Two Georgia runoff elections for U.S. Senate seats being held next month will decide which party controls the chamber—and that will have significant implications for marijuana policy in the 117th Congress.
Democratic wins for both positions would mean that the party would reclaim command over the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker. Both of the Democratic candidates vying for those seats are in favor of cannabis and drug policy reform. If Republicans keep the majority by winning at least one of the Georgia seats, meanwhile, the prospects of ending federal marijuana prohibition would be dimmed for at least the next two years.
That’s not because GOP voters oppose enacting the policy change. In fact, 51 percent of Republicans said in a recent poll that they favor a House-passed bill to federally legalize marijuana. But current leadership in the Senate has given no signal that they would take up, let alone prioritize, cannabis reform. Figures like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who holds staunchly anti-marijuana views, would likely be reinstalled next year if the party keeps control.
What all of that means is that the January 5 runoffs will likely decide the fate of federal cannabis policy, at least until the 2022 midterm elections. For voters who care about marijuana issues in the state, which went to President-elect Joe Biden in a historic flip, there’s a lot at stake.
Here’s where each of the Georgia Senate candidates stand on cannabis, followed by some broader analysis:
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)
The senator, who joined Congress earlier this year after being appointed by the state’s governor to fill a vacancy, earned an F grade on her cannabis platform from the advocacy group NORML.
Loeffler said that while she understands “some of the arguments in favor of ending the federal prohibition of marijuana and am aware that there are potential medical applications,” she is “concerned about the negative effects that legalizing marijuana would have on communities, families, and our nation’s youth.”
She also pointed to an advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General cautioning against cannabis use by adolescents and pregnant women.
“Any efforts by Congress to legalize this substance must be taken seriously and with the common goal in mind to prevent Americans from becoming dependent on drugs,” she said, according to NORML.
Loeffler said in an American Family Association survey that she “strongly disagrees” with the legalization of marijuana.
The senator has also been dismissive of recent congressional efforts to reform marijuana laws. For example, she criticized House Democrats for including language in a coronavirus relief bill that would protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
.@realDonaldTrump is fighting to restore the blue collar boom he created since taking office while the Democrats’ relief plan mentions cannabis 20 more times than it mentions jobs.
It’s time to drop these political games & get this done. pic.twitter.com/wJtwAEkJ4K
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) August 8, 2020
She also joined the chorus of Republicans who chastised Democrats for holding a vote on a bill to federally legalize marijuana this month. That legislation was approved.
Millions of Americans are struggling, and what is Pelosi's House Majority doing?
– Voting on a "Tiger King" bill
– Voting to legalize marijuana
– Studying ceiling fans
Meanwhile they're still blocking aid for small businesses & employers.
Americans deserve better. https://t.co/lMdyq7y0HT
— Senator Kelly Loeffler (@SenatorLoeffler) December 9, 2020
Loeffler has not cosponsored any cannabis reform bills during her time in the Senate.
Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock
The reverend has frequently discussed the failures of the war on drugs and supports marijuana reform.
“Marijuana is seen as an illegal substance,” he said in one sermon. “It’s a terrible irony and we feel it, that right now in America there are some folks who are becoming billionaires for selling the same stuff that’s got our children locked up all across America.”
“Where is the justice?” he asked “It’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana. Somebody’s gotta open up the jails and let our children go.”
Loeffler, who Warnock is running to unseat, attempted to criticize him for those remarks by falsely claiming in a debate this month that he wanted to broadly empty prisons and wouldn’t keep communities safe.
Loeffler's line about Warnock wanting to "empty the prisons" is pretty misleading. Warnock was talking specifically about marijuana convictions. The quote was: "It’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana; somebody’s got to open up the jail cells and let our children go."
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) December 7, 2020
Speaking more broadly about the drug war in another sermon, Warnock pointed out that the U.S. only seemed to take a public health approach to substance misuse when it became clear that the opioid misuse epidemic was entered largely white communities.
“For 35 years we’ve had a war on drugs. Now, back then we were dealing with heroin, crack. Now we’re dealing with meth and opioids,” he said. “It’s interesting to me that now we have a public health emergency. I’m glad we’ve become so enlightened now that the bodies are suburban, rural and white.”
