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.
Governors Across The U.S. Tout Marijuana Reform Progress In State Of The State Speeches And Budgets
Governors across the U.S. have been taking the opportunity to tout marijuana reform accomplishments as part of their annual State of the State speeches and budget requests this month.
From New York to South Dakota, the comments and proposals from state executives demonstrate how cannabis has become more mainstream and is being talked about in high profile venues alongside more traditional fare such as taxes, education and infrastructure.
It’s also part of a growing theme, as governors have increasingly brought up marijuana policy in State of the State addresses each year to kick off the new year as the legalization movement spreads.
Here’s a look at what governors are saying about marijuana policy in 2022:
While adult-use marijuana retail sales have yet to launch in New Jersey after voters approved a 2020 legalization referendum, the state’s top executive said in his State of the State address that he’s expecting an economic boon.
“Many jobs await in the cannabis industry ready to take off,” Gov. Phil Murphy (R) said.
The governor also said separately in his second inaugural address this month that “businesses in the new cannabis industry that we are setting up in the name of social justice” are part of efforts to “continue growing the innovation economy that will power our future and make us a model for the nation and the world.”
Businesses on the cutting edge of new technologies that will revolutionize our grasp of the possible.
Businesses in the new cannabis industry that we are setting up in the name of social justice.
In online gaming and sports betting, which we now dominate.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) January 18, 2022
As the state prepares to implement legal cannabis sales, Murphy said late last year that he’s open to giving adults the right to cultivate marijuana for personal use even though it’s not currently written into the law.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) talked in here State of the State speech about the economic potential of the marijuana industry under the legalization law she signed last year.
“We’re expanding our economic footprint into every single community,” the governor said in her State of the State address. “Legal cannabis is going to create thousands of jobs and serious tax revenue for local governments to support local services in every corner of our state.”
Legal cannabis is going to create thousands of jobs & serious tax revenue to support local services.
Clean hydrogen will support thousands of jobs, especially in rural New Mexico, while helping us sprint toward our net-zero carbon deadlines and decarbonize transportation.
— Michelle Lujan Grisham (@GovMLG) January 18, 2022
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) released a State of the State book earlier this month that called for the creation of a $200 million public-private fund to specifically help promote social equity in the state’s burgeoning marijuana market.
The governor said that while cannabis business licenses have yet to be approved since legalization was signed into law last year, the market stands to generate billions of dollars, and it’s important to “create opportunities for all New Yorkers, particularly those from historically marginalized communities.”
That proposal was also cited in Hochul’s executive budget, which was released last week. The budget also estimated that New York stands to generate more than $1.25 billion in marijuana tax revenue over the next six years.
The briefing book for the executive budget touts how Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has “prioritized getting New York’s cannabis industry up and running” since marijuana was legalized under her predecessor last year. That includes appointing key regulators who’ve been “creating and implementing a comprehensive regulatory framework.”
The governor of Rhode Island included a proposal to legalize marijuana as part of his annual budget plan—the second time he’s done so. And time around, he also added new language to provide for automatic cannabis expungements in the state.
Gov. Dan McKee (D) released his request for the 2023 fiscal year on Thursday, calling for adult-use legalization as lawmakers say they’re separately nearing a deal on enacting the reform. It appears that an outstanding disagreement between the governor and legislators concerning what body should regulate the program remains unresolved based on the new budget proposal, however.
In general, McKee’s plan would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis, though it would not provide a home grow option. Adults could also store up to five ounces of marijuana in secured storage in their primary residence.
“The governor recommends creating a strictly regulated legal market for adult-use cannabis in the state,” an executive summary states. “This proposal would create a weight-based excise tax on marijuana cultivation, an additional retail excise tax of 10 percent, and also apply sales tax to cannabis transactions.”
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) isn’t a fan of adult-use legalization, going so far as to fund a lawsuit against a voter-approved 2020 reform initiative that ultimately led to a court ruling voiding the law. Her office has even suggested that activists behind the successful legalization campaign should front the legal bills for the case.
However, she seems to recognize the popularity of the issue and has recently attempted to associate herself with the implementation of the separate medical cannabis legalization law that voters also approved, as she did in her State of the State address this month.
“I take our citizens’ health seriously. I don’t make these decisions lightly. And when we create new policy, we’re going to do everything we can to get it right from day one,” Noem said. “Our state’s medical cannabis program is one example.”
