Voters in two states chose new governors on Tuesday. Both of those elections — as well as the results of a number of local races across the country — will have huge implications for efforts to legalize marijuana.
Here’s an overview of cannabis-specific ballot measures that voters approved, along with details on how the Democratic gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia will boost marijuana reform campaigns in those states.
New Jersey Governor-Elect Phil Murphy
Phil Murphy, the incoming governor, campaigned on marijuana legalization.
“The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana,” he said during his primary night victory speech. “And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just.”
This summer he tweeted, “NJ’s marijuana laws cost $143M/yr & come w a 3:1 racial disparity in arrests.”
With Murphy replacing vocal cannabis opponent Chris Christie (R) as governor, New Jersey is poised to potentially become the first state to allow legal recreational marijuana sales with an act of its legislature, as opposed to by voters through a ballot measure.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) is “committed” to bringing up a legalization bill early in 2018. “We are going to have a new governor in January 2018,” he said. “As soon as the governor gets situated we are all here and we intend to move quickly on it.”
Virginia Governor-Elect Ralph Northam
Ralph Northam, who just got a raise from lieutenant governor to the state’s top job, made marijuana decriminalization a centerpiece of his campaign, often putting the issue in stark racial justice terms.
“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana,” he wrote in a blog post. “African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”
Northam also sent a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission, which is conducting a review of the effects of potential decriminalization. “Virginia spends $67 million on marijuana enforcement – enough to open up another 13,000 pre-K spots for children,” he wrote. “African Americans are nearly 3 times as likely to get arrested for simple possession of marijuana and sentencing guidelines that include jail time can all too often begin a dangerous cycle of recidivism.”
GOP Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment has already announced he will introduce legislation next year to decriminalize first-time marijuana possession offenses.
Also on Tuesday, Democrats picked up a large number of seats in the House of Delegates, which likely bodes well for Northam’s efforts to pass cannabis reform bills. Still-pending results in a handful of House of Delegates races could flip the chamber to Democratic control altogether.
Northam has also spoken in favor of expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis law and allowing industrial hemp.
Athens, Ohio, Marijuana Ordinance
Voters in the college town overwhelmingly approved a measure to completely eliminate fines and court costs for possessing and cultivating up to 200 grams of marijuana, a move that advocates believe will significantly disincentivize police from making low-level cannabis arrests. The result was 77 percent to 23 percent.
Last year, similar depenalization measures were passed in several other Ohio cities. Together, the results increase pressure on state lawmakers to more seriously consider further reform’s to overarching marijuana prohibition laws following last year’s passage of medical cannabis legislation.
Philadelphia District Attorney
Lawrence Krasner, the incoming top prosecutor, is a vocal criminal justice reform advocate who has made bold statements about cannabis enforcement.
“One of the things we see in other jurisdictions is that, where marijuana is readily available, there’s a 25 percent reduction in opiate/opioid overdose deaths,” he said this year. “So if Philadelphia is looking at 500 opiate/opioid overdose deaths a year, a district attorney, by choosing not to enforce against marijuana usage, can potentially save 125 lives. That’s what a district attorney should exercise his or her discretion to do.”
Detroit Medical Cannabis Propositions
Voters in Wayne County strongly approved two ballot measures that will allow medical cannabis business to operate in more areas and to stay open longer.
Advocates appear likely to place a full marijuana legalization measure on Michigan’s 2018 statewide ballot, and Detroit’s strong show of support for cannabis commerce bodes well for that broader effort.
New York Constitutional Convention Proposal
Voters resoundingly rejected a ballot proposition to convene a constitutional convention that some advocates hoped would provide a pathway toward marijuana legalization. Others remained skeptical of the multi-step plan to first pass the proposition and then elect anti-prohibition delegates in 2018, lobby the convention to approve a cannabis amendment and then ask voters to pass that on the ballot.
Now, advocates will focus their efforts on convincing the state legislature to pass legislation legalizing marijuana.
