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Massachusetts Bill To Give State Coronavirus Relief To Marijuana Businesses Gets Hearing

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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.

North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Campaign Reassesses 2020 Ballot Strategy But Concedes 2022 Is More Likely

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Where Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris Stands On Marijuana

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Joe Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his vice presidential running mate, the campaign announced on Tuesday.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s choice to join him on the ticket has evolved significantly on marijuana policy over her career. Though she coauthored an official voter guide argument opposing a California cannabis legalization measure as a prosecutor in 2010 and laughed in the face of a reporter who asked her about the issue in 2014, she went on to sponsor legislation to federally deschedule marijuana in 2019.

It remains to be seen whether she will push Biden in the same direction, as the former vice president has maintained opposition to ending marijuana prohibition despite supermajority support among Democrats.

While Harris, a former attorney general of California, made marijuana reform a major component of her criminal justice platform when she unsuccessfully ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, she’s been less vocal about the issue since dropping out in December 2019.

Convincing Biden to come around seems like a steep task in any case. Some advocates suspect that the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee voted against an amendment to add legalization as a 2020 party plank specifically because it’s at odds with the presumptive nominee’s agenda. Biden has drawn the line at decriminalizing marijuana possession, expunging past convictions, modest federal rescheduling, medical cannabis legalization and letting states set their own policies.

But it remains the case that Harris is the chief Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—a comprehensive piece of legalization legislation that includes various social equity and restorative justice provisions. Advocates will be watching to see if she continues to advocate for the reform move as she’s on-boarded to the Biden campaign.

The senator indicated in July that she doesn’t plan to push the presumptive presidential nominee on the issue.

Here’s a deeper look at where Harris stands on marijuana:

Legislation And Policy Actions

As noted, Harris’s most notable contribution with respect to cannabis reform legislation is her sponsorship of the MORE Act.

“Times have changed—marijuana should not be a crime,” she said when introducing the bill. “We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives.

The senator first came out in support of legalization in 2018, adding her name to a different far-reaching bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The legislation, the Marijuana Justice Act, would remove cannabis from the list of federally banned substances and also penalize states where marijuana laws are enforced disproportionately against people of color. She also cosponsored the 2019 version of the bill.

“Right now in this country people are being arrested, being prosecuted, and end up spending time in jail or prison all because of their use of a drug that otherwise should be considered legal,” she said in a press release. “Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor and I know it as a senator.”

Beyond the MORE Act and Marijuana Justice Act, Harris has also co-sponsored the SAFE Banking Act, which would protect banks that work with marijuana businesses from federal punishment.

The senator sponsored bills aimed at repairing land in California that’s been impacted by illicit cannabis grows and another piece of legislation that would protect people with drug convictions from losing public housing.

Harris also signed a letter alongside Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that called on the Justice Department to stop blocking federal research into medical cannabis. In a separate sign-on letter, she joined her colleagues in requesting that lawmakers include protections for legal cannabis states in a spending bill.

It is also worth noting that Harris touted her office’s drug enforcement actions on her website while running for reelection as San Francisco district attorney. One page said she “closed legal loopholes that were allowing drug dealers to escape prosecution,” and another bragged she “increased convictions of drug dealers from 56% in 2003 to 74% in 2006.”

Most Recent Comments And Actions Post-Presidential Campaign

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June, Harris discussed how a black man incarcerated over a marijuana offense died after contracting coronavirus. She stated that the case illustrated how “we have two systems of justice in America” based on race.

She and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) made a similar point in a letter to Attorney General William Barr that month.

Harris and two other senators wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in June, criticizing Republicans in the chamber for putting forth a policing reform bill that they argue is inadequate, in part because it does not ban no-knock raids in drug cases as House Democrats did in that chamber’s legislation.

The senator and 43 other members of Congress urged the Justice Department to investigate the death of 26-year-old black woman Breonna Taylor in a botched drug raid.

In April, she signed onto a letter to Senate leadership, imploring them to include language in coronavirus relief legislation that would allow marijuana businesses to access federal relief dollars just as companies in other industries can.

“Marijuana small businesses employ more than 240,000 workers and should be allowed to access coronavirus relief funds too,” she tweeted. “My colleagues and I are pushing to ensure they’re not left out of Congress’s next relief package.”

Also that month, Harris and 10 other senators sent a letter to leadership in a key committee asking that they add a provision allowing cannabis businesses to access federal loan services in spending legislation.

When the governor of Illinois issued pardons for more than 11,000 people with cannabis convictions the day before legal sales started, the senator said she applauded the decision.

“Expunging non-violent marijuana-related offenses is the right thing to do,” she said. “Now let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level.”

Harris joined a group of senators in December 2019 in pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

Also that month, she and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers sent a letter to the Justice Department, requesting a policy change allowing researchers to access marijuana from state-legal dispensaries to improve studies on the plant’s benefits and risks.

On the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20, Harris tweeted that the Senate “must pass my Marijuana Opportunity Act to legalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge non-violent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions who’ve been arrested or incarcerated. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.”

Using loaded war on drugs rhetoric, she called President Trump a “drug pusher” for promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19.

On The Campaign Trail

During her presidential run, Harris released a criminal justice plan that says “it is past time to end the failed war on drugs, and it begins with legalizing marijuana.”

“It’s time to end mass incarceration,” she tweeted the same day. “This includes legalizing marijuana, sentencing reforms, and abolishing private prisons. With the addition of job training and education, these actions will reduce crime and help build healthy communities.”

After House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) announced a markup of the MORE Act in November, Harris wrote that the “War on Drugs was an abject failure” and that it’s “time to legalize marijuana and bring justice to people of color harmed by failed drug policies.”

“Grateful for [Nadler’s] partnership on this issue,” she said. “I look forward to getting our bill one step closer to becoming law.”

After the committee approved the legislation, Harris wrote, “Not only do we need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, but we have to do it right and bring justice to communities of color” and said the MORE Act would accomplish that.

“Last week, my bill to legalize marijuana passed through House committee with bipartisan support,” she said. “I’ll say it again: we can’t legalize marijuana without addressing the injustices to people of color caused by the War on Drugs. My bill would do just that.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another presidential candidate, criticized Harris’s prosecutorial record during a Democratic debate in August. In a follow-up interview, the senator evaded a question about the exchange, dismissing the critique by stating that “I’m obviously a top tier candidate and so I did expect that I would be on the stage and take hits tonight because there are a lot of people that are trying to make the stage for the next debate.”

The Bay Area News Group analyzed the marijuana prosecution record of Harris and said the findings demonstrate that her history “is more nuanced than those debate-stage confrontations indicate.”

Days after former Vice President Joe Biden, another presidential candidate, said he doesn’t support adult-use legalization because marijuana could be a gateway to more dangerous drugs, Harris tweeted “marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized.”

The candidate said that cannabis legalization is an example of an issue she’s changed her mind on over time during an interview with NowThis.

“The whole war on drugs was a complete failure,” she said during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “That approach is the gateway to America’s problem with mass incarceration.” She didn’t directly answer a question about what made her change her mind about cannabis reform from prior opposition to legalization, however.

“The criminalization of marijuana has been such a big part of what has fueled America’s system of mass incarceration,” she said.

“There are thousands of people labeled felons for life for selling marijuana, while people out there are making a fortune from the marijuana industry,” the senator said. “This is an injustice, and as president, I’ll fix it.”

Prior to a House vote on legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses, Harris joined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and fellow presidential contenders Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in expressing concern about approving cannabis bills that would largely benefit the industry without first passing comprehensive legalization legislation.

“We shouldn’t do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry,” she said of the banking bill. “That means not only legalizing marijuana but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry.”

Following the vote in favor of the legislation, Harris tweeted that the reform is “important, but it’s not enough” and that we “need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and create paths for people of color to enter the legal marijuana industry.”

“We must ensure that as marijuana becomes a bigger business, we are committing ourselves to rebuilding communities that have been disproportionately targeted by failed drug policies and creating a diverse industry going forward,” she wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “If we fail to address a system that has historically been infected by racial bias, communities of color will continue to shoulder the devastating impacts of the past.”

“Times have changed. We must get smart on marijuana reform and give everyone the opportunity to reap the benefits that come from the legal marijuana industry,” she said.

After Illinois’s governor signed a marijuana legalization bill in June, Harris said she’s thankful that “states like Illinois are stepping up to correct the mistakes of our past” and that it’s “time to do the same at the federal level.”

“As the marijuana industry continues to grow, there are people of color sitting behind bars for doing the exact same thing. It’s time we changed the system,” Harris said at a conference in April 2019, adding that those most impacted by the war on drugs should be prioritized when it comes to job opportunities in the legal industry.

She also pledged to pardon some non-violent drug offenders if elected president.

“We have to have the courage to recognize that there are a lot of folks who have been incarcerated who should not have been incarcerated and are still in prison because they were convicted under draconian laws that have incarcerated them… for what is essentially a public health issue,” she said.

In November, Harris discussed the need for industry equity and joked about businesses claiming that rubbing CBD lotion all over one’s body is a cure-all.

The senator said that drug addiction should be treated as a health issue and “not in jails and prisons,” adding that people with prior cannabis convictions should be “first in line” to get jobs in the legal market.

Harris also said she would implement “mental health care on demand and drug treatment on demand.”

“Countless Americans have felt the devastating ramifications of the War on Drugs—millions still remain incarcerated to this day,” Harris said in March. “This is a matter of public health, drug addiction, and economic security. I’ll say it again as I did in 2008: it was a complete failure.”

“Our justice system continues to target and imprison young Black and Latinx Americans at high levels due to outdated, unjust marijuana laws,” she wrote. “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: we must legalize marijuana across the country.”

She also discussed her views on marijuana and drug policy during a campaign stop in New Hampshire in July.

“We have to treat it as a public health issue, specifically on the issue of marijuana,” Harris said. “We incarcerated whole entire populations, in particular young men of color, for possessing marijuana, and they ended up being felons for life on an issue that was literally—if you look at it just in terms of the disparities in terms of who was arrested, who was incarcerated and who was abusing—it was just wrong.”

Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts

Harris has talked quite a bit about marijuana in speeches and on social media.

When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, which provided guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, she said the Justice Department shouldn’t be focused on “going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”

“This administration and Jeff Sessions want to take us back to the dark ages,” Harris said at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference in 2017. “Sessions has threatened that the United States Department of Justice may renew its focus on marijuana use even as states like California, where it is legal.”

“Well, let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions,” she said. “We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations, dealing with issues like human trafficking—not going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana. Leave her alone.”

Harris hadn’t signed onto any marijuana reform legislation during the time she was going after Sessions. But she was using the battle to solicit signatures on a petition, a common tactic that politicians use to build email lists that they can later use for fundraising. Several House members pressured her and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to take stronger action by blocking Justice Department nominees until the Cole memo was restored.

The senator has repeatedly called for federal cannabis decriminalization, characterizing existing laws as “regressive policies” that have “ruined” many lives.

“We need to decriminalize marijuana,” she said. “We have a problem of mass incarceration in our country. And let’s be clear, the war on drug was a failed war. It was misdirected.”

She has also criticized the federal government for blocking military veterans’ access to medical cannabis.

“As states moves toward legalizing marijuana, let’s remember how many lives have been ruined because of our regressive policies,” Harris wrote. “We must focus on restorative justice.”

In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Harris said “I started my career as a baby prosecutor during the height of the crack epidemic—not all drugs are equal.”

“We have over-criminalized so many people, in particular poor youth and men of color, in communities across this country and we need to move it on the schedule,” she said. “Plus we need to start researching the effect of marijuana and we have not been able to do it because of where it is on the schedule.”

Harris congratulated Canada on its national legalization of marijuana in 2018.

Curiously, however, Harris also has a habit of referring to the war on drugs in the past tense—as if it isn’t the case that hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. are still being arrested for cannabis and other drugs every year.

“The war on drugs was a failure,” she said in 2017. “It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.”

She also accused Sessions of “resuscitating” the drug war.

During her time as a prosecutor, Harris said she “saw the war on drugs up close, and let me tell you, the war on drugs was an abject failure.”

“It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment, it was bad for public safety, it was bad for budgets and our economy, and it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet,” she said.

“I’ll tell you what standing up for the people also means,” Harris said in 2015. “It means challenging the policy of mass incarceration by recognizing the war on drugs was a failure. And Democrats, on that point, let’s be clear also: now is the time to end the federal ban on medical marijuana. It is.”

During a speech announcing her presidential candidacy, Harris said, “Once and for all, we have got to call drug addiction what it is: a national, public health emergency. And what we don’t need is another war on drugs.”

Before Harris backed full legalization or federal decriminalization, she was supportive of rescheduling cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act. Asked about the policy in 2016, she said “I would work to remove marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.”

“We need to reform our criminal justice system and changing the marijuana classification and drug sentencing laws are part of that effort.”

At a debate that year, she predicted that California voters would approve full legalization via a ballot measure (which they did) and reiterated that “we have to do is move [marijuana] from Schedule I to Schedule II.”

“We have incarcerated a large number of predominantly African American and Latino men in this country for possession and use at a very small scale of one of the least dangerous drugs in the schedule,” she said.

It is worth noting that Harris did not publicly endorse California’s successful 2016 cannabis legalization ballot initiative, though it is unknown how she personally voted on the measure.

Two years earlier, Harris told BuzzFeed that while she wasn’t ready to back the idea of legalization, she was “not opposed” to it and that there was “a certain inevitability about it.”

“It would be easier for me to say, ‘Let’s legalize it, let’s move on,’ and everybody would be happy. I believe that would be irresponsible of me as the top cop,” she said. “The detail of these things matters… I don’t have any moral opposition to it or anything like that. Half my family’s from Jamaica.”

But amid an earlier attempt to legalize marijuana in California through a 2010 initiative that appeared on the same ballot as Harris’s candidacy for state attorney general, she called the measure a “flawed public policy.” Her campaign manager said she “supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but does not support anything beyond that” and that she “believes that drug selling harms communities.”

She also co-authored an argument against the measure that appeared in the state’s official ballot guide, stating that legalization “seriously compromises the safety of our communities, roadways, and workplaces.”

During a speech at The Commonwealth Club in 2010, Harris scoffed at a question about cannabis reform and said “I’m not a proponent of that, but I know that there are a lot of people who are. It’s not my issue.” At the same event she spoke about prosecuting people for selling drugs, saying, “I don’t feel sorry for you and I’m not going to forgive you for committing a crime.”

Later, during her stint as attorney general, Harris received criticism from some marijuana policy reform advocates for not doing more to push back against federal prosecutors’ crackdown against locally approved California medical cannabis dispensaries during the first term of the Obama administration, though she did send a series of letters on the topic and made some public statements.

“The federal government is ill-equipped to be the sole arbiter of whether an individual or group is acting within the bounds of California’s medical marijuana laws when cultivating marijuana for medical purposes,” she wrote in a letter to the state’s U.S. attorneys.

She also called on state lawmakers to clarify California’s medical cannabis laws in a separate letter, which argued that reforms might ward off further federal intervention. “Without a substantive change to existing law, these irreconcilable interpretations of the law, and the resulting uncertainty for law enforcement and seriously ill patients, will persist,” she wrote.

