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Most Members Of New Biden-Sanders Criminal Justice Task Force Back Marijuana Legalization

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Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Wednesday announced the names of members of several new task forces they formed to explore policies in six major areas, including a criminal justice reform panel that is stacked with cannabis legalization supporters.

Drug policy reform advocates have been particularly interested to learn who would comprise the criminal justice group since it was first announced last month, with some holding out hope that members will push Biden—the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—to support marijuana legalization.

At least five participants in the new eight-member panel go further than Biden—who opposes legalizing recreational marijuana but backs decriminalization, medical cannabis, automatic expungements, rescheduling and letting states set their own laws—by supporting adult-use legalization on the federal and/or state levels.

All told, it appears that every member of the group—three of whom were selected by Sanders and five chosen by Biden—have publicly called for cannabis reform to at least some extent, with a few having experience legislating on the issue.

“A united party is key to defeating Donald Trump this November and moving our country forward through an unprecedented crisis. As we work toward our shared goal, it is especially critical that we not lose sight of the pressing issues facing Americans,” Biden said in a statement. “From health care to reforming our justice system to rebuilding a more inclusive and fair economy, the work of the task forces will be essential to identifying ways to build on our progress and not simply turn the clock back to a time before Donald Trump, but transform our country.”

“In the midst of the unprecedented economic and pandemic crises we face, the Democratic Party must think big, act boldly, and fight to change the direction of this country,” Sanders added. “To create an agenda that the working class of this country desperately needs, and moves us toward a more just society, we must solicit the best ideas.

The task force is set to meet and submit policy recommendations to the Democratic National Committee Platform Committee and to Biden directly ahead of the party’s convention in August.

Here’s a look at where the new criminal justice task force members stand on marijuana:

Tennessee Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D)

The state senator has introduced legislation to legalize marijuana for adult use, reduce penalties for cannabis offenses and provide for judicial diversion in cases involving a convictions for marijuana possession of up to one ounce.

“This legislation makes criminal justice more fair, creates thousands of Tennessee jobs, and invests real money in our students and teachers,” Akbari said of the legalization bill in January. “With marijuana now available closer and closer to our state, it’s time for Tennesseans to have a real discussion about repealing outdated penalties for low-level possession and investing in our economic future and public schools through legalization.”

“Tennessee’s tough-on-crime possession laws have trapped too many of our citizens in cycles of poverty, and they haven’t actually stopped anyone from obtaining marijuana,” she said. “The enforcement of these laws in particular [has] cost our state billions, contributed to a black market that funds criminal organizations, and accelerated the growth of incarceration in Tennessee’s jails and prisons. Tennesseans deserve better.”

The senator has also voted in favor of a medical cannabis legalization bill and offered an amendment that would add sickle cell anemia to the list of qualifying conditions for patients.

Former federal prosecutor and Demos Director of Legal Strategies Chiraag Bains (co-chair)

As a prosecutor in the Justice Department, Bains’s focus was on police accountability and hate crimes. However, he’s also touted Sanders’s comprehensive marijuana legalization plan and criticized acts by the Trump administration to undermine protections for legal cannabis states.

During a Democratic presidential debate in February, he tweeted that Sanders’s plan goes beyond decriminalization and also calls for expungements and racial equity in legal marijuana markets. “That reflects deep understanding of what the War on Drugs has wrought,” he said.

That Bains stressed the importance of racial equity in the industry indicates he’s supportive of establishing a legal and regulated marijuana market in the first place, a position Biden has so far declined to back.

He also called out former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg for saying we need to move slowly on legalization, comparing that stance to his record in maintaining controversial police tactics like stop-and-frisk during his time as mayor of New York City.

Bains, who was selected for the task force by Sanders, noted last year that Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) criminal justice reform plan “covers all marijuana-related offenses” as well as “people with sentences unjustly inflated by the continuing racist crack-cocaine disparity.” That latter group was directly impacted by Biden, who helped author the punitive anti-drug laws that resulted in those sentencing disparities during his time as a senator.

He also said that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance that laid out cannabis enforcement priorities for federal prosecutors “will make a difference” as it concerns increasing mass incarceration.

South Carolina Rep. Justin Bamberg (D)

In 2015, Bamberg cosponsored bills to decriminalize marijuana possession and legalize medical cannabis.

He’s tweeted several times about disparate sentences for marijuana offenses; however, he’s so far declined to cosponsor cannabis-related legislation in more recent sessions.

Former Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta

The former prosecutor and current president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) is supportive of marijuana legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.

