Marijuana is becoming a key focus in one of the most heated Democratic congressional primaries in the country, the result of which could have far-reaching implications for legalization legislation on Capitol Hill.
On September 1, voters in Massachusetts’s first congressional district will decide between current Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse (D). The mayor is making the case that, when it comes to drug policy, he has the vision and drive to move the country forward in a way that his opponent, who chairs a committee that has thus far declined to act on a pending legalization bill, cannot or will not.
And while this race itself could have lasting impacts on drug policy on its own, the primary is reflective of a recent trend that has seen progressive champions of reform sweep in to replace longtime incumbents who have been unwilling to actively advance the issue.
Morse is in favor of legalizing cannabis, decriminalizing other currently illicit drugs and investing in harm reduction programs to treat substance misuse as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
I was the 1st Mayor in 2016 to support the legalization of recreational marijuana in MA. It is a necessary step to begin dismantling the war on drugs and in Holyoke, we have worked to ensure those communities harmed by prohibition can build wealth in the new emerging industry.
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) April 20, 2020
The incumbent congressman, meanwhile, is interested in promoting restorative justice and ending the drug war, according to campaign staff—but his legislative record doesn’t necessarily reflect that position. And he’s made dismissive comments about cannabis in the past.
Neal has also passed up the chance to cosponsor far-reaching marijuana legislation and has faced criticism from advocates for not advancing a comprehensive cannabis bill—the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—that he has jurisdiction over as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“I think it underscores his inability to grasp the challenges of our time and the urgency of this moment on this issue,” Morse told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview last week. “He’s still stuck in the 80s—on cannabis and so many other issues.”
The mayor also criticized his opponent’s relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, which he said is “thwarting the growth of the cannabis industry.”
“It’s no surprise that Congressman Neal again is doing the work of his special interest and corporate donors,” Morse said.
Neal declined an opportunity for an interview, but campaign spokesperson Kate Norton did talk to Marijuana Moment. She pushed back on the notion that the congressman is against legalization or the MORE Act specifically. In fact, she pointed out, the congressman helped draft some of the tax provisions of the legislation.
“Congressman Neal looks forward to working with Congressman Nadler on the MORE Act,” she said, referring to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who is the lead sponsor of the bill. “He has been particularly interested in the restorative justice measures, designed specifically to achieve equity across the industry and mitigate the impacts of a historically racist war on drugs.”
While he may not be especially proactive on the issue, Neal has consistently voted in favor of spending bill amendments to prevent the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in all legal cannabis states and medical marijuana states specifically.
That’s in addition to “yes” votes on measures to let U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors recommend cannabis to veterans, legalize industrial hemp and provide banking services to the marijuana industry.
But it remains the case that Neal, who has served in Congress for 31 years, has yet to cosponsor the MORE Act. And it’s sat in his panel for about eight months since being approved by Nadler’s Judiciary Committee. But according to sources who spoke with Marijuana Moment recently, there’s a move to get the bill on the House floor for a vote in September, so the pressure might be dialed up for the chairman to decide whether to hold a markup in his committee or waive jurisdiction in order to clear the bill’s path forward.
While Nadler previously told Marijuana Moment that he’s “carrying on conversations” with various committees about waiving jurisdiction, the Neal spokesperson said the congressman has not been approached with that request.
Morse said that it’s unacceptable “to have a member of Congress in the Democratic Party in leadership in 2020 that isn’t an advocate for the legalization of cannabis.” And the mayor made clear that he would be a proactive advocate for the MORE Act if he’s elected.
He also weighed in on the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee vote this week, which saw an amendment to adopt legalization as a party plank soundly defeated despite the issue’s overwhelming popularity among Democratic voters.
This decision makes no sense to anyone under 50. https://t.co/9XbABMKQrp
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) July 28, 2020
“This decision makes no sense to anyone under 50,” he tweeted, adding that “even Boomers favor legalizing marijuana.”
In 2016, I was the first mayor in MA to publicly support legalization of marijuana and in Washington I'll lead on this issue by fighting to undo the harm inflicted on millions of people by the criminalization of marijuana.
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) July 28, 2020
The mayor’s criticism of Neal’s donations from the pharmaceutical industry is both political and personal. Morse’s brother passed earlier this year from an opioid overdose, and it’s helped to shape his understanding of the need for policies that focus on harm reduction. His campaign recently released a video ad about the experience.
This was a tough one. Earlier this year, we lost my brother after a long struggle with opioid addiction.
Doug was a good man, but he fell through the cracks of our cruel health care system.
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) July 22, 2020
“Our family knows firsthand the impact of the opioid epidemic and that what we find at our local pharmacy is much more dangerous than anything we would ever find at our local dispensary,” he said. “[Neal] seems incapable of grasping the moment we’re in and how much has changed over the last 30 years.”
Morse pointed specifically to Neal’s past comments describing cannabis as a “gateway drug” and his opposition to the state’s 2016 legalization ballot measure as an example of the congressman’s “out-of-date perspective.”
