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Governors Across U.S. Step Up Push To Legalize Marijuana In Their States

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State legislatures across the U.S. have convened for new sessions over the past month, and a growing number of governors are taking steps to push lawmakers to include legalizing marijuana as part of their 2020 agendas.

At least 10 governors have gone so far as to put language ending marijuana prohibition in their annual budget requests, or used their State of the State speeches to pressure legislators to act on cannabis reform.

Some are proactively addressing the issue, while others appear to be mostly reacting to support that has already built up among lawmakers. But altogether, it’s clear that top state executives are now taking marijuana more seriously than ever before.

Here’s a look at how governors are taking action on marijuana as 2020 legislative sessions get underway.

Colorado

Gov. Jared Polis (D), who consistently led the fight for federal marijuana reform during his time in Congress, is continuing to champion cannabis now that he’s running his state.

This month, his administration rolled out a “roadmap” aimed at increasing the number of banks that serve legal cannabis businesses. He also announced an energy efficiency partnership between beer and marijuana companies that involves using carbon captured during the alcohol brewing process to grow cannabis plants.

And during his State of the State address last month Polis emphasized that “keeping Colorado the number one state in the nation for industrial hemp” is among his priorities for boosting the economy.

Connecticut

Gov. Ned Lamont (D) and leading lawmakers are pushing to make 2020 the year that Connecticut legalizes cannabis.

During his State of the State address, the governor spoke about how marijuana legalization in nearby states makes it illogical to continue prohibition. “Like it or not, legalized marijuana is a short drive away in Massachusetts and New York is soon to follow,” he said. “Right now do you realize that what you can buy legally in Massachusetts right across the border can land you in prison here in Connecticut for up to a year?”

To that end, Lamont has partnered with governors from neighboring states to develop a regional approach to cannabis.

On the governor’s behalf, the Senate president and House speaker have filed a bill to legalize marijuana in Connecticut, and Lamont’s budget proposal includes funding for new state employees to craft and implement a regulatory system for cannabis.

Illinois

Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), who signed a marijuana legalization bill into law last year, has championed its implementation in 2020. His State of the State address included a line touting how the new policy’s out-of-state appeal “gives us a chance to collect tax revenue from the residents of Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and Indiana,” all of which continue to prohibit recreational cannabis.

Pritzker’s lieutenant governor was among the first people to purchase cannabis products when legal sales began on January 1. The day before, Pritzker pardoned more than 11,000 people with prior marijuana convictions. Nearly $40 million worth of adult-use cannabis products were purchased in the first month, an economic boost that the governor’s administration prominently touted.

New Mexico

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) formally put marijuana legalization on the legislature’s agenda for the short, 30-day session ending later this month.

“It’s high time we stopped holding ourselves and our economy back: Let’s get it done this year and give New Mexicans yet another reason, yet another opportunity, to stay here and work and build a fulfilling 21st century career,” she said during her State of the State speech.

Last year, Lujan Grisham convened a working group to study cannabis. It issued a report that formed the basis of a legalization bill that is now advancing through the legislature.

New York

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) unsuccessfully pushed lawmakers to send him a marijuana legalization bill in 2019, but he’s trying again this year.

“For decades, communities of color were disproportionately affected by the unequal enforcement of marijuana laws,” he said in his 2020 State of the State address. “Let’s work with our neighbors New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania to coordinate a safe and fair system, and let’s legalize adult use of marijuana.”

The governor’s budget includes language to accomplish the end of cannabis prohibition, and he is also proposing to create a new Global Cannabis and Hemp Center for Science, Research and Education in the SUNY system.

Rhode Island

For the second year in a row, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) put measures to legalize cannabis in her budget proposal.

Unlike the version that lawmakers rejected in 2019, the new language would create a system of state-owned stores to sell marijuana.

House and Senate leaders have thus far expressed reservations about Raimondo’s plan, but it remains to be seen if they will become more open to legalization as a growing number of nearby states—including Connecticut—move to end prohibition.

South Dakota

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is no big fan of hemp, having vetoed a bill to legalize the crop that lawmakers sent to her desk last year. But in 2020, recognizing that the plant is incredibly popular and that other states are enacting new laws regulating hemp in light of its recent federal legalization, the governor is working with lawmakers to pass new compromise legislation.

Noem laid out what she called “guardrails” that need to be included in any hemp bill that could get her signature, and she also discussed the issue in her State of the State address.

“Federal guidelines have been put in place, a South Dakota tribe has been given the green light on production, and other states’ actions mean we need to address hemp transportation through our state,” she said.

New hemp legislation has already advanced through one legislative committee, and the governor seems poised to sign it into law this year as long as her concerns are addressed.

Vermont

Gov. Phil Scott (R) reluctantly signed a 2018 bill into law that legalizes low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation. Now, lawmakers are pushing to add legal cannabis sales to that, and the governor doesn’t appear as opposed as he once did.

A top lawmaker said that Scott is “at the table” in ongoing talks about legislative language. Although he still has concerns about impaired driving, the governor reportedly has his eye on using legal marijuana sales revenue to fund an after-school program he is proposing.

