Bowing to pressure from nearby states that are moving to legalize marijuana, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has long remained reluctant about the issue, says she will formally propose in her budget this week that the Ocean State end cannabis prohibition.
“Things have changed, mainly because all of our neighbors are moving forward,” she told the Providence Journal in an article published on Sunday. “We’re not an island, in fact. Like it or not, we’re going to be incurring public safety and public health expenses because it’s legal in Massachusetts… And I think it is time for us to put together our own regulatory and taxing framework.”
Newly inaugurated Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) has said that legalizing marijuana in his state will be among his “priorities” for the new legislative session.
Unlike most other states that have moved to enact legalization, however, Raimondo wants Rhode Island to prohibit home cultivation of cannabis. She also wants to ban high potency forms of marijuana products, such as dabs. Servings of edibles could contain no more than 5 milligrams of THC under her plan.
Sen. Josh Miller (D), who has sponsored legalization bills that allow home cultivation for the past several legislative sessions, said that he’s reserving judgement on governor’s proposal pending its specific language, but that he is optimistic about enacting reform this year even if it means needing to amend the law later.
“I want to see details, obviously,” he told Marijuana Moment. “I’m inclined to get it done, finally, and work on fixing the broken parts.”
Rep. Scott Slater (D), a longtime champion of legalization legislation in the House, agreed that changes could be made by the time a bill gets to Raimondo’s desk for her signature.
“I need time to read it over [and I’m] glad we have a placeholder in the budget,” he said. “It is early in the process.”
Raimondo said that she spoke with several other governors about marijuana policy at a conference last month.
“It’s going to be the strongest regulatory framework in the country,” she argued.
“We have seen the pitfalls of home cultivation in other states when it comes to how it threatens public health and public safety,” Norman Birenbaum, the state’s top medical cannabis regulator and a key Raimondo advisor on the broader legalization plan, told the Journal. “How it promotes the illicit market. How it undercuts the regulated market, how it puts unsafe and untested and unregulated product out there for people. And how it also serves as cover for states that supposedly have adult use to be export states and export to the rest of the country. And we don’t think that we should have that mechanism here.”
Medical cannabis patients would still be allowed to grow their own medicine, he said.
Currently, Washington State is the only one of the ten legalized states that does not allow recreational marijuana consumers to grow their own product.
Birenbaum, who WPRI12 reported will give a “detailed briefing” on the specifics of his boss’s plan on Monday, suggested that the state’s three existing medical cannabis dispensaries would continue serving patients but would also likely add adult-use sales. About 20-40 additional retail outlets would be licensed as well, subject to municipal approval. Sales are expected to begin early next year.
Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), called Raimondo’s endorsement of legalization “a major breakthrough.”
“We commend Governor Raimondo and her administration for adopting a pragmatic approach to this public policy issue,” he told Marijuana Moment. “However, we still need to see the details of this proposal. Access for the state’s medical marijuana patients must be protected. Furthermore, it is important that the recreational marijuana market is not controlled by a small number of businesses. We look forward to working with the Raimondo administration and legislative leaders to ensure that Rhode Island adopts a fair and responsible legalization law.”
With regard to the governor’s position that home cultivation of cannabis should be banned, Schweich said that while MPP “may not agree with everything in the governor’s proposal…we don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”
“We want to see adults have the right to cultivate some number of marijuana plants at home, just as they have the right to brew their own beer, but the governor’s plan does not include that,” he said. “However, laws can always be amended, and if home grow is not in the initial legislation, we will push the General Assembly to adopt that at some point in the future. Disagreement on one provision of the law does not mean we should pass up an opportunity to make substantial progress.”
In recent weeks, Raimondo and Rhode Island legislative leaders have begun to talk openly about the fact that legalization in neighboring states is increasing pressure to act.
“Given my druthers, if I could make all of these decisions in a vacuum, I’ve been favoring a wait-and-see approach,” the governor said late last year. “However, Connecticut is going to do it. The new governor-elect has been crystal clear, this is a priority. It’s happening. Massachusetts is already doing it. We’re a tiny state in between these two other states.”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D) has raised similar concerns.
“I think we have to study it and then decide what we want to do as a state, but I am mindful that Massachusetts has legalized it. I believe Connecticut is going to legalize it,” he said. “I think we’re probably going to end up with more social costs without the revenues and that would probably be the worst situation of all.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who endorsed legalizing marijuana last month, has also characterized his own shift as being precipitated by the looming fall of prohibition in nearby states, such as New Jersey.
