Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unveiled a plan for federal marijuana reform on Sunday, calling for legalization as well as a series of policies aimed at righting the wrongs of the drug war and promoting involvement in the legal industry by communities harmed by prohibition.
In the “Just and Equitable Cannabis Industry” plan, which Warren’s campaign shared with Marijuana Moment ahead of a town hall event in Colorado, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate slams the “racist ‘War on Drugs’ policy” perpetuated during the Nixon administration and the mass incarceration that has followed.
She also introduces noteworthy ideas, such as using her executive authority to begin the federal legalization process within 100 days of taking office, respecting the sovereignty of other nations to legalize marijuana, protecting immigrants who participate in the legal industry, empowering veterans to access medical cannabis and ensuring that corporations aren’t able to monopolize the market.
Further, the Warren plan promotes unionization in the marijuana industry, protecting Indian tribes’ authority to enact their own reform programs and lifting a current ban so that Washington, D.C. can use its local monies to implement legal marijuana sales
“Even as the federal government has held fast to its outdated marijuana policy, states have led the charge in adopting thoughtful, evidenced-based marijuana policy,” the six-page document says. “And what have we learned in the eight years since the first states legalized marijuana? Legalization works.”
The senator details the progress of the legalization movement and the economic potential of the industry, and she argues that access to cannabis has been shown to play a role in mitigating the opioid epidemic. All that said, she notes that marijuana arrests have continued to increase nationally—and they continue to be carried out on racially disproportionate basis—and so comprehensive reform at the federal level is a goal she is pledging to pursue starting day one if elected president.
“It’s not justice when we lock up kids caught with an ounce of pot, while hedge fund managers make millions off of the legal sale of marijuana. My administration will put an end to that broken system.”
“Legalizing marijuana is about more than just allowing recreational use, or the potential medicinal benefit, or the money that can be made from this new market,” the Warren plan says. “It’s about undoing a century of racist policy that disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx communities. It’s about rebuilding the communities that have suffered the most harm. And it’s about ensuring that everyone has access to the opportunities that the new cannabis market provides.”
I've got a plan to legalize marijuana, rebuild communities devastated by failed anti-marijuana policies, and ensure that those communities are equally able to participate in the budding cannabis industry. Here’s how we’ll do it. https://t.co/11E2gfCHel
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) February 23, 2020
The plan for marijuana reform.
Warren’s proposal is two-pronged. The first objective is to “address the disproportionate enforcement of our drug laws.” Here’s how she plans to accomplish that:
1. Urge Congress to pass comprehensive marijuana legalization bill such as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House Judiciary Committee last year. “We need full legalization, as quickly as possible,” the plan states.
2. Should Congress not follow suit, Warren says she will use her executive powers to begin the process of descheduling marijuana within her first 100 days in office. The senator is promising to appoint heads of the Justice Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, Food and Drug Administration and Office of National Drug Control Policy who support legalization and says she will “direct those agencies to begin the process of delisting marijuana via the federal rule-making process.” Additionally, Warren is pledging to reinstate Obama-era guidance directing federal prosecutors to generally respect local cannabis laws.
3. Expunge prior cannabis convictions. Again the candidate cites the MORE Act as an ideal vehicle for that policy change, stating that it would also “prohibit the denial of federal benefits, such as housing, because of the use or possession of, or even a past conviction for, marijuana.”
4. Ensure that immigrants are not penalized over marijuana convictions or participation in a state-legal cannabis market. That’s “because any equitable and just cannabis economy must also include immigrant communities,” she says, slamming a Trump administration move declaring that those who use cannabis do not have the “good moral character” needed for citizenship.
5. Encourage the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to research the therapeutic potential of cannabis for service members and allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to veterans. She is also pledging to end a current policy that blocks veterans from getting home loans “for no reason other than being employed in their state’s legal marijuana industry“—an issue she recently filed Senate legislation on.
6. Deschedule cannabis to promote “serious research into the potential benefits and drawbacks of medical marijuana [that’s been] largely blocked by outdated federal laws and policies”and allocate funds for such studies.
