As the marijuana legalization movement presses forward, many eyes are turned to the Northeast, where legislative stalemates over reform have derailed several recent attempts to change state cannabis laws.
But in Pennsylvania, advocates are seeing clear signs that the tide is rapidly changing, with Gov. Tom Wolf (D) recently endorsing legalization and and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who spoke to Marijuana Moment in phone interview last week, helping to spearhead the fight to end prohibition.
Fetterman, who earned an endorsement from NORML last year and led a statewide listening tour this year to discuss the prospect of legalizing cannabis in the Keystone State, expanded on his reform vision and discussed his engagement with constituents on the issue, his online tiffs with prohibitionists and what he makes of former Vice President Joe Biden’s opposition to legalization.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: You headed a listening tour across Pennsylvania to talk about legalization plans with constituents. Were there any takeaways from that experience that resonated with you?
John Fetterman: There’s a lot that stood out to me. One of the things that really stood out to me is that this is a topic that everybody wants to talk about. Everybody. It’s something that everyone wants to get out, whether you’re in red country, Pennsylvania or whether you’re in super liberal, where-it’s-decriminalized, downtown Philadelphia—everybody wants to talk about it.
Adult cannabis prohibition is a minority viewpoint in Pennsylvania.
PA residents want PA cannabis grown on PA farms- creating PA jobs-generating PA tax revenue. https://t.co/xKmbVNjOLZ
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) October 2, 2019
Another thing that really struck out at me is how important access to cannabis is for veterans. Because of its Schedule I classification, they are prohibited from receiving it from the VA and we had veteran after veteran come to our meetings and often would end up in tears, just so frustrated because he or she would be like, “The one thing that I need more than anything is access to safe medical cannabis and I can’t.”
Those were two things that really struck out at me. Also, how non-issue it is. There are very few people that are like, “reefer madness, this is the devil’s tobacco” kind of mentality. Even if you’re not for it recreationally, I think very few people—in fact, no one that we could find—thinks that it’s appropriate to be on Schedule I or this idea that it’s in any way, shape or form comparable to hard drugs or dangerous drugs.
MM: Were you surprised at all when Gov. Wolf came out in support of adult-use legalization?
JF: I wasn’t because, you know what, the governor had the wisdom that the state needed to have a whole, comprehensive conversation. And I know the governor is always at the forefront of his views on what’s appropriate for Pennsylvania. It doesn’t surprise me at all. I was gratified, of course, but at the same time, not surprised because that’s the kind of governor he is, that’s why he was reelected by a significant majority and why I’m proud to be his running mate.
A super majority in PA wants to decriminalize cannabis, mass expungements, and removed from Schedule 1.
Without question, the current prohibition status quo on adult-use cannabis is now a truly marginal viewpoint in Pennsylvania.
Cannabis is Bipartisan.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) October 6, 2019
MM: What do you make of state Rep. Delloso’s proposed to implement a state-run cannabis market?
JF: I thank Representative Delloso because that’s one of the things that we did hear from a lot of people. It’s controversial to some, but we heard from a lot of people that we wanted strict access and people checking IDs and we didn’t want it to be like a JUUL where there’s a profit motive or incentive to marketers to sell. There’s a lot of appeal for a state-store system. What makes that possible in Pennsylvania is that we are one of only two states—I think Utah is the only other one—that controls the access of alcohol, so it’s a metaphor that Pennsylvanians are familiar with. I think it would be a channel that a lot of people that are either unsure or would otherwise oppose access to cannabis could actually support.
MM: Do you feel that, broader legalization aside, a more moderate decriminalization policy is achievable in the short term in the GOP-controlled legislature?
JF: I do. I do. I’ve got to tell you, no matter how somebody feels about legalization for recreational, there is universal support for decriminalization. I would say that to my more conservative or unconvinced colleagues, this is a jobs bill, this is a let-people-get-back-into-the-mainstream bill. If we can decriminalize this, we will literally save 25,000 people from going through the criminal justice system being charged on this. Law enforcement has better fish to fry, and I hear that from law enforcement. This isn’t anything radical. This is something that’s already embraced in some of our largest metropolitan areas in Pennsylvania. This is not radical. I hope that we can get to that point.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the governor laid that out. Even though he and I both support full legalization, decriminalization and mass expungement of low-level, non-violent arrests, I think, is a great point to begin with. It’s not controversial. Nobody is going to get their ears boxed back home in their district for talking about this, because that’s what we heard from all these different counties.
