Oklahoma activists have taken the first step to get marijuana legalization on the state’s 2020 ballot.
A campaign that’s being funded by a coalition of local groups as well as a national political action committee submitted a proposed ballot title to the Secretary of State’s office on Thursday. If approved, the activists will then have 90 days to collect 178,000 signatures to qualify.
Adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess, cultivate and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers under the petition. It also calls for a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana sales, revenue from which would cover implementation costs and fund schools, drug treatment programs and other public service programs.
Personal possession would be capped at one ounce and individuals could grow up to six plants. The proposal would also provide expungements for those with prior marijuana convictions.
“We have seen all across Oklahoma, from our cities to our rural areas, the widespread support among our voters to regulate and tax adult marijuana use,” Amy Young, one of two individuals who filed the petition, said in a press release. “The status quo wastes law enforcement resources that would better be spent fighting serious crimes. It’s time to let the people decide this issue.”
The New Approach PAC, which is involved in a variety of state-level cannabis reform efforts around the country, is backing the initiative. It’s the “only national group to provide funding to our Oklahoma effort,” campaign manager Michelle Tilley said.
“Other states have successfully legalized marijuana, and Oklahoma would greatly benefit from this change in policy as well,” Tilley said. “Our state is ready for this common sense approach.”
“We can remove marijuana from the unregulated market and put it behind the counters of regulated businesses,” she said. “For several months Oklahomans have been working on writing this petition. Now we are in the process of putting together a broad campaign to go through the petition process.”
Oklahoma voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical cannabis in 2018. The state’s Medical Marijuana Authority, charged with regulating that market, would be renamed the Oklahoma Marijuana Authority under the new initiative, and it would become responsible for setting the rules for the adult-use program.
There are currently 220,000 patients enrolled in Oklahoma’s medical cannabis system, with 1,500 dispensary licenses issued, according to The Associated Press.
Young said the campaign is “exploring the initiative petition process right now to determine the feasibility of letting Oklahomans vote and decide this important issue as early as next year.“
“Allowing adult-use of marijuana, and regulating and taxing it, is a good policy decision for the State of Oklahoma and voters should now have the opportunity to decide this issue at the ballot box,” she said.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Austin City Council Approves Measure To End Most Marijuana Arrests
The decision to back away from pursuing criminal charges against people with small amounts of pot comes after state lawmakers last year legalized hemp in a way that threw marijuana prosecution into chaos.
The Austin City Council approved a resolution Thursday that will largely end arrests and fines for low-level marijuana possession. This comes after Texas’ legalization of hemp last June threw marijuana prosecution into chaos since the plants look and smell identical.
The resolution directing Austin police not to spend city resources on newly necessary lab tests to distinguish marijuana from now-legal hemp passed unanimously with nine votes. Council member Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Steve Adler were absent. Debate on the measure lasted just under an hour and a half. Of about 20 people who spoke on the resolution, only Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday was against it.
The council’s resolution states that it stems directly from Texas’ new law legalizing hemp. Last summer, following a federal hemp bill, state lawmakers approved a measure to create an agricultural industry for the crop in Texas. But the law also complicated marijuana prosecutions by narrowing the legal definition of the drug from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant.
Joint Effort: #ATXCouncil takes steps to eliminate the use of arrest or other enforcement action for low-level cannabis-related possession offenses + ensure City resources are focused on citizens’ public safety priorities. View the draft resolution: https://t.co/qNJ6L2ZPjJ. pic.twitter.com/rdwiLjx0w8
— City of Austin (@austintexasgov) January 23, 2020
All of a sudden, some district attorneys were dropping hundreds of low-level pot possession cases and not accepting new ones, arguing they couldn’t tell without lab testing if something was marijuana anymore. New misdemeanor marijuana cases filed by Texas prosecutors have dropped by more than half. And numerous Texas prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, require police to submit lab reports on a substance’s THC concentration before they will pursue misdemeanor marijuana charges. They argue circumstantial evidence like smell can no longer be used to authoritatively say something is marijuana.
Part of what prompted the Austin resolution — which prohibits spending city funds on such testing except in felony cases — is that public state labs are still working on establishing a way to test for that THC concentration. Right now they can only tell if something is cannabis. For some counties and cities, that has meant putting more money into shipping seized cannabis to private labs that can tell if it’s hemp or marijuana.
Even in places where police don’t have or aren’t spending funds on such testing and new cases aren’t being accepted by prosecutors, people are still being cited or arrested. They are sometimes taken to jail but then released with no charges being pursued. Austin police said this month that they still arrest or cite people who are suspected of possessing marijuana.
This resolution changes that, directing the city to get as close as possible to eliminating enforcement action for low-level cannabis possession.
The measure prohibits spending city funds on testing in low-level possession cases, and it directs police not to arrest or cite people in such cases — unless there is a safety concern — if they know the district attorney will automatically reject the charges or testing won’t be approved. It clarifies that lab testing can be used for suspected felonies or when the cannabis is not for personal use, like trafficking cases. A revised version also specifies that the measure will not affect toxicology testing.
