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South Dakota Lawmakers Form Cannabis Caucus To Address Marijuana Legalization Issues

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The Senate majority leader said enacting a regulatory framework for legal cannabis will probably require more than one session of work.

By By: Nick Lowrey, South Dakota News Watch

Entrepreneurs across South Dakota are already taking steps to claim a share of the state’s soon-to-be-legal marijuana market, but legislators and regulators are off to a slow start in crafting laws and rules to govern the controversial new industry.

The sale, possession and use of recreational and medicinal marijuana are set to become legal in South Dakota for the first time on July 1. But when the 2021 South Dakota legislative session started on January 12, only one bill regarding marijuana had been filed.

A group of 15 Republican lawmakers have formed what they call a “Cannabis Caucus” to address marijuana issues this session. But leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties say discussions on preparing for legalization and regulation of the business of marijuana sales, possession and use—one of the top matters facing the 2021 Legislature—have barely begun.

One high-ranking Senate leader said enacting a regulatory framework for legal marijuana will probably require more than one session of work and will likely spill into the 2022 session or require a special session to complete.

“Not everything will be done at the end of this session,” said Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack, R-Union Center. “I know there has been talk about the need for a special session.”

Marijuana entrepreneurs, however, are not waiting for the Legislature to act. Many have been working for months to get businesses ready for the July 1 legalization date. The South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office handled 907 more new business filings during the last three months of 2020 than it had during the same period of 2019, many of them related to legal weed.

Exactly how many new business filings are related to marijuana is unknown, as the secretary of state’s office does not require new businesses to indicate a purpose or sales plan, said Jason Luntz, deputy secretary of state.

But as of January 11, a search of public business filings on the secretary of state’s website found more than 40 businesses with the words “cannabis,” “marijuana,” “pot” or “dispensary” in their names. Most of those businesses organized as limited liability companies or registered their business names after voters approved marijuana legalization on November 3, 2020.

Even as a court challenge of the legalization of recreational marijuana remains unresolved, experts say the state needs to move quickly to establish clear rules for growing and selling marijuana commercially. The state will need to license and regulate sales outlets, set up tax collections, define penalties for selling marijuana to minors and make laws related to the marijuana black market, said Kittrick Jeffries, a former marijuana industry compliance officer and founder of a new Rapid City-based cannabis consulting firm called Dakota Cannabis Consulting.

“I think South Dakota has a great opportunity here…but there are some really key things that need to be done before July,” Jeffries said.

If lawmakers and state regulators do not have the framework of a commercial market in place before marijuana becomes legal on July 1, anyone who wants to use cannabis after that date would be pushed to buy from the black market, which could expand and compete with legal, tax-paying retailers, Jeffries said.

Black market competition could weaken South Dakota’s legal marijuana market, leaving local businesses more vulnerable to interstate competition should the federal government choose to legalize marijuana, Jeffries said.

A few legislators have been considering marijuana regulation in the early days of the 2021 session. Rep. Mike Derby, R-Rapid City, is playing a lead role in forming what he calls the “Cannabis Caucus.” Derby said the group’s goal is mostly to share information and help educate other lawmakers as opposed to offering legislation or coordinating votes. Members plan to meet for the first time on January 21 to review bill drafts, Derby said.

One of the big issues Derby plans to work on is providing clarity for local governments. Dozens of marijuana businesses are already preparing to begin commercial marijuana growing operations or are preparing to open retail sales outlets in South Dakota. Municipal governments will need guidance on how to safely zone for often large, indoor marijuana farms needed to supply wholesale and retail outlets, Derby said.

“At the end of the day, we want to respect the will of the people,” Derby said. “We have an opportunity to look at what other states have passed, learn from their best practices, learn from their mistakes and maybe create a better process.”

Rep. Mary Fitzgerald, R-St. Onge, has called for legislation that would make using marijuana in a vehicle and driving while high illegal. South Dakota does not have laws banning marijuana use in vehicles or driving while high because any use or possession of marijuana is still illegal. As of January 13, Fitzgerald had not filed any legislation regarding marijuana use.