Look Ahead To 2018
Overall, Tuesday’s election results were extremely positive for marijuana reformers.
Next year, advocates are likely to qualify medical cannabis ballot measure in at least three states — Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah. Meanwhile, Michigan voters will probably decide on a full marijuana legalization measure.
And Murphy’s New Jersey will race Vermont and a handful of other states to become the first to end cannabis prohibition through legislators’ actions.
For now, it’s clear that marijuana just won the election.
Voters In Key Congressional Districts Support Marijuana Legalization, Poll Says
With many key congressional races rated as “toss ups” by political observers, either major party could end up controlling of the U.S. House of Representatives after this November’s midterm elections.
A new poll identifies one thing that can help Republican or Democratic candidates come out ahead: Embracing marijuana legalization.
The polling firm Lake Research Partners surveyed 800 likely 2018 general election voters in 60 so-called “battleground districts,” finding that 60 percent support ending cannabis prohibition. Only 36 percent are opposed.
Medical marijuana is even more popular, with 79 percent of voters in these swing districts on board.
More to the point for politicians looking to win elections, the survey showed that 44 percent of battleground voters say they would be more more likely to vote for a candidate who supports legalization, including 26 percent who say they would be “much” more likely. Only 33 percent said they would be less likely to back a pro-legalization candidate.
The survey was conducted in February but is being released on Tuesday at Washington, D.C. event sponsored by MedMen Enterprises, a cannabis dispensary chain that commissioned the poll.
Another key finding is that 55 percent of voters say they would be “more likely” to vote if a marijuana initiative was on the ballot in their state.
The survey also tested the effectiveness of various arguments concerning legalization, determining that “the strongest pro-legalization message frame highlights how we need legalization to repair the financial and moral damage of the failed war on drugs,” according to a polling memo prepared by the firm.
Several other recent national polls have found majority support for marijuana legalization, but the new results narrowed down to key swing districts are likely to warrant special attention from candidates and political operatives.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Congressional Committee Blocks Marijuana Votes (Again)
Lawmakers on a key congressional committee once again blocked colleagues in the full House from being able to vote on marijuana-related amendments.
One proposed measure, filed last week, would have allowed Washington, D.C. to legally tax and regulate retail marijuana sales and another would have prevented federal regulators from penalizing federal banks from working with businesses and individuals in the legal cannabis industry.
But on Monday evening, the Republican-controlled Rules Committee, led by Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), continued its recent tradition of preventing floor votes on any and all measures to scale back federal cannabis prohibition.
“Everyone who knows that Congress has a responsibility to at least debate these issues should unite and help Pete Sessions find another line of work,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who cosponsored both cannabis measures, told Marijuana Moment in a statement.
Sessions’s Texas district, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, is currently considered a “toss up” by political analysts in this November’s midterm elections.
Before Monday, his panel had blocked at least 34 other cannabis-related amendments from reaching the floor for votes during the current Congress. The full House of Representatives has not been allowed to consider marijuana reform proposals since the spring of 2016.
Bipartisan groups of lawmakers cosponsored both new cannabis measures, which they were seeking to attach to legislation to fund parts of the federal government through Fiscal Year 2019.
(A third marijuana-related measure considered on Monday proposes shifting money away from forest and rangeland research toward “eradicating, enforcing, and remediating illegal marijuana grow operations on National Forest System land.” That measure was cleared for a floor vote, likely sometime this week.)
“Our federal laws are outdated. The people in this country want the law to treat marijuana as we do alcohol,” Congressman Denny Heck (D-WA), said in testimony about his marijuana banking amendment. “These large sums of cash make dispensaries an obvious target for robberies.”
He recounted the story of Travis Mason, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who was killed during a 2016 robbery at a Colorado marijuana dispensary where he was serving as a security guard.
“He managed to survive his service in the United States Marine Corps, but he didn’t survive his job guarding a store here at home,” Heck said.
“If we do nothing, this is bound to happen again.”
— Denny Heck (@RepDennyHeck) July 14, 2018
The D.C. measure was filed by Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia.
