Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) complained in a floor speech on Thursday that House Democrats were pushing for “diversity detectives” to study equity in the marijuana industry as part of their latest coronavirus relief package.
Like several other GOP legislators in recent days, the majority leader said Democrats were making partisan demands in the new legislation filed this week—and he zeroed in on a specific part of a section that would protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
McConnell called language requiring research on minority-owned and women-owned marijuana businesses “the cherry on top” and sarcastically referred to it as the “bold new policy from Washington Democrats that will kick the coronavirus to the curb and save American families from this crisis.”
“Here it is: new annual studies on diversity and inclusion within the cannabis industry. Not one study but two of them,” he said. “Let me say that again, Democrats’ proposed coronavirus bill includes taxpayer-funded studies to measure diversity and inclusion among the people who profit off of marijuana.”
He added that the word “cannabis” appears in the bill 68 times. That’s “more times than the word ‘job’ and four times as many as the word ‘hire,'” he said.
That talking point has been echoed by a number of Republican lawmakers since House leadership unveiled their bill, indicating some level of party coordination on the anti-marijuana messaging. Despite the bluster, however, no GOP members filed amendments to strike the banking language prior to a Thursday House Rules Committee hearing to prepare the bill for floor action.
Notably, however, McConnell never criticized the main thrust of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, just the study provision.
“Maybe it’s best if House Democrats focus on cannabis studies and leave economics to the rest of us,” he said, adding that even if the legislation was designed to be a messaging bill, it fails at that.
“That’s what’s so remarkable,” he said. “House Democrats had a blank slate to write anything wanted to define the modern Democratic Party, any vision for the society they wanted, and here’s what they chose: tax hikes on small businesses, giveaways to blue state millionaires, government checks for illegal immigrants and sending diversity detectives to inspect the pot industry.”
House Democrats had a blank slate to propose any vision for the recovery. This draft is all they have done for two months. And they came up with: tax hikes on small businesses, tax cuts for blue-state millionaires, and taxpayer-funded diversity detectives for the pot industry.
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) May 14, 2020
McConnell, who is a strong advocate for hemp and held closed-door meetings with marijuana businesses in California last year, never said in his floor remarks that he’s against providing protections for banks that work with the cannabis industry—the main point of the SAFE Banking Act that made it into the coronavirus bill.
That could have something to do with the fact that the standalone legislation—which includes the diversity study provisions—in his chamber currently has five Republican cosponsors, including Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Slamming a bill outright that Gardner, who is facing a serious reelection threat this November, has championed might not be the most strategic political move to help maintain GOP control of the chamber going into next year.
Staff running the Senate Republican Conference’s Twitter account appeared to recognize that on Tuesday. After listing the banking provision as an example of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) “political-pipe-dream” in the COVID-19 relief bill, Marijuana Moment’s publisher replied that they must not care about Gardner’s reelection bid. The tweet was then promptly deleted.
The House passed the SAFE Banking Act along largely bipartisan lines last year, with 91 Republicans joining most Democrats in voting aye. That strong support could help explain why no amendments were filed to remove the banking language in the Rules Committee, with members who might want to strike it acknowledging that the effort would likely fail.
Since the bill’s passage, Gardner has been involved in negotiations to reach a deal with Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) on advancing the legislation in his chamber. He said earlier this year that an agreement was “close.”
But based on various social media posts and statements by House and Senate Republicans, the prospects of enacting cannabis banking reform through the House’s latest iteration of COVID-19 relief legislation are questionable, with numerous GOP lawmakers issuing seemingly coordinated criticism of those provisions and questioning their germaneness.
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said in a floor speech on Wednesday that the coronavirus bill “actually sets up a series of changes in our federal cannabis laws, which immediately I thought of, okay, how much information is in this bill by cannabis?”
“Cannabis is actually mentioned in this bill 68 times. Now, i’m not sure why that’s in a bill dealing with COVID-19, but it does dramatic changes in our federal cannabis laws,” he said.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) made similar points on the floor, stating that “Speaker Pelosi’s bill is very pro-cannabis.”
“I don’t know how the presiding officer feels about cannabis—that is your business—but it is controversial in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “I think it mentions cannabis something like 28 times.”
In a blog post on Thursday, GOP Senate leadership characterized the marijuana provision and other items of the House leadership’s bill as part of an “expensive, unserious wish list” and said the legislation is a “spending spree stuffed with a wish list filled up with all the party’s favored policies.”
