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Mississippi Senate Approves Alternate Medical Marijuana Program, Hours After Defeating It

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The measure faced bipartisan opposition, despite the numerous last-minute concessions to reduce its taxes on marijuana and to ensure it wouldn’t thwart the Initiative 65 medical marijuana program that voters passed into the state constitution in a landslide in November.

By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today

After failing to gain the needed three-fifths vote in a first try Thursday night, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R) held the Senate over into Friday morning and it passed a legislative alternative to the medical marijuana program voters approved in November.

Senate Bill 2765, authored by Senate Medicaid Chairman Kevin Blackwell (R), passed 30-19 on Friday morning at about 1:15 AM. The bill had failed a Thursday night vote, 30-21, needing 31 to pass. The lesser number for passage was needed in the wee hours Friday because some senators were absent, lowering the three-fifths threshold.

Sens. Jennifer Branning (R) and Tammy Witherspoon, (D)—both of whom voted against the measure the first time—were absent for the second vote. Sen. Lydia Chassaniol (R), who voted for the bill the first time, was absent the second vote. Sen. Benjamin Suber (R) had been absent for the first vote but voted for the bill on the second vote.

The measure now heads to the House, where it faces an uncertain future. Senators included a “reverse repealer” in the measure, meaning the House could not pass it on to the governor without more debate in the Senate.

The measure would take effect only if the courts strike down the voter-passed Initiative 65 medical marijuana program, which is now in the state constitution but faces a challenge in the state Supreme Court. “Trigger language” was added to the Senate bill in an amendment on Thursday. Originally the measure, if passed, would have created its own program regardless of whether Initiative 65 was there or not.

The bill would tax medical marijuana, with a 4 percent excise at cultivation, and with a sales tax patients would pay. In an effort to gain more support, the original 10 percent sales tax was amended to 7 percent on Thursday night. Most of the taxes collected would go to education, including early learning and college scholarships.

The bill also would levy large licensing fees on growers and dispensary shop owners. Originally, those fees would have been $100,000 for growers and $20,000 for dispensaries. Those were reduced to $15,000 and $5,000, respectively, on Thursday night. Other changes were made in an effort to assuage those who believed such fees would keep small businesses and farms out of the game.

The measure faced bipartisan opposition, despite the numerous last-minute concessions to reduce its taxes on marijuana and to ensure it wouldn’t thwart the Initiative 65 medical marijuana program that voters passed into the state constitution in a landslide in November.

“The bill in front of you does not replace Initiative 65,” Blackwell told senators before the first vote. “It has trigger language, where in case Initiative 65 is struck down by the courts, it will be enacted. Seventy-four percent of our population approved Initiative 65, whether you like it or not… This bill only goes into effect if the courts strike down 65.”

But Senate Bill 2765 began as something of an end-run around Initiative 65, and until amended in a last ditch effort to gain enough votes, it would have “co-existed” with Initiative 65, or potentially replaced it depending on courts and the industry. Many supporters of the original grassroots voter marijuana initiative decried the legislative attempt to create a “parallel program” as dirty pool.

Watch the initial Mississippi Senate debate on the medical cannabis measure, at 8:29:36 into the video below:

After years of inaction by the Legislature despite growing grassroots, bipartisan support, voters took the matter in hand in November and approved Initiative 65. It’s a constitutional amendment mandating and specifying a state medical marijuana program. It puts the state Health Department in charge, even though the department and its board say it is ill equipped for the task. It prevents standard taxation of the marijuana, and any fees collected by the Health Department can only be used to run and expand the marijuana program, not go into state taxpayer coffers. Initiative 65 allows little regulation or zoning by local governments and no limits on the number of dispensaries.

The Initiative 65 constitutional amendment also now faces litigation, set to be heard in April by the Mississippi Supreme Court. Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler brought the challenge, arguing the state’s initiative process is flawed and the measure was improperly before voters. Other lawmakers and political observers have opined that Initiative 65 could face other legal challenges — and could be tied up in courts for years.

Some proponents of the Senate legislation passed Friday morning have pitched it as a backstop—a way to stand up a medical marijuana program in Mississippi, even if the state Supreme Court overturns the voter-approved constitutional amendment or it faces years of further legal challenges. Others said it could serve as a better program for taxpayers and local communities even if Initiative 65 is upheld.

