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Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Will Get A Congressional Vote Next Week, Leader Announces

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A bill to federally legalize marijuana will receive a full floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives next week, a top Democratic leader in the chamber announced on Friday.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said the chamber will take up the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act some time between Wednesday and Friday. The floor schedule announcement comes weeks after the leader first confirmed that the House would advance the proposal before the year’s end.

Early in the week, the bill is first expected to go before the House Rules Committee, which prepares legislation for floor action and decides which amendments can be made in order for consideration by the full body.

Hoyer previously said that the chamber would vote on the legislation in September, but that plan was postponed following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing cannabis reform before passing another coronavirus relief package. Several moderates ended up losing their reelection races this month on the same dat that voters in several red states approved legalization measures, however, raising questions about their strategic thinking on the politics of marijuana.

“I’ve been working on this issue longer than any politician in America and can confidently say that the MORE Act is the most comprehensive federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said in a press release. “Our vote to pass it next week will come after people in five very different states reaffirmed the strong bipartisan support to reform the failed cannabis prohibition. National support for federal cannabis legalization is at an all-time high and almost 99 percent of Americans will soon live in states with some form of legal cannabis.”

“Congress must capitalize on this momentum and do our part to end the failed policy of prohibition that has resulted in a long and shameful period of selective enforcement against communities of color,” he said.

The House approving the bill during the presidential transition could also raise the pressure on President-elect Joe Biden to embrace legalization—a policy he’s declined to adopt despite supermajority support among Democratic voters.

As currently written, the MORE Act, whose lead sponsor is Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.

The legislation would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

All of those provisions are subject to change through amendments over the coming week.

“This floor vote represents the first congressional roll call ever on the question of ending federal marijuana criminalization,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “By advancing the MORE Act, the House of Representatives sends an unmistakable signal that America is ready to close the book marijuana prohibition and end the senseless oppression and fear that this failed policy wreaks on otherwise law-abiding citizens.”

“Americans are ready to responsibly legalize and regulate marijuana, and this vote shows some lawmakers are finally listening,” he said.

The bill cleared Nadler’s more than a year ago and has been awaiting floor action since.

Even if the far-reaching reform does pass in the Democratic-controlled chamber, as it’s expected to with some bipartisan support, it remains unlikely that the Senate will follow suit, at least during this Congress. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.

Even so, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming Biden administration. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, but she’s indicated she will not necessarily proactively push the former vice president to evolve further on cannabis reform.

Given Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

Marijuana Legalization Opponents Ask Courts To Overturn Voters’ Will In Several States

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.

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Marijuana Use Won’t Automatically Block People From Federal Jobs, Biden Administration Memo Says

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Admitting to past marijuana use should not automatically disqualify people from being employed in the federal government, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said in a memo distributed to agencies on Thursday. Separately, the Biden administration is instituting a new policy of granting waivers to some White House staff who’ve used cannabis.

While the extent and recency of an applicant’s use can still be factors in making employment decisions, OPM said that simply admitting to prior cannabis consumption doesn’t necessarily mean a person lacks the “suitability or fitness for a position,” as long as they commit to not use marijuana while employed.

“It would be inconsistent with suitability regulations to implement a policy of finding an individual unfit or unsuitable for federal service solely on the basis of recency of marijuana use,” Acting OPM Director Kathleen M. McGettigan wrote. “Past marijuana use, including recently discontinued marijuana use, should be viewed differently from ongoing marijuana use.”

This government-wide development comes as NBC News is separately reporting that President Joe Biden’s administration will be granting waivers for certain officials in the White House’s Executive Office of the President who have used cannabis. Again, the extent of the person’s past use can influence whether they obtain a waiver, and they must pledge to stop consuming marijuana.

“As more state laws have changed, federal agencies are increasingly encountering individuals whose knowledge, skills, and abilities make them well-qualified for a position, but whose marijuana use may or may not be of concern when considering the suitability or fitness of the individual for the position,” says the new OPM memo, which applies to most federal workers except for those dealing with classified information or who are employed in a sensitive national security position.

There are statutory considerations that agencies must still take into account, including two factors that “could be implicated by an individual’s use or possession of marijuana.” Illegal use of controlled substances without “evidence of substantial rehabilitation” is one, OMP said, and the other is “criminal or dishonest conduct.”

