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.”
Pennsylvania Senators Will Consider DUI Protections For Medical Marijuana Patients At Hearing
A Pennsylvania Senate committee is set to take up a bill next week that would protect medical marijuana patients from being prosecuted under the state’s “zero tolerance” DUI laws.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R), would amend state statute to require proof of active impairment before a registered patient can be prosecuted for driving under the influence. The current lack of specific protections for the state’s roughly 368,000 patients puts them in legal jeopardy when on the road, supporters say.
The #PASenate Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on 9/21 with a focus on my #SB167, which would remove DUI penalties for legal medicinal cannabis use. @SenLangerholc @PASenateGOP Details ⤵️https://t.co/cSd2Cpdky9 pic.twitter.com/av3mxvAuCk
— Senator Bartolotta (@senbartolotta) September 16, 2021
Bartolotta first introduced an earlier version of the bill in June 2020. She said at the time that the state needs to “ensure that the legal use of this medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”
Months after the standalone reform legislation was introduced, the Pennsylvania House approved a separate amendment that would enact the policy change.
Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016, with the first dispensaries in the state opening in 2018. But the state’s zero-tolerance DUI law still doesn’t reflect those changes. Because it criminalizes the presence of any THC or its metabolites in a driver’s blood—which can be detected for weeks after a person’s last use—the law puts virtually all medical marijuana patients at risk, even if it’s been days since their last use and they show no signs of impairment.
Bartolotta’s bill would require officers to prove a registered patient was actually impaired on the road.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.
“Unimpaired patients currently face the risk of being arrested, prosecuted and convicted for using medicinal marijuana that has no bearing on their ability to drive a vehicle,” the senator wrote in a cosponsorship memo late last year. “Given the very serious consequences of a DUI conviction, my legislation will provide critical protections for medicinal cannabis patients by ensuring responsible use of their legal medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”
Several legal cannabis states have enacted per se THC limits in blood, similar to blood alcohol requirements. However, evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.
A study published in 2019, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.
Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance… studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”
Outside of this bill, Pennsylvania lawmakers have continued to pursue adult-use legalization in the state. Earlier this year, two legislators circulated a memo to build support for a comprehensive reform bill they plan to introduce, for example.
A bipartisan Senate duo is also in the process of crafting legislation to legalize cannabis across the commonwealth. They announced some details of the proposal earlier this year, but the bill has yet to be formally introduced.
Outside the legislature, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said earlier this year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.
Wolf, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate, previously led a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on legalization. He’s credited that effort with helping to move the governor toward embracing comprehensive reform. The lieutenant governor even festooned his Capitol office with marijuana-themed decor in contravention of a state law passed by the GOP-led legislature.
Fetterman has also been actively involved in encouraging the governor to exercise his clemency power for cannabis cases while the legislature moves to advance reform.
In May, Wolf pardoned a doctor who was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for growing marijuana that he used to provide relief for his dying wife. That marks his 96th pardon for people with cannabis convictions through the Expedited Review Program for Non-Violent Marijuana-Related Offenses that’s being run by the Board of Pardons.
Overall, legalization is popular among Pennsylvania voters, with 58 percent of residents saying they favor ending cannabis prohibition in a survey released in April.
Another poll released in May found that a majority of voters in the state also support decriminalizing all currently illicit drugs.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
80 Top Law Enforcement Officials, Including A Biden Nominee, Urge SCOTUS To Hear Safe Injection Drug Case
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—have filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up a case on the legality of establishing a safe injection facility where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
The nonprofit organization Safehouse was set to launch a safe consumption site in Philadelphia before being blocked by a legal challenge from the Trump administration, and it filed a petition with the nation’s highest court last month to hear the case. Now the group of law enforcement officials associated with Fair and Just Prosecution are calling on the Supreme Court to act in an amicus brief.
“Amici have an interest in this litigation because overdose prevention sites (OPSs) are among the harm reduction and public health interventions that have proven effective in preventing fatal overdoses and diverting people from unnecessary and counterproductive interactions with the justice system,” they wrote. “Amici, many of whom are currently or were previously responsible for enforcing the nation’s drug laws, also believe that the Controlled Substances Act cannot be construed to prohibit operation of a facility designed to address the most acute aspects of this public health emergency.”
“As law enforcement and criminal justice leaders, amici’s objective is to maintain public safety; saving lives and promoting health is as central to that mission as preventing and prosecuting crime.”
Read the full brief: https://t.co/e4Sv6oba4b
— Fair and Just Prosecution (@fjp_org) September 17, 2021
If the court agrees to hear the dispute, advocates will be looking toward the Biden Justice Department and whether it will continue the federal government’s opposition to allowing supervised injection facilities. It would be a precedent-setting case that could steer policy for years to come, meaning Safehouse is taking a significant risk by pursuing the appeal of its loss in a lower court before the majority of conservative justices.
