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High-Ranking House Democrat Calls On Congress To Decriminalize Marijuana As ‘Next Step’

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The incoming House Democratic majority’s fifth top ranking member says that after the recent passage of criminal justice reform legislation entitled The First Step Act, the “next step” should be to enact far-reaching marijuana reforms.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who was elected to new party leadership position last month, has been an outspoken advocate for cannabis decriminalization. Though his House Democratic Caucus chair win over Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) disappointed some progressives, his aggressive stance on marijuana reform in 2019 could help endear him to the party’s base.

“Thanks to…the administration and a strong left-right coalition (the unusual suspects), historic criminal justice reform legislation is now law,” Jeffries tweeted on Friday. “Next step, Congress should DECRIMINALIZE MARIJUANA.”

The congressman has repeatedly condemned racially disproportionate arrest rates for simple marijuana possession, including in parts of New York City that he represents.

“New York City is often known as one of the more progressive places in the country, but I’m ashamed of the fact that it is also the marijuana arrest capitol of the world,” he said in September. “More people in New York City over the last decade or so have been arrested for simple possession of marijuana than in any other place in the world. And the unfortunate part about that—even in a place like New York City that prides itself on social, racial and economic inclusion—is that a disproportionate number of people arrested are black and Latino.”

In his capacity as House Caucus chair, Jeffries will be uniquely positioned to help guide the party’s efforts on cannabis legislation, conferring with likely incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and committee chairs as the new Democratic majority sets its priorities.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) laid out a step-by-step plan to that end earlier this year in a memo to party leaders that he called a “Blueprint to Legalize Marijuana in the 116th Congress.”

The plan involves having multiple committee chairs hold hearings on various aspects of cannabis reform and ultimately delivering a package of reform bills that will pave the path to federal decriminalization and legalization.

“Those who are actually looking to champion criminal justice reform should work with us on key elements surrounding our outdated federal marijuana policy, like federal decriminalization and expungement for non-violent drug offenses,” Blumenauer said in a separate statement about the passage of the criminal justice bill. “Congress needs to do more to transform our justice system from punitive to rehabilitative.”

Incoming House Rules Chair Signs On To Far-Reaching Marijuana Reform Bill

Photo element courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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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Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota

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A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.

Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.

“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.

The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.

Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.

Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.

“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”

Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.

It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.

“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.

California Lawmakers Use Cryptocurrency To Buy Marijuana From Dispensary

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches

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With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.

In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”

The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.

Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.

Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.

While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.

Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.

“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”

“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”

Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”

The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.

House Marijuana Banking Vote Officially Scheduled For Next Week, Leadership Announces

Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.

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House Marijuana Banking Vote Officially Scheduled For Next Week, Leadership Announces

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House leadership confirmed on Friday that a bipartisan marijuana banking bill will receive a floor vote next week despite objections from several leading advocacy groups who want broader justice-oriented cannabis reforms to advance before what they see as an industry-focused proposal.

The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which cleared the Financial Services Committee in March, will be voted on through a process known as suspension of the rules, requiring two-thirds of the chamber (290 members) to support it for passage.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced the scheduling of the vote in remarks on the House floor on Friday morning.

“We will consider several bills under suspension of the rules, including H.R. 1595, the SAFE Banking Act of 2019, as amended.”

A staffer for his office told Marijuana Moment that they “expect it on the Floor on Wednesday.”

No amendments will be allowed on the floor, but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) is moving to make a series of changes ahead of the vote in order to broader its GOP appeal. That includes adding language clarifying that banks that service hemp and CBD business as well as marijuana firms would be protected from being penalized by federal financial regulators.

The revised bill also stipulates that financial regulators can’t target certain industries like firearm dealers without a valid reason.

“After six years of working on this bill, the SAFE Banking Act will go a long way in providing certainty for financial institutions to work with cannabis businesses and getting cash off our streets to make our communities safer,” Ashley Verville, communications director for Perlmutter, told Marijuana Moment following Hoyer’s announcement.

“We are very pleased that the broad support for this much-needed reform has finally led to a vote,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Small businesses cannot afford to delay access to financial services, and every day that traditional lending and banking is denied to the cannabis industry is another day that marginalized communities will continue to be left behind by the opportunities created in legal cannabis markets.”

