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Key Congressional Chair Says Marijuana Banking Vote Will Happen Over Groups’ Objections

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Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) said marijuana banking legislation will advance to the House floor despite the fact that some major advocacy groups are calling for a delay until more comprehensive cannabis reform is first passed.

The congresswoman, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Wednesday that she appreciates the concerns outlined by groups including the ACLU and Center for American Progress, which released a letter on Tuesday stating that they were worried that passing the banking bill would undermine broader reform efforts.

The problem, she said, is that Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) hasn’t yet advanced the more wide-ranging legalization legislation those groups favor, leaving House leadership in a bind as they plan out the floor calendar.

“I know that leadership is in support of the Judiciary moving as fast as they possibly can with the bill that would deal with those civil rights issues,” she said. “We just can’t get from Judiciary exactly when they are going to do that.”

“And so what’s going to happen is Mr. Perlmutter’s bill that gives safe harbor to the banks is going to move, and whenever Judiciary gets that bill done, then it’s going to move too with the same kind of support that Mr. Perlmutter’s bill is going to get,” she said, referring to the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO).

“We’ve been working on it for six years—the banks are reticent to deal with the cannabis industry. The states are moving forward very quickly to authorize and support cannabis. All this cash is piling up. And so something has to be done to give safe harbor to the banks.”

Perlmutter’s bill was approved by Waters’s House Financial Services Committee with a strong bipartisan vote in March, and certain advocates expected the full chamber to take it up before the summer recess. While that didn’t pan out, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) informed the Democratic Caucus last week that he intends to hold a floor vote by the end of the month, his staff confirmed to Marijuana Moment. A vote has not yet been scheduled, however.

That announcement came one day after Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said his panel would vote on cannabis banking reform, though he declined to provide a timeline beyond saying that he wants to get it done by the end of the year.

Hoyer’s announcement took some advocates by unpleasant surprise, as they were under the impression that something like Nadler’s Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—which addresses social equity and restorative justice—would get a vote before the House worked to pass what’s viewed as a largely industry-friendly banking bill.

“I just think it’s a matter of timing. I think the Judiciary bill, whenever it’s ready, it’s going to move as quickly as they get it ready, and it will be supported,” Waters said.

Perlmutter echoed that point in an interview with Marijuana Moment on Wednesday.

“We’ve had this passed [out of committee] for six months and certainly support all of what they’re trying to do,” he said, referring to his banking bill and the groups’ call for comprehensive reform. “But we’ve got to get these things moving.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do, and I think we’re going to be successful.”

The congressman also said he agreed with Waters about the need for Judiciary to act.

“I think they’re prepared to set a markup and move it, and I’m a cosponsor of that bill. But I want to get this one going,” he said. “This sort of breaks the ice for everything else. That’s been what we’ve talked about for a long time, and this one we’ve been working on a long time.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a close ally of the Trump administration, had sharp words for groups urging a delay on a marijuana banking vote, stating that it’s “deeply disappointing that instead of adding to the coalition of the marijuana reform movement, we continue to find new and destructive ways to divide the coalition.”

“It is unfortunate that some of the most left-wing elements of our pro-marijuana reform coalition are now making demands beyond freedom,” he said. “The way we attract folks on the libertarian and right to our movement is to embrace freedom and to show it’s both popular and helpful to people in their lives.”

But while the congressman went on to say that calls for social equity and reparations “fatally divide the movement,” he’s also a cosponsor of Nadler’s MORE Act that includes such provisions.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment that while he shares the groups’ frustration over inaction on broader reform, he’s going to support the banking bill when it comes to the floor because he has “a lot of constituents who would benefit greatly if we made reform in banking.”

“It’s just hard to look them in the eye and say I’m not going to support legislation that would help you immediately so you can help patients, help people who need it,” he said. “I’m inclined this one to support if it came up for a vote, but I understand the sentiment. I’m frustrated too.”

Jason Ortiz, vice president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that while he similarly understands where groups like ACLU are coming from, the banking bill isn’t entirely about bolstering the industry and would also serve disadvantaged communities.

“SAFE banking would open bank financing sources to cannabis companies allowing approved social equity applicants to enter the market without accepting predatory terms from private investors just to open their doors,” he said. “Many entrepreneurs of color are looking to start their businesses immediately and become the success stories that will spur further support and investment in our communities.”

