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Marijuana Won Tuesday’s Election

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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.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

Politics

Rand Paul Pushes Marijuana Amendments On Funding Bill

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As Congress works to end a federal government shutdown that began at midnight on Friday, a Republican senator is trying to insert marijuana into the process.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has filed two far-reaching cannabis amendments that he wants to be part of a deal to reopen the government.

One measure would prevent the Justice Department from interfering with state recreational legalization and medical cannabis laws, a big concern in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recent rescission of Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed local marijuana policies to be implemented without federal harassment:

                                ______
                                 
  SA 1910. Mr. PAUL submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by 
him to the bill H.R. 195, to amend title 44, United States Code, to 
restrict the distribution of free printed copies of the Federal 
Register to Members of Congress and other officers and employees of the 
United States, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the 
table; as follows:

       At the appropriate place, insert the following:
       Sec. __.  None of the funds made available by this Act to 
     the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of 
     the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, 
     Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, 
     Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, 
     Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, 
     Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New 
     York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, 
     Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, 
     Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, 
     Wisconsin, and Wyoming, to prevent the State from 
     implementing State laws that authorize the use, distribution, 
     possession, or cultivation of marijuana on non-Federal lands 
     within the respective jurisdiction of the State.
                                 ______

 

Paul’s other amendment concerns the ability of banks to open accounts for marijuana businesses without running afoul of federal regulators:

                                ______
                                 
  SA 1909. Mr. PAUL submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by 
him to the bill H.R. 195, to amend title 44, United States Code, to 
restrict the distribution of free printed copies of the Federal 
Register to Members of Congress and other officers and employees of the 
United States, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the 
table; as follows:

       At the appropriate place, insert the following:
       Sec. __.  None of the funds made available by this Act may 
     be used by the Department of Justice for activities that are 
     not in compliance with the February 14, 2014, Department of 
     Justice memorandum from James M. Cole, Deputy Attorney 
     General, entitled ''Guidance Regarding Marijuana Financial 
     Crimes'', and the memoranda incorporated therein.
                                 ______

 

A top Treasury Department official testified before senators this week that the Trump administration is currently weighing whether to tear up an Obama-era memo on cannabis banking in line with Sessions’s move to rescind the broader Justice Department guidance on state marijuana laws.

Feds Reviewing Marijuana Banking Protections

It is unclear if either of Paul’s amendments will actually be considered and voted on as part of a deal to re-open the federal government following the Friday shutdown.

The lapse in spending legislation has put medical cannabis patients and providers at greater risk because an existing protection preventing the Justice Department from undermining medical marijuana laws has now expired, but drug enforcement has not. Under a federal contingency plan, anti-drug agents and prosecutors are exempt from furlough.

If Congress passes another bill to fund the government, the medical cannabis protections will go back into effect through whatever date to which the legislation continues spending levels. People complying with broader full-scale marijuana legalization laws will remain at risk of federal enforcement actions, however, unless Paul’s relevant amendment is adopted.

Earlier this week, House leaders effectively blocked an amendment to protect state marijuana laws from federal interference from being considered on the floor.

Congress Misses Opportunity To Vote On Marijuana Amendment

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

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Politics

Marijuana Is Safer Than Alcohol, Tobacco Or Sugar, Americans Say In New Poll

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Americans think marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, tobacco or sugar. That’s according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Friday.

When asked in a survey which substance is most harmful to health, 41 percent chose tobacco, 24 percent said alcohol and 21 percent flagged sugar.

Just nine percent believe cannabis is the most dangerous of the four options.

The poll also asked about American’s views on legalizing marijuana in their state, with 60 percent saying they would favor the policy.

When the news organizations polled the same question in 2014, 55 percent were on board.

The new numbers are in line with other recent polls showing growing support for ending cannabis prohibition.

In October, a Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans back legalizing marijuana.

Earlier this month, in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws, three separate national polls found broad opposition to federal interference in local cannabis policies.

On Marijuana, Voters Want Feds To Butt Out Of State Laws, Polls Find

See the full NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll below:

18033 NBCWSJ January Poll (1!19!18 Release) by Carrie Dann on Scribd

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Politics

Government Shutdown Would Let Sessions Attack Medical Marijuana

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The federal government will shut down at midnight on Friday, barring an unexpected, last-minute bipartisan deal. That puts medical marijuana patients and providers at risk of being arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison by Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department.

