Drug reform policy took center stage at the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire on Friday, with candidates weighing in on issues such as decriminalizing possession of controlled substances and how to address substance misuse.
At one point, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was pressed to defend racial disparities in his city’s marijuana enforcement rates.
In a separate exchange, Buttigeig was asked about his proposal to decriminalize possession of all drugs—a plank included in both his mental health and racial justice plans. But the candidate contested the premise of the question, saying that he simply wants to end incarceration for possessing illegal substances, a semantic distinction that he’s made before.
“No, what I’ve called for is that incarceration should no longer be the response to drug possession. What I’m calling for is that we end the use of incarceration as a response,” he said. “This does not mean that it will be lawful to produce or distribute those kinds of harmful drugs, but also, as we know from the opioid crisis, some of this has been driven by companies that were acting irresponsibly with substances that were lawful.”
— ABC News (@ABC) February 8, 2020
The remarks are a continuation of Buttigieg’s resistance to embracing terminology commonly used by drug reform advocates. In December, the candidate stressed that his proposal to end the threat of incarceration for drug offenses is not a “blanket decriminalization of a lot of other harmful substances.”
Major drug policy reform groups have long characterized removing the threat of incarceration for drug offenses—particularly first offenses—as decriminalization. However, others contend that the imposition of any criminal penalties, whether or not they come with time in jail, does not reflect a true decriminalization policy.
“These kinds of addictions are a medical issue, not a moral failure on the part of somebody battling that addiction,” the former mayor said, adding that the country should invest in harm reduction policies such as medication-assisted treatment to mitigate the risk of drug overdoses.
Later, Buttigieg was center stage for a discussion about the way marijuana criminalization is enforced across racial lines.
The candidate was asked about the rate of cannabis possession arrests during his time as mayor, with the moderator saying that racial disparities increased after he took office.
“On my watch, drug arrests in South Bend were lower than the national average—and specifically to marijuana, lower than Indiana,” he countered, saying that his administration made a decision to target drug enforcement resources in cases connected to gang murders.
The former mayor added that there’s “no question” that systemic racial bias has been a factor in cannabis arrests.
Buttigieg revisited a point he made during campaign stops in Iowa prior to this week’s caucus: while it has become a largely mainstream idea that the country needs to take a more health-focused approach to substance misuse amid the opioid crisis, many voices were missing decades ago when the government increased criminal penalties for drug offenses that disproportionately impacted communities of color.
“That is one of the reasons why I am calling for us as a country to take up those reforms that end incarceration as a response to possession,” he said.
The candidate emphasized that legalization of cannabis would be coupled with policies that retroactively removed criminal records for those previously convicted.
.@LinseyDavis on racial disparity in marijuana arrests in South Bend: You called it "evidence of systemic racism” … weren’t you the head of the system?
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) February 8, 2020
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was prompted by the moderators to weigh on whether Buttigieg offered a sufficient explanation for his city’s cannabis enforcement record.
“No,” she said. “You have to own up to the facts. And it’s important to own up to the facts about how race has totally permeated our criminal justice system.”
Buttigieg attempts to explain the increase in black arrests in South Bend under his leadership for marijuana possession.
ABC's Linsey Davis: "Sen. Warren, is that a substantial answer from Mayor Buttigieg?"
Warren: "No." pic.twitter.com/iesdxQTXK3
— Axios (@axios) February 8, 2020
“We need to rework our criminal justice system from the front end on what we make illegal all the way through the system and how we help people come back into the community,” she said.
Earlier in the debate, entrepreneur Andrew Yang was asked about his support for decriminalizing opioids. Pressed about the potential cost of his campaign proposal that people who overdose “should be sent to mandatory treatment centers for three days to convince them to seek long-term treatment,” the candidate said pharmaceutical companies should foot the bill.
“As president, we will take back those profits [from drug companies that market opioids] and put them to work right here in New Hampshire so that if you are seeking treatment, you have resources to be able to pursue it,” he said. “This is not a money problem fundamentally, this is a human problem. But money cannot be the obstacle.”
Yang also voiced support for opening supervised consumption sites for illegal drugs, adding that “if you are seeking treatment, you have to know you are not going to be sent to jail.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for his part, said he wants to “end the war on drugs, which has disproportionately impacted African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.”
Decrying a “racist system, from top to bottom,” the senator called for an end to private prisons.
We’re going to end the War on Drugs.
We’re going to end private prisons and detention centers.
We’re going to end cash bail. #DemDebate
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 8, 2020
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator played a leading role in enacting several punitive drug laws, made a point during the debate of saying that he now wants “no one going to jail for a drug offense.”
“They go mandatory treatment,” he said. “No prison.”
Biden also pointed to his early work to support and fund drug courts. “I set them up,” he said. “I wrote it into law.”
As the candidates were on stage, the Republican National Committee targeted Biden’s drug war record in a tweet.
Joe Biden would be disastrous for the US.
❌Under VP Biden—America LOST 200K manufacturing jobs
✔️Under Pres. Trump—America ADDED 514K manufacturing jobs
❌Biden’s "War on Drugs" worsened the opioid epidemic
✔️For the 1st time in 29 yrs—the # of fatal overdoses is down
— GOP (@GOP) February 8, 2020
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) faced a question about her record as a prosecutor and whether she regrets sending people to jail for drugs.
The senator replied by pointing to her record running what she called “one of the most successful drug courts in the country.”
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ABC News.
New York Legal Marijuana Push ‘Effectively Over’ For 2020, Governor Says
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded on Saturday that it’s unlikely marijuana will be legalized in the state this year.
“Marijuana and the gig economy were two of the more complicated initiatives that we wanted to work through that we didn’t get a chance to do,” he said in response to a question about which policy issues he would’ve liked to tackle in the annual budget bill that passed this week.
“Is the session effectively over? It’s up to the legislature, but I think it’s fair to say it’s effectively over,” he added, noting that several state lawmakers have been infected with coronavirus.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation
A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.
“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.
“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) April 3, 2020
“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”
Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.
“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”
“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.
Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.
“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”
🟢🟢 LEGALIZING COMMERCIAL MARIJUANA IN D.C. 🟢🟢
I spoke to D.C.'s Delegate @EleanorNorton
She's pushing for fully legal commercial marijuana sales in the District in a 4th Congressional stimulus package.
The District needs the money.
And people are smoking weed anyway. pic.twitter.com/PL9yoDKlrj
— Adam Longo (@adamlongoTV) April 3, 2020
Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.
For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.
Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus
North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.
“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”
Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.
“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”
The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.
The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.
Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.