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Could Sanders Convince Biden To Back Legal Marijuana With New Joint Working Group?

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Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have announced plans to form working groups with a mix of ideological views to develop policy solutions to a wide range of issues, including criminal justice and drug policy reform.

During a livestream on Monday, the two former rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination laid out a shared agenda heading into the November election. Biden became the presumptive nominee after Sanders dropped out of the race last week, and the senator has now offered his endorsement.

Given the sharp divides between their platforms and Biden’s need to shore up support from those who’ve backed Sanders, the working groups represent one example of how his campaign is attempting to bridge those gaps and show a unified Democratic Party despite ideological differences. And while it’s not clear whether the former vice president is willing to budge in his opposition to marijuana legalization, that’s one area that reform advocates are closely following.

“I know we share the same goals on many of these things. We’ve had different ideas about how to accomplish them, but on some issues we’re going to continue to disagree respectfully, but not in any substantive way,” Biden said on the stream. “I believe there’s a great opportunity—a great opportunity to work together to deploy policy approaches that can take us closer to our shared goals.”

Six working groups will be established to tackle criminal justice reform, the economy, education, climate, immigration and health care.

“It should be reform, not punishment,” Biden said of the criminal justice initiative, adding that “thoughtful leaders” who’ve worked with both camps will be appointed to lead the groups. Those individuals have not yet been named.

The presumptive nominee also briefly discussed criminal justice and drug policy later in the remote event. He said the coronavirus pandemic has exposed shortcomings in government and how we approach various issues.

The outbreak “kind of ripped the bandaid off, exposed how the substructure of this economy is so, so damaged by what’s going on,” Biden said. “The idea we’re still arguing about whether health care is a right is bizarre. The idea that we continue to think that the way to deal with the criminal justice system now that we know so much and have learned so much is to punish instead of rehabilitate, the idea that we put someone in jail for drug abuse and we don’t put them in a mandatory rehabilitation as opposed to prison” are also wrong.

(Drug policy reform advocates would generally disagree with a proposal to enforce mandatory treatment, and have criticized how drug courts —a model long championed by Biden—continue to handle a health issue through a criminal justice lens.)

Sanders said during the discussion that the U.S. “should not have more people in jail than any other country, disproportionately African American and Latino.”

The elephant in the virtual room, of course, is that during Biden’s time as a senator, he played a key role in enacting some of the punitive anti-drug laws he’s now seeking to address. And while he’s evolved on several fronts and now backs medical cannabis legalization, decriminalization of possession, expunging prior convictions, modest federal rescheduling and letting states set their own laws, he remains opposed to adult-use legalization at a time when the majority of his party—especially young people, whose votes he needs—are in favor of the policy change.

A majority of Americans—66 percent—are in favor of legalization, according to a Gallup poll released last year. An analysis of demographic data shows that Biden’s continued support for marijuana prohibition is even more problematic. Among those 18-29, 88 percent want cannabis legalized. And for those 30-49, 71 percent are in favor of the policy change.

It seems reasonable to assume that the criminal justice working group will be taking a critical look at that stance. What’s less certain is if Biden will actually cede to any recommendations that ultimately advise him to back legalization. Biden has said he’s unwilling to support the policy until more research is done to establish that cannabis is not harmful.

Sanders, on the other hand, is one of the most vocal advocates for comprehensive marijuana reform in Congress, and he became the first major presidential candidate to call for legalization during his 2016 run. Late in his most recent campaign, the senator pledged to legalize marijuana in all 50 states on his first day in office through executive action.

“It’s no great secret, Joe, that you and I have our differences, and we are not going to paper them over. That’s real,” Sanders said during the event. “But I hope that these task forces will come together, utilizing the best minds and people in your campaign and in my campaign, to work out real solutions to these very, very important problems.”

Biden said his former rival doesn’t “get enough credit…for being the voice that forces us to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’ve done enough. And we haven’t.”

The former vice president also asked Sanders about the issues that young people care about most—signaling that he’s aware of the deficit he’s running with the younger demographic. To that end, a group of youth activists urged him to to adopt a “bold” policy platform, including issues such as marijuana legalization, in a letter last week.

