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Florida’s US Senate Candidates Clash On Medical Marijuana

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In this year’s close U.S. Senate race in Florida, marijuana is playing a mostly sidelined role so far as voters in the key swing state decide between incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is term-limited out of his current job.

But among the two candidates, the winner of which could help determine which party controls the Senate next year, there are sharp disagreements about some aspects of marijuana policy.

Florida voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, in the fifth year of Scott’s term. The governor himself has not been a supporter, and his administration continues to fight efforts to allow patients to consume medical marijuana in smokeable form.

Despite 71 percent voter approval for the initiative, the Florida legislature limited the scope of medical cannabis to oils, tinctures, sprays and edibles—a move that was met with resistance from activists like attorney John Morgan, who largely funded the legalization effort and later supported legal action against the state on behalf of a small handful of patients and organizations, claiming the restrictions were unconstitutional.

Morgan urged Scott to drop his appeal in the smokable marijuana case, suggesting that he would lose the Senate race if he kept up the fight, and that if he did indeed drop it, he’d gain “five points overnight.”

Scott’s “boneheaded decision” to appeal the smokable marijuana case even garnered criticism from Trump ally Roger Stone, calling it a “waste of taxpayers’ money” likely to “cost him Republican votes [and] hurt him in the Senate race.”

And Congressman Matt Gaetz, also a Republican, said the decision was “neither compassionate nor conservative.”

Meanwhile, Scott had been defensive of his administration’s efforts to implement medical cannabis, even before the lawsuit ruling: “The Department of Health is implementing Amendment 2,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to streamline the process and work through this process… As you all know, this is a new process and they’re working very hard.”

That said, the governor himself had taken a stand against the state’s medical cannabis initiative at the ballot box. “I voted against it,” Scott said. “I believe people should have access to any drugs they need or anything they need, but I think it ought to go through the legislative process.”

He also vetoed research funding to study the effects of medical marijuana. Explaining his, decision, Scott also said that the University of Florida and the Moffitt Cancer Center already had enough of their own money to fund the research on their own.

In 2014, Scott signed into law a limited low-THC medical cannabis program.

“I have a great deal of empathy for people battling difficult diseases and I understand arguments in favor of this initiative,” he said at the time, referring to a more comprehensive medical marijuana measure that went on to a narrow defeat at the ballot box that year. “But, having seen the terrible effects of alcohol and drug abuse first-hand, I cannot endorse sending Florida down this path and I would personally vote against it.”

Two years later, voters approved a similar initiative.

For his part, Nelson has positioned himself in direct opposition to Scott, stating that doctors should be able to recommend smokable cannabis to patients. “I don’t want a government or a politician to get in the way of a doctor recommending what should be the treatment, the medical treatment for the doctor’s patient,” he said. “Of course” that includes smokable cannabis, he added. “That’s what the constitutional amendment was.”

However, while he supports medical marijuana (and indeed voted for the state’s ballot measure to legalize it), Nelson remains opposed to broader recreational legalization. When asked if he agreed with the growing number of Democrats aiming to reform cannabis policy, he answered: “That’s a fancy way that you’ve asked me ‘Do I agree with recreational marijuana’, and the answer is no.”

His opposition to legalizing cannabis seems to be rooted in the belief that, outside a medical context for “desperate” patients, the drug is otherwise harmful.

“Just listen to the personal testimonies of people that nothing will help them as they are dying and marijuana gives them comfort and relieves the pain,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Nelson began his political career in 1972, when he joined the Florida House of Representatives. He later served more than a decade in the U.S. House and, in 2001, became a U.S senator. Over time, he has maintained a reputation as one of Congress’s more moderate Democrats.

While Nelson has said that cannabis legalization should be “left to the states,” he hasn’t added his name as a cosponsor to a single piece of marijuana reform legislation during his decades on Capitol Hill.  He did, however, vote on the 2014 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp for research purposes.

Nelson has, however, signed onto a small handful of bills geared toward supporting drug war-style initiatives. Among them were a 1990 resolution to “take ongoing responsibility in the drug war by incorporating the issue of the illegal narcotics trade as an integral component of United States trade policy.”

While that legislation can be contextualized amidst the height of 1980s drug war propaganda, Nelson has nonetheless done little to modernize his attitude toward prohibition in the years since.

Legalization advocacy group NORML gave Nelson a B grade in its congressional scorecard, while Scott earned a D+ in the organization’s gubernatorial rankings.

Neither the incumbent senator nor his challenger have taken strong stances in support of marijuana law reform— though perhaps the upcoming election will encourage them to, in one direction or another.

