With just days left before the end of the legislative session, efforts to legalize marijuana in New York have been revived, with a possible vote this coming week.
Though momentum to pass a legalization measure seemed to largely die off after lawmakers in neighboring New Jersey announced they wouldn’t move forward with plans to end cannabis prohibition through the legislature, advocates are increasingly optimistic that a deal in the Empire State is imminent.
Democratic members in both the Senate and Assembly held conferences last week to discuss details of the legislation. Spectrum News reported that the meetings went well, with members indicating that there’s support for the measure.
That’s just one of several positive signs that a proposal many observers thought was dead for the year has new life.
On Saturday and Sunday, staff for legislative leaders from both chambers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) met to negotiate provisions of a revised legalization plan.
Source says three way talks on marijuana taking place today in Albany among staff of two legislative leaders and @NYGovCuomo
Final bill expected to be posted Sunday night
— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) June 15, 2019
On Wednesday, an earlier Senate version of the bill was assigned “same as” status in the Assembly version. That means the current proposals in each chamber lined up with identical language and is considered to be an indicator that the legislation could pass.
— Mike Baggerman (@MikeBaggerman) June 14, 2019
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) said on Friday that his party has yet to determine whether they’ll bring the bill to the floor, but he added that “I think there is support in the conference.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters his conference hasn't made a decision yet on whether to put a bill legalizing marijuana on the floor for a vote.
"We haven't made a final decision yet, but I think there is support in the conference," he said.
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) June 14, 2019
He also characterized the window of time until the end of the session on Wednesday as “an eternity.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says there is no final determination on a marijuana legalization bill, but notes there is “an eternity” between now and the end of session on Wednesday.
— Nick Reisman (@NickReisman) June 14, 2019
Cuomo, who said late last month that passing legalization remains a top 10 priority, has said that lawmakers who fail to approve items on his agenda, including ending cannabis prohibition, “should all be primaried, because that is a failure of a basic progressive agenda.”
On the flip side, the chairman of New York’s Democratic Party said earlier this month that if the Senate approves the legalization bill, they run to risk of alienating voters in certain areas such as Long Island and upstate New York. But that argument neglects to account for recent polling that shows voters in those regions strongly support legalization.
Notably, the measure’s most vocal opponents with the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana have been sending email blasts in recent days urging their supports to call senators and voice opposition to the bill, giving the impression that the group is anticipating a vote.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), sponsor of the legalization legislation, seemed to confirm that suspicion on Friday, stating that after “conversations with my co-sponsor and colleague in the Senate, I am even more confident of a path for victory.”
.@CPeoplesStokes on status of marijuana legislation: "After conversations with my co-sponsor and colleague in the Senate, I am even more confident of a path for victory."
— Yancey Roy (@YanceyRoy) June 14, 2019
But despite that confidence, the fate of legalization in New York remains murky. An analysis earlier this month found that legalization was two votes short of a needed majority in the Senate.
Meanwhile, a number of key elected officials are calling on the governor and lawmakers to not only push legalization over the finish line but to include certain key provisions in the final legislation.
State Attorney General Letitia James (D) sent a letter urging that the bill expunge prior cannabis records.
“Before we create a booming business for legal marijuana, we must provide relief to those individuals that have paid much more to society than what was due,” she wrote.
Legalizing marijuana is a racial & criminal justice imperative. If we truly want a more fair system, we must ensure that those who were unjustly harmed be given a clean slate.
That means providing full expungement for those convicted for non-violent marijuana offenses. https://t.co/jt8lEkrnz7
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) June 16, 2019
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), a 2020 presidential candidate, also pushed for expungements and said in a Twitter thread that legalization should “empower local business and not big corporations.”
With only a few days left this session in Albany, we have a small window to legalize marijuana the RIGHT way.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) June 16, 2019
We can right the wrongs of the past. We can bring fairness to communities of color. We can empower local business and not big corporations.
We have to keep the focus and bring this home.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) June 16, 2019
And the Manhattan and Albany County district attorneys co-authored an op-ed calling leaders to “correct staggering inequities and promote public safety by passing” legalization.
DA Vance, @AlbanyCountyDA: "In the final days of session, Gov. Cuomo and state legislators must correct staggering inequities and promote public safety by passing the Marijuana Revenue and Taxation Act." #MarijuanaJustice ⚖️ @DrugPolicyOrg https://t.co/ESuMjAR03q
— Cyrus Vance, Jr. (@ManhattanDA) June 14, 2019
The Buffalo News reported on Sunday afternoon that there were still a number of outstanding issues left to be settled between lawmakers, including whether or not home cultivation of cannabis would be allowed, how tax revenue would be allocated and whether localities would have to proactively opt in to allowing marijuana businesses or if there would instead be an opt out provision for those wanting to ban cannabis commerce.