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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.

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

Politics

Local Massachusetts Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Psychedelics Decriminalization Measure

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Local Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics—the latest in a national movement to reform laws on entheogenic plants and fungi.

Prior passing the measure in a 9-0 vote, the Somerville City Council took testimony from two people with personal experience benefiting from the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Several members of the council also discussed the failures of the drug war and the potential medical value of entheogenic substances, particularly as it concerns mental health.

The resolution was supported by the mayor.

“By decriminalizing psychedelic plants, Massachusetts can mainstream harm-reduction strategies as therapists and health providers embrace these compounds for physical, psychological, and spiritual relief,” Decriminalize Nature, Bay Staters for Natural Medicines and the Heroic Hearts Project said in written testimony to lawmakers.

“Somerville has a chance to empower our neighbors, friends, and loved ones to seek the physical and spiritual relief they need and put public health above incarcerating people even in cases of addiction and abuse of controlled substances,” they wrote.

Under the proposal, enforcement of laws against psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca would be among the city’s lowest priorities. It also calls on the county prosecutor to cease pursing cases for persons charged with possessing or distributing entheogens.

The measure states that “the City Council hereby maintains it should be the policy of the City of Somerville that the investigation and arrest of adult persons for planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, engaging in practices with, and/or possessing entheogenic plants… shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Somerville.”

It also stipulates that “no City of Somerville department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Somerville Police Department personnel, should use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults.”

The resolution emphasizes that the measure would not allow for commercial sales of these substances, nor would it permit driving while under the influence of them.

“I love living in a city where this is not controversial and you got unanimous support,” Council President Matt McLaughlin said at the close of the meeting. “Let’s end this war on drugs, and this is a good step.”

Watch the lawmakers discuss the psychedelics reform resolution, starting around 25:45 into the video below: 

With Thursday’s vote, Somerville joins a growing number of cities across the U.S. that have enacted psychedelics decriminalization. Most of the reforms have advanced legislatively, though Washington, D.C. became the first jurisdiction to decriminalize via the ballot in November.

Three other cities—Oakland, Santa Cruz and Ann Arbor—have also decriminalized possession of plant-and fungi-based psychedelics.

In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes. The governor announced in November that applications for an advisory board to oversee implementation of the program were being accepted up until January 1.

Much of this reform progress can be traced back to Denver, which became the first city in the country to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May 2019. Since then, activists in more than 100 cities have expressed interest in pursuing psychedelics decriminalization.

In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution last month that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.

A California state senator plans to file a bill to decriminalize psychedelics for the 2021 session.

Meanwhile, after Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution in September, a county prosecutor recently announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”

Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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North Dakota Lawmakers File Bill To Significantly Expand Marijuana Decriminalization Law

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North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in the state.

The legislation, which was filed on Monday, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.

Under the current statute, possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, with no jail time. The new proposal would make possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carries a $50 fine.

Further, possession of more than one ounce and less than 250 grams would be treated as an infraction, rather than a class B misdemeanor, as it is currently classified.

Possessing more than 250 grams of marijuana would be a class B misdemeanor and possessing more than 500 grams would be a class A misdemeanor.

The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R) and Sen. Scott Meyer (R) in their respective chambers. It’s been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 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.

“It’s encouraging to see Rep. Roers Jones and her colleagues continue the push to reduce harsh and senseless penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in North Dakota,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Decriminalization is no substitute for legalizing and regulating marijuana for adults, as several of North Dakota’s neighbors have now done. But passage of this bill would continue the trend of progress the state has seen in recent years.”

Activists are moving forward with plans to put a cannabis legalization ballot initiative before voters in 2022.

The measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use, was submitted to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Monday. If its language is accepted, the campaign will be able to start signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

The same team behind the new initiative came close to putting a similar measure on the state’s ballot last year, but petitioning efforts were impeded by the coronavirus pandemic.

A separate group of advocates, Legalize ND, also attempted to qualify a different legalization initiative in 2020 that would have allowed retail sales but excluded a home grow option. That organization is also considering plans for its own 2022 measure.

