Wednesday is the deadline to submit comments on a draft Senate bill to federally legalize marijuana, and feedback has flooded in from a broad array of advocates and industry stakeholders.
While legalization proponents have widely celebrated the introduction of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), they have some suggestions for improvement—principally as it concerns issues of social equity, licensing, tax policy and interstate commerce.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are the lead sponsors of the legislation, and after releasing a draft version of the measure in July, they opened a public comment to receive input on what will be a revised measure the senators plan to formally introduce.
Pro-reform organizations like NORML, Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) and Hemp Roundtable made their voices heard—and while they generally applauded the senators’ work to end federal cannabis prohibition, they had some recommendations for revisions. Prohibitionist groups also weighed in with thoughts about the proposal can be changed to better reflect their concerns with the overall policy of legalization.
Here’s an overview of the public comment that the senators have received on their marijuana legalization bill:
Marijuana Justice Coalition
The Marijuana Justice Coalition—which counts among its membership the ACLU, Center for American Progress, Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch, Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, MoveOn, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union—sent a joint letter on the legalization proposal.
It said that the “regulatory approach taken by the CAOA is generally modeled on the federal approach taken to regulate alcohol and tobacco,” and while the draft measure “includes critical elements to end federal criminalization and to undo and repair many of the harms resulting from criminalization, it seeks to regulate cannabis like a vice, meaning a consumer product with potential harms to public health and huge economic potential.”
The coalition recommended “an approach [to reform] that does not just include reparative justice, health equity, and community reinvestment as a subset of a larger policy reform, but rather an approach where these components are the primary goal.”
“As we move forward, it is necessary that the Senate work alongside the House, as well as the Marijuana Justice Coalition and other key stakeholders, to ensure we build a bill that is greater than the sum of our parts. We encourage the Senate to hold a hearing on the issue of federal cannabis reform this year in order to inform our work on this bill moving forward.”
The consumer-focused group’s comments largely center on the need to help repair the harms of prohibition for those who have been criminalized over cannabis, ensure that there are regulations in place to prevent the corporate consolidation of the industry and protect the infrastructure of existing state markets.
The organization also surveyed advocates and included its findings in its comment letter. Seventy-three percent of respondents said including provisions to expunge past records is either very or somewhat important to them, for example. And 68 percent said the legislation should end drug testing for cannabis.
“For too long, the criminalization of cannabis has been a tool used to disrupt communities and foster distrust of law enforcement,” the letter says. “It is our sincere hope that your team will be successful in collaborating with your colleagues and other good-faith stakeholders to ensure that the impending shift in federal policy takes great strides toward rectifying this situation by advancing comprehensive reform that is centered in science, evidence, and rational thought.”
Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, added that the “CAOA draft represents a thoughtful path forward toward ending federal marijuana criminalization.”
Marijuana Policy Project (MPP)
MPP stressed in its letter that while federal legalization is necessary, the rollout should be thoughtful and gradual, giving deference to states so as to avoid jeopardizing efforts to promote equity in the industry.
“While we are enthusiastic about the goals of the CAO Act Discussion Draft, we believe the regulatory aspects need significant clarification and revision to avoid unintended consequences,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for MPP, wrote. “Our two major areas of concern are: the possible upending of state licensing and regulatory systems—driving sales underground—and the impact on medical cannabis access, including for those under the age of 21.”
The group also called for more robust provisions to provide relief for those impacted by marijuana criminalization and dedicate more tax revenue to communities hardest hit by prohibition.
MPP additionally proposed policies aimed at protecting medical cannabis patients and dispensaries, including by eliminating any federal tax on medical marijuana.
“The vast majority of Americans support legalizing cannabis for adults,” O’Keefe wrote. “Congress must work to swiftly end federal cannabis prohibition through an approach that starts with a framework of deference to states and includes a slow transition, avoids burdens that will drive the market for cannabis products back underground, and stops destroying lives—disproportionately those of Black and Brown Americans—over a plant that is safer than alcohol.”
