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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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Pennsylvania Senators Will Consider DUI Protections For Medical Marijuana Patients At Hearing

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A Pennsylvania Senate committee is set to take up a bill next week that would protect medical marijuana patients from being prosecuted under the state’s “zero tolerance” DUI laws.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R), would amend state statute to require proof of active impairment before a registered patient can be prosecuted for driving under the influence. The current lack of specific protections for the state’s roughly 368,000 patients puts them in legal jeopardy when on the road, supporters say.

Members of the Senate Transportation Committee will explore the issue at a hearing on Tuesday.

Bartolotta first introduced an earlier version of the bill in June 2020. She said at the time that the state needs to “ensure that the legal use of this medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”

Months after the standalone reform legislation was introduced, the Pennsylvania House approved a separate amendment that would enact the policy change.

Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016, with the first dispensaries in the state opening in 2018. But the state’s zero-tolerance DUI law still doesn’t reflect those changes. Because it criminalizes the presence of any THC or its metabolites in a driver’s blood—which can be detected for weeks after a person’s last use—the law puts virtually all medical marijuana patients at risk, even if it’s been days since their last use and they show no signs of impairment.

Bartolotta’s bill would require officers to prove a registered patient was actually impaired on the road.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

“Unimpaired patients currently face the risk of being arrested, prosecuted and convicted for using medicinal marijuana that has no bearing on their ability to drive a vehicle,” the senator wrote in a cosponsorship memo late last year. “Given the very serious consequences of a DUI conviction, my legislation will provide critical protections for medicinal cannabis patients by ensuring responsible use of their legal medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”

Several legal cannabis states have enacted per se THC limits in blood, similar to blood alcohol requirements. However, evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.

A study published in 2019, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.

Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance… studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”

Outside of this bill, Pennsylvania lawmakers have continued to pursue adult-use legalization in the state. Earlier this year, two legislators circulated a memo to build support for a comprehensive reform bill they plan to introduce, for example.

A bipartisan Senate duo is also in the process of crafting legislation to legalize cannabis across the commonwealth. They announced some details of the proposal earlier this year, but the bill has yet to be formally introduced.

Outside the legislature, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said earlier this year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.

Wolf, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate, previously led a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on legalization. He’s credited that effort with helping to move the governor toward embracing comprehensive reform. The lieutenant governor even festooned his Capitol office with marijuana-themed decor in contravention of a state law passed by the GOP-led legislature.

Fetterman has also been actively involved in encouraging the governor to exercise his clemency power for cannabis cases while the legislature moves to advance reform.

In May, Wolf pardoned a doctor who was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for growing marijuana that he used to provide relief for his dying wife. That marks his 96th pardon for people with cannabis convictions through the Expedited Review Program for Non-Violent Marijuana-Related Offenses that’s being run by the Board of Pardons.

Overall, legalization is popular among Pennsylvania voters, with 58 percent of residents saying they favor ending cannabis prohibition in a survey released in April.

Another poll released in May found that a majority of voters in the state also support decriminalizing all currently illicit drugs.

80 Top Law Enforcement Officials, Including A Biden Nominee, Urge SCOTUS To Hear Safe Injection Drug Case

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80 Top Law Enforcement Officials, Including A Biden Nominee, Urge SCOTUS To Hear Safe Injection Drug Case

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A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—have filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up a case on the legality of establishing a safe injection facility where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.

The nonprofit organization Safehouse was set to launch a safe consumption site in Philadelphia before being blocked by a legal challenge from the Trump administration, and it filed a petition with the nation’s highest court last month to hear the case. Now the group of law enforcement officials associated with Fair and Just Prosecution are calling on the Supreme Court to act in an amicus brief.

“Amici have an interest in this litigation because overdose prevention sites (OPSs) are among the harm reduction and public health interventions that have proven effective in preventing fatal overdoses and diverting people from unnecessary and counterproductive interactions with the justice system,” they wrote. “Amici, many of whom are currently or were previously responsible for enforcing the nation’s drug laws, also believe that the Controlled Substances Act cannot be construed to prohibit operation of a facility designed to address the most acute aspects of this public health emergency.”

If the court agrees to hear the dispute, advocates will be looking toward the Biden Justice Department and whether it will continue the federal government’s opposition to allowing supervised injection facilities. It would be a precedent-setting case that could steer policy for years to come, meaning Safehouse is taking a significant risk by pursuing the appeal of its loss in a lower court before the majority of conservative justices.

