Arguably the most closely watched congressional player in the marijuana reform space this session is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). With Democrats now in control of a chamber that for years has been run by GOP members with little to no interest in ending federal prohibition, the pro-legalization senator has found himself in a unique position to lead the charge.
Schumer doesn’t intend to miss that opportunity, as he explained to Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on the eve of the cannabis holiday 4/20. Nor does he want to risk undermining comprehensive reform by passing more modest changes—such as simply protecting banks that service the state-legal industry, as the House did on Monday—before tackling broader legalization.
Together with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the majority leader is working on legislation that would federally legalize marijuana—a bill that he’s said will be introduced “shortly” and placed on the floor “soon.”
But Schumer, despite his emphasis on the need to enact cannabis policy change, isn’t giving up specifics on the proposal he’s drafting just yet. What he will say, however, is that it will address social equity. It will prioritize small businesses and people most impacted by the drug war. It will incorporate things like banking protections. And, if lawmakers do their job, it will pass this Congress.
Marijuana Moment spoke to Schumer about a wide range of cannabis issues—from legislative priorities for marijuana reform to President Joe Biden’s ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: Minutes ago, the House again approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to give federal protections to banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses. Should the Senate follow suit, or should comprehensive legalization be addressed first?
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer: I’ve always been of the view that while certainly we have to deal with the banking and financial issues that we should do them together with legalization because the [SAFE Banking Act] brings in some people who might not normally support legalization, and we want to get as broad a coalition as possible. Here in the Senate, it’s our goal—as you know, Senators Booker and Wyden and I are working on comprehensive legalization legislation.
We will hope to include things that deal with banking and finance, although we certainly think that we ought to make sure that the communities that have been most affected by these draconian laws get the benefits here, and we want to make sure that there are reinvestment initiatives and it doesn’t all go to the big shots, that smaller businesses and minority businesses get a chance to be involved once marijuana is legalized. We want to make sure, A) that they go together and B) that this just doesn’t let all the bankers, the big boys, in without taking into account that communities of color have paid the greatest price here and should get some recompense.
MM: To that point, have you had conversations with the Senate sponsors of the SAFE Banking Act about potentially merging their proposal into the legislation you and your colleagues are working on?
CS: Well, no. The first step is for for Booker and Wyden and I to come up with our bill, then we will start having conversations with them. As you know, as the floor leader and the majority leader, I get to determine what gets put on the floor, so if I make a suggestion that it would be good to combine these two pieces of legislation, I think people will pay some attention to that.
MM: Appropriations season will soon be upon us. For the past two years, the House has approved spending bills that include a rider to prevent the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in any state or territory marijuana programs. The Senate has only signed off on amendments to protect medical cannabis states. Now that you’re in control of the chamber, do you think a temporary policy like that should be pursued while you work on a permanent fix?
CS: Our first goal is not to settle for just partial measures, even though that, obviously if we went to legalization, that would sort of be part of it. We’re first going to try to get as large a piece of legislation as we can.
MM: To what extent have you been coordinating with House leadership on broad legalization? Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) says he plans to soon refile his Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that passed the House last year—have your offices been working together?
CS: We’re talking to the House people. Obviously, a good strong bill needs to pass both houses. The House has been ahead of the Senate here only because Democratic control of the House has been two years longer than Democratic control of the Senate. But we are in definite consultation with our House colleagues.
MM: As you’re well aware, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legalization into law this month. What will this mean for your home state in the long term, especially as it concerns social equity for communities most impacted by the drug war?
CS: As you know, I weighed in at a crucial time to get as strong a bill that took into account the harms done to communities of color as possible. And I think that had a real effect and New York’s bill, at the end of the day, being a very strong bill, I was very glad to see what they did on expungement. I mean, for a young man or young woman to be arrested with a small amount of marijuana in his or her pocket and then have this serious criminal record because the law was so overdone in terms of penalties.
To treat marijuana the same as cocaine or heroin or anything like that made no sense. And yet so many young people—their lives were basically ruined because they had a severe criminal record because they had a small amount of marijuana in their possession. They never should have had that severe record. So expungement is only fair and only right. They’re mainly state laws so we can’t force expungement, but it’s something that I was very glad New York did and I hope other states will follow that. And we’ll do whatever we can federally as well to encourage it.
MM: Going back to the federal level, we’ve been talking about comprehensive reform. The House only narrowly approved the MORE Act last year, and that was regarded by advocates as fairly broad policy. You need 50 or 60 votes to get the legislation passed depending on how you advance it—are the votes there?