7. Lift the appropriations ban that prohibits Washington, D.C. from using its local tax dollars to implement a regulated cannabis market. While there’s been widespread interest in removing the congressional rider at issue, eliminating the policy hasn’t received much attention on the presidential stage until now. Warren says she will “encourage the District to develop a legal market that includes impacted communities and fulfills the racial justice goals of the original referendum” that voters approved in 2014.
8. Warren says she will “streamline and remove unnecessary administrative barriers that impede economic growth on Tribal lands, respect tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses, and promote forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new and emerging economic opportunities, including in the cannabis industry.“
9. Respect the sovereignty of other nations that opt to legalize marijuana. The senator promises she will “support the legalization of marijuana in any nation that wishes to do so and fully support our neighbors exercising their sovereignty when it comes to their internal drug policy.” She further says that U.S. officials need to “recognize the role our War on Drugs has had in destabilizing Latin America – a root cause of migration to the United States.”
We can't allow affluent and mostly white hedge-funders and capital investors to hoard the profits from the same behavior that led to the incarceration of generations Black and Latino youth. We must ensure equity in accessing the cannabis industry. https://t.co/4lsPQByHli pic.twitter.com/FgjLQxeJXp
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) February 23, 2020
Warren’s second broad objective as described in the plan is to “prioritize opportunities in the cannabis industry for communities of color and others who were harmed by the failed policies of the past.” That will involve:
1. Working to support unions, including those representing cannabis workers, to enhance collective bargaining rights. “As president, I will safeguard the organizing rights of working people and make it easier for unions to secure contracts and assert their rights in the cannabis industry,” Warren says. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), another 2020 candidate, also raised this issue last month, imploring employees at a major marijuana business in Illinois to vote in favor of unionization.
2. Freeing up banks and financial institutions to service cannabis businesses. Additionally, Warren says she will direct her administration “to investigate discrimination in cannabis-related capital lending that prevents many aspiring entrepreneurs of color from securing needed loans.”
3. Promoting participation in the legal industry by minorities and women—something that Warren says the MORE Act would accomplish. She also says she would “mitigate the high permitting and licensing fees that prevent many aspiring entrepreneurs of color from starting a cannabis business.”
4. Preventing large corporations from overtaking the marijuana industry and working to “protect consumers by closely regulating the safety and marketing of marijuana products.” Like Sanders, Warren points specifically at tobacco companies as examples of businesses that shouldn’t be able to enter the market. “We’ll make sure Big Tobacco can’t muscle in on the fledgling marijuana industry,” she says, adding that her administration will “use anti-trust laws and federal oversight to prevent consolidation in the cannabis industry that drives up prices, restricts new businesses from entering the markets, and lowers quality.”
5. Allowing individuals with prior drug convictions to participate in the marijuana and hemp industries. “I will remove collateral sanctions associated with federal convictions for activity that is no longer criminalized and encourage states to do the same,” the senator says.
“For four decades, we’ve subscribed to a ‘War on Drugs’ theory of crime, which has criminalized addiction, ripped apart families—and failed to curb drug use,” the plan states. “Legalizing marijuana and erasing past convictions won’t fully end the War on Drugs or address its painful legacy, but it’s a needed step in the right direction.”
My friends and colleagues @KamalaHarris and @CoryBooker have led the fight to repair the damage done by failed anti-marijuana policies. I am proud to support the MORE Act and the Marijuana Justice Act, and will continue to fight for those reforms as president.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) February 23, 2020
“As we move to harness the economic potential of a legalized cannabis industry, we must ensure that the communities that were harmed by the War on Drugs—disproportionately communities of color—are fully included in the opportunity and prosperity that legalization will create. I support investing federal and state revenue from the cannabis industry into communities that have been disproportionately impacted by enforcement of our existing marijuana laws.
“Legalizing marijuana gives us an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by our current criminal justice system, to invest in the communities that have suffered the most harm, and to ensure that everyone can participate in the growing cannabis industry. We have an opportunity now to get this right, and I’ll fight to make that happen.”
Warren also calls out former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in her proposal, stating that the country “cannot allow affluent and predominantly white hedge-funders and capital investors to hoard the profits from the same behavior that led to the incarceration of generations of Black and Latino youth.”