MM: You get into it with the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM) on social media from time to time. What do you make of them?
JF: I get into with them simply because having a conversation about it and then just getting to a point where I get frustrated when people deliberately conflate legal with harmless, and that’s just not the case. That’s my main point with SAM or anyone, where it’s like, look at all the substances in our world or things like lawnmowers or automobiles. They’re dangerous. People can and do die using them or consuming them, but they’re legal and being legal means it’s regulated and it’s taxed, or it’s made safer every year. Currently, we don’t have that with cannabis and cannabis needs to join the bastards of goods like alcohol and tobacco.
In a nation of legal:
Combined, kill/ harm 100’s of thousands every year, yet adult-use cannabis (ZERO overdose deaths) remains a societal bridge too far in Pennsylvania.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) October 6, 2019
I don’t know how an open, informed mind can simultaneously lobby for prohibition of cannabis but has no issue with legal tobacco or alcohol, when those two substances kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. Or opioid pills, pain pills. Or I forget how many people die from aspirin poisoning even. When you contrast that with zero overdose deaths with cannabis, I don’t know how anybody in good faith can argue those points simultaneously. That’s my main issue with SAM. I respect their right to having opinions and voicing them publicly, but it’s disingenuous to conflate legal with harmless.
MM: Do you think that some of the arguments in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana do or should apply to other drugs?
JF: I’m just not ready to take on other drugs or anything. I think we need to get to a point in our society where we embrace cannabis legally, nationwide we get it off Schedule I and we right that ship and we stop criminalizing millions of people that partake in a substance that has zero overdose deaths, that many people use to medicate themselves for pain or traumatic stress, as my wife does—she’s a medical marijuana patient. Let’s get to that point.
I do support harm reduction, whether that’s safe injection sites. I’m all about having conversations where we can get to a safer, healthier place, and I think harm reduction is part of that conversation. It’s controversial in my state, with safe injection sites in Philadelphia, and I support that. But with respect to other drugs, we’re grappling with cannabis and that’s the way our conversation is going to stay at the moment.
MM: Former Vice President Joe Biden recently said he doesn’t support adult-use legalization, partly because he feels that marijuana may be a gateway drug. What’s your response?
JF: My response is the vice president is wholly entitled to his views as wrong as they are on marijuana. That seems like an odd hill to die on as a presidential Democratic candidate vying for nomination, but needless to say, I strenuously disagree with the vice president—both from a practical standpoint, but also politically, I don’t think it’s a very smart move either. It’s very 1997 in its view. I would respectfully urge the vice president to carefully reconsider his position on that.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gov. Tom Wolf.
Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.
The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.
Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.
There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.
The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.
The JSC on the Cannabis Control Bill will report to the @TTParliament by February 29, 2020. Trinidad & Tobago's government only required a simple, however, the bill received the support of the country's opposition in its amended form, the context here: https://t.co/o6ibF39KRS
— Clydeen Seeorne McDonald 🇹🇹 (@ClydeenMcDonald) December 12, 2019
Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.
“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”
“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”
The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”
“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”
“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”
The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.
New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot
New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.
The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.
"If we are successful in placing this question on the ballot next year, the voters will make the final decision," says @JoeDanielsen17 on today's public hearing on legislation that would allow voters to decide to amend the State constitution to legalize adult-use cannabis pic.twitter.com/1Mlt8gcrzg
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.
The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.
“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.
In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.
“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.
Assembly Panel Hosts Public Hearing on @AnnetteQuijano, @jamelholley, @AswTimberlake and @AswMcKnight Measure Amend State Constitution to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis: https://t.co/IfEf98LO43 pic.twitter.com/h6gfT9CDwQ
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.
Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) December 12, 2019
In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.
As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications
A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.
It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.
It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.
But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”
“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”
The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”
“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”
The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.
The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.
“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”
“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.
Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.
One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.
DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.
Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.