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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.

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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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Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill

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The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.

While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.

News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”

The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.

“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.

Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.

It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.

Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.

And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.

Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.

Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says

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Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says

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Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.

“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.

According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”

Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.

Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.

At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.

“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”

The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:

-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.

-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.

-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.

”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”

Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.

The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.

Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.

Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.

He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”

The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.

Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.

Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.

Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”

“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”

The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.

Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.

Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.

The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.

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

Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.

In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.

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Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’

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The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.

The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.

The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.

“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”

Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”

The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 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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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.

These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.

Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.

Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.

For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.

Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.

Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.

Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.

Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.

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