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New Jersey Prosecutors May Drop Marijuana Possession Cases, State AG Says

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While cities are barred from decriminalizing marijuana on their own, municipal prosecutors in New Jersey do have official permission to reduce or dismiss outright certain low-level cannabis cases, according to guidance the state attorney general issued on Wednesday.

Marijuana policy reform is speeding along in the Garden State, where an overwhelming majority of voters said they support full legalization in a poll last week.

Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has vowed to legalize marijuana as soon as state lawmakers will let him (and, for their part, lawmakers say they have the votes to do it as soon as next month). In the meantime, Murphy has rapidly expanded the state’s medical cannabis program, which was thwarted and stymied for years under his predecessor, Chris Christie (R).

At the moment in New Jersey, possession of less than 50 grams of marijuana—slightly less than two ounces—or drug paraphernalia is a “disorderly persons offense.” Such cases are referred to local municipal court rather than state Superior Court, but can still carry penalties including jail time for repeat offenders, according to experts.

Encouraged by Murphy and legalization pushes in other states—and unwilling to wait for the state Legislature to legalize—local officials in Jersey City recently moved to decriminalize marijuana.

A nice thought, but that’s something they aren’t legally allowed to do, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said earlier this month.

“Municipalities cannot decriminalize conduct that the Legislature has criminalized,” Grewal said, according to NJ.com.

Likewise, municipal prosecutors can’t selectively prosecute. Municipal courts accept “for filing ‘every complaint made by any person,’” Grewal pointed out.

But what they can do is consider the “facts and applicable law in each individual case”—and if they allow, to significantly reduce any penalties or dismiss the case outright.

“Prosecutors necessarily exercise some discretion in carrying out the duties of the office,” Grewal wrote in a new memo to local prosecutors on Wednesday. “A prosecutor’s discretion is not unlimited, however, and when a municipal prosecutor exceeds the scope of his or her discretion, the County Prosecutor or the Attorney General may intervene.”

“To the extent permitted by law, however, a municipal prosecutor should consider the impact of adverse collateral consequences of a conviction based on the specific circumstances or factors presented by the defendant or elicited by the court,” the attorney general wrote.

Grewal’s limited amnesty applies only to municipal courts, and ergo only to marijuana possession cases.

More serious offenses, such as those involving cultivation for sale and trafficking, will continue to go to higher courts.

And it also relies on prosecutors’ goodwill, and willingness to consider factors like whether a defendant stands to lose a job, housing, or placement in school because of punishment for marijuana possession.

Still, civil liberties advocates praised Grewal’s memo as an “important moment,” and “one step further” towards full legalization.

‘Municipal prosecutors – like county prosecutors – have immense power to change the course of a person’s life for the better by using their discretion,” said Amol Sinha, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in comments to NJ.com. “In this guidance, the Attorney General urges municipal prosecutors to use that discretion to balance the scales of justice.”

In the meantime, the move may end up being moot soon if lawmakers are correct that they have enough votes to legalize cannabis in September.

New Jersey Senate President Says He Has The Votes To Legalize Marijuana

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.

Chris Roberts is a reporter and writer based in San Francisco. He has covered the cannabis industry since 2009, with bylines in the Guardian, Deadspin, Leafly News, The Observer, The Verge, Curbed, Cannabis Now, SF Weekly and others.

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Kamala Harris Touts ‘Commitment’ To Marijuana Decriminalization And Expungements Under Biden Administration

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (D-CA) again pledged in a new interview that decriminalizing marijuana would be an administrative priority if she and Joe Biden are elected.

Speaking to The Grio on Saturday, the senator discussed the would-be Democratic administration’s criminal justice agenda, contrasting it with that of President Donald Trump. She reiterated the cannabis reform would be among their policy goals.

“We have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses,” Harris said. “When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits.”

Watch Harris discuss criminal justice and marijuana reform, starting around 12:00 into the video below: 

While reform advocates have appreciated the senator’s repeated calls for cannabis reform on the campaign trail, they’ve taken issue with her tendency to refer to the drug war in the past tense—as she did here by talking about the impact the policy “had”—as though those prosecutions and enforcement disparities haven’t persisted.

In fact, recently released FBI data shows that there were 1,558,862 drug-related arrests in the U.S. last year, about a third of which were for marijuana. That amounts to a new drug bust every 20 seconds on average.

There’s also some frustration that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization—a policy not supported by the former vice president despite its popularity among Democrats.

Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.

In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”

In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.

Top Senate Democrat Includes Marijuana Banking Protections In New Coronavirus Relief Bill

Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

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Top Senate Democrat Includes Marijuana Banking Protections In New Coronavirus Relief Bill

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The top Democrat in the Senate introduced a coronavirus relief bill on Monday that contains provisions to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

As Congress and the White House continue to negotiate details of a potential COVID-19 relief deal, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) seemed to take a page from a recently passed House version that also includes language of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act.

It’s unclear whether the Trump administration or Republican-controlled Senate will be amenable to including cannabis provisions in any package that has a chance of being enacted, but advocates view Schumer’s move in the meantime as a positive signal that Democrats will continue to press the issue.

If lawmakers hope to pass the next round of coronavirus relief ahead of the election, Tuesday appears to be the last opportunity to strike a deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been actively attempting to find common ground on COVID-19 aid, but it remains to be seen whether they will reach an agreement that can be approved by both chambers and signed by the president.