Previously, a 2018 legalization push that did qualify for the ballot was defeated. Voters in the state did approve a measure to legalize medical cannabis in 2016, though the law was scaled down by the legislature the following year.

While activists are skeptical that the legislature has the appetite to enact the policy change on their own, it is the case that lawmakers may feel increased pressure given that voters in neighboring South Dakota and Montana elected to legalize cannabis in November.

Read the new North Dakota marijuana decriminalization bill below: 

North Dakota Decriminalizat… by Marijuana Moment

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Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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A Virginia Senate committee held an initial hearing on Friday on a bill to legalize marijuana that was introduced with support from the governor just two days ago.

The legislation’s quick consideration by the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee is an early sign that lawmakers intend to advance it expeditiously. Two additional hearings are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in a newly formed subcommittee of the panel that’s specifically focused on cannabis policy.

The bill, which is being carried by top Senate and House leaders, would create a system of regulated and taxed marijuana sales and production, and allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use, two of which could be mature.

After the bill is considered by the new marijuana-focused subcommittee next week, the full Rehabilitation panel is expected to hold a vote next Friday to refer it to the Senate Judiciary Committee. After that panel considers the legislation, it would head to the Finance Committee before coming to the full Senate floor.

At the initial hearing, members heard testimony from a representative of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) administration and asked questions about components of the bill such as those concerning expungements and social equity grants.

The legislation’s provisions have been informed by two official state studies on legalization that were recently conducted by a legislative commission and a separate working group comprised of four Virginia cabinet secretaries and other officials, both of which looked at how to effectively implement legalization and submitted recommendations to the governor’s office late last year.

Those studies were required under a marijuana decriminalization bill that was approved last year.

Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into the new legislation, including provisions to promote social equity in the cannabis market. Notably, it would also apportion almost half of the tax revenue the state collects from marijuana sales to funding pre-kindergarten education—a policy championed by First Lady Pamela Northam.

The state’s alcohol regulatory body would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority, and it would be responsible for promulgating rules and issuing licenses.

A new 21 percent tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, and local jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses to operate could levy an additional three percent tax. Existing state sales taxes would also apply on purchases, for a total potential 30 percent tax rate.

Revenue from the new state tax would go toward funding pre-k education (40 percent), a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund (30 percent), substance misuse and treatment programs (25 percent) and public health initiatives (five percent).


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 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.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Brad Copenhaver, who testified on behalf of the Northam administration on Friday, emphasized that the “keystone of this entire bill is marijuana legalization of a social equity endeavor.”

Advocates have celebrated the bill’s introduction and are optimistic about the prospects of getting the reform enacted this session, but they also feel the legislation as proposed can be improved upon.

One problematic provision from advocates’ perspective is that the bill would make public consumption a misdemeanor, whereas currently it is a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine.

Additionally, it seems to increase the fine for people aged 18-20 who possess cannabis. The fine would be $250 for a first offense, and the legislation also stipulates that underage people could be subject to mandatory substance misuse treatment for violating the law.

This introduction of the bill comes one month after the governor included provisions to lay the groundwork for cannabis legalization in a budget proposal that also calls for millions of dollars to support expungements. Northam had campaigned on merely decriminalizing possession, but he publicly backed broader legalization of marijuana for adult use in November.

Northam said during his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday that cannabis prohibition was deliberately enacted as a means to discriminate against people of color.

“The administration’s proposal does an excellent job of centering equity and restorative justice, but we are greatly concerned by the proposed rollbacks of newly enacted decriminalization measures and creation of new crimes for consumption and possession,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“Not only would this escalation in criminalization not increase public safety, this will specifically target young, Black, Brown, and poor Virginians, those who are already overwhelmingly and disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition,” Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said. “Governor Northam wants to get this right, and NORML will be offering policy guidance to help the administration do just that. It’s time to move forward, not backward, with cannabis policies in the Commonwealth.”

Separate legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use was filed by Del. Steve Heretick (D) last week.

Meanwhile, legislation to stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is set to take effect after lawmakers adopted recommended changes from the governor in October.

Also during the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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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