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Marijuana Ballot Measures Could Affect Key U.S. Senate Elections

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Control of the U.S. Senate could hinge on the outcome of elections in states where voters will also decide on marijuana ballot initiatives this November.

Conventional political wisdom holds that cannabis on the ballot drives voter turnout by young people and progressives who are likely to back Democrats, but is that really the case? Hard evidence to date is slim at best, and the results of this year’s midterms could help shed light on the question.

Republicans currently enjoy the barest of majorities in Congress’s upper house, with 51 seats to 47 Democrats (and two independents who caucus and vote with Democrats).

In order to gain control of the Senate, and perhaps finally see cannabis bills called for hearings, Democrats need to eke out electoral victories in places like Nevada, where a booming recreational marijuana marketplace is entering its second year. And, they must also hold onto seats in states like Missouri and North Dakota, deeply conservative areas won by President Donald Trump in 2016 that CNN placed on a list of the ten Senate seats most likely to flip.

In Missouri, voters will decide on three separate medical cannabis measures. And in North Dakota, where medical marijuana won a shock, longshot victory in 2016, voters have the chance to legalize recreational marijuana.

For most of the past decade, cannabis has enjoyed relatively consistent and sometimes overwhelming success in American elections.

Four out of five legalization measures before voters in 2016 won. On the same day, medical marijuana was legalized in red states like Arkansas, North Dakota and Florida, where more than 71 percent of voters approved the ballot measure. And in June, voters in Oklahoma approved medical cannabis despite the fact that supporters were heavily outspent by opponents.

Both the turnout and the result of these upcoming Senate elections could provide a clue to marijuana’s true power in drawing voters to the polls, and demonstrate both mainstream political parties’ appetite to embrace cannabis as a campaign issue.

In Missouri, according to recent polling, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is in a dead heat with Republican challenger Josh Hawley, the state attorney general. By contrast, the same poll showed medical marijuana ahead by a solid 54 percent to 35 percent margin.

It’s not exactly clear what would happen if more than one of the three marijuana measures on the ballot win, but in the poll, voters indicated their clear preference for some change in state law to allow medical use of the drug.

McCaskill said in a recent interview that she will support at least one of the cannabis initiatives. “I do think medical marijuana should be passed,” she said.

But for now, the Missouri Democratic Party apparatus is choosing not to highlight McCaskill’s support for the popular medical cannabis issue. Their reasoning is not known.

Meanwhile, for his part, Hawley announced on Wednesday that he is “inclined to support” at least one of the marijuana initiatives.

In North Dakota, state elections officials announced on Monday that a legalization measure has qualified for the ballot.

Polling in that state’s Senate race is inconsistent, but one June estimation gave Republican challenger Kevin Cramer a four-point edge over incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp’s victory in 2012 was by a single percentage point, and she was the first Democrat to win statewide election there in almost a decade. Those two factors fueled Roll Call’s decision to declare the race tilting in Cramer’s favor.

For his part, Cramer, who is currently a member of the U.S. House, said he would vote against the legalization ballot measure. In 2015, he supported a floor amendment to shield state medical cannabis programs from federal interference, but opposed a broader measure to protect recreational laws.

Might Heitkamp gamble on cannabis to give her an edge, considering her state’s embrace of medical cannabis two years ago? She dodged the question in a recent interview with MyNDNow.com, but has said that marijuana is a state issue that should be free of federal interference.

She is also cosponsoring Senate legislation to let cannabis businesses access banks.

A poll earlier this year showed that North Dakota voters favor cannabis legalization 45 percent to 39 percent.

In two months’ time, if Heitkamp still trailing Cramer in the polls, she could probably do worse than to fully embrace a popular issue like marijuana legalization, regardless of any turnout effect the measure’s appearance on the ballot might have.

Marijuana Emerges As Key Issue In Nevada U.S. Senate Race

Photo courtesy of Democracy Chronicles.

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.

Chris Roberts is a reporter and writer based in San Francisco. He has covered the cannabis industry since 2009, with bylines in the Guardian, Deadspin, Leafly News, The Observer, The Verge, Curbed, Cannabis Now, SF Weekly and others.

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New Mexico Governor And Senate Leader Say Marijuana Legalization Can Pass This Year

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The governor of New Mexico and a top Senate leader are bullish about getting marijuana legalization passed this session, with both making recent comments about what they hope the soon-to-be-introduced legislation will accomplish.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who included the reform as part of her 2021 legislative agenda she released this month, said in a TV interview that she’s “optimistic” about cannabis reform adding that projections show the state gaining thousands of jobs and raising hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

“I’m still really optimistic about cannabis, which is 12,000 jobs,” she told KOB-TV, “and you know by the fifth year in operation, the projections are we would make $600 million a year.”

But while the “large economic boost” that the governor expects legalization to bring is an important component, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers are also taking seriously the need to address social equity.

Watch the governor talk about cannabis reform, starting around 4:40 into the video below: 

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D) said last week that he’s having ongoing conversations with multiple legislators who plan to sponsor legalization bills, and he’s conveyed to them that whatever piece of legislation advances must “address those fundamental underlying issues” of social justice.