“Failing to address the loss of life resulting from drug overdoses—and criminalizing a community-based public health organization working to save lives—will further erode trust in the justice system,” the new brief states. “If there were ever a time to demonstrate that our government values the dignity of human life, that time is now.”
While President Joe Biden hasn’t weighed in directly on safe consumption sites, there’s been a theme within his administration of embracing the general concept of harm reduction for drugs. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), for example, said that “promoting harm-reduction efforts” is a first-year priority. In an overview of its objectives, the office said it intends to expand “access to evidence-based treatment,” enhance “evidence-based harm reduction efforts” and promote “access to recovery support services.”
These goals theoretically align with those of Safehouse, which wants to give people with substance use disorders a facility where medical professionals can intervene in the event of an overdose and provide people with the resources to seek recovery.
Among the signatories on the amicus brief are a former deputy assistant attorney general under Obama, district attorneys of Baltimore, Cook County, Dallas County, Los Angeles County, Manhattan, Philadelphia, San Francisco County and Seattle and the former attorneys general of Ohio, Vermont and Virginia.
But one signatory who especially stands out is Rachael Rollins, the district attorney of Suffolk County, Massachusetts who is Biden’s nominee for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts.
“As an elected prosecutor, I have a responsibility to protect every member of my community, which requires moving away from criminal justice responses to substance use disorder,” Rollins said in a press release. “Instead, we must embrace proven public health strategies as potential solutions. Lives depend on it.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the drug war “has taken too many lives already, and criminalization has only exacerbated this devastating toll.” He added: “We need a new way forward that allows communities to address the overdose crisis with harm reduction approaches proven to save lives and improve community safety.”
“Our nation’s failed war on drugs has taken too many lives…and criminalization has only exacerbated this devastating toll. We need a new way forward that allows communities to address the overdose crisis with harm reduction approaches proven to save lives." –@DA_LarryKrasner
— Fair and Just Prosecution (@fjp_org) September 17, 2021
Fair and Justice Prosecution, the group that coordinated the amicus brief, also organized a tour of Portugal for 20 top prosecutors in 2019 so they could learn about the successful implementation of the country’s drug decriminalization law.
Safehouse won a battle in a federal district court in 2019 to proceed with the facilities. But in January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the decision, ruling that permitting such facilities would violate a 1980s-era federal statute that bars organizations from running operations “for the purpose of unlawfully… using controlled substances.” That law was passed while Biden served in the Senate and helped push punitive drug policies that have had lasting consequences.
“As current and former criminal justice leaders, amici have seen first-hand how the classic ‘war on drugs’ approach to drug control—with its almost exclusive focus on aggressive criminal law enforcement—has exacerbated the overdose epidemic,” the pro-reform prosecutors and cops wrote in the new brief. “This experience confirms that no jurisdiction can arrest its way out of this public health problem. Fatal overdoses are a symptom of substance use disorder, a medical condition requiring a medical response.”
“Distorting federal drug laws to prohibit an [overdose prevention site] or to prosecute its sponsors would further undermine trust in the justice system and faith in the fair and sensible application of our drug laws. Interpreting federal criminal law to bar empirically validated harm reduction measures would make no one safer; it would only impede cooperation between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
In its original petition to the Supreme Court in the current safe injection site case, Safehouse argued that the justices should “grant review to determine whether” federal statute really does prohibit “non-commercial, non-profit social service agencies…from establishing an overdose-prevention site that includes medically supervised consumption.”
“This question is a matter of life or death for thousands of Philadelphians and many thousands more throughout the country,” it said. “Tragically, while respondents have been pursuing this declaratory judgment against Safehouse, more than 3,200 people died in Philadelphia of drug overdoses—many of which could have been prevented if medical care had been immediately available through supervised consumption services.”
Safehouse also pointed out that Xavier Bacerra, the Biden administration’s secretary of health and human services, was among eight top state law enforcement officials who filed an earlier amicus brief in support of the organization’s safe injection site plan when he served as California’s attorney general.
The organization put the gravity of the case in no uncertain terms, painting a picture of how its proposed facility can save lives.
“When breathing stops, even a brief delay while waiting for medical help to arrive may result in an otherwise preventable overdose death or irreversible injury,” the petition says. “As a result, every second counts when responding to an opioid overdose; as more time elapses, the greater the risk of serious injury and death. Ensuring proximity to medical care and opioid reversal agents like the drug Naloxone at the time of consumption is therefore a critical component of efforts to prevent fatal opioid overdose.”
