A bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana could advance in the Pennsylvania legislature this week.
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the bill, which was filed by Republican state Rep. Barry Jozwiak, a former state trooper and Berks County sheriff. The legislation seeks to make possession of under 30 grams of cannabis a summary offense punishable by up to a $300 fine and no jail time for first- and second-time offenders.
Though simple possession is already effectively decriminalized in several Pennsylvania jurisdictions, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, state law considers the offense 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.
“Downgrading this offense from a misdemeanor to a summary offense would have a positive effect on local law enforcement efforts, allowing police and prosecutors to focus their time and resources on more serious offenses,” Jozwiak wrote in a co-sponsorship memorandum in February 2017.
“As a former law enforcement officer, I strongly believe in cracking down on drug dealers and those who prey on the young or weak with drugs. But those defendants are addressed elsewhere in the Controlled Substances Act. For individuals who merely possess small amounts of marijuana, I believe this adjusted grading makes sense.”
A prior version of the bill was introduced in 2015, but it did not receive a committee vote. And while marijuana reform advocates are supportive of efforts to eliminate criminal punishments for cannabis offenses, some view Jozwiak’s bill as a red herring.
“Reducing the misdemeanor level offense to a non-traffic summary citation will keep thousands out of the criminal justice system and will help to alleviate the disparity in cannabis enforcement,” Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “We cannot, however, support legislation that will nonetheless continue to expose Pennsylvanians to criminal prosecution.”
“HB 928 would escalate to a misdemeanor if the individual has two prior summary convictions for cannabis possession. An amendment would also criminalize mere possession in a motor vehicle. We believe this will continue to incentivize law enforcement to harass cannabis consumers. We also believe this is yet another attempt to control cannabis consumption through with threats of criminal prosecution which has proven to be an abysmal failure.”
Under Jozwiak’s bill, a third marijuana possession offense would be considered a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and no jail time. The individual’s third possession offense would lead to a drivers license suspension, but that suspension would expire after six months.
Nightingale and other advocates have their sites set on more far-reaching proposed marijuana reforms.
A majority of Pennsylvania voters (59 percent) back full marijuana legalization. But political leadership on the issue has been lacking in the Keystone State, leaving a void for reform that either party could theoretically occupy.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is a supporter of the state’s medical cannabis program, which he signed into law, but said as recently as Monday that he’s not ready back a bill to legalize marijuana for adult-use and wants to continue to observe other legal states before enacting such a program in Pennsylvania.
Wolf says he’s not ready to sign recreational marijuana bill. Wants to see other states’ experiences first.
— Sarah Anne Hughes (@sarahanne_news) October 8, 2018
Wolf does, however, favor decriminalizing marijuana. And his lieutenant governor running mate, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, supports outright legalization.
Meanwhile, the state House and Senate is GOP-run. Though there’s modest support for basic reform efforts such as decriminalization, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R) has represented a consistent roadblock on the path to legalization. He was reportedly brought to tears at a closed-door caucus meeting about a prospective medical marijuana program in 2015.
If the Jozwiak decriminalization bill makes it our of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, it’s unclear if or when it would be scheduled for floor action.
Opinions about legalization notwithstanding, there’s considerable support for marijuana reform across the United States. Pennsylvania is no exception, and it’s increasingly apparent that lawmakers on both side of the aisle who align themselves with moves to change cannabis laws are likely to find supportive constituents.
Congressional Bill Filed To Protect Marijuana Consumers From Losing Public Housing
A congresswoman on Thursday reintroduced a bill that would allow people living in federally assisted housing to use marijuana in compliance with state law without fear of losing their homes.
As it stands, people living in public housing are prohibited from using controlled substances in those facilities regardless of state law, and landlords are able to evict such individuals. But the bill from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) would change that.
It would provide protections for people living in public housing or Section 8 housing from being displaced simply for using cannabis in states that have legalized it for medical or recreational purposes.
“Individuals living in federally assisted housing should not be denied admission, or fear eviction, for using a legal product,” Norton said on Thursday. “Adult use and/or medical marijuana is currently legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia, and over 90 percent of Americans support legalized medical marijuana.”
The legislation would also require the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to enact regulations that restrict smoking marijuana at these properties in the same way that tobacco is handled.
“HUD, like DOJ, should not be allowed to enforce federal marijuana laws where states have taken action to legalize marijuana,” the congresswoman said, referring to a congressionally approved rider that prevents the Department of Justice from interfering with state medical cannabis laws.
Norton filed earlier versions of the Marijuana in Federally Assisted Housing Parity Act in 2018 and 2019, but they did not receive hearings or votes.
In 2018, a Trump administration official said that she was working to resolve conflicting federal and state marijuana laws as it applies to residency in federally-subsidized housing, but it’s not clear what came of that effort.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also raised the issue during a committee hearing in 2019, pressing former HUD Secretary Ben Carson on policies that cause public housing residents and their families to be evicted for committing low-level offenses such as marijuana possession.
She pointed to two specific HUD policies: the “one strike” rule, which allows property managers to evict people living in federally assisted housing if they engage in illicit drug use or other crimes, and the “no fault” rule, which stipulates that public housing residents can be evicted due to illicit drug use by other members of their household or guests—even if the resident was unaware of the activity.
Ocasio-Cortez and then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also filed legislation that year that would protect people with low-level drug convictions from being denied access to or being evicted from public housing.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also introduced an affordable housing bill last year that included a provision to prevent landlords from evicting people over manufacturing marijuana extracts if they have a license to do so.
Read the text of the marijuana housing legislation below:
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.
