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New Jersey Governor And Lawmakers Announce Marijuana Legalization Deal

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After months of debate over the nuances of marijuana legalization legislation, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leaders in the legislature have reached a broad agreement.

In a press release on Tuesday, the governor, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D), Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D), Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D) and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D) announced the agreement and said that text of a bill to legalize cannabis for adult use will be released “in the coming days.”

That’s a welcome development for advocates, who had the benefit of a pro-legalization governor but worried that his concerns about aspects of legalization such as the tax rates and regulatory structures might derail the reform effort.

“Legalizing adult-use marijuana is a monumental step to reducing disparities in our criminal justice system,” Murphy said. “After months of hard work and thoughtful negotiations, I’m thrilled to announce an agreement with my partners in the Legislature on the broad outlines of adult-use marijuana legislation.”

“I believe that this legislation will establish an industry that brings fairness and economic opportunity to all of our communities, while promoting public safety by ensuring a safe product and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on serious crimes,” he said.

While Murphy initially called for a much steeper tax rate than his counterparts in the legislature, a compromise was reached to tax cannabis by weight, rather than by price. Under the agreement, there will be a $42 per ounce excise tax as well as additional local taxes for municipalities that opt to allow manufacturers, wholesalers or retailers.

In his annual budget proposal last week, the governor estimated that the state would collect $60 million in marijuana tax revenue for the 2020 fiscal year.

“This plan will allow for the adult use of cannabis in a responsible way,” Sweeney said of the new deal. “It will create a strictly regulated system that permits adults to purchase limited amounts of marijuana for personal use. It will bring marijuana out of the underground market so that it can be controlled, regulated and taxed, just as alcohol has been since the end of Prohibition. This plan will also advance important social justice reforms to help reverse the discriminatory impact that drug laws have had on diverse communities.”

Social equity will be a major feature of the legalization bill, the lawmakers emphasized. The legislation will establish a system to expedite the clearing of records for prior low-level cannabis convictions and also create a “virtual expungement process” that would prevent marijuana offenses from affecting things like education, house and occupational licensing.

“As much as we would want this to be automatic, it is functionally not possible,” Murphy said in response to questions about expungements at a press conference on unrelated gun issues on Tuesday. “You have an affirmative action an individual has to take, or in the absence of that a virtual expungement, meaning until that person takes that action, that crime cannot impair their ability—just as race, gender, religion cannot impair your ability—to get a job, to get an education, to get a license, et cetera.”

“It will address enormous social injustice in our system. And while that appears to be under the justice category, it has enormous implications for both the individuals who are finally freed from this prior charge but also for the rest of us. The economic impact, the societal impact, not just on those individuals, but on the rest of us, is potentially enormous.”

The joint announcement from Murphy and lawmakers said that “there are a number of provisions that aim to ensure broad-based participation in the industry for Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs), low- and middle-income individuals, and disadvantaged communities across the state.”

“The agreement reached to legalize adult-use cannabis is the result of incredibly hard work by many people over many months,” Coughlin said. “Getting to this point wasn’t easy. We talked and we negotiated in good faith, but most importantly, we listened.”

“I want to thank Governor Murphy and Senate President Sweeney for their tireless efforts and willingness to compromise so we could put forth the most responsible legislation possible,” he said. “I believe this new, regulated industry will help boost our economy, but I’m particularly proud of the critical social justice components included in the bill.”

The statement from Murphy and the lawmakers doesn’t mention whether allowing people to grow their own marijuana at home is part of the deal.

Under the agreement, the state’s legal marijuana program would be regulated by a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission. Three of the members will be appointed by the governor without being subject to Senate confirmation, and two would be recommended by Sweeney and Coughlin.

“The prohibition on marijuana has long been a failed policy,” Scutari said. “This plan will bring an end to the adverse effects our outdated drug laws have had on the residents of our state.”

