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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

New Jersey Prosecutors Must Suspend Marijuana Possession Cases, State Attorney General Says

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The New Jersey attorney general on Wednesday told prosecutors to adjourn most marijuana possession cases until at least January 25, 2021 following voter approval of a referendum to legalize cannabis for adult use this month.

While the initiative amends the state Constitution to legalize marijuana for those 21 and older, lawmakers must still pass enabling legislation to create a regulatory framework for cannabis sales. The day after the election, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) had issued initial guidance to prosecutors encouraging them to use discretion when it comes to marijuana offenses that will soon be codified as legal.

But this latest announcement expands on that memo, ordering prosecutors to pause cases involving a wide range of low-level cannabis possession offenses.

“Fairness demands that we suspend prosecution of marijuana possession-related cases while we await direction from the Legislature on the parameters for decriminalization of marijuana and legalization of regulated adult-use cannabis,” Grewal said. “It simply does not make sense or serve justice to proceed with prosecutions on charges that may be foreclosed soon through legislative action.”

The attorney general’s office listed seven specific laws that will be impacted by the temporary policy change, including those penalizing possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and being under the influence of marijuana.

“Notably, today’s guidance does not affect the prosecution of cases charging distribution of marijuana or possession of marijuana with intent to distribute,” a press release from his office says.

The new memo specifies that “in cases where there are other pending charges in addition to the marijuana possession-related offenses enumerated above, prosecutors shall use their discretion to either postpone the case in its entirety or seek dismissal, without prejudice, of the above-enumerated marijuana possession-related charge(s) and proceed with prosecution of the remaining charges.”

In the previous guidance released earlier this month, Grewal recognized that there may be some confusion among residents about the implications of the legalization referendum’s passage so police and prosecutors “should exercise discretion” in pursuing marijuana cases, as outlined under earlier 2018 guidance that he issued.

A municipal prosecutor recently argued in a memo sent to colleagues across the state that voters’ approval of the legalization referendum, as well as the attorney general’s earlier directive this month, means that many current cannabis cases should not be pursued.

Enabling legislation to set rules for the state’s cannabis market was introduced just days after the referendum vote, and it’s already advancing at the committee level.

Most recently, the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legalization bills, albeit in differing forms that will have to be resolved. Planed floor votes for this week have been canceled as leaders hold bicameral negotiations on outstanding details.

Meanwhile, the Senate recently approved a separate marijuana decriminalization bill and the Assembly was supposed to vote on it as well, but that was also pushed back amid disagreement about an amendment to lower penalties for psilocybin, and has yet to be rescheduled.

In anticipation of the legislature’s approval of a legalization bill, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) recently named an official to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission that will oversee the legal marijuana market.

Republican Lawmakers And Celebrities Push Trump To Free Marijuana Prisoners Before Leaving Office

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Republican Lawmakers And Celebrities Push Trump To Free Marijuana Prisoners Before Leaving Office

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A group of celebrities, Republican officials and civil rights advocates sent a letter to President Trump on Wednesday, urging him to pardon or commute the sentences of people in federal prison for nonviolent federal marijuana offenses.

The letter, which organizers said they adapted from an earlier request after discussing the previous proposal with the office of Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, states that the signatories “strongly believe that justice necessitates the exercise of executive clemency in these cases.”

Unlike the last version, the new letter comes with an attachment—at the request of Kushner’s office, advocates said—of a specific list of 24 people who are currently behind bars for cannabis offenses, including several who are serving life sentences.

Weldon Angelos, who himself was convicted over cannabis and handed a mandatory minimum sentence before a court cut his sentence and released him, personally delivered the first version of the letter to the White House in March. He told Marijuana Moment that Kushner’s office then reached out to his organization, Mission Green, to request that, in addition to redelivering the request, advocates include a list of incarcerated people who they feel are especially entitled to presidentially granted relief.

Those two dozen currently incarcerated individuals include people like Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California. These inmates shouldn’t have to wait for Congress to get around to enacting federal policy change, and the president should use executive action to pardon them, the letter states.

“You have expressed support for the States’ right to implement their own cannabis laws, especially for medicinal purposes,” the signatories, including former NBA star Kevin Garnett, wrote. “And while there are a number of proposals being introduced in Congress to finally put an end to cannabis prohibition, they tend to lack any real avenue of relief for those who are serving time for selling cannabis.”

“Given the timidity of this proposed legislation, the gridlock in Congress, and the imperative of freedom, clemency is the right tool to fix this problem,” it continues. “You and you alone have the power to call out a grand hypocrisy of prior administrations. While cannabis became a thriving, legal market and enriched many, your predecessors ignored the people who were—and are—serving long federal terms for doing the same thing.”

Leaders in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives announced that they plan to vote on a far-reaching bill to federally legalize marijuana next month, but the Republican Senate has shown no signs it intends to follow suit.

Among the more than 50 signatories of the new letter is Alice Johnson, who appeared at the Republican National Convention and whose story was featured in Trump campaign ads after her drug sentence was commuted by the president.

