Marijuana was on the minds of the moderators of three separate U.S. Senate election debates in one day.
Incumbent senators and their challengers in Colorado, South Carolina and Texas were all pressed to share their cannabis policy views on Friday.
Here’s what the candidates said:
Voters in Colorado made their state the first to legalize marijuana by passing a ballot initiative in 2012, but that was far from the end of the cannabis debate there. Now, senators and would-be senators are being pressed to talk about what they will do to defend their state’s law from federal intervention.
At their debate on Friday, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and his challenger, former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) were asked if they support legalization of marijuana at the federal level.
“I’ve worked hard to make this conflict go away, to allow states’ legalization to occur,” Gardner replied. “Yes, the answer is yes. Gov. Hickenlooper actually vetoed marijuana legislation.”
Hickenlooper, who first endorsed legalization during the course of his unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, said, “Yes, we have to decriminalize it at the federal level, absolutely.”
— John Hickenlooper (@Hickenlooper) October 10, 2020
Gardner is correct that Hickenlooper vetoed several cannabis reform bills in his last year in office as governor, including proposals to add autism as a medical marijuana qualifying condition, to increase flexibility for investments in the cannabis industry and to allow dispensaries to operate tasting rooms. In 2012, he unsuccessfully campaigned against the state’s marijuana legalization ballot referendum but then went on to implement it after voters approved the measure.
Gardner, for his part, is one of a handful of GOP senators who have helped to lead the charge for cannabis reform on Capitol Hill. He filed legislation to respect state legalization laws, which President Trump endorsed, and also backs other proposals such as a bill to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banks. That said, he has not been able to convince the leadership of his party to advance any of those measures despite repeatedly expressing hope that he would be able to do so before the election.
The Colorado Democratic Party isn’t impressed with Gardner’s efforts, saying on Friday that he is “all stem and no bud” on the issue.
On marijuana, Cory Gardner is all stem and no bud.
— Colorado Dems (@coloradodems) October 10, 2020
South Carolina continues to ban marijuana, but that didn’t stop Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) from being asked whether he supports changes to federal cannabis laws in a debate forum on Friday.
“No ma’am, I do not,” he replied. “I’ve been a prosecutor, defense attorney and a judge. Marijuana can be a very dangerous drug, particularly for young people.”
That said, Graham added that he does “support medical marijuana.”
“I am convinced that there are medical purposes associated with marijuana, and I’d be willing to make that that exception.”
The moderator followed up by saying that polls show most Americans support cannabis reform, to which the senator responded, “I’m in the 30 percent that says it’s not a good idea.”
“I’ve seen the effects as a gateway drug to other things,” he said. “When it comes to medical marijuana, it makes sense. When it comes to legalization, I’m not going to impose that on the people of South Carolina.”
Graham’s Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison, was not asked about marijuana during the event, but has previously said he favors legalizing cannabis.
“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” he said in July. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”
As Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Graham hasn’t brought any pending cannabis legislation up for hearings or votes in his panel, which handles criminal justice issues.
That said, he has cosponsored a handful of reform bills in past years. For example, in 2016 he signed onto legislation to protect medical marijuana states from federal interference and reschedule cannabis, and in 2017 he cosponsored a bill to remove CBD from the list of federally banned substances.
He has a mixed record when it comes to votes on cannabis amendments.
In 2015, Graham voted against an Appropriations Committee amendment that would have allowed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical cannabis to patients; but the next year he reversed himself and supported a similar measure. Also in 2016, he backed an amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.
Texas currently has a limited medical cannabis program, but the moderators of a Friday debate between Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Democratic challenger MJ Hegar wanted to know their positions on broader marijuana decriminalization.
“I think before we answer that question, we need to have some very comprehensive research done on the effect of marijuana, THC, the active ingredient on the developing brains of children,” Cornyn said. “We know that vaping among kids and using things like THC concentrates can have a dramatic impact on their mental health and on their physical health as well. So I think before we make those decisions we need to we need to know what the facts are.”
Hegar said she backs decriminalization “for multiple reasons.”
“I have a lot of experience with the effects, the medicinal effects,” she said. “A lot of military veterans that have PTSD that can ease those symptoms through that. I don’t support giving it to children,” she said. “I think we should regulate it like tobacco, and we should benefit from the taxes on it as well.”
