Oregon made history when voters approved a ballot initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs and expand access to treatment in November. Now, a number of other U.S. states could follow suit, with a New York lawmaker introducing a similar decriminalization bill last week and proposed legislation waiting in the wings in Washington State and California.
A newly proposed resolution in Virginia, meanwhile, would have state officials begin studying decriminalization models, such Oregon’s, that move away from a crime-control approach to drug use and instead emphasize public health.
“Such reforms have resulted in significant financial savings to such states,” the Virginia resolution says, “in both the adjudication of criminal cases and the reduced burden on jails and prisons.”
Many drug policy reform advocates and observers still see state legislatures as a less likely path to all-drug decriminalization than citizen initiatives, and indeed some influential backers are already setting their sights on 2022 ballots. But the efforts emerging in statehouses so far this year are an early indication that decriminalization is finding more traction with state lawmakers after an election in which voters approved every major state-level marijuana and drug reform measure put before them.
Here’s a rundown of some of the decriminalization proposals being considered as this year’s state legislative sessions get underway:
A bill introduced last week by Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D), S1284, would remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of any controlled substance and instead levy fines of $50.
“The purpose of this legislation is to save lives and to help transform New York’s approach to drug use from one based on criminalization and stigma to one based on science and compassion,” the bill says, “by eliminating criminal and civil penalties for the personal possession of controlled substances.”
Low-level possession would be changed from a class A misdemeanor to a violation punishable by a $50 fine. Someone caught with a small amount of drugs could also participate in what the bill describes as “a needs screening to identify health and other service needs.” If they completed the screening within 45 days, the fine would be waived.
The screening’s aim would be to “identify health and other service needs,” the bill says, “including but not limited to services that may address any problematic substance use and mental health conditions, lack of employment, housing, or food, and any need for civil legal services.”
As with Oregon’s decriminalization law, the goal of the New York bill is to deprioritize policing of personal drug use while also facilitating better access to treatment for individuals with substance use disorders.
“Treating substance use as a crime by arresting and incarcerating people for personal use offenses,” it says, “causes significant harm to individuals who use drugs by disrupting and further destablilzing their lives.”
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 200 cannabis and drug policy reform bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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“For well over a century, even as the scientific understanding of substance use disorders as a medical condition has increased, New York and other states have continued to treat drug use as a moral failing and as a crime, thereby stigmatizing and incarcerating millions of people for having a disease,” Rivera, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, wrote in a sponsorship memo. “Such treatment stands in stark contrast to how society and government treat individuals suffering from other diseases, such as cancer or an anxiety disorder. While individuals with these other illnesses are usually seen as worthy of compassion, support, and medical care, those with an SUD are disparaged, criminalized, and treated as undeserving of assistance and compassion.”
Very honored to continue my role as Chair of the @NYSenate Health Committee. I will serve as a member of the committees on Finance, Mental Health, Alcoholism & Substance Abuse, Housing, Crime & Corrections, and Higher Education.
— Gustavo Rivera (@NYSenatorRivera) January 11, 2021
The bill would also establish a state drug decriminalization task force to “develop recommendations for reforming state laws, regulations and practices so that they align with the stated goal of treating substance use disorder as a disease, rather than a criminal behavior.”
Among the task force’s jobs would be to identify how much of a controlled substance is consistent with non-prescription use, which could be used to adjust possession limits. The body would also use data about the types of services people with drug use disorders “desire but cannot access,” as well as “barriers to existing services.”
The task force would consist of various political appointees, health and drug use experts, a prosecutor, a public defender and an array of other state officials or their designees. “Further,” the bill says, “appointees shall include people with prior drug convictions, individuals who have participated in a drug court program, individuals who have been formerly incarcerated, individuals impacted by the child welfare system, and representatives of organizations serving communities impacted by past federal and state drug policies.”
Additionally, S1284 would allow for the expungement of certain past drug convictions and remove certain drug accessories—specifically those “used for the purpose of injecting, ingesting, inhaling or otherwise introducing drugs into the human body”—from the state’s prohibited category of drug paraphernalia. Equipment used to produce or process controlled substances would still be prohibited.
Filed last Friday, the measure has been assigned to the Senate Codes Committee.
Advocates in Washington were originally hoping to put a decriminalization initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot, but the campaign’s signature-gathering effort was put on hold due to complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the group behind the effort, Treatment First Washington, is hoping to put the proposal in front of lawmakers this legislative session.
