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Marijuana Equity Advocates Propose Changes To Federal Legalization Bill To Stop Big Business Takeover

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Civil rights groups are pushing for a vote on a bill to federally legalize marijuana to take place in the U.S. House of Representatives this month—but some activists who have experience in the state-level regulatory space are now proposing changes to the legislation to ensure that the market is equitable and empowers communities that have been most impacted by prohibition to benefit from the new industry.

Without the modifications, they say, legal cannabis sales could end up in the hands of a few large corporations—”putting most small cultivators and retailers out of business.”

The equity advocates have submitted a pair of alternative amendments of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House last year and was recently refiled by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). The proposals come from the Parabola Center, a newly established organization that is working to inform legalization legislation federally and at the state-level with the intent of promoting social justice-centered reforms.

The new suggested amendments were shared exclusively with Marijuana Moment and are being sent to cannabis reform champions in the House and Senate for consideration on Thursday.

In principle, there’s broad agreement on the legislation, Parabola Center’s Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis regulator, told Marijuana Moment. But in practice, there’s a sense among some advocates that federally descheduling cannabis without rigorous regulations will not have the intended impact for disproportionately impacted communities.

“We hope this project inspires the mass movement that legalized marijuana to become more proactive and intentional in deciding what the national marijuana marketplace will look like,” Title said.

In order to achieve equity, the advocates say there must also be a conversation around how to prevent large corporations—more specifically Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol—from dominating the market once the restraints of federal prohibition are lifted. There’s a sense of urgency to address that aspect of the reform, with companies like Amazon now lobbying in favor of the MORE Act, for example.

A summary of the proposed amendments from the Parabola Center says that the MORE Act’s sponsors “deserve full credit for their determination to address” equity-focused reforms, but expresses concern that the federal government is not yet ready to effectively oversee a national marijuana market, noting that its “experience with cannabis until now has been exclusively limited to interdiction and prosecution predominantly targeting Black and Latino communities.”

The advocates say the government “needs time to develop the tools and skills to regulate marijuana in a way that repairs the harms of the war on drugs” and points out that states are also struggling to oversee the industry “in an equitable way.”

Regulating marijuana isn’t just a matter of applying existing rules for alcohol and tobacco, Parabola says.

“While superficial similarities exist, to equate the prohibition and regulation of alcohol to that of cannabis is legally and historically inaccurate. It is not a sound basis for detailed cannabis policy,” their summary states. “Neither alcohol nor tobacco regulations have been developed to repair damage on the scale of that caused by the war on drugs. Further, neither of those regulatory models are ideal. As a country, we are still trying to undo the public health damage of letting Big Tobacco run wild.”

“Ultimately, if we are serious about creating a fair and equitable national industry, we must allow the federal government to develop its own core competency in cannabis regulation and prevent the domination of the market by a small number of corporations in the meantime.”

As introduced in Congress, the MORE Act would deschedule cannabis and take steps to promote equity in the industry. That includes by providing for expungements of prior marijuana convictions and reinvesting cannabis tax dollars into disproportionately impacted communities.

However, the descheduling component could inadvertently undermine the the social justice goals of the bill if steps aren’t taken to prevent the corporate consolidation of the industry, Parabola says. There’s a “high likelihood that such removal will result in a handful of national cannabis firms rapidly dominating the market and putting most small cultivators and retailers out of business,” according to the summary.

In other words, advocates see room for improvement, and they’re pushing for the incorporation of one of two proposed regulatory approaches to federal reform.

The first would give additional power to the Office of Cannabis Justice (OCJ) established under the MORE Act, letting the autonomous Justice Department body that would be created by the legislation dictate marijuana permitting. As drafted, that authority would be given to the Treasury Department.

The office would “regulate interstate commerce and enforce anti-cartel restrictions, preventing the creation of a national oligopoly similar to the state-level oligopolies that currently exist,” the summary states.

Federal funding could also be withheld from states that fail to meet certain racial justice benchmark standards under the revised plan.