Republican state lawmakers from Kansas, Maine and Missouri also signed on, as did a former U.S. attorney, actor Danny Trejo, the New Haven, Connecticut police chief and former New Mexico governor and presidential candidate Gary Johnson. They were joined by representatives of groups like #cut50, Marijuana Policy Project and Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

So far during his administration, Trump has granted 27 pardons and 11 commutations. But the advocates behind this letter, including members of the CAN-DO Foundation, which partnered with Mission Green, expect to see a ramping up of clemency from the executive office in the coming weeks, as is traditional during the final weeks of a presidency.

Kushner and the White House press office did not immediately reply to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment for this story.

Angelos said that he hasn’t received confirmation on timing, but he expects Trump to announce additional pardons and commutations as early as the Thanksgiving holiday.

“It’s ridiculous that we currently have a billionaire in the cannabis industry, yet we are keeping select individuals in prison for doing the exact same thing. This is just another example of a wasteful and destructive criminal justice system,” he said in a press release. “I firmly believe President Trump will strongly consider fixing some of the most egregious sentences that we have brought to his attention.”

“He’s the first president on modern history to commute a number of sentences in his first few years in office,” he added. “Traditionally, pardons and commutations happen at the end of a presidency, and so this pattern gives us some comfort that we will get justice for some of them.”

It’s not clear how Trump will react to the request for a round of cannabis-specific clemency.

His reelection campaign worked to frame him as the criminal justice reform candidate, but he hasn’t proactively championed marijuana reform, has made several anti-legalization administration hires and issued signing statements stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore long-standing congressional riders that prohibit the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical cannabis programs.

Also, despite his pledged support for medical marijuana and states’ rights, the president evidently holds some negative views toward cannabis consumption, as evidenced in a 2018 recording in which he said that using it makes people “lose IQ points.”

Read the letter to Trump about marijuana clemency below:

Letter to President Trump -… by Marijuana Moment

Marijuana Legalization Is Inevitable In New York, Especially After New Jersey Vote, Top Senator Says

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New Jersey Prosecutor Urges Colleagues To Stop Pursuing Most Marijuana Cases While Legalization Bill Advances

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A municipal prosecutor in New Jersey is arguing in a memo sent to colleagues across the state that voters’ approval of a marijuana legalization referendum this month, and subsequent guidance from the attorney general, means that many current cannabis cases should not be pursued.

In a two-page message to other top law enforcement officials that was shared with Marijuana Moment, Jon-Henry Barr, the municipal prosecutor for the Township of Clark, said that he appreciated that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) released guidance stipulating that police and prosecutors “should exercise discretion” in pursuing marijuana cases.

But voters made clear on Election Day that they no longer want to see adults 21 and older to be convicted for simple possession, he said, and they also lack control over lawmakers’ timeline for passing enabling legislation that would codify that policy statewide.

“New Jersey’s municipal prosecutors can look to the text of the State Constitution and interpretive caselaw for more guidance about what should be done with pending cases,” Barr, who is a past president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutor’s Association and is a member of the pro-reform group Law Enforcement Action Partnership, wrote. “The primary duty of a lawyer engaged in public prosecution is not to convict, but to see that justice is done.”

The attorney general’s reminder that prosecutors have discretion in cannabis cases is important, but it still leaves questions about how exactly they should proceed in the interim while lawmakers work on implementing regulations for a legal marijuana market, he said.

“In light of the global pandemic and the statewide referendum, are the interests of justice served by continuing to prosecute low level marijuana cases?” he asked. “I conclude that no reasonable argument can be made to claim that the interests of justice are accomplished by maintaining the prosecution of most current cases. However, that does not mean that all cases should simply be summarily dismissed.”

In terms of what types of cases could continue to be subject to prosecution, Barr said the referendum simply applied to low-level possession for those 21 and older. Underage possession, distribution and possession with the intent to distribute should all still be pursued on a case by case basis, at least while the legislature works to enact specific regulations.

While the attorney general in 2018 issued previous initial guidance encouraging discretion in marijuana cases, Barr said the referendum vote demonstrates that “public policy in New Jersey has now shifted significantly further, and it is my thoughtfully considered, carefully researched, and well-reasoned position that most, but not all, current marijuana cases should not be prosecuted.”

“I again maintain that this memo fully respects and complies with the direction provided thus far by the attorney general of New Jersey, and complete deference to his directives will continue,” he said.

Enabling legislation to set rules for the state’s cannabis market was introduced just days after the referendum vote, and it’s already advancing at the committee level.

Most recently, the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legalization bills, albeit in differing forms that will have to be resolved. Planed floor votes for this week have been canceled as leaders hold bicameral negotiations on outstanding details.

Meanwhile, the Senate recently approved a separate marijuana decriminalization bill and the Assembly was supposed to vote on it as well, but that was also pushed back amid disagreement about an amendment to lower penalties for psilocybin, and has yet to be rescheduled.

In anticipation of the legislature’s approval of a legalization bill, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) recently named an official to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission that will oversee the legal marijuana market.

Read the memo to prosecutors on marijuana enforcement discretion below: 

Memo on marijuana prosecuti… by Marijuana Moment

Connecticut Lawmakers Will Put Marijuana Legalization On The Ballot If Legislature Rejects Bill

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