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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.

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.

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

Bernie Sanders Congratulates Canada On One-Year Marijuana Legalization Anniversary

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) offered his congratulations to Canada on Thursday, marking the one-year anniversary of the country’s implementation of a legal marijuana market.

“Congratulations to our neighbors to the north on completing their first year of marijuana legalization!” the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said on Twitter. “Vermont shares a border with Canada, and as far as I can tell, the sky has not fallen and the cities have not plunged into anarchy on the other side.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made cannabis legalization a key campaign promise, and while it took longer than some had anticipated, lawmakers approved a historic reform bill in June 2018. It went into effect on October 17 last year.

He also acknowledged the anniversary on Thursday, stating at a press conference that the decision “to keep our communities safer and remove profits of the pockets of organized crime was the right one.”

It’s not clear how much of a boost that achievement will give Trudeau when voters head to the polls on Monday for a national election that could see the Liberal Party removed from the majority as the prime minister faces backlash over controversies such as revelations he on several occasions wore blackface and brownface.

But regardless of the election outcome, leaders from all parties—including the Conservatives, all of whom voted against the legalization bill in the Senate except one—have said they would not reverse the law. Instead, one of the main drug policy issues that have separated the leaders is their respective positions on decriminalizing possession of substances beyond marijuana.

Trudeau and Sanders share a personal opposition to the reform move, with the senator stating on two occasions recently that he’s “not there yet” on the issue. The prime minister has similarly stated that decriminalization is not on his agenda and that he remains focus on cannabis.

The New Democratic Party and its leader, Jagmeet Singh, are in favor of broad drug decriminalization, as are the Green Party and its leader Elizabeth May.

The issue also came up during a Democratic presidential debate in the U.S. on Tuesday. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) both expressed support for decriminalizing possession of opioids.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have endorsed decriminalizing possession of all drugs.

Sanders didn’t weigh in on the issue at that debate, but when asked to address his recent health episode, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) chimed in to joke that “Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana, I want to make sure that’s clear as well.”

“I do,” Sanders said, adding that “I’m not on it tonight.”

Where Canada’s Political Parties Stand On Marijuana And Drugs Ahead Of The Election

Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.

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Key GOP Senate Chairman Outlines Changes He Wants For Marijuana Banking Bill

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The head of the Senate Banking Committee is clarifying which aspects of a House-passed marijuana banking bill he would like to change as his panel moves toward taking up the legislation.

In a Thursday interview with Marijuana Moment on Capitol Hill, Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) described modifications he is working on to the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which cleared the House along bipartisan lines in a 321-103 vote last month.

“The things we’re looking at are, first of all, to make sure we improve and clarify the interstate banking application of all of this,” Crapo said. “Secondly, money laundering issues with regard to legacy cash to make sure how that is managed properly. [Financial Crimes Enforcement Network] issues and other related issues. And then finally the health and safety issues about what is going to be banked.”

“Take tobacco for example, every state I think has some kind of regulatory parameters around the utilization of tobacco, even if it’s just an age limit on who can purchase it or what have you and the types of products that are going to be allowed,” he continued. “That gets into a legal issue that I think the states need to be more engaged in, but it also impacts the question on what would be banked. Those kinds of issues—health and safety, interstate commerce and money laundering.”

While it’s not exactly clear which language changes Crapo has in mind for the House-passed legislation, his reference to “health and safety issues about what is going to be banked” could refer to certain restrictions on cannabis businesses that want to store their profits in financial institutions, or even requirements that states enact certain policies in order for operators within their jurisdictions to qualify.

In response to another reporter’s question about the spike in vaping-related injuries, the chairman said that’s “a good example of one of the big concerns that I have that we need to address in the bill, which is the health and safety aspects of the use.”

“We are working to revise the bill and develop the support for the bill to move forward,” he said.

Crapo first announced last month that he’d like to take up legislation addressing the issue in his panel before the end of the year and that the reform measure will likely enjoy bipartisan support in the full Senate. However, he’s held off on endorsing the SAFE Banking Act as currently written. His committee held a hearing on banking concerns in the cannabis industry in July.

“We’re working to try to get a bill ready,” the senator perviously told Politico. “I’m looking to see whether we can thread the needle.”

If the Banking Committee does pass legislation protecting banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, it may encounter resistance in the full Senate from some pro-legalization lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), each of whom have said comprehensive marijuana reform that addresses social equity should be prioritized over legislation that’s viewed as primarily friendly to industry stakeholders.

Crapo also told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he has not spoken to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) about a low-key trip the top GOP senator took to California last week, during which he met marijuana industry representatives and reportedly toured a cannabis-related business.

McConnell’s buy-in will be key to advancing the cannabis banking legislation to President Trump’s desk if it moves through Crapo’s committee.

Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.

Presidential Candidate Wants To Let Americans Legalize Marijuana Through National Referendum

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Governors Of Northeastern States Adopt Coordinated Marijuana Legalization Plan

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A group of governors representing states across the Northeast convened on Thursday for a marijuana summit at which they agreed to basic principles for legal cannabis programs they plan to pursue in 2020.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) organized the meeting. They were joined by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who came out in favor of legalization last month. Representatives from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Colorado also attended.

“This is a very important topic,” Cuomo said in his opening statement. “It is probably one of the most challenging issues that I know I’ve had to address in the state of New York. It is complicated, it is controversial and it is consequential. That is a very difficult and challenging combination.”

“It’s consequential because if you do not do it right, you can do harm, and the whole purpose here is to do good,” he said.

