish a harm reduction center where people could receive treatment resources and access sterile needles. The legislation allows for the creation of a safe consumption site within the center where people could use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
That could prove challenging, however, as the U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing safe injection sites where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. An attempt to create such a facility in Philadelphia was blocked under the Trump administration and is now pending further action in a lower federal court.
The D.C. initiative, which is also being supported by AIDS United, Defund MPD, Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS) and dozens of other groups, would also make it so the health department would need to provide a drug testing service so people could screen products for contaminants or other hazardous compounds.
In 2020, 511 people fatally overdosed in the District; over 94,000 people died from accidental overdose nationally. We are in a state of emergency directly caused by criminalization and other inhumane drug policies. #DecrimPovertyDC pic.twitter.com/9stWKb1nYG
— #DecrimPovertyDC (@decrimpovertydc) October 21, 2021
Another provision activists are pushing for would work to repair the harms of criminalization, in part by requiring the courts to “identify and vacate convictions for offenses decriminalized by this bill.” They would also need to find and vacate cases related to drug paraphernalia, which was decriminalized last year under separate legislation.
Queen Adesuyi, policy manager of national affairs at DPA, told Marijuana Moment that the campaign’s branding and scope is “intentionally broad to address poverty more generally, because in D.C. the drug war does disproportionately impact under-resourced communities in addition to black communities.”
“We wanted to build out our campaign to paint the full picture of the drug war’s harms locally in the District,” she said, adding that the coalition will be poised to “support other efforts that are also working to minimize state-based harm against vulnerable communities in D.C.”
At this point, the drug decriminalization measure has not been introduced in the D.C. Council, but activists are encouraged by early conversations with local lawmakers. The intent is to build on drug policy progress such as paraphernalia decriminalization, which was championed by key players like the chairman of the Council’s Judiciary Committee.
The push in the nation’s capital follows advocates’ success in advancing decriminalization in other parts of the country.
Oregon voters approved a historic initiative to decriminalize drug possession last year, and multiple jurisdictions across the U.S. are now exploring similar policy changes.
Last month, Massachusetts lawmakers heard testimony on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program for safe injection facilities. A safe consumption site bill advanced through a legislative committee in the state in May.
The Maine Senate this summer defeated a bill that would have decriminalized possession of all currently illicit drugs.
Rhode Island’s governor signed a bill in July to create a pilot program legalizing safe consumption sites.
Congressionally, a first-of-its-kind bill to decriminalize drug possession at the federal level was introduced this session.
There’s a sense of urgency to get this reform in D.C. enacted, as the coronavirus pandemic has seemed to contribute to record-high drug overdose deaths in the country. Adesuyi said “the last year really has made it so we just can’t wait any more.”
Meanwhile, advocates have renewed hope that D.C. could soon move to legalize the sale of adult-use marijuana.
The District has been prevented from doing so despite legalizing cannabis in 2014 because it’s been bound by a congressional spending bill rider prohibiting the use of local tax dollars for that purpose. But with majorities in both chambers this session, Democratic appropriators have excluded that prohibitive language in the most recent spending measures—so D.C. would be empowered to finally enact a regulated market.
The mayor of D.C. said in April that local officials are prepared to move forward with implementing a legal system of recreational marijuana sales in the nation’s capital just as soon as they can get over the final “hurdle” of congressional interference.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) introduced a cannabis commerce bill in February—and members of the District Council are considering that, as well as a separate proposal put forward by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
A hearing on the latter bill is scheduled for next month the Committee of the Whole, the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety & the Committee on Business & Economic Development.