The bill’s supporters reasoned that since many state leaders are opposed to Initiative 65, including the agency tasked with running it, and litigation is pending, the Legislature-passed program would provide more stability for the industry. They surmise growers and dispensaries would opt for the Legislature-approved plan.

The Senate plan would have the Department of Agriculture and Department of Revenue regulating the program, not the Health Department.

The Senate stayed in recess much of the deadline day on Thursday, in part because the leadership was trying to whip votes and come up with changes to the medical marijuana proposal to garner the three-fifths majority needed for passage.

Some key issues that led to the bill’s defeat in the first attempt on Thursday:

• Democrats, and in particular the Black Caucus, were angered over the Wednesday passage of a Senate bill to more easily purge voter rolls in Mississippi and were not feeling very amenable on the marijuana push.

• Some Republicans were concerned the marijuana proposal had anti-competitive measures that would favor large corporations and prevent small Mississippi growers and businesses from getting in the market.

• Other Republicans did not want to vote on a marijuana proposal, period — one reason the Legislature hadn’t been able to come up with a program before voters took things in hand in November with Initiative 65.

• With Initiative 65 passing by a landslide in November, and many advocates accusing the Legislature of trying an end-run around the voter approved constitutional amendment, some lawmakers didn’t want to be seen as usurping a grassroots initiative.

This story was first published by Mississippi Today.

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Massachusetts Lawmakers Discuss Drug Decriminalization And Safe Injection Sites At Hearing

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Massachusetts lawmakers on Monday heard testimony on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program for safe injection facilities where people could use illicit substances in a medically supervised environment to prevent overdose deaths and facilitate treatment.

The state legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery held a hearing on the harm reduction proposals, with experts and people personally impacted by substance misuse advocating for new approaches to drugs that destigmatize addiction and offer people resources outside of a criminal justice context.

The decriminalization bill would replace criminal penalties for the possession of any controlled substance with a civil fine of up to $50. To avoid the fine, individuals could enroll in a “needs screening to identify health and other service needs, including but not limited to services that may address any problematic substance use and mental health conditions, lack of employment, housing, or food, and any need for civil legal services.”

For the safe injection site legislation, the state would establish a 10-year pilot program where at least two facilities would “utilize harm reduction tools, including clinical monitoring of the consumption of pre-obtained controlled substances in the presence of trained staff, for the purpose of reducing the risks of disease transmission and preventing overdose deaths.”

A separate, less far-reaching bill that was added to the agenda in a late addition would direct the Department of Public Health to simply “evaluate the feasibility” of safe consumption sites and then report back to lawmakers by July 31, 2022..

The joint committee listened to academics, health professionals, lawmakers discuss the reform proposals but did not take immediate action on any of the legislation. It’s unclear when the bills will be taken up again for further consideration.

“By every metric, the war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure,” Rep. Mike Connolly (D) said. “In the United States and here in Massachusetts, the criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of mass incarceration. We know that black people have been incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than white people, and there’s no question that the criminalization of substance use issues has contributed to these terrible disparities.”

Connolly is also the sponsor of legislation that received a Joint Judiciary Committee hearing in July on  studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.

Officials with at least one Massachusetts city, Somerville, said that there are plans in the work to launch a safe injection facility in the jurisdiction. And they want to see the statewide bill pass to provide additional protections against being federally penalized.

“State legislation, wielding its constitutionally granted powers to enact laws for public health and safety, has the ability to greatly minimize these risks through legislation authorizing a pilot of safe consumption sites,” Hannah Pappenheim, assistant city solicitor at the City of Somerville, said. “In addition, state legislation would also minimize the risk of costly—but more importantly, lengthy—litigation.”

The official noted that a separate, Pennsylvania-based case on the legality of safe injection sites has been ongoing in federal courts for years at this point.

A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—recently filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Xavier Bacerra, the Biden administration’s secretary of health and human services, was among eight top state law enforcement officials who filed an earlier amicus brief in support of the Philadelphia-based Safehouse’s safe injection site plan when he served as California’s attorney general.