“Failing to address the loss of life resulting from drug overdoses—and criminalizing a community-based public health organization working to save lives—will further erode trust in the justice system,” the new brief states. “If there were ever a time to demonstrate that our government values the dignity of human life, that time is now.”

While President Joe Biden hasn’t weighed in directly on safe consumption sites, there’s been a theme within his administration of embracing the general concept of harm reduction for drugs. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), for example, said that “promoting harm-reduction efforts” is a first-year priority. In an overview of its objectives, the office said it intends to expand “access to evidence-based treatment,” enhance “evidence-based harm reduction efforts” and promote “access to recovery support services.”

These goals theoretically align with those of Safehouse, which wants to give people with substance use disorders a facility where medical professionals can intervene in the event of an overdose and provide people with the resources to seek recovery.

Among the signatories on the amicus brief are a former deputy assistant attorney general under Obama, district attorneys of Baltimore, Cook County, Dallas County, Los Angeles County, Manhattan, Philadelphia, San Francisco County and Seattle and the former attorneys general of Ohio, Vermont and Virginia.

But one signatory who especially stands out is Rachael Rollins, the district attorney of Suffolk County, Massachusetts who is Biden’s nominee for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts.

“As an elected prosecutor, I have a responsibility to protect every member of my community, which requires moving away from criminal justice responses to substance use disorder,” Rollins said in a press release. “Instead, we must embrace proven public health strategies as potential solutions. Lives depend on it.”

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the drug war “has taken too many lives already, and criminalization has only exacerbated this devastating toll.” He added: “We need a new way forward that allows communities to address the overdose crisis with harm reduction approaches proven to save lives and improve community safety.”

Fair and Justice Prosecution, the group that coordinated the amicus brief, also organized a tour of Portugal for 20 top prosecutors in 2019 so they could learn about the successful implementation of the country’s drug decriminalization law.

Safehouse won a battle in a federal district court in 2019 to proceed with the facilities. But in January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the decision, ruling that permitting such facilities would violate a 1980s-era federal statute that bars organizations from running operations “for the purpose of unlawfully… using controlled substances.” That law was passed while Biden served in the Senate and helped push punitive drug policies that have had lasting consequences.

“As current and former criminal justice leaders, amici have seen first-hand how the classic ‘war on drugs’ approach to drug control—with its almost exclusive focus on aggressive criminal law enforcement—has exacerbated the overdose epidemic,” the pro-reform prosecutors and cops wrote in the new brief. “This experience confirms that no jurisdiction can arrest its way out of this public health problem. Fatal overdoses are a symptom of substance use disorder, a medical condition requiring a medical response.”

“Distorting federal drug laws to prohibit an [overdose prevention site] or to prosecute its sponsors would further undermine trust in the justice system and faith in the fair and sensible application of our drug laws. Interpreting federal criminal law to bar empirically validated harm reduction measures would make no one safer; it would only impede cooperation between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

In its original petition to the Supreme Court in the current safe injection site case, Safehouse argued that the justices should “grant review to determine whether” federal statute really does prohibit “non-commercial, non-profit social service agencies…from establishing an overdose-prevention site that includes medically supervised consumption.”

“This question is a matter of life or death for thousands of Philadelphians and many thousands more throughout the country,” it said. “Tragically, while respondents have been pursuing this declaratory judgment against Safehouse, more than 3,200 people died in Philadelphia of drug overdoses—many of which could have been prevented if medical care had been immediately available through supervised consumption services.”

Safehouse also pointed out that Xavier Bacerra, the Biden administration’s secretary of health and human services, was among eight top state law enforcement officials who filed an earlier amicus brief in support of the organization’s safe injection site plan when he served as California’s attorney general.

The organization put the gravity of the case in no uncertain terms, painting a picture of how its proposed facility can save lives.

“When breathing stops, even a brief delay while waiting for medical help to arrive may result in an otherwise preventable overdose death or irreversible injury,” the petition says. “As a result, every second counts when responding to an opioid overdose; as more time elapses, the greater the risk of serious injury and death. Ensuring proximity to medical care and opioid reversal agents like the drug Naloxone at the time of consumption is therefore a critical component of efforts to prevent fatal opioid overdose.”

“Intervention by this Court is warranted to make clear that the federal law does not criminalize this essential public health and medical intervention designed to save lives from preventable overdose death,” it continues.

Safehouse argued that the appeals court’s interpretation of the law “eviscerates the intended boundaries of the statute and would criminalize the operation of legitimate businesses, charities, families, and good Samaritans that serve and reside with those suffering from addiction.”

