Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) released a wide-ranging criminal justice reform plan on Tuesday that, among other things, calls for the decriminalization of marijuana use and automatic expungements for those with prior cannabis convictions. The proposal was swiftly rebuked as inadequate by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is also seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
“Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use,” a summary of the plan states. “As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”
Further, the Democratic presidential candidate is backing the federal legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, allowing states to set their own policies for adult-use marijuana and rescheduling cannabis to Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) “so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”
Too many people are incarcerated in the US – and many don’t have resources to successfully rejoin society after serving their time.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 23, 2019
It’s not certain what kind of legalization model Biden is envisioning, however. State-level medical cannabis programs generally involve having a doctor issue a recommendation and patients obtaining their cannabis from licensed dispensaries. If marijuana moved to Schedule II, that could potentially require patients to get a prescription that meets the regulatory standards of other Schedule II drugs such as fentanyl and have their prescriptions filled at a traditional pharmacy.
In any case, the proposal includes several other drug policy and criminal reform provisions. The former vice president said he will strive to end sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine convictions, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, abolish the death penalty and stop people from being incarcerated for illicit drug use
“Biden believes that no one should be imprisoned for the use of illegal drugs alone,” the summary reads. “Instead, Biden will require federal courts to divert these individuals to drug courts so they receive treatment to address their substance use disorder. He’ll incentivize states to put the same requirements in place.”
But as Booker was quick to point out, many of the reform proposals the former vice president is making today would target federal laws that he himself played a key role in advancing during his time in the Senate, particularly as it relates to the 1994 crime bill that Biden helped author.
“Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” Booker said in a press release. “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years. You created this system. We’ll dismantle it.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) July 23, 2019
“While it’s encouraging to see Vice President Biden finally come around to supporting many of the ideas I and others have proposed, his plan falls short of the transformative change our broken criminal justice system needs,” he said. “Any comprehensive plan simply must include the legalization of marijuana, an overhaul of policing practices, ambitious use of presidential clemency power to right past wrongs, and reinvestment in the communities that have borne the costs of mass incarceration. Joe Biden’s plan doesn’t do that.”
NEW from @CoryBooker:
— Chris Moyer (@ChrisMoyerNH) July 23, 2019
Booker, who is the sponsor of a far-reaching marijuana legalization bill, unveiled a criminal justice reform plan last month that would involve immediately establishing a process to grant clemency to about 17,000 federal inmates serving time for non-violent drug offenses—more than half of whom are locked up for cannabis-related convictions.
This isn’t the first time that the senator has taken a swipe at Biden over his record.
It’s not simply that Biden played a role in instituting policies that contributed to mass incarceration and escalated the drug war, Booker said last month, it’s that he seems to have an “inability to talk candidly about the mistakes he made, about things he could’ve done better, about how some of the decisions he made at the time, in difficult context, actually have resulted in really bad outcomes.”
The conversation around marijuana reform among 2020 Democratic candidates has been especially revealing this campaign season, with contenders increasingly seeking to stand out by embracing bolder and bolder proposals that go beyond simply legalizing cannabis but ensuring that social equity and restorative justice are at the forefront of those measures.
To that end, Biden does stand out in that he’s one of the only candidates who hasn’t voiced support for descheduling cannabis and whose recent evolution on the issue stops far short of what many advocates are looking for in a president.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), on the other hand, has taken pains to project an image of a cannabis friendly candidate. Though she was previously dismissive of reform proposals and actively opposed a California measure to legalize marijuana, she’s since signed onto several wide-ranging bills that are embraced by the reform movement.
The most recent example is legalization legislation that she and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced on Tuesday that would remove cannabis from the CSA, expunge prior cannabis convictions and create funds to reinvest in communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Tell DEA To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from the House and Senate sent a letter to the Justice Department on Friday, requesting a policy change allowing researchers to access marijuana from state-legal dispensaries to improve studies on the plant’s benefits and risks.
The letter, led by Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), cites feedback from federal health agencies, which have said that existing restrictions on cannabis have inhibited research. One problem in particular is that there’s only one federally authorized manufacturer of research-grade marijuana.