In a 2014 p-ed for CNN, Gupta explained how a high-profile case of a Missouri man who was sentenced to life in prison over marijuana is an example of how criminal justice system has been warped by the drug war, leading to excessive punishment.

“While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color,” she wrote, in what could be read as direct criticism of legislation that Biden wrote during his time in the Senate.

“The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks…in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care,” she added.

In March 2018, Gupta said that the Trump administration is “seeking a decidedly punitive approach to America’s drug problem—one that seeks to increase already disproportionate sentences for drug offenses & employ the death penalty.”

“We tried the punitive and overly simplistic approach of the War on Drugs approach 30 years ago, and it failed. That’s why we’re seeing, in states around the country, a bipartisan push to recognize that substance use requires a public health approach,” she said. “We must reject efforts to further politicize this crisis. We cannot just do what feels good, or sounds good. We must take an evidenced-based approach to ending the opioid crisis.”

More recently, Gupta has highlighted the dangers of excessive sentences doled out for crack-related offenses and said while Congress took steps to repair those harms, there are still people stuck in prison—and that’s especially concerning during the coronavirus pandemic.

The LCCHR president celebrated the House Judiciary Committee passage of a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill last year.

Her organization has supported that bill and numerous other drug policy reform initiatives, including as part of a collective effort called the Marijuana Justice Coalition. LCCHR was one of more than 100 groups that released a criminal justice plan for the 2020 election calling for the legalization of marijuana and supporting the “dismantling” of the criminalization of other drugs. The group also called for a delay of a House vote on cannabis banking legislation because it said comprehensive reform with a social equity focus should be prioritized.

Last month, LCCHR was one of several organizations urging Congress to extend access to federal coronavirus relief to the marijuana industry.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder

The former attorney general under President Obama has said that he’d vote in favor of legalizing marijuana if he was in Congress and claimed to have internally tried to convince the administration to reschedule cannabis.

In 2009, his Justice Department issued guidance to federal prosecutors emphasizing that it will not be Justice Department policy to go after individuals acting in compliance with state medical cannabis laws.

“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal,” he said. “This balanced policy formalizes a sensible approach that the Department has been following since January: effectively focus our resources on serious drug traffickers while taking into account state and local laws.”

In 2013, after Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, Holder’s department issued broader guidelines generally directing federal prosecutors not to interfere with state cannabis laws as long as certain criteria were met.

He said in 2016 that marijuana “ought to be rescheduled” and that it was clearly “not appropriate” for cannabis to be listed in the same classification under federal law as heroin.

Holder also dismissed the idea that marijuana is addictive and said states should be able to continue to legalize cannabis without federal interference.

“Let those be laboratories to see where we want to be,” he said. “I think if you allow the states to experiment we’ll ultimately come to a national consensus about what it is we ought to do with regard to marijuana.”

In Iowa in 2019, while he was considering a presidential bid, Holder said it “seems to me that we’re at a point where we should think seriously about legalization.”

“We did some pretty gutsy and compelling things in not going after Washington and Colorado and allowing them to proceed with the recreational sale of marijuana,” he said of his time as attorney general, adding that he attempted to get the administration to reclassify cannabis but was unsuccessful.

He’s also criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for having an “almost obsession with marijuana… that’s put the Justice Department in this strange place.”

Symone Sanders, senior advisor to Biden

The senior advisor to Biden, who previously served as a top staffer during Sanders’s 2016 presidential run, has defended the former vice president’s modest marijuana reform plan as being progressive.

“I think the vice president has been very clear that there are too many people in jail. Too many people—disproportionately people of color, disproportionately African-American folks—are in jail. And what he has come out and said is that he supports the decriminalization of marijuana,” she said last year. “But not just decriminalization, he supports automatic expungements. That is very important. Most people say, ‘Yeah, we should expunge it, and folks need to go to court and get a lawyer.’ Joe Biden has come out and said, We need automatic expungement.'”

“Our full-fledged platform is coming. You know, we’ve been in this race for a month, but I think folks don’t have to wonder where the vice president sits on [the issues of] if we need to address mandatory minimums, if we need to get rid of the three-strikes rule. He’s on the record on those things and clear, and again, just as recently as last week, he was talking about the decriminalization of marijuana.”

She applauded a move by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who announced last year that her office would not be pursuing cannabis possession cases.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) (co-chair)

As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Scott cosponsored a bill the group introduced in 2018 that called for marijuana descheduling and reinvestments in communities harmed most by prohibition.

