Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) was the only presidential candidate to bring up marijuana during Thursday’s Democratic debate—and reform advocates weren’t happy about it.
In his closing statement, Hickenlooper said that he’s a “small business owner who brought that same scrappy spirit to big Colorado, one of the most progressive states in America” and then rattled off a list of accomplishments he appeared to claim at least partial credit for.
That list included cannabis legalization.
“We were the first state to legalize marijuana and we transformed our justice system in the process,” he said.
“You don’t need big government to do big things,” he added. “I know that because I’m the one person up here who’s actually done the big, progressive things everyone else is talking about.”
But as advocates quickly pointed out, the candidate seemed to be offering a revisionist history of his role in the state’s historic marijuana reform move. After all, he actively opposed Colorado’s 2012 legalization ballot measure, which voters went on to approved via referendum despite the governor’s objections.
Though his administration implemented the legal cannabis system effectively by most accounts, Hickenlooper acknowledged two years after the vote that he “opposed it from the very beginning” and that “it was reckless.”
“Hickenlooper deserves zero credit for legalization in Colorado and his attempts to claim otherwise are politically craven and amount to outright lies,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “The only ones who deserve credit are the citizens of Colorado who took the bold and sensible step towards legalization, despite the utter lack of leadership from their governor.”
— NORML (@NORML) June 28, 2019
Marijuana Moment reached out to Hickenlooper’s campaign for comment, but a representative did not respond by the time of publication.
Hours before the debate, the governor addressed his previous opposition to legalization during a Reddit AMA session.
Pressed on his record, Hickenlooper said “[n]o state had ever legalized marijuana before and I had concerns about how that would actually work in practice.”
“But when Coloradans made their preference clear, my team and I came together and created the first regulatory framework for legal marijuana,” he said. “It was a mammoth effort but the end result was much better than the old system. We’re no longer arresting tens of thousands of people—disproportionately people of color—over a joint.”
Users didn’t let him off easily.
“So… you were in favor of disproportionately arresting people of color over a joint, until the citizens of Colorado asked you to stop?” one person, whose comment has almost 10 times as many upvotes as Hickenlooper’s, wrote.
Elsewhere in the thread, Hickenlooper said that he now favors descheduling marijuana at the federal level, allowing the Food and Drug Administration to study cannabis, providing banking access to marijuana businesses and expunging the records of individuals with prior “low-level, non-violent” cannabis convictions.
But while he recognized his past opposition on Reddit, that same nuance did not make it into his final statement at the Democratic debate, frustrating reform advocates.
Wait, Hickenlooper is flexing on being first to legalize marijuana when he has only barely come around to supporting it last year?
— 'Radical' Russ Belville (@RadicalRuss) June 28, 2019
To be fair, he implemented a law he didn't agree with and did so in good faith.
But it definitely happened despite him.
— Sam Kamin (@ProfSamKamin) June 28, 2019
A reminder that John Hickenlooper was a strong opponent of the marijuana legalization he just touted
— Stephen Wolf (@PoliticsWolf) June 28, 2019
Colorado resident here! Hickenlooper misrepresented himself, at best. He opposed marijuana, had no part in instituting the program to reduce teen pregnancy, and did nothing for climate change when he oversaw the addition of tens of thousands of fracking wells.
— Suzie (@SuzieB303) June 28, 2019
Hickenlooper opposed legalizing marijuana but takes credit for it in Colorado #Democraticdebate
— Brian Frederick (@bfred34) June 28, 2019
“It’s a little strange that Hickenlooper is seemingly taking credit for legalization in Colorado, and it’s upsetting that he tried to use it as a way to distinguish himself from the rest of the field,” Mason Tvert, who co-directed the Colorado legalization initiative, told Marijuana Moment. “As a mayor and then as governor, he repeatedly opposed efforts to roll back marijuana prohibition, including the state’s historic legalization initiative in 2012.”
“While he deserves credit for implementing that law and finally coming around on the issue, he has no business holding it over the heads of the other candidates who support legalization—especially since several of them never fought it like he did,” he said. “If Hickenlooper wants to use marijuana policy as a campaign issue, he should avoid misrepresenting what he did in the past and focus on what he would do in the future.”
This seems to be something of a theme among governors of legal cannabis states. Like Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has also appeared to claim credit for his state’s legalization vote—despite having opposed it before the voters of his state enacted it over his objections. He said in April that “we’ve legalized marijuana” in Washington, seemingly falsely counting himself among the voters who brought the change about.
