In one month, voters in two states will decide, among other things, what kind of marijuana policies they want for their communities.
New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states holding gubernatorial elections this year, and the major party nominees in both races have all called for some measure of marijuana law reform.
Here’s a look at where the candidates stand…
IN BRIEF: Democratic nominee Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, wants to make the Garden State the next to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. Republican nominee, current Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, opposes legalization but supports decriminalizing possession and expanding the state’s current medical cannabis law.
PHIL MURPHY – Democrat
Murphy included a call for legalization during his primary election victory speech in June.
“The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana,” he said. “And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just.” He also pledged in the speech to end mass incarceration and “eliminate prisons for profit.”
On his campaign website, Murphy pledges to “legalize marijuana so police can focus resources on violent crimes.”
In a gubernatorial candidates’ forum he said that while legalization will generate tax revenue, his primary reason for supporting the policy is “a social justice reason.” He also alleged that the administration of current Gov. Chris Christie (R) has “gummed up” the state’s medical cannabis program.
In a general election debate, he said that legalizing cannabis should be part of “comprehensive criminal justice reform” and described ending prohibition as a “social justice” issue, citing his role as a national NAACP board member.
In another general election debate, Murphy said decriminalization isn’t enough because “the drug industry stays underground, run by the same people and it’s unregulated, so therefore minors in particular are exposed to that. But set aside the fact you don’t earn the tax revenue, which is also a reality, the fact is it remains the wild west.”
Murphy made his support for legalization clear during his primary election campaign, and often tweeted about the issue.
NJ's marijuana laws cost $143M/yr & come w a 3:1 racial disparity in arrests. As gov, Phil will legalize/tax marijuana & break this cycle. https://t.co/DIm4nRV6JH
— Phil Murphy (@PhilMurphyNJ) June 16, 2017
"I will seek to legalize marijuana & eliminate the more than 24k low-level drug arrests that bog down the courts and hurt future prospects."
— Phil Murphy (@PhilMurphyNJ) February 27, 2017
— Phil Murphy (@PhilMurphyNJ) April 27, 2017
“I was never ‘hell no,’ but I’ve spent a lot of time on it. And I have, without question, come to a place where I wasn’t three and a half years ago,” Murphy said in a New York Times interview about his evolution on marijuana. “You can’t have that many young people of color doing time on stupid drug crimes.”
KIM GUADAGNO – Republican
During a primary debate this year, Guadagno made it clear that she opposes legalization but does support some cannabis reforms.
“I have personal experience about what exactly happens to somebody who drives while they’re high, which is why I would oppose legalization of marijuana,” she said, noting that her son went to college in Colorado. “Having said that, however, I completely agree that we should decriminalize it. Because no one should suffer because of the color of their skin or because of their social background or because they were picked up with a small quantity. What that quantity is is up for argument.”
On medical cannabis, Guadagno said the state should “streamline” access and “make it easier for people that have doctors’ notes to get it and we need to provide it to children that need it the most.”
But she said that full marijuana legalization would put the state at risk of federal interference.
In a gubernatorial candidates’ forum she said legalizing marijuana would “put a whole generation of children at risk” and that ending prohibition would give her 17-year-old son an “opportunity” to use cannabis.
During a general election debate, Guadagno said she is “wholly opposed” to ending prohibition, which she described as “legalizing drug dealers.” But she said decriminalization “would solve the social justice issue.” And she would “expand the medical marijuana program,” adding: “It’s onerous, it’s hard to work with, it’s not available to those it should be made available to.”
In another general election debate, she said she won’t legalize marijuana because she’s concerned about intoxicated driving and access to kids. “I don’t want our children, I don’t want our people to walk down the street and buy a pack of cigarettes and be drug dealers,” she said.
CONTEXT: Legislative leaders in New Jersey have indicated they are prepared to enact legalization as soon as a supportive governor is seated. Currently Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is term-limited and cannot run again, is one of the nation’s most prominent opponents of ending cannabis prohibition.