In Rhode Island, Raimondo is expected to formally release details of her legalization plan in her proposed budget, which will be submitted to the legislature on Thursday, though she may also discuss the issue in her State of the State speech on Tuesday.
It remains to be seen if lawmakers will agree with all of the finer points of the governor’s proposal.
In a statement on Sunday reacting to Raimondo’s plan, Mattiello said he has “mixed feelings” about legalization and that lawmakers “will collectively assess the governor’s proposal and come up with a consensus pathway forward.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said he will “continue to keep an open mind on legalization of recreational marijuana as the state looks into the regulatory and workforce challenges that come along with it” but that he also has “significant concerns, particularly with regard to workforce issues, enforcement around edibles, and impact on children.”
This story was updated to include comment from Miller, Slater, Ruggerio, Mattiello and Schweich.
New York And Connecticut Governors Talk Marijuana Legalization On Fishing Trip
The governors of New York and Connecticut went fishing and talked about marijuana legalization on Tuesday.
The conversation comes after lawmakers in both states were unable to pass legalization legislation before their respective sessions’ ends this year, despite having the support of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D).
“We talked about policy issues like the marijuana issue, which is obviously also relevant to contiguous states,” Cuomo said at a press conference following the fishing trip. “What Connecticut does on marijuana is relevant to New York, what New York does is relevant to Connecticut so we talked about that and a lot of issues. So we had fun.”
Watch Cuomo’s marijuana comments at about 5:00 into the video below:
Cuomo had described legalization as a top legislative priority for 2019 and included it in his state budget proposal. But after months of negotiations with lawmakers, the plan fell through, due in part to disagreements about how to allocate tax revenue and whether to allow individual jurisdictions to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses.
The governor did sign legislation in July that expands the state’s marijuana decriminalization policy and provides a pathway for expungements of past marijuana convictions.
Over in Connecticut, Lamont campaigned on legalization during his election bid last year and described it as one of his administration’s “priorities” after he took office. But as with neighboring New York, the legislature failed to advance a legalization bill beside multiple successful committee votes and hearings throughout the year.
The specifics of what the governors talked about during their fishing expedition on Lake Ontario aren’t clear, but both are presumably gearing up for another round of legislative efforts marijuana over the coming year and could take lessons from each other as reform talks continue.
Another East Coast state, New Jersey, has also struggled to move legalization legislation forward, with lawmakers saying that the issue should be taken up by voters in 2020 rather than pushed through the legislature, though there has been discussion lately about another try at moving a bill before year’s end. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) did sign a decriminalization and expungements bill in May, however.
Photo courtesy of CBS 6.
GOP Congressman Will Meet Attorney General To Discuss Expanding Marijuana Research
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said on Monday that he will soon be speaking with the U.S. attorney general about expanding marijuana research.
The congressman, a close ally of President Trump, is a vocal proponent of medical cannabis and has argued that the federal drug scheduling system is hampering research into the plant’s therapeutic potential.
“I will be meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr in the coming weeks to discuss the Department of Justice’s approach to unlocking more research grants so that we can have American innovation applied to our health care in a way that can get people off of some of these devastating opioids and painkillers, and on to a more natural product,” he said following a radio town hall event.
Even under the framework of prohibition, the Justice Department is able to promote research by, for example, approving additional marijuana manufacturers—something the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said it would do three years ago.
Barr has voiced support for expanding the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers.
“I think we’re going to move forward on it,” the attorney general said in April. “I think it’s very important to get those additional suppliers.”
Earlier this year, Gaetz joined congressional colleagues in leading a letter addressed to Barr and the head of DEA expressing frustration that the Justice Department has declined to take action despite its pledges. The lawmakers implored DEA to “do whatever you can to speed up and improve the research application process.”
Gaetz also introduced legislation that would force DEA to approve additional facilities to produce research-grade cannabis. A version filed last year cleared the Judiciary Committee in a voice vote, and he reintroduced the bill in January but it has not yet been acted upon.
Listen to Gaetz’s new cannabis comments, about 1:20 into the audio below:
DEA is facing two lawsuits regarding its approach to marijuana, including one that concerns the lack of diversity of research-grade cannabis since only one manufacture is currently authorized. The agency was ordered to respond to the suit by August 28.