National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA)
NCIA said that it solicited feedback on the draft legalization bill from stakeholders large and small to inform its comments.
It discussed testing standards for cannabis products, interagency regulatory coordination, access to federal aid for marijuana businesses, the need to allow states to set retail sales limits and more.
“Given your demonstrated focus on engaging with the people most directly impacted by cannabis policy reform, we hope the breadth and depth of our feedback will enable you to enact sound legislation which fosters the growth of a thriving and equitable legal cannabis industry,” the organization said. “NCIA is committed to creating a vibrant legal industry that can sustain thousands of well-paying jobs while responsibly serving adult consumers and medical patients who rely on cannabis for relief.”
“That this bill looks to create restorative justice and to consider the complexities of how communities were negatively and disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition is of the utmost importance, and is greatly appreciated. In order to achieve this, we are encouraged that this discussion draft will result in the continued dialogue that is necessary to ensure that individual states do not continue to perpetuate illicit markets.”
U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC)
USCC, like other organizations, told the senators that it feels the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) should be the primary regulators for the cannabis industry.
It also noted that the complexity and diversity of marijuana production in states requires “a new model of taxation, at rates that do not fuel the illicit market.”
Further, USCC said that federal legislation should account for legal obstacles in state markets and ensure that there’s a more gradual, transitionary process after a given state legalizes marijuana before being subject to federal rules that could disrupt social equity goals.
“We are fully aligned with the sponsors’ goals and applaud their leadership and careful consideration,” Steven Hawkins, CEO of USCC, said in a statement. “Cannabis prohibition in America is coming to an end, and the draft legislative text provides a road map for transitioning to a more just, equitable and prosperous future, particularly for emerging and social equity businesses and those directly impacted by cannabis prohibition.”
“At the end of the day, the detailed policy conversations taking place around the CAO Act should not distract from its historic nature. We support the leadership and vision of the sponsors and look forward to ongoing discussions and engagement to advance this vital legislation.”
Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP)
SSDP said that the drug war “has inflicted incalculable harm on marginalized communities—particularly communities of color,” and that war” weaponized cannabis over the last 50 years with disgustingly successful results.”
The organization said it appreciates the senators’ work to correct these issues, but it did offer some proposed revisions, including preventing the criminalization of people under 21 for marijuana. It further recommended eliminating restrictive language on who could qualify for federal relief after legalization is enacted.
“While fueling the public health crisis of mass incarceration, marijuana prohibition targeted the foundation of [marginalized] communities, leaving countless youth without guidance, an incalculable amount of economic loss, and millions of families suffering the loss of loved ones,” SSDP said in its comments. “The time has long since past to put this nightmare to an end.”
Americans for Safe Access (ASA)
ASA, which focuses on access for medical cannabis patients, touched on a number of prompts that the senators said they were especially interested in, such as appropriate ways to measure potency, agency responsibilities for regulating the marijuana market and the composition of a federal advisory board on cannabis.
Much of the group’s comment letter centers are ensuring that patient access to cannabis is not negatively impacted by federal regulations.
The organization also made recommendations for the legislation to address the denial of federally assisted housing to people who use cannabis in compliance with state laws and encourage the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to “develop a cannabis physician education curriculum for VA and civilian physicians.”
American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp (ATACH)
ATACH said that one of its primary concerns is giving regulatory authority over cannabis to Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it advised the senators to consider the possible role of TTB within the market.
Michael Bronstein, president of ATACH, further explained that the comments address “the need for increased recognition and understanding of the interaction with existing state-level regulatory frameworks, the treatment of hemp and CBD, and taxation policy.”
Like several other organizations, ATACH said the rollout process for federal regulations should be gradual to prevent undue burdens on existing state markets.