Marijuana Update: Talks continue in Albany at this hour, with one insider describing it’s chances as “50/50.”
At issue is where the revenue from legalization would go.
Source says @NYGovCuomo and legislature disagree on who is most in need.
Others say Cuomo wants his bill only.
— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) June 17, 2019
The session ends on Wednesday, and so far no vote has been scheduled in either chamber.
Meanwhile, lawmakers early on Monday morning filed what appears to be backup legislation to expand the decriminalization of marijuana and to provide a process to expunge or vacate prior cannabis convictions. And others support putting legalization on the ballot through a referendum that voters can decide on.
The situation is very fluid, and over the next few days advocates will be stepping up the push for action in Albany. On Sunday, they held a rally outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office.
How many NY dads have been criminalized & separated from kids bc of broken pot laws?
— VOCAL-NY (@VOCALNewYork) June 16, 2019
This post has been updated to include the latest developments as well as comment from a number of elected officials.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Mitch McConnell Presses FDA Nominee On CBD And Hemp
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) met with the nominee to become the next Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner on Wednesday and discussed the need for a regulatory framework for CBD products.
While there are few specific details available about their conversation, McConnell said he emphasized the importance of hemp legalization for Kentucky farmers and pointed out that those producers are also facing challenges given the lack of FDA regulations concerning CBD.
“I look forward to working closely with Dr. Hahn on several important issues for Kentucky,” McConnell said in a press release. “Like many Kentuckians who are taking advantage of hemp’s legalization, I am eager for FDA’s plans to create certainty for CBD products.”
As @senatemajldr, Senator Mitch McConnell advocates for #Kentucky priorities with the Trump Administration and discussed his Tobacco 21 legislation, #hemp, and CBD with President @realDonaldTrump’s nominee for @US_FDA Commissioner: https://t.co/GZhkVgPeFV pic.twitter.com/a0gBs9z42u
— Senator McConnell Press (@McConnellPress) November 20, 2019
The majority leader has previously pressed FDA to issue enforcement discretion guidance that prioritizes action against only CBD companies making especially unfounded medical claims about their products while allowing responsible businesses to continue to market their products as the agency continues to develop rules.
McConnell similarly raised his concerns about the importance of expediting CBD regulations during a separate meeting with Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless in June.
Stephen Hahn, the FDA nominee, was also pressed on CBD issues during a confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) noted that there’s wide consumer interest in the cannabis products but stressed that more research is needed, barriers to research should be lifted and public health interests should be balanced with policies that support the industry.
Hahn replied that he believed there’s untapped therapeutic potential in the cannabis compound, but he also agreed that there are “unanswered questions that need to be filled in by data and science and research.”
In related developments, several consumer groups have recently expressed concerns about the current status of the CBD market.
Three groups—National Consumers League, Consumer Federation of America and Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America—announced on Tuesday that they are launching an initiative called “Consumers for Safe CBD” that is designed to “warn the public of the potential risks related to CBD products.”
According to a press release, the coalition will also encourage FDA “to use its existing authority to protect consumers, provide guidance to manufacturers, and encourage further research for FDA-approved CBD treatments.”
Another group, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), launched a citizen petition to FDA last week that implores the agency to quickly develop rules for CBD so that the products can be lawfully marketed as dietary supplements.
“Intense consumer demand and commercial interest has resulted in a flood of CBD products of uncertain quality and unapproved claims already in the marketplace, and this scenario has created an urgent need for FDA action,” CHPA President Scott Melville said in a press release.
“The request in our petition seeks to have FDA utilize the authority it already has to establish a lawful regulatory pathway for manufacturers to bring dietary supplements containing CBD to market,” he said. “Only then will consumers be able to purchase CBD-containing dietary supplements in a manner that ensures product quality, safety, and a level-playing field for enforcement.”
Photo courtesy of Twitter/Senate Majority Leader.
Senators Push USDA To Adopt Five Changes To Proposed Hemp Regulations
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday, requesting a series of changes to draft rules for hemp that the department released last month.
The senators said they appreciate that USDA issued the proposed regulations, which is a “necessary step to establish a domestic federal hemp production program.” However, they wanted to highlight “several concerns about the unintended and potentially harmful effects this interim final rule would have on hemp production in Oregon and across the country.”
