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Connecticut Marijuana Hearing Shows Governor’s Legalization Bill Likely To Be Amended After Equity Pushback

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Connecticut lawmakers took a full day’s worth of public testimony on Friday about Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) plan to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults. The legislation has drawn harsh criticism from social equity advocates since its unveiling earlier this month as part of the governor’s budget, and the bill’s supporters said at Friday’s hearing that they’re open to making changes to address those concerns.

“This is not a final bill,” Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, told equity advocates during his testimony to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “We want to sit at the table. We want you at the table.”

Before Friday’s official legislative hearing, a group of reform advocates critical of the governor’s proposal held a press conference to bring attention to what they say are shortcomings of the bill’s licensing, equity and criminal justice provisions. Among them, they argue the governor’s plan, SB 888, would give an overwhelming advantage to businesses in the state’s existing medical marijuana system by allowing them early control of the legal adult-use industry. That would likely make it hard for smaller applicants or Black and brown people trying to enter the new market as business owners rather than as employees.

One speaker at the press conference, Rep. Anne Hughes (D), said she would be willing to vote against the governor’s bill if it doesn’t end up including a stronger emphasis on equity.

“If we put equity applicants at the back of the line,” Hughes said, “I don’t think we can ever repair that. I don’t think we can catch up.”

Critics of the governor’s plan have drawn attention to a separate legalization bill, HB 6377, which includes additional equity measures, such as early registration for equity license applicants and funding for low-interest business loans.

Supporters of the governor’s bill struck a conciliatory tone at Friday’s hearing, denying that the two proposals are in conflict. “These bills aren’t competing,” said Jonathan Harris, a senior advisor to the governor. “They’re actually complementary.”

Jason Ortiz, a drug policy advocate and president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association who served as chair of the governor’s cannabis licensing working group last year, has been critical of Lamont’s proposal, arguing that the administration effectively ignored his suggestions for how to build an equitable industry. In a Facebook post on Thursday, he said the governor’s legalization plan “creates a white only market for an indefinite period of time.”

At Friday morning’s press conference, Ortiz said equity advocates would be happy to help strengthen Lamont’s proposal.

“We were available months ago and we’re available now. The governor just needs to pick up his phone and call Reps. [Robyn] Porter and her colleagues,” he told Marijuana Moment after the event, referring to backers of the separate legalization bill, HB 6377.

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D), meanwhile, has said the cannabis legalization bills need to be “pulled apart and put back together,” according to The Connecticut Examiner, adding that there’s still “a lot of work to be done.”

“We need to be start taking all of these different ideas and putting them together,” House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) told the Examiner, “so we can have an actual bill to rally the votes behind.

For her part, Porter, who chairs the Labor Committee, said during Friday’s hearing that she’s confident that HB 6377’s provisions will be considered in an eventual compromise bill.

As introduced by Lamont in his budget proposal earlier this month, SB 888 would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and purchase products from licensed stores, which would be scheduled to open in May 2022.

Homegrow would be forbidden under the plan, and some but not all marijuana-related convictions from before October 2015 would be automatically expunged. Fiscal estimates project the market could make the state more than $33 million in revenue in fiscal year 2023, growing to $97 million by 2026. Beginning in 2024, half of all state excise tax would be earmarked for municipal aid and equity spending.

Ortiz—whose criticisms were acknowledged by Lamont advisor Harris at Friday’s hearing—identified a number of criminal justices areas of the bill he said were “lacking” during his testimony to the panel, noting that SB 888 does not decriminalize home cultivation or expunge an array of cannabis convictions, including for possession of more than for ounces of cannabis.

“At the core of equity is decarceration, getting folks out of prison; decriminalization, making sure we’re not putting more people in prison; and expungement, making sure the records of whatever interaction they have don’t follow them,” he said. “SB 888 acknowledges the need for all of those, but then doesn’t actually do it in policy.”

Friday’s hearing—the first to consider the governor’s legalization proposal—drew extensive written and oral testimony. Among those who submitted statements ahead of the hearing were a number of state officials expressing their support for legalization, which is expected to bring tens of millions of dollars in state revenue.

