Three Democratic presidential candidates and the party’s top Senate leader are taking the stand that Congress should not pass marijuana banking legislation without also moving to end federal cannabis prohibition and repair the harms of the war on drugs.
All four lawmakers—Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—tweeted links to Marijuana Moment coverage of a growing dispute between legalization supporters who say the banking bill is a first step that will bolster broader cannabis reform and those who are concerned that passing the limited proposal will undermine efforts to advance more far-reaching legislation.
House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held on Wednesday.
The scheduling of the vote came over the objections of several advocacy groups—including ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—that wrote a letter asking that the vote be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.
“I am proud to stand with these civil rights organizations,” Sanders said in his tweet on Saturday. “In the fight for marijuana legalization, we must prioritize racial and economic justice—that means revenues from this industry must be invested in the communities that have been devastated by the so-called ‘war on drugs.'”
I am proud to stand with these civil rights organizations. In the fight for marijuana legalization, we must prioritize racial and economic justice—that means revenues from this industry must be invested in the communities that have been devastated by the so-called "war on drugs." https://t.co/5IGh53QI7j
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 21, 2019
“We shouldn’t do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry,” Harris wrote in her Saturday Twitter post. “That means not only legalizing marijuana but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry.”
I agree. We shouldn’t do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry.
That means not only legalizing marijuana but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry. https://t.co/M1Ri1iDKra
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) September 21, 2019
On Friday, Booker tweeted that “marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs” in order to get his vote.
Although the senator didn’t directly reference the banking bill in his post, his press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that the tweet was sent directly in reaction to the House banking vote news.
As I said earlier this year, any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.https://t.co/Y1dOwgHbm2
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) September 20, 2019
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the top Democrat in the body, tweeted that “we need decriminalization at the federal level, criminal justice reform, and investment in opportunity for minority & women-owned small businesses,” adding that groups who say there can be no movement on banking without broader justice reform are “right.”
.@RepAOC and these civil rights groups are right.
Congress should not enact banking reform alone and think the job is done.
We need decriminalization at the federal level, criminal justice reform, and investment in opportunity for minority & women-owned small businesses. https://t.co/PM22Bmk5Pl
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) September 19, 2019
Though it isn’t exactly clear that all four Democrats would vote against a marijuana banking bill should it come to the Senate floor prior to more far-reaching cannabis reform—and Harris and Sanders are cosponsors of the financial services legislation—their tweets come at a crucial time in the debate about the issue, and could be interpreted by House Democrats who share their concerns as a signal that it would be OK for them to oppose the limited reform when it comes up for floor consideration this week.
To that end, Schumer’s tweet mentioned Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who earlier on Thursday indicated she agrees with the groups’ concerns and may vote against the banking bill if the chamber doesn’t first tackle social equity issues.
“She feels strongly that addressing racial justice should be the first priority,” a staffer for the congresswoman told Marijuana Moment.
The House plans to advance the proposal under an expedited procedure known as suspension of the rules, through which a two-thirds majority—or 290 votes—is needed to pass. While the bill currently has 206 cosponsors and has been expected to bring in the super majority of votes needed to advance, opposition from progressive lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez could potentially jeopardize passage.
Groups signing the letter of concern to House leadership told Marijuana Moment they aren’t sure whether they will ask lawmakers to vote against the banking legislation now that their concerns on timing have been rejected, but some said they are still pushing to convince the body to delay consideration.
Perhaps anticipating some liberal defections, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the chief sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act moved last week to amend the legislation in an attempt to bring in even more GOP votes—including clarifying that banking protections would apply to hemp and CBD companies and also adding language preventing financial regulators from targeting certain industries such as firearms dealers and payday lenders as being at a higher risk for fraud.
Even before Senate Democrats began publicly expressing their concerns about the limited reform, the banking bill was believed to face a tougher road in the chamber, where Schumer’s counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), shepherded hemp legalization to enactment last year but often says he doesn’t support the crop’s “illicit cousin” marijuana.
But Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) surprised observers when he said this month that he planned a vote on cannabis banking legislation in his panel by the end of the year.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the groups that signed the letter calling on House leaders to pull the planned banking vote, thanked Schumer and Sanders for their tweets.
Congress needs to address marijuana prohibition holistically and inclusively by considering the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act.
— The Leadership Conference (@civilrightsorg) September 20, 2019
Thanks, @SenSanders. We agree.
For decades, people of color have suffered under harsh and racially biased marijuana laws. We need broad and more inclusive efforts to reform them. https://t.co/OXz6iHDhQb
— The Leadership Conference (@civilrightsorg) September 21, 2019
The groups want Congress to first move legislation such as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which Harris and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced in July. That bill would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and fund programs aimed at undoing the past damage of the drug war.
Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.
Congressional Bill Requires Legal Marijuana States To Consider Impaired Driving Policies
Democratic leadership in a House committee introduced a bill on Wednesday that includes a provision requiring legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider ways to promote education about the dangers of cannabis-impaired driving while curbing such behavior.
The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee filed the legislation, which is also being cosponsored by several chairs of subcommittees under the panel. While the main thrust of the INVEST in America Act is aimed at promoting the completion of various long-term infrastructure projects, it also features language concerning cannabis policy.
Under the bill, a section of current law requiring that states establish highway safety programs would be amended to add a section stipulating that states “which have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana shall consider programs in addition to the programs…to educate drivers on the risks associated with marijuana-impaired driving and to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from individuals driving motor vehicles while impaired by marijuana.”
Reform advocates support measures to reduce impaired driving, but there may be some who take issue with the provision given the implication that legalizing marijuana increases the risk of people driving while impaired. Research isn’t settled on that subject.
A congressional research body said in a report last year that concerns expressed by lawmakers that cannabis legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.
Beside that contention, the legislation seems to neglect to take into account that cannabis-impaired driving isn’t exclusive to legal states and that public education could be beneficial across all states regardless of their individual marijuana policies.
“It is somewhat absurd to draw a differentiation between states when it comes to the current legal status, because it is entirely feasible that every state will be legalized by the end of this decade,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “And regardless, I have heard rumors that some Texans consume cannabis despite its prohibited status.”
Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said in a press release that the overall bill “is our opportunity to replace the outdated systems of the past with smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure that fits the economy of the future, creates millions of jobs, supports American manufacturing, and restores U.S. competitiveness.”
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) are also sponsoring the legislation, which is scheduled for a full committee vote on June 17.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Touts Legal Marijuana’s Economic Potential At Revenue Meeting
The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on Tuesday again stressed the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who unveiled a revised legalization bill last month and pushed legislators to promptly take it up, discussed the projected economic impact of the policy change at a revenue conference.
During the virtual meeting, he pulled up a spreadsheet that breaks down estimates for annual cannabis sales from residents and tourists, as well as potential revenue from taxes and fees.
Cruise passengers and non-resident hotel guests will make approximately $43 million in annual marijuana purchases, the estimate from an independent firm states. Residents, meanwhile, are projected to spend about $38 million on cannabis each year.
“This doesn’t include what we would call the second and third turns in the economy in term of products being bought like lamps and fertilizer, jobs being created, dispensary jobs. None of that,” the governor said.
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization’s economic impact, starting around 3:10:35 into the video below:
In terms of revenue, the territory can expect to take in about $11 million annually from tourists, who will be taxed at 25 percent for marijuana products. Residents, who will be taxed at a much lower rate, will contribute about $3 million in taxes. All told, the territory is estimated to generate nearly $18 million in cannabis sales tax revenue per year.
Additionally, the analysis projects that USVI will receive $12.1 million from licensing fees and a cultivation tax. Point of sale permits for cruises and hotels will bring in another $3.6 million.
