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Marijuana Legalization Bill Moves Forward In U.S. Territory

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About a week after a U.S. territory hit a snag on the road to full marijuana legalization, a committee made several revisions to the bill that are expected to clear the path to passage.

Lawmakers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) seemed set to put a legalization bill to a full House of Representatives vote on June 12, but the bill was unexpectedly sent back to the chamber’s Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations (JGO).

That same committee previously unanimously approved the legislation in May. It also passed in the territory’s full Senate that month.

Upon referral, the committee made a number of revisions, including the removal of licensing fees for statutory reasons and the addition of a policy that bans regulatory commissioners from participating in the program if they’ve been convicted of a crime within the last 15 years, legalization advocate Gerry Palacios  of Sensible CNMI told Marijuana Moment. Because two sections regarding cannabis use and sales for individuals under 21 contradicted each other, one was struck from the legislation.

CNMI Marijuana Legalization Bill by MarijuanaMoment on Scribd

One question still needs to be resolved by lawmakers: the JGO recommended a recess until July 2 in order to clear up whether fines levied against individuals who violate the law would be counted as “revenue generators.” If the commission determines that these fines are not a part of the revenue stream, the fines provision will remain in the bill. (Revenue generation legislation is supposed to originate in the House — and not the Senate, where the legalization bill was first filed.)

Another change the committee made to the bill on Thursday would speed up the timeline for implementing legalization. The JGO amended the legislation to require that the CNMI Cannabis Commission would be created within 30 days of the passage of the bill instead of 90 days.

“These changes were made for clarification and constitutional purposes for speedy passage of the bill,” Palacios said. “The goal is to keep the intent and integrity of the bill intact while at the same time addressing issues on interpretation of its language.”

“Once the JGO convenes on July 2 after clarification on [the] ‘fines’ issue, they will move to adopt and push for full House review.”

So that’s where the state of cannabis legalization in the U.S. jurisdiction stands. Advocates tell Marijuana Moment that the Senate is likely to OK the changes recommended by the committee, but it’s unclear when a full House vote will take place at this point. If the bill ultimately passes, CNMI will be the first U.S. territory to fully legalize without a preexisting medical cannabis system in place.

“The Senate will have no problem with these changes as long as the bill’s integrity and intent are kept.”

That said, the territory’s governor, Ralph Torres, expressed concerns earlier this month about the potential impact of legalization on public health and crime.

“In the nine states that have legalized marijuana, have we seen an increase in crime?,” he asked, according to Marianas Variety. “If there is, what is the nature of these crimes? We should look at this and other things. I am concerned about public safety issues.”

Here’s what the bill would accomplish

  • Adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess, grow and consume cannabis.
  • CNMI would establish a regulatory system to produce, process and manage retail sales of marijuana.
  • Tax revenue from marijuana sales would go toward funding the regulatory system and other government services.

U.S. Territories Could Legalize Marijuana Soon

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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

Politics

U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Touts Legal Marijuana’s Economic Potential At Revenue Meeting

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The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on Tuesday again stressed the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who unveiled a revised legalization bill last month and pushed legislators to promptly take it up, discussed the projected economic impact of the policy change at a revenue conference.

During the virtual meeting, he pulled up a spreadsheet that breaks down estimates for annual cannabis sales from residents and tourists, as well as potential revenue from taxes and fees.

Cruise passengers and non-resident hotel guests will make approximately $43 million in annual marijuana purchases, the estimate from an independent firm states. Residents, meanwhile, are projected to spend about $38 million on cannabis each year.

“This doesn’t include what we would call the second and third turns in the economy in term of products being bought like lamps and fertilizer, jobs being created, dispensary jobs. None of that,” the governor said.

Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization’s economic impact, starting around 3:10:35 into the video below:

In terms of revenue, the territory can expect to take in about $11 million annually from tourists, who will be taxed at 25 percent for marijuana products. Residents, who will be taxed at a much lower rate, will contribute about $3 million in taxes. All told, the territory is estimated to generate nearly $18 million in cannabis sales tax revenue per year.

Additionally, the analysis projects that USVI will receive $12.1 million from licensing fees and a cultivation tax. Point of sale permits for cruises and hotels will bring in another $3.6 million.

It all adds up to “a $33 million deposit in our treasury due to cannabis sales,” Bryan said, characterizing the projections as conservative estimates.

The governor said he wanted to highlight these figures to conference attendees “to show you quickly what this could mean to the territory should we have this enacted and we go to work.”

