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Illinois Voters Will Make Major Marijuana Decisions In March

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March is a big month for marijuana in Illinois.

Aside from choosing between candidates vying for gubernatorial and attorney general nominations — all of whom have weighed in on the legalization debate — millions of voters in the state’s most populous county will be asked to decide for themselves whether Illinois should end cannabis prohibition.

Plus, legislation to give all of the state’s voters a chance to cast an up-or-down ballot on marijuana legalization later this year will be weighed by lawmakers at the Capitol in Springfield.

The current cannabis ballot question in Cook County is nonbinding. But because the county contains Chicago — and nearly half of the state’s total population — a strong “yes” vote on March 20 would give a huge boost to efforts to legalize marijuana that are currently being considered by state legislators.

The question reads:

“Shall the State of Illinois legalize the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?”

And last week, the state Senate Executive Committee approved a measure to place a similar cannabis legalization advisory question on the state’s November general election ballot. That question would read:

“Do you support the legalization of possession and use of marijuana by persons who are at least 21 years of age, subject to regulation and taxation that is similar to the regulation and taxation of tobacco and alcohol?”

The full Senate is scheduled to consider the measure on Tuesday. If it is approved there it will go before the House in the coming weeks.

Separately, lawmakers have held several hearings in recent months on legislation that would legalize marijuana in the state without referring a question to voters.

Meanwhile, candidates for governor and attorney general have repeatedly addressed cannabis policy issues, with some making legalization a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Primary elections to pick the Democratic and Republican nominees for those offices will also be held on March 20.

See below to learn how the candidates responded to a marijuana legalization question included in a new survey conducted by the State Journal-Register newspaper in Springfield, Illinois.

(Marijuana Moment has also embedded relevant tweets from some candidates.)

GOVERNOR CANDIDATES

Daniel Biss (D)

“I support the full legalization of marijuana, including for recreational use. I voted to decriminalize marijuana in 2016 and am co-sponsoring legislation to legalize marijuana. I believe that existing marijuana policies unfairly target communities of color, tear apart Illinois families, and unnecessarily burden taxpayers with the costs of prosecuting low-level offenses. By legalizing and taxing marijuana and by exercising my commutation powers, we can keep families together and raise revenue to invest in our communities.”

Bob Daiber (D)

“I’m for it, with two caveats: I would sign legislation only if the public approves, via an advisory referendum. This most not be done for the purpose of bringing in tax revenue – otherwise the tax rate will be set so high that you risk re-creating the very black market we’re trying to eliminate, and you put the state in the position of promoting marijuana use.

“There will be tax revenue, but it is incidental to the policy itself. But prohibition has proven to be more harmful than marijuana itself, and we have people sitting in jail for non-violent drug offenses. I would commute sentences and expunge the records of those who are guilty of marijuana offenses alone.”

Jeanne Ives (R)

“I oppose it. Even if the revenue increase was enough to solve our budget problems – which it is not – legalizing marijuana is the wrong way to solve our budget problems. The Colorado Impact Study on the effect of legalizing marijuana found: Marijuana‐related traffic deaths increased 48 percent in the three‐year average (2013‐2015) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the three‐year average (2010‐2012) prior to legalization. During the same time, all traffic deaths increased 11 percent. Marijuana‐related traffic deaths increased 62 percent from 71 to 115 persons after recreational marijuana was legalized in 2013. Youth past month marijuana use increased 20 percent in the two year average (2013/2014) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the two‐year average prior to legalization (2011/2012). Nationally youth past month marijuana use declined 4 percent during the same time. Colorado college age past month marijuana use for 2013/2014 was 62 percent higher than the national average. Illinois needs real, structural reform, not quick fixes.”

Christoper Kennedy (D)

“I support the legalization of marijuana but only after we have done a thorough and comprehensive review through the University of Illinois to ensure that public safety and public health are put before profit from marijuana industry. We shouldn’t let the lobbyists write the laws for legalization, it should be done with public health and safety in mind.”

Robert A. Marshall (D)

“To decrease the crime rate in this state, we need to decriminalize marijuana and end the ‘War on Drugs’ and this is discussed below… I believe that marijuana should be legalized throughout the entire state, similar to the situation in Colorado, California, etc. This would generate tens of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in extra revenue for the State of Illinois. This new revenue should be distributed directly to property owners as a direct rebate. In this way we could relieve the high property levels in this state.”