CS: Well, we’re working as hard as we can. We’re first drafting the legislation. We’re talking to people about it. I don’t want to give out what’s in it yet because we’re in the process of doing it and talking to people. But you know, 65 percent of the American people support legalization of marijuana. I was utterly amazed and pleasantly surprised when a conservative state like South Dakota had it as a referendum and it passed so overwhelmingly. Its time has come.
And you know, all the old bugaboos that if marijuana was legalized, crime would go up and marijuana was legalized, drug use would go up. But we’ve had—you know, [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis] called the states the laboratories of experimentation, and we’ve had those laboratories and they’ve been experimenting. None of these parade of horribles that the opponents of legalization, or even decriminalization, put out came to be true.
I think the American people are realizing not only the harms that have been done to communities of color, but also this this is freedom. And if marijuana is not going to have all these adverse effects—and in fact, we’ll have some positive effects in terms of dealing with legislation, dealing with making up for what has happened to communities of color, it’s a good thing. I think as the Rolling Stones say, “Time is on our side. Yes, it is.”
MM: Senator Booker said in a recent interview that he’s essentially unconcerned about President Biden’s opposition to recreational legalization because, as long as he supports decriminalization federally, he won’t be an obstacle to your pending legislation. Would you agree with that sentiment?
CS: Well, look, I never want to contradict Cory Booker, but I’m gonna keep working on the president to go the whole way. I’ve had some success in persuading him on other things—not related to marijuana, but other issues. I’d like him to understand that the world has changed, the facts have changed and full legalization is the right way to go. Obviously, it’s helpful if he moves in our direction in a significant way. That will be helpful, of course.
MM: Outside of cannabis, I wonder what your thoughts are on more broadly ending the drug war. Oregon voters approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs—is that a policy you support as well?
CS: Certainly, we need much more in treatment. The shortage of treatment is horrible and COVID has exacerbated it. I think we have three times the opioid use than we had pre-COVID. Now we did put about $4 billion into the American rescue plan for more for treatment, but there’s not close to enough. The story I tell is, I knew a man in western New York. His son was an Iraq war veteran, came back with PTSD, became addicted on opioids—and finally his father was trying to convince him to go to treatment and finally, you know, when you hit bottom, the kids said, “Yes, I’ll go.” They went to the local places that provide treatment, and it was 23-week waiting list and the son killed himself in week 22. We need much more focus on treatment. I can’t talk about—I don’t know the specifics of any specific state law, but the focus on rehabilitation treatment is vital.
Mississippi Lawmakers Float Special Session To Restore Medical Marijuana Following Supreme Court Ruling
Without a special session, the earliest that the Legislature could enact a medical marijuana program would be in January when the 2022 session begins.
By Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today
A special legislative session is being discussed by political leaders in the wake of last week’s explosive ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court striking down both the state’s new medical marijuana program and the entire initiative process where citizens can gather signatures to place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.
Sources close to the issue said that lawmakers have broached the issue of a special session with Gov. Tate Reeves’s (R) office.
Without a special session, the earliest that the Legislature could enact a medical marijuana program would be in January when the 2022 session begins. And it would take even longer to re-instate the initiative process since it would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and then approval by voters presumably during the November 2022 general election.
During a special session, legislators could have an opportunity to create a medical marijuana program and perhaps to fix the language in the state’s initiative process that resulted in last week’s Supreme Court ruling.
House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) says he supports Reeves calling a special session to allow legislators to reinstate the state’s initiative process.
“We 100% believe in the right of the people to use the initiative and referendum process to express their views on public policy,” Gunn said in a statement. “If the legislature does not act on an issue that the people of Mississippi want, then the people need a mechanism to change the law. I support the governor calling us into a special session to protect this important right of the people.”
Efforts to garner comments from Reeves and Lt. Gov Delbert Hosemann (R), who presides over the Senate, have been unsuccessful thus far. On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, Bailey Martin, a spokesperson for Reeves, told the Daily Journal in Tupelo, “Like most Mississippians, Gov. Reeves is interested and intrigued by the Supreme Court’s decision on the recent ballot initiative. He and his team are currently digesting the Court’s 58-page opinion and will make further comment once that analysis is complete.”
Senate President Pro Tem Dean Kirby, (R), said he has not heard discussions about a special session, but said, “I would not be opposed to a special session” to take up the issue of medical marijuana. He pointed out the Senate passed a bill earlier this year in the 2021 session that would have put in place a medical marijuana program if the Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative. The House did not take up the Senate proposal, opting to wait for the Supreme Court ruling.
Kirby said he had not studied the issue of whether there should be an effort in special session to take up fixing the entire initiative process.
