One candidate for Maricopa County attorney says she’ll make clearing past marijuana convictions ‘universal and automatic’ if elected. The other has not said she would do anything to support expunging criminal records.
By Meg O’Connor, The Appeal
Arizona could soon join 11 other states that have legalized recreational marijuana. In two weeks, residents will have a chance to vote on Proposition 207, a ballot initiative that would allow people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, reduce the criminal penalties for other marijuana possession offenses, and pave the way for hundreds of thousands of people to expunge past convictions. If it passes, the state’s top prosecutors could play a huge role in upholding the law and facilitating—or thwarting—people’s petitions to clear their criminal records.
“In Pima and Maricopa [counties], Democrats are running in support of expungement and talking about how they will direct folks in their office to process mass expungements,” said Stacy Pearson, a political consultant for the campaign to pass Prop 207. “I think who is in office is critically important. How these prosecuting agencies respond to petitions is going to be key.”
Legalizing recreational marijuana and providing a path to expungement would be a major shift for Arizona, where possession of even a small amount is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a $150,000 fine. Though a proposition passed in 1996 prevents people from being sent to prison for their first or second marijuana possession offense, people were often instead diverted to the Treatment Assessment Screening Center (TASC)—a program facing a federal civil rights lawsuit for allegedly being a money-making racket that extorts poor people by threatening them with felony prosecution. Adel scrapped TASC and switched to a different felony diversion program, and the TASC lawsuit is moving toward a settlement.
Still over 100 people are currently incarcerated for marijuana possession in Arizona, and more than 15,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession statewide in 2018. ACLU reports on arrest, charging, and sentencing data have found that people of color are disproportionately affected by marijuana criminalization: Black Arizona residents are about three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white residents, and Black and Hispanic people prosecuted by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office face longer sentences for marijuana possession than white people.
“These laws have impacted people of color far more than white folks despite white people using marijuana at comparable rates,” said Jonathan Udell, the communications director for Arizona NORML and an attorney at Rose Law Group. “Arizona is the one state where possession of any amount of marijuana constitutes a felony. That has all kinds of impacts on people. Literally just possessing a small amount of a plant can ruin the rest of your life.”
Besides suffering the criminal penalties, like prison time and steep fees, a person with a marijuana conviction on their record in Arizona can have difficulty finding a job (and the healthcare that comes with it) and housing. Immigration status, eligibility to receive public funds like welfare benefits and student loans, and voting rights can also be threatened by a felony conviction.
Whoever is elected Maricopa County attorney this November will have a significant effect on the way marijuana continues to be prosecuted in the state, and could either help or hinder the effort to expunge past criminal convictions. (The county is home to Phoenix and 4.5 million of Arizona’s nearly 7 million residents.) Julie Gunnigle, the Democratic challenger for the top prosecutor role, has pledged to do everything she can to help people expunge marijuana possession convictions if Prop 207 passes, while the incumbent county attorney, Republican Allister Adel, has said only that she would enforce the new law if it passes and did not respond when asked if she would do anything to support the expungement process.
If Prop 207 passes, Arizonans can submit petitions to expunge past marijuana convictions to the court. Certain marijuana offenses would be eligible for expungement, and anyone who applies for expungement will be considered qualified unless proven otherwise. The onus is on the prosecutor’s office to contest the petition. If it doesn’t contest the petition within 30 days, the conviction is expunged, Pearson, the political consultant, said.
Through her campaign manager, Gunnigle told The Appeal she supports Prop 207 and thinks the opportunity for expungement included in the initiative is especially important. She said she is committed to creating an expungement process that “is both universal and automatic.” And if the measure passes, Gunnigle said she would dismiss any pending cases involving possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.
“On day one, I would dismiss every pending low-level marijuana case, and make office policy that no personal-use amounts of cannabis will be charged and [that] no objections will be filed when those convicted of such offenses move to set aside their convictions,” she said in a March questionnaire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. In a second questionnaire in August, Gunnigle said, “I will do everything possible to support people seeking to expunge old marijuana possession convictions.”
Adel’s campaign spokesperson did not directly respond when asked whether she supports the measure, and whether she would dismiss any pending cases involving possession of less than one ounce of marijuana if it passes.
“Proposition 207 is not retroactive,” the spokesperson, Lorna Romero, said instead, “and if it is to pass it will be the law going forward, and one that the office will follow and implement according to the letter of the law.”
