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Massachusetts Marijuana Regulator Talks Social Equity And The Presidential Election

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As more states enter the growing landscape of legal marijuana, jurisdictions are taking on the responsibility of addressing social justice and equity for communities targeted by the drug war in their legislation earlier in the process instead of trying to address the issue later, as has been the case in many states that have ended cannabis prohibition to date.

For Shaleen Title, the sea change is timely and welcome.

In September 2017, the drug policy activist and attorney became one of five members of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission after her appointment by the state’s governor, treasurer and attorney general. The body is tasked with overseeing the commonwealth’s marijuana legislation, and Title helped draft its mandate to include individuals from communities disproportionately harmed by prohibition in the legal industry. The Commission is also charged with reducing barriers to entry for people of color, women and veterans.

Since legalization went into effect, the commission voted to initially limit social consumption licenses exclusively for equity program participants and craft cooperatives, and discussed allowing only microbusinesses to deliver directly to consumers. Title and her fellow commissioners will consider these types of licenses this spring.

But Massachusetts isn’t alone in looking for ways to make the marijuana industry more equitable.

Rhode Island lawmakers recently filed a bill titled the Cannabis Equity Act of 2019 that calls on the Ocean State “to ensure that persons most harmed by cannabis criminalization and poverty” receive the necessary assistance to become entrepreneurs and employees in the industry. Meanwhile, black lawmakers in New York are threatening to block legalization efforts until assurances are made that communities of color will benefit from the multi-billion dollar industry.

Massachusetts’s Social Equity Program is accepting applications for participants, and vendors are invited to submit their bids to offer equity program applicants training, mentorship and technical assistance through April 5. Despite swift progress over the last year, just ten retail stores have opened in Massachusetts so far, and reporting from the Commission’s own data shows that few black- and Latinx-owned businesses have submitted completed applications for cannabis licenses.

To learn more about the Commonwealth’s progress to date, Marijuana Moment spoke to Commissioner Title via email and asked about what she and fellow regulators are doing to further reduce barriers to entry for underrepresented communities. She also addressed how cannabis social equity has become a major policy issue in the 2020 presidential election.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

(Full disclosure: Title and Marijuana Moment’s publisher co-founded the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority in 2012 and have worked together on various drug policy reform efforts.)

Marijuana Moment: Massachusetts’ cannabis equity program is officially live. How is it going so far?

Shaleen Title: While it’s very early, it’s an important time to remember the vision that the people of Massachusetts put forth through the legalization ballot question and legislation. Our mandates to include businesses of all sizes, farmers, craft cooperatives, people of color, women, veterans and disproportionately harmed communities paint a vivid picture of an industry defined by meaningful participation. We are fostering a market where people from all different backgrounds provide all types of experiences for consumers in a regulated, consistent environment.

Like everyone who feels strongly about the underlying goals of the program—reducing barriers to entry, providing professional and technical services for those facing systemic barriers, and promoting reparative practices in the cannabis industry—I am often frustrated, because it never feels like it’s moving fast enough. But I remind myself that at this early phase, even a 5 percent shift in the right direction will compound into a massive impact as the industry grows.

MM: The Commission voted to initially limit social consumption licenses to social equity program participants and craft cooperatives, and delivery to those groups as well as microbusinesses. They also formed a working group where local officials will collaborate with commissioners on the framework for a social consumption pilot program. What other wins can you tell us about?

ST: As we moved closer to those discussions this spring, I was pleasantly surprised to see a majority of the Cannabis Advisory Board members vote to allow those licenses, including temporary event licenses, and to exclusively offer them to certain disadvantaged groups and small businesses. From the perspective that these types of businesses are necessary—both as lower-capital entrepreneurship opportunities, and to allow marijuana consumers to go about their lives as law-abiding members of society—this feels like a win. More than half of the advisory board members are appointed by the governor, attorney general and treasurer, so to me these policy recommendations represent how far the conversation about legal marijuana businesses has come over the past year.

MM: As a reflection of the Commission’s data, it has been reported that next to no black or Latinx candidates have applied. Why do you think that is?

ST: To be clear, those numbers are reported directly by the Commission at every meeting. It’s important to us that we collect industry statistics to hold ourselves accountable and that we make them easily accessible. I’ve been heartened to see that the public thinks this is as important as we do.

