A bill to decriminalize marijuana in Pennsylvania cleared a critical hurdle on Tuesday.
The legislation, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Barry Jozwiak, would downgrade penalties for possession of under 30 grams of cannabis from a third-degree misdemeanor to a summary offense, punishable by up to a $300 fine and no jail time for first- and second-time offenders.
Though there was some uncertainty heading into Tuesday’s vote, the House Judiciary Committee approved the proposal, 14-9, after shooting down an amendment that would have barred local jurisdictions in the state from imposing their own decriminalization policies.
Heads up @PhillyMayor @billpeduto @EricPapenfuse @kurtbresswein @AngelasInk @AndrewWagaman Rep. Jerry Knowles and Pa House Judiciary trying to undo municipal #marijuana decrim ordinances w HB928 (h/t Jeff Reidy @lvnorml for pic from hearing happening now) pic.twitter.com/bbekbewp1d
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) October 9, 2018
A number of Pennsylvania cities, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, have already decriminalized cannabis. But under state law, possession is currently regarded as a third-degree misdemeanor that carries penalties of up to a $500 fine, up to 30 days of jail time and a drivers license suspension.
Jozwiak, a former state trooper and sheriff, said he drew motivation for the bill from the Berks County District Attorney, noting that the “courts are clogged” with low-level cannabis cases and that some police have already adopted less punitive means of dealing with simple possession.
Bill's introducer, GOP's Jozwiak, says the idea was brought to him by Berks County DA. "Courts are clogged" with low-level pot arrests. https://t.co/oG4Ca5FiLk
— Sarah Anne Hughes (@sarahanne_news) October 9, 2018
Jozwiak has also argued that decriminalization makes economic sense.
“This bill will reduce the workload in the court system, save millions of dollars, and allows police to file citations at the local district justice level,” he wrote in a 2017 co-sponsorship memorandum. “Officers could now stay on duty, rather than be tied up in court for hours. This is a good economic decision.”
A previous version of the bill, introduced in 2015, did not receive a committee vote. Now that it’s been reintroduced and voted out of committee, there’s a small window of time for a full floor vote before the close of the legislative session on November 30.
If the legislation is ultimately approved by the House and Senate, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) would likely sign it, as he’s voiced support for decriminalization in the past. Wolf has said he’s not ready to back full legalization in Pennsylvania, though.
I support decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. Shouldn’t focus on incarcerating people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. https://t.co/YeqO8Ir3z5
— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) March 1, 2017
Marijuana reform advocates were following the bill closely, though some contended that the legislation was too restrictive.
“Pending review of the specific language that was voted out of committee, we are optimistic that this bill will help reduce the almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians caught up in the criminal justice system over minor cannabis possession,” Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “We will be working with our allies in the House to offer amendments that will insure cannabis consumers do not face criminal prosecution under any circumstances for possession of a small amount.”
What’s more, an amendment from the sponsor that was attached to the bill in committee on Tuesday would charge individuals who possess cannabis in a motor vehicle or on school grounds with a misdemeanor, according to advocates.
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) October 9, 2018
“We will work with our supporters in the House to make this a real decriminalization bill that does not escalate to a misdemeanor under any circumstances,” Nightingale said.
Chris Goldstein, a writer and cannabis reform advocate, told Marijuana Moment that it’s pivotal that reform advocates remain vigilant as the legislation moves forward. Observers were surprised that the bill advanced, he said, but there’s still a distinct possibility that further restrictive amendments such as the one voted down Tuesday will continue to rear their heads.
See the text of the amendments the committee considered below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
GOP Senator Reveals What Trump Said About Jeff Sessions’s Anti-Marijuana Moves
President Donald Trump immediately rebuked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the day that he rescinded Justice Department guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) revealed during an interview on the Cannabis Economy podcast earlier this month.
Following a meeting on trade and tariffs in the Oval Office, Gardner pulled Trump aside to express his opposition to the rescission of the Obama-era cannabis document known as the Cole Memo. But before he could finish his sentence, the president interrupted to say “we need undo this” and “[Sessions] needs to stop this.”
“It was very clear to me at that point that there was a disagreement between the president and the attorney general on this,” Gardner said. Trump also said, “I don’t like this, this isn’t something I support,” but that it was too late to reverse the decision.
“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” was an exact phrase the president used, per Gardner’s recollection.
“At that point I realized that there was an ally in the president on this.”
In response to Sessions’s decision, Gardner started blocking Justice Department nominees until he received assurances that the federal government would not take enforcement action against legal cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. That blockage prompted a subsequent phone call with the president, who said there was one nominee in particular he wanted to confirm.
Listen to Gardner’s interview with the Cannabis Economy podcast below:
Gardner explained why he was holding nominees, to which Trump replied, “OK, you’ve got my commitment to support the bill, you’ve got my commitment to support a solution on this,” referring to bipartisan legislation Gardner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from enforcement under the Controlled Substance Act.
Trump later told reporters that he “really” supports the legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act.
During his conversation with the president, Gardner cautioned that states like Colorado would be put in jeopardy if the Justice Department followed through on Sessions’s threats. But Trump said, “we’re not going to do that, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“That was the commitment from the president not only on showing that he’s going to disagree with Jeff Sessions, but actually saying, ‘don’t worry about what he’s done because it won’t impact Colorado,’ and then moving forward down for a solution,” Gardner said.
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) February 22, 2019
Sessions resigned from his position at the president’s request in November, and the Senate confirmed his replacement, William Barr earlier this month. Barr was repeatedly pressed about how he would approach federal cannabis policy during his confirmation hearing and in followup questions, and he made consistent pledges not to use Justice Department resources to “go after” state-legal marijuana businesses.