“However, OPM’s suitability regulations do not permit agencies to automatically find individuals unsuitable for federal employment based on either factor,” it continues. “Rather, when agencies consider the suitability or fitness of an applicant or appointee for a position, the individual’s conduct must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine the impact, if any, to the integrity and the efficiency of the Government.”

“Even where an individual has illegally used marijuana without evidence of substantial rehabilitation, agencies cannot find an individual unsuitable unless there is a nexus between the conduct and the ‘integrity or…efficiency of the service,'” the memo says.

This is a notable development that recognizes the reality that more states continue to legalize cannabis for medical and recreational purposes, and people who have used marijuana shouldn’t be discriminated against, even if it remains illegal under federal law.

Biden might continue to be opposed to adult-use legalization, but he does support other reforms like legalizing for medical use, decriminalizing possession, expunging prior records, modestly rescheduling the plant and letting states set their own policies. And regardless of where he stands, the fact remains that many Americans have used cannabis, meaning the administration would likely face hiring challenges if they imposed a blanket ban.

With respect to the White House policy that NBC reported, an official said that the guidelines “effectively protect our national security while modernizing policies to ensure that talented and otherwise well-qualified applicants with limited marijuana use will not be barred from serving the American people.”

There is one somewhat odd stipulation for White House workers who say they’ve used marijuana and receive a waiver. Depending on how recent that use was, they may be asked to work remotely for some amount of time, for unspecified reasons. They must also be subject to random drug testing.

Read the OPM memo on marijuana use and job eligibility below: 

Memo Assessing Suitability … by Marijuana Moment

IRS Chief Says Agency Would ‘Prefer’ If Marijuana Businesses Could Pay Taxes Electronically

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Washington Supreme Court Strikes Down Criminalization Of Drug Possession

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Washington State’s felony penalties against drug possession abruptly disappeared on Thursday after the state Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. As lawmakers decide how to respond to the decision—with a bill to decriminalize all drugs having already passed a legislative committee earlier this month—some police departments and prosecutors have now announced they’ll no longer arrest or pursue cases against people over possession of small amounts.

Simple drug possession “is no longer an arrestable offense,” the Seattle Police Department said in a public statement following the ruling. “Effective immediately, officers will no longer detain nor arrest individuals” merely for having drugs.

The ruling in the case, State v. Blake, applies only to possession of controlled substances. Other state drug laws, such as those against selling or driving under the influence of drugs, are unaffected.

Meanwhile, according to The Associated Press, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys sent a memo directing its members to drop ongoing drug possession cases and seek orders vacating convictions for past cases.

“While the legislature can change this prospectively (such action is doubtful), police officers must immediately stop making arrests for simple possession of drugs,” an official with the prosecutors group wrote in an email to Seattle police. “No search warrants. No detentions upon suspicion of simple possession awaiting canine units, etc.”

“You will need to advise your officers as to whether officers should still seize the unlawful drugs as contraband or leave them in possession of the individual,” the email continued.

Pacific County Prosecutor Ben Haslam told The Chinook Observer that the ruling “has come as a shock to our office.”

“On the prosecutor’s office’s end, we are preparing to request the immediate release of individuals being held in custody only for simple-possession cases,” he said. “Next, we will have to quash all active warrants on pending possession cases. Moving forward, I expect we will be required to vacate charges for individuals previously convicted of possession, and I’m sure there will be many other ramifications as well.”

How long Washington’s de facto legalization of drug possession will last is an open question. The court struck down the state’s possession law over a single issue: the statute failed to require proof a defendant knowingly possessed the drugs, allowing people to be convicted without any intention of committing a crime.

In response, lawmakers could simply replace the old law with a new one that includes such a requirement. Or they could not.

The idea of reducing or removing criminal penalties for simple drug possession is growing in popularity, with Oregon voters recently replacing penalties for possession of any drug with a $100 civil fine or referral to a health assessment. A bill introduced in Washington’s legislature earlier this year would make similar changes, removing all penalties for possession of personal-use amounts of drugs and significantly expanding state funding for outreach, treatment and recovery services.

The measure, HB 1499, passed a House panel earlier this month.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision gives renewed urgency to the conversation about our state’s response to untreated substance use disorder,” the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Lauren Davis (D), told Marijuana Moment late Thursday. “It presents an opportunity to continue the discussion that was begun in the legislature this session with HB 1499.”

The court decision accomplishes only part of Davis’s proposal. While one prong of her plan would decriminalize drugs, the other would create a “continuum of care” to ensure access to drug treatment and recovery services—something Thursday’s ruling does not do.