“ATACH is thankful for the dedication of the sponsors for taking these historic next steps and appreciates the opportunity to continue the dialogue regarding appropriate federal rates and tax structure, and how they interact with existing state and local taxes,” Bronstein said.
Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR)
“The draft bill represents a pivotal moment for the cannabis industry and an opportunity for stakeholders to inform a pathway towards responsible federal cannabis regulation that is rooted in science, evidence and data, ensures public health and safety standards, and secures fair market access including for small and minority-owned businesses,” CPEAR, which comprised largely up of alcohol and tobacco companies, said.
The group submitted comments that include recommendations on developing regulations that curb the illicit market, respecting state cannabis markets and providing “meaningful economic opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses.”
“Cannabis holds an important place in American history and society today as much as it will have an important place in the future,” CPEAR said. “It is critical that any attempt to craft and implement federal guidelines is done so with a holistic approach, led by science and data, but considerate of criminal justice, social equity, and public health. CPEAR appreciates the opportunity to be a resource to the Sponsoring Offices as this legislative effort continues to evolve.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D)
Last week, Polis sent his letter to the Senate sponsors of the reform bill that urged them to pass incremental cannabis banking and tax reform first before moving forward with the comprehensive legislation to end prohibition.
The governor said he’s supportive of CAOA—but he insisted that there are more modest and practical steps that should be taken first to support state-legal markets and protect businesses.
“I am thrilled that you are bringing forward a long-term, comprehensive solution that deschedules cannabis while enhancing social equity pathways,” he wrote. “I hope that you will first focus your efforts on the two biggest barriers to the success of the cannabis industry: banking and IRS Code Section 280E.”
That latter statute has precluded state-legal marijuana businesses from making federal tax deductions that are available to other traditional industries.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D)
The attorney general of Colorado last week sent a letter asking congressional leaders to ensure that small marijuana businesses are protected from being overtaken by Big Tobacco and other major industries as federal cannabis reform legislation advances.
Weiser wrote that his state is “heartened” to see efforts on Capitol Hill to end federal cannabis prohibition and create a regulatory framework that still empowers states to make their own policy decisions. But he expressed concerns about large corporations potentially gobbling up the industry if preventative steps aren’t taken.
Ensuring that small businesses are empowered to participate in the marijuana industry is a major priority, the attorney general argued. And, therefore, the official said a national market should be rolled out in thoughtful way to prevent large corporations from overtaking the industry.
“If a national market is not rolled-out carefully and in stages, large companies, particularly existing tobacco-focused companies, will be able to move into new markets immediately, displacing and pushing out smaller players,” he wrote.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
The hemp advocacy group provided senators with some tips for how it thinks CAOA could be improved. It provided five recommendations to that end:
- Open an additional pathway for the sale of hemp extracts like CBD as food and beverage additives.
- Expand protections from just CBD to all non-intoxicating hemp derivatives and cannabinoids.
- Allow all forms of safety evaluations permitted by law to be used, not just limit manufacturers to new dietary ingredient notifications (NDINs).
- Provide a more comprehensive process of determining potential daily serving limits.
- Ensure separate regulatory pathways for non-intoxicating hemp and intoxicating cannabis products
“The legislative prospects of the CAOA are still uncertain, but as legislation makes its way through both houses of Congress, we are working very hard to make sure that the details are reflective of the best interests of the hemp and CBD industries,” the group said.
The Parabola Center
The Parabola Center, a newly formed group that is working to inform legalization legislation federally and at the state-level with the intent of promoting social justice-centered reforms, has been actively monitoring reform efforts in Congress. And it previously recommended changes to a House legalization bill that cleared the chamber last session and has been reintroduced this year.
In its comment letter to the senators, the organization emphasized the importance of creating “a legal cannabis sector that lifts us out of a long history of systemic racial and economic oppression stemming from prohibition and into a fair, open, and competitive market that is part of a new framework focused on justice and restorative practices.”
