As he weighs a potential run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is an outlier on one key issue as compared to Senate colleagues who have already declared their candidacies: Marijuana.
Brown’s consistent refusal to endorse legalizing cannabis also puts him at odds with his party’s voters.
Last week, five competing presidential candidates—Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—teamed up to introduce the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and punish states that have discriminatory enforcement of prohibition policies.
This week, Rep. Tusli Gabbard (D-HI), who is also seeking the party’s presidential nomination, filed a bill to deschedule marijuana so that states can set their own laws without federal interference.
Brown, on the other hand, hasn’t introduced or cosponsored a single marijuana reform bill during his quarter-century in Congress.
Last week, during a South Carolina leg of a multi-state tour the senator is undertaking as he considers entering the presidential race, Brown said he disagrees with his colleagues and would-be primary opponents about cannabis legalization.
“Cory is a good guy,” he said of Booker, who is the lead sponsor of the new congressional cannabis bill, according to a journalist who was in the room. “But I don’t go quite where he does.”
Last year, Brown told a Cleveland TV news station that he isn’t sure if marijuana is a gateway drug or not.
“States that have legalized marijuana, we’ll see what happens in those states,” he said. “If that means less addiction to more powerful drugs, or if it’s a gateway. And I don’t think we don’t know that yet.”
In 2015, Brown said that “there are far too many” unanswered questions about legalizing cannabis, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
“I have significant concerns about it,” he said of a ballot measure to end prohibition in Ohio. “It’s a step that we should take with great caution.”
In 1998, Brown voted for a House resolution “expressing the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.” The measure argued that “the ambiguous cultural messages about marijuana use are contributing to a growing acceptance of marijuana use among children and teenagers.”
“Congress continues to support the existing Federal legal process for determining the safety and efficacy of drugs and opposes efforts to circumvent this process by legalizing marijuana, and other Schedule I drugs, for medicinal use without valid scientific evidence and the approval of the Food and Drug Administration,” the resolution said.
In a 2010 letter to a constituent, Brown wrote that “there are risks associated with making marijuana legally available,” according to NORML. “The widespread popularity and use of this drug among our nation’s youth, as well as its role as a ‘pipeline’ drug (potentially leading to the use of heroin and other lethal drugs) distinguishes it from other controlled substances, and we must be particularly careful before creating the potential for expanded access and use.”
In 2011, Brown told a student who asked him to support marijuana reform legislation that he would “probably not” take initiative on the issue.
“I’ve got other priorities,” the senator said.
That said, while Brown has refused to take proactive legislative steps on marijuana, and supported the 1998 anti-legalization resolution, he did take a moderate pro-reform position when forced to vote on cannabis issues later during his tenure in the House.
And although he doesn’t go as far as his colleagues and potential presidential rivals—including former prosecutors like Harris and fellow candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)—in endorsing the legalization of marijuana, he has voiced support for medical cannabis and letting states set their own policies without federal interference.
“Senator Brown supports legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing recreational use at the federal level and allowing states to go further if they choose,” Brown spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said in an email.
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked Obama-era guidance that urged federal prosecutors to respect local cannabis laws last year, Brown pushed back.
“I wish the attorney general would mind the store on other things and would put his efforts into this terrible addiction issue about opioids and worry less about medical marijuana,” he said. “I’m concerned when the attorney general and the Justice Department, it’s a huge operation, it’s powerful and when they come in this way I’m concerned about what it means for people who need medical marijuana and believe it can help them.”
And during his South Carolina pre-campaign stop last week, Brown indicated that he’s in favor of removing criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession and supports letting state-legal cannabis businesses access banks, according to a reporter who as in attendance.
Nonetheless, the fact that he has not supported legalizing marijuana or put his name on any cannabis reform bills in Congress makes him stand out from most Democrats who are seeking their party’s presidential nomination or are considering doing so.
“It is time for Senator Brown to place himself on the right side of history and give his unqualified support to ending marijuana prohibition in this country. His current position has more in common with the dated mentality that Democrats held in the 1990s than where the overwhelming majority of all Americans are in 2019,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said in an interview. “If he maintains his opposition to legalization, his presidential aspirations may be over before they even start. Supporting the failed status quo of prohibition in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will likely prove disqualifying with party voters.”
A Gallup poll last year found that 66 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. Among Democrats, 75 percent are on board with ending cannabis prohibition.
Even a majority of Republicans now want to legalize marijuana, according to the survey.
UPDATE: Brown announced on Thursday afternoon that is not running for president.
Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote
A Texas House committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday that would make simple possession punishable by a fine, with no jail time, and without having to go on an individual’s criminal record.
The legislation passed in a 5-2 vote out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and now heads to a separate panel responsible for placing bills on the calendar for floor debates.
Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would be punished with a $250 fine for the first two offenses. After that, possession would be considered a class C misdemeanor, which is still a lesser penalty compared to current law. As it stands, possession of two ounces or less is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail as well as a permanent criminal record, which carries steep collateral consequences.
Earlier this month, the committee held a hearing on the legislation and heard testimony about the long-term impacts of having a low-level cannabis conviction on a person’s record and how removing criminal penalties for possession can free up law enforcement resources so that officers can tackle more serious crimes.
Advocates are hopeful that the full House will embrace the modest reform measure, even as the legislature contemplates other cannabis policies such as expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program.
— Texas NORML (@TexasNORML) March 25, 2019
“We are very optimistic about the chances of HB 63 passing on the floor of the Texas House,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that we shouldn’t be wasting valuable criminal justice resources arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana. Texas is ready.”