At this point, the Commission has approved provisional licenses for two self-reported minority-owned businesses. I note “self-reported” because it’s important for us to collect data on businesses that have been audited by the state as being owned and controlled by the people who say they own the company.

As I see it, the reason why we haven’t received enough completed applications from the groups we are trying to reach is a chicken-and-egg problem. Our licensing process asks whether an applicant is capable of running a business: do you have a location, capital, a host community agreement? If you can demonstrate that you do, you receive a provisional license. But landlords, investors and municipalities want to know if you have a license before they will give you those things. We have taken several intentional steps to make our licensing process more accessible than most, including very low fees, fee waivers for certain groups, no numerical capital requirement and no exclusions for cannabis offenses unless they involved distribution to a minor. But the process still tends to favor those who can procure locations, local approval and capital through existing resources and privilege.

We are planning to conduct a robust study on participation in the industry and barriers to entry, both because Massachusetts law requires us to and because it’s not enough to point to obvious barriers. When a process requires an unreasonably high amount of capital, whether intentional or not, it sets you up to fail, and regulations can change that. For example, potentially a local cannabis chef could receive technical assistance to create a business plan, rent a shared commercial kitchen space just for equity applicants, develop craft edible products and then deliver them straight to consumers as part of the microbusiness delivery pilot program. If they have agreed to hire people with drug convictions, are of Black or Latino descent and otherwise have qualified for economic empowerment priority, they could go straight to the front of the line for review and licensing. Those kinds of approaches are more direct than having each qualified applicant try to raise millions of dollars.

MM: What is the Commission considering as additional ways to reduce barriers to entry into the industry for underrepresented people?

ST: We recently approved our first license to a general applicant (not a medical dispensary or economic empowerment applicant), and it was a business owned by a woman. She didn’t have any special priority; she just managed to get through the process first. To me, that’s a sign we are well on our way to creating an accessible pathway. In a recent letter to my fellow commissioners, I compared our equity program to helping people cross a bridge as we build it, and asked to have a discussion on just this topic. Everyone came through, and during our last two public meetings we came up with a great list of ideas to explore, in addition to the programs we already offer. These ideas run the range from short-term to long-term, and administrative to visionary.

All of them are potentially useful tools to reduce barriers to entry into the industry:

—Issue formal recommendations to the legislature addressing the creation of grant programs or interest-free loan programs for equity program participants.

—Address the barriers to entry posed by having to secure real estate, facility design and local approval processes by creating regulations that allow shared-use cultivation and manufacturing space for certain groups of applicants or licensees. And to also explore community trusts and other models for affordable commercial space that enable small businesses to share space and costs.

—Create a single-packet or abbreviated application process for certain groups that takes place before the local approval process, specifically before the negotiation of a host community agreement.

—Consider requiring retailers to source a certain percentage of products from equity program participants, microbusinesses or craft co-ops.

—Provide more detailed information and data about compliance on the Commission website, with the goal of minimizing the need for applicants to hire consultants to interpret regulations and requirements.

The next step is for our staff to report back to the commission on the feasibility and suggested next steps for each idea.

MM: This spring the Cannabis Control Commission is expected to develop draft rules for social consumption and home delivery licenses, and final rules are expected in June. What else is coming down the pipeline?

ST: There is no guarantee that social consumption and home delivery will be approved by the Commission, but here is the timeline for discussion, which takes place in public:

Listening sessions in March, draft regulations presented to the public in April/May, public comment period and public hearings in May and final regulations filed in June.

MM: With legalization underway in Massachusetts, citizens may feel their work is done. What support does the Commission need from the public?

ST: The most important and impactful thing that Massachusetts citizens can do, by far, is to use your voice to call for your vision of what the cannabis industry should look like locally. Being a knowledgeable citizen is one area where there are minimal barriers to entry. If you carefully read and remember the CCC’s general municipal guidance and local equity guidance (as well as the Minority Cannabis Business Association’s model ordinance), you’ll know consultants charge who charge as much as $100/hour. A lot of people who are listed on the “Women of Weed” and “Cannabis Rockstars” type lists got their start just by paying attention and showing up consistently. This is such a new and rapidly changing environment that people who are able to keep up to date on the latest developments quickly become trusted as resources and experts.

I encourage you to be bold and visionary. Really think about how the cannabis marketplace can be part of your existing local culture. It doesn’t have to look exactly like alcohol, nor should it. Government officials can be so focused on the mental checklist in front of us—security, signage, traffic, packaging—that we can forget to have vision until constituents bring it up to us.