“S.B. 888 will help create jobs, foster an emerging and growing industry in our state, and help support the state and local tax base—all areas that are critical as our state emerges from the pandemic,” wrote David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development and a senior economic advisor to the governor.

Officials also said the policy change would align Connecticut with other nearby states, ensure limits on advertising and products designed to appeal to children, protect the rights of employers to prohibit cannabis use and support social justice.

“Legalizing cannabis means taking meaningful strides to address our state’s criminalization of cannabis to date and the disproportionate impact this has had on communities of color,” said Marc Pelka, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management.

Commissioner of Consumer Protection Michelle Seagull and others noted that nearby sources of legal, regulated cannabis are increasingly available to state residents. “Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont already have some form of a market for adult-use cannabis,” she wrote, “bills were just signed into law by New Jersey’s Governor, and New York and Rhode Island are poised to legalize adult-use this year. We cannot ignore or avoid this fact.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella, who pointed out that surrounding states are enacting legalization and that “cannabis is already among us and law enforcement is dealing with it and expending resources on it.”

Department of Banking Commissioner Jorge L. Perez similarly said the governor’s proposal “recognizes that the trend nationally and in nearby states is to legalize the adult use of recreational cannabis” and that it regulates marijuana in way that “prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”

Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon said she appreciates that the bill “protects public health by providing adult access to safe products and preventing advertising and retail locations that would appeal to children.”

Others who submitted testimony in support include Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Mark D. Boughton, Department of Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby and Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Sibongile Magubane.

Some in law enforcement and health care submitted testimony against the legalization plan.

“The rush towards legalization of recreational marijuana ignores how profit-driven corporations hooked generations of Americans on cigarettes and opioids, killing millions and straining public resources,” said the Connecticut State Medical Society. “Connecticut has an obligation to protect the health and welfare of its citizens and rushing to legalize a potentially unsafe drug abdicates this responsibility.”

The state Police Chiefs Association, meanwhile, said it opposes the bill primarily because no qualified roadside test exists to detect cannabis-impaired driving. “While the presence of a police officer trained in Advanced Roadside Impairment Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) or the presence of a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) may potentially assist in the evaluation of a motorist,” the group said, “there is presently no legal device in which to test such operators. The DRE evaluation mentioned in this [bill] is a process which occurs after the arrest is made.”

The governor’s own written testimony ahead of Friday’s hearing underscored the drug war’s failure. “The war on cannabis did little to protect public health and safety, and instead caused significant injustices for many residents, especially people in black and brown communities,” Lamont wrote.

“One thing on which most of us agree is that social equity must be included in any adult-use market we create. While there is significant consensus around that goal, there are many different approaches as to how to best accomplish it,” he added. “This hearing is the continuation of this critical conversation.”

Despite disagreement over policy details, many expect legalization to happen Connecticut’s near future. Ritter, the speaker, said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.”

Should this year’s effort fail, Ritter said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. A poll released last year found that nearly two-thirds of voters (63.4 percent) either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported recreational legalization.

Marijuana Use Won’t Automatically Block People From Federal Jobs, Biden Administration Memo Says

Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

Business

New House Bills Would Make Cannabis Businesses Eligible For Federal Small-Business Aid

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Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced three new bills to make state-legal marijuana businesses eligible for federal small business services, including loans, disaster relief and grant programs.

The package of legislation is aimed at establishing parity for cannabis businesses, which are currently prohibited from receiving federal aid due to marijuana still being classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. The country’s legal cannabis industry nevertheless now supports nearly 320,000 full-time jobs in the U.S., according to industry estimates.

The measures are largely similar to legislation introduced by the lawmakers in 2019, with some small changes.

One bill, sponsored by House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), would allow marijuana businesses to access resources from the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). The Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021, which had not been assigned a bill number as of Tuesday afternoon, would expand access to services such as microloans, disaster assistance and the agency’s loan guaranty program.

“With more and more states pursuing legalization, including my home state of New York, there are a growing number of legitimate small businesses that are excluded from critical SBA programs,” Velázquez said in a statement, noting that much of the cannabis industry consists of small businesses.

Compared to Velázquez’s 2019 bill, the new version adds clauses meant to expand the availability of services. While the 2019 bill applied to SBA itself, provisions in the new legislation also prevent SBA intermediaries, private lenders and state and local development companies from declining to work with businesses simply because of their marijuana-related work.

Another new section deals with debentures—certain unsecured loan certificates—and clarifies that SBA may not decline to purchase or guarantee a debenture just because of a business’s involvement in cannabis. Nor can other small business investment companies decline to provide assistance to the cannabis sector.

“This legislation will spark growth by extending affordable capital to small firms in the cannabis space,” she continued. “Simultaneously, the bill acknowledges the structural disadvantages facing entrepreneurs of color and seeks to level the playing field.”

Another newly refiled measure, H.R. 2649, sponsored by Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA), would establish a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) grant program to provide funding to state and local governments to help them navigate the licensing process for cannabis businesses. The bill, which also removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, specifies that the grant money should be used to benefit communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

“My bill would act as a poverty-buster and help homegrown small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy and our neighborhoods. We need to make sure that the booming legal cannabis industry does not become consolidated in the hands of a few big companies,” Evans said.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 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.

A third bill, H.R. 2649, from Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME), would prohibit SBA partners that provide guidance and training services from denying help to businesses solely because of involvement in cannabis. The changes would affect providers such as SBA’s Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and the Veterans Business Outreach Centers, among others.

“Our continued economic recovery depends on the health of American small businesses of all kinds. Especially in this environment, no Maine small business owner should be turned away from crucial SBA programs that could help them create jobs and lift up the economy,” said Rep. Golden. “My bill would help address this problem by providing small business owners directly or indirectly associated with the cannabis industry with access to the services and resources they need to get their small businesses off the ground and grow.”

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have been making headway on other cannabis-related proposals. The House passed a cannabis banking bill on Monday, and broader legislation to legalize cannabis at the federal level is expected to be introduced soon.

The banking legislation would ensure that financial institutions can take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators. The full House passed the bill on a 321–101 vote.

“Even if you are opposed to the legalization of cannabis, you should support this bill,” sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said on the House floor. “The fact is that people in states and localities across the country are voting to approve some level of cannabis use, and we need these cannabis businesses and employees to have access to checking accounts, payroll accounts, lines of credit, credit cards and more.

Other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are working on legislation that would end federal cannabis prohibition completely.

Schumer said last week that the long-awaited proposal would be introduced “shortly” and placed on the floor “soon.” Schumer has so far declined to discuss the bill’s specifics, though he’s stressed that it will prioritize small businesses and people most historically impacted by the drug war.

In an interview with Marijuana Moment this week, Schumer worried that passage of the House banking bill could actually undermine broader congressional cannabis reform this year.

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his own legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House in a landmark vote last year but did not advance in GOP-controlled the Senate.

Meanwhile, support for legalization among U.S. voters continues to grow. More than 9 in 10 Americans (91 percent) now support legalizing cannabis for either medical or adult use, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Friday. Sixty percent of respondents said that cannabis should be legal for both medical and adult use. Thirty-one percent said it should be legalized for therapeutic purposes only, while just eight percent said it should continue to be criminalized across the board.

A majority of those in every age, race and political demographic included in the poll said they feel marijuana should be legal in some form, although many Republicans remain wary of adult-use legalization. Seventy-two percent of Democrats favored both medical and adult-use legalization compared to only 47 percent of Republicans.

Among the minority in opposition to federal legalization: President Joe Biden (D). White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the president’s position on the issue “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the reform. on Tuesday, Psaki refused to say whether Biden would sign or veto a cannabis legalization bill if passed by Congress.

The president instead backs modestly rescheduling the plant, decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, expunging prior marijuana records and letting states set their own policies.

Read the full text of the new legislation below:

Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021 by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Ensuring Access to Counseli… by Marijuana Moment

Homegrown Act by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

 

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Politics

Biden Won’t Commit To Sign Marijuana Bill If Passed By Congress, Press Secretary Says

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say whether President Joe Biden would sign or veto a bill to federally legalize marijuana if it arrives on his desk, noting that his cannabis policy position is at odds with broader proposals that congressional Democratic leaders are working on.