The only bill regarding marijuana legalization that had been filed by January 13 came from the Department of Revenue. Senate Bill 35 asks the Legislature to give the department $4 million to cover the costs of regulating the marijuana industry until tax revenue starts coming in. The bill also asks lawmakers to give the state Department of Health about $135,000 to help cover the cost of regulating medical marijuana.

Any recreational marijuana bills that legislators pass could be negated by a lawsuit seeking to declare the recreational marijuana vote result as unconstitutional. Backed by Gov. Kristi Noem (R), the lawsuit was filed by Highway Patrol Superintendent Rick Miller and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, who argue that the constitutional amendment passed by voters, known as Amendment A, should not have been on the November 3 ballot and is unconstitutional because it was too broad.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for January 27 in Hughes County circuit court, but no trial date has been set. The circuit court’s final ruling and any subsequent appeals to the state Supreme Court likely won’t be settled until well after the 2021 legislative session ends.

Ian Fury, a spokesman for Gov. Noem, said the governor is in discussion with lawmakers about marijuana legalization but has not engaged in filing or pushing any specific legislation so far. “Many legislators have an interest in this topic and we want to give them the opportunity to convey their thoughts and ideas on behalf of their constituents,” Fury wrote in an email to News Watch.

Some lawmakers question whether the Legislature should be involved in regulating recreational marijuana at all.

“My interpretation of Amendment A is that it doesn’t allow the Legislature to do anything,” said Sen. Arthur Rusch, R-Vermillion, vice-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Amendment A did not provide a regulatory framework for the industrial production or commercial sale of large amounts of cannabis. Instead, the amendment requires the state Department of Revenue to devise licensing and regulatory mechanisms that allow for the sale of recreational marijuana by April 1, 2022. Rusch said he believes Amendment A gave full authority over recreational marijuana regulation to the Department of Revenue.

“That’s one of the reasons I believe [Amendment A] is unconstitutional,” Rusch said.

Still, legislative leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties acknowledged that a clear majority of South Dakota voters wanted to see marijuana legalized and that the Legislature is obligated to implement legalization measures.

“Our feet are set in concrete. Until the courts rule or voters overturn it in another election, it is our job to move forward with legalization,” Cammack said.

This story was first published by South Dakota News Watch.

Washington State Marijuana Homegrow Bill Draws Smooth Reception At Initial Hearing

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Maryland Lawmakers Must Override Governor’s Drug Paraphernalia Decriminalization Veto (Op-Ed)

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“Criminalization, marginalization, isolation, injury and death are all part of a largely preventable cycle of harm.”

By Scott Cecil, Maryland Matters

The writer is a regional ambassador of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition.

At the urging of public health professionals and harm reduction advocates during the 2021 session, the Maryland legislature approved Senate Bill 420 decriminalizing the possession of drug paraphernalia. Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) decision to veto that bill flies in the face of the expertise of those same public health professionals and harm reduction advocates.

His action constitutes a failure to meaningfully respond to the calls to abolish hyper-criminalization in policing, reimagine public safety in our society and address the crisis of accidental fatal drug overdoses in Maryland.

Because of the veto, in Maryland, the tools which may be used to consume drugs will continue to be illegal to possess and use. This makes them scarcer and encourages people to share them with others, putting them at an elevated risk of contracting bloodborne illnesses and disease such as hepatitis and HIV.

Criminalization of paraphernalia is dangerous for all Marylanders, including those who do not use illicit substances, because it increases the likelihood that the public at large and law enforcement personnel can be directly harmed. Under continued paraphernalia criminalization, people who use drugs will continue to be reluctant to hold onto their supplies due to the fear that the police will use possession of these items as a means to search and arrest them.

With the threat of having to interact with law enforcement personnel, drug users are more likely to dispose of paraphernalia in public spaces. Paraphernalia criminalization laws also put law enforcement personnel at greater risk because they are more likely to be endangered by hidden supplies when interacting with or conducting a search of someone’s body or belongings.

Prohibitive drug paraphernalia laws are ostensibly intended to discourage both drug use and the availability of paraphernalia. Decades of the so-called War on Drugs has shown us that aggressive enforcement and criminalization of drug use have not reduced the rate of drug use in our society nor the availability of drug paraphernalia.