Separately, a group of patients and advocates sued DEA over marijuana’s Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act, with a federal court directing the agency to “promptly” consider reclassifying cannabis.
Gaetz also spoke about the need to more broadly reform cannabis laws during the Monday remarks.
“The federal government listing marijuana as a Schedule I drug impairs financial transactions, it impairs research and it stops us from being able to unlock cures for some of America’s most vulnerable people,” the congressman said, adding that he’s a cosponsor of legislation that would deschedule marijuana that was introduced by Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
Gaetz, who is also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he is requesting that the panel hold a hearing on cannabis legislation. That’d mark the second such meeting after a Judiciary subcommittee convened last month to discuss paths to ending federal prohibition.
The congressman’s staff wasn’t able to provide Marijuana Moment with additional details regarding the meeting with Barr.
Photo courtesy of Meredith Geddings.
Elizabeth Warren’s Criminal Justice Plan Involves Legalizing Marijuana And Safe Injection Sites
Legalizing marijuana, granting clemency to people convicted of drug offenses and investing in harm reduction programs such as safe injection sites are part of a criminal justice reform plan that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released on Tuesday.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate stressed that the war on drugs has been carried out in a racially discriminatory manner, writing that it’s unfair that “a kid with an ounce of pot can get thrown in jail, while a bank executive who launders money for a drug cartel can get a bonus. It’s long past time for us to reform our system.”
“This failure [of the drug war] has been particularly harmful for communities of color, and we need a new approach,” she said. “It starts with legalizing marijuana and erasing past convictions, and then eliminating the remaining disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.”
What’s more, the drug war “has criminalized addiction, ripped apart families—and largely failed to curb drug use” when a more effective system would treat addiction as a public health issue.
Next, we have to rethink what we choose to criminalize. That starts with repealing the 1994 crime bill—the bulk of which needs to go—and legalizing marijuana. Overcriminalization has filled prisons and devastated communities—and it's time for it to end.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 20, 2019
That includes diverting people who’ve been convicted of non-violent drug offenses to treatment programs and providing evidence-based resources for people suffering from addiction. For example, Warren’s plan calls for safe injection sites where people can use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who can help prevent fatal overdoses and get people into treatment. She also said needle exchange programs and expanding access to buprenorphine would reduce the opioid crisis.
“Instead of locking up people for nonviolent marijuana crimes, I’ve proposed putting pharmaceutical executives on the hook to report suspicious orders for controlled substances that damage the lives of millions.”
She also called for the abolition of certain mandatory minimum sentences and said that “people who struggle with addiction should not be incarcerated because of their disease.”
“Mass incarceration has not reduced addiction rates or overdose deaths, because substance abuse disorder is a public health problem — and it’s long past time to treat it that way,” the plan says. “We know that diversion programs are both more humane and a better investment than incarceration — for every dollar we invest in treatment programs, we can save $12 in future crime and health care costs.”
“And rather than incarcerating individuals with substance abuse disorders, we should expand options that divert them into programs that provide real treatment.”
Like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Warren’s criminal justice reform proposal also mentions executive actions she could unilaterally take.
Specifically, she wrote that the Justice Department should not hold authority to make clemency recommendations and it should instead be left up to an independent clemency board so that those eligible for a pardons and commutations are more quickly identified.
The president can grant clemency and pardons herself. I'll empower a clemency board to make recommendations directly to the White House, identifying broad classes of potentially-deserving individuals for review, such as those serving mandatory minimums that should be abolished.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 20, 2019
“I’ll direct the board to identify broad classes of potentially-deserving individuals for review, including those who would have benefited from retroactivity under the First Step Act, individuals who are jailed under outdated or discriminatory drug laws, or those serving mandatory minimums that should be abolished,” she said.
The plan’s unveiling comes two days after Sanders released his criminal justice reform proposal, which also called for marijuana legalization and the implementation of harm reduction policies such as safe consumption facilities.
Buttigieg’s plan stands out from his fellow Democratic candidates in at least one regard: the mayor said drug possession should broadly be decriminalized.
Warren also released a separate plan for Indian tribes last week that involves protecting tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention.
Photo courtesy of Edward Kimmel.