Several government agencies in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) testified on Friday in favor of a marijuana legalization bill the governor is asking lawmakers to approve—with officials outlining how a regulated cannabis market can help the territory, especially given current economic needs.
During a hearing, the Departments of Health, Agriculture and Licensing and Consumer Affairs, among others, weighed in on the proposal, which Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) unveiled last month. The St. Croix Chamber of Commerce also testified in favor of the reform.
The Office of Management and Budget said the proposed legislation “not only provides a more comprehensive regulatory and enforcement framework for cannabis, but it also promises to create new businesses and jobs and differentiate our tourism product offerings from other Caribbean destinations.”
“In summary, this amended bill would give birth to a new industry that will generate approximately $38 million in sales in the first year or two, create for the Government of the Virgin Islands roughly $13.8 million in direct taxes and fees and probably produce 600-800 direct and indirect jobs,” it continued. “The introduction of fully legalized cannabis use will have an appreciable and positive economic impact.”
Overall, there was broad support for the legislation. Multiple witnesses before the Senate Committee of the Whole emphasized that legalizing cannabis for adult use could help drive tourism and offset financial losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and other natural disasters such as hurricanes.
Notably, the commissioner of the Virgin Islands Police Department didn’t oppose the bill and chose instead to emphasize that officers will work to uphold any laws enacted by the legislature.
Watch the virtual hearing before the Committee of the Whole below:
Many of the witnesses echoed points the governor has made in recent weeks. Bryan said earlier this month that USVI needs to legalize in order to generate tax revenue for the territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. He has also emphasized that taxing and regulating cannabis will help shore up a struggling retirement program for government employees.
“As we prepare for the new norm, post COVID-19, now is the time to prepare ourselves for tomorrow. We shall only fail when we fail to try,” the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs said, adding that the “proposed legislation, if passed into law, will be a major economic driver for the Virgin Islands.”
“With the opening up of the various businesses to cultivate, dispense and manufacture cannabis and cannabis products, the Virgin Islands will realize an infusion of well needed revenues through various licensing fees, taxes and fines,” it continued. “The industry will produce financial opportunities to many locals and will boost our tourism product.”
Positive Nelson, a former senator and current agriculture commissioner who has long advocated for marijuana reform, said the bill “is not perfect,” but he supports advancing and revising it along the way.
“We must trust ourselves to make the necessary tweaks either through rules and regulations and or future amendments to this Act,” he said. “Through passage of this Act we allow quality control, safe places for acquiring cannabis, direct tax dollars and fees, and reduced criminal activities surrounding the protection of crops and turfs.”
The police commissioner didn’t explicitly support the measure, but he said that the department “understands its significant responsibility and intends to enforce the laws enacted by this body to the fullest extent of our ability.”
The St. Croix Chamber of Commerce stated in written testimony that the territory is “in an economic downturn” due to the health crisis and this is “an opportune time to build out this addition to our tourism product and plan for a rollout of this product as our tourism numbers return.”
In addition to establishing a system of legal cannabis sales and production, the bill at the center of the hearing would provide for automatic expungements for prior possession convictions, encourage research into the benefits of marijuana and recognize the rights of individuals who wish to use or grow the plant for religious purposes.
The legislation would also ban home cultivation for recreational consumers, allow cultivation for medical cannabis patients, increase the number of members of the government’s existing Cannabis Advisory Board and limit non-residents to purchasing up to seven grams of flower per day while residents could buy up to an ounce.
There would be no tax on cannabis sales for medical patients, a 7.5 percent tax for residents and a 25 percent tax for non-residents.
In order to own a marijuana business, an individual must have been a resident of USVI for at least 10 years. For micro-cultivator business, the threshold is five years of residency.
A special “cannabis fund” would be established under the proposed legislation, with 20 percent of marijuana tax revenue being allocated to the Office of Cannabis Regulations, a cannabis testing program, job training, substance misuse treatment and grant programs for business incubation and micro-lending.
Members of the committee didn’t hold a vote on the legislation on Friday. Instead, the chair said lawmakers will conduct additional hearings in local districts over the next few weeks with the intent of holding a vote during the June 29 session.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Biden Taps Marijuana Legalization Supporter To Lead Democratic National Committee
President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is a strong backer of marijuana legalization—the latest example of a nominee holding cannabis policy reform views that go further than the incoming president’s.
