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.
Marijuana Legalization Could Curb Opioid Crisis In West Virginia, Governor Says
If West Virginia lawmakers send a bill to legalize marijuana to his desk, he will sign it, Gov. Jim Justice (R) said on Tuesday.
While he might not be personally in favor of adult-use legalization, he said in response to a question during a town hall event that he’s heard from members of the medical community who feel that regulating cannabis sales could actually reduce “drug-type problems” like the opioid overdose epidemic, which has hit his state especially hard.
“I’ll just tell it like it is, I’m not educated enough to make a really good assessment as of yet,” he said. “But I can tell you just this: I do believe that that is coming, and the wave is coming across all of our states, and as that wave comes, if our House Republicans and Democrats and Senate Republicans and Democrats would get behind that effort from a standpoint of legalization of recreational marijuana and they would be supportive of that, I would too.”
Watch the governor respond to the marijuana legalization question below:
The governor’s point about the broad public health impacts of legalization is substantiated in a growing body of scientific literature that’s found that increasing legal access to cannabis—which has been shown to effectively treat conditions such as chronic pain with minimal side effects—leads to fewer opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths.
Tuesday’s town hall wasn’t specifically about marijuana, however; rather, it centered on the state’s push to eliminate the income tax. On that note, House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa (R) recently circulated an internal poll among Republican lawmakers, inquiring about what kind of policies—including marijuana legalization—they’d be willing to support to make up revenue for the state as part of the plan to gut the income tax.
When asked about legalization as a means to raise tax revenue that could theoretically be used to get ride of the income tax, Justice said he’s principally opposed to broad reform but “I’m weakening on that position” because while his instinct is to reject regulating marijuana amid the state’s drug crisis, the medical community has shifted his perspective.
Experts “tell me that really and truly the legalizing of marijuana in certain areas or certain states that have that, from a recreational standpoint, have lowered their drug-type problems,” he said.
“If we could bucket the proceeds [from cannabis tax revenue] and use them in a way, just like this personal income tax reduction…in a really beneficial way for all our people,” he would be supportive of that.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 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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West Virginia approved medical cannabis legalization in 2017, which Justice signed into law, and patients were just recently approved to start registering for the program. That said, the state must still partner with a testing laboratory before marijuana products are made available.
Two Democratic candidates who lost their bids for West Virginia House seats last year had pledged to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana in the state if they were elected.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Mississippi House Replaces Senate’s Alternate Medical Marijuana Program With What Voters Originally Approved
“The people have spoken, with a constitutional amendment about medical marijuana, and that bill went against the spirit of what the people decided.”
By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today
A House panel on Tuesday gutted a Senate medical marijuana proposal and inserted the medical marijuana language voters passed as a constitutional amendment in November.
“I’m interested in seeing that bill die—I think it just did die,” said Rep. Robert Johnson III, House minority leader. “The people have spoken, with a constitutional amendment about medical marijuana, and that bill went against the spirit of what the people decided.”
Johnson made those statements about Senate Bill 2765 on Tuesday afternoon, when it appeared the bill had died, with no Ways and Means Committee meeting called on the floor for the afternoon to take the bill up. Later, Ways and Means had a meeting and took the bill up, then struck the Senate language and inserted Initiative 65. It now goes to the full House and if passed, back to the Senate in its amended form.
Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, who helped lead, and fund, the successful citizen initiative to enshrine medical marijuana use in the state constitution, offered the amendment to replace the Senate bill language with Initiative 65’s language.
Senate Bill 2765 was originally a legislative alternative to the medical marijuana program voters overwhelmingly approved in November with Ballot Initiative 65, which is now being challenged in the state Supreme Court. The bill passed the Senate only after much wrangling and a “do-over” vote in the wee hours of the morning in mid-February. It was initially drafted to create its own medical marijuana program, regardless of whether the court upholds the voter-passed program. But it was amended during heated Senate debate to take effect only if the courts strike down the voter-passed program.
The legislative move had many Initiative 65 supporters crying foul, claiming the Legislature was trying to usurp the will of the voters. After lawmakers failed for years to approve use of medical marijuana despite a groundswell of public support, voters took matters in hand in November with Initiative 65.
Jessica Rice, director of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association was among many watching the legislative alternative marijuana bill with skepticism and trepidation. She questioned whether lawmakers were truly trying to provide a backstop in case courts strike down Initiative 65. If so, she said, they would codify Initiative 65 — as the House panel did — not come up with a proposal with higher taxes and more or different regulations as in the Senate version.
“Our position is that the people have already had an option to vote on a legislative created program, and they chose not to,” Rice said last week. “Just because this is up before the Supreme Court does not give the Legislature a second bite at the apple … I think this is about control — they want to be able to be in control of the program, but people have already rejected that.”
