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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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Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Committee

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A bill to decriminalize marijuana possession in Texas—as well as a separate proposal to reduce penalties for possessing cannabis concentrates—advanced out of a key House committee on Friday.

These are the latest developments that have come after a week where Texas lawmakers have considered a medley of marijuana reform measures. But arguably the most significant piece of cannabis legislation to move out of committee would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a class C misdemeanor that carries a fine but no threat of jail time.

The full House of Representatives approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session.

This time around, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved the decriminalization bill, which would also prevent law enforcement from making arrests over low-level possession. Other decriminalization proposals that were under consideration by the panel this week would not prohibit that enforcement action, which is key because police are currently able to incarcerate people who are arrested for class C misdemeanors even though the charge itself does not carry the risk of jail time in sentencing.

The advancing legislation, HB 441, sponsored by Rep. Erin Zwiener (D), would also prevent the loss of a driver’s license or the creation of a criminal record for possession of up to one ounce.

Separately, the committee advanced legislation to make possession of up to two ounces of cannabis concentrates a class B misdemeanor.

Both bills were among the subjects a lengthy hearing the panel held on Tuesday.

“Marijuana bills are moving through the committee process at record speed this session,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “There’s good reason to be optimistic about the upcoming votes and the House and advocates will be doubling down their efforts to influence senators.”

This action comes one day after the House Public Health Committee unanimously approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program.

Sponsored by Chairwoman Stephanie Klick (R), the bill would add cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (for veterans only) as conditions that could qualify people for the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

It would further allow the Department of State Health Services to add more qualifying conditions via administrative rulemaking. And it would also raise the THC cap for medical marijuana products from 0.5 percent to five percent.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 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.

On Thursday, the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee also discussed legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.

While the Texas legislature has historically resisted most cannabis reforms, there are signs that this session may be different.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event last month that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”

The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”

Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.

“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”

Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.

Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.

Leaders in both chambers of the legislature have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.

Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.

That said, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber.

Nevada Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Bill To Allow On-Site Consumption Lounges

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Nevada Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Bill To Allow On-Site Consumption Lounges

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A bill to allow on-site marijuana consumption lounges advanced through a Nevada Assembly committee on Friday. The panel separately passed a measure making it so the concentration of THC in a person’s blood cannot be singularly used to determine impairment while driving.

The social use legislation, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager (D), would create two new licensing categories for cannabis businesses in the state. One would be for “retail cannabis consumption lounges” and the other would be an “independent cannabis consumption lounge.”

Existing retailers could apply for the former license and sell products that could be consumed on-site by adults 21 and older. Independent lounges would not be permitted to sell cannabis on their own, but would need to have marijuana products delivered to consumers from another source.

That said, independent licensees could submit a request to regulators to sell cannabis that they produce or to enter into a contract with an adult-use retailer to sell their products.

The state’s Cannabis Compliance Board would also be responsible for creating regulations for on-site facilities and setting fees for license applicants. Businesses that qualify as social equity applicants would have a reduced fee.

Under the legislation, a person “who has been adversely affected by provisions of previous laws which criminalized activity relating to cannabis, including, without limitation, adverse effects on an owner, officer or board member of the applicant or on the geographic area in which the applicant will operate” is considered a social equity applicant.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 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.

Yeager proposed a large-scale amendment to the proposal before it was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. It builds on the definition and scoring system for social equity applicants, revises public safety requirements for lounges and ensures that products purchased at lounges cannot be removed from the facility, among other changes.

The Las Vegas City Council in 2019 approved an ordinance allowing for social consumption sites within city limits.

That year, Alaska became the first state to enact regulations that provide for the on-site use option at dispensaries. Colorado followed suit with legislation approved that legalized cannabis “tasting rooms” and “marijuana hospitality establishments” where adults could freely use cannabis. Social consumption sites are also provided for in New York’s recently enacted marijuana legalization law.

In Nevada, adding new license types and giving consumers this option—especially in the tourist-centric state—could further boost marijuana and other tax revenues. And Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) has had a particular interest in ensuring that those tax dollars support public education, which he talked about during a State of the State address in January.

Sisolak has also committed to promoting equity and justice in the state’s marijuana law. Last year, for example, he pardoned more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level cannabis possession.

That action was made possible under a resolution the governor introduced that was unanimously approved by the state’s Board of Pardons Commissioners.

Under the impaired driving bill that separately cleared the committee on Friday, the per se blood test for THC would no longer be used in determining impairment.

Advocates have argued that the limit is arbitrary and there’s a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating a link between the amount of THC metabolites present in the blood and active impairment.

New Mexico Governor Sends Marijuana Bill Sponsors A ‘Save The Date’ For Expected Legalization Bill Signing

Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.

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Biden Gets Yet Another Congressional Letter Blasting Marijuana-Related White House Firings

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President Joe Biden has received yet another letter from a lawmaker demanding answers about his administration’s practice of firing or otherwise punishing staffers for prior marijuana use.

Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) noted the national push to end prohibition and how the White House’s actions reveal a troubling disconnect.

“Cannabis is legal for either medical or adult use in 36 states, with numerous states pursuing efforts to further legalize for adult use,” the congresswoman wrote. “In Minnesota, our state legislature is expected to vote on measures to legalize cannabis in the coming months following years of political and community organizing by activists throughout the state.”

“Minnesotans and the American people are demanding change to our harsh and unequally applied cannabis laws,” she wrote. “I look forward to seeing your Administration reverse course on this harmful and unnecessary hurdle to hiring diverse and talented public servants.”

Craig also mentioned efforts to legalize marijuana at the federal level and commented on Biden’s prior statements on more modest reforms.

“I stand ready to work with you as we revisit our country’s drug laws, including the descheduling of cannabis as a Class 1 drug at the federal level,” she said. “You have previously expressed your commitment to decriminalizing cannabis in acknowledgement that a cannabis conviction or even the stigma of cannabis use can ruin lives and prevent people from voting, gaining employment and contributing to society.”

This is the third letter from lawmakers that Biden has been sent regarding the federal marijuana employment controversy.

A coalition of 30 members of Congress sent a letter last month that sharply criticizes the administration for terminating or punishing multiple White House staffers who disclosed their prior cannabis use. They pointed out that Vice President Kamala Harris and at least one one other Cabinet member are on record about their own marijuana use experiences.

Prior to that, Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) sent a similar message to the president condemning news of the marijuana-related firings for people who were honest about their history with cannabis on a federal form that’s required as part of the background check process.

“Simply put, in a nation where the truth is considered malleable, we need to demonstrate to our young public servants that telling the truth is an honorable trait, not one to be punished,” the congressman wrote. “I respectfully request that your administration discontinue punishment of staff for being honest about their prior cannabis use and reinstate otherwise qualified individuals to their posts.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed the controversy last month, saying during a press briefing that while Biden could theoretically end the policy of firing staff over prior marijuana use himself, that’s not happening as long as cannabis is federally illegal.

She later said that the president’s stance on marijuana legalization “has not changed,” meaning he’s still opposed to the comprehensive reform.

Psaki has previously attempted to minimize the fallout over the cannabis firings, with not much success, and so her office released a statement last month stipulating that nobody was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.”

Read the new letter to Biden on White House marijuana employment policy below: 

Letter to Biden Regarding C… by Marijuana Moment

New Mexico Governor Sends Marijuana Bill Sponsors A ‘Save The Date’ For Expected Legalization Bill Signing

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