In a public Zoom meeting last Thursday about the effort, affiliates of the group said they’ve been in talks with six specific House lawmakers—including Reps. Kirsten Harris-Talley, Lauren Davis, Joe Nguyen, Nicole Macri, Tarra Simmons and Frank Chopp, all Democrats—trying to finalize language of the bill and secure a sponsor.
“I was hoping by today that we would have sort of updated bill language and a specific bill number to share with this group, but it’s not quite ready,” Mark Cooke, an ACLU of Washington attorney and consultant for Treatment First Washington, said on the call. “We should have the bill language very soon.”
Cooke referred follow-up questions to Treatment First’s media contact, Christina Blocker, who did not answer Marijuana Moment’s questions about the status of the bill but indicated there would be a press event about the effort later this week.
Judging from the group’s past description of its proposal, the measure would largely resemble Oregon’s new decriminalization law. It would decriminalize possession of all drugs, replacing criminal penalties with a relatively small civil fine and giving people the option to participate in treatment instead of paying that fine. Like Oregon’s measure, the Washington proposal would also earmark tax revenue from the state’s legal cannabis system to fund the expansion of drug treatment services.
Marijuana in Washington is currently taxed at 37 percent, the highest state-level cannabis tax rate in the country. The tax brought the state nearly $470 million in fiscal year 2020, according to state regulators.
One difference from Oregon’s measure, the group said late last year, is that Washington’s decriminalization law would create a body, similar to the one envisioned in the New York bill, that would use community input and expert testimony to establish details such as possession limits. Oregon’s initiative used existing state law to set those thresholds.
The Washington proposal, however, could change considerably as advocates work to win broader support from lawmakers. The provision to pay for expanded treatment services with cannabis tax revenue, for example, may not fly with a legislature that’s come to rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in cannabis money to fund other government operations.
So far California lawmakers haven’t introduced a measure to decriminalize all drugs, although that’s not entirely out of the question. Given the state’s size, influence and history of leadership in the drug reform movement, advocacy groups are still exploring ways to put all-drug decriminalization on the legislative calendar this session.
“As far as California, that one has been a priority of ours,” Matt Sutton, director of media relations at Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told Marijuana Moment this week, “and we have been working with the legislature to introduce something and will likely do so this session.”
Potentially complicating the effort to decriminalize all drugs in California—at least for the moment—is a forthcoming narrower decriminalization proposal from state Sen. Scott Wiener (D), who has said he plans to introduce legislation that would decriminalize only psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin mushrooms, ibogaine and DMT.
Legislative language for the proposals isn’t yet available, but Sutton at DPA said the group is in contact with Wiener about how to coordinate the two prospective bills.
Virginia lawmakers are also working to get the state to begin considering drug decriminalization, although they’re setting out at a slower pace than the other states. A joint resolution introduced last week by Del. Sally Hudson (D), HJ 530, would task the state Crime Commission with studying alternative approaches to drug enforcement, “including decriminalization of the possession of substances.”
Language of the proposed resolution argues that “the War on Drugs has entailed overwhelming financial and societal costs, and the policy behind it does not reflect a modern understanding of substance use disorder as a disease or substance abuse as a public health problem.”
“Traditional legal interventions, including arrest and incarceration, have proven ineffective in treating addiction and promoting public health,” it continues, “requiring new approaches that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation over arrest and punishment.”
Under the proposal, the Virginia State Crime Commission would need to complete its assessment by November 30, 2021, and submit its findings at the start of the 2022 legislative session.
Just last year, Virginia lawmakers decriminalized marijuana, making possession of up to one ounce of cannabis punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record—a law that took effect in July. Now, with the support of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), the legislature is expected to seriously consider legalizing marijuana in 2021.
Meanwhile, Oregon’s passage of Measure 110, last election’s major drug decriminalization measure, is already making an impact in the state. Last month the district attorney in Multnomah County, the state’s largest, announced that he would stop pursuing drug possession cases immediately, even though the law doesn’t officially take effect until February.
“The passage of Ballot Measure 110 sends a clear message of strong public support that drug use should be treated as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice matter,” District Attorney Mike Schmidt said in a press release.
Schmidt was the third Oregon DA to announce such a change, following prosecutors in Clackamas and Deschutes counties.
Under Oregon’s measure, simple drug possession will be treated as a civil infraction, punishable by a $100 fine and no jail time. The fine can be waived if an individual can demonstrate to a court that they’ve completed a substance misuse assessment.
