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Legal Marijuana Advocates Rank The Best And Worst Governors On Cannabis

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The U.S.’s 50 state governors just got their annual report cards from a leading national marijuana legalization organization, and—for the first time—over half of them got passing grades.

The new scorecard, released on Wednesday by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), comes at a time when a growing number of governors are focusing on ending cannabis prohibition in their states.

Over the past week, for example, at least eight governors have devoted portions of their inaugural or State of the State speeches to highlighting their support for marijuana law reform.

According to NORML, 27 governors deserve at least a C grade or higher, with nine of those getting an A. The scores denote an increase in the number of state chief executives that are embracing cannabis reform; last year the organization awarded only two A grades.

“This shift in political support among governors bodes well for the prospects of the passage of successful legislative reforms in various states in 2019 and beyond,” the organization said, adding that it anticipates lawmakers in as many as five states may send legalization bills to supportive governors’ desks this or next year.

But while NORML notes that polling shows support for ending marijuana prohibition is becoming less partisan among voters—with a majority of Republicans now on board—that shift hasn’t yet carried over to elected officials.

Of the governors who received passing grades in the new scorecard, 22 are Democrats and only five are Republicans. Meanwhile, 100 percent of those who got A grades are Democrats. On the other end of the scale, the 15 who got D grades and the four who received an F are all GOP governors. No Democrat got less than a C.

“There exists now for the first-time significant political support among a majority of U.S. governors for marijuana policy reform,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in an email. “But this support is also more partisan than ever before—with Democratic governors in growing numbers advocating for change while Republican governors are either remaining silent on the issue or campaigning in opposition to such reforms.”

“Just as Republican voters have evolved on the issue of marijuana policy reform over the past decades, Republican elected officials must do likewise in order to remain in step with the views of the electorate,” he said.

Meanwhile, it appears that marijuana reform is especially popular among newly elected governors, with nearly a third of those taking the gubernatorial oath of office for the first time this year getting an A.

Several recently sworn-in governors specifically campaigned on legalizing cannabis, such as Connecticut’s Ned Lamont (D), Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker (D), Minnesota’s Tim Walz (D) and New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D).

Pritzker reiterated his legalization pledge in an inaugural address this week, while Lamont recently said that ending cannabis prohibition would be among his “priorities” for the new legislative session.

Even among those governors who don’t yet personally support full legalization, several are calling for more modest cannabis reforms. In Kansas, new Gov. Laura Kelly (D) said during the campaign that she supports medical marijuana, for example, while Gov. Tony Evers (D) of Wisconsin wants to decriminalize cannabis and let voters decide on broader legalization through a referendum.

“The results of the 2018 midterm elections also show that advocating for marijuana legalization is a successful state-level campaign issue,” Armentano said.

At the same time, seven incumbents received an increase in their grades from last year.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), for example, got a bump from a B- to a B after he recently shifted from saying that the state wasn’t ready to legalize marijuana to now arguing that lawmakers should take a serious look at the issue in light of moves to end prohibition in neighboring states.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) moved from a C- to B+ after ceasing to call marijuana a “gateway drug” and instead including legalization provisions in his budget request to lawmakers.

The one Republican to get a grade increase was Texas’s Gov. Greg Abbott who during a reelection debate last year indicated that he is open to supporting legislation to decriminalize cannabis possession. He now has a C- compared to his prior D- grade.

Overall, the new grades for governors reflect the fact that marijuana—once an issue laughed off or avoided by elected officials—is now squarely at the center of mainstream American politics.

And, because governors have historically tended to be among the strongest candidates for president, the enthusiasm with which many of them are now embracing cannabis reform says a lot about the future of federal marijuana prohibition.

“Some of these governors at the state level that are advocating most publicly and the loudest in favor of reform do have higher political aspirations after they leave office,” NORML’s Armentano said.

“We’ve already seen among the Democratic party that there is a sense among the would-be presidential candidates that their position on marijuana is somewhat of a litmus test,” he added. “Of the major candidates that have emerged thus far, they are all fairly strong in their advocacy for marijuana law reform.”

Indeed, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who have both launched presidential campaign exploratory committees, support legalization and have sponsored cannabis legislation in Congress, as has fellow candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). Former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Sec. Julián Castro, who recently announced he is running, has said states should be able to implement voter-approved cannabis legalization.

And Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who is also considering a presidential run, announced this month that he will grant pardons to people with certain past marijuana convictions. He got an A grade in the new NORML scorecard.

All told, far more ambitious politicians at the state and federal levels are now proudly endorsing popular marijuana reforms than ever before in American history.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.

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.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana

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Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Legislation And Policy Actions

Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.

The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.

Quotes And Social Media Posts

It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.

Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.

Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.

Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.

He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.

“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.

One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”

“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.

Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.

Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency

Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.

At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.

That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.

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Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says

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Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.

Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.

Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.

Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.

In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.

The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”

In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”

Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:

Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”

“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”

Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.

“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”

Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.

“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”

Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.

“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.

Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”

Texas Governor Signs Bill To Expand State’s Medical Marijuana Program

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USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.

“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”

The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.

“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.

A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”

“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.

While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”

USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.

The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.

While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.

The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.

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