“It was launched on schedule according to the timeline passed by South Dakota voters,” she said. “I know there will be some debate about that program this session. My focus is on making sure South Dakota has the safest, most responsible, and well-run medical cannabis program in the country.”
Noem tried to get the legislature to approve a bill to delay implementation of the medical cannabis program for an additional year, but while it cleared the House, negotiators were unable to reach an agreement with the Senate in conference, delivering a defeat to the governor.
In response, her office started exploring a compromise last year, with one proposal that came out of her administration to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of cannabis, limit the number of plants that patients could cultivate to three and prohibit people under 21 from qualifying for medical marijuana.
Advocates weren’t enthused with the proposal, and now they’re taking a two-track approach to enacting broader legalization legislatively and through the ballot.
In his final State of the Commonwealth address this month, now former-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) talked about the criminal justice implications of his state’s move to legalize marijuana last year.
“We also worked closely with you to make sure our criminal justice system reflects the Virginia that we are today. Too often, our modern-day punishments and practices have their roots in a more discriminatory and unfair past,” he said. “That’s why we’ve made marijuana use legal.”
Too often, our modern-day punishments and practices have their roots in a more discriminatory and unfair past.
That’s why we’ve made marijuana use legal. That’s also why we have ended use of the death penalty in Virginia—the first southern state to do so. #VASOTC
— Governor Ralph Northam (@VAGovernor73) January 13, 2022
He also thanked the legislators who championed the reform “for their work on this policy, which is complicated, but important.”
Meanwhile, the new governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, said recently that while he’s not interested in re-criminalizing marijuana possession, which became legal in the state last summer, but he feels there’s “still work to be done” before he gets behind creating a market for commercial sales and production.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Virginia GOP Lawmakers Begin Forming Plans For Marijuana Sales Launch
“There will be a bill. There may be multiple bills. But something is going to come out of this chamber.”
By Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury
GOP lawmakers in the Virginia House of Delegates are taking their first stab at legislation to open the retail marijuana market, introducing bills that would lower the tax rate on sales and redirect proposed social equity funding to school infrastructure.
But leadership in the chamber stressed that the effort remains very much a work in progress and that they expect plenty of changes as the legislation makes its way through the committee system.
“We’ll come up with something,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Speaker Todd Gilbert, said last week. “There will be a bill. There may be multiple bills. But something is going to come out of this chamber.”
Republicans unanimously opposed legalization when Democrats voted last year to allow people to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana. But Democratic lawmakers’ decision to leave it until this year to finalize the particulars of how a legal retail market would work—combined with the loss of their House majority in November—has left the once-reluctant GOP with a key role in deciding how to proceed.
Gilbert said that while his caucus opposed legalization, he views it as imperative to come up with a mechanism for legal sales, complaining that the legal framework left in place by Democrats has only empowered the black market.
The party has so-far left the heavy lifting on that front to Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, who was among a handful of GOP lawmakers to support reducing penalties for marijuana possession two years ago and is the only member of the party to introduce a comprehensive bill governing retail sales.
While his bill largely tracks with legislation introduced by Democrats in the House and Senate, it diverges in a few key areas.
First, it halves the proposed tax rate on retail sales from 21 percent to 10 percent, which would be the lowest in the country. Webert called the step important to compete with the black market, citing the experience of California, where the combined tax rate on sales is just over 36 percent.
“They have an ungodly huge black market,” Webert said. “So we don’t want the taxes so high that we drive things to the black market.”
His bill also changes how the money would be spent.
Social equity and schools
Democrats centered their legalization effort around social equity provisions aimed at making amends for disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws in Black communities. To that end, they proposed that 35 percent of tax revenue from marijuana sales be dedicated to a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, which the law proposed be dedicated to providing scholarships, community programs and business loans to people and communities “historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement.”
Webert’s bill eliminates that fund, instead proposing the revenue for a new grant program to help local governments pay for the cost of repairing or replacing roofs.
Finding more state funds to fix decrepit school buildings has been a focus for some Republicans recently and Webert said his approach would benefit both rural and urban areas that have struggled with the issue.
Webert also proposes tweaking—but not eliminating—a program devised by Democrats to give people negatively impacted by prohibition priority access to marijuana business licenses.
