Voters in the nation’s smallest state could have a chance to send a big message about marijuana legalization this fall.
Under a new bill filed in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, Rhode Islanders would be able to decide on a ballot measure calling for the end of cannabis prohibition.
“Do you support the legalization of possession and use of marijuana by persons who are at least 21 years of age, subject to regulation and taxation that is similar to the regulation and taxation of tobacco and alcohol?” the proposed question reads.
The proposal, filed by Rep. Scott Slater (D), would not automatically result in legalization if a majority of voters approved the question on Election Day. Rhode Island law allows only for nonbinding advisory statutory referendums, but a solid “yes” vote would likely spur lawmakers into more seriously considering cannabis legislation when they reconvene for the 2019 session.
Lawmakers in at least eight other states are considering bills to refer marijuana questions to voters.
The Illinois Senate, for example, approved legislation on Thursday to place a nonbinding marijuana legalization query on the November ballot. That question would read, “Shall the State of Illinois legalize the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?”
Separately, officials in Illinois’s most populous county decided to place a similar cannabis question before voters during this month’s primary election in which several candidates for governor and attorney general are campaigning on legalization.
In some states, activists can collect signatures to place questions on the ballot. But in others, only lawmakers can refer questions to voters.
Aside from possible legislatively referred referendums in Rhode Island and other states, it is expected that four or more states will see binding marijuana questions initiated by voters appear on ballots this year.
Oklahoma voters, for example, will decide on a medical cannabis measure during the state’s June 26 primary. Activists in Michigan are expected to qualify a full marijuana legalization measure for the November 6 general election ballot, and voters in Utah and Missouri are likely to see citizen-initiated medical marijuana questions when they go to the polls that day.
In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is not opposed to legalization but wants lawmakers to carefully consider its implementation before moving ahead. In 2016, she said she is “open to” giving voters a chance to weigh in on the issue through a referendum.
And House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D), said at the time he was “considering the possibility of placing a non-binding referendum question on the ballot regarding the use of recreational marijuana.”
No such referendum proposal was introduced during that session, however, and advocates pushed for lawmakers to simply pass legislation legalizing cannabis. House and Senate committees held hearings on those proposals, but did not take any votes, and the bills died.
Slater’s new referendum proposal has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it will presumably receive a hearing followed by a possible vote before being sent to the floor and then to the Senate.
Approval for legalization by voters at the ballot box this November would give a huge boost to efforts to pass legislation to end cannabis prohibition in 2019.
Regional developments also add to the pressure to change Rhode Island’s marijuana laws. Neighboring Massachusetts is set to begin legal cannabis sales this summer in line with a ballot initiative approved by voters there in 2016.
Next door, Connecticut lawmakers are also considering legalization. On Thursday, the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee filed a bill that would direct state officials to “develop a plan to legalize and regulate the retail sale of marijuana.”
Meanwhile, legalization advocates are pushing Rhode Island lawmakers to pass a bill ending prohibition without having to refer the question to voters.
“While we are confident that a referendum would be approved by Rhode Island voters, we once again call on the General Assembly to pass legislation this year that legalizes marijuana possession for adults and begins the process of establishing a system for regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana,” Matthew Schweich, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an interview. “The longer Rhode Island waits, the more tax revenue goes to Massachusetts. Maintaining prohibition in Rhode Island will do nothing to limit the availability of marijuana to its residents other than increasing the amount of time it takes to drive to a legal dispensary.”
GOP & Dems Team Up To Shield State Marijuana Laws From Jeff Sessions
The Justice Department should be blocked from enforcing federal marijuana prohibition in states that have enacted legalization, a bipartisan group of 59 lawmakers wrote in a new letter.
“We are concerned about the Department of Justice enforcing federal marijuana law in a way that blocks implementation of marijuana reform laws in those states that have passed such reforms,” the lawmakers, led by Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Jared Polis (D-CO), wrote to top decisionmakers on the House Appropriations Committee on Friday. “The issue at hand is whether the federal government’s marijuana policy violates the principles of federalism and the Tenth Amendment. Consistent with those principles, we believe that states ought to retain jurisdiction over most criminal justice matters within their borders. This is how the Founders intended our system to function.”
The legislators want congressional leaders to insert a new provision into a funding bill covering the Justice Department’s 2019 budget that would prevent federal prosecutors, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies from spending money to go after people who are in compliance with state marijuana laws.