Parabola expressed concern over the rapid consolidation of state-legal marijuana industries, and it said that members have observed “large current operators jockeying to dominate the market in various states and regions.”
It said that, as written, CAOA could thwart progress states have made toward promoting social equity in the marketplace. But there are steps that can be taken to avoid that issue.
“Our goal is to avoid irreversible market consolidation, and instead create a gradual approach to national legalization that favors an ecosystem of small businesses over a handful of excessively large ones. In short, our proposed changes to CAOA allow regulating agencies to collect data, monitor states, and develop expertise. That knowledge and expertise should then be used to create fair and equitable rules for everyone – and in the meantime prevent the formation of corporate oligopolies in the cannabis sector and closely-related ancillary industries.”
Some of the principal recommendations that Parabola shared with the senators include 1) take more concrete steps to incentive states to maintain equitable markets by, for example, tying federal funding to “defined justice benchmarks,” 2) outline a more gradual path for interstate commerce and 3) prohibit vertical integration and ensure that anti-competition provisions are included in the legislation and 4) prevent large tobacco companies from participating in the marijuana industry.
Marijuana prohibitionists have also weighed in on the legalization proposal.
Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM)
“While we applaud Senate Majority Leader Schumer, as well as Senators Booker and Wyden, for their focus on exploring ways to mitigate the harms that have been perpetuated on vulnerable communities, full commercial legalization of today’s highly potent marijuana will only deepen these harms,” Kevin Sabet, president of SAM, argued.
“Decriminalization of minor marijuana possession and expungement of previous records was a key part of President Joe Biden’s platform and should be the path forward, but we cannot let the interests of the for-profit marijuana industry and its investors cloud the discussion,” he said. “Much as we have done with COVID, we must heed the science and be cautious with normalizing and promoting marijuana use.”
SAM said in its letter that while it would prefer not to federally legalize cannabis, its scientific advisory board has several recommendations if comprehensive reform is to be enacted. It wants a 10-15 percent cap on THC concentrations in marijuana products, a ban or significant restrictions on advertising and a prohibition on “flavored or child-friendly products.” There is some common ground on one proposal: both SAM and several advocacy organizations feel that Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol should be prevented from monopolizing the market.
Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA)
In a call-to-action campaign, CADCA encouraged members to submit a pre-written letter to the senators that expresses concern about the commercialization of cannabis.
The letter says that the “CAOA purports to be about decriminalizing marijuana,” but it would “totally legalize the cultivation, production, distribution and sale of marijuana, thus totally commercializing a new addictive and harmful substance.”
It’s unclear how long after the comment period ends that the bill will be finalized, formally filed and referred to committee. But Schumer has said on multiple occasions that he intends to bring the proposal to the floor “soon.”
As introduced, the legislation would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge prior convictions, allow people to petition for resentencing, maintain the authority of states to set their own marijuana policies and remove collateral consequences like immigration-related penalties for people who’ve been criminalized over the plant.
The bill would also impose a federal tax on marijuana products and put some of that revenue toward grant programs meant to support people from communities most impacted by prohibition who want to participate in the industry.
Further, the legislation would transfer regulatory authority over cannabis from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to FDA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the TTB.
There have been some serious questions about whether the three senators will be able to muster the 60 votes needed to pass the legislation in their chamber. Even with a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, there are some members of Schumer’s own party who’ve expressed concerns about the comprehensive reform.
President Joe Biden’s position on cannabis presents another complication. Minutes after the senators unveiled the bill, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked at a briefing about the administration’s position on the legislation and said “nothing has changed” with respect to Biden’s opposition to adult-use legalization.
In the days following the introduction of CAOA, Booker had repeatedly stressed that he wants to see this legislation pass before allowing incremental reform to advance such as a bipartisan bill to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The senator recently vowed to “lay myself down” to block any other senators who seek to pass marijuana banking legislation before the body approves comprehensive cannabis reform, igniting the controversy.