A cannabis commercialization bill cleared the Senate in 2019 and has already been amended and approved by a number of House committees this year, with a floor vote expected in the coming weeks.

While Scott hasn’t committed to signing it into law, advocates have become more hopeful that he won’t block it because of the tax money it can generate to support his other priorities.

U.S. Virgin Islands

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) called lawmakers into a special session in December to begin considering a marijuana legalization proposal that he says is needed to generate revenue to support a retirement fund for government employees.

“We must acknowledge the opportunities that regulated expansion of this industry can bring to the territory and the potential benefits” to the retirement program, he said during his State of the Territory address last month.

Virginia

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) campaigned on decriminalizing marijuana in 2017 and has continually pushed lawmakers to send him a bill on the topic. Now that the governor’s party won control of both chambers of the legislature in November’s elections, it might actually get done, and he put marijuana decriminalization at the top of his 2020 criminal justice agenda.

“We need to take an honest look at our criminal justice system to make sure we’re treating people fairly and using taxpayer dollars wisely,” he said in his State of the Commonwealth speech. “This means decriminalizing marijuana possession—and clearing the records of people who’ve gotten in trouble for it.”

Cannabis decriminalization legislation has advanced through several House of Delegates and Senate committees in recent weeks, and cleared the full House this week. A Senate floor vote is expected soon.

Wisconsin

Gov. Tony Evers (D) included language to legalize medical cannabis and decriminalize marijuana possession in his budget last year, but lawmakers removed those provisions.

But the governor is still pushing the issue, calling out the legislature in his 2020 State of the State speech for ignoring the will of the voters.

“When more than 80 percent of our state supports medical marijuana…and elected officials can ignore those numbers without consequence, folks, something’s wrong,” he said.

The GOP House speaker has expressed some openness to allowing medical cannabis in some form, but Senate leadership is more hostile to the idea. It remains to be seen if gubernatorial pressure can convince lawmakers to advance the issue.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.

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.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

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GOP Senator Presses Treasury Secretary On Tax Credits For Marijuana Businesses

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A Republican senator recently pressed the head of the Treasury Department on whether marijuana businesses qualify for a federal tax benefit.

During a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was asked about the “opportunity zone” tax credit, which is meant to encourage investments in “distressed,” low-income communities through benefits such as deferrals on capital gains taxes.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), whose state’s voters approved a medical marijuana ballot measure in 2018, told Mnuchin that businesses that derive more than five percent of their profits from things like alcohol sales are ineligible for the tax credit, but there’s “not a definition dealing with cannabis businesses.”

“Are they within that five percent amount or are they not at all because there’s a federal prohibition on cannabis sales?” the senator asked.

“I’m going to have to get back to you on the specifics,” Mnuchin replied.

“That’d be helpful to get clarity because there are cannabis businesses across the country that, if they fall in opportunity zones, they’ll need clarification on that,” Lankford said. “When you and I have spoken about it before—it’s difficult to give a federal tax benefit to something that’s against federal law.”

 

Lankford, who opposes legalization and appeared in a TV ad against his state’s medical cannabis ballot measure, has raised this issue with the Treasury secretary during at least two prior hearings. When he questioned whether cannabis businesses qualify for the program last year, he clarified that he personally does not believe they should.

While Mnuchin’s department has yet to issue guidance on the issue, he said in response to the earlier questioning that his understanding is that “it is not the intent of the opportunity zones that if there is this conflict [between state and federal marijuana laws] that has not been cleared that, for now, we should not have those businesses in the opportunity zones.”

Mnuchin has also been vocal about the need for Congress to address the lack of financial resources available to state-legal marijuana businesses. Because so many of these companies are forced to operate on a largely cash-only basis, he said the Internal Revenue Service has had to build “cash rooms” to store their tax deposits.

“There is not a Treasury solution to this. There is not a regulator solution to this,” he said during one hearing. “If this is something that Congress wants to look at on a bipartisan basis, I’d encourage you to do this. This is something where there is a conflict between federal and state law that we and the regulators have no way of dealing with.”

Last week’s Finance Committee hearing was centered around President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget request, which separately includes a provision calling for the elimination of an appropriations rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its fund to interfere in the implementation of medical cannabis laws as well as a continued block on Washington, D.C. spending its own local tax dollars to legalize marijuana sales.

American Bar Association Wants Protections For Marijuana Banking And Lawyers Working With Cannabis Clients

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American Bar Association Wants Protections For Marijuana Banking And Lawyers Working With Cannabis Clients

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The American Bar Association (ABA) approved two marijuana-related resolutions during its midyear meeting on Monday.

The group’s House of Delegates voted in favor of proposals endorsing pending federal legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses and calling for a clarification of rules to ensure that lawyers will not be penalized for representing clients in cases concerning state-legal marijuana activity.

Under the banking resolution, ABA “urges Congress to enact legislation to clarify and ensure that it shall not constitute a federal crime for banking and financial institutions to provide services to businesses and individuals, including attorneys, who receive compensation from the sale of state-legalized cannabis or who provide services to cannabis-related legitimate business acting in accordance with state, territorial, and tribal laws.”