“While I understand and respect the position of our allies in advocacy, current social equity applicants should not be held hostage until we can enact legislation unlikely to pass under the current administration,” he said. “Doing so would give the multi-state operators even more of a head start which will widen the ownership gap in the cannabis industry.”

But Jasmine Tyler, advocacy director of the U.S. Program for Human Rights Watch, which also signed the Tuesday letter to House leaders, took a different view.

“Civil and human rights groups, criminal justice and drug policy advocates, faith leaders, and doctors have all called for the repeal of the US’s racialized marijuana enforcement and start repairing harms done to communities for decades,” she told Marijuana Moment. “For House Leadership to prioritize a bill that would advance banking rights over human rights is a travesty.”

Asked whether she had a message for the groups requesting a delay on the banking legislation, Waters said, “I don’t, except to say that the Democratic Caucus supports ensuring that minorities and others who have been disadvantaged, who’ve been unfairly incarcerated by those marijuana laws, must be supported in ways that will help them to benefit from this new industry.”

“We’re all waiting for the bill. We’re desperately waiting for that bill,” she said. “As soon as this gets ready, we’re all going to get forcefully behind it.”

Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment that Waters is “one of the most effective champions of cannabis reform, from successfully moving the SAFE Banking Act swiftly out of committee earlier this year to being one of the original lead sponsors of the MORE Act.”

“After a successful vote on the banking bill, it will be time for cannabis advocates and the industry to unite behind the MORE Act to ensure passage this Congress,” he said.

“We are encouraged by the comments from Chairwoman Waters,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said. “While both industry and advocacy groups are seeking more substantial reforms, the banking issue is something that can be addressed immediately on a bipartisan basis. This is a move that should be cheered, as it will greatly enhance public safety and protect workers in states that have made the rational choice to end prohibition and regulate the sale of cannabis.”

Aaron Houston contributed reporting from Capitol Hill for this story.

This story has been updated to include comments from Perlmutter, Gaetz, Swalwell, Cannabis Trade Federation and Human Rights Watch.

Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress To Delay Marijuana Banking Vote

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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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Bill To Legalize Marijuana Sales Heads To Vermont House Floor Following Key Committee Vote

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Another Vermont House committee approved a bill to legalize the sale of marijuana on Monday, with a vote by the full chamber expected in the coming days.

The Appropriations Committee advanced the legislation with a tally of 6-5, clearing its path for floor action—likely on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Vermont legislature legalized possession and home cultivation of cannabis for adult use in 2018, but there is currently no way for consumers to legally purchase marijuana. The bill moving through the legislature would establish a commercial cannabis market in the state, create various categories of business licenses, establish a government agency to oversee the new industry and set tax rates on legal sales.

It would also set limits on product potency, capping THC in cannabis flower at 30 percent THC and limiting concentrates to 60 percent THC.

Before voting to send the bill to the floor, the Appropriations Committee amended the legislation to reduce the number of members of the proposed Cannabis Control Board from five to three, slightly increase its funding and set it to be dissolved by July 1, 2024. Lawmakers also approved changes to allocate 30 percent of marijuana excise tax revenues to substance misuse prevention efforts, with additional funds going toward after-school and summer learning programs. Regulators would also set fees to charge for mandatory reviews of advertisements by cannabis businesses under the amendment.

Two other House panels—the Government Operations and Ways and Means Committees—have already approved the legislation this year. The full Senate voted in favor of the bill, S. 54, last year during the first half of the two-year legislative session.

“After years of consideration, the House finally appears poised to agree with the Senate that cannabis sales should be regulated in Vermont,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Cannabis is already legal in Vermont, so it makes no sense that consumers should have to either grow it themselves or buy it from stores in Massachusetts.”

During the Ways and Means hearing earlier this month, lawmakers adopted amendments that changed the bill’s planned tax rate, increasing it from a proposed 16 percent sales tax to a 20 percent combined rate that consists of 14 percent excise tax and 6 percent sales tax.

Medical cannabis patients would be exempt from state taxes under the bill, and local governments would be prohibited from adding their own new local taxes on marijuana.

Since the Senate passed an earlier version of the bill prior to House committees making amendments, the chambers would have to resolve differences before the final measure is sent to the governor’s desk—most likely through a bicameral conference committee.