Another reason to end prohibition, she said, is “because it has also led to a disproportionate impact to communities of color, of the incarceration epidemic in this country.”
The Democratic challenger ended by throwing a dig at the incumbent GOP senator, saying, “the private private prisons and detention centers that are donating to his campaign want it to stay that way.”
— MJ Hegar (@mjhegar) October 10, 2020
Hegar said in a Democratic primary debate earlier this year that the ongoing ban on cannabis “only boosts cartel profits.”
“I am absolutely for legalizing marijuana. I think we should be expunging the records of those who have been incarcerated for such. And I think that we have a mass incarceration problem, not just in marijuana but in the world,” she said at the time. “I mean, we are one of the top incarcerated countries in the world and that’s not something that I’m very proud of, I don’t know about you.”
Cornyn, for his part, said last year that he’s open to holding bipartisan conversations about a cannabis research bill and recognized that the ongoing marijuana banking problems arising from the state-federal policy conflict pose “a real threat,” he’s decidedly against legalization.
Cornyn also said that claims about the therapeutic potential of cannabis remind him of decades-old tobacco industry advertisements asserting that the product had medical benefits.
He also co-chaired a hearing that shed light on how the restrictive federal classification of marijuana impedes research.
In any case, the fact that marijuana was brought up in debates for three separate high-profile U.S. Senate races in one day shows how cannabis issues are increasingly on the minds of the public and of reporters who cover politics.
Photo courtesy of Democracy Chronicles.
New Zealand Marijuana Legalization Trails In Early Referendum Results, But More Votes To Be Counted
A New Zealand referendum to legalize marijuana is trailing, according to preliminary election results released on Friday. But with hundreds of thousands of ballots remaining to be counted, the final outcome won’t be known until late next week.
Polls in the country closed on October 17, but elections officials don’t count referendum votes on election night. Instead, the preliminary results were tallied over the subsequent days and released Friday afternoon local time in New Zealand, with final results expected to be announced on November 6.
According to the initial election data, forty-six percent—1,114,485 people—voted for the referendum and 53 percent—1,281,818 people—were against it.
But the final outcome is still unknown. The early numbers don’t include an estimated 480,000 or more so-called special votes, which are expected to account for roughly 17 percent of all cast ballots. The category includes votes by citizens overseas, those who only recently registered to vote as well as people serving prison sentences of less than three years. It also includes students who are attending schools out of the districts where they are normally registered to vote.
— Electoral Commission | Te Kaitiaki Take Kōwhiri (@ElectoralCommNZ) October 30, 2020
Observers expect the special votes will be disproportionately in favor of legalization, which means the measure may still have a chance of passage.
Still, according to Justice Minister Andrew Little, it is “highly unlikely” that the result will flip when all is said and done. “For the cannabis referendum result to change it would require roughly 70 percent of the special votes to go in favor,” he said.
That said, Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who has been at the forefront of the nation’s legalization debate, said she remains “optimistic.”
“Today’s result shows what we had long assumed, that it was going to be really close and that we need to wait for the specials to be sure of the result,” she said. “We have said from the outset that this would always come down to voter turnout. We’ve had record numbers of special votes.”
Win or lose, New Zealand’s referendum marks the first time an entire country’s voters have been asked to decide whether to legalize cannabis. Unveiled in April, the federal government’s proposal would allow adults 20 and older to purchase and possess marijuana as well as cultivate up to two plants for personal use. The proposal would also open cannabis coffeeshops, where on-site consumption would be permitted.
A government levy on marijuana sales would be used to boost national health services, though it hasn’t yet been decided what the rate would be.
The public referendum resulted from a deal the country’s Green Party struck after agreeing to help install Labour Party leader Jacina Ardern as prime minister following the country’s 2017 election.
Passage of the referendum would make New Zealand just the third country with a national law allowing cannabis sales, following Uruguay and Canada. A handful of other nations, meanwhile, have policies allowing personal possession and home cultivation.
Going into the election, polls of likely voters showed a tight race, with opponents leading in some surveys and supporters ahead in others.
Even if voters are shown to have ultimately approved the referendum when all the ballots are counted next week, legalization wouldn’t happen automatically. Parliament would still need to enact the proposed legislation, and lawmakers could make changes along the way.