Here are some other GOP reactions to the marijuana banking proposal:
Dems $3T “stimulus” bill uses word “cannabis” 68 times (more than the word “jobs.” Not terribly surprising, since we know smoking pot can make you repeat yourself…. https://t.co/7xOAK2C5oL pic.twitter.com/u6drdBTqZh
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 13, 2020
— U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (@SenBillCassidy) May 13, 2020
Pelosi's 3$ trillion bill is politically motivated garbage. When a recovery bill mentions “Marijuana” more times than “jobs” we have an issue. We need real solutions to the problems facing Americans, not political agendas. https://t.co/XJyjPWbHRa
— Bill Cassidy, M.D. (@BillCassidy) May 14, 2020
Pelosi’s $3T socialist wish list makes clear that Democrats prioritize their left-wing agenda over aid to our nation’s heroes.
They want to give handouts to illegal immigrants, release dangerous criminals & give banking privileges to marijuana companies.
— U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (@SenBillCassidy) May 14, 2020
Was on the air with @hughhewitt this AM. We spoke about House Dems’ massive new spending package that’s really a grab bag of Dem agenda items disguised as #COVID19 relief. As was said, it mentions cannabis more times than it mentions jobs. Nobody is taking it seriously.
— Senator John Thune (@SenJohnThune) May 14, 2020
The American people know what is at stake, but does Pelosi? Instead of writing a bill that provides real relief she gave us a partisan wishlist that:
➡️Uses the word cannabis more than #COVID19 testing
➡️Gives tax breaks for wealthy blue-state donors
➡️ Changes election law
— Ways and Means GOP (@WaysandMeansGOP) May 13, 2020
You know something is suspicious when the word “cannabis” is used 68 times – more than “job” or “jobs” combined – in an economic stimulus bill.
I’m not sure what they were smoking, but whatever socialist euphoria they‘re feeling will fade fast when it arrives in the Senate.
— Rep. Arrington (@RepArrington) May 13, 2020
Did you know that in Speaker Pelosi's new bill, the word cannabis appears more times than the word job?
Why are we wasting time on this special interest wish list – that is dead on arrival in the Senate – instead of helping the American people?
— Rep. Kevin Brady (@RepKevinBrady) May 14, 2020
What does ballot harvesting, marijuana banking, bailouts of union pensions & early release of criminals have to do with economic "stimulus"?
— Rep. Kevin Brady (@RepKevinBrady) May 14, 2020
What’s in Speaker Pelosi’s partisan wishlist:
❌60+ mentions of cannabis
❌Preventing state voter ID requirements
❌$50 million to the EPA for environmental justice grants
This is nothing more than a Democrat attempt to advance their left-wing agenda.
— Rep. Doug Collins (@RepDougCollins) May 14, 2020
At $3,000,000,000,000 it's more like the ZEROES Act.
These items & many more have nothing to do with relief:
•Tax breaks for the top 1%
•Millions more for the postal service
•More assistance for Cannabis
All that’s missing is a lifetime supply of Doritos!
— Rep. Mark Walker (@RepMarkWalker) May 14, 2020
Cannabis is mentioned 68 times and women owned cannabis related business is featured as well. Regardless of your stance on weed why is this in a Coronavirus relief bill?
— Tim Burchett (@timburchett) May 13, 2020
Here's just some of what Speaker Pelosi is sneaking into her progressive pipe dream legislation:
👎Requiring “diversity reports” from certain cannabis-related businesses
👎”Environmental justice grants”
👎Ending state-run elections
She's putting partisanship over people!
— Congressman Fred Keller (@RepFredKeller) May 12, 2020
Pelosi’s bill is a liberal wish list of policies/giveaways that have ZERO to do w/ Covid relief. For example:
❌Amnesty/welfare checks for illegal aliens
❌Federal takeover of state elections
❌Help for minority/women-owned marijuana shops
❌Jail break for violent prisoners pic.twitter.com/YArovJaOFT
— Brian Babin (@RepBrianBabin) May 13, 2020
How do you explain a House Democratic Party so crazy that their new $3 trillion proposal has 68 references to Cannabis and only 52 references to jobs? Maybe Speaker Pelosi of San Francisco believes “California Dreamin” could become the new national anthem.
— newtgingrich (@newtgingrich) May 14, 2020
If the House ultimately passes the legislation as is, which could happen as soon as Friday, it’s become increasingly evident that the cannabis components will face challenges when it gets to the GOP-controlled Senate.
This story was updated to include additional commentary from Republicans.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.