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Montana Marijuana Activists Will Begin Signature Gathering For Legalization Measure With New Safety Protocols

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Montana activists announced on Thursday that they will proceed with a signature gathering drive for a marijuana legalization initiative, and they laid out multiple internal policies that will be in place to protect circulators and the public during the coronavirus pandemic.

New Approach Montana is behind two proposed ballot measures: one statutory initiative to establish a regulated cannabis market for adult use as well as a constitutional amendment stipulating that only those 21 and older can participate in the market.

Faced with a stay-at-home order and social distancing requirements, the campaign filed a lawsuit imploring a court to allow them to collect signatures digitally. It also requested an extension of the deadline to submit petitions. But after a judge dismissed that case last month—and because the state is gradually reopening—the group said it is moving ahead with plans to collect signatures in person, albeit under strict policies to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.

“As our state reopens for business, we must also reopen for democracy,” Pepper Petersen, political director for New Approach Montana, said in a press release. “Our signature drive will allow Montana voters to exercise their constitutional right to a ballot initiative in a safe and responsible way.”

Circulators must adhere to a number of requirements, including a mandate to wear disposal gloves and use single-use wrapped pens, discarding them after each signature. The must wear masks at all times, except on breaks. Hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes will be provided to them. They must maintain six feet of distance from the public, and tables will be set up so that they can witness people signing without getting close. They will also be issued disposable clear plastic bags to carry their supplies in, while backbacks and other reusable storage solutions will not be allowed.

Joan Miles, a former director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, reviewed the campaign’s plan and determined that they satisfy government mandates.

“I am encouraged to see the concentrated effort that New Approach Montana is putting forth to protect the health of Montanans as it moves forward with its signature gathering,” she said. “New Approach Montana is closely following the governor’s phase one recommendations for return to public life in light of the COVID pandemic, so their signature drive looks different than it did before the pandemic. The protocols they have put in place to lessen public risk are very considerate.”

The policies the campaign is putting in place may enable them to collect signatures in a semi-traditional manner, but the restrictions also represent an additional challenge as they work to collect about 25,000 valid signatures from registered voters for the statutory legalization measure and 51,000 needed for the constitutional proposal concerning age requirements. Those petitions must be submitted by June 19.

Petersen said that while the campaign was disappointed in the court ruling on electronic signature collection, “attempting a conventional signature drive is our only path to ballot qualification.”

“Our team has taken a very conservative and cautious approach, and this is going to be the most public health-focused signature drive ever conducted in Montana,” he said. “Our circulators will be trained to follow specific protocols so that we can limit direct contact with signers to the greatest degree possible.”

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform efforts throughout the country: 

Like in Montana, activists behind a campaign to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska are holding out hope that they will qualify for their state’s ballot and recently unveiled a new strategy amid the pandemic that also includes using disposable pens and social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists said they plan to continue campaign activities for a marijuana legalization initiative, but it’s more likely that they will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort are petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office.

A California campaign seeking to amend the state’s cannabis law also asked for a digital petitioning option.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 last month due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

Idaho medical cannabis activists announced that they are suspending their ballot campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded last month that the 2020 legalization push is “effectively over” in the legislature. Coronavirus shifted priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

California activists had hoped to get a measure to legalize psilocybin on the state’s November ballot, but the campaign stalled out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Organizers in Oregon are holding out hope that a measure to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes will make the ballot. The campaign already collected enough raw signatures to qualify, though they’ve yet to be validated.

Also in Oregon, a separate proposed ballot measure would decriminalize possession of all illicit drugs and use existing marijuana tax revenue to fund expanded treatment services.

Activists in Washington State are also working on a similar drug decriminalization and treatment measure.

Washington, D.C. activists behind a psychedelics decriminalization campaign are more confident that they will be able to make the ballot after the District Council voted in favor of a series of changes to signature gathering protocol on Tuesday. Their petition was approved by the Board of Elections on Wednesday. The campaign also has a new strategy to test the waters and deliver petitions and mailers directly to voters who could then sign and send them back to their headquarters.

Prior to the outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

This story has been updated with a revised statement from Petersen.

Louisiana Lawmakers Vote To Allow Medical Marijuana For Any Debilitating Condition And Legalize Delivery Services

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Nine Members Of Congress Tell DEA To Revise Proposed Hemp Rule On THC Content

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Nine members of Congress sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Tuesday, urging the agency to revise its proposed hemp regulations.

