A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that activists seeking to place marijuana decriminalization measures on local ballots across Ohio can collect signatures electronically after they were forced to suspend in-person gathering due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The court also ordered state officials to extend the deadline to submit signatures from July 1 to July 31.
The Sensible Movement Coalition (SMC), which has been behind more than a dozen successful decriminalization initiatives across the state in recent years, had big plans for 2020. They were gearing up to collect signatures in 14 additional municipalities before officials enacted stay-at-home orders and required social distancing measures.
Those restrictions effectively spelled doom for the campaigns, and activists went to court to argue that preventing an alternative signature gathering method was unconstitutional under the circumstances.
Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio sided with the plaintiffs and ruled that electronic signatures for their initiatives—as well as for separate campaigns on a minimum wage increase and election security measures that joined the suit—can be accepted.
“The wet signature and witness requirements require circulators to go into the public and collect signatures in person. But the close, person-to-person contacts required for in person signature gathering have been strongly discouraged—if not prohibited—for several months because of the ongoing public health crisis, and likely pose a danger to the health of the circulators and the signers,” he said in his order.
While the judge stressed that his ruling is not a criticism of the state’s public emergency declarations, “the impact of the Stay-at-Home Orders on Ohioans and the continued risk of close interactions cannot be ignored.”
“The reality is that the Orders and the COVID-19 pandemic have made it impossible for Plaintiffs to satisfy Ohio’s signature requirements,” Sargus said. “Because the burden imposed by the enforcement of the requirements in these circumstances is severe, strict scrutiny is warranted.”
In order to qualify a local initiative for the November ballot, activists must collect signatures equal to or more than 10 percent of the number of residents in the municipality who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election.
Plaintiff Chad Thompson, the executive director of SMC who authored the model decriminalization ordinance, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Wednesday that it’s “very refreshing to see the progress in terms of citizen access to the ballot, where we can now use electronic signatures, which is going to take the citizen’s voice to the next level when it comes to initiative.”
Details about what the digital signature collection process will look like are still to be determined, but the state was ordered to “select its own adjustments so as to reduce the burden on ballot access, narrow the restrictions to align with its interest, and thereby render the application of the ballot-access provisions constitutional under the circumstances” by May 26.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose plans to appeal the court’s ruling, as The Cincinnati Enquirer first reported. A spokesperson said that “the petition requirements set in the Ohio Constitution and decisions on changing them belong to the General Assembly and the people.”
Thompson said he’s not concerned about the prospect of an appeal, contending that “the fact that our First Amendment right to petition was effectively silenced, there’s no question that we are due some sort of relief here. I think that’s unquestionable.”
William Schmitt, a director of SMC and fellow petitioner, told Marijuana Moment that “getting this ruling is very amazing in my eyes and helps me have faith in our democratic process that even during pandemics, we can still find a way to make things fair for everybody and keep our constitutional rights.”
“I’m absolutely stoked that we are finally going to get relief. Because like I said, every year we do collect signatures to make the ballot and it was kind of depressing not being able to utilize my constitutional rights like I have been,” he said.
Schmitt said electronic signature gathering could be as simple as attaching a link to a form for individuals to fill out on a website or possibly creating a PDF document that can be sent around and signed.
Don Keeney, another plaintiff who serves as the executive director of NORML Appalachia, said the “ruling brings brings Ohio and petitioning into the 21st century.”
“We stand with our brothers and sisters at SMC to bring about real marijuana law changes,” he said.
So far, a total of 17 Ohio cities have passed cannabis decriminalization ordinances—most through the ballot but a handful through city councils. That list of jurisdictions with decriminalization on the books includes major cities like Dayton, Toledo, Athens, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.
The cities where the activists are targeting for the 2020 ballot are: Adena, Akron, Baltimore, Cadiz, Chagrin Falls, Glouster, Jacksonville, Maumee, McArthur, New Lexington, Rutland, Syracuse, Trimble and Zanesville.
It’s not clear whether the precedent the judge is setting will have implications for campaigns in the state that weren’t involved in the suit. But if electronic signature gathering is ultimately permitted for any initiative, that could be a major boost for activists behind a proposed statewide ballot measure to legalize cannabis for adult use that has seen its prospects dimmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several campaigns across the U.S. that have also felt the sting of the coronavirus outbreak have similarly asked officials and courts to permit them to collect signatures electronically.
A Montana cannabis legalization campaign that sued the state to allow digital signature collection had their case dismissed, but organizers are pushing ahead with in-person collection and new safety protocols.
In Arizona, activists behind a legalization effort unsuccessfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office.
Read the federal judge’s order in the Ohio case below:
Activists Push D.C. Lawmakers To Decriminalize Drugs And Promote Harm Reduction With New Campaign
Activists in Washington, D.C. on Thursday launched a new campaign to urge local lawmakers to broadly decriminalize drugs, with a focus on expanding treatment resources and harm reduction services.
DecrimPovertyDC—a coalition of advocacy groups like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy—will be imploring the District Council to take up the cause, and members have already met with the offices of each legislator and have gotten a generally positive reception.
Today, @DrugPolicyOrg, @HIPS, @Defund_MPD & over 40 civil rights, justice reform, public health, & faith groups join forces to launch the #DecrimPovertyDC campaign. We are urging for @councilofdc to treat drug use like a public health issue. Learn more: https://t.co/KFXc7su9Pu pic.twitter.com/TwWACpAsUU
— #DecrimPovertyDC (@decrimpovertydc) October 21, 2021
“Through ongoing advocacy, we aim to replace carceral systems with harm reduction-oriented systems of care that promote the dignity, autonomy, and health of people who use drugs, sex workers, and other criminalized populations,” the campaign site says.
People of color are disproportionately impacted by drug criminalization, and the group said the impact “extends far beyond the criminal legal system, as people face an array of punishments in employment, housing, education, immigration, child welfare, and public benefits—all of which can trap people in poverty.”
An outline of the legislative proposal starts with drug decriminalization. People who possess small amounts of controlled substances would face no criminal or civil penalties. An independent commission would decide what the possession limit should be, and those who possess more than that amount would face a $50 fine, which could be waived if the person completes a health assessment.
Further, the mayor would be required to establish a harm reduction center where people could receive treatment resources and access sterile needles. The legislation allows for the creation of a safe consumption site within the center where people could use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
That could prove challenging, however, as the U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing safe injection sites where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. An attempt to create such a facility in Philadelphia was blocked under the Trump administration and is now pending further action in a lower federal court.
The D.C. initiative, which is also being supported by AIDS United, Defund MPD, Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS) and dozens of other groups, would also make it so the health department would need to provide a drug testing service so people could screen products for contaminants or other hazardous compounds.
In 2020, 511 people fatally overdosed in the District; over 94,000 people died from accidental overdose nationally. We are in a state of emergency directly caused by criminalization and other inhumane drug policies. #DecrimPovertyDC pic.twitter.com/9stWKb1nYG
— #DecrimPovertyDC (@decrimpovertydc) October 21, 2021
Another provision activists are pushing for would work to repair the harms of criminalization, in part by requiring the courts to “identify and vacate convictions for offenses decriminalized by this bill.” They would also need to find and vacate cases related to drug paraphernalia, which was decriminalized last year under separate legislation.
Queen Adesuyi, policy manager of national affairs at DPA, told Marijuana Moment that the campaign’s branding and scope is “intentionally broad to address poverty more generally, because in D.C. the drug war does disproportionately impact under-resourced communities in addition to black communities.”
“We wanted to build out our campaign to paint the full picture of the drug war’s harms locally in the District,” she said, adding that the coalition will be poised to “support other efforts that are also working to minimize state-based harm against vulnerable communities in D.C.”
At this point, the drug decriminalization measure has not been introduced in the D.C. Council, but activists are encouraged by early conversations with local lawmakers. The intent is to build on drug policy progress such as paraphernalia decriminalization, which was championed by key players like the chairman of the Council’s Judiciary Committee.
The push in the nation’s capital follows advocates’ success in advancing decriminalization in other parts of the country.
Oregon voters approved a historic initiative to decriminalize drug possession last year, and multiple jurisdictions across the U.S. are now exploring similar policy changes.
Last month, Massachusetts lawmakers heard testimony on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program for safe injection facilities. A safe consumption site bill advanced through a legislative committee in the state in May.
The Maine Senate this summer defeated a bill that would have decriminalized possession of all currently illicit drugs.
Rhode Island’s governor signed a bill in July to create a pilot program legalizing safe consumption sites.
Congressionally, a first-of-its-kind bill to decriminalize drug possession at the federal level was introduced this session.
There’s a sense of urgency to get this reform in D.C. enacted, as the coronavirus pandemic has seemed to contribute to record-high drug overdose deaths in the country. Adesuyi said “the last year really has made it so we just can’t wait any more.”
Meanwhile, advocates have renewed hope that D.C. could soon move to legalize the sale of adult-use marijuana.
The District has been prevented from doing so despite legalizing cannabis in 2014 because it’s been bound by a congressional spending bill rider prohibiting the use of local tax dollars for that purpose. But with majorities in both chambers this session, Democratic appropriators have excluded that prohibitive language in the most recent spending measures—so D.C. would be empowered to finally enact a regulated market.
The mayor of D.C. said in April that local officials are prepared to move forward with implementing a legal system of recreational marijuana sales in the nation’s capital just as soon as they can get over the final “hurdle” of congressional interference.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) introduced a cannabis commerce bill in February—and members of the District Council are considering that, as well as a separate proposal put forward by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
A hearing on the latter bill is scheduled for next month the Committee of the Whole, the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety & the Committee on Business & Economic Development.
Fourth Massachusetts City Approves Psychedelics Reform As Movement Grows
A fourth Massachusetts city has enacted a psychedelics policy change, with members of the Easthampton City Council voting on Wednesday in favor of a resolution urging the decriminalization of certain entheogenic substances and other drugs.
The measure, introduced by Council Member At-Large Owen Zaret (D), passed in a 7-0 vote, with two abstentions, on Wednesday night.
“I’m grateful to the Council for being so forward thinking about a cutting edge topic,” Zaret told Marijuana Moment after the vote. “There were some hard concepts to undo for some of us. This is a step forward to helping people have access to effective therapies and also halting unnecessary arrests and incarceration.”
While the resolution is non-binding and doesn’t require police to deprioritize enforcement of laws prohibiting psychedelics—as has been the case in other cities across the U.S.—it represents an important first step and sends a clear message to local law enforcement that members are ready to depart from the status quo of criminalization.
It’s not just about psychedelics, either. The legislation says the Council “maintains that the use and possession of all controlled substances should be understood first and primarily as an issue of public health by city departments, agencies, boards, commissions, and all employees of the city.”
Lawmakers also recommended that “it should be policy of the City of Easthampton that the arrest of persons for using or possessing controlled substances for personal adult therapeutic, excepting Lophophora and animal-derived controlled substances, shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Easthampton.”
Zaret told Marijuana Moment in a recent phone interview that substance misuse is a “public health issue, it’s not a criminal issue.”
“We need to start a really aggressive campaign to, A) highlight the fact that this is a public health issue and, B) be more be more aggressive about how we’re treating that,” he said. “There are multiple angles to do that,” and psychedelics represent one possible solution.
This action comes months after the neighboring Northampton City Council passed a resolution stipulating that no government or police funds should be used to enforce laws criminalizing people for using or possessing entheogenic plants and fungi. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, Somerville and Cambridge have also moved to effectively decriminalize psychedelics.
The local measures express support for two bills introduced in the state legislature this year. One would remove criminal penalties for possession of all currently illicit drugs and the other would establish a task force to study entheogenic substances with the eventual goal of legalizing and regulating the them.
“This is a victory for the health and safety of our communities,” the advocacy group Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, which has been working with local lawmakers in Massachusetts to pass the resolutions, said in an Instagram post after the most recent vote. “These medicines will revolutionize the field of mental health, and this is a step toward a community model that puts people over profit. This signals to our state lawmakers we will not tolerate an over-regulated purely clinical model that makes these medicines unaffordable for working class people.”
While Massachusetts is proving to be a focal point of psychedelics reform, it’s far from the only place where activists are gaining ground.
For example, Seattle’s City Council approved a resolution earlier this month to decriminalize noncommercial activity around a wide range of psychedelic substances, including the cultivation and sharing of psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, ibogaine and non-peyote-derived mescaline.
In Michigan, the Grand Rapids City Council approved a resolution last month calling for decriminalization of a wide range of psychedelics.
Elsewhere in Michigan, the Ann Arbor City Council has already elected to make enforcement of laws prohibition psychedelics like psilocybin, ayahuasca and DMT among the city’s lowest priorities—and lawmakers recently followed up by declaring September Entheogenic Plants and Fungi Awareness Month.
After Ann Arbor legislators passed that decriminalization resolution last year, the Washtenaw County prosecutor announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi, “regardless of the amount at issue.”
A local proposal to decriminalize various psychedelics will also appear on Detroit’s November ballot.
At the same time that local activists are pursuing decriminalization, a pair of Michigan senators introduced a bill last month to legalize the possession, cultivation and delivery of an array of plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics like psilocybin and mescaline.
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.
A bill to legalize psychedelics in California advanced through the Senate and two Assembly committees this year before being pulled by the sponsor to buy more time to generate support among lawmakers. The plan is to take up the reform during next year’s second half of the legislative session, and the senator behind the measure says he’s confident it will pass.
California activists were separately cleared to begin collecting signatures for a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state. Oakland and Santa Cruz have already enacted psychedelics decriminalization.
The top Democrat in the Florida Senate filed a bill last month that would require the state to research the medical benefits of psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA.
Earlier this year, Texas enacted a law directing state officials to study psychedelics’ medical value.
The governor of Connecticut signed a bill in June that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
Oregon voters passed a pair of initiatives last November to legalize psilocybin therapy and decriminalize possession of all drugs. On the local level, activists in Portland are mounting a push to have local lawmakers pass a resolution decriminalizing the cultivation, gifting and ceremonial use of a wide range of psychedelics.
Washington, D.C. voters also approved a ballot measure last year to deprioritize enforcement of laws criminalizing psychedelics.
A New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to similarly research the medical value of psychedelics.
In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution in December 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. Activists in the city are also hoping to expand upon the local decriminalization ordinance by creating a community-based model through which people could legally purchase entheogenic substances from local producers.
Meanwhile, Denver activists who successfully led the 2019 campaign to make the city the first in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin possession have set their eyes on broader reform, with plans in the works to end the criminalization of noncommercial gifting and communal use of the psychedelic.
In a setback for advocates, the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted against a proposal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that would have removed a spending bill rider that advocates say has restricted federal funds for research into Schedule I drugs, including psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA and ibogaine. However, it picked up considerably more votes this round than when the congresswoman first introduced it in 2019.
Report provisions of separate, House-passed spending legislation also touch on the need to expand cannabis and psychedelics research. The panel urged NIDA to support expanded marijuana studies, for example. It further says that federal health agencies should pursue research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for military veterans suffering from a host of mental health conditions.
There was an attempt by a Republican congressman to attach language into a defense spending bill that would promote research into psychedelics therapy for active duty military members, but it was not made in order in the House Rules Committee last month.
NIDA also recently announced it’s funding a study into whether psilocybin can help people quit smoking cigarettes.
An official with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also said at a recent congressional hearing that the agency is “very closely” following research into the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics like MDMA for military veterans.
For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a longstanding champion of marijuana reform in Congress, said this month that he intends to help bring the psychedelics reform movement to Capitol Hill “this year.”
In May, lawmakers in Congress filed the first-ever legislation to federally decriminalize possession of illicit substances.
Photo courtesy of Dick Culbert.
USPS Releases Final Rule Banning Mailing Of Hemp, CBD And Marijuana Vapes
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) on Wednesday released its final rule on the mailability of vapes, asserting that even devices designed for federally legal hemp derivatives like CBD generally cannot be shipped through the U.S. mail.
The agency has been developing the regulations to comply with a bill passed by Congress last year that is mostly aimed at stopping nicotine vaping devices from being mailed—though it has broader implications. Despite significant public comment on an earlier proposed version of the rules that urged USPS not to interpret the law in a way that restricts hemp businesses, the agency ultimately said that cannabis vapes fit the definition of what lawmakers moved to ban.
There are some exceptions, but stakeholders are disappointed by the final rule.
During public comment, some argued that the bill was specifically meant to restrict mailing of nicotine-based vapes. But while the legislation refers to limitations on “electronic nicotine delivery systems,” or ENDS, it defines that term as “any electronic device that, through an aerosolized solution, delivers nicotine, flavor, or any other substance to the user inhaling from the device.” (Italicized emphasis added.)
USPS explained in the rule, which is set to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, that by the letter of the law, that includes hemp and marijuana vapes.
“It goes without saying that marijuana, hemp, and their derivatives are substances,” the agency said. “Hence, to the extent that they may be delivered to an inhaling user through an aerosolized solution, they and the related delivery systems, parts, components, liquids, and accessories clearly fall within the [Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act’s] scope.”
Other commenters argued that USPS shouldn’t impose the restriction on cannabis products because the ban could conflict with state or local marijuana laws—or because Congress has approved spending legislation that prohibits the use of Justice Department funds for interfering in state-legal medical cannabis programs.
USPS said those arguments are not valid because, 1) it’s part of the federal government and is, therefore, unaffected by state or local marijuana policies and 2) it’s not part of the Justice Department, which is the only branch of the government restricted by the state protection rider in appropriations legislation.
The agency further clarified that hemp containing up to 0.3 percent THC is federally legal and is generally mailable, but only “to the extent that they are not incorporated into an ENDS product or function as a component of one.” As such, while business can generally mail out legal hemp-derived products, that’s only the case if they are not vaping products covered under the new law.
“The POSECCA and the Agriculture Improvement Act overlap, but they do not conflict. The Agriculture Improvement Act merely excludes certain products from the CSA. It does not affirmatively declare hemp and hemp derivatives to be mailable in any and all circumstances, superseding all other relevant laws (such as the POSECCA). For its part, the POSECCA restricts the mailability of only certain hemp-based and related products; hemp-based non-ENDS products are unaffected, as are ENDS products falling within one of the PACT Act’s exceptions. That Congress has rendered some subset of a class of goods to be nonmailable while leaving the remainder mailable is not some sort of legal conflict, but, rather, how mailability regulation typically works.”
There are limited exceptions to the new mailing rule. Vapes can be shipped within the states of Alaska and Hawaii; verified businesses can mail vapes between each other or to government agencies; companies can send products for consumer testing or public health purposes; and individuals can ship up to 10 ENDS for non-commercial use per 30-day period. Beyond that, it is generally prohibited for a company to send a vaping device to a consumer via U.S. mail.
Some commenters argued that CBD products could fall under the health exemption to the general ban, but USPS said that would not apply unless and until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves any such products.
“The FDA likewise has not approved any ENDS product for therapeutic delivery of any non-nicotine substance, including, in particular, CBD or other substances derived from marijuana. Once again, except for hemp-derived CBD containing no more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight, cannabis and cannabis derivatives remain nonmailable under the Controlled Substances Act regardless of the POSECCA and notwithstanding any State or local laws on ‘medical’ marijuana… Far from taking marketing claims of therapeutic benefit at face value, the FDA has undertaken enforcement action against companies making such claims about CBD and other cannabis-related products absent new drug approvals from the FDA.”
Vaping advocates say the final USPS rules confirm concerns they have long voiced as Congress considered enacting the ban.
“USPS never asked Congress to hand them a new unfunded mandate. The reality is Congress set the overly expansive language and USPS was and is statutorily obliged to apply the law as they wrote it,” Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Since we anticipate it will take the USPS months or years to move businesses through the application process to allow B2B sales, further supply chain issues among independents will likely follow.”
“Of course, there remains an open question around how vigorously the law will be enforced, particularly around products that lack state or federal excise taxes,” he said. “Punishments for violating the law can be swift and severe, so retailers should think carefully about trading a short-term buck for potential legal troubles before a federal judge.”
By preventing vape manufacturers and retailers from utilizing USPS to ship their goods, the regulations will effectively force them to use more expensive private courier services—a cost that will likely be passed on to consumers.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Kevin Payravi.