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Lawmakers Ask Fellow Congressional Democrats To Pursue Marijuana Legalization Amid Policing Debate

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As congressional Democrats push for a broad package of policing reform legislation, two members of the House circulated a sign-on letter on Thursday urging fellow lawmakers to keep marijuana reform in mind as a way to further promote racial justice.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) led the “Dear Colleague” letter, which was shared with Marijuana Moment and asks members to “consider another crucial issue towards criminal justice reform: eliminating the failed prohibition on cannabis.”

“We have all seen the pernicious effects of selective enforcement of cannabis prohibition across the country, and it is not just in red states or rural Republican America,” the letter states. “We have seen for the last 50 years the cannabis prohibition used disproportionately against people of color, especially young Black men. The use of cannabis is fairly uniform across different racial groups, but the people caught up in the net of cannabis enforcement are heavily skewed towards these young Black men.”

“It is time that we as Democrats take a stand against this pernicious hold-over from Richard Nixon’s blatant attempt at criminalizing the behavior of African Americans,” the two lawmakers, who are co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, wrote, adding that prohibition has contributed to mass incarceration across the country.

They said the “simplest and most direct thing we could do” would be to pass the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). That bill cleared his panel last year and awaits floor action, though has also been referred to other panels that have not yet acted on it.

“This carefully crafted legislation will legalize cannabis, provide restorative justice to communities of color torn apart by the failed War on Drugs, stop the nonsense of not being able to research it, remove the barriers to people getting medicine, and eliminate the impacts of cannabis prohibition on educational funding and access to public housing,” the letter continues.

“We urge you to examine these issues, the legislative options, and to make federal cannabis reform part of the communities’ support in their quest for racial justice. We have information in greater specificity, if you wish, and have other pieces of legislation that will improve this tragic situation. Regardless, we hope you will be mindful of this rank injustice and the overwhelming support, which includes 93 percent of voters under 30. The cannabis reform train has left the station.”

A policing reform bill filed by Democratic leaders is expected to be voted on in the House Judiciary Committee next week, but, while it would ban no-knock raids in drug cases, it does not currently contain any language addressing marijuana’s legal status.

Earlier this week, Blumenauer released a police accountability plan that includes proposals to legalize cannabis and decriminalize other drugs to reduce over-policing of communities of color.

He and Lee aren’t alone in recognizing the role of drug criminalization in racial injustices that are being widely protested across the country following a series of police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom described his states’s legalization of marijuana as a “civil rights” matter last week. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said that the passage of cannabis decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana enforcement is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.

Last month, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs. It now has 173 cosponsors.

That measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.

In New York, there’s a renewed push to pass a package of criminal justice reform legislation that includes a bill to legalize marijuana.

The head of a federal health agency recently acknowledged racial disparities in drug enforcement and the harm that such disparate practices have caused—and on Monday, NORML asked her to go on the record to further admit that this trend in criminalization is more harmful than marijuana itself.

Read the full Dear Colleague letter from Blumenauer and Lee below:

Dear Colleague,

It is our honor to give our full support to the framework for the package on racial justice in policing, led by Chairwoman Karen Bass, Senator Booker, Senator Harris and Chairman Nadler. They have experience, credibility, and expertise that has been used to craft a framework that should command the support of all of us. The overall approach is one that we hope will unite us and provide the foundation for path-breaking reform legislation that is badly needed and long-overdue.

In this same spirit, we ask you to consider another crucial issue towards criminal justice reform: eliminating the failed prohibition on cannabis.

We have all seen the pernicious effects of selective enforcement of cannabis prohibition across the country, and it is not just in red states or rural Republican America. We have seen for the last 50 years the cannabis prohibition used disproportionately against people of color, especially young Black men. The use of cannabis is fairly uniform across different racial groups, but the people caught up in the net of cannabis enforcement are heavily skewed towards these young Black men. In Manhattan, until recently, Black people were eight times more likely to be arrested than white people, even though, as stated, the rate of use is the same. This placed too many under the pressure of selective and discriminatory enforcement, the threat of mandatory minimums, and overly punitive three-strikes and you’re out sentencing laws. This often resulted in innocent people pleading guilty with district attorneys in order to avoid being prosecuted under much more stringent terms with harsh penalties almost assured.