“State legislation paves the way for a more expedient process in Somerville, and of course elsewhere in the Commonwealth,” Pappenheim said.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone (D) said at Monday’s hearing that “it’s important for Massachusetts to finally lead—not just compiling, but implementing a strategy that reduces harm and save lives.” He conceded that he previously opposed the concept of allowing safe consumption sites; but his personal experience knowing people in his immediate family who suffered from addiction—as well as his own review of the scientific literature on harm reduction alternatives to criminalization—led him to embrace the reforms.

Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.

The governor of neighboring Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.

Oamshri Amarasingham, deputy legislative director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, voiced support for both reform proposals at Monday’s hearing and told WGBH that establishing a safe injection site pilot program “is one piece of that puzzle” that is “critically important and that’s had great success in other countries.”

Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis commissioner who now heads the Parabola Center, juxtaposed how laws handle substances like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine differently from currently illegal drugs.

“What separates that from when we have these illicit drugs, where handcuffs and cages are involved, and what led that to be? The reason has nothing to do with science, or evidence or the relative dangers of those drugs,” she said. “The reason is because—and this is well-documented—those drugs could be scapegoated and blamed on their association with indigenous and Indian and Mexican and Chinese and other cultures, and then used to target communities of color, particularly black and Latino people nationally and here in Massachusetts.”

At the same time that Massachusetts legislators are looking into harm reduction and broad drug decriminalization, local activists in the state have also been pursuing psychedelics reform.

Three Massachusetts cities—NorthamptonSomerville and Cambridge—have each passed resolutions to deprioritize enforcement of laws against the possession, use and distribution of a wide range of psychedelics and other drugs. The Easthampton City Council is also exploring a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of entheogenic substances, with a meeting set for Friday.

Marijuana Arrests Dropped Sharply In 2020 As Both COVID And Legalization Spread, FBI Data Shows

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Marijuana Arrests Dropped Sharply In 2020 As Both COVID And Legalization Spread, FBI Data Shows

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Marijuana arrests declined significantly in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, newly released FBI data shows.

There were 1,155,610 drug-related arrests overall last year, with cannabis sales and possession busts accounting for just over 30 percent (or 350,150) of those cases. The vast majority were for marijuana possession alone.

The agency’s data shows that there was a cannabis arrest every 90 seconds in the country in 2020, and there was a drug-related arrest every 27 seconds.

While these figures still highlight the rampant, ongoing criminalization of cannabis in states across the U.S., it’s a substantial deescalation compared to 2019, when FBI reported a total of 545,601 marijuana arrests. That amounted to a cannabis bust every 58 seconds.

Put another way, there was a 36 percent decrease in cannabis cases from 2019 to 2020. And while the federal agency doesn’t attempt to explain the statistical shift, there are a number of factors that could help explain it.

One of the more obvious societal changes during that timeframe is the COVID-19 health crisis, which involved social distancing requirements and generally discouraged people from being out in public where they might be at higher risk of being arrested for simple possession.

But advocates have also pointed out that the marijuana reform movement could be playing a role. Illinois’s adult-use cannabis law took effect at the beginning of 2020, for example. Hawaii, New Mexico and North Dakota also enacted decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2019, and Virginia followed suit the next year.

In Arizona, limited cannabis possession was legalized for adults starting on November 30, 2020 following voter approval of a reform initiative earlier that month.

“As more states move toward the sensible policy of legalizing and regulating cannabis, we are seeing a decline in the arrest of non-violent marijuana consumers nationwide,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana Moment. “The fight for legalization is a fight for justice. While these numbers represent a historic decline in arrests, even one person being put into handcuffs for the simple possession of marijuana is too many.”

Despite the decline in cannabis busts, the new data shows that American law enforcement still carried out more arrests for marijuana alone last year than for murder, rape, robbery, burglary, fraud and embezzlement combined.

It should be noted that not all local police participate in FBI’s reporting program, so these figures are not holistic and are estimates the agency makes based on those that do submit data.

The country had seen a consistent decline in cannabis arrests for roughly a decade prior to 2016, when those cases started to rise up until 2019.