“The time to act is now, and success next week will only improve our chances for more comprehensive reforms in the future,” he said.

Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, echoed that point.

“We applaud the House for taking up this vital piece of cannabis policy reform that will greatly increase public safety within the markets we operate, while helping to address some of the challenges that we face regarding equity,” he said.

While advocates initially expected a floor vote to be scheduled prior to the summer recess, that didn’t materialize. Hoyer announced last week that he intended to get a vote before the end of September.

The announcement sparked a debate within advocacy circles, however. Groups including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) wrote a letter urging leadership to delay the vote on banking—legislation viewed as primarily favorable to the industry—until comprehensive marijuana reform is passed first.

“This is disappointing news,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for DPA, told Marijuana Moment about Hoyer’s vote announcement. “We will continue to talk with leadership, members, and allies on next steps.”

While Democrats have largely embraced marijuana reform, including the banking bill, frustration over the order in which the House tackles cannabis legislation has led to some dissent within the party and its constituencies, potentially jeopardizing the chances that the SAFE Banking Act will garner the required 290 votes. For example, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Thursday that she may vote against the bill if the chamber doesn’t first tackle social equity issues.

“She feels strongly that addressing racial justice should be the first priority,” a staffer for the congresswoman told Marijuana Moment.

Groups that backed delaying the vote have yet to decide on next steps since the scheduling announcement.

DPA Director of National Affairs Michael Collins told Marijuana Moment that “no decision has been made” in terms of whether the organization will urge lawmakers to vote against the bill on the floor without broader reform measures advancing first.

Jasmine Tyler, advocacy director for HRW’s U.S. program, said “we actually haven’t gotten that far.”

“Pushing for delay still,” she said.

Late on Friday, Hoyer’s office formally listed the planned vote on the SAFE Banking Act on next week’s floor calendar.

Lawmakers such as House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Perlmutter told Marijuana Moment this week that while they share the groups’ desire for broader cannabis legislation, there’s been a lack of movement within the Judiciary Committee to advance a legalization bill from its chair, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and so lawmakers are in a bind.

“SAFE Banking is a narrowly focused bill that serves as the ice breaker for this Congress to take up additional marijuana legislation,” Verville, from Perlmutter’s office, said. “We appreciate the strong broad, bipartisan coalition of support behind this bill, and look forward to the vote next week.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on Thursday that he agrees with the sentiment expressed in the advocacy letter, writing that “Congress should not enact banking reform alone and think the job is done.” He didn’t specify whether he also wanted a vote to be delayed, however.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) didn’t specifically mention the banking bill, but in a tweet published hours after the House vote was announced, he reiterated his stance that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”

Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, which supports moving forward with the banking bill while broader legislation is worked out, told Marijuana Moment that the House vote next week “is an important first step by Congress.”

“But much more action will still need to be taken in order to ultimately comport federal law with the new political and cultural realities surrounding marijuana,” he added.

While some advocates have raised concerns about the timing of the banking vote, there’s been widespread support for the legislation among financial associations and state officials.

The American Bankers Association (ABA), Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) and National Bankers Association (NBA) wrote a letter supporting the bill’s passage on Thursday.

They’re joined by 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and bipartisan governors of 20 states, all of which have backed the SAFE Banking Act this year.

If the banking bill clears the House next week, it’s prospects remain uncertain in the Republican-controlled Senate. Though certain key senators such as Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) have recently indicated that they’re inclined to pursue a legislative fix to the issue, GOP lawmakers have generally not had the same appetite for marijuana reform as their Democratic colleagues.

That said, the chairman revealed last week that he plans to hold a vote on cannabis banking legislation in his panel before the year’s end, and Perlmutter’s proposed amendments are likely to increase Senate leadership’s interest in taking up the SAFE Banking Act. Crapo is an especially strong proponent of preventing financial regulators from targeting certain industries such as gun sellers, which the bill will now address.

However, Crapo’s communications director told Marijuana Moment on Friday that there are “no plans to mark anything up/hold a vote at this time.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a fierce advocate for the hemp and CBD industries, and he may be persuaded to put the legislation to a vote since it includes explicit protections for those businesses even if he personally opposes broader marijuana reform.

This story has been updated to include comments from lawmakers and advocates. 

These New Marijuana Banking Bill Amendments Could Help Win GOP Support

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