A Maine House committee on Friday discussed a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs—and the Maine Medical Association (MMA) and a church coalition were among the organizations that testified in favor of the proposal.
The legislation, LD 967, would make illicit drug possession a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine. People would be able to avoid that penalty if they submit to an “evidence-based assessment for proposed treatment for substance use disorder.”
Numerous people testified before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, with many sharing personal stories about the harms of criminalizing personal drug possession. Members heard about the long-term consequences people with drug convictions on their records face, such as lack of housing opportunities and employment.
But among the most notable supporters of the legislation is the MMA, which is part of the American Medical Association (AMA). While AMA has historically opposed other reforms like legalizing marijuana, on this issue the Maine chapter’s position is aligned with pro-reform advocacy groups.
“Opioid addiction is both an epidemic and a public health crisis, every bit as much an illness as cancer, diabetes or alcoholism,” MMA said in written testimony. “But instead of receiving treatment and support for their illness, patients affected by substance use disorders often find themselves treated as criminals instead of patients.”
“Treatment and prevention are the pathways to defeating this problem, not stigmatizing its victims with felony convictions which will follow them for the rest of their lives, affecting their ability to find jobs, health insurance, housing, family support, and often leading to relapse into the very addiction that produced the conviction in the first place,” it continued. “By making possession of illegal drugs for personal use a civil infraction rather than a crime, LD 967 is an important step in the effort to take medical control of the opioid epidemic.”
Daniel Oppenheim, co-chair of the public health committee of MMA, also appeared before the panel on Friday and stressed that “opioid addiction is both an epidemic and a public health crisis,” and “all too often opioid addiction begins with prescriptions written by doctors.”
Another notable group that offered testimony in favor of the bill is the Maine Council of Churches, which represents faith institutions from seven denominations.
“Maine’s current policies around drug use and substance use disorder have a severe death measure. Our choice not to treat the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis allowed 500 Mainers to die of overdose last year alone,” the council’s testimony said. “Our policy of criminalization keeps thousands more locked in a vicious cycle that spins attempts to self-medicate trauma into felony convictions, which create barriers to the resources necessary to recover, leading to deeper trauma.”
“At a deeper level, we know that when we, at a policy level, choose empathy over judgment, compassion over punishment, and treatment over prosecution, we are actively choosing life over death,” it said.
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The Maine Center for Economic Policy is also in favor of ending criminalization for drug possession.
The organization said that the existing policy “places a huge burden on Mainers, especially Mainers of Color, and prevents them from thriving economically.”
“What’s more, from an economist’s perspective, criminalizing people who use drugs is an inefficient use of state resources,” it said. “The state spends tens of thousands of dollars each year to incarcerate an individual; resources which would be much more effective applied to other methods.”
“These impacts are especially severe for Mainers of Color. Systemic bias in our criminal code and in our justice system means that Black and brown Mainers are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and face longer sentences than white Mainers when it comes to substance use,” it continued.
ACLU of Maine said the state’s “attempt to arrest our way out of drug use has not worked: drugs are still readily available throughout the state, substance use disorder rates remain high, and the death toll is unprecedented.”
“More than 500 people died last year from drug overdoses in our state,” it said. “These were our friends, our family, and our neighbors. We owe it to those we love who use drugs to try a new way in order to save lives.”
The Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said that drug possession convictions “can have short term and life long consequences,” and those with convictions “are likely to suffer negatively at work, in their relationships, and in their housing.”
“Drug possession convictions have a disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color; making drug possession a civil offense will help to alleviate these disparities,” the association said. “The get tough on crime, war on drugs approach has been a failure by any metric. It has cost untold amounts of dollars and lives.”
Addiction recovery groups also submitted testimony in favor of the legislation, with a representative of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project sharing a personal anecdote about how his past drug use could have led to life-lasting consequences without necessary treatment.
The Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, meanwhile, said substance misuse disorder “is a health condition and not a crime.”
“We need to change our drug laws to save lives. Opioid addiction is a public health crisis. Decriminalization is an essential step to remove barriers to care and support, reduce stigma and discrimination, improve health and socioeconomic outcomes, and work toward a more just and compassionate society. We must stop treating people affected by substance use disorders as criminals instead of patients. We need a humane and public health-informed response to ensure people stay alive and have the best opportunity to live and thrive in their community.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the main opponents to the reform was the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.
The anti-narcotics agency said that while it is “open to reasonable modifications of the unlawful possession of scheduled drugs statute, we do not support the outright decriminalization of scheduled drugs.”
“The bill’s title implies that personal use amounts would be subject to a civil violation. However, the bill does not specify what quantities would constitute personal use amounts. In addition, the bill proposes no stronger intervention responses if there are subsequent violations,” it said. “As stated above, the Department is resolved to working for reasonable reforms to Maine’s illegal possession statute based on evolving views of how to address the problem of illegal substance use. Decriminalization of these drugs sends a mixed message that fails to recognize how dangerous these drugs are and normalizes their possession.”
The hearing is a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill last month that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.
Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill
The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.
His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.
“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.
I have filed #SAFEBanking as an amendment to #AmericaCOMPETES b/c cannabis-related businesses – big and small – are in desperate need of access to capital & the banking system in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner & compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) January 28, 2022
“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”
It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.
The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.
Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.
In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.
Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures
Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.
This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.
The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.
CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.
“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”
The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).
A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.
The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.
Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.
Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”
With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.
Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.
A legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).
A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.
There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.
After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.
Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.
Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.
A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”
While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.
The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.
“The higher the content of THC, the greater the likelihood that you will become addicted to the drug… The content of THC has gone up at least 4-fold.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.
The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.
That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.
“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.
Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.
“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”
The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.
She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”
However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.
“We need to provide them [addicts] with treatment, so just to say ok we are going to liberalize everything… and not support treatment for those people under those conditions, I actually think it is quite irresponsible.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.
She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.
Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.