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Madison is a New York/Los Angeles-based journalist on the cannabis beat. You can read her work on Herb, Rolling Stone, Merry Jane, and elsewhere.

Politics

Alabama Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

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The Alabama Senate on Wednesday approved a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Weeks after the chamber’s Judiciary Committee advanced the legislation, it cleared the full floor in a vote of 21-8 following a brief, 15-minute discussion.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson (R), would allow people with qualifying conditions to access cannabis for therapeutic purposes.

Melson is the same lawmaker who sponsored a similar bill that was approved by the full Senate last year but which later died without a House vote amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This latest proposal would establish an 11-member Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to implement regulations and oversee licensing.

To qualify for the program, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers.

Advocates say they’re encouraged that medical cannabis reform is advancing in Alabama, but they’ve raised concerns about a number of aspects of the bill.

One problematic provision, they say, is that patients with chronic or intractable pain could only be recommended medical marijuana in cases where “conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or has proved ineffective.”

The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.

Patients would be allowed to purchase and possess up to “70 daily dosages of medical cannabis.” Under an amendment approved on the floor, the maximum daily dose was reduced from 75 to 50 milligrams. However, the amendment’s sponsor said it could be increased to 75 milligrams in some circumstances.

The revision also calls for a label on marijuana products to indicate that cannabis can cause drowsiness.

It also calls for a nine percent gross proceeds tax on medical marijuana sales. After covering implementation costs, 60 percent of revenue would go to the state’s general fund and 30 percent would go to research into the medical potential of cannabis.

Patients, caregivers and and medical cannabis businesses would receive legal protections under the proposal, preventing them from being penalized for activities authorized by the state.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 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.

For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.

Under the bill, regulators would be tasked with developing restrictions on advertising and setting quality control standards. Seed-to-sale tracking and laboratory testing would be mandated.

Other changes approved on the floor would add language to stipulate that gelatinous cannabis products cannot be sugar coated and insert provisions promoting good manufacturing practices and tamper-evident packaging.

A separate amendment that cleared the chamber added sickle cell anemia as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.

Applications for cannabis business licenses would have to be accepted starting September 1, 2022 and then proceeded within 60 days.

The commission would be required to approve at least four cultivators, up to four processors, up to four dispensaries for the first year of implementation (more could be approved after that point depending on demand) and as many as five vertically integrated operators.

This bill’s reintroduction has been greatly anticipated by advocates. The Senate approved a separate medical cannabis bill in 2019, but the House later severely compromised it. The legislation as enacted would not have legalized patient access; rather, it set up a study commission to explore the issue and make recommendations.

The commission came back with its report in December 2019, with members recommending that medical marijuana be legalized.

The Senate’s president voted against medical cannabis in 2020 but said he is open to letting the issue advance again in the new session. Meanwhile, the House speaker said that “if the bill comes up and it has proper restrictions in it, then I’m open to at least debating it.”

There could be additional pressure on the legislature to enact legalization given that voters in neighboring Mississippi approved a medical cannabis reform initiative during the November election.

New York Marijuana Legalization Proposals Get First Joint Legislative Hearing Of 2021

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New York Marijuana Legalization Proposals Get First Joint Legislative Hearing Of 2021

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New York lawmakers on Tuesday held the first public hearing of the year on proposals to legalize marijuana, specifically focusing on budget implications.

In a joint session with members of the Senate Finance Committee and Assembly Ways & Means Committee, legislators heard testimony from two pro-legalization industry representatives and one opponent, Kevin Sabet of the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Notably, despite their ideological differences when it comes to legalization in general, all three panelists were critical of the reform proposal that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included in his budget request.

NY Cannabis Growers and Processors Association President Allan Gandelman and NY Medical Cannabis Industry Association President Ngiste Abebe both said they favor a legalization measure out of the legislature—the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA)—arguing that its tax structure and social equity provisions are superior to the governor’s plan, even after Cuomo submitted amendments in hopes of shoring up support among skeptical lawmakers.

“We deeply appreciate the possibilities offered in the MRTA. New York will need to balance issues involving taxes, licensing and speed to market,” Gandelman said. “The MRTA does an excellent job allowing for social consumption, cannabis home grow, microbusinesses, home delivery and funding for social equity applicants. These policies should be, without question, integrated into any final legislation enacted by the state.”

Watch the joint public hearing on marijuana legalization in New York below: 

Cuomo did propose amending his legalization plan to add a home delivery option and specify how social equity grants for cannabis businesses would be distributed—but advocates say it still falls short of the MRTA, sponsored by Sen. Liz Kreuger (D), chair of the Finance Committee.