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Virginia Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
Virginia senators advanced a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the state on Thursday, voting in favor of a measure to remove the threat of incarceration for simple possession.
The Senate Judiciary Criminal Law Subcommittee passed the legislation in a voice vote. The panel also took up separate bills concerning expungements as well as a separate decriminalization proposal that was adopted into the approved cannabis measure.
The subcommittee’s action came in spite of opposition from the state chapter of the ACLU, which has complained that the reform move doesn’t go far enough and said that it’d prefer the status quo of prohibition until comprehensive legalization is accomplished.
HAPPENING NOW: Packed room at the Senate Judiciary Criminal Law subcommittee where SB 2 to decriminalize marijuana will be heard.
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) January 23, 2020
Other reform advocates said that they share concerns about the limitations of SB 2, but they are still in favor of advancing it with certain changes. The bill would make simple possession a civil penalty punishable by a maximum $50 fine, whereas current policy stipulates that a first offense is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
It would also raise the possession threshold for what can be considered “intent to distribute” from a half ounce to one ounce, and it would remove a separate definition of hashish from state law, meaning that it would be treated the same as cannabis flower.
Before approving the bill, lawmakers removed its expungements language, as the issue is already being tackled by other legislation they advanced. It also reduced proposed penalties against juvenile offenders.
The subcommittee agreed to technically integrate the separate decriminalization bill—which included a tiered fine scheme for first, second and third offenses that are being dropped—into SB 2. Under the proposal that is advancing next to the full Senate Judiciary Committee, the $50 fine would be imposed, regardless of the number of offenses.
NORML, Virginia NORML and Attorney General Mark Herring’s (D) office testified in support of the bill.
“Today’s vote is a historic step in the right direction,” Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini told Marijuana Moment. “Virginia marijuana laws have long lagged behind public opinion, and the legislature’s new found appetite for advancing such a measure is a welcome change.”
“Decriminalization, however, is not a solution to marijuana criminalization,” Pedini said. “It does nothing to impact the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. The Commonwealth must move swiftly to legalize and regulate the responsible adult use of cannabis and begin undoing the harms prohibition.”
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) campaigned on decriminalization, and he included the policy change proposal in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech earlier this month, stating that the state needs “to take an honest look at our criminal justice system to make sure we’re treating people fairly and using taxpayer dollars wisely.”
Herring, who is running for governor in 2021 to replace the term-limited Northam, is in favor of enacting decriminalization as a step on the path toward eventual full legalization. He organized a summit last month where lawmakers heard from officials in legal cannabis states about regulatory challenges and opportunities.
Prior to the event, a Virginia lawmaker filed a legalization bill. Herring said his summit would provide the governor with the resources he needs to embrace comprehensive reform.
New Hampshire Lawmakers Debate Non-Commercial Marijuana Legalization Bill
A New Hampshire House committee held a hearing on Thursday to discuss a bill that would legalize the possession and cultivation of marijuana for adults.
While broader recreational legalization legislation that included a legal sales component has advanced in prior sessions, no such bill has reached the governor’s desk yet. And so lawmakers are taking a different approach this time, pushing a cannabis reform proposal that excludes any commercialization model.
That bill, filed earlier this month, would simply allow adults 21 and older to possess and gift up to three-fourths an ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants. Supporters are taking a page from neighboring Vermont, which approved non-commercial legalization in 2018.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents—though opposition was limited. Just two individuals, including one representative, testified against the bill, and just two individuals signed a committee report expressing opposition—a lobbyist for the state police chiefs’ association and another lawmaker.
Rep. Carol McGuire (R), sponsor of the legislation, said at a press conference ahead of the hearing that it’s a “very simple bill” that specifically does not include a commercial element to bolster its chances of passage.
“This takes it out of the commercial realm and lets people grow their own and use it in the privacy of their own home,” she said. “I would rather have people who want to use it be able to grow it in the privacy of their own backyards and not have to travel to other states.”
Non-commercial legalization is not the end game, as advocates are hopeful that retail sales will eventually come. But with Gov. Chris Sununu (R) having voiced opposition to commercialization and vetoing a bill last year that would’ve allowed medical cannabis patients to cultivate for personal use, it’s about as far as lawmakers expect to get this year. (Sununu did sign a modest decriminalization bill in 2017, however.)
“The time has come to end our outdated policy of punishing adults for possessing cannabis,” McGuire said in a press release. “It does not make sense for New Hampshire to remain an island of prohibition.”
A vote on the bill within the panel that held the hearing is expected to come as early as next week.
“It’s absurd that the ‘Live Free or Die’ state remains so far behind its neighbors on cannabis policy,” Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Now that Granite Staters can easily obtain cannabis from retail stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire should definitely stop fining adults for possession and prosecuting them for home cultivation.”
New Hampshire is one of several states where cannabis reform is being considered as legislative sessions across the country come online.
Just in the Northeast region, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legalization in his budget this 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 have also expressed confidence that marijuana reform will advance this year.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.