People with past cannabis-related convictions likely wouldn’t see their records cleared under the plan. Little, the minister of justice, said earlier this month that his office has no plans to erase past convictions even if the referendum passes. He nevertheless acknowledged that the drug war isn’t working.
“Up to 80 percent of New Zealanders are saying in surveys that they have at some time in their lives tried cannabis,” Little said. “Prohibition is not prohibiting cannabis. It’s in our communities, so it is time to decide on whether to control it.”
On provisional results of the two referendums voted on in the 2020 General Election, the electorate has voted in support of the End of Life Choice referendum, and against the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill becoming law. https://t.co/LVHKmH4c2l
— Andrew Little (@AndrewLittleMP) October 30, 2020
But on Friday, after the preliminary results were announced, the justice minister said that “there are no other plans that we have for broader drug reform.”
But if voters ultimately reject the measure, Ardern, the prime minister, has indicated there may still be a path forward for some reforms, even if it’s not full-scale legalization. The official, whose party won handily in this month’s elections, said use should be treated as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice problem.
“Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we will look at the way the Misuse of Drugs Act amendments are being applied, making sure we’ve got the addiction and treatment facilities that we need, and making sure those referrals are happening in the cases where they should,” she said on the campaign trail this month, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Ardern refused to say during the campaign whether she planned to vote for the referendum. But on Friday, after the preliminary results were announced, her office said that she voted in favor of it.
Mississippi Supreme Court Won’t Consider Challenge To Medical Marijuana Measure Until After Election
The Mississippi Supreme Court announced on Wednesday that it won’t weigh the merits of a last-minute legal challenge to medical marijuana ballot measures that voters will decide on next week until after Election Day.
The case, filed on Monday by the mayor of the city of Madison, alleges that state law was not properly followed to place the cannabis issue before voters.
The top state court had initially directed the secretary of state to respond to the complaint by the end of business on Wednesday. But in a new one-page order, Chief Justice Michael Randolph rescinded the earlier filing and instead asked that the official weigh in by next Friday, November 6—three days after voters will decide on the two competing medical cannabis measures that appear on their ballots.
Madison’s emergency petition cites a law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
“Petitioners’ challenge to the filing of the petition for Initiative Measure No. 65 is a challenge to form,” the filing from Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler (R) says. “The measure could be about any topic, and its constitutional invalidity would remain. No matter what the content of the measure is, the petition signatures are insufficient under the plain language” of the Constitution until the lawmakers institute a fix.
“It is unfortunate that the Legislature’s failure means that the Constitution cannot be amended by initiative until either Section 273(3) is amended or Mississippi regains a congressional seat,” the lawsuit states, adding that the mayor isn’t necessarily against medical marijuana itself.
She wants the court to deem the placement of the legalization initiative unconstitutional and “issue whatever extraordinary writs appropriate” to nullify the vote.
Under the activist-driven reform measure, patients with debilitating medical issues would be allowed to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Mississippians for Compassionate Care (MCC), the campaign behind the initiative, has faced a series of obstacles before and after qualifying for the state’s November ballot.
Most recently, President Trump’s reelection campaign issued a cease and desist order against the Mississippi advocates, claiming “unauthorized and misleading representation” of the president’s position on the reform measure in one of its mailers—even though he has on multiple occasions spoken favorably on camera about medical cannabis.
But the primary complication for advocates is the fact that two competing initiatives will appear alongside each other on the ballot. After MCC qualified their measure by collecting signatures from voters, the legislature approved an alternative that is viewed as more restrictive. The result is a muddled ballot that requires voters to answer a two-step series of questions—and that potential confusion threatens to jeopardize the activist-led proposal.
The Mississippi State Medical Association and American Medical Association have also contributed to the opposition, circulating a sample ballot that instructs voters on how to reject Initiative 65.
Earlier this month, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed legislation that amends state law to allow people to obtain marijuana-derived medications that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He also reiterated his opposition to broader medical cannabis reform, stating that he’s “against efforts to make marijuana mainstream.”
In June, lawmakers introduced yet another medical cannabis alternative resolution that would’ve similarly posed a threat to the activist-driven reform initiative. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.
Mississippians for Compassionate Care Communications Director Jamie Grantham called the new lawsuit “meritless.”
