Despite defeats in the midterm election and in the state legislature, a leading North Dakota cannabis legalization activist tells Marijuana Moment that the fight isn’t over and that a new ballot measure will be up for consideration in 2020.
“It’s going to be a full legalization measure,” Dave Owen, founder and chairman of Legalize ND, said of the proposal he hopes will be before voters in next year’s general election. “Because if I’m going to work for thousands of hours on this I may as well get everything I want.”
Owen’s group was the driving force behind a 2018 ballot initiative that would have ended cannabis prohibition in the state but was defeated by voters following a well-funded opposition campaign.
Advocates have also pushed state lawmakers to pass a less far-reaching bill to simply decriminalize marijuana possession, but it was defeated in a narrow House of Representatives vote last week.
In a phone interview on Friday, Owen discussed plans for 2020, including struggles with fundraising, the high cost of polling and revisions in the ballot measure’s language as compared to the last effort.
“We have to hope that if big prohibition shows up, big marijuana doesn’t stay home,” he said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment (MM): Why go for a full legalization measure in 2020?
Dave Owen (DO): Because at the end of the day I think it should be legal. What bothers me is we throw all these kids in prison, give them all these records and then wonder why people can’t find jobs. In North Dakota it is still a misdemeanor for possession of a gram. Any amount is a misdemeanor with 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. It’s absurd. It’s utterly ridiculous and it’s got to stop.
MM: What will be different about the measure that you present in 2020?
DO: The last time, our bill was unlimited growing, no licensing, no permitting and nothing beyond a sales tax. It was a really aggressive measure so we’re going to taper it back a little bit. We’re going to have some grow limits and a possession limit. We’re going to have some form of an excise tax and we’re going to have a licensing system. Our last bill didn’t have any of those. Expungement was part of the last measure. I’m not sure if it will make it this time.
MM: What changes are you going to make in your campaign strategy going toward 2020?
DO: There’s not going to be much changes in terms of strategy, but our big issue is fundraising. Out of state organizations pumped more than $300,000 into the campaign and the entire industry couldn’t even give us $100,000. So we’re going to have to figure out the fundraising problem and the national organizations are going to have to help out. If [national prohibitionist organization] Smart Approaches to Marijuana is going to spend all this money against us, we’re going to need help. I’m going to hope we don’t get left out in the cold nationally. We got buried by out of state money [in 2018].
MM: What kind of support are you seeing locally for this kind of measure?
DO: We did it all through volunteer work and we were the only ballot measure in the last cycle to do that. We have to the lowest cost per signature generation of any measure. We have a huge grassroots network and a couple of Facebook groups which each have about 3 to 5 percent of the voting population of the state on them. We’re seeing a lot of support for it, the challenge is getting over that threshold. We’re kind of in the same situation that Colorado was in the first time. We’re on the cusp and we need a little more to get over the edge.
MM: Do you have any new polling?
DO: The cost of polling is absurd. For us to do a poll would be between $5,000 and $10,000. When your campaign only raises about $80,000, that’s a high barrier. The polls that we used last time showed us at about 50 percent but clearly they were wrong.
MM: How confident are you in your ability to convince voters in 2020?
DO: I think it’s very probable that we can do it. It’s definitely achievable but if SAM does what they did last time, will the national orgs step in? That’s going to mean the difference between a 55 percent pass and a 47 percent fail. We’re going to need a bunch of signatures and ideally we don’t exist in the same world as last time.
Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.
New Hampshire Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill
A New Hampshire House committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would legalize marijuana for adult use in the state.
While the legislation doesn’t provide for retail sales, it would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and gift up to three-fourths an ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants. The model would be similar to neighboring Vermont’s non-commercial cannabis system.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee advanced the bill in a 13-7 vote.
“I think that the legalization of cannabis is more popular than the legislature itself or the governor or any other political entity in the state of New Hampshire,” Chairman Renny Cushing (D) said prior to the vote. “This is something that the people of the state of New Hampshire want. They don’t want to be treated like they’re criminals if they have a plant.”
Watch New Hampshire lawmakers discuss the marijuana legalization bill below:
This vote comes a week after the panel held a hearing on the proposal, with advocates and stakeholders testifying in favor of the reform move.
“Like most Granite Staters, this committee understands that it’s time for New Hampshire to stop prohibiting cannabis,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Adults in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state should not be punished for their choice to use a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.”
“Now that New Hampshire is literally surrounded by jurisdictions where cannabis is legal for adults, our current policies can no longer be justified in any way,” he said. “It’s time for the House, Senate and Gov. Chris Sununu to work together and move cannabis policies into the 21st century.”
A floor vote by the full House of Representatives is expected on February 6.
Tax-and-regulate marijuana legislation has advanced in the legislature in prior sessions, but it never arrived on the governor’s desk.
Even if it did make it that far, however, it’s unclear if Sununu, a Republican, would sign it. He’s voiced opposition to commercial legalization, and he vetoed a bill last year that would’ve allowed medical cannabis patients to cultivate their own marijuana, raising questions about whether he’d be willing to support this latest measure extending that right to all adults over 21.