He’s taken some criticism from stakeholders on that position—though he later clarified that he simply feels that holding off on voting on the banking reform as a “sweetener” could encourage his colleagues to support more comprehensive legislation.
Amazon Endorses GOP-Led Bill To Federally Legalize Marijuana
Amazon, the second largest private employer in the U.S., is backing a Republican-led bill to federally legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.
The company’s public policy division said on Tuesday that it is “pleased to endorse” the legislation from Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), who filed the States Reform Act in November as a middle-ground alternative to more scaled back GOP proposals and wide-ranging legalization bills that are being championed by Democrats.
We’re pleased to endorse @RepNancyMace's States Reform Act. Like so many in this country, we believe it’s time to reform the nation’s cannabis policy and Amazon is committed to helping lead the effort. https://t.co/g04Dn5KZq5
— Amazon Public Policy (@amazon_policy) January 25, 2022
“Like so many in this country, we believe it’s time to reform the nation’s cannabis policy and Amazon is committed to helping lead the effort,” the company, which previously expressed support for a separate, Democratic-led legalization bill, said.
Amazon has worked to adapt to changing marijuana policies internally as it’s backed congressional reform, enacting an employment policy change last year to end drug testing for cannabis for most workers, for example.
Months after making that change—and following the introduction of the States Reform Act—Mace met with Amazon and received the company’s endorsement, Forbes reported.
“They don’t want to sell it,” the freshman congresswoman said, adding that Amazon is primarily interested in backing the reform for hiring purposes instead of as a way to eventually sell cannabis. “It opens up the hiring pool by about 10 percent.”
— Rep. Nancy Mace (@RepNancyMace) January 25, 2022
Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said the bill “offers comprehensive reform that speaks to the emergence of a bipartisan consensus to end the federal prohibition of cannabis.”
Amazon’s drug testing decision was widely celebrated by reform advocates and industry stakeholders. Initially, the company only talked about ending the policy going forward. But it later disclosed that the policy change would also be retroactive, meaning former workers and applicants who were punished for testing positive for THC will have their employment eligibility restored.
The reason for the move away from marijuana testing was multifaceted, Amazon said at the time. The growing state-level legalization movement has made it “difficult to implement an equitable, consistent, and national pre-employment marijuana testing program,” data shows that drug testing “disproportionately impacts people of color and acts as a barrier to employment” and ending the requirement will widen the company’s applicant pool.
The GOP congresswoman’s bill already has the support of the influential, Koch-backed conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
The measure would end federal cannabis prohibition while taking specific steps to ensure that businesses in existing state markets can continue to operate unencumbered by changing federal rules.
Mace’s legislation has been characterized as an attempt to bridge a partisan divide on federal cannabis policy. It does that by incorporating certain equity provisions such as expungements for people with non-violent cannabis convictions and imposing an excise tax, revenue from which would support community reinvestment, law enforcement and Small Business Administration (SBA) activities.
Marijuana Moment first reported on an earlier draft version of the bill in November, and it quickly became apparent that industry stakeholders see an opportunity in the Republican-led effort.
The reason for that response largely comes down to the fact that there’s skepticism that Democratic-led legalization bills—including the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that Amazon has also endorsed—will be able to pass without GOP buy-in. While Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, in addition to controlling the White House, the margins for passage are slim.
The MORE Act did clear the House Judiciary Committee in September, and a previous version passed the full House during the last Congress. Senate leadership is preparing to file a separate legalization proposal after unveiling a draft version in July.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
Virginia House Committee Pushes Back Psychedelics Decriminalization Bill Until 2023, But Senate Proposal Still Pending
A bill to decriminalize a wide array of psychedelics in Virginia was taken up by a House of Delegates panel on Monday, only to be pushed off until 2023. But there’s still a separate but similar reform proposal that’s pending in the Senate.
