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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 Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Bipartisan Pennsylvania Senators File Bill To Let Medical Marijuana Patients Grow Their Own Plants

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A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania senators introduced a bill on Thursday that would allow medical marijuana patients to cultivate their own plants for personal use.

Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) first announced their intent to file the legislation in November, arguing that it is a necessary reform to ensure patient access by giving people a less costly alternative to buying from dispensaries.

Registered patients who are 21 and older, and who have been residents of the state for at least 30 days, could grow up to six plants in an “enclosed and locked space” at their residence, according to the text of the bill. They would be allowed to buy cannabis seeds from licensed dispensaries

 

In an earlier cosponsorship memo for the new home grow bill, the lawmakers said that letting patients cultivate their own medicine would “help ease the cost and accessibility burdens for this important medicine.”

The new legislation has three other initial cosponsors in addition to Street and Laughlin.

Street had attempted to get the reform enacted as an amendment to an omnibus bill this summer, but it did not advance.

The senators argue that patients in particular are deserving of a home grow option, as some must currently travel hours to visit a licensed dispensary and there are financial burdens that could be alleviated if patients could grow their own plants for medicine.

Late last year, Laughlin and Street also unveiled a separate adult-use legalization proposal that faces significant challenges in the GOP-controlled legislature. And Street is behind another recent cannabis measure to provide state-level protections to banks and insurers that work with cannabis businesses.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

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In the interim, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate this year, said one of his key goals in his final year in office is to ensure that as many eligible people as possible submit applications to have the courts remove their cannabis records and restore opportunities to things like housing, student financial aid and employment through an expedited petition program.

Pennsylvania lawmakers could also take up more modest marijuana reform proposals like a bill filed late last year to expand the number of medical marijuana cultivators in the state, prioritizing small farms to break up what she characterized as a monopoly or large corporations that’s created supply problems.

Rep. Amen Brown (D) separately announced his intent to file a legalization bill that he’ll be working on with Sen. Mike Regan (R), who expressed his support for the policy change a day earlier.

Additionally, another pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing last year.

Philadelphia voters also approved a referendum on marijuana legalization in November that adds a section to the city charter saying that “the citizens of Philadelphia call upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Governor to pass legislation that will decriminalize, regulate, and tax the use, and sale to adults aged 21 years or older, of cannabis for non-medical purposes.”

Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said last year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.

The governor, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

A survey from Franklin & Marshall College released last year found that 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters back adult-use legalization. That’s the highest level of support for the issue since the firm started polling people about it in 2006.

An attempt to provide protections for Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients from being charged with driving under the influence was derailed in the legislature last year, apparently due to pushback by the state police association.

Nebraska Activists Say New GOP Medical Marijuana Bill Is A ‘Poison Pill’ Meant To Detract From Ballot Efforts

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Minnesota Democratic Leaders Preview Marijuana Legalization Plan For 2022

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Minnesota Democratic leaders are preparing for another push to legalize marijuana this session, with the sponsor of the House-passed reform bill saying he will be reworking the legislation in an effort to build further support—though it continues to face an uphill climb in the GOP-controlled Senate.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) and Senate Minority Leader Melisa Franzen (D) discussed the legislative strategy during a roundtable event hosted by the Minnesota Hemp Growers Cooperative on Wednesday.

Winkler said that his bill, which moved through 12 committees before being approved on the House floor last year, is the “product of hundreds of hours of work involving thousands of people’s input, countless hearings and public listening sessions—but it is not a perfect bill.”

“As we look ahead to this session…our goal is to go back and reexamine provisions of the bill,” he said. Licensing structures, public safety and substance misuse concerns are among the issues that lawmakers will be looking at to improve upon the legislation.

“We will be working with our colleagues in the Minnesota Senate,” Winkler added. “We’re interested in pursuing legalization to make sure that the bill represents senators’ priorities for legalization as well.”

The leader said that “any effort this year that would be successful would require Republican support as well.”

But while advocates are encouraged to hear that the House may again vote to pass the legalization legislation, the Senate minority leader tempered expectations about the bill’s prospects in her Republican-run chamber.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a path to legalization this year in the Minnesota Senate,” Franzen said. “It’s controlled by the Republican party, and they have there’s a few members who are really adamantly opposed to legalization.”

Gov. Tim Walz (D) is supportive of cannabis legalization, and while the broad reform didn’t advance last session, he did sign a bill to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, in part by allowing patients to access smokable cannabis products.

Winkler said on Wednesday that “it was because of the work done” by advocates on legalization that put pressure on Senate Republicans to advance that legislation.

Another cannabis issue playing out in Minnesota concerns CBD. The state agriculture department and pharmacy board have increased enforcement against the sale of the non-intoxicating cannabinoid in recent months, prompting calls for legislative reform.

Winkler said that the political dynamics around legalization that led to the expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program will be “a template for how we will address challenges with CBD this year.”

“My staff is working very closely with advocates, working with senators, working with other House members to get in a repair for the CBD industry, and I have every confidence that we will be able to do that with your help,” he said.