IN BRIEF: Democratic nominee, current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, supports decriminalizing marijuana and expanding medical cannabis access. Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, doesn’t support those outright changes but has said he supports policies that would reduce marijuana arrests as well as enacting a more limited expansion of the state’s current low-THC medical cannabis law.
RALPH NORTHAM – Democrat
Northam has made marijuana law reform a centerpiece of his campaign, often describing the issue in racial justice terms.
“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana,” he wrote in a blog post early this year. “African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”
As a physician, Northam is “increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana, such as pain relief, drug-resistant epilepsy, and treatment for PTSD,” his campaign website says. “By decriminalizing it, our researchers can better study the plant so doctors can more effectively prescribe drugs made from it.”
The lieutenant governor also sent a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission, which is currently conducting a review of the effects of potential marijuana decriminalization. “Virginia spends $67 million on marijuana enforcement – enough to open up another 13,000 pre-K spots for children,” Northam wrote. “African Americans are nearly 3 times as likely to get arrested for simple possession of marijuana and sentencing guidelines that include jail time can all too often begin a dangerous cycle of recidivism.”
During a debate, Notham mentioned that his father is a judge while making a point about the cost of enforcing marijuana laws.
Northam has tweeted about cannabis reform a number of times.
Decriminalizing marijuana would be a good step toward helping to correct systematic racism in our justice system. https://t.co/5R7YxBJi10
— Ralph Northam (@RalphNortham) July 27, 2017
African Americans are 2.8x more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. Marijuana decriminalization is a racial justice issue pic.twitter.com/kmKiWul1pE
— Ralph Northam (@RalphNortham) April 5, 2017
Current marijuana laws are costly and hurt communities of color. That’s why I believe in decriminalizing it. https://t.co/tVYs3hpwX0
— Ralph Northam (@RalphNortham) August 9, 2017
As Haley's doctor, Ralph knew that access to medical marijuana was one of her best chances at a better life. pic.twitter.com/03WaKSYWLc
— Ralph Northam (@RalphNortham) April 19, 2017
Additionally, Northam supports federal cannabis rescheduling. “What would happen after that is marijuana would be reclassified and then we can look at medicinal uses,” he told HuffPost. “And the point I like to make to people is there are probably around 100 or more medicines we use routinely that come from plants. And so there are many potential uses for marijuana.”
He also backs allowing hemp cultivation. “A Northam administration will support new efforts to bring Virginia products to market, including industrial hemp processing,” his campaign website says. “Several of our key public institutions, including Virginia State University, Virginia Tech, University of Virginia and James Madison University, are conducting field research on industrial hemp [and] Virginia could explore workarounds to increase access to hemp for private growers. Additionally, at the federal level, Ralph supports the removal of industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act of 1970… As part of Ralph’s economic development plan, he will continue efforts to recruit an industrial hemp processor for when then federal law changes.”
ED GILLESPIE – Republican
At the start of the campaign Gillespie wasn’t on record in favor of any changes to marijuana laws. But Northam’s reform advocacy, and the response it has generated, has apparently influenced the Republican to look more seriously at the issue.
Last month Gillespie rolled out a criminal justice reform plan that includes a “Three Strikes and You’re In” policy that would allow people arrested for marijuana possession to avoid criminal charges until their third police encounter.
“This policy will reduce the number of Virginians who enter the criminal justice system and help to get treatment to more people,” Gillespie’s plan says. “Data show significant racial disparities in marijuana charges, this policy will help address them by providing opportunities to avoid entry into the criminal justice system and encouraging people to get help and reconsider their choices.”
Under the policy, cannabis would not be formally decriminalized.
Gillespie’s plan also calls for modest expansion’s to the state’s limited low-THC medical cannabis law.
“Research proves that Virginians can benefit from certain uses of marijuana to help the treatment, pain management, and healing of certain severe conditions. We owe our fellow Virginians every chance of treating and managing certain significant conditions such as cancer and epilepsy,” it says. “Ed supports appropriate, limited, tightly regulated use of marijuana for medicinal purposes based in science and on medical trials.”