Rep. Robert Johnson, (D), the House minority leader, who was critical of last week’s Supreme Court ruling, said he would support a special session to take up both issues.
Secretary of State Michael Watson (R), who oversees state elections and the initiative process, said via social media he also supports the governor calling a special session.
“I strongly encourage Gov. Reeves to call a special session to address this issue,” Watson said, adding that the issue of medical marijuana also should be taken up during a special session. Watson also said the Legislature should take steps to ensure initiatives approved earlier by voters are not rendered void by the Supreme Court decision released Friday afternoon.
We've received numerous questions regarding the recent Supreme Court decision and the next steps for Mississippi's citizen-driven initiative process. Here are my thoughts: pic.twitter.com/1U47omY17g
— Michael Watson (@MichaelWatsonMS) May 17, 2021
In a 6-3 ruling last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November and in the process voided the state’s initiative that has been in effect since 1992.
In the process of voiding the process, six initiatives that were at varying stages of trying to garner the required number of signatures were killed. Those efforts were:
- Expanding Medicaid.
- Enacting early voting.
- Enacting term limits.
- Legalizing recreational marijuana.
- Giving voters the opportunity to restore the old flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem in its design.
- Replacing the 1890 flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem. That already has been done by the Legislature.
The Supreme Court ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the city of Madison and its mayor, Mary Hawkins Butler. The lawsuit alleged the initiative process should be voided because the Constitution requires the signatures to be gathered equally from five congressional districts as they were configured in 1990. In 2000, the state lost a U.S. House seat based on U.S. Census data, rendering it impossible to gather the signatures as mandated in the Constitution, the lawsuit argued.
The state’s highest court agreed.
Also at issue is two initiatives that passed in 2011 where the signatures were gathered from the original five congressional districts and whether they will be efforts to challenge those proposals. Those initiatives enacted a requirement to have a government-issued photo ID to vote and a prohibition on the government taking private land for the use of another private entity. After voters approved placing the voter identification issue in the Constitution, it also was approved as general law by the Legislature. So, if the voter ID initiative is struck down, it is not clear how it would impact the general law.
When asked if the Southern Poverty Law Center might challenge the voter ID initiative based on the Supreme Court ruling, Brandon Jones, policy director with the group, said “Like a lot of other folks, we are in the very early states of considering options for voters and the issues impacted by last week’s ruling. We haven’t made any decision yet.”
SPLC also would have been heavily involved in the effort to pass a Medicaid expansion initiative had it not be halted by the Supreme Court ruling.
Minnesota Lawmakers Approve Smokable Medical Marijuana As Broader Legalization Stalls
A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota that recently passed the House isn’t advancing in the Republican controlled Senate this session—but advocates scored a different kind of victory on Monday when it comes to expanding the state’s medical cannabis program.
That includes legalizing smokable forms of marijuana for registered patients.
Over the weekend, a bicameral conference committee approved the reform, in addition to several other marijuana-related changes, as part of an omnibus health bill. The House adopted that report on Monday in a 77-57 vote, and the Senate followed suit in a 66-1 vote, sending it to the governor’s desk.
This is just the kind of compromise that House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), sponsor of the broader legalization measure that moved through 12 committees before being cleared by the chamber, predicted would come about in the face of GOP resistance to the idea of ending prohibition altogether.
The most significant change to Minnesota’s medical cannabis program would allow adults 21 and older to access smokable marijuana products. If the final legislation is signed by the governor, that policy would have to take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
There are few remaining states that have medical cannabis programs in place but where smokable products are still prohibited. The Louisiana House approved a bill to allow access to flower products, and it’s heading to the Senate floor. In Alabama, the governor has a medical marijuana legalization bill on her desk that would include a ban on smokable cannabis.
Back in Minnesota, dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the proposed omnibus legislation. The report further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
“Over the course of 12 public hearings this year and a statewide tour visiting 15 communities, Minnesotans were loud and clear that our state’s medical cannabis program was too expensive, and that allowing flower could significantly improve access,” Winkler said in a press release.
“As a result of Minnesotans who made their voices heard over the course of years—whether you are a veteran suffering from PTSD, a person with a serious health condition, or a parent with a sick child—more people will gain the ability to live healthy, fulfilled lives,” he said. “Without Minnesotans’ activism and personal stories, and without a historic vote in the Minnesota House to legalize cannabis for adult use, this accomplishment would not have been possible.”
There was one change attached to the health bill that could be of concern to advocates. It would make it so regulators could remove health conditions that qualify patients for medical marijuana if they receive a petition from a member of the public or a task force. Currently, the commissioner is only able to approve new conditions or modify existing ones.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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Still, activists are excited about the overall expansion of the program under the legislation.