FDA Clears Researchers To Study MDMA Use By Therapists Being Trained In Psychedelic Medicine
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already authorized clinical trials into the therapeutic potential of MDMA for patients with post-traumatic stress disorders—but now it’s given the green light to a psychedelics research institute to expand its studies by administering the substance to certain therapists.
Volunteer therapists who are being trained to treat people with PTSD will be able to participate in the Phase 1 trials to gain personal experience with the treatment option. This is a complementary research project that comes as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is in the process of conducting Phase 3 trials involving people with the disorder.
The development comes months after Canadian regulators announced that certain therapists would be allowed to take psilocybin in order to gain a better understanding of the psychedelic when treating patients.
MAPS sought permission to proceed with the therapist-specific trials in 2019, but FDA placed them on a 20-month hold because of concerns about the merits, risks and credentials of investigators. MAPS appealed that hold, providing evidence about the study’s scientific value and ability of its staff, and FDA cleared them on Tuesday.
— MAPS (@MAPS) May 13, 2021
The organization “chose to dispute” FDA’s hold not just because of the impact it had on the planned studies, “but in an attempt to resolve an ongoing issue with the FDA regarding investigator qualifications across studies,” it said in a press release on Wednesday.
“While the term ‘dispute’ may seem adversarial, this process can actually strengthen the relationship and trust between us and our review Division and ensures the Division has support on this project from the [FDA] Office of Neuroscience,” MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) CEO Amy Emerson said. “This decision demonstrates how our strategic, data-driven strategy in challenging the FDA rulings can be successful.”
Now MAPS is able to launch the Phase 1 clinical trials into MDMA-assisted therapy for therapists.
It will be designed to “measure development of self-compassion, professional quality of life, and professional burnout among clinicians delivering the treatment to patients,” the association said.
Getting personal experience with the substance “is widely considered to be an important element in preparation and training to deliver psychedelic-assisted therapies.”
This will “support the goals of the MDMA Therapy Training Program to provide comprehensive training to future providers,” and it “builds capacity to deliver quality, accessible care to patients, pending approval of MDMA-assisted therapy as a legal prescription treatment,” MAPS PBC Director and Head of Training and Supervision Shannon Carlin said.
FDA first granted MAPS’s request for an emergency use authorization for MDMA in PTSD in 2017. The organization expects to complete its Phase 3 trails in 2022.
The scientific expansion move also comes as the psychedelics decriminalization movement continues to build in the U.S.
Missouri Regulators Derail Medical Marijuana Business Ownership Disclosure Effort With Veto Threat
Missouri regulators say they feel requiring medical marijuana business license ownership disclosures under a House-approved amendment could be unconstitutional, and they may urge the governor to veto the legislation.
By Jason Hancock, Missouri Independent
An effort by lawmakers to require disclosure of ownership information for businesses granted medical marijuana licenses was derailed on Thursday, when state regulators suggested a possible gubernatorial veto.
On Tuesday, the Missouri House voted to require the Department of Health and Senior Services provide legislative oversight committees with records regarding who owns the businesses licensed to grow, transport and sell medical marijuana.
The provision was added as an amendment to another bill pertaining to nonprofit organizations.
Its sponsor, Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said DHSS’s decision to deem ownership records confidential has caused problems in providing oversight of the program. He pointed to recent analysis by The Independent and The Missourian of the 192 dispensary licenses issued by the state that found several instances where a single entity was connected to more than five dispensary licenses.
The state constitution prohibits the state from issuing more than five dispensary licenses to any entity under substantially common control, ownership or management.
On Thursday, a conference committee met to work out differences in the underlying bill between the House and Senate.
Sen. Eric Burlison, a Republican from Battlefield and the bill’s sponsor, called the medical marijuana amendment an “awesome idea. I think it’s awesome.”
However, he said opposition from the department puts the entire bill in jeopardy.
“The department came to me,” he said, “and said they felt that this was unconstitutional.”
DHSS has justified withholding information from public disclosure by pointing to a portion of the medical marijuana constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2018 that says the department shall “maintain the confidentiality of reports or other information obtained from an applicant or licensee containing any individualized data, information, or records related to the licensee or its operation… .”
Alex Tuttle, a lobbyist for DHSS, said if the bill were to pass with the medical marijuana amendment still attached, the department may recommend Gov. Mike Parson veto it.
The threat of a veto proved persuasive, as several members of the conference committee expressed apprehension about the idea of the amendment sinking the entire bill.
Merideth said the department’s conclusion is incorrect. And besides, he said, the amendment is narrowly tailored so that the information wouldn’t be made public. It would only be turned over to legislative oversight committees.
Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, chairman of the special committee on government oversight, said the amendment is essential to ensure state regulators “are following the constitution, that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
The medical marijuana program has faced intense scrutiny in the two years since it was created by voters.
A House committee spent months looking into widespread reports of irregularities in how license applications were scored and allegations of conflicts of interest within DHSS and a private company hired to score applications.
In November 2019, DHSS received a grand jury subpoena, which was issued by the United States District Court for the Western District. It demanded the agency turn over all records pertaining to four medical marijuana license applications.
The copy of the subpoena that was made public redacted the identity of the four applicants at the request of the FBI. Lyndall Fraker, director of medical marijuana regulation, later said during a deposition that the subpoena wasn’t directed at the department but rather was connected to an FBI investigation center in Independence.
More recently, Parson faced criticism for a fundraiser with medical marijuana business owners for his political action committee, Uniting Missouri.
The group reported raising $45,000 in large donations from the fundraiser. More than half of that money came from a PAC connected to Steve Tilley, a lobbyist with numerous medical marijuana clients who has been under FBI scrutiny for more than a year.