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Former GOP Congressman Explains Why Broad Marijuana Reform Is Achievable In 2020

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Former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is taking his involuntary retirement from Congress in stride, moving his family from Orange County up to the woodlands of Maine as he settles into a new role as an advisory board member for a marijuana company.

The congressman, who was one of many House Republicans to lose their reelection bids during the 2018 midterms, is a longstanding advocate for cannabis reform, and he hopes to leverage his experience and connections in Washington, D.C. to bring about change from the outside as an advisor to BudTrader, an online advertising platform for marijuana businesses.

In a phone interview with Marijuana Moment last month, Rohrabacher talked about his transition into the cannabis industry, the role the issue played in his contentious reelection campaign, the trend of former marijuana foes now turning a profit on marijuana and why he believes President Donald Trump will take a leading role in passing reform legislation in 2020.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Marijuana Moment: When you look at politicians like former Republican House Speaker John Boenher, who never helped to advance marijuana legislation you were advocating for when he was in power and is now profiting off the legal industry, how does that make you feel?

Dana Rohrabacher: This is one of maladies of humankind. The sad parts of human beings. The guys aren’t going to be on your side until you’re on the winning side. I’m not shocked by it anymore. I’ve seen it in a number of areas, and cannabis is just one of them.

You have people now who are now being hired by the industry—well, I will have to say that very few of them did very much to help in this light. But that doesn’t mean [they] owe it to me or anyone else. I’m doing a good job, I think, helping BudTrader and others and the industry to actually mold itself and to grow up into maturity so it’s a service to our people. We need the Johnny-come-latelies to continue moving in the right direction, and that’s as simple as that.

MM: Where did the cannabis industry fit within your reelection campaign?

DR: I will have to say this that one thing that’s going to really help the cannabis industry. I just lost my last election, but I was outspent by 10 to 1.

I got some very powerful forces in the world mad at me to the point that these very—I call them the Bolshevik billionaires—came into my district and a lot of the people [abandoned me] because it looked like I was in trouble, I was under attack, all this negative advertising.

I was working on a major piece of legislation on the commercial space industry and, without it, there would not have been SpaceX. I’ll never forget, everybody was advising me not to do this because I was going to lose. I said, who cares if I lose or not, this is the right way we should go. With cannabis, that’s how it was for decades. What a waste of our money trying to prevent adults from smoking weed. Give me a break.

People who I helped like the commercial space industry, I got almost no help from them. But the only people who really stood up with me—the only people—were the cannabis people. The fact that the cannabis industry was so loyal to me when I was under attack in a brutal way, as compared to all of the other issues that I’ve been involved in, that’s going to get around to the people on Capitol Hill, and I think that’s going to serve the cause very well.

MM: To what do you attribute that loyalty?

DR: I think it’s because there’s still genuine fear in the past of consuming a product, meaning cannabis. When you have fear that someone is going to destroy your life by putting you in a cage or giving you a criminal record, and then someone is going to come along and eliminate that fear for your life, I think that is the main thing. They can sense that, they feel that and they understand that. They see that right now we’ve got some opportunities that I probably would have been well serving the industry while still in Congress.

I’ve done some things that I’m very proud of, but that never would have happened had I, for example, been arrested for smoking marijuana when I was 21 years old. What a waste for our country that would have been. I think the people in the cannabis industry recognize what a horrible waste this is and that I actually understand that from the inside out.

I think about a third of the money I had in my campaign could be traced to either people in the cannabis industry or just people who were very proud that I was willing to stand up for an issue that they would attack me on. I’m proud of the cannabis advocates. Look, it was time to go anyway, so now I can try to do good things from the outside.

MM: Do you think the loss of several marijuana-friendly GOP House members last year will hurt the chances of passing cannabis legislation in a bipartisan manner?

DR: Let me tell you what I actually think is going to happen there, on why that won’t happen. We’re going to do this and we’re going to make even further progress because President Trump is with us. President Trump made it very clear when he ran for election, he on a number of occasions—and I had private meetings with him and was reiterated this—where he said that medical marijuana should be totally legal and the recreational use for adults of cannabis should be left up to the states. That’s what he said on a number of occasions.