The second, separate Parabola proposal is being described as a “cooperative federalism approach” that would end the federal criminalization of personal possession, cultivation and social sharing under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)—but it would not formally deschedule marijuana and would allow states to continue operating under the broader status quo of prohibition.

States that have legal markets could fully opt out of CSA enforcement if they meet certain criteria, specifically tied to racial justice objectives.

The purpose of that approach is to “protect individual cannabis consumers from federal arrest and prosecution while allowing states to continue to experiment with different types of equitable commercial markets.”

Asked why the group proposed two options for lawmakers, Title said they “thought it would be valuable to illustrate that there’s a whole spectrum of regulatory approaches between prohibition and descheduling that doesn’t protect state programs.”

“Those are the approaches we see discussed most often, but they essentially represent a police free-for-all versus a corporate free-for-all, both bad choices in our view,” she said.

Here’s a closer look at the details of each proposal

Approach 1

-Under this plan, OCJ would regulate marijuana permitting, and no person or corporation would be able to own more than five cannabis licenses in order to support small business participation in the industry.

-While the MORE Act was amended this Congress to exclude a section barring market participation by people with former felony convictions, advocates recommend replacing that language. The proposal says that except for offenses based on marijuana sales, there should be “mandatory disqualification of applicants who have violated the RICO Act or engaged in substantial fraud, abusive labor practices, human trafficking, slavery, intentional failure to pay wages, substantial harm to public health, the environment or an endangered species, terroristic actions, money laundering, misappropriation of public funds, and/or public corruption.”

-OCJ would have authority over regulating interstate commerce and would be required to study state markets to develop the best approach. The proposal says that could take the form of regional compacts allowing for limited interstate commerce between certain states or allowing only equity businesses to sell cannabis across state lines.

-Federal funds could be withheld from states that fail to meet “racial justice benchmarks,” and portions of federal tax revenue could go to states that are meeting those standards.

Approach 2

-As with the original MORE Act, this approach would not preempt state law. Personal possession, cultivation and social sharing would be federally legalized while marijuana remains a controlled substance.

-For states that follow certain federal guidelines for cannabis regulation, the plant would only be legal within their borders. Interstate commerce would not be permitted under this approach.

-The proposers say this will “allow state governments to continue their experimentation while giving the federal government time to understand those models and develop its own evidence-based cannabis policies.”

“The key is that both approaches eliminate federal penalties for consumers and patients using cannabis, but they don’t open the doors to corporate consolidation we wouldn’t be able to take back,” Title said. “It’s important not to conflate consumer/patient rights with corporate profits. One is an immediate need and one isn’t.”

Separately, a federal prisoner who received clemency for his cannabis conviction from President Donald Trump recently wrote to members of Congress about how the MORE Act’s resentencing and expungement provisions could leave some impacted people without the relief that lawmakers intend.

These proposals also come as Senate leadership continues to work on their own version of legalization legislation, which Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has repeatedly said will be introduced “soon.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is also working the bill alongside Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), also said to expect a filing “very soon.”

Schumer has said that the proposal they’re working on will “ensure restorative justice, public health and implement responsible taxes and regulations.” He also made a point in March to say that it will specifically seek to restrict the ability of large alcohol and tobacco companies to overtake the industry.

Instead, it will prioritize small businesses, particularly those owned by people from communities most impacted by prohibition, and focus on “justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom,” he said.

Read the summary of the advocates’ MORE Act proposals and the text of the amendments below: 

MORE Act Markup by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Connecticut Marijuana Legalization Bill Heads To Governor’s Desk

Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill

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The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.

His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.

“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.

“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”

It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.

The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.

Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.

In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.

Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures

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Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures

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Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.

This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.

The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.

CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.

“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”

The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.

A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).

A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”

The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.

The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.

Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.

Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”

With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.

Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.

Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.

legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).

A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.

There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.

After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.

Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.

Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.

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Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.

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A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”

While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.

The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.

Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.

The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.

That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.

“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.

Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.

“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”

The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.

She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”

However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.

While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.

She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.

Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.

USDA Teams Up With Cornell University For Hemp Education Webinar Series

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