“Californians overwhelmingly support the compassionate use of medical marijuana for the ill. We should all be troubled, however, by the proliferation of gangs and criminal enterprises that seek to exploit this law by illegally cultivating and trafficking marijuana,” she said in a statement around the same time. “While there are definite ambiguities in state law that must be resolved either by the state legislature or the courts, an overly broad federal enforcement campaign will make it more difficult for legitimate patients to access physician-recommended medicine in California. I urge the federal authorities in the state to adhere to the United States Department of Justice’s stated policy and focus their enforcement efforts on ‘significant traffickers of illegal drugs.’”

An analysis by the Washington Free Beacon determined that at least 1,560 people were sent to California state prisons for marijuana-related offenses during Harris’s tenure as attorney general.

In a 2008 book, Harris argued that nonviolent crimes “exact a huge toll on America’s communities” and that it’s “important to fight all crime.”

“Drug crimes in particular exact a terrible toll and rob people young and old of hope,” she wrote.

Harris’s overall evolution on cannabis can be neatly summed up with two videos. The first shows her being asked about marijuana legalization in 2014 in light of her Republican opponent for attorney general supporting it. She dismissively laughs off the question.

The second shows Harris during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing pressing President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, on whether he’d use Justice Department funds to go after marijuana businesses acting in compliance with state law.

Harris even attempted to crack her own marijuana joke during a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, though the late night host didn’t seem especially amused.

In her book, The Truths We Hold, she took her message in support of legalization a step further. Not only should we “legalize marijuana and regulate it,” but we should also “expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives,” Harris wrote.

“We also need to stop treating drug addiction like a public safety crisis instead of what it is: a public health crisis,” she also wrote, suggesting she may be in favor of broader drug policy reforms. “When someone is suffering from addiction, their situation is made worse, not better, by involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Harris’s presidential campaign website hosts a petition to legalize marijuana.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

Harris revealed in a radio interview that she smoked marijuana in college while listening to Tupac and Snoop Dogg, saying, “It gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy in the world.”

But that admission sparked a small controversy, with several people pointing out that neither artist had released their debut albums prior to Harris graduating. She conceded in November that she “ definitely was not clear about what I was listening to” while consuming cannabis.

In a separate interview, the senator said that she knows people who have benefited from using medical cannabis.

Marijuana Under A Biden-Harris Administration

Both Harris and Biden have evolved their positions on cannabis over time. Harris, a former prosecutor who campaigned against legalization in her own state has become the lead sponsor of a bill to federally legalize marijuana. Biden, who authored punitive drug legislation during his time as a senator, now supports modest cannabis reforms such as decriminalization and rescheduling, though he continue to oppose legalization. If the Democratic ticket gets elected, it remains to be seen to what extent the new administration would prioritize drug policy reform efforts and whether Harris would seek to encourage Biden to get behind full legalization.

Where Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Stands On Marijuana

Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

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Wyoming Judge Dismisses Marijuana Charges Against Hemp Farmers

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The state treasurer, House majority floor leader and House Judiciary Committee chairman testified in support of the farmers.

By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com

CHEYENNE—A Laramie County judge threw out drug trafficking charges against hemp advocates and farmers Debra Palm-Egle and Joshua Egle Thursday, finding prosecutors lacked probable cause that the mother-and-son duo intended to grow and distribute marijuana.

At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, Laramie County Circuit Court Judge Antoinette Williams also dismissed charges against a contractor and his wife, Brock and Shannon Dyke, who worked for the farmers and were on the property when the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation raided it in November 2019.

Prosecutors sought to charge all four with conspiracy to manufacture, deliver or possess marijuana; possession with intent to deliver marijuana; possession of marijuana and planting or cultivating marijuana. All but the last are felonies. The judge dismissed all charges, including a misdemeanor marijuana charge, a court clerk said Friday.

Lawyers for the defendant argued, and the judge ultimately ruled, that the farmers had intended to produce hemp, not marijuana. The day of the raid, Brock Dykes showed DCI agents the results of tests conducted on the crop that indicated it contained less than 0.3% THC.