Via WTJX Virgin Islands Public Broadcasting System.

“Of course, it’s going to take some work to get this done,” he said. “But we need to get this measure done as quickly as possible in order to start impacting our economy in a very positive way.”

Bryan has previously said that beyond helping to offset some of the financial damage that COVID-19 outbreak has created, establishing a legal cannabis market would provide funding for the territory’s retirement system for government employees.

After he first proposed the policy change and directed the legislature to take up the issue in a special session late last year, several legislators voiced opposition to specifics of the proposal.

Some questioned the notion that tax revenue from cannabis sales could make up for the significant deficits running within the retirement program, while others argued that the legislation as drafted did not adequately address social equity. Another issue that arose concerned licensing, with lawmakers worried that small businesses on the island would be left out.

The governor’s revised marijuana legalization bill, which has been transmitted to the Senate for action, would ban home cultivation for recreational consumers, allow cultivation for medical cannabis patients, increase the number of members of the government’s Cannabis Advisory Board and limit non-residents to purchasing up to seven grams of flower per day while residents could buy up to an ounce.

There would be no tax on cannabis sales for medical patients, a 7.5 percent tax for residents and a 25 percent tax for non-residents.

In order to own a marijuana business, an individual must have been a resident of USVI for at least 10 years. For micro-cultivator business, the threshold is five years of residency.

A special “cannabis fund” would be established under the proposed legislation, with 20 percent of marijuana tax revenue being allocated to fund the Office of Cannabis Regulations, a cannabis testing program, job training, substance misuse treatment and grant programs for business incubation and micro-lending.

The bill also provides for automatic expungements for prior marijuana possession convictions, encourages research into the benefits of cannabis and recognizes the rights of individuals who wish to use or grow the plant for religious purposes.

Bryan signed the territory’s existing medical cannabis law last year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.

Virginia Governor Says Marijuana Decriminalization Partly Addresses Racial Inequity Inspiring Mass Protests

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Virginia Governor Says Marijuana Decriminalization Partly Addresses Racial Inequity Inspiring Mass Protests

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The governor of Virginia said on Tuesday that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans.

In a speech, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said that while he cannot personally attest to the pain that the black community is grappling with, there are steps lawmakers can take to reform policies that disproportionately harm minorities. That includes removing the threat of jail time for cannabis possession—an offense more likely to be enforced against black people despite comparable rates of use among white people.

“Through 400 years of American history—starting with the enslavement of Africans, through Jim Crow, massive resistance and now mass incarceration—black oppression has always existed in this country, just in different forms,” he said. “I cannot know how it feels to be an African American person right now or what you are going through. I cannot know the depth of your pain. But what I can do is stand with you and I can support you, and together we’re going to turn this pain into action.”

That action has meant “reforming criminal justice,” he said. “It meant decriminalizing marijuana.”

The governor, who faced severe scrutiny last year after he admitted he was in a yearbook photo showing people wearing blackface and dressed as KKK members, also cited expanding access to Medicaid and increasing the threshold for felony larceny as examples of ways the state has addressed racial inequality during his administration.

Northam signed a marijuana decriminalization bill last month and it goes into effect on July 1. Under the legislation, possessing up to one ounce of cannabis will be punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record. Current Virginia law makes simple possession punishable by a maximum $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail and a criminal record.

Later in the Tuesday press conference, Shirley Ginwright, a member of the Virginia African American Advisory Board that Northam established, thanked him specifically for approving the cannabis decriminalization bill.

“So many of our students and our young black men and women were getting caught up in the criminal justice system because of marijuana, something that wasn’t killing them,” she said.

The governor isn’t alone in connecting the outrage over police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to cannabis prohibition enforcement. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.

Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs.

The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.

Berner, a rapper who owns a marijuana dispensary that was looted in Los Angeles over the weekend, also seemed to echo Booker’s sentiment, stating that the damage to his shop to looting pales in comparison to the underlying racial injustices that prompted the protests.

Marijuana Legalization And The Fight For Racial Justice (Op-Ed)

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Meet The Vermont Marijuana Legalization Advocate Running For The Actual Office Of ‘High Bailiff’

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The irony is not lost on Dave Silberman. The Vermont-based drug policy advocate and lawyer who has been working for years to reform the state’s marijuana laws is running for the office of…high bailiff.

No, really. In Vermont, each county elects a high bailiff whose singular responsibility is to arrest the sheriff if they engage in unlawful conduct. Silberman wants to occupy that position in Addison County—and he plans to use it as a platform to advance bold reforms, including legalizing all drugs.