If confirmed by party leaders on Thursday, as is expected, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison will be responsible for coordinating Democrats’ national political activities. To that end, a push from the chair to emphasize marijuana reform, which is overwhelmingly supported by Democratic voters, could be broadly influential.
Harrison made a 2020 run for a Senate seat held by outgoing Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) but didn’t prevail. During his campaign, he stressed the need to legalize marijuana as a means to promote racial justice.
“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” he said in July. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”
“We know that marijuana arrests, including those for simple possession, account for a large number of drug arrests,” he said. “The racial disparities in marijuana enforcement—black men and white men smoke marijuana the same rates, but black men are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession—is just unacceptable.”
“Across the country, we are finding that states are legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana, and it’s just time for South Carolina to lead on this issue,” Harrison added.
He also criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he rescinded an Obama-era Justice Department policy that provided guidance to prosecutors on federal cannabis enforcement.
So let me get this straight… the @GOP has gone after Net neutrality, student loans, DACA, CHIP, passed a stupid tax cut for the wealthy, & now are going after legalized Marijuana. To hell with a #BlueWave … the GOP is about to experience a #BlueApocalypse18 #JustPlainDumb https://t.co/YAW2oIekVn
— Jaime Harrison (@harrisonjaime) January 4, 2018
“I believe we need to regulate marijuana just like we do tobacco. I think we need to tax it and make sure that it’s safe. I just think if you look at the science right now—the criminalization—it’s been more harmful to us as a society than not,” Harrison said in another interview. “I think we will do much better to just simply regulate and tax it just like we do alcohol and tobacco. So I’ve been very plain and outspoken on that. I think we have to decriminalize it at this point in time.”
But the likely DNC chair’s support for broad cannabis reform is at odds with Biden’s position.
Despite supermajority support for the policy change among Democrats, the president-elect has maintained an opposition to legalization. Instead, he backs decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, modest rescheduling, expunging past records and allowing states to set their own policies free of federal intervention.
If formally elected, Harrison would be replacing Tom Perez, whose views on marijuana policy are less clear. That said, the current DNC chair did reveal a cannabis blindspot in 2019 when he attempted to joke about President Trump getting high from smoking hemp (which is non-intoxicating) and suggested that it makes people dumb.
Before Perez, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) served as DNC chair. She had long opposed cannabis reform but seems to have evolved, voting in favor of a spending bill amendment for the first time last year that called for protecting all state marijuana programs from federal intervention.
The DNC hasn’t historically warmed to marijuana reform at the pace of the party’s voters. And as recently as last year, the organization’s platform committee rejected an amendment that would have made legalization an official 2020 party plank.
Instead, the committee adopted a position calling for decriminalization, rescheduling, medical cannabis legalization, expungements and allowing state-level reform—much like Biden.
For her part, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who was recently reelected for another term, said last year when asked about medical marijuana that the issue is “left up to the states and there’s going to be variances between states.”
“But that’s not something that the RNC puts forward as policy,” she said. “That’s a legislative issue.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s choice of Harrison to lead the Democrats’ political operation represents yet another pick whose position on legalization breaks with his own.
The president-elect announced earlier this month that he wants Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) to run the Commerce Department. The governor came out in support of legalization in 2019, and she released a budget proposal last year that called for a state-run regulatory model for cannabis.
Biden also recently selected a nominee lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D)—who is amenable to reform. And in his role, he could help facilitate federal cannabis rescheduling.
For attorney general, Biden is nominating Judge Merrick Garland, who has not been especially outspoken about his views on marijuana policy. While advocates expressed concern about his commentary in a 2012 federal appeals case on marijuana scheduling, he doesn’t appear to have been publicly hostile to a policy change.
In positive news for advocates, the president-elect is also set to nominate former prosecutor and civil rights activist Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general. She favors cannabis legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.
Local Massachusetts Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Psychedelics Decriminalization Measure
Local Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics—the latest in a national movement to reform laws on entheogenic plants and fungi.
Prior passing the measure in a 9-0 vote, the Somerville City Council took testimony from two people with personal experience benefiting from the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Several members of the council also discussed the failures of the drug war and the potential medical value of entheogenic substances, particularly as it concerns mental health.
The resolution was supported by the mayor.