She was also asked about his stance on marijuana banking reform, the disconnect between public opinion favoring legalization and the president’s opposition and whether Biden plans to revisit clemency applications for those facing federal sentences over cannabis.

The noncommittal response to the legalization question comes on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20—a day that has seen a wide range of politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), voice support for comprehensive marijuana reform.

Psaki was pressed on the Senate leader’s remarks and asked whether Biden would support legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition if Congress approved it.

“The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” she said. “He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana so that’s his point of view on the issue.”

Biden’s positions to that end are well known, but an outstanding question has been whether his opposition to adult-use legalization is so strong that he would reject a reform proposal such as those currently being drafted in the House and Senate.

Asked directly what action the president would take if a federal legalization bill was sent to his desk, Psaki signaled that he wouldn’t be inclined to sign it, stating “I just have outlined what his position is, which isn’t the same as what the House and Senate have proposed, but they have not yet passed a bill.”

The reporter followed up to ask about a separate cannabis pledge Biden made as a presidential candidate, when he said people incarcerated in federal prisons over non-violent marijuana offenses should be released.

Psaki said that would be addressed if cannabis was rescheduled to Schedule II—a dubious claim given that there are still serious penalties for offenses involving substances in that category as well. She also didn’t provide any insight into whether the president is proactively pushing for the modest scheduling change.

Later in the briefing, the press secretary was asked where Biden stands on legislation to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. The House approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act along bipartisan lines on Monday.

She said it was a “good question,” but she wasn’t sure and told the reporter she would follow up with a response later.

When pushed on Biden’s opposition to the legalization in the face of mounting, majority support among Americans, Psaki said that while he’s in favor of decriminalization and legalizing medical marijuana, he wants more research on the “positive and negative effects” of adult-use legalization.

“He’ll look at the research once that’s concluded,” she said. “Of course we understand the movement that’s happening toward it. I’m speaking for what his position is and what long, consistently has been his position. He wants to decriminalize, but again, he’ll look at the research of the positive and negative impacts.”

The press conference ended with a final question about cannabis policy—specifically whether the Biden administration plans to revisit requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions. The reporter cited the case of Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California, as an example.

“Given, as you’ve noted in the briefing, the president’s support for decriminalization, support for expunging exactly these types of offenses, are there any plans to revisit some of those bids for clemency?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I would just take it as an opportunity to reiterate that the president supports legalizing medicinal marijuana,” Psaki said. “It sounds like this would have been applicable in this case, and of course decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records. In terms of individual cases, I can’t get ahead of those obviously.”

These question come, of course, on 4/20. But they also come at a time when there’s a concerted push in both chambers of Congress to seize the opportunity they have with Democratic control to pass legalization legislation.

Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have been working on a bill on their side. The majority leader told Marijuana Moment on Monday that he’s working to push the president in a pro-legalization direction as they draft the measure.

Schumer said last week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Culture

How Politicians Are Celebrating The Marijuana Holiday 4/20 This Year

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The country has come a long way since the days of politicians dismissing or shying away from marijuana issues. And a good example of that shift is the ever-growing number of lawmakers who are leaning into the cannabis holiday 4/20 with calls for reform.

For example, to kick of Tuesday’s Senate session, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke on the floor about the need to end federal marijuana prohibition, saying that “hopefully the next time this unofficial holiday 4/20 rolls around, our country will have made progress.”

Then there are the tweets—so many tweets—from state and congressional lawmakers, office seekers and regulators marking the occasion. It’s become a theme each year, and as more states pursue legalization, it seems more elected officials have grown comfortable embracing the holiday in their own ways.

Here’s what politicians are saying about cannabis this 4/20: 

Members of Congress

Congressional candidates

State officials and parties

Local officials

Former federal officials

International lawmakers

Meanwhile, dozens of brands and organizations are also celebrating 4/20 with a variety of promotions, events and calls to action.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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