In any case, the New Hampshire development comes amid a flurry of legislative activity around cannabis in the Northeast.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legalization in his budget last week, as did Rhode Island’s governor, who pitched a state-run cannabis model in her plan. In New Jersey, the legislature approved a referendum to put the question of recreational legalization before voters during the November election. Top lawmakers in Connecticut are also confident that marijuana reform will advance this year. In Vermont, advocates are hopeful that lawmakers will add a legal sales component to the state’s current noncommercial cannabis law.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
AOC Says Colorado Is Doing A ‘Great Job’ With Marijuana Legalization
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) says Colorado is an example of a state that’s effectively taxing and regulating marijuana.
At a town hall event in Iowa on Saturday, the congresswoman, who serves as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) presidential campaign, was asked if revenue from legal sales of cannabis and other drugs would be used to fund the senator’s Medicare for All proposal.
While she said the economic benefits of legalization are secondary concerns, she acknowledged that “Colorado is doing a great job of taxing it to fund schools.”
That said, funding large programs such as universal health care would require a diverse financing strategy, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“In terms of financing, I think the financing for our health care program would potentially come from different sources,” she said. “Senator Sanders has outlined how he would pay for Medicare for All.”
“I would just say the financing is a different question,” she said. “But when it comes to decriminalization and legalization, I know that the senator believes in the legalization of marijuana and, frankly, having that part of a decarceral approach” to the criminal justice system.
Listen to the conversation below, starting around 1:45:
“We need to not only have a conversation about decriminalization and a conversation about legalization, but we need to have a conversation about the harm done during the war on drugs,” she said in comments that were first flagged by The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel.
First actual Q for AOC as a Sanders surrogate: Would she legalize drugs to pay for M4A?
"The funding is going to come from a lot of sources," she says, clarifying that Sanders supports legalizing only marijuana and is focused on ending war on drugs.
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) January 25, 2020
“It exacerbated the racial wealth gap in America as well,” she said. “But not only that, it tore apart communities, it tore apart families and it was an explicit targeting of black and brown communities that dates back to the Nixon administration.”
“On one hand it’s an economic issue, but much deeper, it’s a justice issue. This is an issue of justice, this is an issue of mass incarceration. The United States has historically incarcerated more people per capita than any other country in the world. We need to live up to our values about what ‘Land of the Free’ means and transitioning to that means dismantling the system of mass incarceration. That’s an incredibly important part of this agenda.”
While Sanders has been a long-standing champion of cannabis reform, his views on broader drug policy proposals diverge from those of his surrogate, who believes that possession of all currently illicit drugs should be decriminalized and federal laws around psychedelics should be loosened to promote research.
Despite being widely regarded as the most progressive candidates in the race, both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have so far declined to back comprehensive decriminalization for simple drug possession, a policy changed favored by former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another 2020 contender, recently said that she’s in favor of legalizing and regulating controlled substances.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
USDA Approves Hemp Plans For Texas, Nebraska And Delaware
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Monday that it has approved hemp regulatory plans for three more states and four additional Indian tribes.
This is the latest in a series of approvals that USDA has doled out since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Texas, Nebraska and Delaware—in addition to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and the Yurok Tribe—each had their regulatory plans cleared.
“USDA continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes on an ongoing basis,” the department said in a notice. “Plans previously approved include those for the states of Louisiana, New Jersey, and Ohio, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux, Santa Rosa Cahuilla, and La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indian Tribes.”
While hemp is no longer a federally controlled substance, farmers interested in cultivating and selling the crop must live in a jurisdiction where USDA has approved a proposed regulatory scheme. The process was outlined in an interim final rule USDA published late last year. If a state or tribe does not have, or plan to propose, regulations for hemp, cultivators can apply for a USDA license instead.
“This is a victory for Texas farmers,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement. “We are one step closer to giving our ag producers access to this exciting new crop opportunity.”
“We’ve got to get our rules approved and get our licensing program up and running, but the dominoes are dropping pretty quick,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment that “Texas has the potential to be the largest supplier of hemp in the U.S., providing farmers with an unprecedented opportunity.”
“With approval from the USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture already moving forward with establishing licensing standards, it’s refreshing to see our government paving the way for legal cannabis cultivation in Texas,” Fazio said.
While lawmakers and industry stakeholders have widely celebrated USDA’s commitment to implementing hemp legalization, it has also received a significant amount of pushback over proposed rules such as THC limits and laboratory testing requirements. A public comment period for the department’s interim rule ends on Wednesday.
USDA maintains a website that tracks the status of state and tribal hemp plans.
Monday’s announcement sends another signal to the hemp industry that the federal government is committed to supporting the market and ensuring that farmers have the resources they need to see their businesses thrive since the crop was legalized.
That said, one of the most lucrative market opportunities that hemp farmers are hoping to take advantage of is the widespread interest in hemp-derived CBD products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over rules for marketing CBD, and the agency has made clear that the process may take several years without congressional action.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers set out to do just that, filing a bill that would require FDA to allow CBD products to be sold as dietary supplements.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.