State Sen. Jill Vogel, Gillespie’s lieutenant governor running mate, previously introduced legislation to add new qualifying medical conditions under the law. “Expanding safe, legal access to CBD oil and medical marijuana for seriously ill patients gives doctors another option and ensures patients aren’t forced to choose between receiving treatment and following the law,” Vogel said. “I’m proud to have taken the lead in introducing legislation in Virginia’s Senate helping expand safe, legal access for patients in need and look forward to working with my party as an advocate for this much-needed policy reform.”
In an earlier Facebook Live chat, Gillespie said, “I think there has been a growing case for tightly regulated, strictly regulated medicinal marijuana.”
Gillespie also supports allowing hemp cultivation. “Industrial hemp is a cash crop and can be found in a variety of products such as paper construction materials, food, personal care items, rope, canvas and nutritional supplements,” his campaign website says. “Ed will work with the federal government, General Assembly and licensing boards to explore industrial hemp production as an option for Virginians.”
As a Republican, Gillespie argues he is best positioned to push the federal government to modernize its approach to hemp. “Given the science and the data that we have at this point, I would be one who would be able to work with the Trump administration to be able to make the case for Virginia being one of the areas where we should be able to establish some practices and procedures for us to be able to have commercial development for industrial hemp,” he said.
CONTEXT: Virginia lawmakers considered but did not act on decriminalization legislation during the 2017 session. However, with the State Crime Commission conducting its study of the issue by the request of the Senate majority leader, its possible recommendation of removing marijuana’s criminal penalties would likely provide a significant boost to efforts to pass a bill.
Election day in both New Jersey and Virginia is Tuesday, November 7.
Photo courtesy of Democracy Chronicles.
New Zealand Voters Get Chance To Legalize Marijuana By 2020
New Zealand could be the first country in the world to legalize marijuana by a nationwide voter referendum.
That’s the result of a new minority coalition government agreement announced on Thursday.
As a condition of helping to install Labour Party head Jacinda Ardern as the country’s next prime minster and pass some of her legislation, the Green Party extracted a promise from the incoming government to let New Zealand voters decide whether to legalize cannabis at the ballot box by 2020.
A Global First
Uruguay has already legalized marijuana, and Canada’s government is working to end prohibition by next summer. In both of those nations, however, the cannabis changes are a result of acts of elected officials.
In the U.S., voters in a growing number of states have enacted legalization ballot measures, but the country has no national voter initiative or referendum process.
That means New Zealand voters could be the first in the world to legalize cannabis throughout an entire country at the ballot box. (In 2008, voters in Switzerland strongly rejected a marijuana legalization referendum.)
That is, if the new government stays in power and upholds the “confidence and supply” deal it made with the Greens.
New Zealand’s Incoming Prime Minister On Marijuana
Labour’s 37-year-old Ardern personally supports medical cannabis and says that she doesn’t “think people should be locked in prison” for marijuana but that achieving that outcome doesn’t necessarily “require decriminalisation.”
Now, as part of her new coalition government’s deal, New Zealanders will have a chance to push even further by voting in favor of legalizing cannabis.
In a press conference after the new governing deal was announced, Ardern said she would be “seeking advice” as to the exact timing of the marijuana referendum.
It is also not clear whether it will be strictly binding or simply an advisory measure, though the new leader indicated she’s leaning toward giving voters the power to directly legalize cannabis themselves.
“That might be a conversation we have as an executive,” she said. “I think if you go to the New Zealand public on an issue like that and it’s confidence vote, then we really should place some weight on the public of New Zealand’s view.”
As to her own views on cannabis, Ardern said that the country’s current policy, which is “a justice-based approach to cannabis in this country, isn’t working. We can do better.”
But the incoming prime minister also has “concerns about young people accessing a product which can clearly do harm and damage to them.”
Broader Drug Reforms In Play
In addition to the marijuana referendum pledge, the Greens were able to get Labour to agree to broader, if vaguely articulated, drug policy reforms. According to an email sent to party supporters, the deal would:
“Increase funding for alcohol and drug addiction services and ensure drug use is treated as a health issue, and have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election.”
