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Montana Bill To Implement Marijuana Legalization Heads To Governor’s Desk

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The cannabis legislation was revived after an initial defeat on the House floor on Monday.

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Daily Montanan

After a whirlwind 24 hours that saw the fate of the bill change dramatically on more than one occasion, the Legislature has passed House Bill 701, landmark legislation that implements the recreational marijuana program that voters approved last year.

The state House on Tuesday morning passed the bill as amended by the Senate on third reading 67-32, sending it to the governor’s desk. Retail sales of recreational marijuana are slated to begin in January of next year.

The bill, one of several visions this session for implementation of I-190, the initiative that created the recreational pot market in Montana, has traveled a bumpy road to the finish line. Since its introduction around a month ago (at roughly 160 pages long), the plan has faced dozens of amendments in both chambers and more than one vote to stop it in its tracks.

“Everything in the Legislature is a constant conversation, and we needed to make the point really clear: Given our timelines, sending 701 to a conference committee, even though well-intentioned, is for all intents and purposes is, if not killing it outright, getting as close as you can to killing it without actually killing it,” Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters Tuesday. “So, I think the point needed to be clear that folks had a choice in front of them.”

On Monday, a contingent of House Republicans joined together to vote down the version of the bill that the Senate produced following extensive negotiations in that upper chamber. That amended language had wide-reaching effects on the program and the allocation of marijuana tax revenues—additional funds would go to conservation easements, reminiscent of the language in I-190; there’d be a special drug court for expungement cases, home grow would be allowed and more. The bill as written currently would also finance the HEART Fund, a substance abuse prevention program proposed by Gov. Greg Gianforte (R).

But House Republicans felt the Senate’s work didn’t reflect the changes they wanted to see—namely, lowering the 20 percent tax on recreational pot sales, eliminating the option for a local option excise tax, banning home grow and so on—and voted down the bill, intending to send it to a conference committee where the two chambers could reconcile their differences.

However, a conference committee risked running up against the intended end of the session later this week, and Hopkins said he felt like he didn’t adequately explain the stakes to his colleagues. He made a successful motion to reconsider the vote, and on Tuesday, many of the same lawmakers who voted not to concur with the Senate’s work voted to do the opposite. After lawmakers had a lengthy discussion on the tax rates in the bill, they suspended House rules in order to fast-track passage of a variety of outstanding policy priorities and passed HB701.

Some were still opposed. Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, repeated his argument that the state would be committing millions in projected revenues from the recreational marijuana program without knowing exactly how much money they’d have to spend. What could possibly drive medical marijuana cardholders—who would pay just a 4 percent tax under the bill—to pay for recreational pot at a 20 percent rate, he asked.

“I don’t think there’s any way we’re going to see the revenue materialize in 2023 that’s been forecast,” he said. “We are creating new spending that is completely unrelated to the tax that is being proposed.”

Mercer also posited that the allowance of a local-option excise tax would pave the way for a sales tax elsewhere.

“We will rue the day that we did this,” he said.

Hopkins said lawmakers had a choice between his bill and I-190, which technically became law after the voters passed it last year. If HB701 didn’t pass before the end of the session, the recreational marijuana market would launch under the provisions of I-190. For much of the debate, adopting I-190 as-is was the preference of Democrats and the initiative’s supporters, but amendments introduced in the Senate to use recreational marijuana tax revenues to fund conservation easements under the Habitat Montana program beginning in 2023 helped earned support from the minority that was ultimately crucial for getting the bill through.

“Voting against 701 is the literal acknowledgement of I-190,” Hopkins said.

Environmental groups in Montana lauded the passage of the bill Tuesday.

“This is a win for public access, a win for working ranches, and a win for our outdoor recreation economy,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director with the Montana Wildlife Federation. The conservation program that would come out the furthest ahead under HB701 is Habitat Montana, which leverages a combination of funds to secure easements on private land.

“Just last year alone, we had more than $33 million in private land conservation projects proposed to the state, and we were able to fund $21 million of them,” Gevock said.

The full funding for the program isn’t technically available until the next biennium. One session’s legislature can’t bind the hands of the next, so future lawmakers can change how the marijuana funds are allocated.

“The money will accrue, and it’s incumbent upon us to continue our campaign and continue our support and hopefully see some teed up really quality projects waiting for the money,” Gevock said, adding that it’s a “great day for Montana.”

This story was first published by Daily Montanan.

Louisiana Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Committee

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Illinois Will ‘Blow Past’ $1 Billion In Legal Marijuana Sales In 2021, Chamber Of Commerce President Says

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“Are we going to get to a billion dollars? I think we’re going to blow past the billion dollars based on the experience in smaller states,” the Chamber leader said.

By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square

Illinois’s cannabis industry is growing up fast, with adult-use recreational cannabis sales expected to hit $1 billion by year-end.