But many state leaders and lawmakers had lamented that Initiative 65 was drafted to favor the marijuana industry and is just short of legalized recreational use. It puts the Mississippi State Department of Health in charge of the program, with no oversight by elected officials. It also prevents standard taxation of the marijuana, and any fees collected by the health department can only be used to run and expand the marijuana program, not go into state taxpayer coffers. The measure allows little regulation by local governments, no limits on the number of dispensaries and otherwise leaves many specifics … unspecified.
The Senate proposal would have taxed medical marijuana, with a 4 percent excise at cultivation, and with a 7 percent sales tax patients would pay, which was originally 10 percent in earlier drafts of the bill. Most of the taxes collected would have gone to education, including early learning and college scholarships. And the Departments of Agriculture and Revenue would be in charge.
The bill also would have imposed large licensing fees on growers and dispensary shop owners. Originally, those fees would have been $100,000 for growers and $20,000 for dispensaries. Those were reduced to $15,000 and $5,000, respectively, on Thursday night. Other changes were made in an effort to assuage those who believed such fees would keep small businesses and farms out of the game.
The bill barely gained the three-fifths vote it needed to pass the Senate. It faced a Tuesday deadline for the Ways and Means Committee to pass it on to the full House. Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar had said late Tuesday he was still undecided on what to do with the bill.
He noted the Ways and Means meeting late Tuesday was not announced on the House floor, as is standard procedure.
“No, it wasn’t announced,” Lamar said. “We just added it to the schedule. I know that’s not the usual way we do it, but I wasn’t there to announce it on the floor.”
This left many believing the bill had died on deadline without a vote Tuesday—apparently, including House Speaker Philip Gunn.
Gunn said: “The issue, or the challenge here is that the people voted on it in November, and they spoke pretty strongly… I know there is a lawsuit, but that can be dealt with later if we need to. If the Supreme Court throws out that vote, then the Legislature can come back and deal with it. If they uphold it, well then I don’t know what the Legislature would have to do with it then.”
Mexican Lawmakers To Vote On Marijuana Legalization Next Week
A long-awaited floor vote on a proposal to legalize marijuana in Mexico is being scheduled in the Chamber of Deputies for next week, a move that comes months after the Senate approved the reform.
That said, lawmakers say there is still no formal revised bill for deputies to take up, and it will have to move through the committee process before being potentially returned to the Senate.
Martha Tagle Martínez, a member of the chamber’s Health Committee, said on Tuesday that several groups have reached out to her after receiving what appeared to be a draft legislation to regulate cannabis. She clarified that “there is still no formal or definitive document.”
The Political Coordination Board, which is established by party leaders to reach consensus on legislative issues, has set floor action for March 9. “But there is still no draft opinion,” Martínez said. When there is a bill, it will go to the Health and Justice Committees.
Adicionalmente, la JUCOPO de la @Mx_Diputados ha programado tener la discusión sobre la minuta del senado en materia de #Cannabis para el próximo 9 de marzo, pero aún no hay proyecto de dictamen. Cuando éste circule se deberá convocar a las comisiones unidas de salud y justicia.
— Martha Tagle (@MarthaTagle) March 2, 2021
Those panels will “analyze, discuss, modify and approve the draft opinion” before sending it to the floor.
While it remains to be seen what changes will be made from the Senate version, Martínez said that the current bill as approved in the other chamber does not fulfill the requirements of the Supreme Court, which deemed the prohibition on personal possession and cultivation of marijuana unconstitutional in a 2018 ruling. Lawmakers have since been tasked with ending criminalization, but they’ve repeatedly pushed back deadlines to enact the policy change.
Hasta ahora, ni la minuta del senado, ni observaciones hechas por el gobierno, atienden la resolución de la @SCJN para garantizar los DDHH y el libre desarrollo de la personalidad de usuarios de #Cannabis.
Es nuestra responsabilidad de @Mx_Diputados centrar la discusión en ello.
— Martha Tagle (@MarthaTagle) March 2, 2021
Now the legislature has until the end of April to legalize cannabis nationwide, and it seems next week’s action will set the stage for Congress to make good on its obligation.
In the meantime, the Health Committee already held a preliminary discussion on the issue last month.
EN VIVO / Reunión de Junta Directiva de la Comisión de Salud https://t.co/fToNXQd19B
— Cámara de Diputados (@Mx_Diputados) February 24, 2021
Members of the panel said they wanted to hold four sessions to debate the legislation, but its president, Carmen Medel Palma, has yet to convene them and wants to speed up the process, La Jornada reported.
The Justice Committee also met to discuss the matter on Sunday, according to the group Cáñamo México.