“This rider has unintentionally benefited violent drug gangs,” Norton said of current policy in her testimony before the Rules Committee. “For that reason, some refer to it as the ‘Drug Dealer Protection Act.’ As one marijuana dealer told the Washington Post, the rider is ‘a license for me to print money.’ Regulating marijuana like alcohol would allow D.C., instead of drug dealers, to control production, distribution, sales and revenues.”
Under a ballot measure approved by D.C. voters in 2014, low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation is legal. But because of an ongoing federal appropriations rider enacted in past years and included in the new FY19 bill, local officials have been prevented from adding a system of taxed and regulated cannabis sales.
Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO), a member of the Rules Committee, specifically moved during the meeting Monday night to make the amendment on cannabis businesses’ access to banks in order for a floor vote, but that was defeated by a party-line vote of 8 – 2.
Last night the Rules Committee blocked an amendment I cosponsored w/ @RepDennyHeck to protect financial institutions working with legal cannabis businesses. @RepJaredPolis asked for a roll call vote and EVERY Republican present voted no. What are they afraid of? Let us vote! pic.twitter.com/YDmnousHki
— Dina Titus (@repdinatitus) July 17, 2018
The marijuana banking measure had 22 cosponsors, more than any of the 276 other measures the Rules Committee considered this week. Eighty-seven amendments were cleared for floor consideration.
Sen. Jeff Merkley “Disappointed” That Democrats Blocked His Marijuana Banking Amendment
One of the U.S. Senate’s foremost champions for marijuana law reform says he is “disappointed” that fellow Democrats recently joined with Republicans in blocking his amendment to increase cannabis businesses’ access to banks.
Last month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) offered a measure that would have shielded banks that open accounts for state-legal marijuana businesses from being punished by federal regulators for that activity even though cannabis remains illegal under federal law.
While the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved two similar amendments in previous years, the panel this time voted to table the measure with a bipartisan vote of 21 – 10, with ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and other Democrats who normally support marijuana reform objecting on procedural grounds.
“I was disappointed,” Merkley said in an interview with BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith on Monday. “We had passed this twice before.”
“We need to establish banking for cannabis because a cash economy is an invitation to money laundering and theft and cheating your employees and cheating on your taxes [and] organized crime. All bad.”
“I accompanied the owner of a company who had $70,000 in his backpack to pay quarterly taxes,” Merkley recounted in response to the cannabis banking question on Monday, which was suggested to BuzzFeed by Marijuana Moment’s editor. “It’s so bizarre going down the freeway and talking about how they have to pay their employees in cash, have to pay their suppliers in cash. It’s a bad system.”
“Everyone should agree: States’ rights on this. Let the states have an electronic system to track what these businesses are doing, not billions of dollars floating around like this.”
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) July 16, 2018
Despite his disappointment with the measure being blocked, the Oregon Democrat, who is believed to be considering a 2020 presidential run, said that his colleagues “had a fair point to make on the policy front” in tabling the measure.
At the time, Leahy argued that spending bills such as the one before the committee should be kept “free of new controversial policy riders” and that a more appropriate forum would be an authorizing committee that sets banking laws.
“It wasn’t existing policy and therefore it was new policy,” Merkley acknowledged in the new interview.
But he pointed out that there are few other avenues available for senators to pursue the issue.
“Here’s the thing. Normally we could take these policy bills like I was putting forward [and] you could put it on the floor of the Senate as an amendment to something,” he said. “In 2017, outside of the budget process, not a single amendment was considered on the floor of the Senate… This is the end of the Senate really as a deliberative body on policy. So if you’re blocked in the Appropriations Committee, and you’re blocked on the floor, then it’s very hard to put ideas out there and say, ‘Hey vote on this. This matters.'”
The House Appropriations Committee also defeated a cannabis banking amendment last month.
See the video of Merkley’s remarks at about 19:15 into the clip below:
— AM to DM by BuzzFeed News (@AM2DM) July 16, 2018
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.