Here’s why:

Under a shutdown scenario, an existing budget provision that prevents the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other agencies from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws would expire. But federal drug enforcement and prosecution actions, which are exempted from furloughs, would continue.

Why Might The Government Shut Down?

A bill to extend federal funding levels and policy riders like the marijuana one through February 16 was approved by the House on Thursday. But a heated dispute over immigration issues has jeopardized its passage in the Senate, where a significant number of Democrats are refusing to support any bill that does not provide protections to people who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own cannabis laws without federal intervention. That has left recreational marijuana businesses and consumers without a key protection they’ve relied on since 2013, but the ongoing existence of the medical cannabis spending rider has continued to keep patients and providers safeguarded from federal attacks.

Until now.

An unintended consequence of Senate Democrats’ move to block the funding extension bill and shut down the government over immigration issues is that medical marijuana patients and industry operators would be at much greater risk, as soon as this weekend.

Why Would Drug Enforcement Continue Under A Shutdown?

“All agents in DEA field organizations are excepted from furlough because they support active counternarcotics investigations. This encompasses 21 domestic divisions, 7 regional foreign divisions, critical tactical support groups including the El Paso Intelligence Center and the Special Operations Division, forensic sciences, and technical surveillance support,” a Justice Department shutdown contingency plan says. “DEA investigations need to continue uninterrupted so that cases are not compromised and the health and safety of the American public is not placed at risk.”

The same goes for federal prosecutors.

“As Presidential Appointees, U.S. Attorneys are not subject to furlough,” the shutdown document reads. “Excepted employees are needed to address ongoing criminal matters and civil matters of urgency throughout the Nation. Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an excepted activity to maintain the safety of human life and the protection of property.”

Politics Of Marijuana And Immigration Collide

Democrats, especially those considering 2020 presidential bids, are facing enormous pressure from their progressive base not to go along with yet another bill in a series of short-term funding extensions that do not include protections for young immigrants known as “DREAMers.” Because Republicans hold only 51 seats in the chamber, and a handful of GOP members are also opposing the spending resolution, leaders need support from Democrats to reach the critical 60-vote threshold to advance legislation.

The medical cannabis budget rider was first enacted into law in late 2014, and has since been extended for each subsequent fiscal year. Last May, Sessions sent a letter to congressional leaders asking them not to continue the medical marijuana rider into Fiscal Year 2018.

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” he wrote. “The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

Setting aside the important question of whether the medical cannabis rider will be included in full Fiscal Year 2018 spending legislation that congressional leaders continue to negotiate — and it is a big question, since House leaders blocked lawmakers from even voting on whether to include the policy in that chamber’s version of Justice Department spending legislation — the current budget brinksmanship on Capitol Hill means the medical marijuana protections could disappear as soon as Saturday morning.

A Shutdown Allows Old Federal Marijuana Prosecutions To Resume

If the provision lapses, it wouldn’t just allow new actions against people violating federal marijuana laws. It would also allow earlier medical cannabis prosecutions that were suspended under to the rider to resume.

A federal judge in a California case last August, for example, wrote that the prosecution of two marijuana growers would be “stayed until and unless a future appropriations bill permits the government to proceed. If such a bill is enacted, the government may notify the Court and move for the stay to be lifted.”

The failure to enact a new bill continuing the protections would have the same effect under a shutdown scenario, given that enforcement of federal drug laws would still continue.

Long-Term Status Of Marijuana Protections Unclear

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted in July to include the medical cannabis rider in its version of the 2018 Justice Department funding bill. But without the provision being approved on the House side, its long-term continuance will be determined behind closed doors by a bicameral conference committee that merges the two chambers’ proposal into a single bill to be sent to President Trump.

Advocates have also pushed to expand the protection to encompass all state marijuana laws, not just those focused on medical access. A measure to do that came just nine flipped votes of passage on the House floor in 2015, and the number of states with legalization has doubled since then. However, Republican congressional leaders have blocked subsequent cannabis measures from advancing to floor consideration, including as recently as this week.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Push For Marijuana Protections In Funding Bill

In the meantime, medical cannabis patients and providers will wait to see if Jeff Sessions and his DEA agents will regain the ability to come after them for the first time since 2014 this weekend.

Portions of this post were first published by Forbes.

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