“Boehner, who declared that he was ‘unalterably opposed’ to legalization while in Congress, now profits handsomely as a lobbyist for legalization even as others continue to live with the consequences of a prohibition he defended,” she points out, referencing the former speaker’s role as a board member at the cannabis firm Acreage Holdings.
Legalizing marijuana is about more than just allowing its use. It’s about undoing a century of racist policy that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities and rebuilding the communities that have suffered the most harm. https://t.co/11E2gfl5PL
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) February 23, 2020
While Warren’s plan repeatedly cites the need to broadly address the harms of the broader drug war, her proposals are exclusively focused on cannabis policy changes. While she and Sanders have been strong champions of marijuana reform, drug policy advocates have emphasized the need to expand reform to other illicit substances, as former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have by proposing decriminalization and legalization of all illegal drugs, respectively.
In terms of her marijuana reform agenda, however, experts who spoke to Marijuana Moment recently have indicated that Warren’s 100-day plan would probably be legally and practically more realistic that Sanders’s most recent proposal to use an executive order to legalize marijuana in all 50 states on day one of his presidency.
While Sanders initially proposed something similar to Warren—appointing key officials within his administration who would pursue legalization during his first 100 days in office—he shifted gears last month and pledged to deschedule cannabis on his first day in the White House.
Last year, Warren laid out a criminal justice reform plan that called for marijuana reform, as well as the legalization of safe injection sites where individuals could use illicit substances under medical supervision—a move also backed by Sanders.
Warren and Sanders might have differing approaches to marijuana legalization, but what’s clear is they stand in stark contrast to former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden, both of whom are the only contenders in the Democratic race who remain opposed to ending cannabis prohibition.
Read Warren’s full marijuana plan below:
Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Marijuana Businesses Could Get Federal Disaster Relief Funds Under New Congressional Bill
Marijuana businesses impacted by recent natural disasters or that have experienced financial distress due to the coronavirus pandemic would be eligible for federal relief programs under new legislation introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday.
Because cannabis remains federally prohibited, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has explicitly denied the industry—and businesses that work indirectly with it—access to its relief programs like other markets. That means, for example, marijuana farmers in states like California and Oregon that have seen their crops destroyed by wildfires are fully dependent on state and local assistance.
The new Small Business Disaster Relief Equity Act would resolve that problem, stipulating that disaster- or COVID-related services, grants, loans and tax benefits that are made available through federal agencies or congressional legislation cannot be denied to cannabis businesses solely because of the nature of their work, as long as it is in compliance with state law.
What’s more, the bill states that the the heads of federal agencies that administer disaster relief such as SBA “shall, to the greatest extent practicable, allow State-legal cannabis businesses to retroactively apply for such disaster assistance.”
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) filed the companion bills.
“Cannabis businesses in Oregon hurt by the blazing wildfires or any other disaster shouldn’t be shut out from federal relief simply because the federal government is stuck in yesteryear,” Wyden said in a press release. “These legal small businesses employ thousands of workers and support our struggling economy. If they need federal support, they should get it. Full stop.”
SBA recently confirmed to Marijuana Moment that while it opened a disaster relief loan program for Oregon businesses damaged or destroyed by the wildfires, the cannabis industry isn’t eligible. People working in the state-legal market whose primary residences were impacted could still apply, however, but not if they conduct their business from home.
Blumenauer, cochair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said that many marijuana companies in his state “have faced catastrophic disruptions because of wildfires.”
“There’s no reason why these legitimate businesses shouldn’t have access to the federal support meant to help businesses survive unprecedented disasters,” he said. “Our legislation will help ensure these businesses and their workers are not left behind.”
According to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, 20 percent of marijuana businesses in the state were encouraged to evacuate due to the fires. Regulators are also asking cannabis business owners to fill out a survey so they can get a better sense of how extensive the damage is.
As of this week, seven cannabis business have been destroyed by the fires and at least a dozen have been damaged, Oregon Live reported.
“Whether you’re for or against state-legal cannabis, we can all agree that families in all of our communities are struggling to keep the lights on and stay afloat during this turbulent time—and that they need and deserve support,” Merkley said. “That includes thousands of small business owners, workers and their families who rely on state-legal cannabis businesses for their livelihoods.”
