Democratic candidates clashed on marijuana policy during Wednesday’s presidential debate, with former Vice President Joe Biden’s record of supporting harsh criminalization policies being a focus of contention for other contenders.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) called out Biden, slamming his role in advancing punitive criminal justice reform legislation and arguing that the country needs “far more bold action on criminal justice reform,” and that includes “true marijuana justice, which means legalizing it on a federal level and reinvest the profits in communities that have been disproportionately targeted by marijuana enforcement.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) also weighed in on cannabis policy, with the California senator stating that the next president would have to be “cleaning up the mess [Biden] created in the United States Senate” and then facing criticism from Gabbard over her own marijuana record as a prosecutor who once campaigned against legalization.
“This is a crisis in our country because we have treated issues of race and poverty, mental health and addiction, with locking people up and not lifting them up,” Booker said. “Every major crime bill—major and minor—has had [Biden’s] name on it and not mine.”
Biden’s drug policy platform—and particularly his decades-long Senate record as an author of punitive anti-drug laws that have contributed to mass incarceration and racial inequities in the criminal justice system—has become a target for reform-minded candidates in recent weeks. He was first to be asked about criminal justice at the debate and, highlighting his newly somewhat evolved position, said that “when someone is convicted of a drug crime, they end up going to jail and to prison” when they “should be going to rehabilitation.”
But while the former vice president has attempted to distance himself from his drug warrior image, including by unveiling a criminal justice reform plan that would involve decriminalizing cannabis and expunging records of those with prior marijuana convictions, his opponents won’t let him forget his past positions, nor the fact that he still opposes full legalization.
“The house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws and you can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire,” Booker said. “We have got to have far more bold action on criminal justice reform.”
We have a mass incarceration crisis in this country because we’ve tried to solve addiction, mental health and poverty by locking people up, not by lifting people up. #DemDebate
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) August 1, 2019
“All of the problems that he is talking about that he created, I actually led the bill that got passed into law that reverses the damage that your bills, that you are frankly—correct me, Mr. Vice President—you are bragging, calling it the Biden crime bill up to 2015,” Booker said.
Biden pushed back by against the New Jersey senator, inquiring about the then-Newark mayor’s position on stop-and-frisk policing policies.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 1, 2019
Joe Biden will strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform by taking action to reduce our prison population, address racial disparities, and make our communities safer.#DemDebate pic.twitter.com/rVcRMKB3SH
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 1, 2019
Booker accused the former VP of “trying to shift the view from what you created,” noting that “there are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime, phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.”
“This isn’t about the past, sir. This is about the present right now.”
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) August 1, 2019
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro joined in to say that he agreed Biden’s role in pushing the 1994 crime bill “was a mistake” and that “he has flip-flopped on these things, and that’s clear.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) invited candidates to visit his state to witness “what criminal justice reform looks like,” touting his initiative to pardon thousands of individuals with cannabis possession convictions on their record.
Here’s some context on the Booker-Biden quarrel:
Shortly after Biden released his criminal justice reform proposal earlier this month, Booker issued a press release deeming the plan inadequate and arguing that the “proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
Joe Biden has the boldest, most comprehensive criminal justice reform proposal in this election.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 1, 2019
Booker also said that Biden 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.”
Booker has focused on drug policy reform throughout his campaign, striving to distinguish himself from the pack of candidates by emphasizing his support for comprehensive marijuana legalization legislation—bills like his Marijuana Justice Act that go beyond descheduling cannabis and include provisions aimed at promoting social equity in the marijuana industry and righting the wrongs of prohibition.
In March, he took a thinly-veiled swipe at Harris after the senator discussed her past experience with marijuana in a lighthearted manner during a radio interview. Booker contrasted the California senator’s cavalier comments about using marijuana during college with the fact that “we had more arrests for marijuana possession in this country than all the violent crime arrests combined” in 2017.
Gabbard didn’t give Harris a pass to that end, emphasizing that the then-California attorney general “put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) August 1, 2019
“As the elected attorney general of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work,” Harris responded. “And I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor but actually doing the work, of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.”
“That is why we created initiatives that were about re-entering former offenders and getting them counseling,” she continued. “It’s why, and because I know the criminal justice system is so broken, it is why I’m an advocate for what we need to do to not only decriminalize but legalize marijuana in the United States.”
Harris filed legislation this month that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and invest in programs aimed at helping to repair the damage of the war on drugs.
Biden, meanwhile, has only gone so far as to say that he supports decriminalization and rescheduling.
