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Marijuana Expungements Hinge On Result Of Arizona Prosecutor Race

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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.”

This story was first published by The Appeal.

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.

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Alabama House Approves Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill That Already Passed The Senate

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The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday approved a Senate-passed bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

After previously clearing two House committees last month, it passed the full chamber by a vote of 68-34.

The win came after opponents staged a lengthy filibuster on the floor earlier this week, drawing out the process by making a series of speeches and asking questions until the end of the day’s session at midnight approached. Those stalling tactics did not continue on Thursday.

Sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson (R), the bill would allow people with qualifying conditions to access cannabis for therapeutic purposes. The full Senate approved the legislation in March.

To qualify for the program, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers in future sessions.

Prior to the vote on final passage, the House considered several floor amendments.

The body rejected proposals to place a limit of 10 milligrams of THC per dose for medical cannabis products, to remove depression as a qualifying condition and to enact a zero tolerance policy for drivers with THC in their systems. Another amendment that would have repealed the state program if marijuana is federally rescheduled, so that people would get medical cannabis from pharmacies instead of dispensaries, was also defeated.

Lawmakers did accept an amendment changing local control provisions from opt out to make it so that cities and counties would have to opt in to allowing medical cannabis businesses. They also made a change to name the bill after the deceased son of a lawmaker who previously sponsored medical marijuana legislation.

Because the Senate-passed measure has been revised in the House, it will have to go back to the the other chamber for additional consideration before being sent to the desk of Gov. Kay Ivey (R).

Melson is the same lawmaker who sponsored similar legislation that was approved by the full Senate last year but which later died without any House votes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This latest proposal, SB 46, would establish an Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to implement regulations and oversee licensing.

The House Judiciary Committee approved 10 amendments to the legislation during a hearing last month. For example, members agreed to scrap provisions providing reciprocity for out-of-state patients and reducing the percentage of marijuana tax revenue that would go to cannabis research from 30 to 15 percent.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 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.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Later, in the Health Committee, members approved a change that would add an annual registration fee for physicians who recommend cannabis. Another would give the state attorney general’s office access to a patient registry database.

That panel further accepted an amendment to remove fibromyalgia and menopause from the list of qualifying conditions and another to expand the number of institutions that are eligible for grants to research marijuana. A revision to develop a uniform flavor for all cannabis products was also attached.

Additionally, an amendment was approved to require dispensaries to have 24-hour security cameras operating in their facilities.

Advocates say they’re encouraged that medical cannabis reform is advancing in Alabama, but they’ve raised concerns about a number of aspects of the bill.

One problematic provision, advocates say, is that patients with chronic or intractable pain could only be recommended medical marijuana in cases where “conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or has proved ineffective.”

The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.

Patients would be allowed to purchase and possess up to “70 daily dosages of medical cannabis.” Under an amendment approved on the Senate floor, the maximum daily dose was reduced from 75 to 50 milligrams. However, the amendment’s sponsor said it could be increased to 75 milligrams in some circumstances.

The revision also calls for a label on marijuana products to indicate that cannabis can cause drowsiness.

It also calls for a nine percent gross proceeds tax on medical marijuana sales.

Patients, caregivers and and medical cannabis businesses would receive legal protections under the proposal, preventing them from being penalized for activities authorized by the state.

For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.

Under the bill, regulators would be tasked with developing restrictions on advertising and setting quality control standards. Seed-to-sale tracking and laboratory testing would be mandated.

Other changes approved earlier in the Senate would add language to stipulate that gelatinous cannabis products cannot be sugar coated and insert provisions promoting good manufacturing practices and tamper-evident packaging.

Applications for cannabis business licenses would have to be accepted starting September 1, 2022 and then proceeded within 60 days.

The commission would be required to approve at least four cultivators, up to four processors, up to four dispensaries for the first year of implementation (more could be approved after that point depending on demand) and as many as five vertically integrated operators.

This bill’s reintroduction had been greatly anticipated by advocates. The Senate approved a separate medical cannabis bill in 2019, but the House later severely compromised it. The legislation as enacted would not have legalized patient access; rather, it set up a study commission to explore the issue and make recommendations.

The commission came back with its report in December 2019, with members recommending that medical marijuana be legalized.

There has been additional pressure on the legislature to enact legalization given that voters in neighboring Mississippi approved a medical cannabis reform initiative during the November election.

Separately, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill in March to decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of cannabis, making it punishable by a $250 fine without the threat of jail time. But the measure later failed a procedural motion on the Senate floor.

Kansas Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill In Committee

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash.

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Texas House Approves Psychedelics Research Bill As Marijuana Reform Measures Also Advance

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The Texas House of Representatives on Thursday approved to a bill that would require the state to conduct a study into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA. This comes as numerous marijuana reform measures move through the legislature.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Alex Dominguez (D), passed by a vote of 134-12. It had advanced on second reading via a voice vote a day earlier. It now heads to the Senate.

The House Public Health Committee passed the bill with amendments last week. Members revised the measure to limit the scope of the state-funded study to focus on military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), rather than a broader list of conditions attached to the initial bill.

“We lose about 6,000 veterans every year—and since 2001, we have lost 114,000 of our veterans to PTSD and suicide,” Dominguez said on the floor before the second reading vote.

The legislation will do something that’s “sorely needed, and that’s taking a fresh look at what we can do to save the lives of our servicemen and women that have given their lives to this country,” he said. “We can make a difference, and we can send a message to Washington that they need to be doing more.”

The bill would require the state to study the medical risks and benefits of psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine for veterans in partnership with Baylor College of Medicine and a military-focused medical center. It was also amended to mandate a clinical trial into psilocybin for veterans with PTSD, in addition to a broader review of the scientific literature on all three substances.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 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.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

The Health and Human Services Commission would have to submit quarterly reports on their progress, with a full report on the panel’s findings be due by December 2024.

