A Massachusetts legislative committee held a virtual hearing on Tuesday to get input from members and stakeholders about a bill that would establish a state-level coronavirus relief program for marijuana businesses and other companies that are left out of federal aid.
The proposal, which was discussed by the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses, would address that unique problem that the cannabis industry in particular is facing during the pandemic. These businesses—as well as those that work indirectly with the marijuana market—are specifically prevented from receiving congressionally authorized aid due to ongoing prohibition.
The problem is especially pronounced in Massachusetts, where medical cannabis dispensaries are allowed to operate as essential services but recreational shops have been temporarily shuttered. Witnesses from the industry testified that the state could help their businesses stay afloat and prevent layoffs if they approve the bill, which would establish a state-level Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
The legislation is being sponsored by the committee’s chair, Sen. Diana DiZoglio (D).
Watch the hearing below:
Mitzi Hollenbeck, a partner at Citrin Cooperman who founded the firm’s cannabis advisory services practice, told the committee that the cannabis market already faces a “huge economic burden” because of ongoing federal prohibition, which prevents these businesses from taking tax deductions that are available to other industries, for example.
“We’ve seen lots of the issues at the federal level that I think Massachusetts has a great opportunity to get correct in this version of the bill,” she said.
“The creation of a Massachusetts PPP loan for cannabis businesses like mine would be a momentous step in the right direction to remedy the inequity that legal, tax-paying cannabis-related businesses like mine are facing during the COVID-19 crisis,” Beth Waterfall, executive director of the cannabis events company ELEVATE Northeast, said in written testimony.
Angela Brown, CEO of the Massachusetts-based recreational marijuana company T. Bear Inc., told lawmakers that her business was forced to shut down one day before it was set to launch its first sales.
“We were forced to furlough our entire team, lock the building and walk away. All I can do now is wait with no income and no revenue,” she said. “And while I wait, I still pay my rent, my lenders, my utilities and my health insurance for my furloughed employees.”
“All small business owners are dealing with these issues. The bills and debt continue to mount as the shutdown prolongs,” she added. “But the difference is that cannabis companies don’t even have access to this economic relief.”
Brian Moran, an executive at the cannabis retailer Garden Remedies, said the company “not only lost the vast majority of our revenues when the state-mandated essential services order was enacted in late March but the lifeline extended to help small businesses across our country survive during this pandemic has not been extended to us.”
“This has resulted in a perfect storm for our industry that has caused massive problems,” he said.
“Massachusetts’s cannabis industry is intentionally organized by law to promote equity. Massachusetts was the first state to pass explicit equity measures in the adult-use cannabis industry for farmers, veterans, women, minorities and those disproportionately harmed by drug laws,” Shaleen Title, who serves as a member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, said in written testimony.
“The lack of federal PPP support puts the fragile progress we have made over the past three years at risk,” she continued. “The harm is likely to fall more sharply on the very small businesses, workers, families, and communities that our state’s cannabis equity measures are intended to protect.”
Title later told Marijuana Moment that based on the hearing, “it was clear that there are many small businesses, including cannabis businesses, that are not eligible for federal aid even though they pay taxes and employ people and are trying to survive just like the businesses that are receiving loans and grants.”
“They didn’t cause this crisis; their businesses have been shut down through no fault of theirs. We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers,” she said. “Standing up for those being left behind is exactly what public officials should be doing right now. I commend Senator DiZoglio and the other sponsors of the bill for looking out for them.”
A vote on the proposal hasn’t yet been scheduled, but the chairwoman said at the close of the hearing that the matter will be taken up again “in the near future.”
“Our small businesses are in crisis, as you well know. They not only face a one-size-fits-all attempt at relief by the federal government, which doesn’t take into account the unique commercial makeup and different recovery timelines of individual states,” DiZoglio said. “It’s up to the Commonwealth to close the gaps for all of our small businesses and to provide equitable relief in the absence of that relief from the federal government.”
“We must be realistic and we must adapt as our states faces significant financial constraints in the foreseeable future,” she said.
Under the proposal, a public agency would be tasked with developing regulations for the state service within 30 days of the bill’s enactment. Cannabis businesses aren’t explicitly mentioned in the text of the legislation, but they are a standout example of an industry that is specifically excluded from federal relief and would qualify for benefits through the proposed Massachusetts program.
The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) confirmed last month that the marijuana industry isn’t eligible for its relief program, prompting advocates, lawmakers and stakeholders to press for reforming eligibility requirements as part of future stimulus packages.
While a bill was introduced to that end in Congress—and members of both the House and Senate have sent letters urging leadership to include such language in COVID-19 legislation—it remains to be seen whether the proposed policy change will be enacted.
To that end, a coalition of industry associations sent a letter to state officials last month, imploring them to set up independent relief programs like the one currently being considered in Massachusetts.
Beside passing legislation to extend benefits at the federal level, or providing relief through a state-level system, there is another option identified by a group of cannabis associations and credit unions last week. The coalition is asking Congress to issue pandemic relief block grants to states so they can decide on their own how to allocate the funds.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.