MM: With states like Rhode Island starting to introduce their own cannabis equity legislation, what influence, if any, do you think Massachusetts is having on other jurisdictions around the country?

ST: It’s been fascinating to watch the process unfold in other states. I see strong coalitions holding a firm position that legalization will not move forward unless it puts communities of color first. That’s wonderful to see, and my message for those coalitions is to keep each other’s contact information! You will need to come back together over and over and over, especially after the legislation passes and the most complex work starts.

I don’t think it’s clear to leaders in any state what precisely is meant by putting communities of color first. The consistent themes are automatic expungement, tax revenues reinvested into disproportionately harmed communities and economic justice through prioritized ownership and employment, but no state has provided a functioning model for this yet.  That’s where I think Massachusetts’s role comes in (along with California), and why we can be almost obsessive about collecting and transparently releasing detailed data.

I noted at a previous meeting that when Rep. [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez asked about racial justice in cannabis business licensing at the first-ever Congressional banking hearing on cannabis she began by sharing Massachusetts data and noting that the industry does not seem representative of the groups that have borne the greatest brunt of injustice, and in fact may be compounding the racial wealth gap. As a solution, she asked about prioritizing the front-line and most impacted communities for licenses, which of course is the Massachusetts model that I believe our data shows needs to be supplemented. It seems to me like the national dialogue is stalled waiting on the first states to collect data showing a model that works. It’s more pressure and urgency to take this effort seriously, because the impacts will be felt far beyond Massachusetts.

MM: Between Rep. Barbara Lee’s recent filing of three pieces of cannabis social justice legislation in Congress, Sen. Cory Booker’s reintroduction of the Marijuana Justice Act, and your own tweet acknowledging Booker’s having done more for cannabis social justice than any other 2020 candidate, what are your thoughts on how equity is becoming part of the bigger conversation surrounding the presidential election?

ST: We’ve come a long way from when candidates like President Barack Obama and Senator Kamala Harris merely laughed when asked about legalization! This campaign season is unique in the way it’s bringing issues of equality and justice to the forefront. Legalization itself is a given, as all the 2020 presidential candidates already support it. The more interesting question is, what type of legalization do they support? While your average voter may not immediately understand how legalization and economic justice are tied together, in my experience most people agree that they want policies that avoid creating “Big Marijuana.”

In line with many of the other issues the candidates are being forced to consider in a serious way, I think a packed primary is a perfect opportunity to ask how each candidate will use legalization to reinvest into communities harmed by the war on drugs. Certainly the conversation around cannabis and equity is not happening in a vacuum, and it shouldn’t. The way a candidate looks at legalization is a representation of whether they stand for people or profits.

MM: Finally, the Boston Globe recently reported on a Commission investigation into whether large marijuana companies are flouting the state’s ownership limitation rules by effectively controlling more licenses than they are allowed. What can you say about the status of that inquiry and more generally about efforts to make sure a few so-called “Big Marijuana” players don’t end up controlling the entire market?

ST: The Commission has been concerned about multistate operators’ attempts to bypass the Commission’s regulations and obtain more than three licenses. I fully trust our staff and their ability to ensure that all applicants comply with the law and the Commission’s regulations. I can tell you that we do not tolerate marijuana operators that attempt to undermine the legal industry in Massachusetts, including the limits on ownership and control. As we continue to implement the law, we will enforce our regulations and strengthen protections against anyone who tries to dominate the market illegally or exploit small players.

Model Legislation Aims To Help Cities Bring People Of Color Into Marijuana Industry

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.

Kaisha-Dyan McMillan is an Oakland-based freelance copywriter and journalist specializing in the cannabis industry. Her work has also appeared in DOPE Magazine, Weedguide.com and Oakland Magazine.

Politics

Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A House Floor Vote Next Week, Majority Leader Confirms

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A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators has been formally scheduled to receive a House floor vote on Monday, a calendar released by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) office confirms.

Marijuana Moment reported on the expected development earlier Friday after obtaining an email that was sent to stakeholders by a staffer for Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the bill’s sponsor, seeking letters of support for the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act ahead of the anticipated vote.

The bill is now now officially listed on the majority leader’s agenda of legislation for Monday.