The Greens also extracted concessions on climate policy and education, and will also have ministerial posts as part of the agreement with Labour.
Sessions: Expanding Marijuana Cultivation For Research Is “Healthy”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is no fan of legalizing marijuana, but he indicated on Wednesday that he supports letting more people grow it for research purposes.
“I think it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply,” he said, alluding to the fact that all cannabis used for research in the U.S. is grown at a single farm at the University of Mississippi.
Sessions, testifying at an oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was responding to a question from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) about press reports that the Department of Justice is stymying efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to grant additional licenses to cultivate cannabis for medical research.
Last year the DEA enacted a new policy intended to license more research cultivation facilities, a move that came on the same day the agency rejected petitions to reschedule marijuana.
Researchers have long argued that it is difficult to access cannabis from the Mississippi farm, which has maintained a monopoly on the legal supply of marijuana since 1968, and that the product is often of low quality.
The DEA has reportedly received at least 25 applications to participate in the new licensing program but has not acted on any of them. According to the Washington Post, that is because top Justice Department officials have stepped in to prevent the agency from acting.
Hatch, who recently introduced legislation to remove roadblocks to studies on marijuana’s medical benefits, told Sessions that he is concerned about the reports that the Justice Department might be impeding expanding research.
Sessions responded that while he agrees it would be “healthy” to add new cultivation facilities, he is concerned about the cost of needed DEA oversight of any new grow sites.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Pro-Legalization Congressman To Target Anti-Cannabis Lawmakers
One of Congress’s leading champions for marijuana law reform is going beyond just trying to pass legislation to push back against federal prohibition and is now actively working to defeat fellow lawmakers who are standing in the way of those bills.
“I’ve been working to try and give you a better Congress,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said at a cannabis industry event on Tuesday night. “One of the other things we are doing is not just helping friends, but to help people who are against us find something else to do with their time.”
His first target is Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX). As chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, Sessions, who is not related to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has played a key role in preventing marijuana legislation from advancing.
In that capacity, Sessions has blocked a number of cannabis measures from even being considered on the House floor, including ones to protect state laws from federal interference, facilitate marijuana businesses’ access to banking services and allow Washington, D.C. to set its own legalization policies.
Perhaps Sessions’s most egregious move, in the eyes of advocates, was when he disallowed a vote on a measure to let military veterans get medical cannabis recommendations through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We’re going to be putting up some billboards in Pete Sessions’s district. It’s going to feature a veteran and ask the question why Pete Sessions doesn’t want him to have access to his medicine,” Blumenauer said. “We’re going to make the point that there are consequences. This is not a free vote. People are going to take a position one way or another. And if they are going to be part of an effort to deny people access to medicine that can be transformational…this is going to be part of the political landscape this year.”
Video captured by activist and journalist Russ Belville.
Blumenauer will pay for the billboards using funds from a new political action committee, called the Cannabis Fund, that he recently founded. In addition to going after marijuana reform opponents, the congressman said that the PAC will also proactively work to elect candidates who support cannabis issues on the federal, state and local levels.
“I don’t care where they are, who they are, what the district is,” he said. “There is part of the agenda that you care about that they ought to be able to support.”
Blumenauer was speaking at a National Cannabis Industry Association event in Portland, Oregon, an area he represents in Congress.
In the speech, he referred to one marijuana law reform opponent who no longer has a job on Capitol Hill. Last year, then-Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) spoke out against efforts to increase medical cannabis access for military veterans.
“I don’t think we have too few high veterans out there,” he said at the time.
Blumenauer argued that partially as a result of those “disparaging comments not just about medical marijuana but our veterans who need and depend upon it,” Kirk is now “now ex-Senator Kirk.”
Looking ahead, when it comes to his PAC’s first target of Sessions, Blumenauer said the billboards and other efforts should “make his life interesting.”
Later in the speech to the gathered cannabis industry leaders, Blumenauer said that the marijuana business will be “bigger than the NFL in five to ten years,” and decried how the league is “still is suspending people who self-medicate with medical marijuana to deal with the punishment that they go through” on football fields.
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