“In 1980, there were about 300,000 or so Americans in prison. Today there are 2.3 million Americans in prison. Most of them are there for non-violent, drug-related offenses in America’s so-called war on drugs. We warehouse in America 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Nobody else comes close. Not even China with a billion people. We’ve got them beat. We warehouse 25 percent of the world’s prisoners in the so-called war on drugs.”
“When our children take a plea, sometimes for a marijuana charge—and we deplore drug use, to be sure.—but some children are taken down to central booking, and others are taken home,” he said. “The issue is not simply drugs. Raise your hand if you ever tried some weed. You’re in church now.”
Sen. David Perdue (R-GA)
NORML gave Perdue a B- for his cannabis record in the Senate.
“I’m not a doctor, but the only use of marijuana that I would support today would be the medical use of it,” he said in 2014. “I’ve talked to other physicians that think it’s a valuable tool to use. I’m basing this on medical thought that that is a tool to use against some treatments for cancer and so forth, and if that can be used medicinally, I would be OK with that.”
Perdue said he would protect his state’s limited medical cannabis program from potential federal interference.
“As a senator, I’m telling you that I’m going to support the law of the land in the state of Georgia, that’s first of all, second of all, that the medicinal use of it is something that I would be receptive to,” he said.
Perdue is opposed to broader legalization and has not cosponsored any marijuana reform legislation in the Senate.
Democrat Jon Ossoff
Jon Ossoff, the Democratic challenger to Perdue is in favor of cannabis legalization and said that he would push for the policy change if elected to the Senate.
In the Senate I'll fight for stronger civil rights laws and due process protections, an end to mandatory minimum sentencing, prison reform that raises conditions to humane standards, death penalty abolition, cannabis legalization, and to ban private prisons.
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) June 19, 2020
“Some get rich in the legal cannabis industry while others sit in prison for nonviolent cannabis offenses. Prohibition destroys lives, wastes resources, and enriches cartels,” he wrote in July. “Federal legalization is long overdue.”
Some get rich in the legal cannabis industry while others sit in prison for nonviolent cannabis offenses.
Prohibition destroys lives, wastes resources, and enriches cartels.
Federal legalization is long overdue. pic.twitter.com/vOQEj1YYGU
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) July 21, 2020
In an interview CNBC, Ossoff said “I won’t just push for decriminalization, I’ll push for nationwide legalization of cannabis.”
“The prohibition of this substance is irrational,” he said. “It’s hugely expensive. It has a terrible human toll.”
He’s also previously remarked that marijuana is safer than alcohol, while prohibition “destroys lives.”
Fact: Cannabis is much less dangerous than alcohol.
Its prohibition destroys lives, enriches drug cartels and the prison industry, and costs taxpayers billions per year.
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) October 12, 2019
Ossoff’s campaign website pledges that he will work to “legalize cannabis” and “end incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses.”
Given the increasing bipartisan nature of marijuana reform—coupled with the fact that five more states voted to legalize on Election Day in some form, including several conservative states—it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that a Republican-controlled Senate could meet House Democrats in the middle and advance some kind of policy change in 2021. But it’s unlikely that such reform would be comprehensive and include the restorative justice components that advocates are pushing for.
It’s possible, for example, that GOP members would move limited bills to protect states with cannabis legalization on the books from federal intervention, or to shield banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by regulators.
But the distinct possibility remains that even those proposals may linger in the Senate if Democrats don’t secure the chamber, as the current Republican majority has shown no willingness to move even modest marijuana reforms. And even if GOP leadership did decide to advance cannabis legislation, Loeffler has indicated she’s not amenable to minor reforms, regardless of their bipartisan nature.
What that means is that, if advocates hope to finally end cannabis prohibition in 2021, both Ossoff and Warnock would likely need to prevail in the runoffs next month. That would get leadership in place that would be more willing to advance the policy change as well as put two more individual pro-reform lawmakers in office.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who would be expected to become majority leader if Democrats take the Senate, has said he will advance cannabis legislation if given the power to set the floor agenda.
For what it’s worth, the Democratic challengers have the advantage among most Georgia voters when it comes to marijuana. Two separate 2018 polls released by 11Alive News found that 55 percent of residents back the reform.
In January of that year, 50 percent of voters said in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey that they favor legalization, compared to 46 percent who said they were opposed. An overwhelming 77 percent said in that poll that they support expanding the state’s medical cannabis program.
Previously, 66 percent of Georgia Republican primary voters said in a 2015 survey that they back medical cannabis legalization.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.