This will mark the first floor action on a cannabis reform bill this Congress. The standalone legislation cleared the House with bipartisan support in 2019, and its language was also included in two coronavirus relief packages that the chamber approved. The proposal did not advance in any form in the Senate under GOP control, however.

With Democrats now in control of the House, Senate and White House, industry stakeholders are optimistic that the legislation stands a solid chance of becoming law this year.

The SAFE Banking Act was reintroduced in the House last month, and it currently has 151 cosponsors—more than one-third of the chamber. Days later, it was refiled in the Senate, where Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) are the chief sponsors.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 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.

The legislation would ensure that financial institutions could take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators.

Because the bill will be taken up under the process known as suspension of the rules, it will need a two-thirds supermajority to pass—an achievable threshold given the level of support it got during the earlier 2019 vote. No floor amendments will be allowed under the procedure.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said in a tweet on Friday that he’ll “be voting for the SAFE Banking Act in the House” and that it’s “absurd that Marijuana business cannot fully access the US financial system.” He did not comment on the timing of a vote, however.

After it passed the House last Congress, advocates and stakeholders closely watched for any action to come out of the Senate Banking Committee, where it was referred after being transmitted to the chamber. But then-Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) did not hold a hearing on the proposal, despite talk of negotiations taking place regarding certain provisions.

Crapo said he opposed the reform proposal, but he signaled that he might be more amenable if it included certain provisions viewed as untenable to the industry, including a 2 percent THC potency limit on products in order for cannabis businesses to qualify to access financial services as well as blocking banking services for operators that sell high-potency vaping devices or edibles that could appeal to children.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who took the top seat in that panel after Democrats secured a majority in the Senate, told reporters in February that he’s “willing” to move the cannabis banking bill, “but with it needs to come sentencing reform.”

The current Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act has 32 cosponsors.

When legislative leaders announced that the SAFE Banking Act was getting a House vote in 2019,  there was pushback from some advocates who felt that Congress should have prioritized comprehensive reform to legalize marijuana and promote social equity, rather than start with a measure viewed as primarily friendly to industry interests.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and an original cosponsor of the bill, said last month that the plan is to pass the banking reform first this session because it “is a public safety crisis now,” and it’s “distinct—as we’ve heard from some of my colleagues—distinct from how they feel about comprehensive reform.”

Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers are simultaneously preparing to introduce legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are in the process of crafting a legalization bill, and they’ve already met with advocates to get feedback on how best to approach the policy change.

Schumer said this week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Biden’s Already On Board With Federal Marijuana Legalization Even If He Doesn’t Use That Word, Booker Says

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Washington Senate Replaces Drug Decriminalization Bill With Revised Measure To Reinstate Penalties

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A bill that would have formally decriminalized drugs in Washington State was gutted on the Senate floor on Thursday, with lawmakers approving a dramatically revised version that instead reinstates criminal penalties following a state Supreme Court ruling that overturned prohibition.

The action sets up a possible showdown with more progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives who have said they won’t vote for legislation that returns to a criminal war on drugs.

Washington has been without a law against drug possession since a divided state Supreme Court abruptly struck it down February, after ruling that a narrow portion of the decades-old law was unconstitutional. Lawmakers have since scrambled to address the decision—which has halted drug arrests and prosecutions across the state and freed dozens of people incarcerated on drug possession charges—before the legislative session ends on April 25.

On the Senate floor on Thursday evening, a bill that originally would have left drug possession decriminalized was amended to instead make possession a gross misdemeanor, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine—a change that led its lead sponsor to vote against the measure.

Prior to the court decision, drug possession was classified as a felony.

Senators passed the amended version of the bill, SB 5476, on a 28–20–1 vote. It next proceeds to the House, where it’s scheduled for an initial hearing in the Appropriations Committee on Monday, with possible committee action slated for Wednesday, April 21.

Watch the senators discuss the drug penalties legislation, around 1:01:33 into the video below: 

As amended, the Senate-passed bill represents a moderate reform to Washington’s now-invalidated felony law against possession. It requires the prosecutors divert people for first- and second-time possession charges to evaluation and treatment programs, and allows for the possibility of further diversions with a prosecutor’s approval.

“I think that this striking amendment will help move us forward as we continue negotiations in these final 10 days with the body across the way toward having a response that will provide services and treatment and help for people who are struggling with substance use disorder,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D), who brought the amendment, said on the Senate floor.

