Marijuana legalization advocates came into 2019 expecting it to be a huge year for cannabis, and lawmakers around the country are not disappointing them so far.
This month alone, bills to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults have advanced through key committees in at least four states.
Three separate New Mexico House and Senate committees have approved two different legal marijuana bills in recent weeks. One proposal that would create a legal system of licensed private businesses to sell cannabis to adults cleared both the House Health and Human Services and Judiciary Committees. A separate Senate bill that would legalize marijuana but allow it to be sold only in state-run stores was approved by the chamber’s Public Affairs Committee.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) supports legalization and has said she would sign a bill into law as long as it contained adequate protections for public health and safety.
In New Hampshire, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee acted last week to advance a marijuana legalization bill. A floor vote before the full House of Representatives is scheduled for Wednesday.
Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said he would veto any cannabis legalization bill that reaches his desk, but the House speaker believes he has enough votes in his chamber, and perhaps in the Senate as well, to override any veto.
In Hawaii, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to approve a cannabis legalization bill on February 7. Although floor action hasn’t yet been scheduled, the body’s president said in a speech at the start of the legislative session that considering ending marijuana prohibition would be a priority for 2019.
Gov. David Ige (D) isn’t especially supportive of marijuana law reform, however, so advocates aren’t sure that he would sign a full legalization bill if one reaches his desk. That said, lawmakers are also advancing more modest legislation to simply decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis, and supporters are more hopeful the governor would be on board with that reform.
And in Vermont, where lawmakers legalized low-level possession and home cultivation of cannabis last year, the Senate Judiciary, Finance and Appropriations Committees all voted this month to approve a bill to add in a system of legal marijuana sales. A floor vote in the full Senate, which has on several occasions in past sessions already approved similar bills, is expected on Thursday.
Gov. Phil Scott (R), who signed Vermont’s existing noncommercial legalization policy into law, says he is reluctant to go further until the state has better technology to detect impaired driving. But with such strong support in the legislature—where half of the Senate and more than a third of the House have proactively signed on as cosponsors of the bills—a veto override is not out of the question, nor is the notion that Scott could feel sufficient pressure to let the measure go into law without vetoing it in the first place.
While it may end up being the case that not all of these marijuana bills make it to the governors’ desks in their respective states—and might not even be signed into law if they arrive there—the fact that legalization legislation is advancing at all is a sign of cannabis’s ascendance into mainstream American politics.
According to Marijuana Moment’s legislative tracker, state and federal lawmakers are currently considering more than 750 cannabis-related bills for 2019 sessions.
Aside from the far-reaching full legalization proposals, that also includes a number of incremental reforms and tweaks to existing legal marijuana laws, such as bills to allow veterinarians to recommend medical cannabis for animals, expand gun and child custody rights for consumers, mandate that insurance programs cover medical marijuana and authorize social consumption areas and delivery services, for example.
The momentum on the state level comes as cannabis reform seems to be picking up speed in Congress as well.
This month, House Financial Services subcommittee held a hearing on draft legislation to allow marijuana businesses to access banking services, a key concern for the industry as well as policymakers who understand that forcing cannabis providers to operate on a cash-only basis poses risks to public safety.
The financial services legislation, which could clear the congressional panel within the next several weeks, is part of a step-by-step plan that Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) laid out in what he called a “blueprint” for how Congress can end federal marijuana prohibition in 2019.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are even actively embracing cannabis culture, with Blumenauer filing the appropriately numbered H.R. 420 to regulate marijuana like alcohol and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introducing his own cannabis legalization bill, S. 420.
It is likely that continued reform wins at the state level will further embolden federal lawmakers to continue working to chip away at national prohibition, and that a sense of increased momentum in Congress will in turn make local policymakers more comfortable with changing laws in their jurisdictions.
The legalization movement is scoring big victories internationally as well, with, for example, the World Health Organization recommending that marijuana be rescheduled under international treaties and the European Parliament passing a resolution calling for medical cannabis access, both this month.
Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise
2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.
The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
America’s addiction and mental health care crisis has been building for decades—due to decades of neglect by political leaders in Washington. Today, I’m proposing a new approach that tackles this crisis with the urgency and care it deserves. pic.twitter.com/U8F9DXJPC2
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”
The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”
Our country is in the midst of a mental health and addiction crisis, worsened by decades of stigma and political neglect. I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves. https://t.co/spBoh5KH4X
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”
The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”
The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”
Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”
Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”
In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.
“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.
The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.
But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.
In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.
“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”
This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States
Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.
The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.
Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.
Got the answer: He believes it should be left up to the state. However, he does want to educate people on the effect marijuana has on young brain development, pregnant women and wants to come up with better guidance & testing for marijuana while driving. https://t.co/eifryNJB1j
— Kayla Sullivan (@KaylaReporting) August 14, 2019
It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.
Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.
Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”
“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”
Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.
During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”
“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”
He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.