“We just don’t have a health care system that values mental health or substance use disorder. And medical marijuana and marijuana in general for so many folks actually helps people get off of opiates and other substances,” he said. “It’s the opioid manufacturers and prescription pills and products that doctors are prescribing that is the biggest gateway to more dangerous substances. I think it’s important that Democrats in leadership and Democrats in general and elected officials in general actually understand that.”
To combat the opioid epidemic, the country needs to invest in harm reduction programs, Morse said. And when he was elected mayor at age 22 in 2011, he quickly got to work to enact those changes, working with the board of health to open a needle exchange program in the town. The City Council sued his administration for opening it without legislative approval—but after years of litigation, a court ultimately ruled in Morse’s favor.
“In addition to needle exchange programs, I’m also an advocate for safe injection facilities, legalizing those here in the state and also nationally and replicating the successes of other countries that have implemented harm reduction programs similarly,” he said. “I think we need to invest in treatments and policies that actually lift up communities, not further criminalize them.”
Asked whether he felt drugs beyond cannabis should be decriminalized, Morse said “yes.”
“Policing and prosecution and criminalization doesn’t add value to the current crisis we’re in as a country,” he said. “Legalization, decriminalization is really the only pathway forward to address the ills and the fallbacks of substances in our country. I think we need to just completely shift the paradigm as to how we address possession and use altogether.”
Neal’s campaign page on opioids issues lacks proposals to enact these types of decriminalization and harm reduction programs and instead talks about legislation he’s worked on to increase health professionals’ access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, screening an HBO documentary on the drug crisis to raise public awareness, increasing enforcement against fentanyl traffickers and urging the Trump administration to provide funding to address the problem.
Should Morse prevail in his primary challenge, it would mark yet another example of a candidate running on a progressive agenda beating out a longtime Democratic incumbent in races that could have significant impacts for drug policy.
He would join the ranks of freshmen members of Congress like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who shook up the status quo with their 2018 primary victories and have both pushed for cannabis reform. And earlier this month, progressive educator Jamaal Bowman, another advocate for comprehensive cannabis legalization, won his primary against longtime incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY).
Read Morse’s cannabis policy platform below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Senator Touts New Marijuana Legalization Bill In Floor Speech On Racial Justice
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) talked up her new marijuana legalization bill during a speech on racial justice that she delivered on the Senate floor on Thursday.
The senator, whose “Substance Regulation and Safety Act” was introduced late last month, said that ending cannabis prohibition could help law enforcement devote more resources to serious crimes, rather than continue to criminalize people in a racially disparate manner.
“We could actually improve public safety by devoting resources to combating violent crime, rather than over-enforcing low-level offenses in communities of color. Let’s think about what this means for marijuana offenses,” Smith said. “The federal marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that contributes to mass incarceration and over-policing of communities of color.”
“White and black people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but a black person is almost four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense. The federal government is behind both state law and public opinion. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia already allow some type of marijuana use, despite the longtime federal prohibition.
While the senator recently introduced her own legalization bill, she also called on Congress to pass a separate reform bill that she’s cosponsored: the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act.
The legislation “would address the devastating impact on communities of color of a war on drugs by expunging marijuana-related convictions and then reinvesting in community,” she said.
“It is time to legalize marijuana, and we should do it in a practical and commonsense way that protects the health and safety and the civil rights of our communities.”
Watch the senator discuss cannabis policy and racial justice below:
Her own bill, meanwhile, “would ensure that marijuana is regulated to protect the health and the safety of youth, of consumers and of drivers,” she said. “We do this without replicating the racist enforcement patterns of our current drug policy.”
Neither piece of legislation has advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate so far. The House version of the MORE Act cleared the Judiciary Committee last year, however, and a committee chairman’s staffer told Marijuana Moment last month that there are plans in the works to get it to the floor for a vote in September.
During her speech, Smith also discussed a number of other proposals concerning policing reform and racial justice. She announced the introduction of another new bill that she says “would help, state, local and tribal governments reimagine policing in their communities by funding innovative projects and best practices that will transform how we deliver public safety and other social services.”
The senator’s marijuana legalization bill would federally deschedule cannabis, require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop rules that treat the substance in the same way as tobacco, create a national research institute to evaluate the risks and benefits of use, require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to impose quality control standards and mandate that the Department of Transportation study methods for detecting THC-impaired driving.
The descheduling provisions “are retroactive and shall apply to any offense committed, case pending, or conviction entered, and, in the case of a juvenile, any offense committed, case pending, or adjudication of juvenile delinquency entered, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of this Act,” the text of the bill states.
HHS would have to come up with a “national strategy to prevent youth use and abuse of cannabis, with specific attention to youth vaping of cannabis products.” Further, text of the legislation states that the department would be required to “regulate cannabis products in the same manner, and to the same extent,” as it does with tobacco.
That includes “applying all labeling and advertising requirements that apply to tobacco products under such Act to cannabis products.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be tasked with working with other agencies to develop policies on allowing marijuana imports and exports.