“By decriminalizing psychedelic plants, Massachusetts can mainstream harm-reduction strategies as therapists and health providers embrace these compounds for physical, psychological, and spiritual relief,” Decriminalize Nature, Bay Staters for Natural Medicines and the Heroic Hearts Project said in written testimony to lawmakers.
“Somerville has a chance to empower our neighbors, friends, and loved ones to seek the physical and spiritual relief they need and put public health above incarcerating people even in cases of addiction and abuse of controlled substances,” they wrote.
Quote:"no … officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Somerville Police Department personnel, should use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults"
— JT Scott (@JTforWard2) January 15, 2021
Under the proposal, enforcement of laws against psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca would be among the city’s lowest priorities. It also calls on the county prosecutor to cease pursing cases for persons charged with possessing or distributing entheogens.
The measure states that “the City Council hereby maintains it should be the policy of the City of Somerville that the investigation and arrest of adult persons for planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, engaging in practices with, and/or possessing entheogenic plants… shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Somerville.”
It also stipulates that “no City of Somerville department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Somerville Police Department personnel, should use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults.”
Thank you to my colleauges Councilor Clingan @JesseForWard4, Councilor Scott @JTforWard2, and Mayor @JoeCurtatone for filing tonight's Resolution supporting the decriminalization of enthiogenic plants, fungus, and cacti – proud to co-sponsor. pic.twitter.com/SrXkNdQNuT
— Ben Ewen-Campen (@BenForWard3) January 14, 2021
“I love living in a city where this is not controversial and you got unanimous support,” Council President Matt McLaughlin said at the close of the meeting. “Let’s end this war on drugs, and this is a good step.”
Watch the lawmakers discuss the psychedelics reform resolution, starting around 25:45 into the video below:
With Thursday’s vote, Somerville joins a growing number of cities across the U.S. that have enacted psychedelics decriminalization. Most of the reforms have advanced legislatively, though Washington, D.C. became the first jurisdiction to decriminalize via the ballot in November.
In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes. The governor announced in November that applications for an advisory board to oversee implementation of the program were being accepted up until January 1.
Much of this reform progress can be traced back to Denver, which became the first city in the country to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May 2019. Since then, activists in more than 100 cities have expressed interest in pursuing psychedelics decriminalization.
In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution last month that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.
A California state senator plans to file a bill to decriminalize psychedelics for the 2021 session.
Meanwhile, after Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution in September, a county prosecutor recently announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”
North Dakota Lawmakers File Bill To Significantly Expand Marijuana Decriminalization Law
North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in the state.
The legislation, which was filed on Monday, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.
Under the current statute, possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, with no jail time. The new proposal would make possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carries a $50 fine.
Further, possession of more than one ounce and less than 250 grams would be treated as an infraction, rather than a class B misdemeanor, as it is currently classified.
Possessing more than 250 grams of marijuana would be a class B misdemeanor and possessing more than 500 grams would be a class A misdemeanor.
The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R) and Sen. Scott Meyer (R) in their respective chambers. It’s been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 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.
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“It’s encouraging to see Rep. Roers Jones and her colleagues continue the push to reduce harsh and senseless penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in North Dakota,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Decriminalization is no substitute for legalizing and regulating marijuana for adults, as several of North Dakota’s neighbors have now done. But passage of this bill would continue the trend of progress the state has seen in recent years.”
Activists are moving forward with plans to put a cannabis legalization ballot initiative before voters in 2022.
The measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use, was submitted to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Monday. If its language is accepted, the campaign will be able to start signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.
The same team behind the new initiative came close to putting a similar measure on the state’s ballot last year, but petitioning efforts were impeded by the coronavirus pandemic.
A separate group of advocates, Legalize ND, also attempted to qualify a different legalization initiative in 2020 that would have allowed retail sales but excluded a home grow option. That organization is also considering plans for its own 2022 measure.
Previously, a 2018 legalization push that did qualify for the ballot was defeated. Voters in the state did approve a measure to legalize medical cannabis in 2016, though the law was scaled down by the legislature the following year.
While activists are skeptical that the legislature has the appetite to enact the policy change on their own, it is the case that lawmakers may feel increased pressure given that voters in neighboring South Dakota and Montana elected to legalize cannabis in November.
Read the new North Dakota marijuana decriminalization bill below: