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How Marijuana Criminalization Undermines The Coronavirus Response (Op-Ed)

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“There will be many policy lessons that emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. One should be that we can achieve better health, safety, and economic outcomes if we replace cannabis prohibition with a thoughtfully regulated system of sales to adults and take other steps to reduce the number of low-risk offenders who become entrapped in our criminal justice system.”

By Steve Hawkins, Marijuana Policy Project executive director

The coronavirus crisis has abruptly forced all Americans to reexamine our priorities. Entire sectors of the economy have been shuttered as we reduce contact between people to flatten the curve and reduce the death toll. Elected officials and regulators, in particular, must reevaluate a wide range of government policies to ensure a swift, coordinated and appropriate response to the pandemic.

One public policy that offers no benefit whatsoever during this time of crisis is our nation’s failed prohibition of cannabis. As governments work to minimize the negative impacts of COVID-19, it’s clear that punitive cannabis laws and unnecessarily strict regulations serve as far more of a hindrance than a help.

Some police departments and prosecutors have already determined that prosecuting low-level offenses such as cannabis possession is counterproductive and puts police, prosecutors and the public at risk. For example, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby ordered her staff to dismiss pending criminal charges against anyone arrested for drug possession and several other nonviolent offenses.

Meanwhile, news reports from other jurisdictions indicate that arrests for cannabis possession have continued, increasing the risk of exposure to coronavirus both for cannabis consumers and enforcement personnel and undermining health experts’ advice regarding the need for social distancing.

It would be a disaster if the coronavirus becomes prevalent in America’s overcrowded jails and prisons. Criminal justice reform organizations have called for the release of low-risk inmates such as those convicted of cannabis offenses. This step should be taken as swiftly as possible to protect all staff and inmates at correctional facilities.

In the 11 states where cannabis is already legal for adults, interaction among law enforcement and consumers has already dropped considerably, so fewer steps are likely to be needed. The other 39 states should immediately suspend enforcement and prosecution of cannabis laws for the duration of the national emergency. Not only does it protect public health, it also avoids wasting limited law enforcement and court resources during a crisis.

We must also consider the challenge faced by roughly three million medical cannabis patients across the U.S. Many have vulnerable immune systems due to age or a serious medical condition, putting them in the high-risk category with regard to COVID-19.

Although medical cannabis is legal in 33 states, many states have restrictive policies that frustrate patients who are seeking to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. For example, some states forbid deliveries of medical cannabis and others maintain criminal penalties against home cultivation.

Fortunately, several states have already adopted emergency measures to ensure that patients are protected. New York, Iowa and other states have designated medical cannabis dispensaries as essential services to ensure their continued operation during the crisis. Louisiana took swift action to allow deliveries, and Michigan is allowing curbside pickup at dispensaries so patients do not have to enter the building. A few states have begun allowing patients to renew their certifications via telemedicine rather than continuing to require a visit to a doctor. These are all worthy reforms that should be enacted in all states that have legalized medical cannabis.

Finally, as we dare to look beyond the crisis, it seems clear that states with legal cannabis markets will have a significant advantage over other states as the economy recovers from this pandemic. More than 200,000 Americans already work in the state-legal cannabis industry, demonstrating that cannabis can be an important job creator and driver of economic development in addition to being sensible public policy and a source of substantial tax revenue.

As we all take time to re-evaluate our nation’s public policy priorities, cannabis and criminal justice should be important parts of the conversation. Policymakers, including state legislators, governors and members of Congress, should take advantage of this opportunity to acknowledge that cannabis prohibition does not protect public health and safety, and they should support enacting reasonable policy alternatives on both a temporary and permanent basis.

There will be many policy lessons that emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. One should be that we can achieve better health, safety, and economic outcomes if we replace cannabis prohibition with a thoughtfully regulated system of sales to adults and take other steps to reduce the number of low-risk offenders who become entrapped in our criminal justice system.

DC Allows Medical Marijuana Delivery Under Coronavirus Emergency Order

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State Of Montana Launches Online Hemp Marketplace To Connect Buyers And Sellers

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Say you’re a Montana farmer who has planted acres of industrial hemp. As harvest nears, you’re looking to offload it. Where do you go to find a buyer?

Montana’s Department of Agriculture says it has the answer.

