A coalition of more than 100 organizations—including NAACP, ACLU and Human Rights Watch—is coming together to call on congressional leadership to pass far-reaching legislation that would not only federally legalize marijuana but take additional steps to repair the damage of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially discriminatory manner.
“We are encouraged by the progress around marijuana reform at the state and federal level,” the groups wrote, pointing to rapidly changing local cannabis laws and a growing number of pending proposals on Capitol Hill. “While this progress is promising, we insist that any marijuana reform or legalization bill considered by Congress include robust provisions addressing social justice and criminal justice reform.”
The organizations are specifically backing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, a bill filed last month by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).
Among other things, the legislation would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, create processes for expungement and resentencing of prior convictions and block agencies from denying access to federal benefits or citizenship status for immigrants on the basis of marijuana use.
It would also set a new a five percent federal tax on marijuana sales, with some directed toward job training and legal aid for people impacted by prohibition enforcement as well as loans for small marijuana cannabis owned and operated by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a 2020 presidential candidate, is sponsoring companion legislation in the Senate.
Calling the bill an important step “to bolster communities ravaged by the war on drugs,” the letter pushes congressional leadership to ensure that it is “swiftly marked up and immediately scheduled for floor consideration.”
It was delivered on Thursday to the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).
Also included are Nadler and Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-GA), who is cosponsoring separate cannabis reform legislation that would allow states to implement their own legalization policies but does not contain restorative justice provisions.
“The war on drugs, which includes the war on marijuana, devastated the lives of generations of African American and Latinx Americans from low-income communities,” the groups, led by the Center for American Progress (CAP), wrote. “These individuals were disproportionately targeted and brought into the criminal justice system for engaging in marijuana activity that is increasingly lawful.”
Maritza Perez, senior policy analyst for Criminal Justice Reform at CAP, said in a press release that the bill is “the most far-ranging marijuana reform bill introduced in Congress to date.”
“Communities of color have been on the frontlines of this country’s drug war and should not have to continue waiting for a measure of justice, especially while others are generating extraordinary wealth for marijuana activity that sent Black and Latinx individuals to prison,” she added in an email.
Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau said that “many of the communities served and represented by the NAACP have been among the hardest hit by our nation’s outdated and misguided marijuana laws.”
“From robbing us of the talent and promise of our young people, to the breaking-up of families, to reabsorbing returning citizens who cannot take full advantage of many of the federal services offered to other Americans, our communities feel the urgency of enacting this legislation,” he said. “Thus, we have urged the Congress to act as quickly as possible to correct the flaws in the current law and move towards beginning to rectify decades of unnecessary harshness.”
Also signing on to the letter are Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Legal Aid Society, National Action Network, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Association of Social Workers, National Immigrant Justice Center, National Immigration Law Center and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
“Criminal justice involvement deprives individuals from low-income communities of color equal access to economic opportunity,” the groups wrote. “Incarceration robs families and communities of breadwinners and workers. Thus, any marijuana reform bill that moves forward in Congress must first address criminal justice reform and repair the damage caused by the war on drugs in low-income communities of color.”
Cannabis industry and drug reform groups such as 4Front Ventures, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Harm Reduction Coalition, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, NORML and Students for Sensible Drug Policy are also signatories of the letter.
“This diverse assortment of organizations coming together to support Chairman Nadler’s bill to legalize marijuana underscores the strength of the reform movement,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “With the continued growth of support from nearly every corner of the political spectrum, comprehensive reform is closer than ever.”
Queen Adesuiyi, policy coordinator for DPA, said that “for advocates and communities most devastated by the war on marijuana, the current opportunity that Democratic leadership has to end prohibition with a racial and economic justice lens could not have come sooner.”
“From historic rates of public support for legalization to House Judiciary Chairman Nadler’s recent introduction of the most comprehensive marijuana reform bill strongly backed by civil rights and criminal justice groups – Democratic leadership have what they need to swiftly move on ending prohibition and repairing its damage,” she said.