Former Gov. Rick Perry (R), who also served as U.S. energy secretary, has called on lawmakers to approve the psychedelics legislation.

This is the latest drug policy reform bill to move through the legislature this session.

Last week, the House approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession, sending it to the Senate. It would make possession of up to one ounce of cannabis a class C misdemeanor that does not come with the threat of jail time.

Texas lawmakers have also recently passed proposals to expand the state’s medical marijuana program and reduce penalties for possessing cannabis concentrates.

The House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session.

Lawmakers last week also sent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) a bill to clarify that a positive marijuana test alone is not sufficient criteria for removing a child from their home.

On Tuesday, the House approved legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.

But most of these proposals face an uphill battle in the Senate, where it remains to be seen whether legislators will have the same appetite for reform or what kind of changes they might push for in any particular bill. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact cannabis reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber.

For example, shortly after the House approved a decriminalization bill in 2019, Patrick declared the measure “dead in the Texas Senate,” stating that he sides with lawmakers “who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana.”

That same year, a spokesperson for the lieutenant governor was asked about a medical cannabis expansion bill and reiterated that he is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

That’s all to say that, unless Patrick has a change of heart on the issue, there’s still a risk that he could singlehandedly quash the reform measures. But other legislative leaders do seem to be warming on the policy.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event in March that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”

The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”

Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.

“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”

Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.

Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.

And while Patrick’s record on the issue is a source of concern for advocates, he and other legislative leaders have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

Patrick said flatly, “sure, that will be looked at this session” when asked about the prospect of expanding access to medical marijuana in January.

“We’re always listening on the health issues, but we’re not going to turn this into California,” he said, “where anybody can get a slip from the doctor and go down to some retail store and say, ‘You know, I got a headache today so I need marijuana,’ because that’s just a veil for legalizing it for recreational use.”

Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.

Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.

Don’t Punish Universities That Study Marijuana, Bipartisan Lawmakers Urge In Letter To Congressional Leaders

Image courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.

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Don’t Punish Universities That Study Marijuana, Bipartisan Lawmakers Urge In Letter To Congressional Leaders

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Universities that engage in cannabis research should not have to fear losing their federal funds just for doing science, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers recently said in a letter to congressional leaders.

The letter, led by Reps. Joe Neguse (D-CO) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), requests that language be included in the base bill of forthcoming appropriations legislation stipulating that funds from the Department of Education cannot be withheld solely because a given institution is “conducting or is preparing to conduct research” into marijuana.

“The issue at hand is whether the federal government’s prohibition of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) should be a basis for federal agencies to withhold funds from higher education institutions that seek to provide a base for cannabis-specific research,” the letter, which was signed by 15 other lawmakers joining Neguse and Armstrong, states. “This risk is particularly worrying for institutions in those states and in the District of Columbia that have taken steps to legalize both the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis, and the majority of U.S. states that presently authorize and regulate the issue of medical cannabis by statute.”

“Currently, there are a multitude of higher education institutions conducting a range of cannabis related research, including many in our districts, who prefer for future developments to occur through an accredited educational setting,” it continues. “Formal research is especially important as more states legalize medical marijuana. We need medical professionals who are equipped with the knowledge and certification to discuss competently issues surrounding cannabis and health.”

“Evidence-based research regarding cannabis ought to be encouraged in academic settings, not discouraged. Although many schools and universities have expressed an interest in conducting scientific and observational research on the cannabis plant, they remain hesitant to do so because of a fear of potentially losing eligibility to receive federal grants from the Department of Education… Our constitutional framework has afforded the whole nation the chance to allow states to differ on many matters of public policy, including cannabis. As a result, that same framework should be extended to the protection of research of cannabis at higher education institutions.”

The lawmakers want leaders in the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee to insert language into an upcoming spending bill that specifically protects colleges that allow marijuana to be researched at their institutions.

The proposed rider reads:

“None of the funds provided by this Act or provided by previous Appropriations Acts to the Department of Education shall be withheld from an institute of higher education solely because that institute is conducting or is preparing to conduct research on marihuana as defined in 21 U.S.C. § 802 (16).”

The subcommittee included a similar rider in an appropriations bill that was introduced last year and passed by the House, so it’s not unlikely that it will do so again. That said, the Senate under Republican control did not follow suit last time and the language did not make it into final appropriations legislation that was signed into law. It remains to be seen if the new Democratic Senate will advance the cannabis provision this time.

Beside Neguse and Armstrong, signatories on the new letter are: Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Ken Buck (R-CO), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Peter Welch (D-VT), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Don Young (R-AK), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Dina Titus (D-NV), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Lou Correa (D-CA), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Jared Huffman (D-CA).

Neguse, Armstrong and and 25 colleagues wrote a similar letter to House leadership in 2019, stating that “there are a multitude of higher education institutions conducting a range of cannabis-related research, including many in our districts, who prefer for future developments to occur through an accredited educational setting.”

This is the second cannabis-related letter to be sent by congressional lawmakers to appropriators this session—and there’s increased optimism among advocates that the requests will be honored given that Democrats now control both chambers of Congress and the White House.

Last month, a bipartisan group of legislators joined a sign-on letter urging leaders of a key committee to include provisions protecting all state, territory and tribal marijuana programs from federal interference in upcoming annual spending legislation when it is introduced.

That sign-on letter—led by Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), along with Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)—notes the growing number of states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes and argues that the Department of Justice should be barred from enforcing prohibition against citizens who comply with those local policies.

Read the letter on university protections for marijuana research below: 

Cannabis Research Letter by Marijuana Moment

Colorado Governor Signs Bill To Expand Medical Marijuana Access For Students In Schools

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