Observers expect to see the downward trend in cannabis busts continue as more states move to end prohibition and law enforcement deprioritizes marijuana-relate cases. In New York, for example, police received new guidance this year stipulating that adults 21 and older can possess certain amounts of marijuana and consume it in places where tobacco use is permitted.

That directive alone seems to have led to a dramatic decrease in cannabis arrests in New York City.

Federal marijuana trafficking cases also continued to decline in 2020 as more states have moved to legalize, an analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) that was released in June found.

Federal prosecutions of drug-related crimes overall increased in 2019, but cases involving marijuana dropped by more than a quarter, according to an end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in December.

A study released by the Cato Institute in 2018 found that “state-level marijuana legalization has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.

New York Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Will Create ‘Thousands’ Of Jobs And Touts Regulatory Appointments

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New York Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Will Create ‘Thousands’ Of Jobs And Touts Regulatory Appointments

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The governor of New York says marijuana legalization will generate “thousands and thousands of jobs” in the state, and she’s touting her recent actions to make regulatory appointments for the industry to get implementation underway.

At the Business Council of New York State’s annual meeting on Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) talked about the state’s business ethic and the importance of supporting markets of all sizes, including cannabis companies.

“We do want to go big or go home, and I want to help you get there,” she said. “I need you to survive because you’re the identity of New York that people create jobs and opportunities. You are who we are as New Yorkers. Your success means the success of this entire state.”

“So count me in as an ally—someone who’s going to be there for you, who will fight for you to make sure that we do not lose out to any competition, whether it’s in the space of cannabis, where I believe there’s thousands and thousands of jobs and new industries, to be created that were not even focused on,” Hochul said.

The governor has made a point of emphasizing her support for adult-use legalization and standing up the industry since replacing former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who resigned amid a sexual misconduct scandal last month.

At Friday’s meeting, she said, “I had to unleash this opportunity that had been stifled for the first five months [after legalization was signed into law] because a few appointments hadn’t been made. Got that done.”

Hochul named two additional Cannabis Control Board members last week, which followed the Senate confirmation of previous appointees earlier this month. The newly named regulators do not require confirmation by lawmakers.

According to The New York Post, the governor reportedly recently dismissed Norman Birenbaum, director of cannabis programs under Cuomo, whom advocates had opposed becoming the head of the new Office of Cannabis Management.

Under New York’s legalization law, the independent Office of Cannabis Management within the New York State Liquor Authority was established and will be responsible for regulating the recreational cannabis market as well as the existing medical marijuana and hemp programs. It will be overseen by a five-member Cannabis Control Board.

Three members have now been appointed by the governor, and the Senate and Assembly have also appointed one member each.

As it stands, adults 21 and older can possess up to three ounces of cannabis or 24 grams of concentrates in New York—and they can also smoke marijuana in public anywhere tobacco can be smoked—but there aren’t any shops open for business yet.

The first recreational marijuana retailers in New York may actually be located on Indian territory, with one tribe officially opening applications for prospective licensees earlier this month.

In July, a New York senator filed a bill to create a provisional marijuana licensing category so that farmers could begin cultivating and selling cannabis ahead of the formal rollout of the adult-use program. The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

Because the implementation process has been drawn out, however, one GOP senator wants to give local jurisdictions another year to decide whether they will opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area—a proposal that advocates say is unnecessary and would create undue complications for the industry.

Under the law as enacted, municipalities must determine whether they will opt out of permitting marijuana retailers or social consumption sites by December 31, 2021. Sen. George Borrello (R) introduced legislation earlier this month that would push that deadline back one year.

Legalization activists aren’t buying the argument, however.

Adding pressure to get the market up and running is the fact that regulators in neighboring New Jersey recently released rules for its adult-use marijuana program, which is being implemented after voters approved a legalization referendum last year.

The state comptroller recently projected that New York stands to eventually generate $245 million in annual marijuana revenue, which they say will help offset losses from declining tobacco sales.

For the first year of cannabis sales, the state is expected to see just $20 million in tax and fee collections. That will be part of an estimated $26.7 billion in new revenues that New York is expected to generate in fiscal year 2021-2022 under a budget that the legislature passed in April.

Meanwhile, a New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to research the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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