Under Wyoming’s hemp statutes, the crop has to have a THC-concentration limit below 0.3%. Marijuana and hemp are derived from the same plant. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the chemical in marijuana that gets users high. Its low presence in hemp keeps the crop from being categorized a drug.

Acting on a tip, DCI ultimately seized 700 pounds of hemp from the Egles’ farm. When agents ran it through a series of their own tests, most test results came back with THC concentrations higher than 0.3%. The highest result was 0.6%.

Laramie County Assistant District Attorney David Singleton, who prosecuted the case, argued that any plant testing over 0.3% is marijuana, not hemp. The judge, however, said it was clear the farmers intended to grow hemp, citing as evidence Dyke’s presentation of earlier test results to DCI and the Egles’ long history as hemp farmers.

Reached by phone Friday, Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove declined to comment on the case.

The dismissal of the case at such an early stage in criminal procedures — during a preliminary hearing — is unusual. Tom Jubin, a lawyer for the Egles, said that during his decades-long career this was only the third of his cases to end at that early stage.

“It’s pretty rare but it’s also pretty rare that a prosecutor would take a case like this and push it,” Jubin told WyoFile after the judge’s verdict.

“Please, have the courage to get these people home,” Jubin asked the judge during his closing remarks. In June, a different judge restricted Deborah Palm-Egle to Laramie County, though her home is in Colorado, her son told WyoFile.

Judge Williams’ own comments before her verdict were brief.

She understood why prosecutors had chosen to bring the case, she said, but did not believe they had probable cause. She also reprimanded the Egles, who had begun growing their hemp crop without a license while state and federal authorities were still developing rules for the newly legalized crop.

The Egles were prominent activists in front of the Legislature who helped push Wyoming’s hemp bill through. House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), who took the witness stand Thursday, testified that he knew the Egles and understood them to be hemp farmers with no intention of growing marijuana. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) and Wyoming State Treasurer Curt Meier submitted statements with similar testimony in support of the Egles.

As such, the Egles “knew the law as well as anyone,” Williams said, and should have been licensed.

Under Wyoming statute, the Egles could face a $750 fine for growing hemp without a license. Such a penalty is a far cry from the decades of prison time they could have gotten if convicted on prosecutors’ charges.

After the judge’s ruling, Shannon Dykes rushed to tearfully embrace Palm-Egle, who is in a wheelchair. “Thank God it’s over,” Palm-Egle said.

Joshua Egle began growing what he described as a test crop of hemp for research purposes before he got his license, he told WyoFile after the hearing. Working in unfamiliar soil, it would take time for farmers to understand how to harvest the plants at the right time to keep THC concentrations legal, he said.

At the time, he was betting officials would soon work out the new industry regulation kinks and allow him to license the crop, he said. In the meantime, “we had to get going,” he said.

The Egles, and other hemp proponents, have pitched the crop as a new outlet for Wyoming’s farmers, and a viable path for economic diversification for a state struggling with its dependence on the energy industry. Egle will continue to pursue hemp farming in Wyoming, he said.

The raid

On Nov. 4, the Dykes were at the Egles’ property in Albin, a farming village in eastern Laramie County near the Nebraska line. The Egles, who live principally in Colorado, were not home. Brock Dykes was taking advantage of fresh snow to burn some waste wood, he told WyoFile in an interview after the judge’s verdict Thursday.

Dykes and his wife were standing outside and saw a line of unmarked cars, and one Wyoming Highway Patrol car, coming toward the property, he said. Their first thought was someone had called in concern about the smoke, he said. His two sons, then 11 and 12 years old, were inside the farmhouse.

Law enforcement officers, who ultimately turned out to be DCI agents, came out of the cars in tactical gear and with rifles pointed at the couple, the Dykes said, yelling at them to “put their fucking hands up.” Brock Dykes saw “five or six officers with a battering ram” approaching the door of the house where his sons were, he said. He yelled that it was unlocked and they didn’t use the ram.

