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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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Louisiana Senate And House Both Approve Significant Medical Marijuana Expansion

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The Louisiana Senate approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program on Wednesday, and a committee advanced separate legislation on banking access for cannabis businesses.

The expansion proposal, which the House of Representatives approved last week, would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced the proposal last week and now the full chamber has approved it in a 28-6 vote. Before the bill heads to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for signature or veto, the House will have to sign off on an amendment made by the Senate to require dispensaries to record medical marijuana purchases in the state prescription monitoring program database.

As originally drafted, the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R) would have simply added traumatic brain injuries and concussions to the list of conditions that qualify a patient for a marijuana recommendation. But it was amended in a House committee to add several other conditions as well as language stipulating that cannabis can be recommended for any condition that a physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”

Under current law there are only 14 conditions that qualify patients for marijuana.

“House Bill 819 is the new standard for medical marijuana programs. The bill allows any doctor who is licensed by and in good standing with the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners to make medical marijuana recommendations for their patients,” Bagley told Marijuana Moment. “The bill also ends the Legislature’s task of picking medical winners and losers each session, and instead allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any condition that a physician, in his medical opinion, considers debilitating to an individual patient.”

Bagley also introduced a House-passed bill to provide for cannabis deliveries to patients, but he voluntarily withdrew it from Senate committee consideration last week and told Marijuana Moment it’s because he felt the medical marijuana expansion legislation would already allow cannabis products to be delivered to patients like other traditional pharmaceuticals.

The delivery bill would have required a government regulatory body to develop “procedures and regulations relative to delivery of dispensed marijuana to patients by designated employees or agents of the pharmacy.”

It’s not clear if regulators will agree with Bagley’s interpretation, as doctors are still prohibited from “prescribing” cannabis and marijuana products are not dispensed through traditional pharmacies. That said, they recently released a memo authorizing dispensaries to temporarily deliver cannabis to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s possible officials will be amendable to extending that policy on a permanent basis.

State lawmakers also advanced several other pieces of cannabis reform legislation last week.

A bill introduced by Rep. Edmond Jordan (D) to protect banks and credit unions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by state regulators cleared the full House in a 74-20 vote.

That measure was approved by Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs on Wednesday, setting it up for floor action in the chamber.

Also last week, the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee unanimously approved a resolution to establish “a task force to study and make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry projected workforce demands.”

Text of the legislation states that “there is a need to study the workforce demands and the skills necessary to supply the cannabis industry with a capable and compete workforce, including physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners.”

Legislators have until the end of the legislative session on June 1 to get any of the measures to the governor’s desk.

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Former Attorney General, Lawmakers And Police Leaders Call For Federal Marijuana Legalization Waivers

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A task force comprised of former lawmakers, federal prosecutors and reform advocates issued a series of recommendations on Wednesday about criminal justice policy changes that should be enacted, and that includes creating a waiver system to allow states to set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.

The Council on Criminal Justice task force was established prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but its new report said the health crisis has “underscored the urgency” of the recommendations. While the group is far from the only criminal justice-minded organization to push for cannabis reform, it’s especially notable because of the backgrounds of its membership.

Sally Yates, who served as deputy attorney general and interim attorney general, is on the task force. So is former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and former Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Mark Holden, who was senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, and David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union, are also members.

Together, the group agreed on 15 reform recommendations.

While they didn’t endorse federally legalizing cannabis outright, the group said the current conflict between local and national policy is untenable and should be addressed in the interim by creating waivers for states to proceed with marijuana legalization without the fear of federal intervention.

“The federal government must act to resolve this conflict and confusion, by creating an environment that respects sovereignty and by providing a responsible framework in which states can make policy choices,” they said. “Without federal action, the cannabis industry will continue to operate without consistent guardrails and guidance for testing, labeling, and marketing—to minors and all consumers.”

“The Task Force concludes that neither a federal crackdown nor a hands-off approach is advisable. In the absence of cannabis rescheduling, or its legalization at the federal level, the Task Force recommends that Congress and the Administration develop a state waiver process or contractual framework. Without it, states and the industry will continue to exist under an illusion of sovereignty where circumstances can change at any moment. A balanced and thoughtful accommodation from the federal government would provide confidence to states, stabilize the market, and help address many of the myriad safety and health problems.”

To implement the recommendation, the group wants the federal government to create an interagency task force including representatives of the Departments of Justice, Treasury and Health and Human Services, among other agencies. Members would be charged with creating policies and standards on best public health practices regarding issues such as product availability, testing, labeling, marketing and child-resistant packaging.

It would also lay out guidelines for banks that work with the cannabis industry as well as guidance, grant funding and assistance to aid law enforcement efforts to crack down on illicit marijuana distribution. Also recommended is an expansion of National Institute on Drug Abuse-supported research on the potential benefits and risks of cannabis as well as the effects of regulatory legal models.