The legislation further contains racial justice provisions. For example, HHS would have to consult with “consult with civil rights stakeholders” to determine “whether cannabis abuse prevention strategies and policies are likely to have racially disparate impacts” within 100 days of the bill’s enactment.
The Department of Transportation would similarly have to determine whether its impaired driving prevention policy “is likely to contribute to racially disparate impacts in the enforcement of traffic safety laws.”
Agencies charged with establishing these regulations would have one year following the bill’s enactment to finalize those rules.
A federal age requirement for marijuana sales would be set at 21 under the measure.
The legislation was introduced one day after the House approved a spending bill amendment that would protect all state, territory and tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention.
Smith’s focus on marijuana reform comes as lawmakers in her home state of Minnesota push for legalization, with a top legislator unveiling a comprehensive plan for legalizing cannabis for all adults 21 and older in May.
Further, it comes shortly after the Democratic National Committee rejected an amendment to adopt legalization as a 2020 party plank, with members opting instead to embrace more modest reforms. Advocates suspend that there may have been pressure for the panel not to formally embrace a policy change that is opposed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State
Oregon officials finalized a series of analyses this week on separate ballot measures to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and decriminalize drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that the decriminalization initiative would reduce felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug possession by 91 percent, and that reduction would be “substantial for all racial groups, ranging from 82.9% for Asian Oregonians to approximately 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.”
Overall, the policy change would result in a 95 percent drop in racial disparities for possession arrests, the panel projects.
“The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests.”
The conviction estimate was included in the panel’s draft analysis first released last month, but the final version was expanded to include the arrest data as well. The new document also notes that “disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others”—a point that activists hoped the panel would include.
That said, the commission noted it “lacks sufficient or appropriate data in each of these areas and therefore cannot provide estimates for these other stages.”
The new report, published on Wednesday, cites research indicating that the resulting “drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others.”
The decriminalization proposal was the first ballot initiative in the state’s history to receive a report on the racial justice implications of its provisions under a little-utilized procedure where lawmakers can request such an analysis.
This information will be included in a voter pamphlet as a factual statement from the secretary of state’s office.
“Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more,” Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign, said in a press release.
Both the psilocybin therapy and drug decriminalization measures also received final explanatory statements and fiscal impact statements this week.
For the therapeutic psilocybin legalization initiative, the Financial Estimate Committee said that it projects the measure will have an impact of $5.4 million from the general fund during the two-year development period. After the program is established, it will cost $3.1 million annually, “which will be covered by the fees and tax funds for the administration and enforcement of the Act.”
The explanatory statement says the measure “directs the Oregon Health Authority to regulate the manufacture, delivery, purchase, and consumption of psilocybin, a psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms, at licensed psilocybin service centers” and that a “person would be allowed to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin only at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
It also describes an initial two-year development period during which officials will research and make recommendations on “the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat mental health conditions,” after which time the new law will allow “a client who is at least 21 years of age to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin initiative, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “satisfied with the explanatory statement and believe it captures the thoughtful approach we took that led to psilocybin therapy being on the ballot this November.”
“Specifically, we were happy to see the regulations and safeguards that are built into the measure highlighted in the explanatory statement,” he said. “We also believe that the fiscal committee saw and respected our approach to keep the psilocybin therapy program revenue neutral once up and running.”
The drug possession decriminalization measure is expected to cost $57 million annually, according to state officials, but it will be covered by marijuana tax revenue, which is “estimated at $61.1 million in 2019-21 and $182.4 million in 2021-23” and would therefore be “sufficient to meet this requirement.” Cannabis revenue to cities and counties would be reduced under the measure.
The reform would also save money through reduced drug enforcement. “These savings are estimated at $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23,” the analysis says. “This will reduce revenue transferred from the Department of Corrections for local government community corrections by $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23. The savings are expected to increase beyond the 2021-23 biennium.”
The initiative “mandates the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each existing coordinated care organization service area in the state,” the separate explanatory statement says, and describes how they would be funded with marijuana tax revenue.
“The measure eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles,” it says. “Instead, possession of these specified quantities of controlled substances becomes a non-criminal Class E violation for which the maximum punishment is a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.”
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
A measure to effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics has officially qualified for the November ballot in Washington, D.C.
Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last month.
Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Read the full state analysis of the Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin therapy measures below:
Top White House Official Blasts Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ Coronavirus Bill
Vice President Mike Pence’s top staffer on Thursday joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing House Democrats for including marijuana banking provisions to the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief bill.
Marc Short, who is Pence’s chief of staff and previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, discussed the COVID-19 legislation during an interview with Fox Business, and he described the Democratic proposal as a “liberal wish list” with “all sorts of things totally unrelated to coronavirus.”
“In one instance they have provided guarantees for banking access for marijuana growers,” Short said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus.”
He’s referring to language that was inserted from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Numerous Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have been critical of the provision, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.
Democrats, for their part, have made the case that granting cannabis businesses with access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview this week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.
“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.
While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.
The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.