The candidate recently spoke to Marijuana Moment about the need to have a voice challenging the status quo—rather than someone in law enforcement, as is typically the case for high bailiffs—assume the role.

And Silberman, who played a key role in convincing Vermont lawmakers to legalize cannabis possession and home cultivation in 2018 and is now working to get them to add legal sales, also discussed how his background in marijuana advocacy is informing his campaign.

While the coronavirus pandemic has meant he will have to stump remotely for the time being, the would-be high bailiff is set on reaching voters to engage them, as well as legislators, on the importance of ending the war on drugs and taking a public health-focused approach to substance use issues. And he’s convinced based on conversations in liberal and conservative strongholds alike that the message will resonate.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Marijuana Moment: You’ve talked about the need to put someone outside of the law enforcement community in the position of high bailiff. Can you expand on that?

Dave Silberman: The office of high bailiff, really it’s a holdover of our British common-law roots. It’s in the Vermont state Constitution. We’re the only state that still has the office. And the office was created in order to ensure that somebody can hold the sheriff to account—that the sheriff is not lawless. The high bailiff is the only person in each county with technical authority to arrest the sheriffs, and that makes it effectively a police oversight role.

Now, over the last five decades or so, the importance of that has been forgotten, and a tradition has taken root, where the position is typically held by a member of the law enforcement community, either the sheriff’s favorite deputy or his political rival that wants to raise awareness and name recognition ahead of a potential challenge for the sheriff, which is also an elected position. But when the people cede the power of oversights of the law enforcement community to the law enforcement community itself, we lose accountability. And when we lose accountability, we get police abuse.

We see this all the time—we saw it recently in Minnesota, and that’s not the only time we’ve seen it—and we see police abuse in Vermont as well. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that electing a civilian as high bailiff is going to fix this problem, but I can absolutely promise you that electing me as high bailiff will shine a bright, bright light on this problem because I’m a loudmouth and I love talking about this stuff and I want to fix these problems.

MM: How is your background in drug policy reform informing your campaign and how would it inform your role if elected?

DS: My rooting in drug policy reform advocacy, it’s really what drove me to run this campaign. The office itself, I am never going to be called upon to arrest the sheriff—but I will have the opportunity to talk directly with voters. As I campaign both for myself and for legislative offices up ballot and our governor’s election or lieutenant governor’s election, I’m going to be going virtually door-to-door—I wanted to go physically door-to-door, but now I’m going to have to do it by phone and I’m going to have to do it by mailing out to voters—but I intend to speak directly with voters about drug policy reform, criminal justice reform in a way that I think appeals across partisan lines.

When I talk with people, for example, about the need to expand access to expungement, I get stronger positive reactions in traditionally conservative strongholds than I do in liberal strongholds in Addison County.

I organized a series of expungement clinics with our state’s attorney, our local prosecutor—three of them over the last two years. I went around advertising them, putting up flyers in different businesses. And you know, yeah, the natural food co-op was happy to put up a flyer and the local independent bookstore was happy to put up a flyer—but you know who I had the deepest most meaningful conversations with? It was at the bait-and-tackle and at the McDonald’s because people who have had any exposure to the criminal justice system know that, without expungement, people face a lifetime of collateral consequences of their conviction, even after they’ve paid repay their debt to society. They have a lifetime of daily discrimination in housing and education and employment, banking services.

I’ve always found that talking with voters about issues is meaningful, impactful and helps move issues forward. Since then, we’ve reformed Vermont’s expungement laws, and the legislators in Addison County all voted for those reforms because we talked about them and we put them in the public and we put them in the local newspaper. I’ve been going around this county for years talking about marijuana legalization, and we got that done and we got that done through grassroots advocacy. We’re going to get tax-and-regulate [cannabis reform] done this year too I hope in the same way.

I truly believe that we can do this with broader drug policy reform and broader criminal justice reform as well. That’s what drove me to do this campaign because I really found opportunity through talking with voters and driving up the vote up ballot, to build a coalition of voters and legislators willing to actually get these things done, not just talk about them.

MM: I know you mentioned likely not needing to perform the role of arresting the sheriff, but can you talk me through any scenarios where that might be required?