If the Supreme Court were to take up the case and rule in favor of Safehouse, it could embolden advocates and lawmakers across the country to pursue the harm reduction policy.

The governor of Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.

Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.

A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), was approved in the state Senate in April, but further action has been delayed until 2022.

At the same time that Safehouse is turning to the Supreme Court, it also announced recently that it will be returning the the federal district court that gave it an initial 2019 victory in support of establishing a safe injection facility before it was overturned in the appeals court.

The organization is making the unique argument that the federal government’s decision to block it from providing the service violates religious freedom by subjecting participants “to criminal penalties for exercising their sincerely held religious beliefs that they have an obligation to do everything possible to preserve life and to provide shelter and care to the vulnerable, including those suffering from addiction.”

In 2018, a congressional subcommittee approved legislation to specifically prohibit Washington D.C. from using local tax dollars to help open safe consumption facilities. But that provision was not enacted and has not been reintroduced since.

A 2020 study found that people “who reported using supervised injection facilities on an at least weekly basis had a reduced risk of dying compared to those who reported less than weekly or no use of this health service.”

Read the amicus brief from the prosecutors on the Safehouse safe injection site case below: 

Safehouse Amicus Sept 2021 by Marijuana Moment

Former GOP Congressman Who Actually Supported Marijuana Reform Enters The Cannabis Industry

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Former GOP Congressman Who Actually Supported Marijuana Reform Enters The Cannabis Industry

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Lately it’s come to seem as if most of the former politicians who’ve entered the marijuana industry were unhelpful or downright hostile to legalization when they were in office. But on Friday, a cannabis company announced an addition to its board who disrupts that narrative: a former Republican congressman who has a consistent legislative record of cosponsoring and voting for marijuana reform measures.

The multi-state cannabis businesses Red White & Bloom Brands Inc. (RWB) is bringing on former Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) to help it navigate the complicated regulatory space, drawing on his experience in Congress as the company works to expand.

Costello certainly isn’t the only Republican lawmaker who’s made the transition from Capitol Hill to the cannabis market. But he is a rare example of a politician who actually embraced enacting marijuana policy changes while he was in power before standing to profit from the industry. The congressman cosponsored a variety of bills—including ones to shield states that legalize cannabis from federal interference—and supported several reform amendments.

“I’m looking forward to utilizing my 15+ years of service in government, the legal profession, and my familiarity with cannabis policy to be a strategic resource for RWB as it positions itself as a true market leading house of brands in the permitted U.S. marketplace,” Costello said in a press release.

This breaks with a trend that has increasingly frustrated advocates, where it seems the people most inclined to benefit from legalization are those who stood in the way in Congress. The best-known example of that is former GOP House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who’s faced criticism from activists over his anti-legalization record while in office before joining the board of marijuana company Acreage Holdings.

While Costello left Congress in 2019 prior to the historic House vote on a standalone bill to federally deschedule cannabis, there are plenty of examples of him supporting more modest reform proposals during his congressional tenure.

He was a cosponsor of legislation to protect state marijuana markets from federal intervention, promote cannabis research, support military veterans’ access to medical marijuana, protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses and legalize industrial hemp.

The congressman also voted in favor of floor amendments to shield all state marijuana programs from Justice Department intervention, allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical cannabis and end hemp prohibition.

In that respect, he was a rare GOP lawmaker. While the issue is increasingly bipartisan among the public, that hasn’t been reflected in Congress. And now Costello is in a position to leverage his legislative experience to advance a marijuana business’s interests.

It’s an exception to the trend.

For example, Tom Price, the former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) head under President Donald Trump, is serving as a member of the board of directors for a medical marijuana business in Georgia after he refused to take action to reclassify cannabis under federal law when he had the power to do so. Price consistently voted against marijuana reform measures while serving in Congress.

Former Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), who also has a long track record of opposing marijuana legalization efforts, joined a Canadian cannabis company’s board in 2019.

Earlier this month, a New York-based lobbying firm that’s headed by a former Republican U.S. senator announced that it is launching a practice focused on serving cannabis businesses. That former senator, Alfonse D’Amato, racked up a record of supporting the war on drugs while in office.

There is at least one other former GOP congressman who entered the cannabis space with a legislative record supporting marijuana reform. Former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who championed cannabis reform while in Congress, became an advisory board member for a marijuana company after being voted out of office in 2018.

Separately, President Joe Biden’s pick to head up federal drug policy worked for a major marijuana business last year, according to his financial disclosure reports.

California Activists Cleared To Collect Signatures For Psilocybin Legalization Ballot Initiative

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