ABA added that “such legislation should clarify that the proceeds from a transaction involving activities of a legitimate cannabis-related business or service provider shall not be considered proceeds from an unlawful activity solely because the transaction involves proceeds from a legitimate cannabis-related business or service provider, or because the transaction involves proceeds from legitimate cannabis-related activities.”

A bill that would accomplish this goal was approved by the House of Representatives last year, but it’s currently stalled in the Senate, where it awaits action in the Banking Committee. That panel’s chair, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) is under pressure from industry stakeholders to advance the legislation, but he’s also heard from anti-legalization lawmakers who’ve thanked him for delaying the bill.

“Passage of the [Secure and Fair Enforcement] Banking Act or similar legislation will provide security for lawyers and firms acting to advise companies in the industry against having their accounts closed or deposits seized,” a report attached to the ABA resolution states. “This will also foster the rule of law by ensuring that those working in the state-legalized legitimate cannabis industry can seek counsel and help prevent money laundering and other crimes associated with off-the-books cash transactions.”

“Currently, the threat of criminal prosecution prevents most depository institutions from banking clients, including lawyers, who are in the stream of commerce of state-legalized marijuana. This Resolution is necessary to clarify that such provision of legal and other services in compliance with state law should not constitute unlawful activity pursuant to federal law.”

The second marijuana-related resolution ABA adopted on Monday asks Congress to allow attorneys to serve clients in cannabis cases without facing federal punishment.

Text of the measure states that the association “urges Congress to enact legislation to clarify and explicitly ensure that it does not constitute a violation of federal law for lawyers, acting in accord with state, territorial, and tribal ethical rules on lawyers’ professional conduct, to provide legal advice and services to clients regarding matters involving marijuana-related activities that are in compliance with state, territorial, and tribal law.”

Such a change would provide needed clarity for lawyers as more states legalize cannabis for adult use. ABA’s own rules of conduct have been a source of conflict for attorneys, as it stipulates that they “shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent.” Federal law continues to regard marijuana as an illegal, strictly controlled substance.

An ABA report released last year made the case that there’s flexibility within that rule, however, as “it is unreasonable to prohibit a lawyer from providing advice and counsel to clients and to assist clients regarding activities permitted by relevant state or local law, including laws that allow the production, distribution, sale, and use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes so long as the lawyer also advises the client that some such activities may violate existing federal law.”

A new report attached to the resolution states that “statutory guidance is needed that explicitly ensures that attorneys who adhere to their state ethics rules do not risk federal criminal prosecution simply for providing legal counsel to clients operating marijuana businesses in compliance with their state law.”

“This Resolution accomplishes this elegantly by harmonizing federal criminal liability with States’ ethical rules regarding the provision of advice and legal services relating to marijuana business. If a state has legalized some form of marijuana activity and explicitly permitted lawyers to provide advice and legal services relating to such state-authorized marijuana activity, such provision of advice and legal services shall not be unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act or any other federal law.”

Last year, ABA adopted another cannabis resolution—arguing that states should be allowed to set their own marijuana policies.

Border Patrol Union Head Admits Legalizing Marijuana Forces Cartels Out Of The Market

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Border Patrol Union Head Admits Legalizing Marijuana Forces Cartels Out Of The Market

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The head of the labor union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents acknowledged on Friday that states that legalize marijuana are disrupting cartel activity.

While National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd was attempting to downplay the impact of legalization, he seemed to inadvertently make a case for the regulation all illicit drugs by arguing that cartels move away from smuggling cannabis and on to other substances when states legalize.

Judd made the remarks during an appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, where a caller said that “the states that have legalized marijuana have done more damage to the cartels than the [Drug Enforcement Administration] could ever think about doing.”

“As far as drugs go, all we do is we enforce the laws. We don’t determine what those laws are,” Judd, who is scheduled to meet with President Trump on Friday, replied. “If Congress determines that marijuana is going to be legal, then we’re not going to seize marijuana.”

“But what I will tell you is when he points out that certain states have legalized marijuana, all the cartels do is they just transition to another drug that creates more profit,” he said. “Even if you legalize marijuana, it doesn’t mean that drugs are going to stop. They’re just going to go and start smuggling the opioids, the fentanyl.”

One potential solution that Judd didn’t raise would be to legalize those other drugs to continue to remove the profit motive for cartels. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang made a similar argument in December.

Federal data on Border Patrol drug seizures seems to substantiate the idea that cannabis legalization at the state level has reduced demand for the product from the illicit market. According to a 2018 report from the Cato Institute, these substantial declines are attributable to state-level cannabis reform efforts, which “has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”

Additionally, legalization seems to be helping to reduce federal marijuana trafficking prosecutions, with reports showing decreases of such cases year over year since states regulated markets have come online.

In his annual report last year, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts also noted reduced federal marijuana prosecutions—another indication that the market for illegally sourced marijuana is drying up as more adults consumers are able to buy the product in legal stores.

Top Mexican Senator Says Marijuana Legalization Bill Will Be Approved This Month

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