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.
Activists Push D.C. Lawmakers To Decriminalize Drugs And Promote Harm Reduction With New Campaign
Activists in Washington, D.C. on Thursday launched a new campaign to urge local lawmakers to broadly decriminalize drugs, with a focus on expanding treatment resources and harm reduction services.
DecrimPovertyDC—a coalition of advocacy groups like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy—will be imploring the District Council to take up the cause, and members have already met with the offices of each legislator and have gotten a generally positive reception.
Today, @DrugPolicyOrg, @HIPS, @Defund_MPD & over 40 civil rights, justice reform, public health, & faith groups join forces to launch the #DecrimPovertyDC campaign. We are urging for @councilofdc to treat drug use like a public health issue. Learn more: https://t.co/KFXc7su9Pu pic.twitter.com/TwWACpAsUU
— #DecrimPovertyDC (@decrimpovertydc) October 21, 2021
“Through ongoing advocacy, we aim to replace carceral systems with harm reduction-oriented systems of care that promote the dignity, autonomy, and health of people who use drugs, sex workers, and other criminalized populations,” the campaign site says.
People of color are disproportionately impacted by drug criminalization, and the group said the impact “extends far beyond the criminal legal system, as people face an array of punishments in employment, housing, education, immigration, child welfare, and public benefits—all of which can trap people in poverty.”
An outline of the legislative proposal starts with drug decriminalization. People who possess small amounts of controlled substances would face no criminal or civil penalties. An independent commission would decide what the possession limit should be, and those who possess more than that amount would face a $50 fine, which could be waived if the person completes a health assessment.
Further, the mayor would be required to establish a harm reduction center where people could receive treatment resources and access sterile needles. The legislation allows for the creation of a safe consumption site within the center where people could use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
That could prove challenging, however, as the U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing safe injection sites where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. An attempt to create such a facility in Philadelphia was blocked under the Trump administration and is now pending further action in a lower federal court.
The D.C. initiative, which is also being supported by AIDS United, Defund MPD, Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS) and dozens of other groups, would also make it so the health department would need to provide a drug testing service so people could screen products for contaminants or other hazardous compounds.
In 2020, 511 people fatally overdosed in the District; over 94,000 people died from accidental overdose nationally. We are in a state of emergency directly caused by criminalization and other inhumane drug policies. #DecrimPovertyDC pic.twitter.com/9stWKb1nYG
— #DecrimPovertyDC (@decrimpovertydc) October 21, 2021
Another provision activists are pushing for would work to repair the harms of criminalization, in part by requiring the courts to “identify and vacate convictions for offenses decriminalized by this bill.” They would also need to find and vacate cases related to drug paraphernalia, which was decriminalized last year under separate legislation.
Queen Adesuyi, policy manager of national affairs at DPA, told Marijuana Moment that the campaign’s branding and scope is “intentionally broad to address poverty more generally, because in D.C. the drug war does disproportionately impact under-resourced communities in addition to black communities.”
“We wanted to build out our campaign to paint the full picture of the drug war’s harms locally in the District,” she said, adding that the coalition will be poised to “support other efforts that are also working to minimize state-based harm against vulnerable communities in D.C.”
At this point, the drug decriminalization measure has not been introduced in the D.C. Council, but activists are encouraged by early conversations with local lawmakers. The intent is to build on drug policy progress such as paraphernalia decriminalization, which was championed by key players like the chairman of the Council’s Judiciary Committee.
The push in the nation’s capital follows advocates’ success in advancing decriminalization in other parts of the country.
Oregon voters approved a historic initiative to decriminalize drug possession last year, and multiple jurisdictions across the U.S. are now exploring similar policy changes.
Last month, Massachusetts lawmakers heard testimony on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program for safe injection facilities. A safe consumption site bill advanced through a legislative committee in the state in May.
The Maine Senate this summer defeated a bill that would have decriminalized possession of all currently illicit drugs.
Rhode Island’s governor signed a bill in July to create a pilot program legalizing safe consumption sites.