Abebe, who also serves as public policy director for Columbia Care, said that her organization believes “the governor’s proposal could be improved as well—and then, between the [Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act] and the MRTA, there is a pathway to effective legalization in New York.”

But the April 1 deadline to get those improvements included in Cuomo’s budget plan and pass the legislation is quickly approaching, and legislative leadership has indicated that they’d prefer to pass the MRTA first and then begin negotiations with the governor’s office.

“It is my hope and desire that New York will legalize adult-use of cannabis this current session in 2021,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), who has been especially critical of the governor’s proposal, recently said.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told Marijuana Moment in an interview that there would be room for revisions to the governor’s plan, stating that “much of it is going to be negotiated with the legislature, and all these details can be resolved with their input as well.”


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 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.

Cuomo said that the changes in his bill reflect “the conversations we’ve had, but I’m hopeful that we can come to an agreement and we can get it done. He added that he believes, “because I’ve seen this movie before, “if we don’t get it done by April 1, we won’t get it done.”

This is the third year in a row that Cuomo has included a legalization proposal in his budget plan. The last two times, negotiations with the legislature stalled amid disagreements over certain components such as the tax structure for the market and funding for social equity programs.

Regardless of which direction the legislature ultimately goes on this issue, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability.

The top Republican in the New York Assembly said in December that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance in 2021, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.

Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.

The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.

Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana have been filed in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.

Biden Cabinet Pick Defends Proposal To Use Marijuana Tax Dollars To Fund Schools

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Biden Cabinet Pick Defends Proposal To Use Marijuana Tax Dollars To Fund Schools

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President Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of the Interior Department on Tuesday defended a past campaign promise to support marijuana legalization as a means to diversify her state’s economy and help fund public education.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) was pressed on her 2018 remarks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the panel’s ranking member, asked whether it was still her position that tax revenue from cannabis sales could be used to support schools as a replacement for oil and gas royalties as part of a plan to shift away from fossil fuels.

“Well, I think the point of that, ranking member, was to say that we should diversify our funding streams for education and not just rely on one,” she replied.

“Is selling marijuana among what the Biden administration calls ‘better choices’ that the Biden administration has promised to give displaced oil and gas workers?” Barrasso asked. “Is that the better choice? Marijuana?”

“I honestly don’t know what President Biden’s stance is on cannabis currently,” the nominee said.

The president’s position on marijuana does depart with Haaland’s, as he has maintained an opposition to adult-use legalization and hasn’t signaled that he’d be interested in enacting the reform as a way to raise revenue for any particular initiative. He supports legalizing medical cannabis, decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession, modestly rescheduling the plant, expunging prior cannabis convictions and letting states set their own policies.

In any case, the senator—along with the Republican National Committee (RNC), which circulated Haaland’s 2018 comments ahead of the hearing—apparently feels that the marijuana position of his nominee to head Interior are damning, despite the bipartisan public support for legalization and broad sentiment that tax revenue from cannabis should be effectively utilized for public services.

“We know what your stances on replacing the revenue, the energy jobs, the jobs that power our economy and the energy that powers our country. And your preference is to turn to drugs is what you’ve recommended to the voters,” Barrasso said. “At a time when there’s high unemployment and energy workers lose their jobs—we’ve seen it in West Virginia, we’ve seen it around the country—there’s been an opioid crisis in this nation. And yet what I hear from you is the answer in a better choice world is marijuana.”

Later in the hearing, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) returned to the ranking member’s line of questioning and said “just to be clear on the marijuana issue, this isn’t a Seattle issue. Out of 39 counties, 20 to 25 counties in the state of Washington supported legalizing cannabis.”

“I don’t blame our legislature or others from getting revenue from that and put it towards public health issues in the state of Washington,” she said. “This is respecting the wishes of the voters and then putting it to good use.”

Watch Cantwell’s marijuana comments, starting around 55:45 into the video below: 

Marijuana also came up during Haaland’s initial committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday, with Rep. Don Young (R-AK) introducing Haaland and joking about her energy policy by saying that “anybody who thinks you’re going to cut off fossil fuel immediately is smoking pot—that’s legal in the state of Alaska, by the way.”

Watch Young’s cannabis comments, about 37:00 into the video below:

For advocates, while it’s encouraging to see administration nominees embrace pro-reform positions, this was not the most consequential cannabis comment during a confirmation session this week. On Monday, Merrick Garland, the president’s nominee for attorney general said it is not “a useful use of limited resources” to go after people who are complying with state marijuana laws. He also citied cannabis enforcement as an example of the racially discriminatory impact of the criminal justice system.

Another New Mexico House Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill

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