He did, however, encourage Congress to resolve conflicting federal and state cannabis laws through legislative action.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Five Governors Talk Marijuana And Hemp At Media Conference
The governors of five states weighed in on marijuana and hemp during appearances at Politico’s ninth annual “State Solutions” conference on Friday.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said hemp should be regulated “just like any crop” and emphasized that he wants his state to continue to expand its legal hemp and marijuana economies. The pro-legalization governor, who pledged to make Colorado the nation’s leader in industrial hemp production during his State of the State address last month, also pulled out a business card printed on hemp paper during the event.
Then the conversation pivoted to broader federal cannabis policy. Polis said “there’s an existential threat to everything we’re doing in Colorado” because of the lack of formal protections against federal intervention in state marijuana laws.
“Obviously the counterbalance to that is the federal government—even if they somehow did make this more of an enforcement priority—don’t have the ability on the ground to prosecute so many people,” he said.
“I hope that they can either reinstate something like the Cole memorandum or, even better, that Congress can finally move forward with changing the laws and leaving it up to the states,” the governor said, referring to Obama-era marijuana enforcement guidance that then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded last year.
Polis also said that if the state got wind of pending federal enforcement, “it would be of great concern and we would bring that to the highest levels of the White House.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose constituents voted to legalize medical marijuana during November’s midterm election, was asked what he thought about allowing the use of medical cannabis to treat opioid addiction.
“I think everybody would like to have any kind of medicine that will help alleviate pain and suffering,” including opioid dependence, he said. But he said the federal government was at fault for failing to address cannabis rescheduling in order to enhance clinical research into the plant’s therapeutic benefits.
“We ought to change the law, allow it to be studied,” he said. “What are we afraid of?”
And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) discussed the state’s possible legalization of industrial hemp. She said it was important to wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release “federal guidelines” on hemp production first and also to ensure that the state has the money and resources to regulate the crop.
The conversation comes after Noem urged the state Senate to postpone a scheduled hearing on an industrial hemp cultivation bill, a request the body ultimately agreed to earlier this week. The legislation passed the House in a 62-5 vote last week.
During the interview, Noem also expressed concerns generally about the lack of roadside drug tests to determine impaired driving from marijuana, and she said it’s important as governor to consider the public safety ramifications” of an industrial hemp market.
The second session of the conference featured Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who also spoke about cannabis.
Brown touted the legal cannabis industry and said it has stimulated job growth in Oregon, where she said about 20,000 people work for marijuana and hemp businesses. It should be a “top priority” for Congress to ensure that the cannabis industry has access to banking services, she said.
The Connecticut governor reiterated his belief that the state will legalize marijuana and “do it right” during his interview.
Without a regulated cannabis system, the illicit market will continue to thrive and people are already “driving over the border” to Massachusetts, where adult use is legal, so “that train has left the station,” he said. A significant portion of the Connecticut House has already signed onto an adult use legalization bill
But the existing system breeds “disrespect for the law,” Lamont added. What’s more, cannabis enforcement disproportionately targets communities of color, which is part of the reason that he considers legalization a “criminal justice issue.”
Legalization legislation should also involve expunging the records of individuals with prior cannabis convictions, he said.
Lamont revealed that he’s talked to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has recently and reluctantly embraced reform in response to neighboring states moving to legalize, and that the two agreed to work together to create effective marijuana systems in their respective states.
This story was updated to add comments from Brown and Lamont.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
Florida Senator Wants To Let Voters Decide On Marijuana Legalization
A joint resolution introduced in the Florida Senate on Thursday would add a new section to the Florida Constitution to establish the right “to possess, use and cultivate cannabis.”
“This right may not be infringed, except that the transfer of cannabis by purchase or sale may be regulated by law as necessary to ensure public health and safety,” reads the measure, which would apply to adults over 21 years of age.
If approved by lawmakers, the question would go before voters in the 2020 general election.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) of Orlando, comes as Florida lawmakers weigh other bills that would expand the allowable forms of medical marijuana in the state.
“I think if we just go straight to the people and ask them, ‘is this something that you want,’ it puts the onus back on us to regulate it,” Bracy told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “I think it’s such a controversial issue that the legislature is not in a position to agree on how it should be regulated. The best way to do it is to go through the people and then it will come back to us to figure out how to regulate it.”
“I’ve always thought the people are more progressive on this issue than the legislature is and I believe they are ready for legalization of marijuana. Whenever I hear from folks, it’s always a resounding ‘yes.’”
Under regulations instituted after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, patients are prohibited from smoking the drug. But new Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has called on lawmakers to change that, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a lawsuit seeking to over turn the ban if the legislature doesn’t act by mid-March.
The two proposals are expected to receive floor votes in their respective chambers within the next few weeks.
“From the House perspective, the biggest sticking point is children,” State Rep. Ray Rodrigues told Florida Politics. “We don’t believe children should be smoking medical marijuana…but we’re having conversations.”
The 2016 ballot measure added language in the state constitution allowing the use of medical cannabis by those with cancer, AIDS/HIV, epilepsy or other conditions as determined by their doctor. Two years earlier, a similar measure got majority support from voters but fell short of the 60 percent threshold required to pass.
If Bracy’s full legalization amendment advances to the ballot, it appears to have a good chance of passing. A poll last year found that Florida registered voters support “legalizing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, limiting its sale to residents 21 years of age or older” by a margin of 62 percent to 35 percent.
This story has been updated to add comment from Bracy.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.