I think that because we have a president now—by the way, the last president didn’t do anything for us, although we thought [the administration would] but they didn’t do anything for us. They had some sort of an unofficial understanding that certain things wouldn’t be enforced and things like that, but we didn’t need an artificial understanding, we needed to change the freaking law.

[Next year,] all of these ideas will coalesce and there will be a bill that takes us another major step in the right direction. It won’t solve everything, but it’ll take us a major step in the right direction. It will be based on Democrats working with those Republicans who are still there, who were part of my team, and also the leadership of the White House will add a tremendous amount.

MM: Could you expand on your meetings with the president and what specifically he said about his position on cannabis reform?

DR: I really can’t. I think I would be betraying a trust there. But I can let you just know that the president had committed and I trust that he was sincere when he did. That’s what he committed to do. But I don’t want to go into too much detail on it because that, you know, when someone meets with you in the White House, I’m not one of these guys who just runs outside and spins it whatever they want. But the president was very clear and he has never backed down on this, and I am confident that in the second half of this term, you’ll see him providing leadership the same way we just saw him providing leadership on sentencing reform.

MM: Attorney General William Barr recently said that he’s prefer Congress to pass legislation allowing states to enact their own marijuana policies rather than maintain the status quo of having conflicting state and federal laws. What do you make of that?

DR: I have known [former Attorney General] Jeff Sessions and I thought he would be susceptible—because both of us have conservative backgrounds—that he would be susceptible to the states’ right argument because the 10th Amendment of the Constitution is something he and other conservatives always quote. Leave it up to the states. I was so bitterly disappointed in Sessions, what he did when he was in.

I expect that this attorney general is going to be 100 times better than Jeff Sessions on this issue, but it will be based, I believe, just from what you have said and what I’ve read about him, it will focused on trying to move out any restrictions on the federal level and leave those decisions up to the local people.

MM: Shifting gears a bit, Denver and Oakland recently moved to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics. Activists are working to get statewide decriminalization on the 2020 ballot in California. Do you have a stance on psychedelics reform?

DR: I’m going to have to see if we can find in Maine, where we have all these trees, how many mushrooms are out there.

I think that in terms of myself, whatever anybody else wants to do. But for me to be the most effective, I should be concentrating on cannabis. Obviously I believe in the freedom of people to consume what they want to who are adults. But in terms of advocating any particular changes being proposed, I’m going to limit myself until I get done with the cannabis issue to the point that we actually feel comfortable and I don’t need to use my work and prestige on that anymore, then I’ll move to something else.

Top Congressional Republican Notes ‘A Lot Of Bipartisanship’ On Marijuana Banking Bill

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.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Arizona Marijuana Activists Turn In 420,000 Signatures To Qualify Legalization Measure For Ballot

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Arizona activists behind an initiative to legalize marijuana have officially turned in what they say are more than enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Smart and Safe Arizona announced on Wednesday that they submitted 420,000 raw signatures to the secretary of state’s office—one day before the turn-in deadline. They need 237,645 valid signatures from registered voters to qualify.

This marks another drug policy reform success amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced campaigns in several other states to end due to social distancing and stay-at-home requirements.

Advocates joined with three separate campaigns in April to ask the state Supreme Court to order the secretary of state to allow electronic signature gathering, but the request was denied. Even so, the raw numbers signal the legalization effort is in a comfortable position to make the ballot once signatures are verified.

“Arizonans are ready to legalize cannabis and this is the right policy for our state,” Arizona Dispensary Association President Steve White said in a press release. “New jobs and revenue are even more critical, today, than when we embarked on this campaign last year.”

The legalization petition would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. People could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

The measure also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program

Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.

The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.

If the measure does make the ballot, recent polling indicates that it will prevail. In a survey of likely voters, about two-thirds (65.5 percent) of respondents said they would support the proposed initiative.

A 2016 legalization proposal was rejected by Arizona voters. But in the four years since, more states have opted to legalize and public opinion has continued to shift in favor of reform.

Here’s a status update on other drug policy campaigns across the country:

Idaho activists behind a medical cannabis initiative are hoping that a federal judge’s recent ruling that would extend the signature turn-in deadline for a separate campaign will apply to them. The state has indicated it will appeal, but if things go in their favor, they could start collecting signatures, including electronically, next week.