Local Reform Efforts
More broadly in the U.S., proposals to decriminalize drugs—and especially plant-based psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin mushrooms—have been gaining momentum in recent years. Both Denver and Oakland, CA, decriminalized certain forms of psychedelics in mid-2019. In 2020, Santa Cruz and Ann Arbor did the same. And in November, voters in Washington, D.C., passed a psychedelics decriminalization initiative with more than 76 percent support.
Top Pennsylvania Official Restores Marijuana Flag After GOP Lawmakers Allegedly Got It Removed
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) marijuana and LGBTQ flags are waving again at his Capitol office after state officials removed them Monday night, allegedly at the behest of certain GOP lawmakers who feel strongly about the activist decor.
The day after their removal, the lieutenant governor proudly announced on Twitter that he’d restored the flags—one rainbow-themed and the other displaying cannabis leaves.
“I really can’t emphasize this enough, my issue isn’t with the individuals that came to take them down. They’re kind of caught in the middle of it so it’s not them,” Fetterman told Marijuana Moment. “But the Pennsylvania GOP exerted enough pressure and made enough drama so they felt that they needed to do something and they took them down. When I realized that, I just put them back up.”
I even had to rehang this one. 🙄 pic.twitter.com/NPuADtb1Lt
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 26, 2021
The flags have been an unusual source of controversy for some members of the legislature. In November, Republican lawmakers passed budget legislation that included a provision targeting his cannabis-themed office decor, making it so only the American flag, the Pennsylvania flag and those honoring missing soldiers could be displayed at the Capitol building.
It’s kinda flattering that they changed Pennsylvania law just for me. 🥺👉👈
Speaking of changing laws…
I’ll take them down when we get:
LEGAL WEED 🟩 FOR PA + EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW for LGBTQIA+ community in PA.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 20, 2020
“There’s one great way to get them down for good and we can end this,” the lieutenant governor said. And that’s by enacting legislative reform.
“It shouldn’t have to be this way. These are not controversial things. These are very fundamentally American things. It’s freedom-related. It’s individuality-related. It’s jobs. It’s revenue,” he said. “These are not controversial, but these flags are. For the party that thinks it’s A-OK to talk about how an election that was secure was rigged, they sure have a real thin skin when it comes to free speech.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of General Services confirmed to Marijuana Moment that it was tasked with removing the flags and did so “in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.” Asked whether lawmakers from the legislature’s Republican majority influenced the recent action, the representative repeated: “All I can say is the Department of General Services removed the flag in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.”
Marijuana Moment reached out to the offices of the Senate majority leader and House speaker for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
Defying the flag order is par for the course for Fetterman, a longtime marijuana reform advocate who is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate. His enthusiastic embrace of the issue has often put him in the spotlight, and he said he’d take that advocacy to Congress if he ultimately decides to enter the race and is elected.
“I’m the only person that’s actually called out my own party for its failure to embrace it when it is appropriate,” he said, referring to his repeated criticism of the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of a pro-legalization platform. “There has never been—or would ever be—a more committed advocate to ending this awful superstition over a plant for the United States.”
🚨🚨 PENNSYLVANIA *AND* DNC IS BEING LAPPED ON LEGAL WEED BY THE DAKOTAS NOW
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 26, 2021
On his campaign website, the lieutenant governor touts his role in leading a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on the policy change. He noted that, following his efforts, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) “announced his support for legalization for the first time.”
It remains to be seen when legalization will happen in Pennsylvania, however. Despite Fetterman and Wolf’s support for legalization and the pressure they’re applying on lawmakers, convincing Republican legislative leaders to go along with the plan remains a challenge.
Fetterman previously told Marijuana Moment that pursuing reform through the governor’s budget request is a possibility. But in the meantime the administration is exploring the constitutionality of issuing “wholesale pardons for certain marijuana convictions and charges.”
Since adopting a pro-legalization position in 2019, Wolf has repeatedly called on the legislature to enact the policy change. He’s stressed that stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.
In September, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.
Fetterman previously said that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—where voters approved a legalization referendum in November—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously reform its cannabis laws.
He also hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.
Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Twitter/John Fetterman.
Hawaii Could Legalize Psychedelic Mushroom Therapy Under New Senate Bill
Hawaii could legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms for therapy under a newly filed bill in the state legislature.
