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Mississippi Lawmakers Reach Deal On Medical Marijuana Legalization, Plan To Request Special Session

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Lawmakers reached a deal on key provisions such as which agencies should be responsible for regulating the medical cannabis market.

By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today

Legislative negotiators and leaders have agreed on a draft of medical marijuana legislation, and are anticipated to ask Gov. Tate Reeves (R) as early as Friday to call the Legislature into special session, sources close to the negotiations said Thursday.

Legislative leaders on Thursday released some details of the proposal—which had been kept close to the vest for months—such as that cities and counties will be allowed to “opt out” of having medical marijuana cultivation or dispensaries, although local voters can override this.

Negotiations have dragged on throughout the summer on crafting a medical marijuana program to replace one passed by Mississippi voters in November but shot down in May by the state Supreme Court on a constitutional technicality.

House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) in a Thursday interview on a Supertalk radio show said he believed the House and Senate leadership and negotiators are “in agreement” on a draft bill, and he believes both chambers have the votes to pass such a measure. He said he planned to get together with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R), then barring any last minute glitches “inform the governor we are ready.”

Other sources close to the negotiations on Thursday told Mississippi Today they anticipate that request to the governor would happen as soon as Friday. Reeves has sole authority to call lawmakers into special session, and would set the date and parameters of a special session. Although legislative leaders have expressed interest in dealing with COVID-19 and other issues in a special session, Reeves has appeared unwilling but said he would call a session for medical marijuana, pending lawmakers are in agreement and he agrees with the measure.

Gunn in his radio interview on Thursday gave some particulars of the bill, but said “don’t hold me to it” and deferred to Rep. Lee Yancey, (R), the lead House negotiator on the measure. Yancey has worked with Sen. Kevin Blackwell, (R), the lead Senate negotiator. Blackwell could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.

Yancey gave Mississippi Today some highlights of the draft bill, which would be subject to changes by the full Legislature. They include:

Cities and counties could opt out. Voters could opt back in. City councils or aldermen, or county boards of supervisors, within 60 days of passage of legislation, could opt out from allowing cultivation or dispensing of medical marijuana within their borders. However, voters could gather 1,500 signatures, or signatures of 20 percent of voters, whichever is less, and force a referendum on the issue. If such a referendum to allow it fails, voters could try again in two years, similar to state alcohol referenda. Yancey said that under the draft measure, “Once it’s in, it’s in,” meaning once approved, a locality could not come back and ban it.

“This gives businesses the certainty they need to get started,” Yancey said. “No licenses will be issued the first 60 days after passage for cultivation and processing, and licenses (for cannabis use) and dispensaries wouldn’t start until the 90th day.”

Smoking cannabis would be allowed. There had been debate on whether Mississippi’s program would allow smoking of cannabis by patients, as most states with programs allow, or prohibit it, as Alabama does with its recently approved program.

“There are those who have certain debilitating conditions who need the effects of medical cannabis to take effect immediately,” Yancey said. “Ingesting a gummy or something like that could take 45 minutes to an hour. Whether it’s terrible seizures or pain and suffering or not being able to eat, there are those who need relief as immediately as possible… There are those who look at this from a bias of recreational use, but that’s not apples to apples, not fair. There are people who are suffering, who need the palliative relieve medical cannabis can provide, and our main goal is to allow people who are suffering terrible illnesses to get relief.”

Medical marijuana would be subject to sales tax and an excise. The state’s sales tax, currently at 7 percent, would be levied on medical marijuana, as well as a $15 an ounce excise. Yancey said the goal was to have a 5 percent excise, but that going rates for marijuana vary by potency and product, so the weight-based tax was the easiest way to get near that mark. Weight for edibles and other product would be based on the cannabis weight, not food or other product. Yancey said this tax rate would put Mississippi roughly in the middle of states with legalized medical cannabis.

“The going rate for mid-range (marijuana flower) is about $300 an ounce, so if you do the math, $15 an ounce would be around the 5%,” Yancey said. “If a product sold for lower, you would pay higher than that rate, if sold for more, you would pay less.”

Outdoor growing would not be allowed. Lawmakers during hearings this summer were told by officials from other states that regulating growing and safety of medical marijuana is easier with indoor growing facilities.

State Health Department would be in charge, with Department of Revenue, Agriculture Commission sharing some responsibilities. The Mississippi State Department of Health would oversee the state’s medical marijuana program, but the state’s taxing and agriculture agencies would share some regulatory duties. State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson has told lawmakers he will not participate in regulating medical marijuana because marijuana is still federally illegal. Gipson has threatened to sue if lawmakers try to force him to participate.

Yancey said the proposal would allow Gipson to subcontract growing regulations to someone else.

“For instance, if the Board of Pharmacy said it was interested in regulating the plants—like they do with compounding pharmacies—they could do it,” Yancey said. “In a sense Andy wouldn’t have to do it himself, he could farm it out, no pun intended.”

Preference would be given to in-state companies. Yancey said cultivators would be licensed in tiers—from “micro cultivators” to large ones, based on square footage of canopy space. Micro growers, under 2,000 square feet, would have to be “100 percent Mississippi resident participation.” Larger ones initially would have to have 35 percent Mississippi ownership, but that requirement would be repealed after one year. Yancey said this could help Mississippians be involved in the business, but help the state avoid lawsuits other states have faced from out-of-state growers. Yancey said there would be a similar setup for processors, based on amount of pounds of product they produce.

Potency would be regulated. Yancey said there would be THC potency limits of 30 percent on flower, 60 percent on concentrates and infused products. He said any product above 30 percent THC would have to have a warning label.

This story was first published by Mississippi Today.

Mississippi Agriculture Department Should Have No Role In Medical Marijuana Regulation, Commissioner Tells Lawmakers

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill

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The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.

His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.

“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.

“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”

It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.

The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.

Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.

In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.

Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures

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Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures

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Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.

This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.

The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.

CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.

“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”

The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.

A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).

A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”

The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.

The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.

Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.

Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”

With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.

Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.

Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.

A legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).

A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.

There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.

After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.

Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.

Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.

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Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.

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A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”

While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.

The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.

Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.

The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.

That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.

“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.

Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.

“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”

The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.

She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”

However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.

While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.

She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.

Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.

USDA Teams Up With Cornell University For Hemp Education Webinar Series

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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