The groups’ collective endorsement of the MORE Act comes at a time when the conversation around marijuana on Capitol Hill is increasingly shifting from whether to legalize it to how to do so.
Nadler filed the MORE Act shortly after the Judiciary Committee’s Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee held a hearing focused on ending prohibition, which surfaced support for cannabis reform from both sides of the aisle while revealing disagreements on whether racial justice and equity measures need to be included in marijuana legislation.
“The MORE Act’s targeted programs will serve to empower historically underserved communities that bore this nation’s drug war,” the new letter says. “It will also reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system and protect people from unequal marijuana enforcement. Justice requires that marijuana reform policy in Congress first de-schedule and repair past harms.”
Several of the signatory groups joined together last month to form the Marijuana Justice Coalition, which issued a statement of principles arguing that “any legislation that moves forward in Congress should be comprehensive” and “frame legalization as an issue of criminal justice reform, equity, racial justice, economic justice, and empowerment, particularly for communities most targeted by over-enforcement of marijuana laws.”
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Minority Cannabis Business Association removed itself as a signatory of the letter because it “does not want our support of the social equity provisions of the MORE Act to be conflated with opposition to the SAFE Banking Act or any other narrowly-tailored financial services legislation which would provide relief for minority cannabis businesses that are disproportionately impacted by the lack of access to capital.”
Vermont Governor Happy With Process On Marijuana Sales Legalization Bill Expected On His Desk Next Week
The governor of Vermont said on Friday that he is impressed with how lawmakers approached negotiations over a marijuana sales legalization bill that will likely be sent to his desk next week, though he stopped short of committing to sign it.
Vermont legalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivation of two plants in 2018, but there are currently no regulations in place that allow for retail sales. Both chambers of the legislature previously approved the new commercialization bill, S. 54, and a bicameral conference committee worked to hash out differences in recent weeks. And shortly after they finalized a compromise version, it was sent to the House floor, where it was approved on Thursday.
The Senate is expected to take up the final measure next week. If approved there, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott (R).
The governor was asked during a press briefing whether he felt the legislation contains adequate public safety provisions that he’s requested.
“The bill hasn’t been my top priority. [It’s] obviously a priority for the legislature and legislative leadership,” he said. “And so it’s been passed [by the House]. I will give great credit to those who I don’t believe had any thoughts of me and some of my concerns, but they’ve done so. They’ve moved forward.”
He drew a contrast to a climate change bill that he indicated was not thoughtfully constructed to take his input into account and which he vetoed.
“I reflect on the Global Warming Solutions Act and the difference between the two bills, and them addressing the concerns I had with the regulation of marijuana—regulation and taxation bill—versus the Global Warming Solutions Act. It’s a stark difference,” he said.
Watch the governor discuss the marijuana tax-and-regulate bill, starting around 1:13:05 into the audio below:
Scott said he was encouraged by how the conference committee navigated the marijuana bill and reached compromises.
“They created a panel, and maybe advocated some of their position there, but it’s coming back,” he said, referring to a new cannabis regulatory body that would be created by the legislation. “Any suggestions by the marijuana panel that they put into their bill is going to come back to the legislature, and they’re going to vote on it, and they’re going to consider that. I mean, that’s the way to do things.”
“They’ve come a long ways. I’ll be considering that over the next—when we do receive the bill, we haven’t received it yet. But I’ll consider that,” Scott said. “And again, they’ve come a long ways and we’ll see what happens.”
It’s been an open question whether the governor will ultimately sign off on the tax-and-regulate bill given that he vetoed an early version of a non-commercial marijuana legalization bill. He reluctantly approved a revised version after legislators agreed to include a number of provisions he requested.
An outstanding concern for Scott in this latest bill is how to mitigate the risk of impaired driving. He wants police to be able to conduct roadside saliva tests for THC—despite the shaky science about its efficacy and civil rights concerns. In conference, the panel compromised on allowing saliva testing, but officers would have to get a warrant and the tests couldn’t be conducted at roadside.