“Intervention by this Court is warranted to make clear that the federal law does not criminalize this essential public health and medical intervention designed to save lives from preventable overdose death,” it continues.
Safehouse argued that the appeals court’s interpretation of the law “eviscerates the intended boundaries of the statute and would criminalize the operation of legitimate businesses, charities, families, and good Samaritans that serve and reside with those suffering from addiction.”
If the Supreme Court were to take up the case and rule in favor of Safehouse, it could embolden advocates and lawmakers across the country to pursue the harm reduction policy.
The governor of Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.
A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), was approved in the state Senate in April, but further action has been delayed until 2022.
At the same time that Safehouse is turning to the Supreme Court, it also announced recently that it will be returning the the federal district court that gave it an initial 2019 victory in support of establishing a safe injection facility before it was overturned in the appeals court.
The organization is making the unique argument that the federal government’s decision to block it from providing the service violates religious freedom by subjecting participants “to criminal penalties for exercising their sincerely held religious beliefs that they have an obligation to do everything possible to preserve life and to provide shelter and care to the vulnerable, including those suffering from addiction.”
In 2018, a congressional subcommittee approved legislation to specifically prohibit Washington D.C. from using local tax dollars to help open safe consumption facilities. But that provision was not enacted and has not been reintroduced since.
A 2020 study found that people “who reported using supervised injection facilities on an at least weekly basis had a reduced risk of dying compared to those who reported less than weekly or no use of this health service.”
Read the amicus brief from the prosecutors on the Safehouse safe injection site case below:
Photo courtesy of Jernej Furman.
Former GOP Congressman Who Actually Supported Marijuana Reform Enters The Cannabis Industry
Lately it’s come to seem as if most of the former politicians who’ve entered the marijuana industry were unhelpful or downright hostile to legalization when they were in office. But on Friday, a cannabis company announced an addition to its board who disrupts that narrative: a former Republican congressman who has a consistent legislative record of cosponsoring and voting for marijuana reform measures.
The multi-state cannabis businesses Red White & Bloom Brands Inc. (RWB) is bringing on former Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) to help it navigate the complicated regulatory space, drawing on his experience in Congress as the company works to expand.
Costello certainly isn’t the only Republican lawmaker who’s made the transition from Capitol Hill to the cannabis market. But he is a rare example of a politician who actually embraced enacting marijuana policy changes while he was in power before standing to profit from the industry. The congressman cosponsored a variety of bills—including ones to shield states that legalize cannabis from federal interference—and supported several reform amendments.
“I’m looking forward to utilizing my 15+ years of service in government, the legal profession, and my familiarity with cannabis policy to be a strategic resource for RWB as it positions itself as a true market leading house of brands in the permitted U.S. marketplace,” Costello said in a press release.
This breaks with a trend that has increasingly frustrated advocates, where it seems the people most inclined to benefit from legalization are those who stood in the way in Congress. The best-known example of that is former GOP House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who’s faced criticism from activists over his anti-legalization record while in office before joining the board of marijuana company Acreage Holdings.
While Costello left Congress in 2019 prior to the historic House vote on a standalone bill to federally deschedule cannabis, there are plenty of examples of him supporting more modest reform proposals during his congressional tenure.
He was a cosponsor of legislation to protect state marijuana markets from federal intervention, promote cannabis research, support military veterans’ access to medical marijuana, protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses and legalize industrial hemp.
The congressman also voted in favor of floor amendments to shield all state marijuana programs from Justice Department intervention, allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical cannabis and end hemp prohibition.
In that respect, he was a rare GOP lawmaker. While the issue is increasingly bipartisan among the public, that hasn’t been reflected in Congress. And now Costello is in a position to leverage his legislative experience to advance a marijuana business’s interests.
It’s an exception to the trend.
For example, Tom Price, the former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) head under President Donald Trump, is serving as a member of the board of directors for a medical marijuana business in Georgia after he refused to take action to reclassify cannabis under federal law when he had the power to do so. Price consistently voted against marijuana reform measures while serving in Congress.
Former Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), who also has a long track record of opposing marijuana legalization efforts, joined a Canadian cannabis company’s board in 2019.
Earlier this month, a New York-based lobbying firm that’s headed by a former Republican U.S. senator announced that it is launching a practice focused on serving cannabis businesses. That former senator, Alfonse D’Amato, racked up a record of supporting the war on drugs while in office.
There is at least one other former GOP congressman who entered the cannabis space with a legislative record supporting marijuana reform. Former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who championed cannabis reform while in Congress, became an advisory board member for a marijuana company after being voted out of office in 2018.
Separately, President Joe Biden’s pick to head up federal drug policy worked for a major marijuana business last year, according to his financial disclosure reports.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.