Meanwhile, the rates of infectious diseases and accidental fatal overdose deaths among drug users have surged. Last year, more than 93,000 Americans (including approximately 2,800 people in Maryland) died of accidental fatal drug overdoses.

Decriminalization or paraphernalia is rooted in the harm reduction principle of equipping people to use drugs more safely.

This is positive for everyone in the community—including law enforcement agents, by stemming the spread of infectious disease and lifting the stigma which so dangerously isolates people who use drugs.

By contrast, criminalization, and perceived suspicion of criminal activity—like illicit drug use—is far too often used as a means for law enforcement personnel to target historically marginalized groups, such as people living with mental illnesses and people who are surviving without access to housing. These folks are more likely to be suffering from substance use disorders, thereby placing them at extremely elevated risk of injury or death from drug use.

Criminalization, marginalization, isolation, injury and death are all part of a largely preventable cycle of harm. And criminalization is perhaps the only part of that cycle which can be meaningfully and quickly addressed by public policy and law.

The Maryland legislature understood this when they passed SB420 into law earlier this year. It is unfortunate that Gov. Hogan has failed to acknowledge this reality.

His statement on the veto demonstrates that he either lacks a sufficient understanding of the expertise of public health professionals and harm reduction advocates, or that his decision making on this issue has been clouded by outdated, misleading or simply false drug-warrior misinformation.

It is now up to the Maryland legislature to override his veto.

Maryland must be led down a path which has the greatest chances of success for reducing the risks associated with drug use for all Marylanders (including those who do not use illicit drugs) and stemming the tide of accidental fatal overdoses in Maryland which have reached catastrophic proportions.

This content was republished with permission from Maryland Matters.

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Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor Wants To Process As Many Marijuana Pardons As Possible Before Leaving Office

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Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor Wants To Process As Many Marijuana Pardons As Possible Before Leaving Office

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The lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania is stepping up his push to get marijuana records cleared, promoting an expedited petition program that he hopes will provide relief to thousands of people negatively impacted by prohibition.

In an interview with KDKA that aired last week, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) said one of his key goals in his final year in office is to ensure that as many eligible people as possible submit applications to have the courts remove their cannabis records and restore opportunities to things like housing, student financial aid and employment.

“I’m a fervent believer in second chances. And one of the things I quickly discovered was that people’s lives were just being ruined by these silly charges, and you have all this unnecessary review [to seal records],” Fetterman, who chairs the state Board of Pardons, said.

“This is a plant that’s legal in many jurisdictions across America, and it’s not a big deal, but you go through your life in many cases a convicted felon, and that excludes you from a lot of opportunities,” he said. “So I developed an expedited review process that I encourage everybody to partake in.”

There are about 20,000 marijuana-related cases in Pennsylvania each year, he said. And some eligible cases go back decades, including one case that recently went through the petition process where a man had a felony conviction on his record for possession of eight ounces of cannabis that dates back to 1975.

“If you’ve got some stupid charge like that on your record, it doesn’t cost anything to apply, and we can get that off your your permanent record,” the lieutenant governor said. “I don’t care how conservative or how liberal you are politically. I don’t think we as a society should be really damaging people’s future for consuming a plant that is now legal in many jurisdictions—and soon will be in Pennsylvania.”

While both Fetterman and Gov. Tom Wolf (D) support mass expungements of cannabis convictions, he said that, right now, this is “the only way to free records.”

But the official is optimistic about the prospect of future reform to both legalize marijuana in the state and provide an even more effective process to get past convictions sealed. He pointed to a legalization bill that was recently filed by a Republican lawmaker as an example of the “evolution towards this” and described the legislation’s introduction as “a quantum leap in acknowledging it.”

For now, however, he’s doing what he can to raise awareness about the expedited petition program under the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. People with non-violent marijuana convictions can apply for free on the board’s website.

“I’m lieutenant governor for a little over a year, and we want to get as many people free of these silly convictions and charges that are holding the record back,” Fetterman said. “The application doesn’t cost anything. You don’t need an attorney. And our turnaround time is, right now, down to three to four months.”