The “letter of the law” does leave a few openings where, should Arizona county attorneys choose to do so, prosecutors could still seek harsh penalties for marijuana possession. After Arizona legalized medical marijuana in 2010, former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery tried to get around the law by threatening to prosecute medical marijuana patients for concentrates. In 2013, Montgomery brought charges against a medical marijuana patient over one piece of THC-infused candy. Advocates fear the wrong county attorney could continue to flout the will of the voters should Prop 207 pass. Before she was appointed to the county attorney role last year, Adel said Montgomery had “served our county well” and that she’d “be honored to build upon that legacy.”
Prop 207 would also allow adults over the age of 21 to grow up to six marijuana plants at their home. It’s possible that the marijuana plants you could legally grow in your home could produce more marijuana than the one ounce you are legally allowed to possess.
“There’s some open-ended legal questions there,” Udell from NORML said. “That raises some concerns in my mind. … I think if you had someone like Allister Adel in office, there’d be more of a chance that she could go after people for stuff like that.”
Gunnigle said it is up to the state legislature to pass laws to close the loopholes if Prop 207 passes, but that she would decline to prosecute “personal use cases of marijuana, including concentrates.”
Even if Prop 207 doesn’t pass, Gunnigle has pledged not to prosecute people for personal possession of marijuana. She told The Appeal that if she is elected, she would “issue a memo directing all prosecutors not to charge personal use marijuana cases” on her first day in office, and “review and dismiss all pending cases that were previously charged.”
Adel’s campaign did not directly respond when asked whether she would do anything to ensure the legal loopholes are not used to prosecute people harshly for marijuana. She has also not said whether she would decline to prosecute all cases of personal possession of marijuana.
“Maricopa County [Attorney] Allister Adel believes in a ‘treatment first’ approach where we need to look at the offender and not the offense,” Romero told The Appeal. “For low-level drug possession crimes, her priority is to get the defendant services they need to treat addiction. These types of crimes are ideal for the Felony Diversion Program she established.”
Under that felony diversion program, people can get their drug possession charges dismissed—as long as they successfully complete the program. In August, Adel also implemented a new policy allowing anyone who was arrested for simple marijuana possession to avoid prosecution if they obtain a medical marijuana card. Critics have pointed out that the policy only helps those who can afford a card.
A ballot measure to legalize recreational weed in Arizona failed by a slim margin in 2016. Now, it seems more likely that the measure could pass. Several recent polls have shown majority support for Prop 207. A recent poll from Data For Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute found that a majority of likely voters in Maricopa County are more inclined to vote for a county attorney who supports ending prosecution for marijuana possession offenses and expunging previous possession convictions. (The Justice Collaborative Institute and The Appeal are both independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.)
Justin Strekal, NORML’s political director, said prosecutors worked to expunge convictions right away in some jurisdictions where recreational marijuana has been legalized. “In other jurisdictions,” Strekal said, “that justice is delayed, and the collateral consequences of having criminal records continues to hold people back.”
“That’s where the impact of having partners in local office is absolutely critical,” said Strekal. “It can mean the difference between life and death for these individuals when holding on to these criminal records can prevent people from getting a job that could get them healthcare.”
The Appeal is a non-profit media organization that produces news and commentary on how policy, politics, and the legal system affect America’s most vulnerable people.
Kansas Medical Marijuana Hearings Cancelled After Senate GOP Leader Reroutes House-Passed Bill
A House-passed bill to legalize medical marijuana in Kansas seems to be in jeopardy, with GOP Senate leadership moving the legislation out of a committee and into a different panel where it may sit in legislative limbo, resulting in the cancellation of hearings that were scheduled to be held this week.
Advocates are concerned about the decision by Senate President Ty Masterson (R), who withdrew the cannabis reform legislation from the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee days before hearings were to be held on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was then re-referred to the Senate Interstate Cooperation Committee, which Masterson chairs and where the bill’s fate is unclear.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that medical marijuana legalization is off the table for Kansas in 2022, but it does seem to signal that the reform might need to be enacted through another vehicle, either in the legislature or at the ballot, as top Democratic lawmakers in the state are pursuing.
“We certainly hope that this action is just making sure that this bill meets any concerns that Senate leadership may have concerning this historic legislation,” Kevin Caldwell, a legislative manager at Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment. “This bill had widespread bipartisan support in the House last session. We hope Senate President Masterson quickly holds a committee hearing and advances this legislation.”