He also signed onto legislation to legalize industrial hemp and has consistently voted in favor of amendments providing protections to protect state adult-use, medical cannabis and CBD programs from federal intervention. He’s also backed measures to let U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana, provide cannabis businesses with access to banking services and encourage cannabis research.

In 2000, the congressman filed an amendment to an education bill that would have removed a penalty stipulating that students who are convicted of drug offenses are disqualified from receiving federal financial aid. It was defeated, however.

Scott signed a letter addressed to the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012, urging them not to prosecute anyone acting in compliance with state-legal cannabis laws.

“The people of Colorado and Washington have decided that marijuana ought to be regulated like alcohol, with strong and efficient regulation of production, retail sales and distribution, coupled with strict laws against underage use and driving while intoxicated,” the letter states. “These states have chosen to move from a drug policy that spends millions of dollars turning ordinary Americans into criminals toward one that will tightly regulate the use of marijuana while raising tax revenue to support cash-strapped state and local governments.”

“We believe this approach embraces the goals of existing federal marijuana law: to stop international trafficking, deter domestic organized criminal organizations, stop violence associated with the drug trade and protect children,” it continued. “While we recognize that other states have chosen a different path, and further understand that the federal government has an important role to play in protecting against interstate shipments of marijuana leaving Colorado and Washington, we ask that your departments take no action against anyone who acts in compliance with the laws of Colorado, Washington and any other states that choose to regulate marijuana for medicinal or personal use.”

In a floor speech in 2010, Scott encouraged his colleagues to support a resolution aimed at removing cannabis illicitly cultivated on federal lands. He said the purpose of the measure is to “bring attention to this illicit cartel activity and to encourage officials to develop an interagency strategy to stop drug cartels from using Federal lands for large-scale illegal drug crop operations.”

Iowa County Supervisor Stacey Walker

Not much is known about this Iowa politico’s marijuana policy views. He was selected for the task force by Sanders. In 2014, he thanked Iowa Sen. Jack Hatch (D) for introducing legislation that would allow epilepsy patients in the state to access medical cannabis.

It remains to be seen whether cannabis reform will be a focal point of the task force’s focus—or whether Biden would be willing to adopt a pro-legalization stance if the group recommends it. Sanders didn’t seem especially optimistic that the former vice president would evolve further, declining in an interview to list the policy among those he feels Biden will come around to.

DEA Gets Few Comments On Far-Reaching Marijuana Research Proposal With Deadline Looming

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Vice President Pence Slams Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ COVID Bill

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Vice President Mike Pence on Monday criticized the inclusion of marijuana banking language in the latest House-passed coronavirus relief bill.

During an interview with Fox Business’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” the vice president discussed GOP priorities for future COVID-19 legislation and said they were at odds with those of Democrats.

“In the House of Representatives, I heard the other day that the bill that they passed actually mentions marijuana more than it mentions jobs,” Pence, who consistently voted against cannabis amendments when he served in Congress, said. “The American people don’t want some pork barrel bill coming out of the Congress when we’ve got real needs from working families.”

This is one of the more high-profile examples of Republicans condemning the cannabis provisions, but it’s far from the only one. Just last week, Pence’s chief of staff, who previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, made similar remarks.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been one of the most vocal critics, though he’s largely focused on specific industry diversity reporting requirements of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act that were included in the COVID legislation along with the basic financial services provisions of the bill.

The SAFE Banking Act, which previously passed the House as a standalone bill, is primarily meant to protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

The prospects of getting the House version to the president’s desk seem dim, as negotiations between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have stalled.

President Trump, meanwhile, has decided he’s not waiting for lawmakers to reach a deal and issued an executive order over the weekend that calls for new unemployment benefits, student loan payment deferrals and more.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said on Sunday that Democrats are “ready to meet the White House and Republicans halfway.” What remains to be seen, however, is whether “halfway” would involve cannabis banking protections.

Democrats have made the case that granting cannabis businesses access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview last week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.

“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.

While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still the House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.

The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.

Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.

In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.

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Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative Officially Qualifies For November Ballot

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A measure to legalize marijuana in Arizona officially qualified for the November ballot on Monday.

The secretary of state announced that activists turned in enough valid petitions to make the cut one month after about 420,000 raw signatures were submitted.

Under the measure, adults could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

The initiative also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program

Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.

The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said that her office verified petitions submitted by the Smart and Safe Arizona campaign and determined that they turned in approximately 255,080 valid signatures. At least 237,645 were needed to qualify.

The measure will be designated on the ballot as Prop. 207.

It’s been a long road to the ballot for activists, who at one point asked the state Supreme Court to allow them to collect signatures electronically amid the coronavirus pandemic. That request was ultimately rejected.