In the letter to Agriculture Sec. Sonny Perdue, they listed five issues with the regulations and suggested potential fixes. Many of the concerns echoed those that stakeholders have submitted to USDA as part of a public comment period the department launched on October 31. Here’s what the senators highlighted:
—As written, the draft rules call for hemp to be tested within 15 days before harvest. Farmers have argued that’s far too little time, and the senators said it presents an “impossible obstacle for growers to overcome.” Oregon regulations require testing within 28 days, so they said USDA should adopt a similar timeline.
—USDA said that testing must be completed at a laboratory registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration. The senators said that will produce a bottleneck and delays for hemp producers, and that independent laboratories such as those operating in Oregon should be allowed to conduct the tests.
—The senators said that USDA should allow for forms of THC concentration testing that do not involve post-decarboxylation and also argued that the congressional intent of hemp legalization was not to require testing of all THC compounds but rather just delta-9 THC in particular.
—USDA requires that testing samples come from the top one-third of the flower portion of the plant. Instead, the senators said, samples should follow established protocol in states like Oregon, which stipulates that samples should be taken from the flowering tops when they’re present and be eight inches long.
—While the Farm Bill defines hemp as cannabis containing no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis, USDA gave slight margin of error and considers any plants with more than 0.5 percent THC to be in violation of the regulations. Farmers have called that limitation arbitrary and the senators said it would be more reasonable to set the negligence threshold at 1 percent, if there must be a THC restriction at all.
“Farmers in Oregon and across the country are on the precipice of an agricultural boom that, with the right regulatory framework, stands to boost rural economies in every corner of the country,” they wrote.
Wyden and Merkley have been some of the most vocal proponents of developing USDA regulations that bolster the hemp industry since the passage of the Farm Bill, through which they worked to legalize the crop in the first place. As early as February, Wyden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) were knocking at USDA’s door, urging the department to expedite the rulemaking process.
Read the full senators’ letter to USDA on hemp regulations below:
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Virginia Attorney General Hosts ‘Cannabis Summit’ To Advance Reform In New Democratic Legislature
Virginia’s attorney general is inviting state lawmakers to a “Cannabis Summit” next month as talk about advancing marijuana decriminalization and other reforms during the 2020 legislative session picks up.
Officials from other states that have legalized or decriminalized cannabis will speak at the event, as will academics who study the issue.
“This upcoming General Assembly Session policymakers will be considering legislation related to cannabis use in the Commonwealth,” an invitation states. “This summit is designed to better inform those discussions and offer perspectives from states that have implemented similar changes at the state level.”
“The summit will consist of 4 panels of experts from around the country to speak on the following topics related to cannabis policy: decriminalization of marijuana, social equity, regulating CBD & Hemp products, pathways towards legalization through legislative efforts and other topics that will better inform the upcoming legislative work,” reads the invitation sent out by the attorney general’s office, which was first reported by The Virginia Mercury.
Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said last month that the legislature will first move to pass a cannabis decriminalization bill—something that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had campaigned on and talked about in his State of the State address.
Lawmakers will then “get to work on a larger study about how and when we could move toward legal and regulated adult use,” Herring said.
It's time for Virginia to decriminalize, address past convictions, and move toward legal, regulated adult use.https://t.co/aqWxQCVPIg
— Mark Herring (@MarkHerringVA) November 20, 2019
“Criminalizing marijuana possession is not working. It is needlessly creating criminals, saddling people with convictions and costing taxpayers millions each year,” the attorney general wrote in an op-ed for the Virginian-Pilot this week. “The social and human costs are tremendous, and the weight of the system falls disproportionately on African Americans and people of color. There are smarter, better ways we can handle cannabis and that begins with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions and moving towards legal, regulated adult use.”
The chances of getting cannabis reform policies through the General Assembly significantly increased after this month’s election, which saw Democrats reclaim control of both chambers for the first time in decades.
Accordingly, a lawmaker prefiled a cannabis decriminalization bill this week that would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty.
The announcement of the Cannabis Summit, which will take place in Richmond on December 11, is another signal that political support for reforming Virginia’s marijuana laws is strong. And while Northam has not endorsed adult-use legalization, the inclusion of that issue in panel discussions indicates that decriminalization is just the beginning of the conversation. Advocates are also pushing the state to expand its limited medical cannabis program.
“The attorney general’s public support for advancing evidence-based cannabis policy, coupled with the recent formation of the Virginia Cannabis Caucus, set the stage for a robust and unprecedented exploration of real-world experiences with decriminalization, legalization and regulation in other states,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told The Virginia Mercury.
NORML honored Herring with its “Vanguard Award” as part of its national conference in September.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.