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Marijuana Is A Big Issue In Next Month’s Elections

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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…

NEW JERSEY

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.

“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.

VIRGINIA

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.

Northam says he “often” encounters patients who benefit from medical marijuana, and he released a campaign ad telling the story of a young constituent of his for whom he helped gain cannabis access.

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.

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Anti-Marijuana Group Wants Campaign Finance Transparency, Kind Of

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A leading anti-legalization group is cooking up a new follow-the-money tool, ostensibly to track contributions from the marijuana industry to lawmakers.

At least, that seems to be what Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) is doing with this interactive map on its website:

SAM website screenshot

If you visit the page and click on a highlighted state, it brings you to a list naming select members of Congress, the district they represent and an undefined monetary “amount.”

SAM website screenshot

Presumably, this is a beta version of something that SAM has been talking about for some time.

Take last year, for example. A group of 44 U.S. House members signed a letter to the chairman of a key subcommittee, asking that language restricting the Department of Justice from interfering in state marijuana programs be included in an appropriations bill. In response, SAM president Kevin Sabet announced plans to “investigate campaign contributions” of signees.

“Legalization is about making a small number of people very rich,” Sabet said in a press release. “For them, it’s all about the money.”

“The representatives who sign on to this letter will be investigated, and any ties to the pot industry lobby will be exposed. There’s a money trail behind further relaxation of federal marijuana laws, and it points to politicians who have taken money from the next big addictive industry.”

It’s admittedly difficult to follow the money using the current version of SAM’s online map, though. There are few citations showing where the group’s information is coming from, and for most states, when you click on one of the hyperlinked “amounts,” it takes you here:

SAM website screenshot

For some reason, nearly every hyperlinked amount points to a URL apparently meant for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and the page only shows a 404 error message.

At least one state, Washington, seems to be mostly functional.

SAM website screenshot

SAM website screenshot

SAM representatives did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication, but they do appear to have slightly edited the webpage after receiving Marijuana Moment’s inquiry. The title “The Money Trail: Where Big Pot Meets Big Politics” was added above the map, and the phrase “(Work In Progress)” was appended to all sub-pages.

This story will be updated if the organization sends comment.

What SAM appears to be interested in accomplishing is drawing links between campaign contributions from cannabis industry interests and politicians who’ve come to embrace marijuana reform. Or in other words, campaign finance transparency.

Missing from that agenda, though, is disclosure of SAM’s own finances—a subject of particular interest to advocates and reporters following the marijuana legalization debate.

Sabet touted the group’s financial expansion over the past two years in a recent curriculum vitae (not linked here, as it appears to reveal his personal phone number). A summary of Sabet’s work at SAM noted that the 12-person organization has a $1 million budget, with $4.5 million in reserve.

The group also recently opened a new office in Manhattan.

When this reporter asked Sabet about financial contributions to SAM in a 2016 interview, he emphasized the role of grassroots, individual contributions. There is limited public information available about SAM’s financing.

An FAQ published on SAM’s website states:

“SAM is funded by small family foundations (with no interest in the opioid, tobacco, alcohol, or prison industries) and individuals affected by drug use and its consequences. SAM does not receive a dollar from the opioid, pharmaceutical, alcohol, or tobacco industries – unlike some pro-legalization groups like Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which takes money from Big Tobacco.”

Another potential source of ongoing funding may be past supporter Julie Schauer, a retired art professor who donated at least $1.3 million to SAM Action’s efforts to defeat 2016 marijuana ballot initiatives in California and other states.

It remains to be seen when SAM will officially launch its online campaign donation tracking tool and what its impact will be.

Anti-Marijuana Funder Says Jailing Of Grandmother For Medical Cannabis No ‘Big Deal’

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

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This year’s U.S. Senate race in Nevada has become one of the most watched of the cycle, and marijuana is increasingly a central issue as Congresswoman Jacky Rosen (D) ramps up her challenge to incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R).

During the campaign, Rosen has consistently drawn attention to what she says is Heller’s lack of pushback against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s moves to rescind protections for state cannabis laws.

Rosen herself had written to Sessions in January, urging him to reverse his decision to end Obama-era guidance on the issue — known as the Cole Memorandum — that generally allowed states the freedom to enact legalization and regulate their own cannabis industries without federal interference.

Meanwhile, Heller also made a statement in response to Session’s decision: “Knowing Attorney General Sessions’ deference to states’ rights, I strongly encourage the DOJ to meet with Governor Sandoval and Attorney General Laxalt to discuss the implications of changes to federal marijuana enforcement policy. I also urge the DOJ to work with the congressional delegations from states like Nevada that have legalized marijuana as they review and navigate the new policy.”

However, as Rosen pointed out in January, Heller is the only Republican senator up for re-election this year who’s both from an adult use cannabis state and also voted to confirm Sessions as attorney general.

On various counts, Rosen has vocalized her support for legal marijuana — citing benefits like job creation and tax revenue — as well as her commitment to protecting state cannabis industries from federal interference, all while simultaneously attacking Heller for his relative passivity on the issue.

In addition to public commentary, Rosen has taken a stand by cosponsoring several congressional bills relating to cannabis, including the STATES Act to strengthen states’ rights on marijuana, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018, the SAFE Act of 2017 to secure banking for the cannabis industry and the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, as well as legislation to ensure tax fairness for cannabis businesses and to remove roadblocks to marijuana research.