In May, Wolf pardoned a doctor who was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for growing marijuana that he used to provide relief for his dying wife. That marked his 96th pardon for people with cannabis convictions through the Expedited Review Program for Non-Violent Marijuana-Related Offenses.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, a lawmaker introduced a bill last month to expand the number of medical marijuana cultivators in the state, prioritizing small farms to break up what she characterized as a monopoly or large corporations that’s created supply problems.

Separately, bipartisan Pennsylvania senators said this month that they are introducing a bill to allow medical marijuana patients to cultivate their own plants for personal use.

A much-anticipated bipartisan Senate bill to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania that has been months in the making was formally introduced last month.

Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) unveiled the nearly 240-page legislation months after first outlining some key details back in February. It would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, five grams of marijuana concentrate products and 500 milligrams of THC contained in cannabis-infused products.

Meanwhile, Rep. Amen Brown (D) recently announced his intent to file a reform bill that he’ll be working on with Sen. Mike Regan (R), who expressed his support for the policy change a day earlier.

Additionally, a separate pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing.

While each measure generally seeks and end to marijuana criminalization by creating a regulated, commercial model for cannabis, there are some provisions that make each piece of legislation unique. For example, the proposals vary in how they would approach taxes, revenue and social equity.

While these recent moves to enact reform in the GOP-controlled legislature are encouraging to advocates, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R) recently tempered expectations, saying that there’s “no significant support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the House Republican caucus.”

Fetterman, who is running for U.S. Senate, told Marijuana Moment in a recent phone interview that he’s optimistic about the prospects of reform with these latest proposals, though he acknowledged that there may be disputes between legislators over how tax revenue should be distributed.

Wolf, for his part, has said that a bipartisan approach to legalization “would be a great thing. I think the time is right.”

Philadelphia voters also approved a referendum on marijuana legalization this month that adds a section to the city charter saying that “the citizens of Philadelphia call upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Governor to pass legislation that will decriminalize, regulate, and tax the use, and sale to adults aged 21 years or older, of cannabis for non-medical purposes.”

Wolf said earlier this year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.

The governor, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

A survey from Franklin & Marshall College released this month found that 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters back adult-use legalization. That’s the highest level of support for the issue since the firm started polling people about it in 2006.

An attempt to provide protections for Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients from being charged with driving under the influence was derailed in the legislature last week, apparently due to pushback by the state police association.

Mexican Senators Circulate Draft Marijuana Legalization Bill, With Vote Expected Within Weeks

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Mexican Senators Circulate Draft Marijuana Legalization Bill, With Vote Expected Within Weeks

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A draft bill to legalize and regulate marijuana sales in Mexico is being circulated among senators, and a top lawmaker says the plan is to vote on the proposal before December 15.

While the legislation hasn’t been formally introduced yet, the draft measure largely reflects an earlier version the Senate passed late last year, with some revisions.

Senate Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal Avila of the ruling MORENA party has been pushing for the reform and recently said that there’s agreement among leading lawmakers to prioritize legislation to regulate cannabis.

The Mexican Supreme Court declared nearly three years ago that the country’s prohibition on the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis was unconstitutional. Lawmakers were then obligated to enact the policy change but have since been unable to reach a consensus on legislation to put in place regulations for a marijuana program.

At the request of legislators, the court agreed to extend its deadline for Congress to formally end prohibition on multiple occasions. But because of the repeated failed attempts to meet those deadlines, justices ultimately voted to end criminalization on their own in June.

Monreal previously said that the stage is set for lawmakers to actually pass a marijuana legalization bill during the new session after multiple attempts in recent years fell short of getting over the finish line.

Under the draft bill that’s currently being circulated, adults 18 and older would be allowed to purchase and possess up to 28 grams of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

Members of the Senate Health and Justice Committees were tapped to formulate the draft of a cannabis bill.

The text of the measure states that the purpose of the reform is to promote “public health, human rights and sustainable development” and to “improve the living conditions of the people who live in the United Mexican States.”

It would further “prevent and combat the consequences of problematic consumption of psychoactive cannabis and contribute to the reduction of the crime incidence linked to drug trafficking, promoting peace, security and individual and community well-being.”