Gov. Phil Scott (R), who reluctantly signed the noncommercial legalization bill into law in 2018, has previously voiced opposition to allowing retail marijuana sales, but top lawmakers have said that he’s come around on the issue and has been involved in discussions about this legislation. An official in his administration indicated last month that the governor is interested in using some tax revenue from cannabis sales to fund an after-school program he’s backing.

Residents in the state are strongly in favor of the reform move, according to a poll released last week. About three-in-four Vermonters support allowing adults to purchase marijuana “from regulated, taxpaying small businesses.”

In neighboring New Hampshire, the House approved a bill last week that would enact a policy similar to what Vermont currently has, allowing adults to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use without a retail element.

After New Mexico Lawmakers Fail To Pass Marijuana Legalization, Governor Says Voters Could Decide

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Mississippi Lawmakers Attempt To ‘Kill’ Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative With New Strategy

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Mississippi voters could see multiple proposals to legalize medical marijuana on the state’s November ballot.

Over the past week, lawmakers have introduced several alternatives to an activist-led legalization initiative that qualified for the ballot last month. And separately, three bills to legalize medical cannabis statutorily have also been filed.

This could create complications for reform advocates, as an already-qualified measure is regarded as the most comprehensive and detailed. If these other alternatives—which are more vague and open to interpretation—make the ballot, that could split votes. And should one of the legislature’s versions pass over the activist-backed initiative, lawmakers could enact a medical marijuana program that is significantly more restrictive.

“The people want this,” Jaime Grantham, communications director for the Medical Marijuana 2020 Campaign, which is behind the already-qualified measure, told Marijuana Moment.

“Mississippi’s ballot initiative process allows the legislature to put an alternative resolution on the ballot if they don’t like what’s being offered,” she said. “The only reason to do that is that it’s very convoluted and it confuses the process for voters and it ultimately kills it. That’s really where we’re at right now.”

Grantham also argued that while lawmakers do have the option under state law to suggest alternate ballot questions, it’s important to note that the legislature is already capable of passing medical cannabis legalization at any time and has consistently chosen not to. That lawmakers are suddenly tackling the issue now that their hands have been forced by the qualified ballot measure strikes advocates as disingenuous.

“The reason that some people in the legislature are doing this is to kill the initiative before it even has a chance,” she said. “They’re unwilling to let Mississippi voters have a fair up-or-down vote on the initiative. It’s wrong.”

Here’s what you need to know about the proposed alternatives and legalization bills before lawmakers:

Senate Concurrent Resolution 551/House Concurrent Resolution 38/House Concurrent Resolution 45

These identical measures call for the establishment of “a medical marijuana program for the purpose of offering treatment for Mississippi residents suffering from chronic, debilitating medical conditions.”

If approved by voters, lawmakers would have to enact “necessary and appropriate legislation” during the 2021 session. But because it lacks any specifics about what an effective program would look like, it’s possible that legislators could craft a limited system, or impose significant restrictions on participation in the program.

The proposed ballot title reads: “Shall Mississippi legalize medical marijuana for cancer patients and others suffering from chronic medical conditions who are under the supervision of a Mississippi licensed physician?”

House Concurrent Resolution 39

This measure is more detailed than the other alternative initiatives, but it contains provisions that would make the state’s medical cannabis system more restrictive than the measure that activists have already qualified.

It calls for a program “based on sound medical principles” and says participation would be “limited to qualified persons with debilitating medical conditions as certified by health practitioners who are licensed under state law.”

Smoking cannabis would be prohibited. Instead, it would provide for “limited categories of marijuana preparation of suitable and verified quality standards for oral administration.”

The proposed ballot title reads: “Shall Mississippi establish a program to allow the medical use of marijuana products by qualified persons with debilitating medical conditions?”

House Bill 1213

This legislation wouldn’t appear on the state ballot, but it also stands to reason that it could preempt the ballot initiative if approved prior to November by giving voters the impression that the issue has been settled.

It would allow patients with a set of qualifying medical conditions to possess and purchase marijuana from a licensed dispensary. Additionally, it would create protections against discrimination over participation in the program by universities and employers. Patients would also be granted an affirmative defense for the use or possession of marijuana in criminal proceedings.

The state Department of Health would be responsible for regulating the program. Licenses would be issued by a Medical Marijuana Commission established under the bill.

Marijuana sales would be subject to the same state and local taxes as any other product, with revenue going toward the implementation costs and then distributed among county governments.