“Nevada voters chose to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, and states like Nevada have shown that allowing responsible adults to purchase marijuana legally supports our state budget, creates new jobs and businesses, and drives our economy instead of making our broken criminal justice system worse,” Rosen said in a press release about signing on to the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act. “I believe it’s time to end the federal prohibition on marijuana, start regulating this product like alcohol, and get rid of barriers for states like ours where voters have made this decision to move forward.”

Though publicly less vehement on the issue than Rosen is, Heller has cosponsored a handful of cannabis bills during his time in the Senate, namely the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015 and the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2015.

But he has not signed onto the CARERS Act or the banking bill in their current iterations during the 115th Congress.

Though Heller has discussed cannabis under the umbrella of states’ rights, in 2007, as a House member, he voted against an amendment shielding state medical marijuana laws from federal interference.

By 2015, Heller made a statement that “the time has come for the federal government to stop impeding the doctor-patient relationship in states that have decided their own medical marijuana policies.”

Meanwhile, NORML gave Heller a B grade in its congressional scorecard last year. Rosen will receive an A in the organization’s forthcoming analysis of the current Congress, and Heller is being downgraded to a C for “not representing his constituents,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment.

Since January, Rosen has been active on Twitter, posting about marijuana at least two dozen times. Heller, on the other hand, has not tweeted anything on cannabis issues.

Two years ago, Nevada voters approved legalization by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. This year, it could end up being the case that a contrast on cannabis issues makes the difference in what is expected to be a very close Senate race.

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Marijuana Policy Project Welcomes New Executive Director

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The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the nation’s best-funded cannabis advocacy group, has named long-time social justice reform advocate Steve Hawkins as its next executive director.

Hawkins, who previously served as the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and executive vice president of the NAACP, will assume responsibility for MPP’s national legalization advocacy efforts just months before a number of states vote to enact their own legal systems.

The decision was made after a “months-long candidate search that included several exceptionally qualified candidates,” MPP said in a press release.

“We are still battling the effects of decades of anti-marijuana legislation and propaganda in this country,” Hawkins told Marijuana Moment. “Huge strides have been made when it comes to setting the record straight, but our work is far from over and there is still a lot of misinformation out there that needs to be addressed.”

“Fundraising and maintaining momentum is also a core challenge for the movement, which is in some ways a victim of its own success. Thanks to the major gains it has made in recent years, many people think legalization is inevitable and that their donations are no longer needed or that they don’t need to take the time to write their elected officials. These laws are not going to change themselves and there is more need than ever for resources and engagement to support federal and state-level reform efforts.”

Hawkins’s experience running successful criminal justice reform campaigns—including a bipartisan effort to end capital punishment for juveniles during his time at the NCADP—made him an apt candidate to spearhead the fight to end prohibition, Troy Dayton, chair of MPP’s board of directors, said in a statement.

“Steve has a strong track record in the field of criminal justice reform, and he knows how to build a movement toward meaningful social change,” Dayton said. “We were not only impressed by his expertise and experience, but also his strong convictions regarding the injustice of marijuana prohibition.”

“The country is moving in the right direction on marijuana policy, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Hawkins also previously held leadership positions at Amnesty International and the Coalition for Public Safety.

He told Marijuana Moment that his three decades of experience “defending civil and human rights” has informed his belief that we should “bring an end to marijuana prohibition, which has had a hugely detrimental impact, especially to communities of color,” and that we should “replace it with a more sensible system of regulation.”

“I also believe it is critical we ensure those populations that were so negatively impacted by prohibition are able to participate in and experience the positive impacts of such a regulated system.”

At MPP, Hawkins will succeed Rob Kampia, who late last year left the organization he founded in 1995 to start a for-profit cannabis policy consulting firm called the Marijuana Leadership Campaign. Kampia’s departure was announced shortly after sexual misconduct allegations against him resurfaced amid the #MeToo movement.

Kampia offered some words of advice for the next person to occupy his former seat in a phone interview with Marijuana Moment:

“View yourself as a fundraiser who has to engage in transactional fundraising with the marijuana industry in part, and view yourself as needing to come up with a smart, strategic plan for lobbying in state legislatures rather than doing ballot initiatives where no one else is going to touch it. Do not view yourself as a spokesperson.”

Or in other words, less of a focus on talk, and more on action.

MPP named Matthew Schweich as the interim executive director while the group scouted for a replacement. Scweich will now serve as MPP’s deputy director overseeing marijuana reform initiatives in Michigan and Utah.

In a statement, MPP board member Joby Pritzker said Schweich “provided critical leadership during a challenging transition period for MPP.”

“He maintained the effectiveness of our advocacy operations, managed our fundraising efforts, and oversaw ballot initiative campaigns in multiple states, while at the same time leading our staff and assisting the board with the executive director search.”

The past few years have seen a number of leadership changeups at national pro-legalization groups.

NORML brought on Erik Altieri as executive director in 2016 after Allen St. Pierre left the organization following 11 years of service. And last year, the Drug Policy Alliance announced that it had hired Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, who worked on international and domestic drug policies issues for 13 years at the Human Rights Watch, as the new executive director to replace retiring founder Ethan Nadelmann.

While the objective at all of these groups—promoting equitable drug policy reform in the United States—has remained the same, the nature of the movement has evolved. A majority of states have now legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, and though state-level reform efforts continue, calls for change at the federal level are increasingly resonant.

That is to say, these new executive directors will face a different set of challenges than their predecessors did.

Rob Kampia Leaves Marijuana Policy Project

Photo courtesy of Beloit College.

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