“It is imperative that we stop handing down felony possession convictions that compound shame and create barriers to recovery. We must stop criminalizing symptoms of a treatable brain disease. Today’s decision does that,” Davis said. “But that alone is insufficient. It is equally important that we build out a response to substance use disorder that truly works—a robust and fully funded continuum of care ranging from outreach to treatment to recovery support services.”

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said lawmakers should act to address the court’s action.

“While there will be a significant amount of work necessary to comply with this ruling in the courthouses throughout the state, it is equally important that the Legislature take steps now to amend this statute to correct the defect found by the Supreme Court,” he said in a statement. “The Legislature should act with a sense of urgency to add the necessary elements to make this statute constitutional this session, and not leave a defective statute on the books.”

Justices on the court weren’t necessarily setting out to legalize drugs when they undertook the case that led to Thursday’s decision. Rather than taking aim at the broader drug war, the ruling says that Washington’s possession law unconstitutionally allowed innocent people to be charged and convicted by failing to require that a defendant knew that drugs were in their possession.

“The possession statute at issue here does far more than regulate drugs,” the court wrote in a majority opinion by Justice Sheryl Gordon McLoud and signed by five of the court’s nine members. “It is unique in the nation in criminalizing entirely innocent, unknowing possession.”

The statute would criminalize a postal carrier who delivers a package containing unprescribed Adderall, the opinion says, as well as a roommate unaware the person they live with has hidden drugs in the common areas of the home.

“A person might pick up the wrong bag at the airport, the wrong jacket at the concert, or even the wrong briefcase at the courthouse,” it continues. “Or a child might carry an adult’s backpack, not knowing that it contains the adult’s illegal drugs.”

The defendant in the case, Shannon Blake, was charged with felony drug possession after police in 2016 found a small bag of methamphetamine in the coin pocket of her jeans. Blake, however, said she didn’t use drugs and was given the secondhand jeans as a gift just two days earlier.

Because Washington’s drug law didn’t require that defendants knowingly had drugs on their person, Blake was charged and convicted.

In rendering its decision Thursday, the Supreme Court vacated Blake’s conviction.

The court’s prior interpretations of the law make the statute “criminalize innocent and passive possession, even by a defendant who does not know, and has no reason to know, that drugs lay hidden within something that they possess. The legislature’s police power goes far, but not that far,” the justices determined. “Accordingly, RCW 69.50.4013(1)—the portion of the simple drug possession statute creating this crime—violates the due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions and is void.”

Not all justices agreed the decision needed to be so sweeping. Justice Debra L. Stephens said in a separate opinion, which concurred in part and dissented in part with the majority, that the court could break from its past holdings and simply reinterpret the law to require proof that defendants knowingly broke the law. She agreed Blake’s conviction should be thrown out but argued the possession law need not be scrapped in its entirety.

“I would overrule our erroneous precedent and, considering the main arguments actually briefed in this case, read an implied intent element into the drug possession statute,” Stephens wrote. “Nearly every other state to have interpreted the model statute holds that it does [have such an element], and Blake urges us to embrace this interpretation.”

Three other justices signed a dissenting opinion, arguing that the court has interpreted Washington’s drug possession law for more than 60 years as not requiring an element of intent—and moreover, that the court’s past decisions have respected the authority of lawmakers to “criminalize conduct regardless of whether the actor intended wrongdoing.”

It’s not entirely clear how many past cases might be affected by Thursday’s ruling. Mark Middaugh, a lawyer who filed a friend-of-brief in the case on behalf of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense lawyers, told the Seattle Times that he believes the ruling could be applied retroactively, allowing anyone with a past conviction for simple drug possession to have that record thrown out.

A press release from the Washington Appellate Project, which represented Blake in the case, was comparatively understated. “Washington joins 49 other states and the federal government,” it said, “in recognizing that the unknowing possession of drugs is not a crime.”

Richard Lechich, a Washington Appellate Project staff attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said justices “correctly recognized the injustice of convicting people for innocent conduct.”

“While the decision cannot rectify the harm this law caused to so many communities, particularly communities of color, it at least puts an end to it,” he said.

Lechich, however, warned Washingtonians to not to take advantage of the situation. While the possession law is off the books, he said, and some in law enforcement seem to be halting arrests and prosecutions, it’s still a risk to openly acknowledge having drugs.

“I would be very careful about that,” Lechich told Marijuana Moment. “Certainly if you were my client, I wouldn’t advise you to do that.”