DEA released an interim final rule (IFR) for the crop in August, and it said the regulations were simply meant to comply with the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives. But stakeholders and advocates have expressed serious concerns about certain proposals, arguing that they could put processors at risk of violating federal law and hamper the industry’s growth.

Reps. David Joyce (R-OH) and Denver Riggleman (R-VA) led the letter and pointed specifically to a provision of DEA’s IFR that could impact processing hemp extracts. The agency stipulated that “any such material that contains greater than 0.3% of Δ9-THC on a dry weight basis remains controlled in schedule I.”

That’s problematic, the lawmakers said, because in many cases the process of extracting cannabinoids from hemp temporarily causes THC levels to increase beyond that threshold. And so while Congress intended to legalize those extracts, businesses that produce the materials could find themselves inadvertently breaking the law.

“Our offices have received countless calls from constituents involved in the hemp industry who are extremely fearful that simply following the provisions of the Farm Bill will result in criminal liability under the IFR,” the lawmakers’ letter states. “The IFR will likely have the effect of inhibiting these nascent state hemp programs thereby harming those American companies and workers who chose to pursue careers in the hemp industry and made significant investments to effectuate those aspirations.”

Therefore, the lawmakers are “requesting a resolution to this issue as quickly as possible,” adding that “DEA must revise the IFR to eliminate the ambiguities set forth above and provide peace of mind to all Americans who have chosen to pursue a career in the hemp industry.”

Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Glenn Grothman (R-WI), Don Young (R-AK), Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) also signed the letter.

A public comment period on DEA’s proposed rules closed on Tuesday. It saw more than 3,300 submissions, many of which focused on issues with the “work in progress” hemp THC issue.

“This IFR’s criminalizes work in progress hemp extract, a fundamental component of any consumer hemp/CBD product, and will negatively impact the hemp/CBD industry at a time when financial pressure is already high,” one commenter wrote. “Hemp and subsequent extracts are not controlled substances.”

Another issue identified by more than 1,000 commenters concerns delta-8 THC. The most widely known cannabinoid is delta-9 THC, the main component responsible for creating an intoxicating effect, but delta-8 THC from hemp is also psychoactive and is an object of growing interest within the market.

Because DEA’s proposed regulations state that all “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain schedule I controlled substances,” some feel that would directly impact the burgeoning cannabinoid, as its converted from CBD through the use of a catalyst—and that could be interpreted as a synthetic production process.

In any case, it’s not clear whether DEA deliberately crafted either of these rules with the intent of criminalizing certain hemp producers—but stakeholders and advocates aren’t taking any chances.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which also closed this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Read the congressional coalition’s letter to DEA on its hemp rule below: 

DEA IFR Letter by Marijuana Moment

State And Local Marijuana Regulators Demand Congress Prioritize Federal Legalization Bill

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Pennsylvania House Votes To Protect Medical Marijuana Patients From DUI Charges

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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved an amendment on Tuesday that would protect medical marijuana patients from being penalized under the state’s DUI laws for using their legal medicine.

The proposal cleared the chamber as an amendment to a broader piece of legislation concerning motor vehicle policies. It passed in a 109-93 vote.

As it stands, registered medical cannabis patients can be convicted of driving under the influence of a controlled substance if THC metabolites are detected in their blood. That’s despite the fact that marijuana can remain present in the body well after someone is considered impaired.

The House-approved amendment, which is now attached to a bill previously passed by the Senate, exempts “marijuana used lawfully in accordance with” the state’s medical cannabis law from DUI statutes.

“I think that you can ask any veteran or anybody that’s using medical cannabis right now, if they took the prescription on Monday, [on] Wednesday, they’re not high,” Rep. Ed Gainey (D) said in a floor speech before the vote. “And if they got pulled over, they darned shouldn’t be charged for being intoxicated or under the influence of medical marijuana.”

“I think we’re putting an undue burden on the people of Pennsylvania if we’re saying this is what we want to do after we fought so hard to pass medical marijuana and we know what it’s done to help the people of Pennsylvania,” he said.

The amendment is similar in intent to separate standalone legislation introduced by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R) in June to end the “zero tolerance” DUI policy for medical marijuana.