Congressionally, a first-of-its-kind bill to decriminalize drug possession at the federal level was introduced this session.
There’s a sense of urgency to get this reform in D.C. enacted, as the coronavirus pandemic has seemed to contribute to record-high drug overdose deaths in the country. Adesuyi said “the last year really has made it so we just can’t wait any more.”
Meanwhile, advocates have renewed hope that D.C. could soon move to legalize the sale of adult-use marijuana.
The District has been prevented from doing so despite legalizing cannabis in 2014 because it’s been bound by a congressional spending bill rider prohibiting the use of local tax dollars for that purpose. But with majorities in both chambers this session, Democratic appropriators have excluded that prohibitive language in the most recent spending measures—so D.C. would be empowered to finally enact a regulated market.
The mayor of D.C. said in April that local officials are prepared to move forward with implementing a legal system of recreational marijuana sales in the nation’s capital just as soon as they can get over the final “hurdle” of congressional interference.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) introduced a cannabis commerce bill in February—and members of the District Council are considering that, as well as a separate proposal put forward by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
A hearing on the latter bill is scheduled for next month the Committee of the Whole, the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety & the Committee on Business & Economic Development.
Fourth Massachusetts City Approves Psychedelics Reform As Movement Grows
A fourth Massachusetts city has enacted a psychedelics policy change, with members of the Easthampton City Council voting on Wednesday in favor of a resolution urging the decriminalization of certain entheogenic substances and other drugs.
The measure, introduced by Council Member At-Large Owen Zaret (D), passed in a 7-0 vote, with two abstentions, on Wednesday night.
“I’m grateful to the Council for being so forward thinking about a cutting edge topic,” Zaret told Marijuana Moment after the vote. “There were some hard concepts to undo for some of us. This is a step forward to helping people have access to effective therapies and also halting unnecessary arrests and incarceration.”
While the resolution is non-binding and doesn’t require police to deprioritize enforcement of laws prohibiting psychedelics—as has been the case in other cities across the U.S.—it represents an important first step and sends a clear message to local law enforcement that members are ready to depart from the status quo of criminalization.
It’s not just about psychedelics, either. The legislation says the Council “maintains that the use and possession of all controlled substances should be understood first and primarily as an issue of public health by city departments, agencies, boards, commissions, and all employees of the city.”
Lawmakers also recommended that “it should be policy of the City of Easthampton that the arrest of persons for using or possessing controlled substances for personal adult therapeutic, excepting Lophophora and animal-derived controlled substances, shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Easthampton.”
Zaret told Marijuana Moment in a recent phone interview that substance misuse is a “public health issue, it’s not a criminal issue.”
“We need to start a really aggressive campaign to, A) highlight the fact that this is a public health issue and, B) be more be more aggressive about how we’re treating that,” he said. “There are multiple angles to do that,” and psychedelics represent one possible solution.
This action comes months after the neighboring Northampton City Council passed a resolution stipulating that no government or police funds should be used to enforce laws criminalizing people for using or possessing entheogenic plants and fungi. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, Somerville and Cambridge have also moved to effectively decriminalize psychedelics.
The local measures express support for two bills introduced in the state legislature this year. One would remove criminal penalties for possession of all currently illicit drugs and the other would establish a task force to study entheogenic substances with the eventual goal of legalizing and regulating the them.
“This is a victory for the health and safety of our communities,” the advocacy group Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, which has been working with local lawmakers in Massachusetts to pass the resolutions, said in an Instagram post after the most recent vote. “These medicines will revolutionize the field of mental health, and this is a step toward a community model that puts people over profit. This signals to our state lawmakers we will not tolerate an over-regulated purely clinical model that makes these medicines unaffordable for working class people.”
While Massachusetts is proving to be a focal point of psychedelics reform, it’s far from the only place where activists are gaining ground.
For example, Seattle’s City Council approved a resolution earlier this month to decriminalize noncommercial activity around a wide range of psychedelic substances, including the cultivation and sharing of psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, ibogaine and non-peyote-derived mescaline.
In Michigan, the Grand Rapids City Council approved a resolution last month calling for decriminalization of a wide range of psychedelics.