Washington Lawmakers Approve Drug Decriminalization Bill In Committee Vote

Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske

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Disagreements Threaten Virginia Marijuana Legalization Deal As Deadline Approaches

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Conference committee members are divided over a proposed delay in regulatory decisions until next session, but have reportedly settled on delaying legalization of cannabis possession in any case.

By Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury

With a Saturday deadline approaching, state lawmakers in the House and Senate are still working to resolve differences over landmark legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia.

As of Thursday evening, it was unclear whether the two chambers would be able to reach an agreement on the bill, which Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has made a priority in his final year in office.

At least one lawmaker privately doubted the legislation would pass. Others, however, remained optimistic even as they acknowledged negotiations had grown tense, suggesting a vote was possible as early as Friday.

According to five sources familiar with the talks, the primary point of contention is language sought by the Senate that would delay decisions about how the new market is regulated until next year. Members of the chamber said during hearings last month they felt the legislation was too expansive and complex to complete work on during the 45-day session.

Lawmakers in the House have resisted, arguing the delay is unnecessary, citing in-depth studies conducted by legislative analysts and Northam’s administration. House lawmakers have also expressed discomfort about voting to legalize the drug without finalizing plans for a legal marketplace, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.

If a bill does emerge from the conference negotiations, it’s likely to disappoint civil rights advocates who have been pushing for an immediate end to criminal penalties related to the drug.

Both the House and Senate passed legalization bills that wouldn’t allow sales of recreational marijuana to begin until January 1, 2024—time both sides agree they need to set up a new cannabis authority to regulate the industry.

But they have differed over whether criminal penalties related to the drug should stay in place until legal sales begin. The House advanced legislation that wouldn’t end prohibition until 2024 while the Senate proposed legalizing possession of an ounce or less of marijuana beginning July 1 of this year.

The House, whose members worried that repealing criminal penalties before legal sales are permitted would encourage the black market, appear to have won the debate, with Senate negotiators agreeing to maintain existing criminal penalties until 2024, according to the sources.

The approach stands in contrast to a legalization bill signed by New Jersey’s governor on Monday, which immediately ended criminal penalties for possession of up to six ounces even though retail sales aren’t expected to begin until 2022 at the earliest.

Advocates had called the Senate’s position the minimum the legislature could do to address criminal penalties before the retail marketplace opens. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who proposed it, said it didn’t make sense to continue prosecuting people for something lawmakers had voted to legalize.

“We can’t risk more people being caught in the system for acting in ways that will soon be legal,” wrote a coalition of 25 advocacy organizations led by the ACLU of Virginia and the reform group Marijuana Justice.

Lawmakers skeptical of repealing criminal penalties before there are legal avenues to buy the drug have said they view the decriminalization legislation they passed last year, which reduced penalties for simple possession to a $25 civil fine, an adequate interim step.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, director of Marijuana Justice, countered that the approach unnecessarily allows the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws against Black Virginians to continue for three years. She said court data obtained by advocates shows that even with reduced fines, Black people are four times more likely than White people to face citations despite using the drug at the same rate.

“The commonwealth’s ‘decriminalization’ enforcement maintains Virginia’s racial disparities and goes against Governor Northam’s stated commitment to social equity, racial equity, and economic equity for marijuana legislation,” she wrote in a statement.

The two chambers are continuing to debate another focus for advocacy groups: how to treat people under 21 caught with the drug. As drafted, the Senate’s version would dramatically increase penalties for underage users caught with the drug, increasing the civil penalty for possession from $25 to $250 for people ages 18 to 20. Minors would face a $200 civil penalty for a first offense.

Valerie Slater, the director of RISE for Youth, which advocates for reforming the state’s juvenile justice system, said she favors the House’s approach, which would also increase penalties for underage possession, but only on subsequent offenses.

But she pointed to New Jersey’s new law as a better alternative, which calls for a written warning for a first offense, a call to parents for a second offense and referral to community services for a third offense. Members of the state’s Black Legislative Caucus opposed fines, worrying “police would continue to stop and fine minority youth more frequently than White people under 21,” according to The Star-Ledger.

“At no point should this be a crime for kids,” she said. “Can we just take New Jersey’s language and drop it into ours? It would be ideal.”

This story was first published by the Virginia Mercury.

Kansas Governor’s Medical Marijuana Bill Introduced As Lawmakers Take Up Separate Legalization Proposal

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