“We have to make sure those families won’t be shut out from critical assistance that can make a real difference,” he said.
The timing of the natural disasters in Oregon isn’t ideal, either, as consumer demand for marijuana products has been up amid the pandemic. In July, the state broke its record for cannabis sales, with about $106 million in medical and recreational cannabis purchases. Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis said in a report on Wednesday that “since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.”
Blumenauer in April led a letter with 34 bipartisan members of Congress calling on House leadership to include language in COVID-19 stimulus legislation to allow marijuana businesses to access federal disaster relief. He followed up by filing standalone legislation—the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act—that would address the problem specifically when it comes to coronavirus relief.
Wyden similarly led a letter with nine other senators in April, asking the chamber’s leadership to extend federal assistance to the cannabis market. Civil rights groups and industry stakeholders have also made these calls to action in recent months.
“It’s ridiculous that legal businesses here in Oregon are being denied critical wildfire aid because of outdated policies handed down from Washington, D.C.” DeFazio said. “Cannabis businesses employ thousands across Oregon and are a vital economic engine for our state. This important legislation will ensure that these businesses are eligible for the same aid as every other business impacted by the 2020 wildfires.”
Read text of the marijuana disaster relief bill below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Congressional Research Service Analyzes Marijuana Expungements And Cannabis Immigration Issues
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) released new two reports on marijuana policy—one dealing with the immigration implications of federal prohibition and the other looking at expungements provisions in pending legislation to deschedule cannabis.
For the immigration-focused report published last week, CRS outlined how being convicted of a marijuana crime, admitting to using cannabis (even in a legal state) or working in the marijuana industry can carry four “key consequences” for non-citizens. They can be deemed inadmissible to the U.S., deported, lose immigration relief benefits and be denied naturalization.
The threat of inadmissibility for state-legal cannabis activity even extends to people who simply invest in the market, CRS said. The report makes a point of reiterating several times that just because something is legal under state law doesn’t mean there are carve outs in federal immigration statutes.
There are also immigration relief benefits that individuals could lose out on because of marijuana-related activities. They include the “waiver of certain criminal inadmissibility grounds, cancelation of removal, voluntary departure, withholding of removal, protection under the Convention Against Torture, asylum, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA),” the report states.
With respect to naturalization restrictions, CRS points out that the Trump administration in 2019 issued a memo clarifying that having a cannabis conviction or admitting to working in the marijuana industry “can bar an individual from establishing [good moral character], even if the marijuana-related activity did not violate applicable state or foreign laws.”
CRS also recognized in the new report that legislation to federally deschedule marijuana—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—would help resolve the immigration dilemma, as the bill “would prohibit the denial of any immigration benefit or protection to aliens who have participated in any marijuana-related activity.”
The MORE Act was initially expected to be scheduled for a House of Representatives floor vote this week, but following pushback from certain Democratic lawmakers who felt it would look bad to advance the bill before approving additional COVID-19 relief, it was postponed. Now it’s expected to receive a vote later in fall, likely after the election.
In a separate report also released last week, CRS looked specifically at the MORE Act’s expungement provisions.
The bill would mandate that federal district courts expunge the records of individuals with federal marijuana convictions within one year of the bill’s enactment. It would also allow individuals with cannabis-related convictions to petition courts to have their records cleared prior to the one-year review period.
The Capitol Hill research office noted that federal marijuana convictions represent just a small fraction of the country’s total cannabis convictions, with most being carried out at the state, county and local levels. Relatively few federal cases are for possession alone; most are for trafficking-related charges. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, cannabis trafficking convictions are on the decline, with fewer than 2,000 cases occurring last year.
“The expungement provision in the MORE Act could raise several issues for policymakers,” CRS said. “The legislation would only address expungement of criminal records related to federal marijuana offenses; it would not provide relief from convictions for marijuana offenses in state courts.”
But CRS also floated potential solutions such as providing “an incentive for states to adopt uniform laws regarding the expungement of convictions for state level marijuana offenses.”
“For example, Congress may place conditions on federal criminal justice funding, such as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, or provide funds to states to help them implement expungement programs. Congress may consider providing guidelines to states on how to structure their expungement programs,” the report states.