When the proposal was being advanced in the House last year during the first half of the two-year session, members amended an unrelated bill that previously cleared the Senate to make it the chamber’s vehicle for the policy change. Because of that, it was ruled “materially changed” last May and sent to the Senate for committee consideration.
Now there’s a question of whether lawmakers will be motivated to introduce another separate bill and try to move it through both chambers, requiring another House vote. The Senate president seemed to temper expectations in recent remarks, telling The Kansas City Star that “not a single member” of his caucus has expressed that the issue “was important to them.”
That’s not how Kansas Democrats feel, however. House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer (D) and Assistant Minority Leader Jason Probst (D) said this month that they will be introducing proposals to let voters decide on legalizing medical and adult-use marijuana in the state. At the time, Sawyer said he was “hopeful” that the legislature might separately advance the House-passed legalization measure.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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“The people of Kansas deserve to know if senators support the overwhelming majority of people who want to alleviate patients’ suffering with a medical cannabis program,” MPP’s Caldwell said. “Now is the time to show compassion to their fellow citizens and vote this bill out of committee.”
“Kansas is one of fourteen states left without a medical cannabis program,” he said. “We have faith that the Kansas Senate will pass this legislation this session and this is just another step in that process.”
Michael Pirner, Masterson’s communications director, told the Star that “medical marijuana legislation is not a priority of Senate leadership,” but did signal the issue may still be considered before the year is over.
“The subject matter has clearly matured and we expect it to be considered at some level this session,” he said. “There are many more pressing topics on the Senate agenda.”
The bill as drafted contains several significant restrictions, including a ban on smokeable cannabis. Members of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee did get a briefing on the issue at a meeting last week ahead of the expected, now-cancelled formal hearings before the panel.
Meanwhile, the constitutional amendment that the Democratic leaders are proposing would provide for a more comprehensive program that lawmakers would need to implement.
Gov. Laura Kelly (D), for her part, wants to see medical cannabis legalization enacted, and she said at a briefing with reporters on Friday that she “absolutely” thinks the bill could pass if “everything else doesn’t take up all the oxygen.”
She previously pushed a separate proposal that would legalize medical cannabis and use the resulting revenue to support Medicaid expansion, with Rep. Brandon Woodard (D) filing the measure on the governor’s behalf.
Kelly has she said she wants voters to put pressure on their representatives to get the reform passed.
The governor also said in 2020 that while she wouldn’t personally advocate for adult-use legalization, she wouldn’t rule out signing the reform into law if a reform bill arrived on her desk.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Marijuana Banking Bill Sponsor Says He’s ‘Gonna Get That Darn Thing Passed’ Before Leaving Office
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) is retiring from Congress at the end of this session, but he says that he’s going to work to pass his marijuana banking bill before his time on Capitol Hill comes to an end.
The congressman spoke to Colorado Public Radio last week about his decision not to run for reelection this November and his disappointment that, while the House has approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act five times now in some form, the Senate has failed to advance it under both Republican and Democratic leadership.
“That one still has me pretty irritated,” Perlmutter said, referring to the fact that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has effectively blocked his bipartisan legislation. When there was a GOP Senate majority, he was told the bill was “too big and too broad.” Then with a Democratic majority, he’s told that it’s “too narrow and too limited.”
Schumer and his colleagues who are working on a federal legalization bill have repeatedly said that they do not want to see the SAFE Banking Act pass before comprehensive reform is enacted that addresses equity issues. Supporters of the banking bill argue that the incremental policy change is necessary for promote public safety and, importantly, it stands a much stronger chance of getting to the president’s desk with bipartisan support.
Nonetheless, Perlmutter said he plans to spend his remaining months in office pushing to get the job done.
“I have not given up on that one,” he said. “I’m gonna get that darn thing passed this year while I still serve out my term.”
Listen to Perlmutter discuss the marijuana banking legislation, starting around 10:24 into the audio below:
Asked whether he thinks President Joe Biden would be inclined to sign the measure if it did get to his desk, the congressman said “absolutely.”
“Treasury Secretary [Janet] Yellen is somebody who has been talking to me about this for years,” he said. “I feel very good that it would pass. We’re at 47 states that have some level of marijuana use, all the territories and District of Columbia, and they need to have legitimate banking services.”
“It’s just a no brainer in my opinion,” he said. “And yeah, I’m a little bit irritated, but we’re gonna keep working on it and get it passed this year.”