Advocates were hopeful that a House Courts of Justice subcommittee would advance the reform, especially after an amendment from the sponsor was adopted to more narrowly apply decriminalization to medical practitioners and people using psychedelics in treatment with a practitioner.
But following some discussion of Del. Dawn Adams’s (D) bill, members approved a motion to carry it over to next year to give the legislature more time to refine it and build support. It was a disappointment for activists, and there was particular surprise that the delay motion was made by House Minority Leader Charniele Herring (D), who is well known for championing marijuana legalization in the state.
Adams said in her opening remarks before the subcommittee that she has “spent considerable time hearing from researchers, meeting with both local and nationwide community advocates, speaking with veterans and personally reading dozens of publications and studies about the benefits of plant medicine.”
“What I’ve been able to learn is that there is strong evidence to support plant medicines—once thought dangerous—that really are effective and safe treatments,” she said.
There seemed to be some confusion among certain members about what the legislation would actually do.
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One member asked whether doctors would be able to prescribe psychedelics and whether the state would “see peyote stores and psilocybin stores basically popping up.”
The bill as amended wouldn’t legalize psychedelics for medical or recreational use. It would simply make it so practitioners and people participating in psychedelics treatment would face a $100 fine for possessing peyote, ibogaine, psilocybin or psilocyn. Currently, such possession is considered a Class 5 felony.
Any dollars collected from psychedelics possession violations would go to the state’s Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund, which supports substance misuse treatment programs and drug courts.
But following testimony from advocates and researchers, Herring said that “there’s a lot of issues have been raised” and that she’d like to see a “prescription element” built into the legislation. Of course, because the psychedelics are federally controlled substances, doctors are precluded from prescribing them, but they could theoretically make recommendations, as is done in medical cannabis states.
In any case, the motion carried and that bill has now been set aside until next year. Now advocates are eager to see what happens with a separate, more limited reform measure that was considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
At that meeting, there was bipartisan support—including from the GOP minority leader—but also talk about making the decriminalization proposal more medically focused. The sponsor, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D), agreed to go back and make revisions so that the panel could reconsider it at a future meeting. The expectation was that it would be taken back up this week, but it’s not currently listed on the panel’s agenda for Wednesday.
The bill is scaled back compared to the House version because, as drafted, it would only decriminalize psilocybin and psilocyn by adults 21 and older. It’s unclear what kind of amendments the sponsor might offer when the committee takes up the legislation again.
At a recent virtual event organized by the reform group Decriminalize Nature Virginia, the sponsors of both bills participated as hosts, sharing their perspectives about the growing body of research indicating that psychedelics could be powerful tools to combat conditions like treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If the legislature does approve the legislation, it could face resistance from the state’s incoming Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, who has expressed concerns about implementing a commercial marijuana market in line with what the Democratic legislature and outgoing governor approved last year.
These psychedelics reform proposals are some of the latest to be introduced in state legislatures this session as the decriminalization movement spreads.
For example, two Republican Oklahoma lawmakers recently filed bills meant to promote research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, and one of the measures would further decriminalize low-level possession of the psychedelic.
A GOP Utah lawmaker also introduced a bill last week that would set up a task force to study and make recommendations on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and possible regulations for their lawful use.
In Kansas, A lawmaker also recently filed a bill to legalize the low-level possession and cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms.
A Republican Missouri lawmaker introduced a bill this month to give residents with serious illnesses legal access to a range of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, ibogaine and LSD through an expanded version of the state’s existing right-to-try law.
California Sen. Scott Wiener (D) told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that his bill to legalize psychedelics possession stands a 50/50 chance of reaching the governor’s desk this year. It already cleared the full Senate and two Assembly committees during the first half of the two-year session.
In Michigan, a pair of state senators introduced a bill in September to legalize the possession, cultivation and delivery of various plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics like psilocybin and mescaline.
Washington State lawmakers also introduced legislation this month that would legalize what the bill calls “supported psilocybin experiences” by adults 21 and older.