House Bill 1411

This bill would allow patients with a qualifying medical condition to obtain up to two and a half ounces of cannabis per two-week period for therapeutic use. The state Department of Health would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also provide protections for doctors who recommend medical marijuana to patients.

Senate Bill 2498

This bill would also legalize medical cannabis for seriously ill patients. At the beginning of the text, it specifies that the legislature “does not intend to make marijuana legally available for other than medical purposes.”

“State law should make a distinction between the medical and nonmedical use of marijuana,” it states. “Therefore, the purpose of this act is to ensure that physicians are not penalized for discussing marijuana as a treatment option with their patients, and that seriously ill people who engage in the medical use of marijuana upon their physicians’ advice are not arrested and incarcerated for using marijuana for medical purposes.”

Next steps

The alternative resolutions and bills have been referred to committees. A simple majority of both chambers in the legislature would have to approve the resolutions in order for them to appear on the ballot. Legalizing medical cannabis statutorily would also require a simple majority vote of lawmakers, but the governor would also need to sign off on any legislation before it is enacted.

It’s not clear the extent to which Gov. Phil Bryant (R) was involved in the alternative ballot questions, but he did say last month that he opposes the measure that’s already qualified and hinted at the possibility of supporting differing versions.

Grantham said said that if one of the alternate resolutions advances, her campaign will put resources into public education to ensure that voters understand the differences and support Initiative 65.

“We would absolutely have to handle that with education and empower the public to where when they go into the booth to vote, they’re an informed voter,” she said.

After New Mexico Lawmakers Fail To Pass Marijuana Legalization, Governor Says Voters Could Decide

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Bernie Sanders Touts Marijuana Legalization Plan In South Carolina Ad Ahead Of Primary

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is touting his support for marijuana legalization to attract South Carolina voters ahead of the state’s primary on Saturday.

In a new television ad, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate outlined his criminal justice reform plan—emphasizing that he will legalize cannabis and expunge prior marijuana convictions, among other actions.

“Our criminal justice system lets the crooks on Wall Street who destroyed our economy walk free, while one in three black men go to prison. Bernie Sanders is fighting for justice and always has. He’ll fix our broken justice system so that it works for everyone, not just the wealthy,” the ad, narrated by actor Danny Glover, Sander’s campaign surrogate, states. “He’ll end police misconduct and cash bail, legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions and invest in jobs and eduction instead of jails and incarceration.”

The legalization policy proposal puts Sanders in stark contrast with the other candidate leading polls in the state. Former Vice President Joe Biden is one of just two contenders in the race who opposes legalization, the other being former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Both Biden and Bloomberg back more modest reforms such as decriminalizing cannabis possession.

South Carolina Democratic primary voters overwhelming approved a non-binding advisory ballot measure supporting the legalization of medical cannabis in 2018. But while House and Senate committees have voted in favor of legislation to accomplish that goal, none have yet received full floor votes. Lawmakers in a House panel took up the issue again in a hearing last week.

A poll conducted last year shows that a strong majority of South Carolina residents (72 percent) support medical marijuana legalization, including 84 percent of Democrats.

Sanders has consistently promoted his plan for comprehensive cannabis reform on the campaign trail. And so far, he’s won the popular vote in the first three primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

In his victory speech after the Nevada caucus on Saturday, Sanders delivered criminal justice reform messages similar to those in his new campaign ad.

“We are in fact are going to reform a broken and racist criminal justice system. We do not want to continue a situation where we have more people in jail than any other country including China, four times our size. And the people in jail are disproportionately African American, Latino and Native American,” he said. “And that is why we are going to invest in our young people in jobs and education, not more jails and incarceration. That is why we are going to end private prisons and detention centers. That is why we are going to end the war on drugs and legalize marijuana in every state in this country.”

He then asked people in the audience to indicated whether the know someone who has been arrested for cannabis possession before saying, “We are going to move forward to expunge the record for those who have been arrested for possession of marijuana.”

While the senator was the first major presidential candidate to call for legalization during his 2016 bid, he recently revised the strategy and said he would legalize in all 50 states on his first day in office through executive action. Legal experts told Marijuana Moment such a plan may not be legally and practically unfeasible, however.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), another 2020 candidate, also backs legalization and released a plan over the weekend where she pledged to begin the process of ending federal marijuana prohibition within 100 days of taking office. That’s in line with an earlier version of Sanders’s reform plan.

Elizabeth Warren Has A New Plan For Legalizing Marijuana

Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

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