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Pennsylvania Lawmakers To Vote On Marijuana Decriminalization This Week

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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 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.

Pennsylvania Lawmaker Launches Online Petition To Promote Marijuana Legalization Bill

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Senate Votes To Send Hemp Legalization To President Trump’s Desk

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The Senate approved a far-reaching agriculture bill that includes a provision to legalize industrial hemp on Tuesday.

The vote gets the U.S. one step closer to ending its decades-long prohibition of a non-psychoactive plant in the cannabis family, empowering farmers to cultivate and sell a lucrative crop that can be used to create an exceptional range of products—from cosmetics to concrete.

The Senate and House Agriculture Committees had reconciled their respective versions of the 2018 Farm Bill last month, and lawmakers said they hoped to get it passed before the year’s end.

It seems Congress is positioned to meet that projection. The bill passed 87-13 in the Senate, and the House is expected to take it up soon. If the House approves the bill, it will be sent to President Donald Trump’s desk to be signed into law.

While debate on the legislation extended over several months, it quickly became apparent that the hemp legalization provision had bipartisan support. Separately, a compromise was reached over a provision that would ban people with felony convictions from participating in the hemp industry. The ban would be lifted after 10 years under the current legislation.

Hemp would no longer be controlled by the Justice Department if it’s ultimately approved. Instead, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would lightly regulate the crop.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and others cheered the inclusion of legal hemp in the Farm Bill.

You can read the full text of the hemp legalization provisions in the Farm Bill here.

Next House Agriculture Committee Chair Might Grow Hemp On His Farm

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Trump Threatens Government Shutdown, Raising Concern For Legal Marijuana Industry

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President Donald Trump is threatening to shut down the government if Democrats refuse billions of dollars in funding for a border wall—but the consequences of that action would extend far beyond border security.

If the president makes good on his promise to withhold his signature from essential appropriations bills this time, that could inadvertently leave the legal marijuana industry vulnerable to federal drug enforcement actions. A spending bill rider that has protected state medical cannabis programs from federal intervention since 2014 would expire, while the Justice Department and prosecutors would generally remain operational.

That’s because the Department of Justice has a contingency plan in place in the event of a government shutdown, and it exempts many employees, including U.S. attorneys and those who work for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), from furlough.

“Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an activity essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property,” the Justice Department explains in its contingency plan. U.S. attorneys are protected because they’re presidentially appointed and “are needed to address ongoing criminal matters and civil matters of urgency throughout the nation.”

“All agents in DEA field organizations are excepted from furlough because they support active counternarcotics investigations,” the document says.

The so-called Rohrabacher-Farr amendment would not be exempted, though. The legislation—which bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to interfere with state medical cannabis laws—is part of the the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) appropriations bill. While five out of the 12 annual appropriation bills for Fiscal Year 2019 have already been signed into law by the president, the CJS bill is yet to receive House of Senate floor votes.

Typically, the deadline to get appropriations passed is the end of the preceding fiscal year, September 30. But rather than hold a vote or allow federal departments to lose funding, lawmakers have passed a series of continuing resolutions this year, providing temporary funding and pushing back the deadline. The most recent two-week continuing resolution passed on December 7, so the new deadline is December 21.

It lawmakers don’t pass, or President Trump doesn’t sign, either a full-year or temporary extension of funding by then, the medical cannabis rider will expire, but federal drug enforcement capabilities will not. And that would leave medical marijuana patients and the businesses that serve them in a dicey position.

Similar concerns about the prospect of federal marijuana enforcement have been repeatedly raised under the Trump administration. In January, things seemed especially precarious, as the president’s threat of a government shutdown came weeks after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo that provided guidance on federal cannabis enforcement practices.

That decision stoked fears that a shutdown would empower the Justice Department to act on the attorney general’s vehement opposition to marijuana reform. But after fewer than three days, a continuing resolution passed and state-legal marijuana activities continued unimpeded.

This time around, as the deadline approaches, the Justice Department head is Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who had served as Sessions’s chief of staff. Whitaker has said he sympathizes with medical cannabis patients, but he’s also criticized the Obama administration for its marijuana enforcement policies.

There’s no telling at this point whether Whitaker, the DEA or federal prosecutors would take advantage of broad exemptions from furlough and crack down on legal medical marijuana states in the event of a shutdown. But as always, the possibility puts the cannabis industry is an uncomfortable position.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Push For Marijuana Protections In Funding Bill

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Lawmakers From Both Parties Celebrate Hemp Legalization In The Farm Bill

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Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are celebrating a hemp legalization provision that made it into the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Perhaps no one is more pleased than Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who fought for the provision over months of debate on the wide-ranging agriculture legislation. He even signed the conference report finalizing the bill language with a hemp pen on Monday.

In opening remarks from the Senate floor on Tuesday, McConnell said the inclusion of hemp legalization is “a victory for farmers and consumers throughout our country.” It builds on the progress of the hemp pilot program he helped put in the 2014 Farm Bill, the results of which he said “have been nothing short of extraordinary.”

“Now American-grown hemp can be found in your food, in your clothes and even in your car dashboard,” he said. “The results mean jobs, economic growth and new opportunity.”

“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) helped McConnell secure hemp legalization in the agriculture legislation and said “the outrageous and outdated ban on growing hemp has hamstrung farmers in Oregon and across the country” in a press release Tuesday.

“Hemp products are made in America, sold in America, and consumed in America,” Wyden said. “Now, hemp will be able to be legally grown in America, to the economic benefit of consumers and farmers in Oregon and nationwide.”

Fellow Oregon lawmaker Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) also cheered the “good news” that the provision made the cut.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) touted hemp legalization in a tweet Tuesday.

“The finish line is in sight,” Bennet wrote. “Now Congress needs to do what’s right for Colorado & send this bill to [President Trump’s] desk by the end of the year.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) celebrated the hemp provisions as well.

As did Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).

Lawmakers are hoping to put the Farm Bill to a full House and Senate vote and deliver the legislation to the president this week. McConnell said on Tuesday that members of Congress should be prepared to work through the holiday break to make sure this and other bills, including criminal justice reform and legislation to fund parts of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2019, are seen all the way through.

Next House Agriculture Committee Chair Might Grow Hemp On His Farm

Via YouTube/Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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