The measure, if approved, would direct the state Department of Health to “establish designated treatment centers for the therapeutic administration of psilocybin and psilocyn,” two psychoactive substances produced by certain fungi.
It would also remove the two compounds from the state’s list of Schedule I controlled substances and create a seven-person psilocybin review panel to assess the impacts of the policy change.
Few other specifics are provided in the bill, SB 738, introduced in the state Senate on Friday. It doesn’t specify who would qualify for the therapy, for example, or how precisely the drugs—which remain federally illegal—would be administered. The legislation simply says the Department of Health “shall adopt rules” in accordance with state law.
The new legislation comes less than a year after Hawaii lawmakers introduced bills to begin studying the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms with the goal of eventually legalizing them, though those measures did not advance.
Entheogens—including other substances like ayahuasca and ibogaine—have emerged as a promising treatment for severe depression, anxiety and other conditions, although research remains ongoing.
In November, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy that the state is now in the process of implementing.
The new Hawaii bill was introduced by Sens. Stanley Chang, Laura Clint Acasio, Les Ihara Jr. and Maile Shimabukuro, all Democrats. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, according to the state legislature’s website.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 400 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
The Hawaii proposal is one of a growing number of broader reform bills to have been introduced across the country this year as the debate on drug policy moves beyond marijuana. A measure introduced in New York earlier this month would remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of any controlled substance, instead imposing a $50 fine. Similar measures are expected to be introduced in California and Washington State this year.
A Florida lawmaker recently announced plans to introduce legislation to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes in the state.
Lawmakers in New Jersey last month sent a bill to Gov. Phil Murphy (D) that would reduce criminal charges for the possession of psilocybin, but so far Murphy hasn’t signed the measure.
Voters, meanwhile, have been broadly supportive of drug reform measures in recent years. In addition to the psilocybin. measure, Oregon voters in November also approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs. Washington, D.C. voters overwhelmingly enacted a proposal to decriminalize the possession of psychedelics.
Despite the growing discussion of drug reform at statehouses across the country, some high-profile advocates are setting their sights on the 2022 election. Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner, a key financial backer of successful reform efforts in Oregon, told Marijuana Moment last month that he’s expecting both Washington state and Colorado voters will see decriminalization or psilocybin therapy on their 2022 ballots.
Meanwhile, a new advocacy group is pushing Congress to allocate $100 million to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman
Minnesota Governor Urges Lawmakers To Pursue Marijuana Legalization Amid Budget Talks
The governor of Minnesota on Tuesday implored the legislature to look into legalizing marijuana as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice.
During a briefing focused on his budget proposal for the 2022-23 biennium, Gov. Tim Walz (D) was asked whether he is open to allowing sports betting in the state to generate tax revenue. He replied he wasn’t closing the door on that proposal, but said he is more interested in seeing lawmakers “take a look at recreational cannabis.”
Not only would tax revenue from adult-use marijuana “dwarf” those collected through sports betting, he said, but legalization would also help address “the equity issue and, quite honestly, the racial impact of our cannabis laws.”
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization below:
“I will say this, I will certainly leave open that possibility. Our neighboring states have done both of those things,” Walz said of legalizing sports gambling and cannabis. “I obviously recognize that that’s not a 100 percent slam dunk for people, and they realize that there’s cost associated with both. But my message would be is, I don’t think this is the time for me to say I’m shutting the door on anything.”
The Minnesota governor did say in 2019, however, that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Earlier this month, the House majority leader said he would again introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in the new session. And if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the reform, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said this month that “Senate Republicans remain the biggest obstacle to progress on this issue.”
“Minnesota’s current cannabis laws are doing more harm than good,” she told The Center Square. “By creating a regulatory framework we can address the harms caused by cannabis and establish a more sensible set of laws to improve our health care and criminal justice systems and ensure better outcomes for communities,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), for his part, said that while he would be “open to expanding medical use or hearing criminal justice reforms,” he doesn’t “believe fully legalized marijuana is right for the state.”
“Other states that have legalized marijuana are having issues with public safety,” he argued, “and we are concerned that we haven’t fully seen how this works with employment issues, education outcomes and mental health.”
Last month, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Another factor that might add pressure on lawmakers to enact the reform is the November vote in neighboring South Dakota to legalize adult-use cannabis.
Also next door, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is pushing lawmakers to enact marijuana reform and recently said that he is considering putting legalization in his upcoming budget request.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.