The state this week announced the launch of an online “Hemp Marketplace,” unveiling an online portal meant to connect the hemp farmers with buyers in search of seeds, fiber and derivatives such as cannabidiol, or CBD.

“The Hemp Marketplace concept originated from the same idea as the department’s Hay Hotline,” the Agriculture Department says on its website, “only instead of hay and pasture, the online tool connects buyers and sellers of hemp and hemp derivatives.”

Listings are free of charge.

Montana online Hemp Marketplace screenshot

Montana Department of Agriculture

Montana farmers have embraced industrial hemp since the state legalized its production under a federal pilot program. The first legal crop was planted in 2017, and in recent years the state has led the country in terms of space dedicated to the plant. In 2018, for example, licensed farmers in Montana grew more acreage of hemp than any other U.S. state. While other states have since eclipsed the state’s hemp production—the crop became broadly federally legal through the 2018 Farm Bill—Montana remains an industry leader.

But to make revenue, farmers have to be able to sell their crop. That’s where the new hemp marketplace comes in. The online portal is essentially a sophisticated bulletin board for buyers and sellers, split into “Hemp for Sale” and “Hemp to Buy” categories.

“With hemp being a relatively new crop grown in Montana, the department recognizes that these markets are still developing,” Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas said in a statement. “The Hemp Marketplace was designed to help facilitate connections between buyers and sellers. I’m looking forward to seeing how the marketplace will continue to advance the industry.”

Listings include what type of products are on offer (or being sought), whether a given crop is organic and even whether laboratory testing data is available. The portal also organizes products into one of four varieties based on whether the hemp seeds have been certified by regulators. None of the products may contain more than 0.3 percent THC—the upper limit for what qualifies as hemp under both state and federal law.

Meanwhile, Montana voters are set to decide on Tuesday whether the state will legalize hemp’s more infamous cousin, high-THC marijuana. According to a poll released this week, passage looks likely: The survey, conducted by Montana State University at Billings, found that 54 percent of likely voters plan to support legal cannabis on the ballot. Another 38 percent said they were opposed, while 7 percent remained undecided.

At the federal level, officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration are still working to revise rules around marijuana and hemp to reflect Congress’s move to legalize hemp broadly in 2018. While the public comment on the proposals closed earlier this month, nine members of Congress cautioned the agency against adopting its proposed changes, warning some could put hemp producers at risk of criminal liability. Already a number of arrests and seizures have been made by law enforcement officers confused whether products were legal hemp or illicit marijuana.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meanwhile, has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which closed again this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Montana Marijuana Legalization Ballot Measure Has Solid Lead In New Poll

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak

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New Jersey Governor Steps Up Marijuana Legalization Push As New Ad Touts Economic Benefits Days Before Election

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With just a few days to go before Election Day, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is continuing to stump for marijuana legalization in that state, extolling the economic and social justice benefits he says the change would bring. His latest comments came shortly after the release of a new campaign ad focusing on legalization’s economic impact.

“We’ll build an industry, it would be a revenue-generator,” Murphy said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “I think at first it would be modest, but ultimately will grow, I think, into several hundred million dollars in the state budget.”

“Along with social justice,” he added, “that’s a pretty good, winning combination.”

Recent polling suggests voters are mostly on board with legalization, with surveys showing upwards of 60% support for Public Question 1, a referendum to legalize and establish a commercial industry around the drug. If it passes, some lawmakers hope legal sales to adults 21 and older could begin as soon as next month, though regulators and some advocates have pushed back on the plan to start sales in existing medical cannabis dispensaries, saying that it could lead to access and supply issues for patients.

Legalization would indeed likely bring in millions of dollars to the state budget, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic downturn. But Murphy claims his chief motivation for supporting the measure is racial justice.

“When I became governor, we had the widest white–nonwhite gap of persons incarcerated, believe it or not, of any American state. The biggest reason was low-end drug offenses,” he said. “So I get there first and foremost because of social justice.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, one of the campaign committees behind New Jersey’s legalization effort, NJ CAN 2020, released a new 30-second ad emphasizing the economic benefits legalization could bring the cash-strapped state.