It is time that we as Democrats take a stand against this pernicious hold-over from Richard Nixon’s blatant attempt at criminalizing the behavior of African Americans. These policies have resulted in an explosion of the American prison population. The prison population in 1970 was 372,000 people; this exploded by a factor of 300% by 1990, almost doubled again by the year 2000, and currently is 2.3 million. The statistics of racial disparities in the corrections system are appalling, known to us all, and driven by non-violent drug offenses coupled with selective enforcement.

The simplest and most direct thing we could do would be to enact the MORE Act from Chairman Nadler’s Judiciary Committee, which was modeled after Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s Marijuana Justice Act. This key legislation was passed onto the floor with a bipartisan vote four months ago. This carefully crafted legislation will legalize cannabis, provide restorative justice to communities of color torn apart by the failed War on Drugs, stop the nonsense of not being able to research it, remove the barriers to people getting medicine, and eliminate the impacts of cannabis prohibition on educational funding and access to public housing.

We urge you to examine these issues, the legislative options, and to make federal cannabis reform part of the communities’ support in their quest for racial justice. We have information in greater specificity, if you wish, and have other pieces of legislation that will improve this tragic situation. Regardless, we hope you will be mindful of this rank injustice and the overwhelming support, which includes 93% of voters under 30. The cannabis reform train has left the station. Two-thirds of the states have taken meaningful action, 12 have legalized adult-use, and public opinion will support us in this effort to correct these grave injustices.

It’s not all about chokeholds and the police, it’s about blatant, discriminatory, irrational drug laws that have destroyed so many lives. We urge you to join us.

Sincerely,

Earl Blumenauer

Member of Congress

Barbara Lee

Member of Congress

Federal Reserve Bank Highlights Economic Potential And Health Impacts Of Marijuana Legalization

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Mississippi Lawmakers Float Special Session To Restore Medical Marijuana Following Supreme Court Ruling

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Without a special session, the earliest that the Legislature could enact a medical marijuana program would be in January when the 2022 session begins.

By Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today

A special legislative session is being discussed by political leaders in the wake of last week’s explosive ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court striking down both the state’s new medical marijuana program and the entire initiative process where citizens can gather signatures to place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.

Sources close to the issue said that lawmakers have broached the issue of a special session with Gov. Tate Reeves’s (R) office.

Without a special session, the earliest that the Legislature could enact a medical marijuana program would be in January when the 2022 session begins. And it would take even longer to re-instate the initiative process since it would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and then approval by voters presumably during the November 2022 general election.

During a special session, legislators could have an opportunity to create a medical marijuana program and perhaps to fix the language in the state’s initiative process that resulted in last week’s Supreme Court ruling.

House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) says he supports Reeves calling a special session to allow legislators to reinstate the state’s initiative process.

“We 100% believe in the right of the people to use the initiative and referendum process to express their views on public policy,” Gunn said in a statement. “If the legislature does not act on an issue that the people of Mississippi want, then the people need a mechanism to change the law. I support the governor calling us into a special session to protect this important right of the people.”

Efforts to garner comments from Reeves and Lt. Gov Delbert Hosemann (R), who presides over the Senate, have been unsuccessful thus far. On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, Bailey Martin, a spokesperson for Reeves, told the Daily Journal in Tupelo, “Like most Mississippians, Gov. Reeves is interested and intrigued by the Supreme Court’s decision on the recent ballot initiative. He and his team are currently digesting the Court’s 58-page opinion and will make further comment once that analysis is complete.”

Senate President Pro Tem Dean Kirby, (R), said he has not heard discussions about a special session, but said, “I would not be opposed to a special session” to take up the issue of medical marijuana. He pointed out the Senate passed a bill earlier this year in the 2021 session that would have put in place a medical marijuana program if the Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative. The House did not take up the Senate proposal, opting to wait for the Supreme Court ruling.

Kirby said he had not studied the issue of whether there should be an effort in special session to take up fixing the entire initiative process.

Rep. Robert Johnson, (D), the House minority leader, who was critical of last week’s Supreme Court ruling, said he would support a special session to take up both issues.

Secretary of State Michael Watson (R), who oversees state elections and the initiative process, said via social media he also supports the governor calling a special session.

“I strongly encourage Gov. Reeves to call a special session to address this issue,” Watson said, adding that the issue of medical marijuana also should be taken up during a special session. Watson also said the Legislature should take steps to ensure initiatives approved earlier by voters are not rendered void by the Supreme Court decision released Friday afternoon.

In a 6-3 ruling last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November and in the process voided the state’s initiative that has been in effect since 1992.

In the process of voiding the process, six initiatives that were at varying stages of trying to garner the required number of signatures were killed. Those efforts were:

  • Expanding Medicaid.
  • Enacting early voting.
  • Enacting term limits.
  • Legalizing recreational marijuana.
  • Giving voters the opportunity to restore the old flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem in its design.
  • Replacing the 1890 flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem. That already has been done by the Legislature.

The Supreme Court ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the city of Madison and its mayor, Mary Hawkins Butler. The lawsuit alleged the initiative process should be voided because the Constitution requires the signatures to be gathered equally from five congressional districts as they were configured in 1990. In 2000, the state lost a U.S. House seat based on U.S. Census data, rendering it impossible to gather the signatures as mandated in the Constitution, the lawsuit argued.

The state’s highest court agreed.

Also at issue is two initiatives that passed in 2011 where the signatures were gathered from the original five congressional districts and whether they will be efforts to challenge those proposals. Those initiatives enacted a requirement to have a government-issued photo ID to vote and a prohibition on the government taking private land for the use of another private entity. After voters approved placing the voter identification issue in the Constitution, it also was approved as general law by the Legislature. So, if the voter ID initiative is struck down, it is not clear how it would impact the general law.

When asked if the Southern Poverty Law Center might challenge the voter ID initiative based on the Supreme Court ruling, Brandon Jones, policy director with the group, said “Like a lot of other folks, we are in the very early states of considering options for voters and the issues impacted by last week’s ruling. We haven’t made any decision yet.”

SPLC also would have been heavily involved in the effort to pass a Medicaid expansion initiative had it not be halted by the Supreme Court ruling.

This story was first published by Mississippi Today.

Voters In Conservative Louisiana Districts Support Legalizing Marijuana, Poll Shows With House Vote Scheduled

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Minnesota Lawmakers Approve Smokable Medical Marijuana As Broader Legalization Stalls

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A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota that recently passed the House isn’t advancing in the Republican controlled Senate this session—but advocates scored a different kind of victory on Monday when it comes to expanding the state’s medical cannabis program.

That includes legalizing smokable forms of marijuana for registered patients.

Over the weekend, a bicameral conference committee approved the reform, in addition to several other marijuana-related changes, as part of an omnibus health bill. The House adopted that report on Monday in a 77-57 vote, and the Senate followed suit in a 66-1 vote, sending it to the governor’s desk.

This is just the kind of compromise that House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), sponsor of the broader legalization measure that moved through 12 committees before being cleared by the chamber, predicted would come about in the face of GOP resistance to the idea of ending prohibition altogether.

The most significant change to Minnesota’s medical cannabis program would allow adults 21 and older to access smokable marijuana products. If the final legislation is signed by the governor, that policy would have to take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.

There are few remaining states that have medical cannabis programs in place but where smokable products are still prohibited. The Louisiana House approved a bill to allow access to flower products, and it’s heading to the Senate floor. In Alabama, the governor has a medical marijuana legalization bill on her desk that would include a ban on smokable cannabis.

Back in Minnesota, dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the proposed omnibus legislation. The report further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.

“Over the course of 12 public hearings this year and a statewide tour visiting 15 communities, Minnesotans were loud and clear that our state’s medical cannabis program was too expensive, and that allowing flower could significantly improve access,” Winkler said in a press release.

“As a result of Minnesotans who made their voices heard over the course of years—whether you are a veteran suffering from PTSD, a person with a serious health condition, or a parent with a sick child—more people will gain the ability to live healthy, fulfilled lives,” he said. “Without Minnesotans’ activism and personal stories, and without a historic vote in the Minnesota House to legalize cannabis for adult use, this accomplishment would not have been possible.”