In terms of process, the top lawmaker said it’s important for legislators to be talking about their respective bills early on to resolve as many differences as possible before the issue reaches committee or the floor. The failure to get those issues taken care of in a timely manner is partly why the legislature wasn’t able to pass legalization during last year’s short session.

A bill to legalize cannabis for adult use passed one Senate committee last year only to be rejected in another before the end of the 30-day session. Earlier, in 2019, the House approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but it later died in the Senate.

“This year I know the legislators have been working very hard, shaping and crafting these bills, and that kind of from the ground up versus the top down approach that I think is needed for a legislation of this kind,” Wirth told the Growing Forward podcast that’s a joint project of NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS. “Again, we just can’t get it into a final committee in a place where it’s not really ready to go.”

Watch the senator majority leader discuss the legislature’s work to legalize marijuana below: 

The new, post-election makeup of key committees has been helping to facilitate this dialogue and get ahead of disagreements, he said.

While Wirth said he expects some of the same voices coming out in opposition to the legislature’s push to enact legalization this session, he’s “feeling more confident” about passing the reform in the Senate this year.

Several anti-legalization Democrats, including the Senate president pro tem and the Finance Committee chair, were ousted by progressive primary challengers last year.

Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year is coming from neighboring Arizona, where voters approved legalization in November and where sales officially launched last week. New Mexico shares another border with Colorado, one of the first states to legalize for adult use. Cannabis is also expected to be legalized across the southern border in Mexico, with lawmakers facing a Supreme Court mandate to end prohibition by April 2021.

Wirth said it’s important to make sure that adult-use legalization doesn’t come at the peril of the state’s existing medical cannabis program.

“I just think that it’s a program that’s really been a model for how it’s been rolled out, how it’s worked, and we want to make sure that it stays intact and is still a functioning program,” he said. “That’ll be another a big issue.”

With at least five legalization bills being prepared in the state, Wirth said, there will be plenty for lawmakers to sift through and negotiate this session. The majority leader noted that another question is whether to put marijuana tax dollars in the state’s general fund or to earmark it for specific programs.

Rep. Javier Martinez (D), who has consistently sponsored cannabis reform bills in past sessions, said recently that the “biggest change you’ll see in this bill, which is one of the main points of contention last year, was the creation of a number of different funds, earmarks, tax coming in from cannabis.”

In any case, there’s economic urgency to pass and implement a legal cannabis program. And while no bills have been introduced so far this session, lawmakers expect several to be released as early as this week.

“I’m hopeful that this is the year to get this done,” Wirth said. “I just think the longer we wait, the less of an economic impact it’s going to have, as all of our sister states around us in the country really reach in this direction at pretty high speed.”

Polling indicates that voters are ready for the policy change. A survey released in October found that a strong majority of New Mexico residents are in favor of legalization with social equity provisions in place, and about half support decriminalizing drug possession more broadly.

In May, the governor signaled that she was considering actively campaigning against lawmakers who blocked her legalization bill in 2020. She also said that she’s open to letting voters decide on the policy change via a ballot referendum if lawmakers can’t send a legalization bill to her desk.

Anti-Marijuana Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill In North Dakota To Avoid Activist Ballot Measure

Photo by Kyle Jaeger.

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GOP Congressman Files Bill To Protect Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana From Losing Benefits

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A Republican congressman has filed the second piece of marijuana reform legislation to be introduced so far in the new 117th Congress—this one aimed at ensuring that military veterans aren’t penalized for using medical cannabis in compliance with state law.

The proposal from Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL), who filed a more expansive version of the measure last year, would also codify that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are allowed to discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.

VA doctors are currently permitted to discuss cannabis with patients and document their usage in medical records, and those veteran patients are already shielded by agency policy from losing their benefits for marijuana use—but the new bill would enshrine these policies into federal statute so they could not be administratively changed in the future.

That said, the version Steube introduced last year contained a notable provision that further allowed VA physicians to formally fill out written recommendations for marijuana.

But that language was omitted from this year’s bill, which could create barriers to access given that most state medical cannabis programs require a written recommendation, meaning many veterans would have to outsource their healthcare to a non-VA provider in order to qualify for legal access to marijuana.

Carson Steelman, communications director in Steube’s office, told Marijuana Moment that removing that component was politically necessary to advance the previous version through a House committee last year as an amendment to another bill.

“This bill was able to pass through markup with the removal of that portion,” he said. “Many members had concerns regarding it so in order to move this bill swiftly this Congress, we introduced it without that portion.”

Doug Distaso, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, applauded Steube for the overall bill, saying that  “we consistently see, on a daily basis, a denial of veteran benefits ranging from medical prescriptions to VA loans, solely because a veteran is participating in a state-approved marijuana program or working in the cannabis industry.”

“However, we are disappointed that specific language on Veterans Affairs provider-issued cannabis recommendations was removed from this bill, since these are the providers upon whom veterans rely for full, integrated treatment and care—including cannabis,” he told Marijuana Moment.