Elsewhere in Michigan, the Ann Arbor City Council has already elected to make enforcement of laws prohibition psychedelics like psilocybin, ayahuasca and DMT among the city’s lowest priorities—and lawmakers recently followed up by declaring September Entheogenic Plants and Fungi Awareness Month.
After Ann Arbor legislators passed that decriminalization resolution last year, the Washtenaw County prosecutor announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi, “regardless of the amount at issue.”
A local proposal to decriminalize various psychedelics will also appear on Detroit’s November ballot.
At the same time that local activists are pursuing decriminalization, a pair of Michigan senators introduced a bill last month to legalize the possession, cultivation and delivery of an array of plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics like psilocybin and mescaline.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
A bill to legalize psychedelics in California advanced through the Senate and two Assembly committees this year before being pulled by the sponsor to buy more time to generate support among lawmakers. The plan is to take up the reform during next year’s second half of the legislative session, and the senator behind the measure says he’s confident it will pass.
California activists were separately cleared to begin collecting signatures for a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state. Oakland and Santa Cruz have already enacted psychedelics decriminalization.
The top Democrat in the Florida Senate filed a bill last month that would require the state to research the medical benefits of psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA.
Earlier this year, Texas enacted a law directing state officials to study psychedelics’ medical value.
The governor of Connecticut signed a bill in June that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
Oregon voters passed a pair of initiatives last November to legalize psilocybin therapy and decriminalize possession of all drugs. On the local level, activists in Portland are mounting a push to have local lawmakers pass a resolution decriminalizing the cultivation, gifting and ceremonial use of a wide range of psychedelics.
Washington, D.C. voters also approved a ballot measure last year to deprioritize enforcement of laws criminalizing psychedelics.
A New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to similarly research the medical value of psychedelics.
In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution in December that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics. Activists in the city are also hoping to expand upon the local decriminalization ordinance by creating a community-based model through which people could legally purchase entheogenic substances from local producers.
Meanwhile, Denver activists who successfully led the 2019 campaign to make the city the first in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin possession have set their eyes on broader reform, with plans in the works to end the criminalization of noncommercial gifting and communal use of the psychedelic.
In a setback for advocates, the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted against a proposal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that would have removed a spending bill rider that advocates say has restricted federal funds for research into Schedule I drugs, including psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA and ibogaine. However, it picked up considerably more votes this round than when the congresswoman first introduced it in 2019.
Report provisions of separate, House-passed spending legislation also touch on the need to expand cannabis and psychedelics research. The panel urged NIDA to support expanded marijuana studies, for example. It further says that federal health agencies should pursue research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for military veterans suffering from a host of mental health conditions.
There was an attempt by a Republican congressman to attach language into a defense spending bill that would promote research into psychedelics therapy for active duty military members, but it was not made in order in the House Rules Committee last month.
NIDA also recently announced it’s funding a study into whether psilocybin can help people quit smoking cigarettes.
An official with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also said at a recent congressional hearing that the agency is “very closely” following research into the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics like MDMA for military veterans.
For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a longstanding champion of marijuana reform in Congress, said this month that he intends to help bring the psychedelics reform movement to Capitol Hill “this year.”
In May, lawmakers in Congress filed the first-ever legislation to federally decriminalize possession of illicit substances.
Photo courtesy of Dick Culbert.
USPS Releases Final Rule Banning Mailing Of Hemp, CBD And Marijuana Vapes
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) on Wednesday released its final rule on the mailability of vapes, asserting that even devices designed for federally legal hemp derivatives like CBD generally cannot be shipped through the U.S. mail.
The agency has been developing the regulations to comply with a bill passed by Congress last year that is mostly aimed at stopping nicotine vaping devices from being mailed—though it has broader implications. Despite significant public comment on an earlier proposed version of the rules that urged USPS not to interpret the law in a way that restricts hemp businesses, the agency ultimately said that cannabis vapes fit the definition of what lawmakers moved to ban.
There are some exceptions, but stakeholders are disappointed by the final rule.