The bill in its original form represented a more significant shift away from the drug war. It would have imposed no penalties for possession of small, “personal use” amounts of drugs, instead routing people to evaluation and treatment services for substance use disorder.

Some senators who initially supported SB 5476 ultimately changed their vote after the misdemeanor amendment was adopted. The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D) said she could no longer support the proposal.

“The way we are doing this, I’m glad there’ll be opportunities for diversion, but it needs to be not through the criminal justice system,” Dhingra said during floor debate. “I understand this is my bill, I understand my name is on there, but I will be voting no on this today.”

Many senators who weighed in on the bill Thursday said it was important that the legislature pass something before the session end, given the sweeping impact of February’s state Supreme Court decision, State v. Blake. In a statement issued after the floor vote, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said that not passing a state law on drug possession “means a patchwork of local ordinances that will be confusing to Washingtonians and won’t provide equal justice across the state.”

Generally speaking, state drug laws are understood to preempt those of Washington’s cities and counties. With the state law against possession gone, localities could establish their own laws and penalties, and some have already begun doing so.

“The bill we passed today is not the final word on the subject,” Billig said in a statement. “It is a compromise that keeps this important legislation moving so that we can do our duty as the representatives of the people of our whole state.”

Representatives in the House, however, have indicated more openness to leaving drug possession decriminalized this session. On Thursday, lawmakers in favor of broader drug reform introduced a new bill, HB 1578, which would expand treatment and recovery services and reclassify low-level possession as a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $125 and no possibility of jail time.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 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.

Of all the measures currently in play this session, the new bill is the one that most closely resembles neighboring Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure passed by voters in November. But its path forward is uncertain: HB 1578 would need to pass both chambers of the legislature in less than two weeks.

Likewise, it remains unclear how the House will receive the Senate-passed bill, SB 5476, in its new form. More progressive members of the Democratic caucus have said they won’t vote for legislation that reimposes criminal penalties for simple possession, but it’s not certain they’ll be able to muster enough support to pass a decriminalization measure.

If House lawmakers were to amend the Senate bill before passing it, the legislation would need to go to a conference committee, where members of both chambers would iron out differences in the two versions of the bills.

Earlier this year, before the Supreme Court’s decision, a House committee passed a separate bill, HB 1499, that would have ended criminal penalties for personal use amounts of drugs and instead routed people to evaluation and treatment. It would have also significantly expanded the state’s outreach and recovery programs for people with drug use disorders. That measure failed to proceed further after missing a legislative deadline last month.

HB 1499, for its part, stemmed from an effort to put a drug decriminalization initiative on Washington’s ballot last year. Supporters pivoted to a push through the legislature after pressing pause on their signature-gathering campaign after COVID-19 first broke out in the Seattle area early last year.

Advocates for reform have noted that the state’s criminal enforcement of drug possession laws has had a strong bias against people of color, particularly the state’s Black, brown and Indigenous communities.

In her comments on the Senate floor, Dhingra echoed that point, arguing that the Blake decision presents a chance for lawmakers to finally begin to address those racial disparities.

“I will say that the Supreme Court did provide us with an opportunity,” she said, “an opportunity to really think about what we as a state and as a nation have been doing in regards to the war on drugs, and to really think critically of the impact that this has had very, very specifically on Brown and Black families.”

“The racial impact of our drug laws cannot be understated,” Dhingra continued. “When we take a look at mass incarceration, when we take a look at families with a single mom who is bringing up her children, when we take a look at parents who cannot find a job because of their criminal history, cannot find housing, cannot seek recovery, it comes down to the manner in which we have been enforcing our drug laws.”

Rep. Roger Goodman (D), the lead sponsor of the new House measure, HB 1578, which would make possession a civil infraction, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday evening. In an interview with Marijuana Moment last month, however, he called the Blake decision “both a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s an opportunity for us to come up with a more effective approach that does less harm,” he said, “but we don’t have the opportunity to be deliberate and inclusive in conversations with interested parties, so it’s not as well thought-out a proposal as it would be otherwise. It has to be an interim measure.”

Just five years ago, few state legislatures would have dreamed of letting drugs remain decriminalized after a court decision like Blake. Now attitudes are beginning to shift.

“There’s this phenomenon called discontinuous change,” Goodman told Marijuana Moment, “where nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then the Berlin Wall falls down. We’re getting to that place in drug policy where it’s a tipping point.”