In March alone, Illinoisans spent $110 million on recreational marijuana.

Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said one factor contributing to Illinois’ explosive growth is that most neighboring states haven’t legalized marijuana yet.

“What we saw early on in states like Washington and Colorado is they did have demand come in from surrounding states, which frankly benefits our industry and benefits the taxes collected,” Maisch said.

Cannabis sales have already surpassed alcohol’s tax revenues for the state, and Maisch said he thinks $1 billion estimates are conservative.

“Are we going to get to a billion dollars? I think we’re going to blow past the billion dollars based on the experience in smaller states,” Maisch said.

There are only a couple of things that could stop Illinois’ explosive cannabis market growth, Maisch said. He said that policymakers could ruin things by pushing taxes too high as evidenced by the tobacco market.

“As taxes have gone up and up and up, they’ve pushed people all the way into the black market or they’ve created this grey market in which people are ostensibly paying some of the taxes, but they’re still getting sources of tobacco products that avoid much of the tax,” Maisch said.

The other thing that could head off continued growth is other states opening up recreational-use markets.

“So if you start to see surrounding states go to recreational, that’s definitely going to flatten the curve because we’re not going to be pulling in demand from other states,” Maisch said.

Maisch points out some concerns that accompany the explosion of Illinois’s recreational cannabis market including workforce preparedness.

“All of those individuals who are deciding to go ahead and consume this product are really taking themselves out of a lot of job opportunities that they would otherwise be qualified, so there’s a real upside and a downside,” Maisch said.

While it’s easy to track the revenues this industry brings into state coffers, he points out, it will be harder to track the lack of productivity and qualified individuals to operate heavy machinery and other jobs that require employees to pass a drug test.

This story was first published by The Center Square.

DEA Finally Ready To End Federal Marijuana Research Monopoly, Agency Notifies Grower Applicants

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DEA Finally Ready To End Federal Marijuana Research Monopoly, Agency Notifies Grower Applicants

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Friday notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

This is a significant development—and one of the first cannabis-related moves to come out of the Biden administration. There is currently a monopoly on federal cannabis cultivation, with the University of Mississippi having operated the only approved facility for the past half-century.

It was almost five years ago that DEA under President Barack Obama first announced that it was accepting applications for additional manufacturers. No approvals were made during the Trump administration. And the delay in getting acceptances has led to frustration—and in some cases, lawsuits—among applicants.

But on Friday, organizations including the Biopharmaceutical Research Company (BRC), Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) and Groff NA Hemplex LLC were notified by the agency that their requests were conditionally accepted.

“DEA is nearing the end of its review of certain marijuana grower applications, thereby allowing it to soon register additional entities authorized to produce marijuana for research purposes,” DEA said. “Pending final approval, DEA has determined, based on currently available information, that a number of manufacturers’ applications to cultivate marijuana for research needs in the United States appears to be consistent with applicable legal standards and relevant laws. DEA has, therefore, provided a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to these manufacturers as the next step in the approval process.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the move, and it’s unclear just how many organizations have received a DEA communication so far.

Matt Zorn, who has represented SRI in a suit against DEA over the processing delays, told Marijuana Moment that the agency explained that it is “moving forward” with the facility’s application and that it appears to be “consistent with public interest” to give the institute the ability to grow marijuana for study purposes.

SRI’s Dr. Sue Sisley is in a process of completing a memorandum of agreement that DEA requested “so that it can be executed and official,” according to a press release.

BRC CEO George Hodgin said in another press release that after being finalized, “this federal license will forever change the trajectory of our business and the medicinal cannabis industry.”

“The DEA’s leadership will set off a nationwide wave of innovative cannabis-derived treatments, unlock valuable intellectual property and create high quality American jobs,” he said. “The BRC team is already familiar with DEA compliance procedures based on our extensive history of controlled substances activity, and our world class staff is ready to hit the ground running on this new business arm that the DEA has authorized.”

DEA said it has presented applicants that appear to meet legal requirements “with an MOA outlining the means by which the applicant and DEA will work together to facilitate the production, storage, packaging, and distribution of marijuana under the new regulations as well as other applicable legal standards and relevant laws.”

“To the extent these MOAs are finalized, DEA anticipates issuing DEA registrations to these manufacturers,” the agency said. “Each applicant will then be authorized to cultivate marijuana—up to its allotted quota—in support of the more than 575 DEA-licensed researchers across the nation.”

DEA said it “will continue to prioritize efforts to evaluate the remaining applications for registration and expects additional approvals in the future” and will publicly post information about approvals as they are finalized.

Following a 2019 suit against DEA by SRI, a court mandated that the agency take steps to process the cultivation license applications, and that legal challenge was dropped after DEA provided a status update.

That suit argued that the marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi is of poor quality, does not reflect the diversity of products available on the commercial market and is therefore inadequate for clinical studies.