The last attempt that Perlmutter made to enact the reform was by adding its language to a must-pass defense bill, but it was ultimately sidelined following bicameral negotiations and did not make it into the final version. The congressman told Marijuana Moment last month that he sees other potential vehicles to advance the bill and has spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about it.
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.
Top Federal Drug Official Says ‘Train Has Left The Station’ On Psychedelics As Reform Movement Spreads
A top federal drug official says the “train has left the station” on psychedelics.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow 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.
The comments came at a psychedelics workshop Volkow’s agency cohosted with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) last week.
The NIDA official said that, to an extent, it’s been overwhelming to address new drug trends in the psychedelics space. But at the same time, she sees “an incredible opportunity to also modify the way that we are doing things.”
“What is it that the [National Institutes of Health] can do to help accelerate research in this field so that we can truly understand what are the potentials, and ultimately the application, of interventions that are bought based on psychedelic drugs?” Volkow said.
The director separately told Marijuana Moment on Friday in an emailed statement that part of the challenge for the agency and researchers is the fact that psychedelics are strictly prohibited as Schedule I drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
“Researchers must obtain a Schedule I registration which, unlike obtaining registrations for Schedule II substances (which include fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine), is administratively challenging and time consuming,” she said. “This process may deter some scientists from conducting research on Schedule I drugs.”
“In response to concerns from researchers, NIDA is involved in interagency discussions to facilitate research on Schedule I substances,” Volkow said, adding that the agency 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.
“It will also be important to streamline the process of obtaining Schedule I registrations to further the science on these substances, including examining their therapeutic potential,” she said.
At Thursday’s event, the official talked about how recent, federally funded surveys showed that fewer college-aged adults are drinking alcohol and are instead opting for psychedelics and marijuana. She discussed the findings in an earlier interview with Marijuana Moment as well.
Don't miss out on the @NIDAnews, @NIAAAnews, & @NIMHgov-sponsored virtual Workshop on Psychedelics as Therapeutics: Gaps, Challenges, and Opportunities, Jan. 12‒13, 2022. Learn more and register: https://t.co/S1zttkoYXq pic.twitter.com/C2Qrk6FN9a
— NIDAnews (@NIDAnews) January 10, 2022
“Let’s learn from history,” she said. “Let’s see what we have learned from the marijuana experience.”
While studies have found that marijuana use among young people has generally remained stable or decreased amid the legalization movement, there has been an increase in cannabis consumption among adults, she said. And “this is likely to happen [with psychedelics] as more and more attention is placed on these psychedelic drugs.”
“I think, to a certain extent, with all the attention that the psychedelic drugs have attracted, the train has left the station and that people are going to start to use it,” Volkow said. “People are going to start to use it whether [the Food and Drug Administration] approves or not.
There are numerous states and localities where psychedelics reform is being explored and pursued both legislatively and through ballot initiative processes.
On Wednesday—during the first part of the two-day federal event that saw nearly 4,000 registrants across 21 time zones—NIMH Director Joshua Gordon stressed that his agency has “been supporting research on psychedelics for some time.”
Tune in today and tomorrow for the @NIH workshop on Psychedelics as Therapeutics, which will examine findings on psychoplastogens for treating depression, post-traumatic stress, and substance and alcohol use disorders. https://t.co/Qzxte5xJt9
— Joshua A. Gordon (@NIMHDirector) January 12, 2022
“We can think of NIMH’s interests in studying psychedelics both in terms of proving that they work and also in terms of demonstrating the mechanism by which they work,” he said. “NIMH has a range of different funding opportunity announcements and other expressions that are priorities aimed at a mechanistic focus and mechanistic approach to drug development.”
Meanwhile, Volkow also made connections between psychedelics and the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. She said, for example, that survey data showing increased use of psychedelics “may be a way that people are using to try to escape” the situation.
But she also drew a metaphor, saying that just as how the pandemic “forced” federal health officials to accelerate the development and approval of COVID-19 vaccines because of the “urgency of the situation,” one could argue that “actually there is an urgency to bring treatments [such as emerging psychedelic medicines] for people that are suffering from severe mental illness which can be devastating.”
But as Volkow has pointed out, the Schedule I classification of these substances under federal law inhibits such research and development.
The official has also repeatedly highlighted and criticized the racial disparities in drug criminalization enforcement overall.