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Rhode Island Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved In Senate Committee

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A Rhode Island Senate committee on Monday approved a marijuana legalization bill that’s being championed by leadership in the chamber.

It’s the first time a bill to legalize cannabis for recreational use has ever advanced in the state.

The Judiciary Committee—which previously held an April hearing on the reform legislation, as well as a competing proposal from the governor—passed the Senate bill in substitute form in a 6-2 vote.

A third legalization measure was also recently filed on the House side by Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors.

Curiously, the Senate panel’s action comes just days after House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) signaled that legalization wouldn’t be taken up until the summer or fall. The Senate, however appears to have different plans, and is expected to take up its bill for a floor vote as soon as next week.

There were several key changes made to the Senate bill before it advanced through the committee. That includes imposing a moratorium on approving additional marijuana cultivators—something that the state’s existing medical cannabis growers have insisted upon because they say the market is already oversaturated.

Also, one-third of licenses for marijuana retailers would now be reserved for businesses that qualify as social equity applicants.

Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D) are the lead sponsors of the measure, which they introduced in March, days before Gov. Dan McKee (D) came out with his legalization proposal.

That legislation was also heard by the House Finance Committee in April. The newer House bill has yet to receive a hearing.

Overall, the Senate bill would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis. They could also cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

A Cannabis Control Commission would be established to regulate the market and issue business licenses. Marijuana would be subject to the state’s seven percent sales tax, in addition to a 10 percent special tax and a three percent local tax for jurisdictions that allow cannabis firms to operate in their area.

The substitute version that cleared committee makes it so there “shall be no new cannabis cultivators’ licenses issued prior to July 1, 2023.” Regulators would also be tasked with reviewing data annually to “determine the maximum number of licenses that shall be issued to meet the production demands.”

It was also changed from its original form to require labor peace agreements for marijuana businesses—a provision that could bolster support among progressives.

Driving while under the influence would be prohibited, but people can’t be considered impaired “solely for having cannabis metabolites in his or her system” under the bill. That represents an expansion of the initial proposal, which would have only applied that protection to medical cannabis patients.

People with prior convictions for possession of up to two ounces of cannabis could have their records expunged, whereas the previous version capped that threshold at one ounce. But courts would have 90 days, instead of 60, to act on expungement petitions.

In addition to expungements, the revised bill also now includes provisions to provide for record sealing.

People or entities cannot own more than one marijuana business license, but the substitute version now clarifies that people would be able to invest in multiple operations.

Each municipality could have at least three cannabis retailers operating in their jurisdiction, but the population threshold for additional licensees was increased, making it so additional retailers could be approved for every additional 20,000 residents above a baseline 30,000. The original bill placed the threshold at every 10,000 people over the 30,000 baseline, so this would have the effect of limiting the number of retailers.

The bill’s passage out of the Judiciary Committee comes in contrast to recent comments from House leadership, with the speaker saying last week that it’s “possible we will return some time in the summer or fall” to tackle legalization. He said the priority is to pass the budget this month.

The governor also said this month that he “wouldn’t be surprised if this is something that gets carried over maybe to a fall session.”

Meanwhile, the Senate majority leader recently said that, unlike Slater and the governor, he doesn’t want to have the market regulated through the state Department of Business Regulation; rather, he feels it’s important to “have a separate commission in one form or another.”

As lawmakers have worked to pass a budget, there have been outstanding questions about whether there’s sufficient support for legalization. The House speaker has been relatively quiet on cannabis reform, so his recent comments on tackling the issue as early as this summer are notable.

The speaker said recently that he views legalization as “inevitable,” but he told Politico that there are “many pressing matters before us” and he’s not sure if the chamber will have time to consider the cannabis measure.

Both the governor and the leaders’ legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.

McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”

Shekarchi, meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and also leans toward privatization.

Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Senate approved a bill in March that would allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

Anti-Marijuana Groups Drop Lawsuit Seeking To Overturn Voter-Approved Legalization Measure

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Bipartisan Lawmakers Push VA To Allow Medical Marijuana Access For Veterans ‘As Soon As Possible’

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must urgently institute a policy change to ensure that military veterans can access cannabis for therapeutic use, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers said in a new letter.