Prohibitionists attempted to keep the measure off the ballot by filing a suit in state court, arguing that the official summary of the initiative was misleading because it omitted certain provisions. The court disagreed and rejected the suit last week, though it’s still possible the legalization opponents will appeal.

Arizona voters narrowly rejected a marijuana legalization initiative in 2016. But in a survey of likely voters released last month, more than six-in-ten (62 percent) said they now support legalizing cannabis, while 32 percent are opposed.

Opponents of the proposal, including Gov. Doug Ducey (R), recently released official voter guide arguments against the initiative. Supporters filed arguments as well, and all will be circulated to voters in a pamphlet printed by the state.

The governor, in his submission, argued that legalization is “a bad idea based on false promises.”

Meanwhile, pro-legalization activists are asking supporters to share personal stories about why they support the cannabis ballot measure.

Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country: 

The Washington, D.C. Board of Elections certified last week that activists submitted enough valid signatures to place a measure to decriminalize plant- and fungi-based psychedelics in the nation’s capital.

Oregon’s secretary of state confirmed last month that separate measures to legalize psilocybin therapy and decriminalize possession of all drugs while expanding treatment services will appear on the November ballot.

Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.

Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.

Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group last week, hopes are dashed.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate 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.

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

North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.

Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Federal Drug Decriminalization Model Unveiled By Top Reform Group

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A leading drug policy reform group recently unveiled a framework to federally decriminalize all illicit drugs that they hope will be embraced by Congress.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said ending the drug war will help address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and promote public health. The proposal is being rolled out ahead of the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, the legislative basis of today’s federal drug criminalization.

Full bill text of the proposed “Drug Policy Reform Act” isn’t available yet, but according to a summary, it will contain provisions to end strict sentencing constructs such as mandatory minimums for drug conspiracy offenses, provide for expungements and end collateral consequences for drug convictions like the denial of public benefits and educational loans. It would also defund federal drug agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“There are many elected officials—on and off the Hill—that speak to the sentiments of drug decriminalization, continually touting drug use should be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue—most notably when it comes to marijuana,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager at DPA’s Office of National Affairs, told Marijuana Moment.

“However, tides are shifting and this transformational political moment calls for this roadmap we have provided legislators to begin repairing the extensive devastation the failed drug war has created beyond marijuana and beyond talking points,” she said. “There are congressional offices and allies who are, in fact, ready to see the end of criminalizing people for drug use actualized; we’re looking forward to working with them to lay the groundwork for this much needed reform in Congress.”

Criminal penalties for simple possession would be removed on the federal level. While Congress can’t change state laws under which a majority of people punished for drug offenses are prosecuted, the proposal states that federal dollars would no longer go to states for drug enforcement purposes. Also, military equipment would not be allowed to be transferred to local or state law enforcement departments for drug enforcement, no-knock warrants and surveillance technologies for drug offenses would be prohibited and employment discrimination based on criminal conviction disclosures would also be banned.

Under the proposed legislation, drug scheduling classification responsibilities would be shifted from DEA to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

NIH would also led a rulemaking task force to create a definition for “personal use quantities” and establish a process for “facilitating voluntary access to services for those seeking addiction treatment,” according to the summary.

The legislation would also promote investments in harm reduction programs to treat substance misuse.

“Removing criminal penalties for drugs is a first step in repairing the harms of the drug war,” Theshia Naidoo, managing director of criminal justice law and policy at DPA, said in a press release.

“In 2018 alone, over 1.6 million people were arrested on drug charges, over 86 percent of which were just for possession. These arrests can have impacts that last for a lifetime, often preventing access to employment, housing, financial aid for college, and even jeopardizing parental rights or immigration status,” she said. “And as we all know too well, these laws are far from equal. They are disproportionately enforced on Black, Latinx & Indigenous people, resulting in generational trauma, vilification and economic hardship on entire communities.”

At the state level, voters in Oregon could make the state the first in the nation to decriminalize possession of all drugs after an initiative to enact that policy change officially qualified for the ballot last month.

Insiders at the Vermont Democratic Party are also circulating a draft platform that proposes adding an end criminalization for drugs as a 2020 plank.

While neither President Trump or presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has backed broad drug decriminalization, presidential nominees for the Libertarian and Green Parties have both voiced support for the policy change.

Read DPA’s summary of its proposed drug decriminalization legislation below:

DPA decriminalization model by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Vermont Democrats Call For Decriminalizing Drugs And Legalizing Marijuana Sales In Draft 2020 Platform

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