We know that the drug wars have been part of the racial disparity that too many have suffered so we’ve legalized marijuana and I’m the first governor to offer pardons to thousands of people who have had marijuana convictions. pic.twitter.com/u1ORz9oVxg
— Jay Inslee (@JayInslee) April 12, 2019
Photo courtesy of YouTube/NBC News.
Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress To Delay Marijuana Banking Vote
A coalition of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance is urging congressional Democratic leaders to delay a planned vote on a marijuana banking bill next week until more far-reaching legislation ending federal cannabis prohibition advances first.
“We are concerned that if the House approves this bill, it will undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country’s marijuana laws,” the groups wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a letter on Tuesday.
Hoyer’s office confirmed to Marijuana Moment last week that the House planned to vote on the cannabis financial services legislation by the end of the month.
“The Congress has a unique opportunity to address the myriad injustices created by this nation’s marijuana laws. For decades, people of color have suffered under harsh and racially-biased marijuana laws,” the groups, which also include Center for American Progress, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and JustLeadershipUSA, wrote. “The banking bill does not address marijuana reform holistically. Instead, it narrowly addresses the issues of banking and improved access to financial services, measures that would benefit the marijuana industry, not communities who have felt the brunt of prohibition.”
The letter is the most public sign yet of a dispute that has been brewing among advocates in the marijuana policy reform movement, with some seeing a successful vote on banking legislation as demonstrating momentum for broader reform and others expressing concern that the financial services proposal primarily helps the industry and could take the wind out of the sails of a full-scale push to end prohibition.
Advocates who want broader reform have focused on a bill that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed this summer that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and invest money into programs aimed at repairing the harms of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially disproportionate manner.
“Individuals and communities who are still suffering from the destabilizing collateral consequences of prohibition need reform and should not be second in line behind the industry,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “We need to ensure that the sequencing of federal marijuana bills, especially under House Democratic Leadership, is well thought out and done in a way that centers the millions directly impacted by overenforcement. We want to avoid the banking bill becoming Congress’ only bite at the apple for cannabis reform this session.”
Nadler’s bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, has been referred by House leadership to eight committees, none of which—including his own—have scheduled a vote on it. The financial services legislation—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—cleared a committee with a bipartisan vote in March and has been waiting on the House calendar for floor action for months.
“It’s a difference in tactics, not desired outcomes,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal, who supports going forward with the banking vote next week, told Marijuana Moment. “It’s our hope that the SAFE Banking vote demonstrates which members of Congress are willing to recognize the successes of state level reforms as we continue to move the MORE Act through the committee process.”
Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, took a similar view.
“The SAFE Banking Act is a necessary reform that would represent a major step toward more sensible cannabis laws, and it’s looking increasingly likely that it can actually pass soon,” he said. “We have an opportunity to end policies that actively endanger people, hurt small businesses, and stymie equitable participation in the cannabis industry. Banking reform is certainly not the end of the road, and the industry is committed to working in support of far more comprehensive reforms that more fully address the harms caused by prohibition. Passage of this legislation will only add momentum to those efforts.”
But the groups signing the new letter disagree.
“Marijuana legislation must first address the equity and criminal justice reform consequences of prohibition,” they wrote to Pelosi and Hoyer.
“To be clear, we recognize the challenges facing marijuana businesses that lack access to financial services. However, we believe it is a mistake to move this issue forward while many of the other consequences of marijuana prohibition remain unresolved,” they wrote in urging the House not to vote on cannabis financial services legislation next week. “The banking bill does not solve the underlying problems of marijuana prohibition – namely, that many people of color have been saddled with criminal records for a substance that is now legal in many states, and that communities have been shut out of the emerging and booming marijuana industry.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said last week that he plans a vote on the marijuana banking bill in his panel by the end of the year. That chamber’s version of the legislation got its 33rd senator signed on this week, meaning that it now has the proactive support of a third of the body’s membership.
Because House leaders plan to bring the marijuana banking bill to the floor under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, any Democratic votes lost as a result of the groups’ opposition could jeopardize the legislation. The SAFE Banking Act currently has 207 lawmakers signed on, whereas 290 votes are needed to approve a bill under suspension.
“Since the start of the 116th Congress, we have expressed concern to House Leadership, the House Financial Services Committee, and member offices, that if the banking bill moved to the Floor before broader reform, it would jeopardize comprehensive marijuana reform,” the concerned groups wrote in their letter. “Therefore, we have pushed for a conversation among advocates, Committee leadership, and House Leadership to formulate a plan for moving marijuana legislation in a way that is comprehensive and does not result in carve-outs for the industry and leave behind impacted communities.”
