Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a longtime ardent marijuana legalization opponent, announced on Friday that he is stepping down as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in order to take over a separate leadership position, potentially paving a path forward for cannabis legislation in the 116th Congress.
Next in line for the chairmanship of the panel, which plays a central role in drug policy legislation, is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who certainly isn’t the most marijuana-friendly member of the Senate but is significantly more open-minded about medical cannabis and other common sense reform measures than the current chairman is.
I very much appreciate Senator @ChuckGrassley's leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He chaired the committee with a steady hand, sense of fundamental fairness, and resolve.
His leadership serves as a model to us all.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) November 16, 2018
Whereas Grassley has refused to let any marijuana bills come to a vote as Judiciary chairman, Graham has made surprise appearances as a cosponsor of legislation to protect legal medical states from federal interference, reschedule cannabis and also remove cannabidiol (CBD) from the list of federally banned substances.
“Senator Graham chairing Judiciary is the best news reformers have heard since Pete Sessions lost reelection,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment, referring to the outgoing House Rules Committee chair who has consistently blocked marijuana legislation from votes.
The senator has “shown empathy for patients and is a vocal advocate of the Tenth Amendment,” Murphy said. Plus, he added, Graham’s relationship with President Donald Trump “also bodes well for passage” of key marijuana reform legislation.
“If I was in the industry, I’d be buying today.”
In 2015, Graham voted against an amendment that would have allowed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend cannabis to patients; but the next year he reversed himself and supported a similar proposal to expand access to medical marijuana for veterans.
Also in 2016, the South Carolina senator supported an amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.
Graham told Politico that same year that medical cannabis “could be life-changing” and that restrictions on research should be lifted.
At a CNN event in 2015 he said that while he’s “not a big fan of legalizing marijuana,” you can “count me in for medical marijuana” because he is “convinced that it helps people with epilepsy.”
Graham once referred to marijuana as “half as bad as alcohol” but added that didn’t “see a real need for me to change the law up here.”
Grassley, for his part, did cosponsor a limited CBD research bill, but that’s about as far as his openness to marijuana reform seems to extend.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about what can be accomplished with Senator Graham chairing Judiciary. He’s certainly more open-minded and dynamic when it comes to marijuana than Senator Grassley,” Michael Liszewski, principal of the cannabis-focused lobbying outfit The Enact Group, told Marijuana Moment. “However, as a former prosecutor he could be more insistent that DOJ enforce the letter of the existing law.”
It is also worth noting that Graham has not signed on to the current 115th Congress’s version of the far-reaching medical cannabis bill he previously cosponsored, nor has he gotten on board with growing bipartisan calls to more broadly amend federal marijuana law, something for which President Trump has voiced support.
“Moreover, he demonstrated some hyperbolic fears about state medical marijuana programs in a July 2016 subcommittee hearing,” Liszewski said, referring to a discussion on cannabis policy Graham chaired. “But even with all of that, we will have a better chance to move forward with legislation in the Senate than we had under Grassley.”
In all likelihood, medical cannabis legislation will be referred to the committee Graham is positioned to run during the next Congress. Bills referred to the Senate Judiciary in the 115th Congress include one to end federal marijuana prohibition, another that would remove CBD from the Controlled Substances Act (which Graham cosponsored) and the CARERS Act (a version of which he previously cosponsored). Grassley didn’t schedule hearings or votes on any of them.
Graham has made clear that marijuana isn’t a top priority for him, but his support for medical cannabis and his voting record suggest that the Judiciary Committee could become much more amendable sending reform bills to the Senate floor under his leadership at a time when advocates are more optimistic than ever about the prospects for federal change. At least, more amenable than it has been under Grassley.
And this latest development, combined with the fact that Democrats retook the House, adds to the increasingly favorable political landscape that marijuana reform advocates are entering in the next Congress.
In the meantime, Graham hasn’t yet been formally named as chairman, but he is next in the line of seniority among Republicans on the panel following Grassley’s switch to instead chair the Finance Committee and the retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT).
“As the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham will have to make a choice when it comes to marijuana,” NORML political director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “Will he continue to perpetuate the failed policy of federal criminalization which resulted in over 659,000 Americans being handcuffed in 2017 alone, or will he be open to reform in a way the reflects the rapidly evolving nature of cannabis policy in the majority of states?”
“In the 116th Congress, there will be at least 66 Senators representing states with a regulated medical cannabis program,” Strekal added.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comments from representatives of NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project.
Photo courtesy of John Pemble.
Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote
A Texas House committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday that would make simple possession punishable by a fine, with no jail time, and without having to go on an individual’s criminal record.
The legislation passed in a 5-2 vote out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and now heads to a separate panel responsible for placing bills on the calendar for floor debates.
Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would be punished with a $250 fine for the first two offenses. After that, possession would be considered a class C misdemeanor, which is still a lesser penalty compared to current law. As it stands, possession of two ounces or less is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail as well as a permanent criminal record, which carries steep collateral consequences.
Earlier this month, the committee held a hearing on the legislation and heard testimony about the long-term impacts of having a low-level cannabis conviction on a person’s record and how removing criminal penalties for possession can free up law enforcement resources so that officers can tackle more serious crimes.
Advocates are hopeful that the full House will embrace the modest reform measure, even as the legislature contemplates other cannabis policies such as expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program.
— Texas NORML (@TexasNORML) March 25, 2019
“We are very optimistic about the chances of HB 63 passing on the floor of the Texas House,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that we shouldn’t be wasting valuable criminal justice resources arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana. Texas is ready.”