His legislation strikes criteria that would have extended preference to people convicted of marijuana crimes in the past — something that GOP lawmakers vocally opposed last year. But it maintains language that would allow priority access for people who live in areas that were subject to higher than average enforcement or are economically disadvantaged. It also maintains eligibility for people who attended a Virginia historically black college or university.
Referendums, unions and resentencing
The bill also includes subtler departures from the approach proposed by Democrats. For instance both bills allow localities to hold referendums to opt out of marijuana sales, but the GOP bill would bind towns to the decision of their surrounding county while the Democratic bill treats them as independent jurisdictions. (Legislation from two GOP delegates goes further, barring any retail marijuana stores unless sales are specifically approved by a local referendum.)
The GOP bill also drops languages that would block local governments from passing new zoning rules that apply only to marijuana businesses.
And it strikes language that was aimed at promoting unionization in the new industry by refusing to license business owners who oppose unionization efforts by employees or rely heavily on independent contractors.
For now, Republicans and Democrats have proposed similar stances on resentencing for people currently imprisoned on marijuana charges, allowing them to petition a judge to reconsider their sentence, though the GOP bill excludes people convicted of distributing the drug to minors.
A bill authored by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, goes further, proposing automatic resentencing hearings.
Both chambers have also introduced separate legislation to move the date retail sales can begin from 2024 to 2023—a key recommendation from lawmakers tasked with studying the issue over the summer.
The chambers differ, however, on whether to include large hemp processors in the stop-gap program. The House version limits early sales to existing medical producers. The Senate version allows large industrial hemp processors to also enter the market early.
So far, none of the bills have been docketed in the House of Delegates and it remains unclear when debate on the measures will begin in earnest.
Bipartisan Pennsylvania Senators File Bill To Let Medical Marijuana Patients Grow Their Own Plants
A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania senators introduced a bill on Thursday that would allow medical marijuana patients to cultivate their own plants for personal use.
Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) first announced their intent to file the legislation in November, arguing that it is a necessary reform to ensure patient access by giving people a less costly alternative to buying from dispensaries.
Registered patients who are 21 and older, and who have been residents of the state for at least 30 days, could grow up to six plants in an “enclosed and locked space” at their residence, according to the text of the bill. They would be allowed to buy cannabis seeds from licensed dispensaries
SB1024 – Senator Sharif Street and I worked diligently to get our Medical Marijuana Home Cultivation Bill introduced.
— Senator Dan Laughlin (@senatorlaughlin) January 21, 2022
In an earlier cosponsorship memo for the new home grow bill, the lawmakers said that letting patients cultivate their own medicine would “help ease the cost and accessibility burdens for this important medicine.”
The new legislation has three other initial cosponsors in addition to Street and Laughlin.
Street had attempted to get the reform enacted as an amendment to an omnibus bill this summer, but it did not advance.
The senators argue that patients in particular are deserving of a home grow option, as some must currently travel hours to visit a licensed dispensary and there are financial burdens that could be alleviated if patients could grow their own plants for medicine.
Late last year, Laughlin and Street also unveiled a separate adult-use legalization proposal that faces significant challenges in the GOP-controlled legislature. And Street is behind another recent cannabis measure to provide state-level protections to banks and insurers that work with cannabis businesses.
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In the interim, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate this year, said one of his key goals in his final year in office is to ensure that as many eligible people as possible submit applications to have the courts remove their cannabis records and restore opportunities to things like housing, student financial aid and employment through an expedited petition program.
Pennsylvania lawmakers could also take up more modest marijuana reform proposals like a bill filed late last year to expand the number of medical marijuana cultivators in the state, prioritizing small farms to break up what she characterized as a monopoly or large corporations that’s created supply problems.
Rep. Amen Brown (D) separately announced his intent to file a legalization bill that he’ll be working on with Sen. Mike Regan (R), who expressed his support for the policy change a day earlier.
Additionally, another pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing last year.
Philadelphia voters also approved a referendum on marijuana legalization in November that adds a section to the city charter saying that “the citizens of Philadelphia call upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Governor to pass legislation that will decriminalize, regulate, and tax the use, and sale to adults aged 21 years or older, of cannabis for non-medical purposes.”
Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said last year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.
The governor, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A survey from Franklin & Marshall College released last year found that 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters back adult-use legalization. That’s the highest level of support for the issue since the firm started polling people about it in 2006.
An attempt to provide protections for Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients from being charged with driving under the influence was derailed in the legislature last year, apparently due to pushback by the state police association.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.