The Oregon Secretary of State’s office announced on Tuesday that a campaign to decriminalize currently illicit drugs and expand substance misuse treatment has qualified for the ballot.

Another Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes has already turned in signatures that they feel will qualify them for the ballot, though those submissions must still be verified by the state.

Washington, D.C. activists are continuing to collect signatures for a proposed measure to make enforcement of laws against various entheogenic substances such as psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities. They’re receiving assistance from activists who flew in from across the country, including leadership behind Denver’s successful psilocybin decriminalization initiative last year.

A Nebraska campaign plans to submit signatures this week that they hope will be sufficient to qualify a medical cannabis measure for the ballot.

Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana initiatives—one to legalize the plant for adult use and another stipulating that individuals must be 21 or older to participate—for the November ballot. The state is currently validating those submissions.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

Mississippi activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

A campaign to legalize marijuana in Arkansas will not qualify for the ballot this year, a spokesperson told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.

Activists behind an initiative to decriminalize currently illicit drugs and expand access to treatment services in Washington State said last week that they will no longer be pursuing the ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they are seeking to enact the policy change through the legislature during the next session starting January 2021.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists ended their push to place a marijuana legalization measure on the 2020 ballot and will instead seek qualification for 2022.

Ohio Senate Votes To Expand Marijuana Decriminalization To Cover 200 Grams

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Ohio Senate Votes To Expand Marijuana Decriminalization To Cover 200 Grams

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The Ohio Senate has approved a bill to double the amount of marijuana that is decriminalized in the state and reduce criminal penalties for many other drug crimes.

Following months of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the measure cleared both a committee and the full body on Tuesday. The floor vote was 24–5.

While possession of small amounts of cannabis would still be illegal in Ohio, people caught with up to 200 grams of marijuana (about seven ounces) would face no arrest or jail time under the measure, SB 3. Instead, they’d receive a civil citation and pay a fine of $150.

“Among other criminal justice changes, SB 3 would reduce the sentences for several marijuana offenses, including by doubling the amount of marijuana that is decriminalized,” Karen O’Keefe, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policies, told Marijuana Moment.

Existing Ohio law already classifies possession of up to 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of marijuana as a “minor misdemeanor.” Offenses are penalized with citations and civil fines of $150. By law, officers are only supposed to arrest people for cannabis if they refuse to provide identification, won’t sign the citation or pose a health and safety risk, but critics note that those exceptions open the door to discriminatory police enforcement.

Under SB 3, simple possession would remain a minor misdemeanor, but the qualifying limits would increase. In addition to the new 200 gram cap for marijuana flower, the limit on hash would rise from 5 grams to 10 grams.

The bill states that citations for those offenses would not constitute a criminal record or need to be reported on “any inquiries contained in any application for employment, license, or other right or privilege.”

Anything over the decriminalized amount limits would still incur criminal penalties, such as arrest, possible jail time and a criminal record. SB 3 would, however, downgrade the criminal designations for greater amounts of cannabis.

For flower, 200 grams to 400 grams would be a fourth-degree misdemeanor under the bill, while 400 to 1,000 grams would be a first-degree misdemeanor. For hash, 10 grams to 20 grams would qualify as a fourth-degree misdemeanor, and 20 grams to 50 grams would be a first-degree misdemeanor.

Possession of other drugs would see downgrades under the bill, too, lessening many felony charges to misdemeanors. Judges in some circumstances would be able to pause criminal cases or even dismiss them entirely for defendants who complete drug treatment programs.

“We believe that we have found the appropriate mark in the sand,” one of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Sen. Sean O’Brien (D), told The Columbus Dispatch a day before the vote.

“I think the overarching goal of the bill is to take small amounts of possession that are clearly for personal use and make that a misdemeanor,” Senate President Larry Obhof (R) said. “That’s really been one of the bigger sticking points over the last year as we’ve considered this. What is really the right amount for personal use versus at what number do we then say, ‘You’re not really using this. You’re a trafficker.’ We’re trying to work that out.”

O’Keefe at Marijuana Policy Project applauded the Senate’s passage of the bill Tuesday but lamented that lawmakers still see cannabis as a police matter at all.

