The mayor of Kansas City scored a drug policy reform victory on Thursday after the City Council approved a resolution he introduced to remove all local criminal penalties for marijuana possession. And he’s not stopping there.
When Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) filed the proposal last month, he emphasized the need to stop taking a punitive approach to cannabis in order to mitigate unnecessary police interactions that primarily impact black Americans. But, unlike many pro-reform officials across the country who have drawn a line at marijuana, Lucas sees opportunities to take further steps to more comprehensively put an end to the war on drugs.
Missouri voters legalized medical cannabis in 2018, and there was a push from activists this year to put an adult-use legalization initiative on the November ballot—but that effort stalled out amid the coronavirus pandemic. Lucas said in an interview with Marijuana Moment that he would support such a measure, and revealed that he’s also been in touch with other mayors in the state about passing similar decriminalization ordinances in the meantime.
The mayor spoke in a phone interview on Friday about the City Council action, his broader drug policy reform plans and why he’s made the cannabis issue a main focus for his administration. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: Can I start by getting your reaction to the City Council vote in favor of your ordinance?
Quinton Lucas: I am elated. This is something that has been a goal of mine since I was first elected to office on the City Council back in 2015 and it was one of my platforms running for mayor. It was interesting because when I was running for mayor, a lot of people said, ‘boy, that seems really controversial.’ I had this recognition that when you look at marijuana law and policy—not just across the coasts of America, or more progressive places, but even in middle America—you were seeing significant change, including Missouri voting with a 66 percent ‘yes’ vote for medical marijuana.
So I was optimistic as it went through the process. I think most of my colleagues got it. To the extent they didn’t, it was almost exclusively old line arguments of the dangers of marijuana, that sort of thing and the sort of things we’ve been hearing since the 1980s to help prosecute a drug war that has locked up tens of thousands of black men in particular.
I’m excited about that. As this issue came up during this Black Lives Matter movement around our country, and I also think it is exceedingly relevant to the moment we’re in now. You cannot talk about reform of the criminal justice system without reforming laws that are incredibly unfair, that have disproportionate impact upon black and brown communities. And if you look at marijuana—particularly in usage rates versus incarceration and arrest rates—it has been a travesty how we have seen a black community largely criminalized in the hunt for marijuana, being overly police for it.
So I’m thrilled that we’re making that important change in Kansas City, particularly at this moment.
MM: Have you talked to mayors of other cities about pursuing this policy change? Do you think more local action might build pressure for statewide reform?
QL: That is much what our plan is. Now, usually at this point of the year, I’d be able to hit a conference or two to talk to some other mayors. There’s a group of black mayors I visit with somewhat regularly and I know a few have asked for our particular ordinance, and so that I think it’s a positive step and an exciting step for us. But in St. Louis, Missouri, of course, St. Louis would be the ones that are very similar to us. Their difference, of course, is that they elect their own prosecutor for the city of St. Louis. And I believe she has been fairly progressive on marijuana policies so they may not view themselves as having the same need.
That said, yeah, there are a lot of other cities in Missouri. Columbia is a college town. Springfield, I look to working with them to make sure we can really get sensible policy around the state—not unlike Colorado, and then other states making positive steps in marijuana policy. I think that’s the way we can get it done in a place like Missouri, but it’s still pretty conservative.
MM: Activists in Missouri were circulating a petition to put adult-use legalization on the state ballot earlier this year before they shut down. Did you happen to sign it? And if not, would you sign a similar measure for 2022?
QL: Oh I’d absolutely sign it. I haven’t yet. Part of it is just because I’ve been mayor for 11 months and the world’s been coming to an end for half that time. I’m just behind, in fairness. But no, I’d absolutely sign something like that because I think, you know, this is the way things should go and it’s going to be essential for us.
MM: You’ve recently talked about removing criminal penalties not just for marijuana but other currently illicit drugs. Can you talk to me about plans you have to advance broader decriminalization?
QL: I’m a a person who—this comes at me from living in my community. The drug war has been an abject failure. I live in a majority black community, was raised in a majority black community and proud to be from it. When I look at the problems on my streets—when I’m looking at what’s going on right now and people addicted to heroin, people addicted to any number of things—our drug laws aren’t helping. Our drug laws aren’t helping people find better treatment.
In fact, in some ways, they’re exacerbating problems by using an incarceration approach to what should instead be, frankly, a health-based approach—one that is not punitive, but one that’s trying to actually get people help and support. So I think it is probably time for our country to recognize that the way we’re prosecuting our drug war, the thought of throwing people away when really at some point there are substance abuse issues—or, frankly, when you look to recreational users with a number of narcotics, and users are being treated in a discriminatory manner, then I think it is time for us to say, ‘what are we doing?’
I'll be clear. We should remove any marijuana or minor drug offenses from our code. We should end failure-to-pay arrest warrants. We should stop wondering why there are disproportionately higher negative police-community interactions in neighborhoods where we are "over-law'ed"
— Mayor Q (@QuintonLucasKC) June 13, 2020
I’ll use just one example. Let’s take a look at cocaine. Everybody’s written a lot on crack versus powder cocaine disparities and sentencing, which is still amazing travesty, but I actually just came from a perspective of, when I went to school, I went to college at Washington University at St. Louis Law School at Cornell, and none of the casual-cocaine-using-now-lawyers-of-big-firms-in-New York City that I actually went to school with, faced any stiff penalties in any of the badges of impropriety that you see so many others do.
I think when you look at a system that is so terribly out of whack, and perhaps what we should say is, ‘well, what is it actually that we’re trying to solve?’ And what I believe—at least if you go back 30 years—what we’re trying to solve is actually a public health crisis, which we have failed to do. We really need to, I think, reform our laws more to actually more abolition, frankly, and looking at how can we find public health resources for anyone who is suffering from any dependency or something of that sort.
MM: What else can be done locally and legislatively to ramp down the drug war?
QL: I think that it’s primarily in the mental health space and substance misuse treatment. But I think, you know, even more than that, it is providing more social workers. That’s something we actually do out of our police budget, which is a little bit different. I think that’s been a big step for us. And, frankly, kind of changing the narrative of our crime problem—and we have a significant one, but moving it away from drugs really being the problem.
Actually, firearms being a problem. I mean, in Kansas City, we have a huge murder problem. We don’t, I think, have a drug problem beyond anyone else’s. But the problem is that the ready access to firearms has been our greatest concern. For me, it’s been kind of a shifting in both narrative and focus, and I think that we’ll continue to pay dividends for it over the years.
MM: There’s been some debate about whether decriminalization should be coupled with mandatory substance misuse treatment, as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has recommended. Reform advocates tend to disagree and say it should be voluntary. Where do you stand?
QL: I think it should be voluntary. I think mandatory systems of treatment are just another form of punishment and we’ve already called most prisons “departments of corrections.” So I think it’s still fair to say that’s not working. You need to try to find positive resources that meet people where they are. Most people that I’ve known who’ve suffered from drug and alcohol dependency, usually actually get to a point where they themselves find an opportunity to cure their problems and their addictions. Rare is it that there’s just a sentence that tells them, ‘alright, you need to do it.’
The other part of it is, by making it mandatory, compulsory, you are still frankly emboldening our prison industrial complex. If we’re actually being real about it, then you would probably see that a number of people who find themselves in incarceration now have either been through such programs that were wholly ineffective and underfunded. I think if we’re really making a difference, then yes, the solution is let’s go all towards a voluntary system where people are actually finding treatment and being able to build better lives long-term.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.