While Pennsylvania legalized medical cannabis in 2016, with the first dispensaries opening two years later, the law has not caught up as it concerns impaired driving. A person can test positive for THC for weeks after last consuming marijuana, rendering traditional roadside tests incapable of determining active impairment.

Several legal cannabis states have enacted per se THC limits in blood, similar to blood alcohol requirements. However, evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.

A study published last year, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.

Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance… studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”

The modest cannabis DUI reform approved by the Pennsylvania House comes amid repeated calls from the state’s leaders to more broadly legalize marijuana for adult use.

Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in a speech stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.

That marked the third time in three months that the governor has held events focused on making the case for legalization. Last month, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), a longstanding legalization advocate, has been similarly vocal about his position. In speeches and on social media, the official has expressed frustration that Pennsylvania has yet to enact the policy change, especially as neighboring like New Jersey are moving in that direction.

He said last month that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously legalize cannabis before voters next door in the Garden State enact the policy change this November.

Fetterman also recently hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.

While Wolf initially opposed adult-use legalization, he came out in support of the reform last year after Fetterman led a statewide listening tour last year to solicit public input on the issue.

Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

State And Local Marijuana Regulators Demand Congress Prioritize Federal Legalization Bill

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Montana Supreme Court Rejects Challenge To Marijuana Legalization Initiative

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The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the state’s November ballot.

With weeks before the election, opponents asked the court to quash the measure, arguing that because it involves appropriating funds, it violates state statute on citizen initiatives.

The court didn’t weigh in on the merits of the challenge; rather, it said the petitioners with the campaign Wrong for Montana (WFM) failed to demonstrate “urgency or emergency factors” that would justify moving the case into its jurisdiction instead of going through trial and appeals courts first.

It left the door open for the opponents to take its challenge through the traditional process. Brian Thompson, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, told Marijuana Moment that they now intend to file the suit in district court “soon,” but he wasn’t able to provide an exact timeline.

“We express no opinion on the merits of WFM’s constitutional challenge, nor to its right to pursue this challenge in district court,” the justices wrote. “However, WFM’s claim does not present an appropriate basis on which to invoke this Court’s original jurisdiction. Even if it did, WFM has wholly failed to establish that urgency or emergency factors make litigation in the trial courts and the normal appeal process inadequate.”

Dave Lewis, policy advisor to the pro-legalization New Approach Montana, said in a press release that this “was an easy decision for the Montana Supreme Court.”

“At best, this lawsuit was a frivolous longshot,” he said. “At worst, it was an intentional effort to create confusion right before the election.”

The measure in question would establish that adult-use marijuana system. The lawsuit did not target a separate, complementary initiative that would specify that only those 21 and older could participate in the legal market.

It is the case that state statute says citizens “may enact laws by initiative on all matters except appropriations of money and local or special laws” and that the initiative does allocate cannabis tax revenue to certain programs. But prior measures that have appeared on the state’s ballot have done so as well.

Under the proposal, half of the public revenue generated from marijuana sales would go toward environmental conservation programs—a provision that earned the campaign key endorsements last month.

The initiative is already on the ballot and voting has started, so presumably if the court had sided with the plaintiffs, the votes simply wouldn’t have been counted or implementation would have been prevented. It is also possible that a court could rule that monies raised by legal cannabis sales under the initiative would simply into the state’s general fund instead of toward the specific programs delineated in its current text.

“We’re receiving strong support from voters across the state,” Lewis, who is a former Republican state senator and former budget director for three Montana governors, said. “Instead of making a coherent argument against the initiatives, our opponents tried to deprive Montanans of their constitutional right to a citizen initiative process.”

“Our opponents are desperately throwing everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks,” he added. “They’re resorting to fear tactics and misinformation because they know that a majority of Montana voters are ready to vote yes on legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana for adults 21 and over.”

In neighboring Nebraska, the state Supreme Court did rule last month that a measure to legalize medical cannabis that had qualified for the November ballot could not proceed because it violated the state’s single-subject rule for ballot initiatives.

Recent polling indicates that Montana voters are positioned to approve the legalization proposal. Forty-nine percent of respondents in a survey released last week said they support the policy change, with 39 percent opposed and 10 percent remaining undecided.

This story has been updated to include comment from Thompson.

Read the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling on the marijuana challenge and the original lawsuit below:

Montana Marijuana Lawsuit by Marijuana Moment

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