While drug policy reform was strongly featured at Wednesday’s event, it received little attention during an earlier debate on Tuesday—which involved pro-legalization candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
At that event, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought up alcohol prohibition and said the country’s decision to reverse that decision shows that more change on other issues is possible. “This is a country that once changed its Constitution so you couldn’t drink and then changed it back because we changed our minds about that,” he said.
Warren argued that President Donald Trump is advancing “criminal justice racism.” Sanders decried the “prison-industrial complex.” And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) emphasized the need to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for opioid addiction.
Biden echoed Klobuchar’s point at the Wednesday debate, arguing that we “should put some of these insurance executives who oppose my [healthcare] plan in jail for the nine billion opioids they sell out there.”
For his part, entrepreneur Andrew Yang said he would “trust anyone on the stage more than I trust our current president on matters of criminal justice.”
California Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Is A ‘Civil Rights’ Matter Amid Mass Protests Over Racial Injustice
The governor of California discussed systemic racism and injustice that is inspiring mass protests across the country in a Friday speech, and he touted the state’s legalization of marijuana as an example of how it has addressed racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said at a press conference that he’s “very proud of this state” for going beyond issues such as implicit bias in policing and the “deadly use of force.” California’s leadership helped advance “a conversation about broader criminal justice reform to address the issues of the war on drugs” and “race-based sentencing,” he said.
“That’s why the state was one of the early adopters of a new approach as it relates to cannabis reform. Legalization around adult-use of marijuana,” he said. “It was a civil rights call from our perspective.”
“I was proud to be out in front in those efforts,” he added. “It was about addressing the disparities. It was about addressing incarceration. It was about addressing the ills of this war on drugs.”
Newsom also discussed the racially discriminatory sentencing of crack versus powder cocaine and other mandatory minimum sentencing policies. While the federal disparity was reduced over time since Congress passed the sentencing provision—a policy presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden helped enacted during his time in the Senate and later sought to undo—California eliminated the distinction in terms of state sentencing in 2014.
Even so, the governor recognized that the reforms the state has enacted to date are “not enough” and more work needs to be done. He’s also not alone in drawing a connection between drug policy reform and racial justice.
Earlier this week, the governor of Virginia said that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.
Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs. It now has 160 cosponsors.
The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.
In New York, there’s a renewed push to pass a package of criminal justice reform legislation that includes a bill to legalize marijuana. Sen. Julia Salazar (D) told Marijuana Moment that “in this particular moment, I think what’s the important factor here is that [criminalization] disproportionately impacts black and brown New Yorkers.”
“Because of the criminalization of the use of marijuana, more black and brown New Yorkers have interactions with police than they need to,” she said. “More people end up in the criminal justice system in the first place than is necessary at all.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
American Bar Association Says Firms Working ‘Indirectly’ With Marijuana Industry Should Get COVID Relief
The American Bar Association (ABA) sent a letter to the heads of the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration (SBA) on Friday, urging them to end a current policy preventing law firms that service state-legal marijuana businesses from receiving federal coronavirus relief.
SBA has made clear that cannabis companies are ineligible for its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans—but its policy also bars those that work with marijuana businesses indirectly from getting the aid. ABA, which has nearly 200,000 dues-paying members, said it wants clarification or a formal policy change to make it so indirect businesses are not impacted.
“The ABA supports amending federal law to ensure that lawyers do not face the threat of criminal charges when they represent clients in states that have legalized marijuana,” the organization said. “Even before those changes are made to federal law, lawyers should also not be penalized for providing legal services to cannabis-related businesses that comply with state laws.”
ABA also argued that the policy is excessively broad in that it stipulates that companies that derive any revenue from servicing a cannabis business cannot receive relief during the pandemic. “Thus, a law firm where a single lawyer provided advice to a single marijuana business client on legal issues for a nominal fee would arguably be ineligible under this language for the SBA PPP loan program,” the organization wrote.
ABA’s letter further notes that 78 percent of firms are located in states where marijuana is legal in some form.
“We urge SBA to provide further guidance that it will not treat otherwise eligible businesses, including law firms, as disqualified from the PPP program based solely on having provided legal, financial/accounting, policy, or regulatory advice to a Direct Marijuana Business,” Judy Perry Martinez, ABA’s president, wrote.
Steve Fox, strategic advisor at the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “wonderful to see an organization with the reputation and stature of the ABA engage on this issue.”
“As they note, the SBA guidance is overly broad and unjustly punishes companies and firms all across the country. In fact, in some states, the cannabis industry is so ingrained in the economy, you have many hundreds of companies providing goods or services to cannabis businesses,” he said. “According to the plain language of the SBA guidance, they are all, with very minor exceptions, ineligible for PPP loans.”