While medical cannabis expansion, to say nothing of adult-use legalization, remains a dubious prospect in the conservative stronghold, removing the threat of jail time for possession has gained popularity among Texas Republicans. Delegates for the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform plank last year that endorses marijuana decriminalization, for example.
“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” the plank states.
What’s more, the policy has even received a tentative green light from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he is open to legislation that would reduce penalties for simple possession.
During a gubernatorial debate last year, Abbot said he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana” and floated the idea of reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a class B to a class C misdemeanor.
According to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, the legislation currently has 32 authors or co-authors.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee
A key committee in the Connecticut legislature approved a bill to legalize marijuana on Monday.
The General Law Committee, which is one of two panels that heard testimony about legalization legislation last week, voted 10 to 8 to advance the bill.
Beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, the legislation also includes a number of social equity provisions aimed at encouraging participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war. A governor-appointed commission would be charged with giving such individuals advance time to apply for a marijuana business license and promote diversity in hiring.
“At the end of the day, if we’re moving, it’s not about revenue. It’s about equity,” Rep. Juan Candelaria (D) said at the meeting. “It’s about ensuring that these communities that have been impacted, that we say we’re not going to stay idle anymore.”
The commission would also be required to study the potential impacts of allowing cannabis microbusinesses and a home cultivation option, which are not currently included in the bill. Delivery would be permitted, however.
While advocates generally support the bill, there are some outstanding concerns about the lack of a home grow option. The lack of specific licenses for delivery services and on-site consumption facilities is another sticking point.
“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said at last week’s hearing.
It’s not yet clear whether the legislature will ultimately pass this proposal or a separate bill in the Senate, but if either does end up on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), he’s expected to sign. The governor called legalization one of his “priorities” last year and also discussed the issue during a budget speech last month.
The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on legalization legislation on Thursday.
A separate bill to revise the state’s medical cannabis program by adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions and eliminating a registration certification fee for patients and caregivers was also approved by the General Law Committee on Monday.
This story was updated to note the committee’s vote tally.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Marijuana Legalization Vote Cancelled Due To Lack of Support In New Jersey Senate
Marijuana reform advocates experienced a setback on Monday after bill to legalize cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of votes to pass the legislation in the Senate.
The proposal would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. It included a number of social equity provisions meant to encourage participation in the industry by individuals from communities most harmed by the war on drugs, and it also would’ve created a pathway for expedited expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
Two committees—the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee—approved companion cannabis legalization bills last week.
But while Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leading lawmakers reached a compromise on certain details on how to carry out legalization earlier this month, the legislation faced resistance and was taken off the table hours before scheduled votes in the Senate and Assembly.
“History is rarely made on the first try,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Certainly I’m disappointed but we are not defeated… We all remain committed to passing this bill and making our state a national model for justice and opportunity because ultimately this is the right thing to do for New Jersey, and we know the people of New Jersey are on our side.”
History is rarely made on the very first try. But, eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down.
Join me live in Trenton as we recommit to passing adult-use marijuana legalization and expungement legislation. https://t.co/Ebts137XJ6
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 25, 2019
“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward. While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”
I proudly stand with @GovMurphy, @SpeakerCoughlin, @SandraBCunningh & @SenatorScutari. We didn’t have the votes today, but we will continue to work together in order to bring adult use marijuana and criminal justice reform to New Jersey pic.twitter.com/BWxDchfiQ4
— Steve Sweeney (@NJSenatePres) March 25, 2019
“The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another,” he added at a press conference. “Anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) echoed those sentiments.
"We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model," says @SpeakerCoughlin on cannabis legalization, medical Marijuana, & expungement bill package pic.twitter.com/CwT6C5WlsX
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 25, 2019
“Today we may not be able to get a bill over the finish line but I’m proud of the effort we made and the discussions we had. It’s a big and complicated issue,” he said in a press conference. “We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 25, 2019
According to a whip count tracking tool for the legislation that was created by NJ.com, a majority of senators (23) planned to vote “no” as of Monday morning, compared to just eight who said they’d vote in favor of the bill, with nine others undetermined. Other sources indicated that 18 senators planned to vote “yes.”
In the days leading up to the Monday session, the legislation received a number of high-profile endorsements, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN host Van Jones. The governor’s office also released a list of quotes supporting the bill from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders.
“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said last week. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”
Those endorsements were ultimately not enough to convince a sufficient number of on-the-fence state senators, some of whom raised concerns about the potential public health and safety impacts of legalization.
“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights, advocacy and faith organizations across the state and the majority of New Jersey voters,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “But, we will not give up. We will continue to fight for marijuana legalization legislation centered on racial and social justice. It is only a matter of time before this legislation is enacted and all New Jerseyans can share in the benefits it will create.”
Our commitment to adult-use marijuana legalization and expungement has not wavered. We know the people of New Jersey are on our side.
Change is never easy, but we will keep fighting. pic.twitter.com/xMeay0MlTx
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 25, 2019
Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana described the news as a “huge victory for us.”
“They told us legalization was inevitable, and this action proves them wrong, Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release.
With the cancellation of the vote, it may be months before lawmakers take up the idea again.
“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” NORML Political Associate Tyler McFadden said in a press release.
“[I]t should be acknowledged that, to date, no state has taken legislative action to regulate the adult use marijuana market,” she said. “In every jurisdiction where regulations exist, they were enacted by a direct vote of the citizenry. Based on current polling in New Jersey, we have little doubt that, if provided the opportunity, Garden State voters would take similar action.”
A poll last month found that New Jersey adults support legalizing marijuana, 62 percent to 32 percent.
This story was updated to add comment from Sweeney, DPA, NORML and SAM.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.