“We ask that you delay any vote on the banking bill until agreement has been reached around broader marijuana reform,” they said.
Read the full letter urging a delay on the marijuana banking vote below:
This story has been updated to include comment from Drug Policy Alliance and National Cannabis Industry Association.
Bernie Sanders Asks Campaign Rally Audience To Share Stories About Marijuana Arrests
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked an audience in South Carolina to share stories about marijuana possession convictions and then argued that those anecdotes help to demonstrate the case for national legalization.
During a campaign stop in the early primary state on Sunday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate asked people to raise their hands if they knew someone who’d been arrested for possessing cannabis. There was no shortage of hands raised.
“Holy God, whoa. That’s a lot of people,” Sanders said before asking for volunteers to go into detail.
“I got caught with about a joint and they took my license for a year and I lost my job,” an audience member said. “Ended up losing my house, and it went worse from there.”
The War on Drugs has been a disaster. It is time to legalize marijuana nationwide. pic.twitter.com/tehuM7xjxx
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 17, 2019
“Wow, this is for smoking a joint?” Sanders asked.
“Yeah, I had a little—like a dime bag in my car,” the person said.
Another person in attendance who appeared in the campaign video Sanders released on Tuesday said that she visited a guilty plea court and witnessed “three different men get put in at least two years of prison just for anywhere from two grams to eight grams of marijuana found on them.”
“That’s why all over this country states are doing the right thing and either decriminalizing or legalizing the possession of marijuana,” Sanders said to applause.
Since becoming the first major party presidential candidate to call for cannabis legalization in 2015, Sanders has continued to place an emphasis on the need for marijuana reform, with a focus on the racial injustices of prohibition.
Last month, he released a criminal justice reform plan that included proposals to legalize cannabis federally and also provide for safe injection sites to curb opioid overdoses.
But while Sanders has been a leading voice in the drug policy reform movement, he’s said twice in recent weeks that he’s not ready to embrace decriminalizing possession of drugs beside marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.
New York Gov. Cuomo Hints Marijuana Smoking Ban Could Be Part Of Next Legalization Push
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) seemed to suggest that he might want a ban on smoking marijuana included in legalization legislation when lawmakers take up the issue again next year.
During an interview with MSNBC on Sunday, the governor was asked whether the spike in apparent vaping-related lung injuries and deaths, which experts attribute to altered nicotine and cannabis oils primarily purchased on the illicit market, has made him reconsider pursuing legalization in the state.
“No,” he said, adding that his administration is “not in favor of smoking marijuana” and that there are “ways to get THC without smoking marijuana.”
“People are vaping THC, yes that is true,” Cuomo said. “We think that from a public health point of view, that is not something that we recommend and we think it’s dangerous—smoking of any kind.”
“You can legalize marijuana and sell THC in compounds that do not require you to smoke the marijuana, and we do not support smoking of marijuana,” he said. “There are compounds that have the THC, which is a compound in marijuana, that you don’t smoke.”
It’s not entirely clear if Cuomo plans to ask for a smoking ban the next time a legalization bill emerges or if he was simply outlining an administrative position advising against smoking. A spokesperson for his office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment by the time of publication.
But while there was no ban on marijuana smoking included in legalization legislation that he worked to pass earlier this year, it wouldn’t be entirely out of character given that he pushed for such a restriction as part of New York’s medical cannabis program in legislation enacted in 2014.
The logic behind that policy, according to Cuomo, was that it would prevent people from abusing the program. If he moved to incorporate a ban for adult-use legalization, however, it would presumably be a public health decision.
That could create problems when lawmakers return to the negotiating table. In California, flower and concentrates represent about 70 percent of the marijuana market, meaning any attempt to ban smokeable cannabis will likely be met with pushback from consumers, industry stakeholders and civil liberties-minded reform advocates.
Industry players seemed to have influence when Cuomo included a ban on home cultivation for personal use in his prior legalization proposal—something a major medical cannabis association recommended in a policy statement submitted to the governor.
For the time being, however, there don’t seem to be tangible plans to include a smoking ban in future cannabis legislation and it could be that the governor simply ends up pushing for public education campaigns discouraging the activity rather than keeping it illegal.
In July, he signed legislation broadening New York’s decriminalization law and creating a pathway for expungements for individuals with prior cannabis convictions.
Photo courtesy of MSNBC.