“We stand with the ABA in urging the Treasury and Small Business Administration to issue further guidance, clarifying that ‘indirect marijuana businesses’ are eligible for PPP loans. If they fail to do so, Congress should remedy this situation at the earliest possible opportunity,” he added.
In February, ABA’s House of Delegates voted in favor of proposals endorsing pending federal legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses and calling for a clarification of rules to ensure that lawyers will not be penalized for representing clients in cases concerning state-legal marijuana activity.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill last month that would fix the COVID-19 relief access problem, calling for SBA eligibility for cannabis businesses and ancillary companies. That came after he led a letter with 34 bipartisan members of the House urging leadership to include the policy change in future coronavirus-related bills.
Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) made a similar request to Senate leaders in a separate letter.
Separately, the ABA-supported Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was included in a House-passed COVID-19 relief package last month.
A bipartisan coalition of 34 state and territory attorneys general asked Congress to pass the bill with that language, which would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said this week that marijuana business banking represents one of the most “challenging issues that I have encountered” at the agency.
Read ABA’s letter to the Treasury and SBA below:
Bermuda Government Releases Marijuana Legalization Bill For Public Feedback
The government of Bermuda released a draft bill on Wednesday to establish a legal marijuana market in the self-governing British overseas territory.
“Surprising for some, public attitudes have evolved apace with global legislative reforms and in recognition that opening up pathways for new economic opportunities and activity is needed,” Attorney General Kathy Simmons said in a video on the proposal.
Under the proposed legislation, adults 21 and older would be able to possess and purchase up to seven grams of cannabis from licensed retailers.
A regulatory body called the Cannabis Advisory Authority would be responsible for issuing licenses and regulating the market. There would be seven types of licenses available: cultivation, retail, research, import, export, transportation and manufacturing.
Individuals with prior marijuana convictions would not be barred from participating in the industry.
Fees for the licenses would be set in a way designed to both stimulate the territory’s economy while also ensuring that they are not prohibitively expensive for “underserved and marginalized communities,” a summary of the bill states.
People with convictions for possessing seven grams or less would be eligible for expungement.
The Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Senator the Hon. Kathy Lynn Simmons, JP has announced new regulations by the Government of #Bermuda to reform Cannabis laws.
— Bermuda Government (@BdaGovernment) June 4, 2020
Last year, Bermudan lawmakers unveiled draft legislation to create a medical cannabis program. Public feedback signaled that people felt the bill imposed excessive regulations and that the territory should more broadly legalize marijuana altogether for adult use.
Now that this new draft legislation has been released, the government is again asking for public input up until July 3. On its site, individuals are prompted with seven specific questions that feedback is being sought on. That includes queries about licensing requirements and penalties.
Premier David Burt, who pledged last year to introduce marijuana legalization legislation, also encouraged individuals to weigh in on the proposed regulations.
We want to hear from you! Share your thoughts by July 3rd.https://t.co/kkGtsuQ1ES
— Premier David Burt (@BermudaPremier) June 5, 2020
“The Government has made a commitment to progressively liberalize cannabis laws in Bermuda and to create economic opportunities for citizens wishing to participate in a regulated cannabis scheme,” the site states. “The Government again wishes to ‘take it to the people’ by commencing a one month public consultation exercise on the proposed scheme.”
The attorney general said in her video that the government plans to “move ahead with a more simplified, regulated cannabis scheme, which builds on the strength of the original medicinal cannabis policy and which embraces the public feedback.”
“The revised proposal with provide for a regulated cannabis program which has been hybridized to meet Bermuda’s requirements while modeling the best available legal provisions in Canada, both provincial and federal, and to a lesser degree, examples from the Caribbean,” she said.
Several Caribbean nations have started exploring marijuana reform in recent years. Importantly, in 2018, the heads of 19 Caribbean nations agreed to “review marijuana’s current status with a view to reclassification,” emphasizing “human and religious rights” issues stemming from criminalization as well as “the economic benefits to be derived” from legalization.
Since then, lawmakers in the dual-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis said they would be introducing legalization legislation. The government of Trinidad and Tobago brought two cannabis reform bills before Parliament last year—one to decriminalize low-level possession and another to legalize cannabis for medical and religious purposes.
Meanwhile, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands has been stressing the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the U.S. territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Jamaican government also recently announced that it will be allowing medical cannabis patients to make marijuana purchases online for pickup at “herb houses” as a means to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Read the draft bill to legalize marijuana in Bermuda below: