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:
DEA Seeks Contractor Capable Of Burning Four Tons of Marijuana Per Day
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently reached out for help burning “at least” 1,000 pounds of marijuana per hour for eight hours straight.
Every year, DEA seizes millions of marijuana plants and literal tons of raw cannabis, which eventually end up being destroyed. The successful contractor in Arizona would be responsible for burning marijuana and other controlled substances seized as evidence in drug cases “to a point where there are no detectable levels, as measured by standard analytical methods, of byproduct from the destruction process.”
“DEA shall inspect the incinerator to ensure no drug residue remains,” the agency said.
DEA posted the work description earlier this month in what’s called a “sources sought notice,” an initial step before a formal request for proposals is sent.
“This is not a request for proposals and does not obligate the Government to award a contract,” the post says. “The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is conducting market research, and is encouraging all businesses, including small businesses, to respond to this notice.”
An accompanying statement of work gives a behind-the-scenes look at the DEA’s process of destroying seized drugs. Typical boxes weigh between 40 and 60 pounds, for example, but can weigh up to 200 pounds. Contraband might come in on “semi-trucks, tractor trailers, cargo vans, fork lifts, etc.,” the work description says.
“The drugs are usually tightly compressed ‘bricks’ or ‘bales,’” it continues, and are packaged in all sorts of materials: cardboard, wrapping paper, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, packing tape, “duct tape and derivatives,” plastic evidence bags, “grease/oil” and others. Contractors will be expected to burn that stuff, too.
To avoid potential contact highs, there must be ”proper ventilation” and “no smoke buildup” will be allowed. Other mandates include closed-circuit cameras that capture the entire process, which DEA reserves the right to access, as well as background checks and regular drug tests of all personnel.
Armed DEA agents and contractors will be present during scheduled burns.
The work is also very hush-hush, so whoever gets the job shouldn’t expect to regale friends with stories of the latest large-scale federal weed burning sesh.
“The contractor and its personnel shall hold all information obtained under the DEA contract in the strictest confidence,” the work description says. “All information obtained shall be used only for performing this contract and shall not be divulged nor made known in any manner except as necessary to perform this contract.”
The work would start January 1 of next year and the contract would expire in 2026 unless terminated sooner. The deadline to send information for would-be contractors was Friday.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images
Harris Will Give Biden ‘Honest’ Input On Legalizing Marijuana And Other Issues As Part Of ‘Deal’
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris says she has a “deal” with Joe Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, including legalizing marijuana. Separately, she also recently discussed cannabis reform in a private meeting with rapper Killer Mike.
During an interview on 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, the senator was pressed on marijuana and numerous other issues where she and Biden disagree. In response, while she didn’t specifically commit to proactively advocating for comprehensive cannabis reform, she pledged in general that she would always share her views with the would-be president if the pair are elected next week.
“What I will do—and I promise you this and this is what Joe wants me to do, this was part of our deal—I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront,” she said after the interviewer listed cannabis legalization among a handful of issues on which she and Biden depart. “I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”
If elected, would Kamala Harris advocate for Medicare for All, a plan Joe Biden doesn’t support?
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 26, 2020
Asked whether that perspective will be “socialist” and “progressive,” Harris laughed and said “no.”
“It is the perspective of a woman who grew up a black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India, who also, you know, likes hip hop,” she said.
The senator’s taste in music also came up during her own 2020 presidential bid, when she said in an interview that she listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while smoking marijuana during college despite graduating before those artists released their debut albums.
Music culture has played a key role in this election cycle, and one of the strongest voices for criminal justice reform in the industry is Killer Mike, who worked as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The artist said he met with Harris on Friday and the two discussed cannabis business opportunities for communities of color.
Just had a meeting with Sen. Harris.
My points *Dems Need to be heavy on the door Knox’N, HR40 tweek it better and have Biden Sign, Fed Trades Programs for worker class Americans so u can build, Black men exit prison and entrance to marijuana biz as a priority for biz and jobs
— Killer Mike (@KillerMike) October 23, 2020
As she’s done repeatedly since joining Biden’s campaign, Harris also reiterated at a rally in Pontiac, Michigan on Sunday that the administration would pursue marijuana decriminalization and expunging prior cannabis convictions.
She made similar comments during a campaign event in Atlanta last week, stating that the “war on drugs was, by every measure, a failure, and black men were hit the hardest.” That said, while the senator has come to embrace broad cannabis reform, she’s faced criticism over her past opposition to legalization and role in prosecuting people for marijuana offenses as a California prosecutor.
In another interview released last week, Harris said she and Biden “have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”
“When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits,” she said.
There’s been some frustration among cannabis reform advocates that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization but has in recent weeks focused her comments on the more modest reforms of decriminalization and expungement.
Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.
In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”
In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.
GOP Tennessee Senator Calls For Medical Marijuana Legalization In New Campaign Ad
A Tennessee senator touted his support for legalizing medical marijuana in a campaign ad released on Friday.
In the 30-second spot, which has notably high production value for this kind of local race, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R) talks about both the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and the consequences of broader marijuana criminalization.
“As your state senator, I’ve led the fight to legalize medical marijuana so our veterans and sickest Tennesseans can deal with chronic pain,” he said. “But this same life-saving plant has led to mass incarceration, with nonviolent marijuana possession resulting in lengthy prison sentences.”
It’s past time for Tennessee to legalize medical cannabis and give our sickest residents a smart, safe treatment to help with chronic pain. Legalization and securing criminal justice reform have been my top priorities, and I won’t stop fighting until we’ve changed the law. pic.twitter.com/28eFUy3loZ
— Steve Dickerson (@DickersonforS20) October 23, 2020
“I think that’s wrong. That’s why I’ve been pushing for criminal justice reform,” the senator added.
Dickerson, who sponsored a medical cannabis legalization bill that cleared a Senate committee in March, said in a Q&A published earlier this month that the policy change would be among his top three legislative priorities if he’s reelected.
His Democratic opponent, former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell, is in favor of “fully legalizing marijuana,” with her campaign site stating that cannabis crimes “disproportionately impact people of color and it’s time to end marijuana prohibition.”
But while Dickerson has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican given his positions on issues like cannabis reform, he’s faced backlash after declining to denounce an independent ad taken out on his behalf that some, including the LGBTQ rights organization Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), called racist.
The ad, which was paid for by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s (R) political action committee MCPAC, hits Campbell over her support for a nonprofit organization that is designed to keep young people out of prison, and it frames the group as “radical” and “extremist.” TEP rescinded their endorsement of Dickerson over his refusal to condemn the ad.
In the Tennessee legislature, marijuana reform has yet to pass—but there’s growing recognition that voters are in favor of the policy change. For example, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R) released the results of a constituent survey last year that showed 73 percent of those in his district back medical cannabis legalization.
Another former GOP House speaker, Beth Harwell, highlighted her support for the reform proposal during her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, and she referenced President Trump’s stated support for medical marijuana on the campaign trail.
In other Tennessee drug policy politics, a lawmaker in June blocked a resolution to honor murdered teen Ashanti Posey because she was allegedly involved in a low-level cannabis sale the day she was killed.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.