There was one change attached to the health bill that could be of concern to advocates. It would make it so regulators could remove health conditions that qualify patients for medical marijuana if they receive a petition from a member of the public or a task force. Currently, the commissioner is only able to approve new conditions or modify existing ones.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Still, activists are excited about the overall expansion of the program under the legislation.

“Quite contrary to the claim of some GOP members that reforms to the state’s restrictive medical cannabis program are the ‘backdoor’ to full legalization, the adult-use bill helped open the front door this session for the sorely needed reforms patient advocates have been working toward for years,” Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, told Marijuana Moment.

These are generally positive developments for advocates and patients, but there’s still disappointment over the fact that Winkler’s full legalization bill has stalled in the Senate.

Gov. Tim Walz (D), who hasn’t been especially vocal about the issue in recent weeks as the legislation has advanced, weighed in on the House passage of the legislation on Friday.

“I’ve thought for a long time about that,” he said, 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.”

“I know a lot of states—other states, conservative states like South Dakota—others have done this. I think there’s a way to do it,” he added. “I say that as a father of a 14-year-old. I certainly don’t encourage it. I certainly wouldn’t encourage my son to over-abuse alcohol. I wouldn’t encourage him to do some of those things, but when adults are of a certain age I trust them to make a good decision.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), meanwhile, reiterated his opposition to legalization in an interview with WCCO-TV over the weekend, though he said medical cannabis expansion and lowering criminal penalties for marijuana are areas of interest.

“What I do think we should continue to explore is lowering the criminal offenses—and are there medical reasons that we’re missing?” he said. Those are two things that I hear a lot of, but just making recreational marijuana illegal, I don’t think that’s wise.”

Rep. Rena Moran (D), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, commented in a separate interview with the station that cannabis criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color and has funneled “way too many people into the criminal justice system.”

While it seems the legislature is heading into a special session to pass the state budget after not being able to get it done by Monday’s end of the regular session, it seems unlikely that the Senate would be willing to take up the legalization bill during that time.

The majority leader’s 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.

On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.

Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.

The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.

People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.

Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.

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.

Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

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Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

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The governor of Alabama on Monday signed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state that was sent to her desk earlier this month.

Following the measure’s passage, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signaled that she intended to sign after “thoroughly reviewing it.” But while there was a general expectation that she would recommend amendments, she signed it as is.

While the measure was approved with a two-to-one margin in both the House and Senate, some Republican lawmakers vigorously opposed its passage, staging a lengthy filibuster that delayed the final votes.

“Signing SB 46 is an important first step,” Ivey said in a press release. “This is certainly a sensitive and emotional issue and something that is continually being studied. On the state level, we have had a study group that has looked closely at this issue, and I am interested in the potential good medical cannabis can have for those with chronic illnesses or what it can do to improve the quality of life of those in their final days.”

In addition to being able to sign or veto the bill, Ivey had had the opportunity to propose line-item amendments and send it back to lawmakers, who could then approve or reject them. But she apparently did not see the need to pursue that option.

“As research evolves, [Sen. Tim Melson (R)] and I discussed how critical it is to continue finding ways to work on this to ensure we have a productive, safe and responsible operation in Alabama,” the governor said.

While Ivey hasn’t been especially vocal about the issue, she was asked about a prior medical cannabis legalization bill in 2019 and said, “I’m still trying to get the details, but if it’s tightly controlled and limited to just those illnesses as verified by medical professionals, it’d be worth considering.”

A restrictive medical marijuana bill is essentially what lawmakers sent to the governor.

Under the legislation as approved, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers in future sessions.

The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.

For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth (R) expressed support for the reform—and he called on lawmakers to send the bill to the governor ahead of their final votes.

“I support legalizing medical marijuana to help those with cancer and other serious medical issues ease their pain,” he posted on Twitter. “The majority of the medical community agrees. The Alabama House should pass this important bill before the session ends.”

Ivey signed a bill in 2019 that established a medical cannabis study commission. That piece of legislation was originally a medical marijuana legalization bill that cleared the Senate but then was gutted in the House.

Late last month, the governor signed another bill that expands expungement eligibility for certain convictions, including misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved

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