DS: Look, let’s be real. If the sheriff needs to be arrested, most likely it’ll be the result of some federal investigation. Right? He is absconding funds. He’s engaged in some sort of denial of civil rights. And then the FBI would come in and arrest him because it would be on a federal warrant. I should pause and say, I know our current sheriff, Peter Newton. I trust our current sheriff, Peter Newton. Peter Newton is a law-abiding man and I do not want to imply here at all that I worry about Peter Newton breaking the law. But, you know, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have meaningful oversight in place.

I don’t expect to ever have to do it. But if I did—if I were ever to be called upon to execute an arrest warrant against the sheriff—I would do stuff with a somber state of mind. I would, I presume, have the state’s attorney with me and I presume I would have either the Middlebury Police Department captain or somebody from the state police to assist me. That would be that.

Also, if the sheriff became incapacitated—whether through arrest or otherwise—the high bailiff temporarily assumes the powers of the office of the sheriff. As an attorney with a lot of experience working with very large organizations, I feel like I can handle that sort of several-week-long position. I would immediately look into the books and figure out what’s going on. I would continue to run the operations of the department in a steady state until the governor appointed a replacement, which is what Vermont law provides.

MM: What is the big picture plan if you’re elected high bailiff?

DS: This campaign is part of my sort of 10-year plan to legalize all drugs. And that is, you know, crazy sounding right off the bat, but I’m the kind of person who, when he sets his mind to something, just sticks with it and gets it done. I’ve talked with legislators, people in office today, who recognize that the Portugal [decriminalization] model is a better model. I’ve talked to the legislators who have told me that they would love to vote for a bill to decriminalize all drugs and replace our police-first approach to drug problems with a public health approach.

I believe that there is a good base of a coalition in there that can be built upon if somebody is willing to put in the work and make the effort on a consistent basis. I believe there’s over a dozen members of the House of Representatives—that’s about 10 percent of the House—there’s a long way to go, but it can be done. It can only be done if we can demonstrate that it’s popular. And that’s what I intend to do in this campaign—to talk with voters, get grassroots buy-in and pressure more and more politicians to say, you know what, this is not a crazy idea. This is the right way to do this.

We want to solve Vermont’s opioid crisis? We have to stop trying to arrest our way out of it. We have to actually stop trying to arrest our way out of it, not just saying that we’re going to take a public health approach. We need to stop spending $150 million a year on jails in this state. We spend 9.2 percent of the general fund every year on jails. That’s not cops, that’s not prosecutors, that’s not courts— jails. That robs us of the money we need to solve the underlying problems that actually lead to crimes. And it does nothing—does nothing—to ensure greater safety or reduce problematic drug use. If we replaced the police approach to it with an approach that takes a person in crisis and gives them help, we will actually solve this problem, we will actually drive down the overdose death rate in the state and we’ll make people safer and spend less tax money while we’re at it.

MM: You’re literally the pot guy running for high bailiff. Are you going to lean into that? Will marijuana puns be a part of your campaign?

DS: Look, I am not going to discourage anyone from making a high bailiff joke. I think it’s funny. It’s a little bit of a funny position, right? I take it seriously, I take the duties seriously and I take the opportunity very seriously. But I’m willing to reach voters where they are. And you know, engaging people in the political process sometimes means having a little fun and engaging in some levity. I love the pot puns, send them my way.

That’s not going to be a centerpiece of my campaign. You’re not going to see lawn signs with pot leaves on them. But you know, I’m not going to shy away from it either. My rooting in Vermont politics is drug policy reform and I’m proud of that and there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in using cannabis. This stigma—this moral disapproval that we’ve based our drug policy on—means nothing to me.

MM: Do you have plans to use the position of high bailiff as a stepping stone toward running for…higher office down the line?

DS: I’m not in a position in my life today to run for legislative office. I have a kid in high school, I have another kid in sixth grade. It’s just not for me now. I should also say, we have here in Middlebury, two really great state representatives who do good work in the legislature. We have in Addison County, two really great state senators—one of whom is a friend of mine and whose first campaign I didn’t just work on, I was her campaign treasurer when she was elected to office. I am not running this campaign as a marker. I am not running this campaign to threaten anybody for any office. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and say I will never run for any office, but that is not what I’m focusing on. I don’t see me focusing on that kind of office in the near future.

MM: You lived in Hawaii for a time and you’ve been known to sport some vibrant Hawaiian-style shirts in your Vermont town. Will voters get a taste of that on the trail?

DS: If you are the kind of voter who is deciding who to vote for for high bailiffs based on which candidate has the better aloha shirt collection, I guarantee you, I am your man.

Marijuana Legalization And The Fight For Racial Justice (Op-Ed)

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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