Oregon voters ended prohibition of low-level drug possession at the ballot during last November’s election, which has contributed to the national conversation.

In both Maine and Vermont, lawmakers have also recently unveiled legislation last month to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs. Last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said last month that he’s “open-minded” on decriminalizing all drugs.

California Bill To Legalize Possession Of Psychedelics Clears Second Senate Committee

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Biden’s Already On Board With Federal Marijuana Legalization Even If He Doesn’t Use That Word, Booker Says

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Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) says that President Joe Biden is already where he needs to be to get a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition enacted into law—even if he personally opposes legalization. Confusion about the president’s position comes down to semantics, the senator indicated.

Booker said in a recent interview that Biden’s stance in favor of “decriminalization” will be enough to advance the reform legislation he’s working on with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR).

That reason being, he said, is that what the reform proposal would accomplish at the federal level is effectively decriminalizing marijuana by removing it from the list of controlled substances and letting states set their own policies—something Biden does supports.

“I have a great partner” in the president, Booker said in an interview on the podcast Hell & High Water that was published on Wednesday. “He believes in decriminalization—and as I said to him the first time we talked about it was, ‘well, my bill is no different. I think states should be allowed to do what they want.'”

“I think it should be legalized, but what we need to do at the federal level is de-list marijuana. And as soon as you decriminalize marijuana, you open up states that right now are not able to do a lot of things, to give way for what I want to achieve,” Booker said. “His policy position on marijuana—he may say, ‘I’m not for legalization, I’m for decriminalization’—as a federal official, that’s where I’m trying to get.”

In other words, the senator isn’t especially concerned that Biden would be an obstacle if Congress passes the legalization bill he’s planning to introduce, as long as it’s made clear that there’s no mandate for all states to set up tax-and-regulate marijuana markets if they don’t want to.

Booker also said he would like for people to stop playing a video clip of him calling out Biden’s opposition to legalization during a presidential primary debate in 2019, as the interview host did in the new podcast interview. At the time, the senator jokingly accused his fellow candidate of being “high” when he articulated his opposition to legalization days earlier.

“That is a little clip I’m hoping at some point stops being played,” he said. “But yes, indeed, I accused Joe Biden of being high.”

While the text of the pending legalization legislation has yet to be introduced, it’s expected to incorporate key provisions from past reform bills such as Booker’s own Marijuana Justice Act (MJA) that could create incentives for states to adopt legalization. For example, the MJA called for the withholding of certain federal funds to states where cannabis criminalization is enforced out in a racially disproportionate way.

That would go a bridge further than simple decriminalization, so it remains to be seen if Biden would be amendable to that kind of broader reform.

In any case, Booker’s point about the decriminalization/legalization distinction when it comes to federal policy was also made by Schumer in a recent press conference. The majority leader, who’s said that Congress will move forward with legalization regardless of the president’s position, said last month that “I support decriminalization at the federal level, and we’ll be introducing legislation with a few of my colleagues shortly.”

Asked to clarify whether he supports legalization, Schumer replied, “decriminalization, legalization,” implying that the two terms are used interchangeably.

“At the federal level, you call it ‘decriminalization’ because that lets the states legalize,” he said. But in general, advocates draw a distinction between the terms, with decriminalization usually being used to describe state or local policies that simply remove the threat of incarceration for simple possession while fines or other penalties could still be levied, which is distinct from outright legalization.

Schumer also said this week that the legalization bill they’re working on will be brought to the floor of his chamber “soon.”

He, Wyden and Booker formally started their reform efforts by holding a meeting earlier this year with representatives from a variety of advocacy groups to gain feedback on the best approach to the reform.

Schumer made a point last month to say that it will specifically seek to restrict the ability of large alcohol and tobacco companies to overtake the industry.

Instead, it will prioritize small businesses, particularly those owned by people from communities most impacted by prohibition, and focus on “justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom,” he said.

He also urged voters to reach out to their congressional representatives and tell them that “this is long overdue.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Now that Democrats have the majority in both chambers, as well as the White House, there’s a sense of optimism among advocates that comprehensive reform is achievable in this Congress.

But with respect to the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that Biden’s position on adult-use legalization “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the policy.

69 Percent Of Americans Now Support Legalizing Marijuana—An All-Time High, Quinnipiac Poll Finds

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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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