The language the lawmakers want included in the funding bill reads:
“None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used to prevent any of the several states from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana on non-Federal lands within their respective jurisdictions.”
Separately on Friday, a group of 62 House Republican and Democrats sent a letter requesting the extension of existing, more limited appropriations protections that shield state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department intervention.
The medical marijuana provision has been part of federal since 2014, and has been extended with bipartisan House and Senate votes several times.
The broader protections to shield all state marijuana laws, including those that allow recreational use, from federal interference came just nine flipped votes short of passage in 2015. The number of states with legalization has more than doubled since then, and lawmakers from places with new laws would be more likely to support it if another vote were held, but House leaders have since blocked floor consideration of cannabis-related measures.
“As I have promised my fellow Coloradans, I will continue to advocate for this simple amendment to be added to the federal budget – shielding Colorado from the Trump administration’s attacks on states that have legalized marijuana,” Polis said in a press release about the new letter. “It would be a temporary, but urgent and necessary fix, as I continue to push for passage of my Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which would finally lift the federal prohibition on marijuana.”
In the letter, the lawmakers argue that letting states enact their own cannabis laws is in keeping with constitutional principles laid out by the Founders of the nation.
“Experiences of states that have legalized marijuana, as compared to the experiences of states that have not, constitute the very ‘laboratories’ of social and economic experiments that were described by Chief Justice Louis Brandeis when he wrote about the beauty of the Tenth Amendment,” they said. “Our constitutional framework has afforded the whole nation the chance to allow states to differ on many matters of public policy, including marijuana.”
Stop Jeff Sessions From Busting Medical Marijuana, Bipartisan Lawmakers Demand
A bipartisan group of 62 members of Congress is asking House leaders to protect state medical marijuana policies and the patients and businesses that rely on them from federal enforcement agents and prosecutors.
“We respectfully request that you include language barring the Department of Justice from prosecuting those who comply with their state’s medical marijuana laws,” the lawmakers, led by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), wrote in a letter sent to the top Republican and Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee on Friday. “We believe such a policy is not only consistent with the wishes of a bipartisan majority of the members of the House, but also with the wishes of the American people.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Medical Marijuana Ban A “Disgrace,” Congresswoman Tells Trump Veterans Chief
A congresswoman took a top Trump administration official to task over a policy that blocks military veterans from getting medical marijuana recommendations through the doctors that know them best, calling the federal government’s stance “a shame and disgrace.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs currently prohibits its physicians from filling out medical cannabis recommendations for veterans, even in states where it is legal.
“Coming from California, of course, you know we have a variety of dispensaries which make marijuana available to patients and veterans who use it for PTSD and chronic pain, and it works,” Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) told VA Sec. David Shulkin on Thursday.
“So what’s the problem?” she asked. “What’s the federal statute that blocks the VA from doing this, and not letting physicians simply recommend cannabis to veterans who need it? And it’s proven that it works.”
In a series of public remarks over the course of the past year, Shulkin has repeatedly claimed that overarching federal law blocks VA from recommending or even participating in research on medical marijuana.
But advocates have pointed out that there is no federal statute blocking the VA from changing its own internal policies on medical cannabis recommendations.
During the exchange, Shulkin seemed to be unaware of the distinction between prescribing medical marijuana, which no doctor can do due to its Schedule I status, and simply recommending it, which is how patients get access in the 29 states that allow its legal use.
“Filling out a questionnaire, isn’t that the step towards prescribing?” the secretary asked during the exchange with Lee, which took place at a hearing of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies. “My understanding is federal law would not allow the physician to write the prescription, so I have to understand what the questionnaire would be in order to make a recommendation but not write a prescription.”
“Could we show you that questionnaire, Mr. Secretary?” Lee asked. “Because veterans need this, it works, and it’s a shame and disgrace that the VA is preventing this type of treatment that works.”
“Absolutely,” Shulkin replied. “I’d be glad to review that.”
Marijuana Moment supporters on Patreon can view video of the exchange below:
Shulkin has the unilateral authority to rescind the internal ban and clear the way for VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans in states where it is legal, but he has repeatedly claimed that federal law — without citing a particular statute — blocks him from doing so.
In recent weeks, a number of prominent veterans advocacy organizations like the American Legion and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have stepped up the push for access to medical cannabis.
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