During public comment, some argued that the bill was specifically meant to restrict mailing of nicotine-based vapes. But while the legislation refers to limitations on “electronic nicotine delivery systems,” or ENDS, it defines that term as “any electronic device that, through an aerosolized solution, delivers nicotine, flavor, or any other substance to the user inhaling from the device.” (Italicized emphasis added.)
USPS explained in the rule, which is set to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, that by the letter of the law, that includes hemp and marijuana vapes.
“It goes without saying that marijuana, hemp, and their derivatives are substances,” the agency said. “Hence, to the extent that they may be delivered to an inhaling user through an aerosolized solution, they and the related delivery systems, parts, components, liquids, and accessories clearly fall within the [Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act’s] scope.”
Other commenters argued that USPS shouldn’t impose the restriction on cannabis products because the ban could conflict with state or local marijuana laws—or because Congress has approved spending legislation that prohibits the use of Justice Department funds for interfering in state-legal medical cannabis programs.
USPS said those arguments are not valid because, 1) it’s part of the federal government and is, therefore, unaffected by state or local marijuana policies and 2) it’s not part of the Justice Department, which is the only branch of the government restricted by the state protection rider in appropriations legislation.
The agency further clarified that hemp containing up to 0.3 percent THC is federally legal and is generally mailable, but only “to the extent that they are not incorporated into an ENDS product or function as a component of one.” As such, while business can generally mail out legal hemp-derived products, that’s only the case if they are not vaping products covered under the new law.
“The POSECCA and the Agriculture Improvement Act overlap, but they do not conflict. The Agriculture Improvement Act merely excludes certain products from the CSA. It does not affirmatively declare hemp and hemp derivatives to be mailable in any and all circumstances, superseding all other relevant laws (such as the POSECCA). For its part, the POSECCA restricts the mailability of only certain hemp-based and related products; hemp-based non-ENDS products are unaffected, as are ENDS products falling within one of the PACT Act’s exceptions. That Congress has rendered some subset of a class of goods to be nonmailable while leaving the remainder mailable is not some sort of legal conflict, but, rather, how mailability regulation typically works.”
There are limited exceptions to the new mailing rule. Vapes can be shipped within the states of Alaska and Hawaii; verified businesses can mail vapes between each other or to government agencies; companies can send products for consumer testing or public health purposes; and individuals can ship up to 10 ENDS for non-commercial use per 30-day period. Beyond that, it is generally prohibited for a company to send a vaping device to a consumer via U.S. mail.
Some commenters argued that CBD products could fall under the health exemption to the general ban, but USPS said that would not apply unless and until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves any such products.
“The FDA likewise has not approved any ENDS product for therapeutic delivery of any non-nicotine substance, including, in particular, CBD or other substances derived from marijuana. Once again, except for hemp-derived CBD containing no more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight, cannabis and cannabis derivatives remain nonmailable under the Controlled Substances Act regardless of the POSECCA and notwithstanding any State or local laws on ‘medical’ marijuana… Far from taking marketing claims of therapeutic benefit at face value, the FDA has undertaken enforcement action against companies making such claims about CBD and other cannabis-related products absent new drug approvals from the FDA.”
Vaping advocates say the final USPS rules confirm concerns they have long voiced as Congress considered enacting the ban.
“USPS never asked Congress to hand them a new unfunded mandate. The reality is Congress set the overly expansive language and USPS was and is statutorily obliged to apply the law as they wrote it,” Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Since we anticipate it will take the USPS months or years to move businesses through the application process to allow B2B sales, further supply chain issues among independents will likely follow.”
“Of course, there remains an open question around how vigorously the law will be enforced, particularly around products that lack state or federal excise taxes,” he said. “Punishments for violating the law can be swift and severe, so retailers should think carefully about trading a short-term buck for potential legal troubles before a federal judge.”
By preventing vape manufacturers and retailers from utilizing USPS to ship their goods, the regulations will effectively force them to use more expensive private courier services—a cost that will likely be passed on to consumers.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Kevin Payravi.