Republicans joined with Democrats to vote down the cannabis implementation bill, only to resurrect it later.
By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Daily Montanan
Mike Milburn, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s senior advisor, was on Thursday walking the Capitol halls past the legislative chambers—where the governor had just visited to gladhand and backslap with House Republicans—when Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, appeared from a side door to the Senate floor to get his attention.
Milburn leaned in to listen.
“The bill is coming back,” Ellsworth told the former House Speaker. “701 is coming to the floor.”
That morning, grand ambitions from the governor’s office and the Republican legislative establishment for implementing recreational marijuana in Montana were nearly derailed in committee when the GOP’s right flank and Democrats joined to vote down this session’s flagship pot proposal, only for the bill to be revived less than an hour later after a series of frenzied negotiations within the majority party.
Democrats had already been planning to vote against the bill, House Bill 701; despite propping up a comprehensive recreational pot market, the proposal diverted most revenues from taxes on the product to the state general fund, a departure from the language in I-190, the legalization initiative that voters approved last year.
But a contingent of Republicans voted against the bill as well. Some just don’t like marijuana, or are sensitive about adult use due to the rocky rollout of medical marijuana many years before. Some, echoing a concern among Democrats, worried about the speed of the process. For months, lawmakers and stakeholders from the governor’s office and the industry had been crafting the bill, but it only had its first committee hearings this week, with the days ticking down until the deadline to transmit revenue bills to the opposite chamber.
HB701, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, was slated to hit the floor Tuesday, the first day back after a four-day Easter break.
“We flat ran out of time,” said House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale.
But the primary reason for opposition, at least among the GOP, had less to do with what was happening in the House Taxation Committee and more to do with what was going on across the hall, where lawmakers in the Business and Labor Committee—which heard HB701 earlier in the week—were considering two other marijuana proposals.
The first, HB670, passed 11-9. That bill, crafted by Reps. Derek Skees and Matt Regier, both Kalispell Republicans, would tax recreational marijuana at a lower rate (15 percent) than HB701 (20 percent) while slightly raising the tax on medical marijuana. It would set aside most of the tax revenue for paying down public employee pension obligations while leaving some in a trust fund to address “the economic and social costs” of legalization, while HB701 would put most of the money into the state general fund.
The second was Rep. Brad Tschida’s HB707, which would overhaul I-190’s taxation structure entirely, only taxing wholesale marijuana at a rate of 20 percent, a system modeled after the state’s alcohol regulations. Tschida, R-Missoula, said earlier this week that he hoped to have part of his bill inserted into the main vehicle, HB701. But HB707 failed.
Meanwhile, the Taxation Committee was preparing to vote on HB701 as word reached from across the hall that one of the other bills had fallen. To some House Republicans, putting all of the Legislature’s weight behind HB701 without considering all other options didn’t make sense; they didn’t like aspects of the bill, especially its approach to spending and saving pot revenues, and the fact that there was little time for amendments in the House frustrated them.
So four Republicans voted no: Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls; Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade; Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls and Rep. Jeremy Trebas, also of Great Falls. Along with a unified Democratic block, which had been fighting to increase funding for the environment and public lands in HB701 per the language in I-190, it was enough to kill the bill 10-12.
“We wanted all three bills to come across the House floor. I didn’t realize that Taxation was going to be voting on the big bill, because we had the smallest hearing,” said Sheldon-Galloway, who preferred the Skees-Regier plan due to the fact that it invested weed revenues in an interest-collecting trust.
It was a rare moment of accidental transparency for the Republican majority. The hallway between the two committee rooms was abuzz, with more reporters and lobbyists arriving by the minute. At first, several key players—Hopkins, Rep. Becky Beard, the House Taxation Committee Chair, Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, the Business and Labor Chair, Sen. Jason Ellsworth, who will likely ferry the bill in the Senate, and others—huddled in a hallway behind a glass double door, out of earshot from the public, trying to put together the pieces.
The group dispersed. In one corner, Ellsworth leaned over Hinkle, speaking in quiet, urgent tones about vote counts. Other atomized groups clustered elsewhere in the vicinity, waiting for further clarity, processing what had happened. The bill that had failed, in addition to being the longest and most detailed marijuana plan, is also the bill that promised to fund the governor’s substance abuse treatment program, the HEART Fund, among other key priorities.
Even worse, from the perspective of the GOP, is total gridlock would mean that the Legislature could lose its chance to amend the language of I-190, an initiative that passed with 53 percent support in 2020 despite potentially violating the constitution by prescribing expenditure of tax revenues, a proprietary authority the Legislature guards jealously.
After the flurry, the committee decided to return just after noon, and the hallways cleared. Was one of the session’s weightiest bills—in both the literal and figurative sense—dead? Would its language be merged with Skees’ bill?
The key issue, as Sheldon-Galloway described, was the lack of options with limited time. She said she wanted to see the bills be reconciled in conference committee, and expected several amendments. Hinkle said something similar: All three bills should make it to the House floor, and ideally all three should make it to the Senate.
Lo and behold, Business and Labor returned from recess, Republicans took HB707 off of the table, and on a largely partisan vote passed it onto the floor. Noland and the rest of his committee hovered in front of the television that showed how the Taxation Committee, now back from its break, would act.
Indeed, Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, moved to bring the bill off the table. Though it still lacked Democratic support, the motion passed, and shortly thereafter, Sheldon-Galloway, Hinkle, and the rest switched their votes, sending HB701 to the floor, alongside HB670 and HB707.
“We wanted more options, that’s what the whole thing was about,” Noland said. “More options gives we the people better chances. Some don’t like one of those bills. Some have hiccups with the big bill. If we get everything moving, then we can discuss all of these bills.”
Hopkins couldn’t be reached for comment in time for publication.
Beard and other lawmakers began working on amendments to HB701 after the dust settled. On the House floor Thursday, she said to expect some proposed changes to the tax rate, implementation date (retail could launch as early as next January), among other areas. Democrats, who want to expand HB701’s provision allowing for the re-sentencing of incarcerated people with marijuana convictions, loosen licensing restrictions on those with past drug charges, and above all put as much money toward lands and conservation as possible, plan to bring their amendments either or on the House floor or as the bill(s) makes its way through the Senate.
J.D. “Pepper” Petersen, a dispensary owner and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild, said he expects most of the action to occur in the upper chamber. Like many dispensary owners, he’s not a fan of HB701, which has one provision providing for counties to easily opt-out of recreational marijuana and another preventing outdoor grows. However, he predicted that to be the final vehicle.
“701 is the show,” Petersen said.
Galt couldn’t say with certainty that HB701 would get the votes in the House.
“It’s gonna be really interesting,” he said, referencing another profitable vice regulated in the state of Montana. “It’ll be a roll of the dice.”
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.