That’s also a point that several policymakers have made, and it’s bolstered by research demonstrating that the federal government’s cannabis is genetically closer to hemp than marijuana that consumers can obtain in state-legal markets.

Last year, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary to move forward with licensing approvals due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party.

SRI filed another suit against DEA in March, claiming that the agency used a “secret” document to justify its delay of approving manufacturer applications. And that was born out when the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel document was released last year as part of a settlement in the case, revealing, among other things, that the agency feels that its current licensing structure for cannabis cultivation has been in violation of international treaties for decades.

Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved

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Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved

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A voter-approved initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi has been overturned by the state Supreme Court.

On Friday, the court ruled in favor of a Mississippi mayor who filed a legal challenge against the 2020 measure, nullifying its certification by the Secretary of State. The lawsuit was unrelated to the merits of the reform proposal itself, but plaintiffs argued that the constitutional amendment violated procedural rules for placing measures on the ballot.

While the court acknowledged that a “strong, if not overwhelming, majority of voters of Mississippi approved Initiative 65” to legalize medical cannabis in the state, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s (R) petition was valid for statutory reasons.

Madison’s challenge cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.

The secretary of state and other officials pushed back against the lawsuit and argued that a plain reading of the state Constitution makes it clear that the intention of the district-based requirement was to ensure that signatures were collected in a geographically dispersed manner—and the result of the campaign met that standard.

But in the court’s 6-3 ruling released on Friday, the justices said that their hands were tied. The legislature or administration might be able to fix the procedural ballot issue, but it had to follow the letter of the law.

“We find ourselves presented with the question squarely before us and nowhere to turn but to its answer,” the decision states. “Remaining mindful of both the November 3, 2020 election results and the clear language in section 273 seeking to preserve the right of the people to enact changes to their Constitution, we nonetheless must hold that the text of section 273 fails to account for the possibility that has become reality in Mississippi.”

In sum, a Census-driven change in the number of congressional districts in Mississippi “did, indeed, break section 273 so that, absent amendment, it no longer functions,” meaning there’s no legal way to pass a constitutional ballot initiative in the state.

“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress. To work in today’s reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”

“We grant the petition, reverse the Secretary of State’s certification of Initiative 65, and hold that any subsequent proceedings on it are void,” the court ruled.

One justice who dissented said that the district-based requirement is arbitrary as it concerns Mississippi elections. While the federal government defines the state as having four congressional districts, the state Constitution “lays out the five districts,” and “there have been zero changes to the five districts” as far as the state’s laws are concerned.

In any case, this marks a major defeat for cannabis reform activists in the state who collected more than 214,000 signatures for their initiative. Sixty-eight percent of voters approved a general ballot question on whether to allow medical cannabis, and 74 percent signed off on advocates’ specific measure in a separate question.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi,” Ken Newburger, executive director for the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, said in a press release. “Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end. The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions. Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people’s constitutional right.”

“It’s a sad day for Mississippi when the Supreme Court communicates to a vast majority of the voters that their vote doesn’t matter,” he said.

Under the voter-approved initiative, patients with debilitating medical issues would have been allowed to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal included 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would have been able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

There was an attempt in the legislature to pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the event that the court overruled the voter-approved initiative, but it failed to be enacted by the session’s end.

The Mississippi State Department of Health told WJTV that it will cease work on developing medical cannabis regulations in light of the court ruling.

“However, the agency has certainly learned a lot in the process of putting together a successful medical marijuana program, and we stand ready to help the legislature if it creates a statutory program,” Liz Sharlot, director of the Office of Communications for the department, said.

This is the latest state Supreme Court setback to affect cannabis reform efforts.

Last month, the Florida Supreme Court dealt a critical blow to marijuana activists working to legalize marijuana in the state—killing an initiative that hundreds of thousands of voters have already signed and forcing them to start all over again if they want to make the 2022 ballot.

While a Nebraska campaign collected enough signatures to qualify a reform initiative in 2020, the state Supreme Court shut it down following a legal challenge. It determined that the measure violated the state’s single-subject rule, much to the disappointment of advocates.

In South Dakota, the fate of an adult-use legalization initiative that voters approved last November is also in the hands of the state’s Supreme Court, where a sheriff is challenging its constitutionality based on a single subject rule as well.

Opponents to a Montana marijuana legalization measure that was approved by voters have also filed lawsuits contesting the voter-approved initiative for procedural reasons, arguing that its allocation of revenue violates the state Constitution. While the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case last year, it did not rule on the merits and left the door open to pursuing the case in district and appeals court, which plaintiffs then pursued.

Read the Mississippi Supreme Court ruling on the medical cannabis initiative below: 

Mississippi Supreme Court m… by Marijuana Moment

Congressional Bill Filed To Protect Marijuana Consumers From Losing Public Housing

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