While medical cannabis expansion, to say nothing of adult-use legalization, remains a dubious prospect in the conservative stronghold, removing the threat of jail time for possession has gained popularity among Texas Republicans. Delegates for the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform plank last year that endorses marijuana decriminalization, for example.
“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” the plank states.
What’s more, the policy has even received a tentative green light from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he is open to legislation that would reduce penalties for simple possession.
During a gubernatorial debate last year, Abbot said he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana” and floated the idea of reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a class B to a class C misdemeanor.
According to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, the legislation currently has 32 authors or co-authors.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee
A key committee in the Connecticut legislature approved a bill to legalize marijuana on Monday.
The General Law Committee, which is one of two panels that heard testimony about legalization legislation last week, voted 10 to 8 to advance the bill.
Beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, the legislation also includes a number of social equity provisions aimed at encouraging participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war. A governor-appointed commission would be charged with giving such individuals advance time to apply for a marijuana business license and promote diversity in hiring.
“At the end of the day, if we’re moving, it’s not about revenue. It’s about equity,” Rep. Juan Candelaria (D) said at the meeting. “It’s about ensuring that these communities that have been impacted, that we say we’re not going to stay idle anymore.”
The commission would also be required to study the potential impacts of allowing cannabis microbusinesses and a home cultivation option, which are not currently included in the bill. Delivery would be permitted, however.
While advocates generally support the bill, there are some outstanding concerns about the lack of a home grow option. The lack of specific licenses for delivery services and on-site consumption facilities is another sticking point.
“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said at last week’s hearing.
It’s not yet clear whether the legislature will ultimately pass this proposal or a separate bill in the Senate, but if either does end up on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), he’s expected to sign. The governor called legalization one of his “priorities” last year and also discussed the issue during a budget speech last month.
The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on legalization legislation on Thursday.
A separate bill to revise the state’s medical cannabis program by adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions and eliminating a registration certification fee for patients and caregivers was also approved by the General Law Committee on Monday.
This story was updated to note the committee’s vote tally.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Marijuana Legalization Vote Cancelled Due To Lack of Support In New Jersey Senate
Marijuana reform advocates experienced a setback on Monday after bill to legalize cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of votes to pass the legislation in the Senate.
The proposal would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. It included a number of social equity provisions meant to encourage participation in the industry by individuals from communities most harmed by the war on drugs, and it also would’ve created a pathway for expedited expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
Two committees—the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee—approved companion cannabis legalization bills last week.
But while Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leading lawmakers reached a compromise on certain details on how to carry out legalization earlier this month, the legislation faced resistance and was taken off the table hours before scheduled votes in the Senate and Assembly.
“History is rarely made on the first try,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Certainly I’m disappointed but we are not defeated… We all remain committed to passing this bill and making our state a national model for justice and opportunity because ultimately this is the right thing to do for New Jersey, and we know the people of New Jersey are on our side.”
History is rarely made on the very first try. But, eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down.
Join me live in Trenton as we recommit to passing adult-use marijuana legalization and expungement legislation. https://t.co/Ebts137XJ6
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 25, 2019
“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward. While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”
I proudly stand with @GovMurphy, @SpeakerCoughlin, @SandraBCunningh & @SenatorScutari. We didn’t have the votes today, but we will continue to work together in order to bring adult use marijuana and criminal justice reform to New Jersey pic.twitter.com/BWxDchfiQ4
— Steve Sweeney (@NJSenatePres) March 25, 2019
“The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another,” he added at a press conference. “Anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) echoed those sentiments.
"We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model," says @SpeakerCoughlin on cannabis legalization, medical Marijuana, & expungement bill package pic.twitter.com/CwT6C5WlsX
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 25, 2019
“Today we may not be able to get a bill over the finish line but I’m proud of the effort we made and the discussions we had. It’s a big and complicated issue,” he said in a press conference. “We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 25, 2019
According to a whip count tracking tool for the legislation that was created by NJ.com, a majority of senators (23) planned to vote “no” as of Monday morning, compared to just eight who said they’d vote in favor of the bill, with nine others undetermined. Other sources indicated that 18 senators planned to vote “yes.”
In the days leading up to the Monday session, the legislation received a number of high-profile endorsements, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN host Van Jones. The governor’s office also released a list of quotes supporting the bill from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders.
“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said last week. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”
Those endorsements were ultimately not enough to convince a sufficient number of on-the-fence state senators, some of whom raised concerns about the potential public health and safety impacts of legalization.
“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights, advocacy and faith organizations across the state and the majority of New Jersey voters,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “But, we will not give up. We will continue to fight for marijuana legalization legislation centered on racial and social justice. It is only a matter of time before this legislation is enacted and all New Jerseyans can share in the benefits it will create.”
Our commitment to adult-use marijuana legalization and expungement has not wavered. We know the people of New Jersey are on our side.
Change is never easy, but we will keep fighting. pic.twitter.com/xMeay0MlTx
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 25, 2019
Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana described the news as a “huge victory for us.”
“They told us legalization was inevitable, and this action proves them wrong, Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release.
With the cancellation of the vote, it may be months before lawmakers take up the idea again.
“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” NORML Political Associate Tyler McFadden said in a press release.
“[I]t should be acknowledged that, to date, no state has taken legislative action to regulate the adult use marijuana market,” she said. “In every jurisdiction where regulations exist, they were enacted by a direct vote of the citizenry. Based on current polling in New Jersey, we have little doubt that, if provided the opportunity, Garden State voters would take similar action.”
A poll last month found that New Jersey adults support legalizing marijuana, 62 percent to 32 percent.
This story was updated to add comment from Sweeney, DPA, NORML and SAM.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.