J.B. Pritzker (D)

“I also support legalizing and taxing recreational use of marijuana, which is estimated to generate as much as $700 million a year for the state… No more studies are needed to show it’s time for Illinois to safely move forward and legalize marijuana. As governor, I will modernize drug laws and move Illinois towards a criminal justice system that gives all Illinoisans a chance to reach their full potential. Importantly, it’s time to regulate and tax marijuana to generate much needed revenue for this state. This is not a moment for a governor like Rauner who stands with Trump. Illinois needs a governor who is ready to legalize marijuana in Illinois to help reform our criminal justice system, improve consumer safety, and increase state revenue. There is an abundance of evidence that shows we can do it in Illinois in a safe way and that it will have real benefits to our state.

“Criminalizing marijuana hasn’t made our communities safer, but has disproportionately impacted black and brown communities. The criminalization of cannabis never has been and never will be enforced fairly, and it’s time to bring that to an end. To right past wrongs, we also have to commute sentences of people in prison who are there for marijuana offenses.”

Bruce Rauner (R) — Incumbent

“I do not support the legalization of recreational marijuana. There are too many unknowns – let’s let other states conduct this particular experiment so we can fully understand the consequences before we make this decision in Illinois.”

ATTORNEY GENERAL CANDIDATES:

Scott Drury (D)

“I firmly believe Illinois will legalize marijuana in the near future, and I support that effort. It is important for Illinois to act responsibly in its move towards legalization. The licensing process must be open and transparent to prevent insiders, cronies, and organized crime syndicates from gaming the system. Further, there must be a concerted effort to protect and educate our children. As a parent, I see the impact legalization is having on the mindset of children – that is, they believe it has no harmful consequences. Additionally, as Attorney General, I will advocate for the federal government to allow banks to accept deposits from marijuana dispensaries and growers. Public safety is threatened when people can only conduct business in cash.”

Sharon Fairley (D)

“I support the legalization of marijuana so long as we are careful about regulating its use and distribution so as to ensure public safety. As attorney general, I would provide guidance to the legislature and law enforcement based on the best practices established by the handful of states that have already fully legalized marijuana.”

Aaron Goldstein (D)

“I believe marijuana should be legalized. One doesn’t have to be a user of marijuana to understand that the war on drugs—and the criminalization of marijuana in particular—has been an abysmal failure. Far too many of our citizens have been convicted and imprisoned for using marijuana, although little evidence exists to support our draconian drug laws. Ironically, rather than helping our citizens, criminalization of marijuana has encouraged the development of a huge and chaotic black market, with its inevitable consequences of gang violence and harm to many innocent bystanders.

“For these reasons, and based on the experience of other states that have legalized marijuana, I believe it is time to legalize marijuana in Illinois as well. It should be regulated—based on clear scientific evidence—to ensure that legal pot does not create any significant health or public safety risks to the people of Illinois and that the marijuana industry is run fairly and lawfully. As Attorney General, I will consult with attorneys general from states that have legalized marijuana to ensure that Illinois adopts best practices in the production, distribution and sales of marijuana, and that any tax revenue Illinois derives from the sale of marijuana is used for purposes that benefit all the people, not just the few who are politically connected.”

Gary Grasso (R)

“I have taken a strong stance on the opioid addiction issue. I could not in good conscience condone the legalization of marijuana and I would use the power of the Office of Attorney General to advocate against legalization of recreational marijuana. Marijuana is a gateway drug. It seems pretty clear to me that legalization of marijuana would lead to more problems associated with drug abuse.”

Erika Harold (R)

“Relevant stakeholders should begin the process of methodically analyzing and negotiating appropriate safeguards and regulatory frameworks for the legalization of marijuana for adult use in Illinois. This process should be approached with particular attention paid to protecting minors, providing sufficient mental health and substance abuse services, existing federal law and directives, and providing for proper testing protocol and equipment in marijuana-related automobile accidents. If approached in a thoughtful and deliberate manner, legalization should enable law enforcement officials to redirect their time and resources towards addressing more critical issues (such as the opioid epidemic), expand Illinois’ tax base, and decrease the number of people serving sentences for non-violent, marijuana-related offenses.”