“Quite contrary to the claim of some GOP members that reforms to the state’s restrictive medical cannabis program are the ‘backdoor’ to full legalization, the adult-use bill helped open the front door this session for the sorely needed reforms patient advocates have been working toward for years,” Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, told Marijuana Moment.
These are generally positive developments for advocates and patients, but there’s still disappointment over the fact that Winkler’s full legalization bill has stalled in the Senate.
Gov. Tim Walz (D), who hasn’t been especially vocal about the issue in recent weeks as the legislation has advanced, weighed in on the House passage of the legislation on Friday.
“I’ve thought for a long time about that,” he said, adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
“I know a lot of states—other states, conservative states like South Dakota—others have done this. I think there’s a way to do it,” he added. “I say that as a father of a 14-year-old. I certainly don’t encourage it. I certainly wouldn’t encourage my son to over-abuse alcohol. I wouldn’t encourage him to do some of those things, but when adults are of a certain age I trust them to make a good decision.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), meanwhile, reiterated his opposition to legalization in an interview with WCCO-TV over the weekend, though he said medical cannabis expansion and lowering criminal penalties for marijuana are areas of interest.
“What I do think we should continue to explore is lowering the criminal offenses—and are there medical reasons that we’re missing?” he said. Those are two things that I hear a lot of, but just making recreational marijuana illegal, I don’t think that’s wise.”
Rep. Rena Moran (D), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, commented in a separate interview with the station that cannabis criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color and has funneled “way too many people into the criminal justice system.”
While it seems the legislature is heading into a special session to pass the state budget after not being able to get it done by Monday’s end of the regular session, it seems unlikely that the Senate would be willing to take up the legalization bill during that time.
The majority leader’s legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.
Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.
The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.
People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.
Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill
The governor of Alabama on Monday signed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state that was sent to her desk earlier this month.
Following the measure’s passage, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signaled that she intended to sign after “thoroughly reviewing it.” But while there was a general expectation that she would recommend amendments, she signed it as is.
While the measure was approved with a two-to-one margin in both the House and Senate, some Republican lawmakers vigorously opposed its passage, staging a lengthy filibuster that delayed the final votes.
“Signing SB 46 is an important first step,” Ivey said in a press release. “This is certainly a sensitive and emotional issue and something that is continually being studied. On the state level, we have had a study group that has looked closely at this issue, and I am interested in the potential good medical cannabis can have for those with chronic illnesses or what it can do to improve the quality of life of those in their final days.”
I've signed SB 46 pertaining to medical marijuana. I would like to thank Sen. Tim Melson & Rep. Mike Ball for their hard work over the last few years & their commitment to continue to work on this to ensure we have a productive, safe & responsible operation in AL. #alpolitics pic.twitter.com/2IUBZVEKpI
— Governor Kay Ivey (@GovernorKayIvey) May 17, 2021
In addition to being able to sign or veto the bill, Ivey had had the opportunity to propose line-item amendments and send it back to lawmakers, who could then approve or reject them. But she apparently did not see the need to pursue that option.
“As research evolves, [Sen. Tim Melson (R)] and I discussed how critical it is to continue finding ways to work on this to ensure we have a productive, safe and responsible operation in Alabama,” the governor said.
While Ivey hasn’t been especially vocal about the issue, she was asked about a prior medical cannabis legalization bill in 2019 and said, “I’m still trying to get the details, but if it’s tightly controlled and limited to just those illnesses as verified by medical professionals, it’d be worth considering.”
A restrictive medical marijuana bill is essentially what lawmakers sent to the governor.
Under the legislation as approved, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers in future sessions.
The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.
For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth (R) expressed support for the reform—and he called on lawmakers to send the bill to the governor ahead of their final votes.
I support legalizing medical marijuana to help those with cancer and other serious medical issues ease their pain. The majority of the medical community agrees. The Alabama House should pass this important bill before the session ends. https://t.co/LRjOK6ji3d
— Will Ainsworth (@willainsworthAL) May 1, 2021
“I support legalizing medical marijuana to help those with cancer and other serious medical issues ease their pain,” he posted on Twitter. “The majority of the medical community agrees. The Alabama House should pass this important bill before the session ends.”
Ivey signed a bill in 2019 that established a medical cannabis study commission. That piece of legislation was originally a medical marijuana legalization bill that cleared the Senate but then was gutted in the House.
Late last month, the governor signed another bill that expands expungement eligibility for certain convictions, including misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.