The summit is being broken up into five sessions: on vaping and related issues, market regulation and social justice issues, public health consequences of cannabis, public safety issues and a “best practices” panel led by Colorado representatives.

“The point is, this is a challenge for all of us,” Cuomo said. “There is a desire to do this. I believe the people of this state and our surrounding states have a desire to do it. But the old expression the devil is in the details, how you do this makes all the difference. And as I said it can be a positive if done right, it can be a negative if it is not done correctly.”

Lamont, who also talked cannabis with Cuomo during a fishing trip in August and again during a meeting last month, said the current “patchwork quilt” approach that states have taken to marijuana regulations is “unconscionable” and emphasized the need for regional coordination.

“This makes sense: sitting down, working together, working together with New Jersey, working with Pennsylvania and our other neighbors to make sure that what we do, we do it on a standardized basis, we do it on a well-regulated basis with health and safety paramount,” the governor said. “I think we’re much stronger when we work together and that’s what this meeting is all about.”

The governors agreed to determine an ideal tax scheme for marijuana and impose certain limitations on licensing to “ensure a fair and competitive market.” The taxes will also be designed to prevent an increase in consumption.

Importantly, the officials said their systems will include “social equity initiatives to ensure industry access to those who have been disproportionately impacted by the prohibition of cannabis” and to prioritize “small and diverse businesses’ participation in the cannabis industry.”

Another policy calls for the implementation of “meaningful social justice reform with regard to cannabis policy, including expediting expungements or pardons, waiving fees associated with expungements or pardons and securing legislation to support these reforms.”

In terms of public health, the governors were in consensus about imposing restrictions on modes of cannabis consumption and advertising. They said they will prohibit advertising that targets youth and create “strict penalties” for selling marijuana to those under 21. Public education campaigns will also be utilized “ to inform youth and the general public about the health and safety consequences of cannabis use.”

To ensure public safety, the governors said they agreed to have uniform standards for law enforcement trained as drug recognition experts to identify impaired driving. Methods will be developed to target the illicit market and identify “bad actors” in the industry.

Congress should pass a bill allowing banks to service marijuana businesses, they said.

“So long as it remains difficult to open and maintain bank accounts, the state-legal marijuana industry will largely rely on cash to conduct business and operate, which results in public safety issues and creates unique burdens for legal marijuana businesses,” the core principles document says.

The officials also agreed to a set of regulations for vaping products, including a ban or strict regulations on flavored cartridges, preventing the use of adulterants, imposing labeling requirements and increasing enforcement against retailers that sell vaping products to those under 21.

All told, the agreed-upon policies are likely to appeal to reform advocates, as nothing especially controversial made it into the list of principles. There were some concerns that a ban on home cultivation or smokable marijuana products would be included, as Cuomo recently hinted he might push for the latter policy.

“Cooperating as a coalition of states on these issues is the best path forward—as we not only share borders, but we share economic interests, public health priorities, and a joint understanding that the more states that work together on these kinds of issues, the better the policy results will be for our residents,” Lamont said.

Wolf noted that his administration had recently concluded a statewide listening tour to hear from residents about proposals to legalize cannabis and said that based on that input, “we need to bring this into the open.”

“We need regulation, we need to make sure we’re protecting public health, public safety. But that’s regulation, not prohibition,” he said. “It’s also really important that we work together as a region to make sure that we’re on the same page.”

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who led the statewide cannabis tour, was also present at the summit.

Murphy emphasized that “doing things in an intelligent, coordinated, harmonious way is good for the entirety of not just our states but our residents.” He added that there are two main issues the leaders must tackle: combating the spike in vaping-related injuries and promoting social justice.

“We’ve got a shocking gap between persons incarcerated in our system along racial lines, and it’s almost entirely due to low-end marijuana offenses,” he said. “Putting aside all of the other factors that come into the cannabis discussion, the social justice, at least in New Jersey, screams out at us and it’s why we’ve come to the table with such passion.”

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) also participated.

“In the absence of federal leadership, Governors are coming together and taking a regional approach to vaping and cannabis regulations,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who did not attend the summit herself, said in a press release. “The principles we’ve agreed to today will allow us to better coordinate our efforts as we address some of the most challenging issues facing our states. Through this partnership, we will work together to protect families from the dangers posed by the illicit cannabis market and vaping.”

Following the opening statements, panels led by experts were invited to testify about their respective cannabis and vaping-related topics for five minutes and then answer questions. While the governors’ opening statements were livestreamed online, the discussion sessions were closed to press.

The list of principles that came out of the summit was released Thursday afternoon.

The governors each represent states where lawmakers have unsuccessfully attempted to legalize marijuana. Efforts stalled in New York following months of negotiation between Cuomo and the legislature, with disagreements centering on issues such as tax rates and how revenue would be earmarked.

Despite several successful committee votes and hearings on legalization legislation in Connecticut, legalization legislation didn’t reach the floor of either chamber.

In New Jersey, bids to legalize cannabis for adult use failed, with lawmakers suggesting they might advance the issue through a referendum for voters to decide on next year.

Pennsylvania lawmakers discussed a legalization bill during a joint Senate and House Democratic Policy Committee in April, but that did not materialize either. However, following the listening tour and with the backing of Wolf, a comprehensive piece of legalization legislation that was introduced on Tuesday is believed to stand a better chance.

This story has been updated to include additional comments and information about legalization principles the governors agreed to.

Pennsylvania Senators File Comprehensive Marijuana Legalization Bill

Photo courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

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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