“As a regulated product legalized marijuana will be safe and controlled,” he said. “It is time to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey and this is a well crafted legal reform that will advance social policy in a fair and effective way.”

More details and actual legislative language are still to come, but the announcement offers the clearest look yet at how New Jersey’s legal cannabis system could take shape.

“This was not easy. We’re standing up an entire new industry, so not surprisingly, it took time,” Murphy said at the press conference. “I got there via the notion that in the yawning gaps of social injustice in our state, particularly among peoples who are incarcerated across racial lines.”

Coughlin predicted that a vote on a legalization bill could come on March 25.

Murphy, meanwhile, predicted that legal cannabis sales would be an “early next year reality.” He said it’s “too early for me to tell” whether there’s enough support to pass legalization in either chamber, but “I’m all in to help them get this over the goal line.

“We have to get the votes now. The Senate president, the speaker, myself, their teams—we have to collectively get the votes we need both in the Senate and the Assembly,” he said. “We’ll be working on this jointly.”

The news of a deal in New Jersey comes one day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of neighboring New York announced that he is not optimistic about the chances of including marijuana legalization in his state’s annual budget this year, as he initially proposed. He and lawmakers are saying that they still plan to pursue the issue in separate legislation, however.

New Jersey Governor Includes Legal Marijuana Revenue In Budget Proposal

Photo courtesy of Phil Murphy.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Hemp Farmers Guaranteed Federal Crop Insurance Through Disaster Bill Amendment

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The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that is mostly focused on providing relief aid to areas impacted by natural disasters—but it also includes a provision ensuring that hemp farmers qualify for federal crop insurance.

The hemp section was inserted into the legislation at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Though similar language already exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp and its derivatives, the senator took an added measure to provide clarity to farmers who want access to the insurance option ahead of the 2020 planting season.

“Beginning not later than the 2020 reinsurance year, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation shall offer coverage under the wholefarm revenue protection insurance policy (or a successor policy or plan of insurance) for hemp (as defined in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o)),” text of the provision states.

“Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985,” it continues.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 85 to 8. The House is expected to approve the disaster legislation by unanimous consent by the end of the week, and President Donald Trump has offered assurances that he will sign it into law.

The legalization of hemp has sparked strong interest among farmers in states from Colorado to Kentucky, but it will still be some time until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and implements its federal regulatory guidelines.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that while his department would not rush its rulemaking process, it still intends to implement the regulations before the 2020 planting season. After that point, USDA would be able to approve regulatory plans submitted by individual states.

McConnell, who championed the hemp legalization provision, has urged the quick and effective implementation of such regulations, and he’s suggested that he’d introduce standalone legislation to resolve any “glitches” in its rollout.

While not a standalone bill, the hemp-focused provision of the disaster legislation seems to indicate he plans to make good on that promise.

The senator has made much of his pro-hemp agenda, arguing last month that his role in reforming hemp laws is at “the top of the list” of reasons why voters should reelect him in 2020. He also cited hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco when he introduced a bill this week to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Mitch McConnell Touts Hemp As He Proposes Raising Tobacco Purchase Age Limit

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Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications

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A congressional committee report attached a large-scale spending bill containing marijuana-related protections has been amended to include a call for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to finally act on long-pending applications for federal licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes.

The legislation itself, which was released by a House subcommittee last week, could still be further amended as it goes through the legislative process. But as approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the bill stipulates that none of the Fiscal Year 2020 funds it allocates may be used by the Justice Department to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs.

The provision has been federal law since 2014, but its inclusion in the initial subcommittee proposal as introduced is the earliest it has ever surfaced in the legislative process for the annual spending bill. While advocates hoped broader protections for adult-use cannabis states would also be included in the base legislation, that rider isn’t in the bill—at least not yet.

There was also a technical problem with the legislation that wasn’t resolved by the committee manager’s amendment, the text of which has not been posted but was obtained by Marijuana Moment. The medical cannabis provision lists the states and territories its protections apply to—but it left out the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical marijuana in January.