Estimadxs integrantes de la Comisión de @Justicia_Dip, ¿serían tan amables de informarnos lo sucedido en su Reunión Extraordinaria de la Junta Directiva sobre la dictaminación de la Ley Federal para la Regulación del Cannabis sucedida hoy a las 17 horas? @Mx_Diputados #Cannabis
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) March 2, 2021
The two panels were initially expected to send a revised legalization proposal to the floor last month, but that didn’t happen.
➡️ Informa la presidenta de la Comisión de Salud que se prevé que esta semana se convoque a reunión de comisiones unidas para discutir y votar el dictamen a la minuta en materia de regulación de cannabis. https://t.co/2mBuGsv3kj
— Cámara de Diputados (@Mx_Diputados) February 23, 2021
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, for his part, said in December that a vote on legalization legislation was delayed due to minor “mistakes” in the proposal.
He said “there was no time to conduct a review” in the legislature before the prior December 15 Supreme Court deadline, but he noted that issues that need to be resolved are “matters of form” and “not of substance.”
The Senate passed the legalization bill in November and transmitted it to the Chamber of Deputies. Several committees took up the bill, with the Human Rights and Budget and Public Account Committees representing one panel that considered and advanced it just before the the court granted lawmakers’ latest deadline extension request.
While advocates are eager for lawmakers to formally end prohibition, they hoped the delay would give them more time to try to convince the legislature to address their concerns about certain provisions of the current bill, namely the limited nature of its social equity components and strict penalties for violating rules.
In response to unofficial drafts of the legalization measure that were obtained by advocacy groups, Regulación Por La Paz said the proposals “give way to a regulation designed as a way for the great national and international capital, at the cost of the criminalization of users” and that the draft legislation “prioritizes the interests of the industry over rights and needs of the Mexican citizenship.”
⚠ #Comunicado ⚠
Desde #RegulaciónPorLaPaz vemos con preocupación el rumbo que está tomando la discusión en torno a la regulación de #cannabis en la @Mx_Diputados debido a que prioriza los intereses de la industria por encima de los derechos y necesidades de la ciudadanía. pic.twitter.com/zSy3phdNMr
— Regulación Por La Paz (@regulacionxpaz) February 24, 2021
“The worst they propose [is] a registry for self cultivators,” Mariana Sevilla of Regulación Por La Paz told Marijuana Moment, adding that she also concerned about the inclusion of vertical integration for cannabis businesses.
Activists also want to increase the percentage of licenses granted to people harmed by prohibition.
“To avoid the formation of corporate oligopolies and promote a horizontal and inclusive market that encourages dignified participation and fair conditions for communities in vulnerable situations, it is essential to incorporate a perspective of social justice,” Zara Snapp of the Instituto RIA and #RegulacionPorLaPaz wrote in an op-ed coauthored by ReverdeSer Colectivo Coordinator Amaya Ordorika Imaz.
The legalization bill cleared a joint group of Senate committees prior to the full floor vote in that chamber, with some amendments being made after members informally considered and debated the proposal during a virtual hearing.
Members of the Senate’s Justice, Health, and Legislative Studies Committees had approved a prior version of legal cannabis legislation last March, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed consideration of the issue.
In general, the Senate bill would establish a regulated cannabis market, allowing adults 18 and older to purchase and possess up to 28 grams of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
The legislation makes some attempts to mitigate the influence of large marijuana corporations. For example, it states that for the first five years after implementation, at least 40 percent of cannabis business licenses must be granted to those from indigenous, low-income or historically marginalized communities.
The Mexican Institute of Cannabis would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing licenses.
Public consumption of marijuana would be allowed, except in places where tobacco use is prohibited or at mass gatherings where people under 18 could be exposed.
Households where more than one adult lives would be limited to cultivating a maximum of eight plants. The legislation also says people “should not” consume cannabis in homes where there are underaged individuals. Possession of more than 28 grams but fewer than 200 grams would be considered an infraction punishable by a fine but no jail time.
Sen. Julio Ramón Menchaca Salazar of the MORENA party said in April that legalizing cannabis could fill treasury coffers at a time when the economy is recovering from the pandemic.
As lawmakers work to advance the reform legislation, there’s been a more lighthearted push to focus attention on the issue by certain members and activists. That push has mostly involved planting and gifting marijuana.
In September, a top administration official was gifted a cannabis plant by senator on the Senate floor, and she said she’d be making it a part of her personal garden.
A different lawmaker gave the same official, Interior Ministry Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero, a marijuana joint on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies in 2019.
Cannabis made another appearance in the legislature in August, when Sen. Jesusa Rodríguez of the MORENA party decorated her desk with a marijuana plant.
Drug policy reform advocates have also been cultivating hundreds of marijuana plants in front of the Senate, putting pressure on legislators to make good on their pledge to advance legalization.