“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.
Louisiana Senate And House Both Approve Significant Medical Marijuana Expansion
The Louisiana Senate approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program on Wednesday, and a committee advanced separate legislation on banking access for cannabis businesses.
The expansion proposal, which the House of Representatives approved last week, would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced the proposal last week and now the full chamber has approved it in a 28-6 vote. Before the bill heads to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for signature or veto, the House will have to sign off on an amendment made by the Senate to require dispensaries to record medical marijuana purchases in the state prescription monitoring program database.
As originally drafted, the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R) would have simply added traumatic brain injuries and concussions to the list of conditions that qualify a patient for a marijuana recommendation. But it was amended in a House committee to add several other conditions as well as language stipulating that cannabis can be recommended for any condition that a physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Under current law there are only 14 conditions that qualify patients for marijuana.
“House Bill 819 is the new standard for medical marijuana programs. The bill allows any doctor who is licensed by and in good standing with the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners to make medical marijuana recommendations for their patients,” Bagley told Marijuana Moment. “The bill also ends the Legislature’s task of picking medical winners and losers each session, and instead allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any condition that a physician, in his medical opinion, considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Bagley also introduced a House-passed bill to provide for cannabis deliveries to patients, but he voluntarily withdrew it from Senate committee consideration last week and told Marijuana Moment it’s because he felt the medical marijuana expansion legislation would already allow cannabis products to be delivered to patients like other traditional pharmaceuticals.
The delivery bill would have required a government regulatory body to develop “procedures and regulations relative to delivery of dispensed marijuana to patients by designated employees or agents of the pharmacy.”
It’s not clear if regulators will agree with Bagley’s interpretation, as doctors are still prohibited from “prescribing” cannabis and marijuana products are not dispensed through traditional pharmacies. That said, they recently released a memo authorizing dispensaries to temporarily deliver cannabis to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s possible officials will be amendable to extending that policy on a permanent basis.
State lawmakers also advanced several other pieces of cannabis reform legislation last week.
A bill introduced by Rep. Edmond Jordan (D) to protect banks and credit unions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by state regulators cleared the full House in a 74-20 vote.
That measure was approved by Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs on Wednesday, setting it up for floor action in the chamber.
Also last week, the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee unanimously approved a resolution to establish “a task force to study and make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry projected workforce demands.”
Text of the legislation states that “there is a need to study the workforce demands and the skills necessary to supply the cannabis industry with a capable and compete workforce, including physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners.”
Legislators have until the end of the legislative session on June 1 to get any of the measures to the governor’s desk.
Former Attorney General, Lawmakers And Police Leaders Call For Federal Marijuana Legalization Waivers
A task force comprised of former lawmakers, federal prosecutors and reform advocates issued a series of recommendations on Wednesday about criminal justice policy changes that should be enacted, and that includes creating a waiver system to allow states to set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
The Council on Criminal Justice task force was established prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but its new report said the health crisis has “underscored the urgency” of the recommendations. While the group is far from the only criminal justice-minded organization to push for cannabis reform, it’s especially notable because of the backgrounds of its membership.
Sally Yates, who served as deputy attorney general and interim attorney general, is on the task force. So is former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and former Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Mark Holden, who was senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, and David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union, are also members.
Together, the group agreed on 15 reform recommendations.
While they didn’t endorse federally legalizing cannabis outright, the group said the current conflict between local and national policy is untenable and should be addressed in the interim by creating waivers for states to proceed with marijuana legalization without the fear of federal intervention.
“The federal government must act to resolve this conflict and confusion, by creating an environment that respects sovereignty and by providing a responsible framework in which states can make policy choices,” they said. “Without federal action, the cannabis industry will continue to operate without consistent guardrails and guidance for testing, labeling, and marketing—to minors and all consumers.”
“The Task Force concludes that neither a federal crackdown nor a hands-off approach is advisable. In the absence of cannabis rescheduling, or its legalization at the federal level, the Task Force recommends that Congress and the Administration develop a state waiver process or contractual framework. Without it, states and the industry will continue to exist under an illusion of sovereignty where circumstances can change at any moment. A balanced and thoughtful accommodation from the federal government would provide confidence to states, stabilize the market, and help address many of the myriad safety and health problems.”
To implement the recommendation, the group wants the federal government to create an interagency task force including representatives of the Departments of Justice, Treasury and Health and Human Services, among other agencies. Members would be charged with creating policies and standards on best public health practices regarding issues such as product availability, testing, labeling, marketing and child-resistant packaging.
It would also lay out guidelines for banks that work with the cannabis industry as well as guidance, grant funding and assistance to aid law enforcement efforts to crack down on illicit marijuana distribution. Also recommended is an expansion of National Institute on Drug Abuse-supported research on the potential benefits and risks of cannabis as well as the effects of regulatory legal models.