Writing to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Wednesday, the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus urged the official to consider “a change in policy to allow access to medical cannabis fro VA patients” and to “act swiftly and implement this change as soon as possible.”

The lawmakers pointed to surveys showing high rates of opioid addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the veteran community.

“Research has shown that cannabis can be safe and effective in targeted pain-management. Additionally, cannabis has proven benefits in managing PTSD and other health issues, including multiple sclerosis (MS) and seizure disorders,” the letter states. “Despite its efficacy, antiquated bureaucratic red-tape continues to deny veterans these life-altering treatments.”

“Congress and several administrations have enacted various well-intentioned intervention attempts, however, over twenty veterans continue to die by suicide each day—it is past time we stop barring access from these innovative therapies. We therefore respectfully urge you to ensure no veteran can be denied medically prescribed cannabis treatments.”

The letter comes weeks after McDonough participated in a Veterans Day Q&A where he said that VA officials are “looking at” the possibility of an internal policy change and have discussed it with the White House and Department of Justice. The secretary also talked about being personally moved by stories from veterans who’ve found relief using medical marijuana.

“We’re trying to explore what more we can do,” he said at the time. “And I’ve talked to our friends in the rest of the federal government, including the Department of Justice, on what we can do on this, and with the White House.”

The Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs—Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), David Joyce (R-OH), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK)—want McDonough to speed up the policy change process.

“America’s veterans have risked life and limb to preserve our freedoms, so we must not allow the unnecessary politicization of medical cannabis to hinder their lifesaving therapies,” they wrote. “We stand ready to work with you and your administration in advancing these necessary treatments.”

While congressional lawmakers are working to advance legislation to end marijuana prohibition, McDonough’s department has resisted even modest proposals meant to promote veteran access and clinical research into the medical value of cannabis.

One such research bill was approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this month, despite testimony from the department opposing the reform. VA’s David Carroll told lawmakers that the legislation was overly prescriptive and argued that the department is already conducting robust research into marijuana.

Some had held out hope that VA would back the reform this session after the sponsor, Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA), said that he’d had a conversation with McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans.

On the Senate side, a coalition of lawmakers recently filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would federally legalize medical cannabis for military veterans who comply with a state program where they live. VA doctors would also be explicitly allowed to issue marijuana recommendations.

Read the letter to the VA secretary on marijuana access below: 

Click to access caucus-letter-to-va-secretary-december-2021.pdf

Biden Treasury Secretary Says ‘Of Course’ Marijuana Banking Would Make IRS’s Job Easier

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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Biden Treasury Secretary Says ‘Of Course’ Marijuana Banking Would Make IRS’s Job Easier

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The secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department said on Wednesday that freeing up banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses would “of course” make the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) job of collecting taxes easier.

At a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) referenced recent comments from an IRS official about the “special type of collection challenge the IRS undertakes regarding tax collection from cannabis-related businesses forced to operate in cash only.”

“Do you agree if these business were simply allowed to access the banking system and didn’t have to transact business only in cash it would make the IRS job easier?” Perlmutter asked Secretary Janet Yellen.

“Yes, of course it would,” she replied matter-of-factly.

The congressman also talked about his bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—which has passed the House in some form five times now and would resolve the issue by protecting financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses.

Numerous financial, labor and insurance associations, as well as key lawmakers, are pushing the Senate to attach the measure to must-pass defense spending legislation, as the House already has. Bipartisan members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as senators representing Colorado, made the same request in recent letters.

While Yellen’s response was quick, it’s yet another example of a federal official recognizing the untenability of the status quo.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary under the Trump administration, repeatedly addressed the issue, saying the current policy conflict creates “significant problems” for IRS and financial regulators. It “creates significant risk in the communities for collecting this amount of cash. It’s problematic,” he said last year.

IRS, for its part, said in September that it expects the cannabis market to continue to grow, and it offered some tips to businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.