“While these are welcome reforms, Ohio lawmakers should listen to their constituents and legalize marijuana,” she told Marijuana Moment. “There is no need for any police-civilian interaction around simple possession of marijuana. Issuing fines for cannabis possession wastes governmental resources and opens the door to unequal policing and abusive encounters. Ohio should follow Michigan’s lead and legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana for adults.”

Advocates at the beginning of the year intended to put legalization on Ohio’s ballot this November, filing a formal initiative proposal in early March. The effort stalled, however, as the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting social distancing measures made signature gathering all but impossible.

Another group of activists, working to put marijuana decriminalization measures on 14 municipal ballots in Ohio, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to force state officials to allow electronic signature gathering during the pandemic, but the justices did not take up the case.

Ohio voters in 2015 roundly rejected a push to legalize marijuana for adult use, but some think that’s a poor indicator of the state’s interest in legalizing commercial cannabis. The 2015 measure drew criticism at the time even from traditional allies of reform, many of whom criticized the proposal’s licensing provisions that would give a near monopoly on cultivation to the same investors who had funded the ballot initiative.

Despite the slow progress on cannabis reform represented by Senate Bill 3, criminal justice reform advocates praised the bill’s passage by the Senate as a timely response to the issues facing American communities today. Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, said the measure “was not written in this moment, but it is the rare bill that is truly meeting the moment.”

“It will help reduce the prison population, leaving far fewer people at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Harris said. “It will save up to $75 million in critical taxpayer dollars as the state deals with a fiscal crisis, and it will eliminate unnecessary interactions with the criminal justice system for minor drug offenses as we work to improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Colorado Governor Signs Marijuana Social Equity Bill Letting Him Expedite Possession Pardons

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

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Oregon Drug Decriminalization And Treatment Measure Qualifies For November Ballot

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It’s official: Oregon voters will decide in November whether to pass a measure to decriminalize drug possession while using marijuana tax revenue to fund expanded substance misuse treatment services.

The secretary of state’s office announced on Tuesday that activists behind the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act have collected enough valid signatures from registered voters to place the measure on the ballot.

The news comes one day after organizers of a separate Oregon measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use announced that their petitioning drive earned enough support for ballot access, though the state has yet to formally verify those submissions.

Officials said that out of the 163,473 total signatures the drug decriminalization campaign turned in, 116,622 were valid —putting them just over the 112,020 needed to qualify.

“This initiative will save lives, and we urgently need it right now because the pandemic has exacerbated Oregon’s addiction epidemic,” Janie Gullickson, who is a chief petitioner for the measure and is the executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, said in a press release.

The proposal places an emphasis on expanding drug treatment programs through the use of funds derived from existing cannabis tax revenues. It would also reframe drug addiction as a health issue by decriminalizing illegal substances. Low-level possession would instead be considered a civil infraction punishable by a maximum $100 fine and no jail time.

There were 8,903 drug simple drug possession arrests in the state in fiscal year 2018, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission—or more than one every hour.

“Oregon law enforcement need to stop making these kinds of arrests, targeting our communities, and ruining lives by giving people criminal records,” Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon, which is endorsing the measure, said. “The need for this measure is more urgent right now more than ever, because jails and prisons have turned into contagion hotspots during the pandemic.”

The initiative has also been endorsed by more than 50 other organizations, including ACLU Oregon, United Seniors of Oregon, Oregon Latino Health Coalition, Oregon State Council For Retired Citizens, the NAACP of Eugene, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Action. Two currently serving district attorneys and two former U.S. attorneys have also backed the measure.

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform campaigns across the country: 

Washington State activists had planned to pursue a similar drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last week that they will be targeting the legislature instead.

In Washington, D.C., a campaign to decriminalize a broad range of psychedelic substances is nearing the end of its signature drive.

Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative could get a second wind after a federal judge said last week that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives for the November ballot.

Nebraska activists are approaching a deadline this month to submit signatures for a proposed medical cannabis initiative.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort asked 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. That request was denied, but advocates are still optimistic about the chances of making the ballot.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists said they plan to continue campaign activities for a marijuana legalization initiative, but it’s more likely that they will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

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.
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