“I’ve never been philosophically opposed to a retail market, I just have concerns about that,” the governor told WCAX in a separate new interview. If marijuana sales are legalized, Scott said it will be important to “make sure we’re doing this the right way with our eyes wide open and that we’re protecting the citizens of Vermont.”
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D), who is running against the incumbent governor, has been a strong advocate for establishing a regulated cannabis market in the state. He told the local news outlet that the “hybrid” compromise on saliva testing “doesn’t cross the line for me,” despite his general reservations about the practice.
Under the proposed cannabis sales bill, marijuana would be subject to a 14 percent excise tax, in addition to the state’s six percent sales tax.
S. 54 also contains some social equity provisions such as prioritizing marijuana business licenses for minorities, women and people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. An independent regulatory commission would additionally be tasked with promoting small business participation in the market.
A new Cannabis Control Commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for retailers, growers, manufacturers, wholesalers and labs. The body would also take over regulation of the state’s existing medical cannabis industry from the Department of Public Safety .
A 30 percent THC limit would be imposed on cannabis flower, while oils could contain up to 60 percent THC. Flavored vape cartridges would be banned.
Local jurisdictions would have to proactively opt in to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area. Municipalities would also be able to establish their own regulations and municipal licensing requirements.
A timeline for the legislation states that it would formally take effect on October 1, 2020—but regulators would then have to make a series of determinations about rules and licensing before retail sales would launch. Dispensary licenses would have to be issued on or before October 1, 2022.
A fiscal analysis on the final bill projects that Vermont will generate between $13.3 million and $24.2 million in annual cannabis tax revenue by Fiscal Year 2025. Licensing fees will lead to additional funds for the state, but the regulatory board created by the legislation will set those levels at a later date. For now, the Joint Fiscal Office estimates the fees could lead to another $650,000 in revenue every year. Municipalities hosting marijuana businesses will also be able to levy additional local fees.
Previously, Scott expressed interest in using new cannabis tax revenues to fund an after-school program he’s pursuing.
Outside of the cannabis sales legalization bill, the House approved separate legislation this month that would provide for automatic expungements of marijuana convictions and allow people to possess and grow more cannabis without the threat of jail time than is currently allowed. The Senate could give approval to the latest version next week, setting it up to also head to Scott’s desk.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Hemp Farmers Now Eligible For USDA Coronavirus Relief Program
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Friday that it is expanding its coronavirus relief program for farmers—and this time around, hemp cultivators are eligible for benefits.
In May, USDA said it would be making $19 billion available for agriculture producers to assist them amid the pandemic. But it excluded hemp and several other crops, stating that they don’t qualify because they didn’t experience a five percent or greater price decline from January to April. Industry stakeholders contested that point, arguing that there’s insufficient data to establish that given how young the newly legal market is. They said they were suffering just like other sectors.
It seems the department got that message and chose to accommodate the industry. A new round of funding through USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) includes a payment category for “flat-rate crops” that lists hemp as eligible.
“Crops that either do not meet the 5-percent price decline trigger or do not have data available to calculate a price change will have payments calculated based on eligible 2020 acres multiplied by $15 per acre,” USDA said in a notice. “These crops include alfalfa, extra long staple (ELS) cotton, oats, peanuts, rice, hemp, millet, mustard, safflower, sesame, triticale, rapeseed, and several others.”
Jonathan Miller, general counsel at the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “thrilled” to see USDA take this step, though some stakeholders are saying that the calculation the department is using to determine benefits under the program “might not be as generous as for some other crops.”
“This is a very significant development for the industry,” he said. “We just want to be sure that our farmers are treated fairly just like other farmers.”
The office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has championed the industry and helped advance the crop’s legalization, highlighted the policy change.