In Vermont, a broad coalition of lawmakers representing nearly a third of the House introduced a bill to decriminalize drug possession.
New Hampshire lawmakers filed measures to decriminalize psilocybin and all drugs.
Last year, the governor of Connecticut signed legislation that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
At the congressional level, bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) this month, urging that the agency allow terminally ill patients to use psilocybin as an investigational treatment without the fear of federal prosecution.
Mississippi Lawmakers Reach Deal To Send Medical Marijuana Bill To Governor This Week
Mississippi House and Senate lawmakers have reached an agreement to send a bill to legalize medical marijuana to the governor’s desk this week. Following Senate action on Tuesday, the bill will now go to a bicameral conference committee to finalize details of the legislation, with votes in both chambers for final passage expected on Wednesday.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell (R) and Rep. Lee Yancey (R) discussed the agreement at a press conference on Tuesday. There was an opportunity for a concurrence vote in the Senate—where the bill originated and advanced to the House this month and was then amended—but following pushback from the Mississippi Municipal League (MML) over a House change related to zoning rules for cannabis businesses, the Senate voted against concurrence and will instead move the measure to conference.
This comes more than 14 months after voters in Mississippi passed an initiative to legalize medical cannabis—a law the state Supreme Court later overturned. And the bill that’s being tweaked again is the result of months of negotiations and last-minute changes to a nearly 450-page bill.
“This has been a long journey, and it’s nice to be in a place where everyone is in agreement,” Yancey said on Tuesday. “It looks like we will finally be able to provide relief to those people with debilitating illnesses who so badly need it. Medical cannabis will now be an option for them as soon as we get the conference report signed and sent to the governor.”
While the overall bill will remain largely the same as an earlier version passed by the Senate this month, the recent House amendments reduced the overall monthly amount of cannabis products available to patients, removed the Department of Agriculture and Commerce from oversight of the industry and expanded zoning allowances for cannabis cultivators and processors.
Only the zoning allowances provision will change. Instead of allowing cultivators and processors to operate in commercial zoning areas, as would have been allowed under the bill as amended by the House, they would only be permitted in industrial or agriculture zoned areas, satisfying MML.
Assuming that conference goes as planned, the legislature will then formally transmit the bill to Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who then has five days, excluding Sundays, either to sign it into law or return it with objections. Both the Senate and House, however, have passed the legislation with veto-proof majorities. If the governor doesn’t take any action by the deadline, the bill will become law without his signature.
Reeves has been wary of legalization in recent months, at one point threatening to veto a draft bill if it made it to his desk. Since then, proponents in the legislature have worked to balance the voter-approved initiative’s more permissive proposals against the governor’s calls for tighter restrictions.
The governor said last week that the measure has become “better” with every revision and rightly predicted further amendments by the House.
Provided the bill becomes law, dispensaries would be licensed about six months later, meaning Mississippi’s medical cannabis program could be up and running, at least in limited form, by the end of the year.
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The bill, SB 2095, draws heavily from provisions negotiated by lawmakers in the second half of last year, as legislative leaders prepared a bill for an anticipated special session last summer that the governor never called. Supporters say the lengthy proposal represents a middle ground between the more permissive plan approved by voters and the narrower approach preferred by Reeves and some lawmakers.
The legislation as amended by the House would allow patients with about two dozen qualifying medical conditions to purchase the equivalent of 3.5 grams of marijuana (or 1 gram of cannabis concentrate) per day, with a maximum monthly limit of 3 ounces. Voters approved a monthly limit of 5 ounces in 2020, and the bill as passed by the Senate last week would have allowed 3.5 ounces, but that was further scaled back by the House earlier this week.
Qualifying conditions under the bill include cancer, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis, Alzheimer’s, sickle-cell anemia, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, neuropathy, spinal cord disease or severe injury as well as chronic medical conditions or treatments that produce severe nausea, cachexia or wasting, seizures, severe or persistent muscle spasms or chronic pain.