The cannabis banking language has twice appeared in House-passed COVID-19 proposals, and the chamber has approved it both times. That said, it hasn’t advanced without controversy, as multiple Republican lawmakers and White House officials have criticized its inclusion, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in particular has been a vocal opponent of the measure, though he’s largely tailored his criticism to certain provisions of the SAFE Banking Act that require industry diversity reporting.

Democrats and reform advocates have defended adding the marijuana-related components to a coronavirus bill, stressing that it would mitigate the spread of the virus by giving cannabis businesses access to the banking system and minimizing cash-only transactions. It could would also increase access to financial institutions in a way that could give small businesses access to needed capital, they say.

Senate Republicans did not add cannabis banking language to their own version of COVID relief legislation filed in July.

But Democratic leaders in both chambers are evidently willing to keep up the fight, and the House even highlighted the diversity component in a summary of its legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in July that she agrees that the banking measure is an appropriate component of the bill.

In July, bipartisan treasurers from 15 states and one territory sent a letter to congressional leadership, urging the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any COVID-19 legislation that’s sent to the president’s desk. Following GOP attacks on the House proposal, a group of Democratic state treasurers renewed that call.

The House last year approved the standalone SAFE Banking Act. For months, the legislation has gone without action in the Senate Banking Committee, where negotiations have been ongoing.

Where the newly filed Senate COVID-19 bill goes from here is uncertain—but its introduction gives some reason to believe that Schumer sees a potential path forward. It also signals that the cannabis issue, including broader legislation to end federal prohibition, is poised to advance in 2021 if Democrats win control of the chamber in next month’s elections.

Pelosi has said that she will decide by the end of Tuesday whether the negotiations with the Trump administration can lead to a relief package that could be passed before Election Day.

Marijuana Legalization In Texas Would Generate Billions In Tax Revenue, New Economic Analysis Shows

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Marijuana Legalization In Texas Would Generate Billions In Tax Revenue, New Economic Analysis Shows

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Texas stands to generate billions of dollars in marijuana tax revenue and create tens of thousands of jobs if the plant is legalized, according to a new economic analysis.

While the legislature has been resistant to pursue the policy change, the report from Vicente Sederberg LLP makes a compelling case for legalizing and regulating cannabis sales in the state, at least from an economic perspective.

It finds that, given the estimated adult-use marijuana market, there would be $2.7 billion in cannabis sales annually in Texas. And if the state followed Colorado’s tax model, it could bring in more than $1.1 billion in marijuana tax dollars per biennium.

Further, the comparative analysis projects that 20,000-40,000 jobs would be directly created in the legal industry, in addition to ancillary positions for “contractors and construction firms, electrical and water service providers, HVAC manufacturers and installers, processing equipment producers and retailers, and other professionals.”

“We also expect it would bolster the hospitality industry, which would benefit communities that rely on tourism; especially those that have recently been severely impacted by the novel coronavirus, such as San Antonio, Houston, and Corpus Christi,” the report states.

Beyond tax revenue from cannabis sales, Texas could also see an extra $10 million annually if business licensing fees are set at $5,000.

“In addition to generating revenue and creating jobs, regulating cannabis for adult use would also realize significant criminal justice savings,” the report says, adding that Texas would save an estimated $311 million per year in criminal justice resources if marijuana was legalized.

“States across the country are seeing the benefits of legalizing and regulating cannabis,” Shawn Hauser, a partner at Vicente Sederberg, said in a press release. “It is inspiring lawmakers in prohibition states to reexamine the efficacy and costs of their current policies and take a closer look at the alternatives.”

“A regulated cannabis market would be an economic boon for the Lonestar State,” she said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue and tens of thousands of new jobs would be especially helpful in overcoming the losses stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Texas is leaving an enormous amount of money on the table by keeping cannabis illegal.”

Marijuana reform could also potentially clear up regulatory complications that have resulted from the state’s legalization of the plant’s non-intoxicating cousin, hemp.

Because the crops are virtually indistinguishable, it appears that hemp’s new legal status has made it difficult for police to determine whether a given seized substance is allowable hemp or still-illegal marijuana, and that has led to fewer cannabis cases overall.

Prosecutors have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases since hemp was legalized. And state officials announced in February that labs wouldn’t be performing testing in misdemeanor cases, with the Texas Department of Public Safety saying it “will not have the capacity to accept those.”

Marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, according to state data released last month.

The Texas House speaker in July acknowledged that legalizing cannabis could help resolve the state’s budget shortfall—but he doesn’t support the policy change regardless.

“Repealing marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a reasonably regulated market is a win-win for Texas,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Even with modest taxation, legal cannabis for adult use would bring in much needed revenue and free up valuable public safety resources.”

“Considering our projected budget shortfall, Texas lawmakers should consider this a big opportunity for our pro-business state,” she said. “The people of Texas will also benefit when we are no longer saddling responsible cannabis consumers with criminal records that often keep them from accessing education and employment.”

Last year, the House voted to approve a decriminalization bill that would’ve made possession of one ounce or less of cannabis punishable by a $500 fine and no jail time, but it failed to advance to a Senate floor vote by the end of the session.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of State Health Services attempted to impose a ban on the sale of smokeable hemp, but they were sued and a judge gave the plaintiffs a procedural victory in July, temporarily lifting the prohibition. The judge said last month that the ban can’t be enforced until the case is heard in court in 2021.

Read Vicente Sederberg’s report on the economic impact of legalization in Texas below: 

Economic Benefits of Regula… by Marijuana Moment

Legalizing Marijuana Is Risky, Trump-Appointed Prosecutor Warns Montana Voters Ahead Of Election

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