Similar errors have occurred in past versions of the legislation, when legal medical cannabis states North Dakota and Indiana were not included in an earlier version of the rider, and advocates hope that the language will be amended on the House floor.

But while that fix didn’t make it into the bill at the committee level, the directive to the DEA about cannabis cultivation licenses was added to the committee report attached to the bill via the manager’s amendment.

“The Committee urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for us in medical research,” the revised report states.

The DEA has faced significant pressure from lawmakers, advocates and scientists to approve applications for additional marijuana manufacturers to produce research-grade cannabis. Currently there is only one federally authorized facility, and the quality of its product has long been criticized.

DEA announced a process to license additional cultivators during the final months of the Obama administration in  2016, but the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to act on more than two dozen pending applications. Current Attorney General William Barr has pledged to look into the matter, and has said he agrees that approving additional manufacturers is necessary.

Advocates hope that the new committee report language could help to finally spur movement at the department.

“The DEA is a disaster on marijuana and they need to stop obstructing research ASAP,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.

“It’s beyond ridiculous that they won’t act on these applications. Even prohibitionists like Project SAM agree,” he added, referring to the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “And when the guys who get their drug policy from the 1920s say you’re behind the times, that’s pretty embarrassing.”

Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that Sessions “was the only government official opposed to cannabis research, and he is no longer employed.”

“Now is the time for AG Barr to follow through on his commitment and allow researchers pathways to consumer-grade cannabis,” he said.

Another provision included in the appropriations bill would offer protections for states that have implemented industrial hemp pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. The Justice Department wouldn’t be allowed to use its funds to interfere in such programs under the proposal.

Of course, the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act, shifting regulatory responsibility onto the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Justice Department, so that provision may not be especially relevant going forward.

The bill will next head to the Rules Committee, which will decide the list of amendments—potentially including additional cannabis-related ones—that can be considered on the House floor.

Read the text of the manager’s amendment with the DEA marijuana language below: 

Managers Amendment FINAL by on Scribd

Presidential Candidates Are Cosponsoring A New Marijuana Descheduling Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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House Committee Approves Immigration Bill With Marijuana Protections

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A congressional committee voted in favor of a wide-ranging immigration bill on Wednesday, and the legislation includes marijuana-related protections for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Under the DREAM Act as approved, having low-level cannabis convictions, or engaging in state-legal cannabis-related activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not be counted against applications for permanent resident status for so-called Dreamers.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in a 19-10 vote, without specific discussion about the cannabis provisions.

The section concerning eligibility for permanent status stipules that having three or more misdemeanor convictions could be grounds for ineligibility—but the bill creates an exemption for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

The text seems to indicate that immigrants who engaged in cannabis-related activities prior to a state reforming its marijuana laws would still be protected even if that activity was not state-legal at the time.

Similar language appears under a separate section about grounds for a provisional denial of an application for adjustment of status. Applicants would be exempted from such a denial if their conviction was for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

A previous version of the legislation, filed in March, didn’t include the specific eligibility requirements related to certain criminal activity, nor did it contain any explicit marijuana protections. It’s possible that House Democrats thought up the exemptions during a brainstorming session earlier this month about potential bill revisions aimed at building more support.

The next likely stop for the DREAM Act will be the House Rules Committee before heading to a full floor vote.

There’s been growing interest in reforming marijuana policies as they apply to immigrants and visitors to the U.S.

Earlier this month, four congressional Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to end the practice of rejecting naturalization applications solely because the applicant worked in a state-legal marijuana market. That came after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo specifying that such activity could render them morally unfit for citizenship.

And last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced legislation aimed at resolving marijuana-related border issues, whereby visitors who admit to using cannabis or working in their country’s legal industry can be denied entrance.

New Congressional Bill Aims To Resolve Marijuana Industry Border Issues

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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