“This is simply a last-ditch effort by political and bureaucratic opponents to deny relief to patients with 22 specific debilitating medical conditions,” she said.
This isn’t the first time that this election cycle that courts have been involved in state-level cannabis legalization ballot initiatives.
The Montana Supreme Court last week rejected a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a marijuana legalization measure that will appear on the state’s November ballot.
With weeks before the election, opponents asked the court to quash the measure, arguing that because it involves appropriating funds, it violates state statute on citizen initiatives. The court didn’t weigh in on the merits of the case; rather, it said the petitioners with the reform campaign failed to demonstrate “urgency or emergency factors” that would justify moving the case into its jurisdiction instead of going through trial and appeals courts first, which opponents said they will now do.
In neighboring Nebraska, the state Supreme Court ruled last month that a measure to legalize medical cannabis that had qualified for the November ballot could not proceed because it violated the state’s single-subject rule for ballot initiatives.
Activists there are already pursuing a simplified medical cannabis measure for 2022.
Read the Mississippi chief justice’s order below:
Cory Booker Urges New Jersey Voters To Legalize Marijuana As Data Shows Supporters Outraising Opponents
Another one of the most prominent elected officials in New Jersey is urging the state’s voters to approve a marijuana legalization referendum that’s on their ballots next week. Meanwhile, new campaign finance data released by the state shows that supporters of the cannabis reform measure are outraising opponents by more than a 200-to-1 ratio.
“This is an important question,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said in a new video published by the NJ CAN 2020 campaign on Wednesday. “I hope as you fill out the front of your ballot, you will look at the back and see that question, ballot question number one, and that you will vote to legalize marijuana in New Jersey for adult use. We can do this as a state so much more responsibly, and instead of destroying lives we can get more resources to help to empower the well-being of all New Jerseyans.”
Booker, who has been a leading champion for federal cannabis reform in Congress, said that “we have seen how the drug war has not been a war on drugs, but a war on people.”
“Veterans, for example, are more likely to be arrested for drug use or possession of marijuana. Instead of getting help. They’re often hurt by a system that piles upon them criminal charges for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing,” he said, adding that African Americans, Latinos and low-income people are also disproportionately targeted by enforcement.
Meanwhile, a report released on Thursday by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) shows that committees supporting the referendum have raised $2,074,030 in campaign contributions. That’s compared to just $9,913 brought in by opponents.
“Assuming all available funds are spent, the marijuana ballot question already ranks eighth among the top ten most expensive public referenda in the Garden State,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said. “Keep in mind that marijuana interests already have spent $4.1 million on lobbying between 2017 and 2019. So the industry’s overall political investment in New Jersey already has topped $6 million.”
The new numbers reflect data filed through October 20, and additional post-election spending data will be released on December 1.
Earlier numbers released two weeks ago pegged the fundraising disparity at a ratio of nearly 130 to 1.
If voters approve the referendum, legal recreational marijuana sales could potentially begin within mere weeks through the state’s existing medical cannabis dispensaries under a plan laid out this week by the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.
A hearing to get a head start on planning legal cannabis implementation was scheduled for last week, but that was canceled when the senator went into quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Booker, for his part, is framing legalization as a matter of criminal justice reform.
“It will help us to join with other states who are seeing through legalizing you could better regulate its usage, you can have more and more tax dollars that can be applied to state priorities, from education to treatment,” Booker said in his new video. “And, we see how we begin to end what has been a very dark and unfair chapter in criminal justice in America.”
In any case, if polling is any indication, it appears that voters are poised to pass the cannabis referendum on their ballots next week.
A survey released last week found that that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the marijuana referendum. Just 29 percent are opposed to the policy change and six percent remain undecided.
The results are statistically consistent with three prior polls from the same firm, as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two to one support for the measure. A separate survey released this month by Stockton University showed three-to-one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has also been actively campaigning in favor of the referendum, participating in fundraisers and ads to encourage voters to approve it.
For example, the governor recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month, outlining why he’s embraced the policy change. Murphy said that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars, and he emphasized that prohibition is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
The governor similarly said in a recent interview that the marijuana reform proposal prioritizes social justice.
“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” he said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”
Murphy also recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.
The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”
NJ CAN 2020 released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads this month, after having published one prior ad.
In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advance in the Senate.