President Joe Biden’s pick for attorney general said on Monday that it is not “a useful use of limited resources” to go after people who are complying with state marijuana laws. He also citied cannabis enforcement as an example of the racially discriminatory impact of the criminal justice system.
Judge Merrick Garland, whose views on marijuana policy have been largely unclear to date, said that the issue is “a question of prioritization about resources and discretion,” and he signaled that the Justice Department would adopt a hands-off policy for most cannabis cases, similar to what was implemented under President Barack Obama, if he was confirmed.
“It does not seem to me useful the use of limited resources that we have to be pursuing prosecutions in states that have legalized and are regulating the use of marijuana, either medically or otherwise,” he said when asked by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I don’t think that’s a useful use.”
“I do think we need to be sure that there are no end runs around the state laws that criminal enterprises are doing. That kind of enforcement should be continued,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a good use of our resources where states have already authorized, and it only confuses people obviously within the state.”
That view is consistent with policies put into place under Obama—known as the Cole memorandum—and then rescinded by President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Watch Garland’s comments on marijuana policy below:
Garland also said earlier in the hearing that he thinks the enforcement of marijuana criminalization is the “perfect example” of how the criminal justice system is racially biased and disproportionately impacts communities of color. And because cannabis possession arrests can “follow a person for the rest of their lives,” he said the Justice Department should avoid prosecuting those cases.
He proactively returned to the issue after it was first raised by Booker and previewed actions the Justice Department could take to resolve such systemic problems.
“One of the big things driving arrests in our country—stunningly to me even that it is still the case—is marijuana arrests. We had in 2019 more marijuana arrests for possession than all violent crime arrests combined,” Booker said, adding that those arrests fall disparately on black and brown Americans despite the fact that white people use cannabis at a comparable rate.
“Is that evidence that within the system there is implicit racial bias?” Booker, who is part of a trio of lawmakers leading the charge to enact federal legalization in the Senate, asked.
“That’s definitely evidence of a disparate treatment in the system, which I think does arise out of implicit bias—unconscious bias maybe, sometimes conscious bias,” Garland said. “This is a particular part of the reason why, at this moment, I think I wanted to be the attorney general.”
Booker picked up on Garland’s point about implicit bias and reiterated that just because there are racial disparities in the justice system doesn’t necessarily meant that those carrying out enforcement are overtly racist. The Biden nominee replied that “that’s correct” and the “marijuana example is a perfect example that you’ve given here.”
“Here’s a non-violent crime with respect to usage that does not require us to incarcerate people, and we’re incarcerating at significantly different rates of the different communities,” Garland said. “That is wrong, and it’s the kind of problem that will then follow a person for the rest of their lives. It will make it impossible to get a job, it will lead to downward economic spiral for their family.”
Watch Garland’s additional comments on cannabis policy below:
“If you just look at the impact of the law and the disparate impact on just marijuana, it is estimated to cost African-American communities in this country billions of dollars more,” Booker, who was recently named chair of a key Judiciary subcommittee, followed up. “My question to you now is, assuming this position…what are you going to do about this outrageous injustice that persists and infects our society with such a toll on black and brown communities?”
Garland said that there are “many things that the Justice Department has to do in this regard” and one of those things is “we can focus our attention on violent crimes and other crimes that put great danger in our society, and not allocate our resources to something like marijuana possession.”
He added that prosecutors could further mitigate mass incarceration by reviewing and revising sentencing standards so that people don’t face the maximum punishment for certain crimes.
Also at the hearing, Garland revisited the idea of deprioritizing enforcement against cannabis possession after being pressed on ensuring racial equity in the justice system by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA).
He said “one important way [to achieve equity] is to focus on the crimes that really matter—to bring our charging and our arresting on violent crime and others that deeply affect our society and not have such an overemphasis on marijuana possession, for example, which has disproportionately affected communities of color and then damaged them after the original arrest because of the inability to get jobs.”
Watch the discussion between Ossoff and Garland below:
The nominee reiterated the sentencing reform should also be part of the solution, and that includes resolving the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity for cocaine, which “has had an enormously disproportionate impact on communities of color, but which evidence shows is not related to the dangerousness of the two drugs.”
While Sessions took actions on marijuana policy that are viewed as hostile by advocates, Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, maintained that Congress should take steps to resolve the state-federal marijuana policy conflict. But he did not make any definitive statements about the need to shift gears administratively, nor did he dedicate time while in office to recognize the racial disparities of cannabis enforcement.
Barr did allegedly direct the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to carry out investigations into 10 marijuana mergers out of personal animus for the industry. A whistleblower who testified before a key House committee claimed the investigations were unnecessary and wasted departmental resources. But the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division later argued that the investigations were actually “consistent with protecting consumers’ access to cannabis products, not with animosity toward the industry.”
Garland, who was previously nominated by Obama to serve on the Supreme Court only to have his nomination blocked by Senate Republicans, was relatively silent on the issue prior to the confirmation hearing. His judicial record did indicate that he believes in deference to the Drug Enforcement Administration when it comes to drug scheduling, raising initial concerns among advocates.
But while his broader enforcement position remains to be seen, Garland did clearly express on Monday that he feels the federal government should generally not waste departmental resources to interfere in state-legal markets and that the lowest level cannabis offenses should not justify incarcerating individuals.
It now seems apparent that he and Biden are principally aligned on those matter, supporting decriminalization and non-interference in state cannabis programs, as the president called for during his campaign.
Biden also supports legalizing medical marijuana, modestly rescheduling the plant and expunging prior cannabis convictions. He remains opposed to adult-use legalization, however, despite supermajority support for the policy change within his party.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.