A former GOP congressman who consistently blocked marijuana reform efforts for years before losing a reelection battle in 2018 is running for Congress again, this time in a more conservative Texas district.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) announced on Thursday that he’s moving to Waco and running for a seat currently occupied by retiring Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX). This comes almost one year after Sessions was defeated by Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX) in his Dallas district. Allred was a civil rights attorney and former NFL player who supports medical cannabis and decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.
It’s safe to say that Sessions’s new campaign isn’t going to win a lot of favor with cannabis reform advocates.
The former congressman served as chair of the House Rules Committee, an influential panel where he was essentially able to singlehandedly prevent even the most modest marijuana reform measures from advancing to the floor. He blocked legislation that would allow banks to service cannabis businesses, protect state marijuana laws from federal intervention and expand military veterans’ access to medical cannabis, for example.
During the last two-year Congress alone, Sessions’s panel prevented more than three dozen marijuana-related measures from being considered by the full body for up-or-down votes.
“Texans said no to Pete Sessions already,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Being a carpetbagger in a neighboring district is going to be an anchor on his candidacy that will hopefully keep him far, far away from the halls of Congress.”
When Sessions lost last year as part of a wave of Republican defeats in the House, giving control to Democrats, the gears quickly shifted on cannabis.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) took Sessions’s place as Rules chair, promising early on to allow reform measures to reach the floor. Multiple reform amendments attached to spending bills have been cleared through his panel on the way to the floor, including a historic measure preventing the Justice Department from going after any state cannabis program, not just medical ones. He didn’t put up a fight over bipartisan marijuana banking legislation that passed in the House last month, either, and voted for it on the floor.
The Democratic chairman is also a cosponsor of four pieces of legislation to federally deschedule marijuana.
In contrast, Sessions seems to have a personal animus towards cannabis.
“I, as probably everybody in this rooms knows, have a strong opinion on drugs, illegal drugs, alcohol,” he said just before blocking one measure to prevent federal intervention in state cannabis laws last year. “Marijuana is an addictive product, and the merchants of addiction make it that way. They make it for addiction. They make it to where our people, our young people, become addicted to marijuana and keep going.”
Separately, Sessions claimed that cannabis is now more potent than it was when he was a young man—by a mathematically impossible factor.
“When I went to high school…in 1973, I graduated, marijuana, on average, is 300 times more powerful,” he said. “That becomes an addictive element for a child to then go to the next thing.”
In advance of last year’s election, a political action committee controlled by pro-legalization Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) paid for billboards in Sessions’s district highlighting his opposition to medical marijuana.
Late last year, however, a group of mothers of children who use medical cannabis met with Sessions, telling Marijuana Moment afterwards that he seemed “gracious” and “very receptive” to their concerns.
For Sessions to mount a successful bid for a new seat in Congress, he’s going to have to convince more than reform advocates that he’s qualified to represent them. Flores, the incumbent GOP congressman whose seat Sessions wants, told The Texas Tribune that “conservative leaders and community leaders in the district who are aware of Pete’s intentions have told me they would prefer someone who currently lives, works, and serves in our communities.”
“They strongly believe that we have ample talent here to serve as their next congressman or congresswoman,” he said.
Of course, even if Sessions were to win next year and return to the House, there’s no guarantee he’d go back to helming a congressional cannabis blockade in the Rules Committee. First, Republicans would have to regain a majority in the chamber in order for him to have a shot of taking up the gavel again. And second, there’s nothing that would require Republican leadership to reinstate Sessions back to his position on the panel even if he were elected as part of a new GOP majority.
Congressional Bill Requires Legal Marijuana States To Consider Impaired Driving Policies
Democratic leadership in a House committee introduced a bill on Wednesday that includes a provision requiring legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider ways to promote education about the dangers of cannabis-impaired driving while curbing such behavior.
The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee filed the legislation, which is also being cosponsored by several chairs of subcommittees under the panel. While the main thrust of the INVEST in America Act is aimed at promoting the completion of various long-term infrastructure projects, it also features language concerning cannabis policy.
Under the bill, a section of current law requiring that states establish highway safety programs would be amended to add a section stipulating that states “which have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana shall consider programs in addition to the programs…to educate drivers on the risks associated with marijuana-impaired driving and to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from individuals driving motor vehicles while impaired by marijuana.”
Reform advocates support measures to reduce impaired driving, but there may be some who take issue with the provision given the implication that legalizing marijuana increases the risk of people driving while impaired. Research isn’t settled on that subject.
A congressional research body said in a report last year that concerns expressed by lawmakers that cannabis legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.
Beside that contention, the legislation seems to neglect to take into account that cannabis-impaired driving isn’t exclusive to legal states and that public education could be beneficial across all states regardless of their individual marijuana policies.
“It is somewhat absurd to draw a differentiation between states when it comes to the current legal status, because it is entirely feasible that every state will be legalized by the end of this decade,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “And regardless, I have heard rumors that some Texans consume cannabis despite its prohibited status.”
Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said in a press release that the overall bill “is our opportunity to replace the outdated systems of the past with smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure that fits the economy of the future, creates millions of jobs, supports American manufacturing, and restores U.S. competitiveness.”
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) are also sponsoring the legislation, which is scheduled for a full committee vote on June 17.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Touts Legal Marijuana’s Economic Potential At Revenue Meeting
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.”
“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.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Virginia Governor Says Marijuana Decriminalization Partly Addresses Racial Inequity Inspiring Mass Protests
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.