Renato Mariotti (D)

“Our prisons are operating at 134 percent capacity, and there are nearly 43,000 individuals behind bars. Illinois will spend over $1.4 billion in the 2017 fiscal year incarcerating its citizens. Imprisoning non-violent marijuana users is not only morally misguided but a tremendous waste of resources. I support the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana, with one important caveat. We need strict safeguards in place to prevent this from becoming another insider industry in Illinois where the privileged and politically connected succeed to the detriment of working people and small businesses.”

Pat Quinn (D)

“I support legalization of recreational marijuana so long as strict requirements are put in place to regulate its production, distribution and retail sale in order to ensure that health and safety are protected, avoid corruption, and ensure that applicable taxes are paid. When I was Governor, I signed the bill to legalize medical marijuana.”

Kwame Raoul (D)

“Illinois has moved in the direction of legalization by way of supporting the use of medical marijuana and expanding upon that to cover more ailments. We have also moved to decriminalize possession of small amounts for personal use. The logical extension of these policies is to move toward legalization in a manner that appropriately regulates manufacture and distribution while taxing it capture the new economic activity that would accompany recreational use.”

Nancy Rotering (D)

“The benefits of legalizing recreational marijuana outweigh the negatives. Legalizing recreational marijuana would significantly reduce prison crowding and lower the cost of law enforcement. Over 80% of drug-related arrests nationwide between 2001 and 2010 involved amounts for personal use only. Like alcohol, recreational marijuana should be regulated. It should not be sold to people under 21, its production should be regulated to ensure quality and diminish risks, and technology needs to be developed to assess drivers’ capacity and use, similar to breathalyzer tests for field use purposes.

“Illinois, along with 28 other states, passed legislation creating a medical cannabis program permitting patients with debilitating medical conditions to register with the state in order to access marijuana for medical use. As Illinois’ Attorney General, I would defend the state against any federal intrusion, and work to ensure that patients with medical conditions – including people with cancer, those who live with seizures, or veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – can continue to access the care they need. I would also pursue the feasibility of banks handling payments and related finances to ease the ability of patients to pay for their medication.”

Jesse Ruiz (D)

“I fully support legalization of recreational adult use in Illinois. As Attorney General, I will take every action available under law to protect Illinois’ right to make its own decisions about the legality of marijuana. I deplore U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent shortsighted decision to revoke the Obama Administration’s guidance on deferring to the states on marijuana enforcement. By rescinding the directive and offering nothing to take its place, Sessions has simply created chaos. I am especially concerned by the impacts of his actions on medical marijuana. The states have made it clear that legalized medical marijuana is supported by the vast majority of Americans. Especially as our nation confronts the horrifying opioid epidemic, it is critically important to find safe, effective alternatives for pain relief. Quite frankly, I cannot understand why Sessions would take an action that has triggered so much uncertainty throughout the industry and brought anxiety to patients who have come to rely on safe medical-grade cannabis products.

“If the General Assembly legalizes adult recreational use of marijuana in Illinois, I will work closely with the Legislature to develop a procedure to expunge the records of Illinoisans who have cannabis convictions on their records. I believe that California’s Prop. 64 offers a useful roadmap for petitioning to have their prior convictions reclassified or dismissed. Once a new law has been passed, I will hold a summit of county state’s attorneys and public defenders to begin the petition process for people who are being held by the Illinois Department of Corrections for marijuana-related crimes. Once an adult use bill is passed, Illinois should not be spending millions of dollars to incarcerate people for a crime that no longer exists.”

Photo courtesy of Democracy Chronicles.

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 15-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.)

Politics

Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana

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Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Legislation And Policy Actions

Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.

The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.

Quotes And Social Media Posts

It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.

Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.

Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.

Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.

He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.

“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.

One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”

“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.

Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.

Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency

Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.

At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.

That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.

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Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says

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Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.

Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.

Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.

Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.

In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.

The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”

In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”

Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:

Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”

“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”

Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.

“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”

Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.

“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”

Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.

“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.

Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”

Texas Governor Signs Bill To Expand State’s Medical Marijuana Program

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USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.

“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”

The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.

“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.

A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”

“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.

While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”

USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.

The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.

While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.

The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.

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