Further conditions could be added later by regulators via petition. State-issued patient registration cards would cost $25, though some people could qualify for a lower price.
Registered patients would be subject to purchase limits that would restrict them to no more than one “medical cannabis equivalency unit” per day, which the bill defines as 3.5 grams of cannabis flower, one gram of concentrate or up to 100 milligrams of THC in infused products. While those limits are significantly lower than in most states where cannabis is legal for medical patients, Reeves said last year the program should allow only half those amounts.
Patients or caretakers would be forbidden from growing their own cannabis under the proposal. Products from state-licensed companies, meanwhile, would be limited to 30 percent THC for cannabis flower and 60 percent for concentrates.
There would be no limit on the number of licensed businesses under the plan.
Medical marijuana would be taxed at a wholesale rate of 5 percent, and purchases would also be subject to state sales tax.
While smoking and vaping cannabis is allowed for patients, both would be illegal in public and in motor vehicles. It would still be a crime for patients to drive under the influence.
The legislation would task the Mississippi Department of Health to oversee the new industry and establish a nine-member advisory committee to make recommendations on issues such as patient access and industry safety.
Previous versions of the bill also tasked the state Commission of Agriculture and Commerce with regulatory duties, but the House removed the agency through an amendment. Commissioner Andy Gipson, who for months had pushed back against the plan, thanked House Speaker Philip Gunn and other lawmakers for making the change in a statement issued last week.
“The best place for a truly medical program is under the Department of Health, which reflects the will of the voters in Initiative 65,” Gipson said, according to SuperTalk Mississippi. “This change is good policy for Mississippi agriculture and allows us to focus on our core mission. It is also good policy for the taxpayers of Mississippi because it achieves greater efficiency in the use of funds by reducing the number of agencies involved in the program.”
Licensing of cannabis businesses other than dispensaries—including cultivators, processors, transporters, disposal entities, testing labs and research facilities—would begin 120 days after the bill’s passage, with the first licenses issued about a month after that. The dispensary licensing process would kick off 150 days after passage, with the first licenses coming a month later.
Cannabis businesses may have to get seek local approval to operate, and municipalities can adopt zoning and land use restrictions. In general, local governments could not ban medical cannabis businesses outright or “make their operation impracticable,” the bill says, but a separate provision would allow local governments to opt out of the program altogether within 90 days of the bill’s passage. In such cases, citizens could then petition to put the question to a vote.
Mississippi voters decisively approved a broad legalization initiative in November 2020. The state Supreme Court overturned the measure on procedural grounds last May—simultaneously doing away with the state’s entire initiative process.
For much of last year, it appeared lawmakers were set to pass a medical marijuana bill during a special legislative session, but the governor ultimately decided against calling the special session after reaching an impasse with lawmakers. Those who supported legalization said at the time that responsibility for the failure rested with Reeves.
Later that month, Reeves dodged questions from patient advocates about why he’d failed to call the special session. Then in late December, he said on social media that he had “repeatedly told the members of the Legislature that I am willing to sign a bill that is truly medical marijuana,” but stressed that there should be “reasonable restrictions.”
Last week, before the House floor vote, Yancey, who chairs the House Drug Policy Committee and who’s been working on the legislation with Blackwell, said that he never imagined he’d be in the position to legalize cannabis. But he said he worked to ensure the bill was focused on providing medicine to patients, not paving a route to a recreational program as critics have claimed.
“When I got involved in this bill, I said, ‘How can we build a wall around this program so the people who get it are the people who need it the most, and only the people who need it the most?” Yancey said. “This is not for everybody out on the street. This is not for a bunch of kids. This is for hurting people with debilitating conditions.”
A poll released in June found that a majority of Mississippi voters support legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use, with 63 percent saying they want the legislature to pass a bill that mirrors the ballot measure that was nullified by the Supreme Court.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.