CRS also noted that while the courts could be compelled to expunge records, the bill doesn’t address the fact that certain private companies harvest data on arrests and convictions when they’re publicly available.
“Policymakers might consider whether federal courts should be required to send lists of criminal records that would be expunged under the MORE Act to private background check companies in their respective districts to notify them of the expungement,” the report said.
CRS has dedicated significant time to exploring cannabis policy issues lately. Earlier this month, for example, it released a separate report that identified multiple problems caused by conflicting federal and state marijuana laws.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Oregon Marijuana Sales Spike Could Continue As Consumers ‘Permanently Adjust Their Behavior’ Following COVID
Record-setting Oregon marijuana sales continue to be a bright spot in the state’s coronavirus-slowed economy, state analysts reported this week, but a convergence of unknowns—including the end of federal coronavirus relief and a possible rise in cannabis prices due to devastating wildfires—could still mean a rocky road ahead for consumers.
“Marijuana sales continue to be strong,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis wrote in a quarterly revenue forecast published on Wednesday. “Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.”
The increase tracks with other more established cannabis markets, such as those in Colorado, Washington and Nevada, which have also seen “strong gains” since the pandemic, the office said. “There are a number of likely reasons for these higher level of sales and expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”
Analysts also expressed a rosier outlook on the future of the state’s marijuana market than they did in last quarter’s report, which acknowledged a spike in sales since the pandemic began but concluded that business was eventually “expected to mellow” as incomes fell and bars reopened. Officials now forecast Oregon will see “somewhat more” in sales than previously projected.
The state has recently seen a string of record-setting months for cannabis sales. Over the summer, monthly cannabis sales had averaged more than $100 million, according to an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) report.
The projected uptick in sales will mean an extra $30 million in marijuana tax revenue for the state during its two-year budget period ending in 2021. Total adult-use cannabis taxes for that period are now forecast to end up at more than $276 million.
“Factors leading to increases in sales include higher incomes due to federal support, increased stressors in everyday life, reductions in other forms of entertainment or recreational opportunities, and simply more time on one’s hand be it due to a COVID-related layoff, or increased working from home,” the report said.
“A key question is now that the federal aid is gone and other entertainment options return in the months ahead, will some of this increase in sales in recent months subside?” the Office of Economic Analysis wrote in the new report. “In a recent meeting of our office’s marijuana forecast advisory group, the broad consensus was that yes, some of these sales will come off, but not entirely so. And the longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely customers will permanently adjust their behavior as they become accustomed to their new routines and buying patterns.”
For now, the bulk of the increases appear to be driven by existing consumers. While “indications are that the customer base is broadening some as the market grows due to more users trying an increasingly socially acceptable product and ongoing converts from the black market to the legal market,” the report said, the increase “is more likely to be due to larger or more frequent sales to existing consumers than due to more consumers alone.”
“One item to watch moving forward are prices,” analysts wrote. “In recent years the supply of marijuana has greatly outstripped the demand, leading to lower prices. This is great news for consumers. Given that marijuana is a normal good, lower prices have led to larger quantities sold. But now that demand has increased, while supply has held steady, and with the potential impact of the wildfires right as growers are prepping for harvest, this balance in the market may shift… As such, it may be that prices rise, or at least not decline like they have in recent years.”
As far as tax revenue goes, any price increase would likely lead to more money for the state, “as the decline in quantity sold is not large enough to outweigh the price impact,” the report said.
How cannabis revenue is spent would also be affected by a drug decriminalization ballot proposition, Measure 110, that voters will decide in November. While the initiative isn’t expected to change the amount of taxes collected, it would redirect marijuana tax funds to expand drug treatment programs. “Whether current programs receiving marijuana tax revenue would ultimately see budgetary impacts,” analysts said, “would remain up to the Legislature should voters approve the measure this fall.”
Measure 110, which broadly seeks to reframe problem drug use in medical rather than criminal terms, is one of two key drug-reform measures on Oregon’s ballot in less than six weeks. The other would legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. That measure would be the first of its kind in the U.S., although Canada has recently granted some patients immunity from that country’s prohibition on psilocybin.