While the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said that it is in the process of approving additional manufacturers, it’s been more than three years since they first announced that applications for more growers would be accepted and, more recently, the agency said it would have to develop alternative rules to approve proposals that have been submitted.
“At the same time, the status quo does not address a barrier to research raised by both [the National Institutes of Health] and [the Food and Drug Administration],” the lawmakers wrote in the new letter. That barrier is a ban on researchers being able to obtain marijuana from dispensaries.
“Both agencies recommended that researchers should be able to obtain cannabis from state-legal sources,” the letter states.
Today, @SenBrianSchatz and I sent a bipartisan letter to AG Barr, urging the DEA to amend current policies to improve research on cannabis.
It’s time to bring our drug research policies into the 21st century.https://t.co/bfpPUhUvQf
— Rep. Harley Rouda (@RepHarley) December 6, 2019
Further, the lawmakers said that there are “problems in industry development of licensed drugs with data from products obtained from third-parties, such as the University of Mississippi.”
“In many states, cannabis law and regulations already provide for licensing of industrial manufacturing activities, and products are available for medical use in those states, but not for research leading to FDA licensure,” they wrote.
“There is a need for a greater diversity of cannabis products so that research on benefits and risks reflects the realities of what consumers and patients are using. NIH and FDA have strongly recommended streamlining the process for conducting research and product development activities with cannabis and other Schedule I substances, and that the DEA take action to assure that interpretations of processes and policies are universally applied in local DEA jurisdictions.”
The lack of chemical diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply has been repeatedly pointed out. One study found that the research-grade cannabis is more similar to hemp than marijuana in commercial markets.
To resolve the research issues, the coalition made two recommendations: 1) to amend internal policy “so as to allow researchers with Schedule I licenses to obtain cannabis-derived products from state authorized dispensaries for research purposes” and 2) issue guidance clarifying that hemp researchers do not need a DEA license to obtain and study hemp because it was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.
The letter requests a response from DEA by December 20.
A total of 21 members of Congress signed the letter, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), along with Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA) Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA).
“Our nation’s cannabis research laws are archaic,” Rouda said in a press release. “Forty-seven states have legalized some form of cannabis consumption—we must ensure our federal agencies and other licensed institutions can comprehensively study the benefits and risks of cannabis products.”
“I thank Senator Schatz, and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, for joining me to make this common-sense request,” he said. “It’s time to bring our drug research policies into the 21st century.”
Attorney General William Barr received a similar letter from lawmakers about the need to expand the number of federally authorized marijuana cultivators in April.
Read the lawmakers’ full letter on expanding marijuana research below:
Oregon Activists Begin Signature Gathering For 2020 Drug Decriminalization Initiative
Oregon activists have begun collecting signatures for a statewide initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs.
Three months after petitioners quietly submitted the proposed ballot measure—titled the “Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act” (DATRA)—the signature gathering process has started, with organizers deployed to Portland to raise support.
A long road lies before the activists, who need to collect 112,020 valid signatures from voters in order to qualify for the 2020 ballot. Funding and polling will decide whether they mount a full push for the decriminalization measure in the months to come.
To that end, their efforts are being helped by David Bronner, CEO of the soap company Dr. Bronner’s, who told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he will be investing $250,000 in the decriminalization campaign. An additional $500,000 will go to a separate Oregon initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which backed Oregon’s successful marijuana legalization initiative in 2014, is also supporting this new effort to make low-level drug possession an infraction punishable by a $100 fine with no jail time, rather than a misdemeanor. It remains to be seen how involved in the campaign DPA will be, however.
Peter Zuckerman, a chief petitioner for the decriminalization initiative, told OregonLive on Thursday that it’s not guaranteed that the campaign will proceed and that much rides on how much money the group can raise, whether there’s public support for the reform move and how staff recruitment comes together.
He said the main thrust of the measure is to take a “health-based approach to drug addiction rather than a criminal justice-based approach.”