#Kentucky #hemp & tobacco farmers are now able to receive aid from @SenateMajLdr McConnell’s #CARESAct. Starting Monday, growers can apply for relief at their local @usdafsa office. Thanks to @realDonaldTrump & @SecretarySonny for looking out for farmers.https://t.co/3XzFIpXpSz
— Senator McConnell Press (@McConnellPress) September 18, 2020
The Virginia Department of Agriculture also touted the news.
— VDACS (@VaAgriculture) September 18, 2020
In April, Congress approved a COVID-19 package that made hemp businesses eligible for federal disaster relief through the Small Business Administration (SBA).
For the past two years since hemp was federally legalized through the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA has been hard at work developing regulations and reaching out to the industry to ensure that the market has the resources to thrive.
This month, for example, it reopened a 30-day public comment period on its proposed rules for the crop in order to gain additional feedback on a number of provisions that stakeholders had expressed concern about. SBA recently asked USDA to extend that comment window. The department’s rule for hemp, when finalized, is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.
In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last month wrote to Perdue, similarly asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot program in the meantime.
As it stands, the earlier pilot program is set to expire on October 31. The senators aren’t alone in requesting an extension, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA last month.
Perdue has said on several occasions that DEA influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.
As all of this rulemaking continues, USDA has been systematically approving hemp plans from states and tribes. Utah is the latest state to have its proposal approved.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Majority Of Republicans Support Marijuana Legalization Bill That Democrats In Congress Delayed Vote On
A majority of U.S. voters across party lines support the passage of a comprehensive federal marijuana legalization bill that was expected to receive a House floor vote before being postponed on Thursday, according to a new poll.
The survey found that 59 percent of Americans—including 53 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats—favor the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would federally deschedule cannabis and promote social equity.
Despite that bipartisan support, certain moderate Democratic lawmakers convinced House leadership that holding a vote on the bill next week, as was initially expected, could damage them politically heading into the election. They felt that advancing the reform legislation before passing another coronavirus relief bill looked bad for them—a position that advocates say is nonsensical given the widespread popularity of the issue.
This is the second time Data for Progress and the Justice Collaborative Institute asked Americans about drug policy reform and the MORE Act specifically. Their last poll, which was conducted in May, showed that 62 percent of respondents backed the bill. Support also transcended party lines in the earlier survey, with 60 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats agreeing it should be passed.
“The decision to push back a vote on the MORE Act not only calls Democrats’ prioritization of racial and criminal justice into question, but it also shows a complete disregard for the will of the majority of the American people who are ready for reform,” the Justice Collaborative said in a press release. “Failing to pass legislation decriminalizing marijuana use could be an electoral risk come November.”
While the House won’t take up the MORE Act next week as initially anticipated, leadership has given the bill’s supporters an “ironclad commitment” that it will get a floor vote in the fall, according to Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA). That will likely take place after the election.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said that “the MORE Act remains a critical component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism and advancing criminal justice reform, and we are committed to bringing it to the Floor for a vote before the end of the year.”
The new poll—which involved interviews with 1,212 likely voters from September 11-14—also looked at support for more broad drug policy issues. For example, 60 percent said that “we should treat drug use as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue.”
Sixty-seven percent of voters said the federal government should respect the rights of states to set their own marijuana policies. That support was also bipartisan, with 63 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats agreeing with the sentiment.
A majority of voters said police shouldn’t be arresting people for possessing cannabis for personal use (59 percent) or selling small quantities of marijuana (55 percent).
Finally, the poll asked people whether they feel that “legalized marijuana has become too corporate and it is only benefiting wealthy investors.” Half said they did feel that way, 26 percent said they disagreed and 23 percent said they didn’t know.
Interestingly, Republicans were more likely to say the industry is being corporatized (57 percent) than Democrats (48 percent).
The survey findings underscore the evolving political reality of drug policy reform: it’s popular with most Americans and it’s increasingly bipartisan. But it also reveals the splintering between public sentiment and congressional action, as evidenced in part by the MORE Act vote postponement. That select centrist Democratic members felt the optics of passing the popular bill would derail their reelection campaigns seems to highlight the disconnect.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.