With respect to the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan coalition of two dozen governors recently implored congressional leaders to finally enact marijuana banking reform through the large-scale defense legislation.

A group of small marijuana business owners also recently made the case that the incremental banking policy change could actually help support social equity efforts.

Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a recent Marijuana Moment op-ed that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications now.

Federal data shows that many financial institutions remain hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients, however, which is likely due to the fact that the plant is a strictly controlled substance under federal law.

Texas Activists Turn In Signatures To Put Marijuana Decriminalization On Austin’s 2022 Ballot

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Texas Activists Turn In Signatures To Put Marijuana Decriminalization On Austin’s 2022 Ballot

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Texas activists on Wednesday turned in signatures to place a marijuana decriminalization initiative on Austin’s 2022 ballot.

Ground Game Texas, a progressive organization that was established earlier this year, submitted more than 30,000 signatures to qualify the local measure to go before voters in the May 7 election next year.

While Austin, as well as other Texas cities like Dallas, have already independently enacted law enforcement policy changes aimed at reducing arrests for cannabis-related offenses by issuing citations and summons, the Austin Freedom Act of 2021 would take the reform a step further.

The initiative seeks to end arrests and citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession within Texas’s capital city. Also, it says police cannot issue citations for residue or paraphernalia in lieu of a possession charge.

“Thanks to the tireless efforts of on-the-ground organizers from Ground Game Texas and partner organizations, Austin residents will soon have the ability to make lasting change to our antiquated and racist criminal justice laws,” Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas, said in a press release. “With successful campaigns like these, Ground Game Texas will continue to empower and excite communities around progressive change—and deliver for the marginalized communities that too often get left behind.”

The measure would further prohibit the use of city funds to request or test cannabis to determine whether it meets the state’s definition of a lawful product. Hemp is legal in the state, creating complications for law enforcement, as they are now tasked with determining if seized cannabis products are in compliance with state statute.

Under the initiative, the execution of no-knock warrants would also be prohibited in the city—a policy that generated significant national attention last year after it led to Kentucky officers entering Breonna Taylor’s apartment and fatally shooting her in a botched drug raid.

Activists were joined by Austin City Council members Greg Casar and Vanessa Fuentes for Wednesday’s signature turn in.

Game Ground Texas previously attempted to place the measure on this year’s ballot, but they did not meet the signature turn-in deadline and shifted their attention to 2022.

While the measure is now set to appear on the May ballot, it’s also possible that the Austin City Council could independently move to adopt the ordinance prior to the election.

“Austinites continue to work towards reducing the decades of negative impacts prohibition has caused by any means available,” Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, told Marijuana Moment.  “During the interim, local actions like this create pressure for more action during the next legislative session. With a majority of Texans supporting the creation of a regulated cannabis market, it is important to continue pushing this conversation forward.”

Elsewhere in the state, activists in San Marcos launched a campaign in September to put marijuana decriminalization on the November ballot next year.

Ground Game Texas told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it is also planning to place a cannabis decriminalization measure before voters in Killeen next fall.

There is no statewide, citizen-led initiative process that would enable advocates to put an issue like decriminalization or legalization on the Texas ballot. But at the local level, there are limited cases where activists can leverage home rule laws that allow for policy changes.

A recent poll found that a strong majority of Texans—including most Republicans—support even broader reform to legalize marijuana for adult use.

The survey from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University found that 67 percent of Texas residents back the broad reform. Fifty-one percent of participants who identified as Republican said they back legalization.

In Texas, drug policy reform did advance in the legislature in the latest session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.

A bill to expand the state’s medical cannabis program and another to require a study into the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics for military veterans were enacted.

Advocates remain disappointed, however, that lawmakers were unable to pass more expansive cannabis bills—including a decriminalization proposal that cleared the House but saw no action in the Senate.

The House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session.

The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018.

Another Texas poll that was released over the summer found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use.”

Jamaican Government Launches ‘Good Ganja Sense’ Campaign To Debunk Marijuana Myths

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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