A poll conducted by Minnesota lawmakers that was released last year found that 58 percent of residents are in favor of legalization. That’s a modest increase compared to the chamber’s 2019 survey, which showed 56 percent support.

Winkler said in 2020 that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.

Rhode Island Governor Includes Marijuana Legalization And Expungements In Budget Request

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Nebraska Activists Say New GOP Medical Marijuana Bill Is A ‘Poison Pill’ Meant To Detract From Ballot Efforts

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A Republican Nebraska senator introduced a bill on Thursday that ostensibly seeks to legalize medical marijuana in the state—but activists have raised concerns that the restrictive measure may be an attempt to subvert an effort to pass even broader patient protections on the 2022 ballot.

Sen. Mike Groene (R) filed the legislation, which would allow certain patients to buy and possess cannabis oils, pills and up to two and a half ounces of flower at a limited number of dispensaries. Smoking or inhaling marijuana would be banned, however, as would making edibles—so it’s not clear how patients would consume the flower they could possess.

But the main problem is, the bill would maintain that cultivating marijuana in Nebraska for commercial or personal use is illegal, meaning dispensaries wouldn’t even have a legal means of obtaining cannabis products for patients.

The bill is also severely restrictive in terms of who would qualify for cannabis. It would only permit access to people with stage IV cancer, uncontrolled seizures, severe muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy or a terminal illness with less than a one year probable life expectancy.

It’s being backed by the Nebraska chapter of the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), leading some advocates to suspect that the lack of cultivation provisions is designed to be a “poison pill” while misleading voters into thinking that there is a good faith effort to legalize medical cannabis legislatively.

“This appears to be a political stunt,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Opponents of medical cannabis know there is a viable campaign to put medical cannabis on the ballot, and they know Nebraskans will overwhelmingly support that effort.”

“This is an attempt to take our focus away from that,” he said. “But it won’t succeed because it’s clear that this proposal is not a good faith effort to find some middle ground on the issue.”

The bill comes as Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana (NMM) continues to work to collect signatures for a pair of medical cannabis legalization initiatives that advocates hope to place on the November ballot. They have until July to collect 87,000 valid signatures to qualify each of their complementary measures.

Activists with the group collected enough signatures to qualify a medical marijuana legalization measure for the 2020 ballot, but the state Supreme Court invalidated it, finding that the proposal violated the single-subject rule for citizen initiatives.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Now this legislation from Groene is entering the mix for the 2022 session. And SAM Nebraska co-chair John Kuehn told The Lincoln Journal-Star that it’s “a good faith effort and we are willing to look at this as an acceptable alternative to creating a marijuana industry in the state of Nebraska.”

While advocates aren’t necessarily buying that argument given that it would authorize dispensaries without providing the ability to cultivate marijuana products, some like NMM co-chair Sen. Anna Wishart (D) are willing to work with the senator to get the bill into a more acceptable shape for patients.

“It would be the status quo,” Wishart said. “I want a safe system, but there are practical realities patients are living with every day. No one wants a system that doesn’t work.”

Notably, Groene did support a procedural motion to advance Wishart’s more expansive medical cannabis bill last session.

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democrats, pounced on the restrictive nature of Groene’s bill and said it makes it “not easy or feasible for most” to obtain a medical cannabis recommendation from a doctor.

Shari Lawlor, a member of Nebraska Families for Medical Cannabis, said that the group is “grateful that Sen. Groene recognizes the importance of medical cannabis,” but as drafted, “this is a medical cannabis bill with no cannabis.”

“It envisions a system with dispensaries but no farmers or cultivators who actually produce the medical cannabis that patients need,” she said. “And since patients are not allowed to cultivate medical cannabis themselves under this proposal, there is effectively no way for patients to get the relief they need.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) is no fan of legalization. He partnered with SAM Nebraska on a recent ad urging residents to oppose cannabis reform in the state. Given the organization’s support for this new GOP proposal, there’s some suspicion that he might back it to give the appearance that the administration isn’t deaf to calls for reform by voters.

Advocates aren’t going to be deterred by the bill’s introduction. They will be moving forward with the complementary medical cannabis initiatives in hopes to getting the issue to voters.

The campaign deliberately chose to take a bifurcated approach because of the state Supreme Court invalidation over the single-subject rule.

One of the statutory initiatives would establish legal protections for patients and doctors around cannabis, while the other would allow private companies to produce and sell medical marijuana products.

Lawmakers attempted to advance medical cannabis reform legislatively last year, but while the unicameral legislature debated a bill to legalize medical marijuana in May, it failed to advance past a filibuster because the body didn’t have enough votes to overcome it.

Wishart and NMM co-chair Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) announced in late 2020 that they would also work to put the question of legalizing marijuana for adult use before voters in 2022. But for now their focus appears to be on the medical cannabis effort.

For what it’s worth, Nebraska’s attorney general argued in an opinion in 2019 that efforts to legalize medical marijuana legislatively in the state would be preempted by federal law and “would be, therefore, unconstitutional.”

Rhode Island Governor Includes Marijuana Legalization And Expungements In Budget Request

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