It all adds up to “a $33 million deposit in our treasury due to cannabis sales,” Bryan said, characterizing the projections as conservative estimates.
The governor said he wanted to highlight these figures to conference attendees “to show you quickly what this could mean to the territory should we have this enacted and we go to work.”
“Of course, it’s going to take some work to get this done,” he said. “But we need to get this measure done as quickly as possible in order to start impacting our economy in a very positive way.”
Bryan has previously said that beyond helping to offset some of the financial damage that COVID-19 outbreak has created, establishing a legal cannabis market would provide funding for the territory’s retirement system for government employees.
After he first proposed the policy change and directed the legislature to take up the issue in a special session late last year, several legislators voiced opposition to specifics of the proposal.
Some questioned the notion that tax revenue from cannabis sales could make up for the significant deficits running within the retirement program, while others argued that the legislation as drafted did not adequately address social equity. Another issue that arose concerned licensing, with lawmakers worried that small businesses on the island would be left out.
The governor’s revised marijuana legalization bill, which has been transmitted to the Senate for action, would ban home cultivation for recreational consumers, allow cultivation for medical cannabis patients, increase the number of members of the government’s Cannabis Advisory Board and limit non-residents to purchasing up to seven grams of flower per day while residents could buy up to an ounce.
There would be no tax on cannabis sales for medical patients, a 7.5 percent tax for residents and a 25 percent tax for non-residents.
In order to own a marijuana business, an individual must have been a resident of USVI for at least 10 years. For micro-cultivator business, the threshold is five years of residency.
A special “cannabis fund” would be established under the proposed legislation, with 20 percent of marijuana tax revenue being allocated to fund the Office of Cannabis Regulations, a cannabis testing program, job training, substance misuse treatment and grant programs for business incubation and micro-lending.
The bill also provides for automatic expungements for prior marijuana possession convictions, encourages research into the benefits of cannabis and recognizes the rights of individuals who wish to use or grow the plant for religious purposes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Virginia Governor Says Marijuana Decriminalization Partly Addresses Racial Inequity Inspiring Mass Protests
The governor of Virginia said on Tuesday that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans.
In a speech, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said that while he cannot personally attest to the pain that the black community is grappling with, there are steps lawmakers can take to reform policies that disproportionately harm minorities. That includes removing the threat of jail time for cannabis possession—an offense more likely to be enforced against black people despite comparable rates of use among white people.
“Through 400 years of American history—starting with the enslavement of Africans, through Jim Crow, massive resistance and now mass incarceration—black oppression has always existed in this country, just in different forms,” he said. “I cannot know how it feels to be an African American person right now or what you are going through. I cannot know the depth of your pain. But what I can do is stand with you and I can support you, and together we’re going to turn this pain into action.”
That action has meant “reforming criminal justice,” he said. “It meant decriminalizing marijuana.”
The governor, who faced severe scrutiny last year after he admitted he was in a yearbook photo showing people wearing blackface and dressed as KKK members, also cited expanding access to Medicaid and increasing the threshold for felony larceny as examples of ways the state has addressed racial inequality during his administration.
Northam signed a marijuana decriminalization bill last month and it goes into effect on July 1. Under the legislation, possessing up to one ounce of cannabis will be punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record. Current Virginia law makes simple possession punishable by a maximum $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail and a criminal record.
Later in the Tuesday press conference, Shirley Ginwright, a member of the Virginia African American Advisory Board that Northam established, thanked him specifically for approving the cannabis decriminalization bill.
“So many of our students and our young black men and women were getting caught up in the criminal justice system because of marijuana, something that wasn’t killing them,” she said.
The governor isn’t alone in connecting the outrage over police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to cannabis prohibition enforcement. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.
Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs.
The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.
Berner, a rapper who owns a marijuana dispensary that was looted in Los Angeles over the weekend, also seemed to echo Booker’s sentiment, stating that the damage to his shop to looting pales in comparison to the underlying racial injustices that prompted the protests.