New federal legislation “should provide guidance and assurances to all stakeholders legally operating under the waiver and/or contractual agreement, shielding them from civil and/or criminal liability,” the report says.
Our task force report is the culmination of hard work by the 14-member task force, composed of key leaders in the criminal justice field.
— Council on Criminal Justice (@CouncilonCJ) May 27, 2020
Beyond marijuana, the Council on Criminal Justice task force also proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all federal drug crimes in order to reduce the prison population, automatically sealing public criminal records for non-violent federal convictions “including simple possession of controlled substances, following a conviction-free period of no longer than seven years” and establishing “independent oversight of the federal prison system.”
Due to the high rate of substance use disorders in prisons, the task force also recommended enhancing access “to evidence-based treatment services” that can “help break the cycle of substance use and incarceration.” Medication-assisted treatment would be an example of such a service, the report said.
“The pandemic engulfing the world has exposed more fully than ever the deficiencies in our nation’s criminal justice system, and how those deficiencies endanger people, communities, and public safety,” Nutter said in a press release. “Let us honor the pain, suffering, and loss of life that has occurred during this crisis by sharpening and refocusing our work for change.”
Another task force that advocates are eyeing was recently formed to make criminal justice recommendations to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who dropped out of the race in April, teamed up to create the group, and most members are in favor of marijuana legalization, in contrast to Biden’s current position. It remains to be seen whether they will formally recommend adopting broader cannabis reform as part of the former vice president’s platform.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Marijuana Dispensaries Excluded From New York’s Coronavirus Loan Program
Not only are marijuana businesses excluded from federal coronavirus relief funds, but medical cannabis dispensaries in New York are also ineligible for a new COVID-19 loan program that the state is offering.
Under the New York Forward Loan Fund (NYFLF), marijuana shops are specifically excluded, alongside payday loan providers, pawn shops, strip clubs, liquor stores and astrologers. Information pages about the program don’t provide a reason for why dispensaries are considered ineligible.
“The working capital loans are timed to support businesses and organizations as they proceed to reopen and have upfront expenses to comply with guidelines (e.g., inventory, marketing, refitting for new social distancing guidelines) under the New York Forward Plan,” a description of the program states.
This eligibility requirement restrictions come despite the fact that most states, including New York, have deemed cannabis businesses as essential services that can continue to operate during the pandemic.
For the industry in the Empire State, the loan exclusion is another gut punch in a crisis. There have been widespread calls from stakeholders, advocates and legislatures to provide the market with equitable relief from the federal Small Business Administration and, while that so far has not panned out, there’s been hope that states could help fill the gap.
“Given that cannabis businesses are ineligible for federal relief, it is unconscionable for the state of New York to deny them access to state-based relief efforts,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “These businesses have been going above and beyond to provide continuous healthcare, protect jobs, and generate revenue for the state under terrible conditions just like other essential services.”
“Leaving them in the lurch like this is a tremendous disservice to the people who risked their health to provide medical cannabis to the people that need it, and will stunt the ability of the industry to recover and grow at a time when the economy needs it most,” he said.
Katie Neer, chair of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association and director of government relations for Acreage Holdings, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “unfortunate that medical cannabis operators, which are licensed and regulated in New York, and help thousands of patients manage a wide range of ailments, conditions, and illnesses, continue to be lumped in with other so-called ‘sin’ businesses, like pay-day loan stores, massage parlors, and strip clubs.”
“The reality is that New York’s medical cannabis program, established by the governor and Legislature in 2014, is one of the most restrictive in the nation,” she said. “As a result, the industry was struggling prior to the pandemic, even as it was deemed ‘essential’ and continues to serve patients throughout the crisis.”
“While we are eager to participate in the economic recovery at both the state and federal levels, accessing capital has long been a struggle for cannabis operators due to cannabis remaining a federally illegal schedule I drug. We applaud the state’s $100 million New York Forward Loan fund to support small businesses, but we regret not being able to participate due to inconsistencies between state and federal law. To that end, we urge the US Senate to include the SAFE Banking Act in the next federal aid package, which would improve the cannabis industry’s access to capital and ensure that state administered efforts like this one can include state-legal cannabis operators.”
It’s possible that because this loan program is the product of a private-public partnership involving several large national banks, the cannabis exclusion could be related to perceived risks associated with providing financial services to a federally illicit market.
While New York might not be extending state-level relief to cannabis businesses, lawmakers in Massachusetts are actively considering legislation that would establish a coronavirus relief program for marijuana firms and other companies that are left out of federal aid.
In the meantime, at the federal level, the House passed a COVID-19 package that does contain language that would protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Advocates argue that this would mitigate the spread of the virus in a heavily cash-based industry.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) also introduced a bill last month that would extend SBA access to marijuana companies.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was recently asked why the state hasn’t legalized cannabis for adult use as a means to generate much-needed tax revenue during the pandemic. He said it’s a policy change he expects will happen, but it’s a “complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way.”