New federal legislation “should provide guidance and assurances to all stakeholders legally operating under the waiver and/or contractual agreement, shielding them from civil and/or criminal liability,” the report says.

Beyond marijuana, the Council on Criminal Justice task force also proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all federal drug crimes in order to reduce the prison population, automatically sealing public criminal records for non-violent federal convictions “including simple possession of controlled substances, following a conviction-free period of no longer than seven years” and establishing “independent oversight of the federal prison system.”

Due to the high rate of substance use disorders in prisons, the task force also recommended enhancing access “to evidence-based treatment services” that can “help break the cycle of substance use and incarceration.” Medication-assisted treatment would be an example of such a service, the report said.

“The pandemic engulfing the world has exposed more fully than ever the deficiencies in our nation’s criminal justice system, and how those deficiencies endanger people, communities, and public safety,” Nutter said in a press release. “Let us honor the pain, suffering, and loss of life that has occurred during this crisis by sharpening and refocusing our work for change.”

Another task force that advocates are eyeing was recently formed to make criminal justice recommendations to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who dropped out of the race in April, teamed up to create the group, and most members are in favor of marijuana legalization, in contrast to Biden’s current position. It remains to be seen whether they will formally recommend adopting broader cannabis reform as part of the former vice president’s platform.

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Marijuana Dispensaries Excluded From New York’s Coronavirus Loan Program

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Not only are marijuana businesses excluded from federal coronavirus relief funds, but medical cannabis dispensaries in New York are also ineligible for a new COVID-19 loan program that the state is offering.

Under the New York Forward Loan Fund (NYFLF), marijuana shops are specifically excluded, alongside payday loan providers, pawn shops, strip clubs, liquor stores and astrologers. Information pages about the program don’t provide a reason for why dispensaries are considered ineligible.

“The working capital loans are timed to support businesses and organizations as they proceed to reopen and have upfront expenses to comply with guidelines (e.g., inventory, marketing, refitting for new social distancing guidelines) under the New York Forward Plan,” a description of the program states.

This eligibility requirement restrictions come despite the fact that most states, including New York, have deemed cannabis businesses as essential services that can continue to operate during the pandemic.

For the industry in the Empire State, the loan exclusion is another gut punch in a crisis. There have been widespread calls from stakeholders, advocates and legislatures to provide the market with equitable relief from the federal Small Business Administration and, while that so far has not panned out, there’s been hope that states could help fill the gap.

“Given that cannabis businesses are ineligible for federal relief, it is unconscionable for the state of New York to deny them access to state-based relief efforts,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “These businesses have been going above and beyond to provide continuous healthcare, protect jobs, and generate revenue for the state under terrible conditions just like other essential services.”

“Leaving them in the lurch like this is a tremendous disservice to the people who risked their health to provide medical cannabis to the people that need it, and will stunt the ability of the industry to recover and grow at a time when the economy needs it most,” he said.

Katie Neer, chair of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association and director of government relations for Acreage Holdings, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “unfortunate that medical cannabis operators, which are licensed and regulated in New York, and help thousands of patients manage a wide range of ailments, conditions, and illnesses, continue to be lumped in with other so-called ‘sin’ businesses, like pay-day loan stores, massage parlors, and strip clubs.”

“The reality is that New York’s medical cannabis program, established by the governor and Legislature in 2014, is one of the most restrictive in the nation,” she said. “As a result, the industry was struggling prior to the pandemic, even as it was deemed ‘essential’ and continues to serve patients throughout the crisis.”

“While we are eager to participate in the economic recovery at both the state and federal levels, accessing capital has long been a struggle for cannabis operators due to cannabis remaining a federally illegal schedule I drug. We applaud the state’s $100 million New York Forward Loan fund to support small businesses, but we regret not being able to participate due to inconsistencies between state and federal law. To that end, we urge the US Senate to include the SAFE Banking Act in the next federal aid package, which would improve the cannabis industry’s access to capital and ensure that state administered efforts like this one can include state-legal cannabis operators.”

It’s possible that because this loan program is the product of a private-public partnership involving several large national banks, the cannabis exclusion could be related to perceived risks associated with providing financial services to a federally illicit market.

While New York might not be extending state-level relief to cannabis businesses, lawmakers in Massachusetts are actively considering legislation that would establish a coronavirus relief program for marijuana firms and other companies that are left out of federal aid.

In the meantime, at the federal level, the House passed a COVID-19 package that does contain language that would protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Advocates argue that this would mitigate the spread of the virus in a heavily cash-based industry.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) also introduced a bill last month that would extend SBA access to marijuana companies.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was recently asked why the state hasn’t legalized cannabis for adult use as a means to generate much-needed tax revenue during the pandemic. He said it’s a policy change he expects will happen, but it’s a “complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way.”

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