“At a time when this crisis has created challenges we all face—a budget deficit and a lack of funding for services we need—New Jersey could raise hundreds of millions of dollars to support our local schools, vital health care services and community programs, by simply voting yes on Public Question 1,” the ad says.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also filmed a video in support of the measure. Appearing in a NJ CAN campaign video released Wednesday, he said prohibition “has not been a war on drugs, but a war on people.”

“Veterans, for example, are more likely to be arrested for drug use or possession of marijuana. Instead of getting help, they’re often hurt by a system that piles upon them criminal charges for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing,” he said.

Black, Latino and low-income communities are also disproportionately targeted by enforcement of drug laws, Booker added. “We can do this as a state so much more responsibly, and instead of destroying lives we can get more resources to help to empower the well-being of all New Jerseyans.”

In other legal states, cannabis has been a rare bright spot in terms of tax revenue. Oregon, for example, saw record sales this summer even as other areas of the economy slowed. State budget analysts said last month that they expect the strong sales to continue.

“Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis said in a recent report. “Expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”

Other established markets, such as Washington state, Colorado and Nevada, have also seen “strong gains” in marijuana sales amid the pandemic, Oregon’s budget office noted.

Big money has also been flowing into New Jersey’s legalization campaign itself. A report released Thursday by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) shows that committees supporting the referendum have raised more than $2 million in campaign contributions. That’s compared to just $9,913 brought in by opponents.

“Assuming all available funds are spent, the marijuana ballot question already ranks eighth among the top ten most expensive public referenda in the Garden State,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said. “Keep in mind that marijuana interests already have spent $4.1 million on lobbying between 2017 and 2019. So the industry’s overall political investment in New Jersey already has topped $6 million.”

If voters approve the referendum, lawmakers will still need to pass a bill to establish a framework for the state’s legal marijuana market. A legislative hearing to get a head start on planning was scheduled for last week, but that was canceled when a state senator leading the proposal went into quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.

Friday’s appearance by Murphy is the latest effort by the governor to encourage voters to back legalization. He also recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month and recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

In July, Murphy described legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.

The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”

Also this month, the NJ CAN campaign scaled up its advertising push, releasing a series of English- and Spanish-language videos.

In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces of marijuana a civil penalty without the threat of jail time. The bill hasn’t advanced in the Senate.

Arizona Marijuana Opponents Release Five Misleading Attack Ads Ahead Of Legalization Vote Next Week

Photo courtesy of Gov. Phil Murphy

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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Oregon Psilocybin Ballot Measure Can Help Dying People Find Peace, Doctor Says In TV Ad

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Oregon’s first-of-its-kind ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy has the potential to help ease mental suffering for terminally ill people, a medical doctor says in a new TV ad for the initiative.

“I’ve worked in end-of-life care for 28 years. In hospice, we believe when people are dying, we should treat their pain—physical or mental distress,” Dr. Nick Gideonse says in the 30-second spot. “There’s often mental suffering that comes with a terminal diagnosis.”

“So I support Measure 109 to allow psilocybin therapy for terminally ill people suffering from depression. It’s humane,” he said. “Yes on 109 will help those near death come to terms with their diagnosis and find peace.”

If approved by voters, adults would be able to access the psychedelic in a medically supervised environment. There aren’t any limitations on the types of conditions that would make a patient eligible for the treatment.

A previous ad released earlier this month by the campaign featured a state senator who is also a medical doctor saying that the measure “promotes safety for a therapy that can help people who are suffering.”

That followed an independent spot by the nonprofit Heroic Hearts Project going on the air in Oregon to tout the benefits of psilocybin therapy, but it didn’t mention the specific ballot measure.

A campaign working to pass a separate measure on the Oregon ballot to decriminalize drug possession and expand substance misuse treatment also recently released a series of ads.

The Oregon Democratic Party formally endorsed both measures last month.

Meanwhile, the psychedelic reform measure has drawn opposition from an unlikely source. Decriminalize Nature, which has led efforts to pass local policies reducing criminal enforcement against psilocybin and other entheogens, has argued that it could threaten equitable access to the substance.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in January that he was in favor of the psilocybin reform proposal and that he would be working to boost the campaign as the election approaches. In August, he wrote in an email blast that passing the measure is necessary “because it tackles an important issue in our community, mental health, and it does so in an innovative and responsible way.”

Arizona Marijuana Opponents Release Five Misleading Attack Ads Ahead Of Legalization Vote Next Week

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.

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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