Officers trained guns on the two boys as well, the Dykes said. It was 45 minutes to an hour before Shannon Dykes was able to see her sons, she said.

The investigation had begun when a “reliable source of information” called DCI concerned that the Egles were growing marijuana, according to the charging documents. DCI agents visited the farm several times and spotted what they believed to be marijuana plants drying in an open barn.

DCI agents never contacted the Egles, either before the raid or during the five months between the raid and pressing felony charges, according to the DCI investigator’s testimony during the trial.

“You sought charges against these farmers for crimes that carry decades of prison time without ever talking to them?” Jubin asked DCI Special Agent John Briggs, who led the investigation, during the hearings.

“I did not interview them, no sir,” the investigator answered.

The Dykes were never handcuffed during the raid, they said. Testimony during the preliminary hearing, which took place over two afternoons in July and August, established that Brock Dykes tried to explain the Egles were growing hemp. He showed officers the THC testing results Joshua Egle had sent him, which were on his cellphone.

Briggs was not interested in those results at the time of the raid, Dykes told WyoFile. Briggs told Dykes “I’m not going to argue with you about the technical difference between hemp and marijuana,” Dykes said.

The Dykes’ attorney, Michael Bennett, asked the judge to consider what kind of criminal would “show [testing] proof to agents, as if it were some elaborate ruse to grow the worst marijuana in the entire universe.”

DCI agents confiscated 722 pounds of plants, according to the affidavit. During the court hearings, Briggs testified that then-agency director Steve Woodson, and then assistant-director Forrest Williams drove a vehicle to the farm to collect the crop. Woodson retired in early 2020, and Williams is today the agency’s interim director.

Though relieved at the judge’s action Thursday, the Dykes remain angry at the DCI agents and prosecutors who brought such heavy charges against them. The young couple and small business owners have had to pay for weekly drug tests since early June, and spent considerable money on a lawyer, they said.

“This is all very, very surreal,” Dykes said.

The hemp industry has now progressed in Wyoming, and a number of people around him are growing the crop, he said. “How many more people are growing right now whose neighbor is going to call the police?” he said.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative Officially Qualifies For November Ballot

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New Jersey Now Allows Medical Marijuana Recommendations Via Telehealth Amid Coronavirus

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The attorney general of New Jersey announced on Tuesday that the state will immediately begin allowing patients to obtain medical marijuana recommendations remotely via telehealth services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This comes months before voters in the state are set to decide on a referendum to legalize cannabis for adult use.

“Today, we are making it easier for patients to choose telehealth services for any reason, including to avoid an in-person visit due to the continuing risk of COVID-19,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) said in a press release.

“New Jersey health care practices are again offering in-person services, but telehealth remains an important option for patients and providers,” he said. “Doctors who use telemedicine to prescribe CDS or authorize medical marijuana will be held to the same professional standards as for in-person visits and must comply with all of the important safeguards we have adopted to prevent diversion and misuse.”

The new administrative order on telehealth also applies to the prescription of controlled substances for chronic pain and it is set to last until the end of New Jersey’s coronavirus state of emergency or the end of a federal telemedicine allowance, whichever comes first.

New Jersey’s Department of Health also took a step to mitigate the spread of the virus in June by allowing medical cannabis dispensaries to deliver products to patients.

Delaware, Louisiana, Washington, D.C. and Jamaica have each made similar moves to free up medical marijuana deliveries amid the pandemic.

Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is supportive of more broadly legalizing marijuana and said last month that the policy change could simultaneously help the state recover economically from the COVID-19 outbreak while also promoting racial justice.

Voters in the state appear ready to make the change too, with nearly seven-in-10 residents voicing support for the referendum in a recent poll.

Separately, the Assembly approved a bill in June to decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, though the Senate hasn’t acted on the proposal.

Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative Officially Qualifies For November Ballot

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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