The proposal caught the attention of Oregon’s teachers’ union, which said that it supports decriminalizing drug possession but wrote in a comment submitted to the secretary of state in October that it was not taking an official position because it’s concerned about another provision that would shift cannabis tax revenue away from schools.
DATRA would make it so most of that revenue would be used to fund addiction treatment programs.
At the same time that activists are collecting signatures and weighing whether to move ahead with the broad decriminalization initiative, another advocacy group is pushing for a measure to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use, allowing individuals to receive treatment with the psychedelic fungus at licensed health facilities. The group launched its signature drive in September.
Advocates in Portland are also hoping to advance a local measure to decriminalize psilocybin and other psychedelics such as ayahuasca and ibogaine.
Bronner wrote in a blog post that the decriminalization and therapeutic psilocybin legalization campaigns are “already coordinating closely and conserving resources on the statewide signature drive.”
He told Marijuana Moment that “we see this as the perfect one two punch in Oregon, legalizing psilocybin therapy that has so much promise for treating drug addiction, at the same time Oregon shifts to a treatment not jail approach.”
“And 100 percent confident it’s coming together,” he said.
All of this comes amid a national movement to decriminalize psychedelics, with activists in almost 100 cities across the U.S. considering pushing for reduced penalties for substances such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. Decriminalize Nature, which is aiding in and tracking these efforts, is also receiving donations from Bronner, he said.
Decriminalization is also gaining traction on the national stage, with two presidential candidates—South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—voicing support for the policy change. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, another candidate, recently said that he’s open to broad decriminalization, while entrepreneur Andrew Yang backs decriminalizing opioids.
North Dakota Activists Submit Measure To Legalize Marijuana In 2020
North Dakota activists submitted a measure to legalize marijuana for adult use to state officials on Thursday, an organizer confirmed to Marijuana Moment.
Legalize ND, the group behind the proposed statutory initiative, delivered the measure to the secretary of state’s office. It’s expected to be validated within days, after which point petitions will be distributed to collect signatures in support of qualifying for the 2020 ballot.
It’s been about a year since organizers began working on the measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis for personal use. The proposal is more narrowly tailored than a legalization initiative from the same organization that voters rejected in 2018, however.
The previous version didn’t include any restrictions on cultivation or possession, and it didn’t involve a licensing scheme. By contrast, the new measure would prohibit home cultivation, limit possession to two ounces, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
“One of the largest complaints from last time was the mantra of ‘poorly written,'” Legalize ND’s David Owen told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “They targeted the lack of legal experience from our team and they targeted a lack of ‘qualified lawyers’ to be drafting language that would go into the state’s statutory law.”
But he said he’s confident the campaign will be successful this time around, in part because they spent months drafting the language with the North Dakota Legislative Council.
Asked what he’d say to voters still on the fence about legalization, Owen replied that it would depend on what their initial concerns were:
“If it’s a concern over home grow, well it’s simple, we don’t have that anymore. If it’s a concern of people having too much, we have a reasonable possession limit now—in their eyes, I still think possession limits are fundamentally arbitrary, but they wanted a possession limit so we have that now. If people go, ‘well what about the quality of the language?’ I can point to how it’s literally written by Legislative Council, so either every attorney who works for the state of North Dakota is incompetent or this is well written.”
In order to qualify for next year’s ballot, the group must collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6, 2020.
“I think the most important thing isn’t what it would do, but what it would stop from happening,” Owen told local radio station KFGO on Wednesday. “We currently have a system where people are unable to find a job because of a criminal record, we have a system where people are continuing to get marijuana charges and lose their housing, we have families being separated because of parents losing custody over their children for marijuana charges. That all stops when this is legalized.”
Listen to Owen’s radio interview about the new marijuana ballot measure below:
Internal polling that received outside funding, which Owen said cannot be publicly released because of the wishes of the donor, shows the initiative is “slightly ahead” among voters.
In an earlier interview with Marijuana Moment in February, Owen said that it’s “very probable that we can do it” this time around, but much of that depended on the extent to which opposition campaigns are involved and how much funding outside groups are able to offer.
Currently, North Dakota has a medical cannabis program, and the governor signed legislation in May decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.