But while the absence of language around discussing and recommending medical marijuana isn’t ideal from advocates’ perspective, the bill would still be a modest step for veterans, making it so VA could not move to deny them benefits for using cannabis in accordance with state law.

The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act had 19 cosponsors last session, including eight Republicans and 11 Democrats.

This is the second piece of marijuana reform legislation that’s been introduced so far in the new Congress, both of which are sponsored by Steube. His first bill would simply require that cannabis be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act—a move that the congressman said would free up research into the plant.

That proposal is identical to legislation he filed last year.

While rescheduling is backed by President Joe Biden, who remains opposed to adult-use legalization, it’s not the reform that advocates are getting behind. There are high hopes that a more comprehensive completely remove marijuana from the CSA—while promoting social equity—will move through the 117th Congress.

A bill to accomplish that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives last year, but it died in the GOP-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats have control of both chambers, activists are waiting for the legislation to be taken back up with a better chance of making it to Biden’s desk.

That bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—was sponsored by now-Vice President Kamala Harris, though she’s indicated that she would not necessarily push the president to adopt a pro-legalization position.

Read the text of the veterans-focused marijuana bill below: 

Marijuana veterans bill by Marijuana Moment

Washington Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Homegrow Bill In Committee

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Anti-Marijuana Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill In North Dakota To Avoid Activist Ballot Measure

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North Dakota’s secretary of state on Friday approved the format of a proposed marijuana initiative, clearing the way for activists to collect signatures to place it on the 2022 ballot. Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker is pushing a cannabis legalization bill he introduced even though he does not support the underling policy change.

Rather, Rep. Jason Dockter (R) said he recognizes the seeming inevitability of legal marijuana reaching the state as more neighboring jurisdictions enact reform and as activists gain momentum for their agenda. If the state is going to enact legalization, he wants the legislature to dictate what that program looks like instead of leaving it in the hands of advocacy groups.

Dockter’s House Bill 1420 would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use, but home cultivation would not be allowed.

Licensed cultivation facilities that provide cannabis products to retailers “may grow an amount of marijuana sufficient to meet the demands of the public.”

Under the proposal, legal cannabis sales would begin on February 1, 2022.

The bill is being supported by the pro-reform campaign Legalize ND. The group placed a legalization measure on the 2018 ballot that was defeated by voters. They tried to qualify another initiative last year but signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.

It’s not clear if they will now still pursue previously announced plans for 2022 in light of the new bill, which they said they are “proud of” and is the result of engaging lawmakers in more than six months’ worth of conversations.

Meanwhile, a separate activist group has already filed its own 2022 legal marijuana measure that would make it so adults could possess marijuana and grow up to 12 plants (up to six of which could be mature). Secretary of State Al Jaeger said on Friday that the group can begin working to gather the 26,904 valid signatures from registered voters they will need to place the measure on the ballot.

“I am glad the North Dakota legislature is coming to the realization that legalization will move forward with or without them,” Jody Vetter, chairwoman for that effort, the ND for Freedom of Cannabis Act, told Marijuana Moment.

She added that while the Dockter’s bill is “a step in the right direction toward ending prohibition, there are concerns,” pointing to the lack of legal home cultivation and remaining criminal charges for certain cannabis-related activity.

“Criminal charges surrounding possession should only apply if someone is found to be selling cannabis without proper license or contributing to minors,” Vetter said. “We are moving forward with the ND For Freedom of Cannabis Act. Home growing is essential for any legal program and an overwhelming majority of North Dakotans are ready to stop criminally charging citizens for simply possessing cannabis.”

Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the national Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that “though this isn’t an ideal legalization bill, it’s a significant testament to the strength of our movement that legalization opponents are now preemptively filing their own legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults.”

“These lawmakers are aware that a majority of their constituents support legalization, and you have to give them some credit for acknowledging that,” he said.

The bill contains a number of restrictions on labeling and advertising, as well as penalties for impaired driving. A health council would be tasked with developing further regulations on issues such as the allowable amount of THC in edibles and testing standards.

“I’m not for [legalization] at all, but I understand that it’s coming, and we have to address the issue,” Dockter told Inforum. “I’m trying something different in government—we’re trying to be proactive and not be reactive.”

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said that he’s not “a marijuana person,” but he acknowledged that cannabis legalization is coming. While he would have previously been inclined to oppose Dockter’s bill, Pollert said voter approval of a legalization initiative in South Dakota has given him pause, adding that the legislature should “take a long, hard look” at the policy change.

Neighboring Montana also moved to legalize marijuana for adult use during the November election, adding to the regional pressure to get on board. Canada, which also borders the state, has a national legal cannabis market.

North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.

Aside from the new broad legalization legislation, state lawmakers also recently introduced a separate bill to significantly expand the decriminalization of marijuana possession in the state. The proposal, which was filed last week, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.

Read the North Dakota cannabis legalization bill below: 

North Dakota marijuana lega… by Marijuana Moment

Virginia Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Senate Committee, With Home Cultivation Provisions Intact

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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.
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