Regulators would be tasked with developing separate rules to regulate cannabis for adult-use, research and industrial production.

The bill would establish a Mexican Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis, which would be a decentralized body under the Ministry of Health. It would also be responsible for issuing licenses, overseeing the program and promoting public education campaigns around marijuana.

Retail licenses would need to be issued within 18 months of the enactment of the law.

In order to “compensate the damages generated by the prohibition,” the bill states that at least 40 percent of marijuana cultivation licenses would need to go to communities most impacted by cannabis criminalization for at least the first five years of implementation. After that point, at least 20 percent of licenses would need to be reserved for equity applicants.

After the Supreme Court independently invalidated prohibition earlier this year, advocates stressed that the decision underscores the need for legislators to expeditiously pass a measure to implement a comprehensive system of legal and regulated sales. They want to ensure that a market is established that’s equitable, addresses the harms of criminalization on certain communities and promotes personal freedom.

Advocates are pleased to see Senate leadership take seriously the need to establish regulations and provide access to cannabis for adults, but they have identified some provisions as problematic.

For example, possessing more than 200 grams of marijuana could still result in prison time.

Senate President Olga Sánchez Cordero, who previously served at a cabinet-level position in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration, recently said that “there is no longer room for the prohibitionist policy.” And she also says the influence of the U.S. is to blame for failed marijuana criminalization laws in her country.

The Senate approved a legalization bill late last year, and then the Chamber of Deputies made revisions and passed it in March, sending it back to the originating chamber. A couple of Senate committees then took up and cleared the amended measure, but leaders quickly started signaling that certain revisions made the proposal unworkable.

After the Chamber of Deputies previously approved the Senate-passed legalization bill, senators said that the revised proposal was critically internally conflicted—on provisions concerning legal possession limits, the definition of hemp and other issues—and lawmakers themselves could be subject to criminal liability if it went into effect as drafted.

But Monreal said in April that if the court were to make a declaration of unconstitutionality before a measure to regulate cannabis was approved, it would result in “chaos.”

The top senator also talked about the importance of lawmakers taking their time to craft good policy and not rush amidst lobbying from tobacco and pharmaceutical industry interests.

“We must not allow ourselves to be pressured by interests,” he said at the time. “The Senate must act with great prudence in this matter.”

Sen. Eduardo Ramírez Aguilar of the MORENA party said in April that “at this time, it is important to legislate in the terms that are presented to us” and then consider additional revisions to cannabis laws through subsequent bills.

That’s the position many legalization advocates took as well, urging lawmakers to pass an imperfect bill immediately and then work on fixing it later.

Mexico’s president said in December that a vote on legalization legislation was delayed due to minor “mistakes” in the proposal.

The legalization bill cleared a joint group of Senate committees prior to the full floor vote in that chamber last year, with some amendments being made after members informally considered and debated the proposal during a virtual hearing.

Members of the Senate’s Justice, Health, and Legislative Studies Committees had approved a prior version of legal cannabis legislation last year as well, but the pandemic delayed consideration of the issue. Sen. Julio Ramón Menchaca Salazar of the MORENA party said in April that legalizing cannabis could fill treasury coffers at a time when the economy is recovering from the health crisis.

As lawmakers work to advance the reform legislation, there’s been a more lighthearted push to focus attention on the issue by certain members and activists. That push has mostly involved planting and gifting marijuana.

Late last year, Sánchez Cordero, then a top administration official, was gifted a cannabis plant by senator on the Senate floor, and she said she’d be making it a part of her personal garden.

A different lawmaker gave Sánchez Cordero, a marijuana joint on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies in 2019. That joint is now framed and hangs in her office.

Cannabis made another appearance in the legislature last year, when Sen. Jesusa Rodríguez of the MORENA party decorated her desk with a marijuana plant.

Drug policy reform advocates have also been cultivating hundreds of marijuana plants in front of the Senate, putting pressure on legislators to make good on their pledge to advance legalization.

Read the draft marijuana legalization bill that’s being circulated in Mexico’s Senate below: 

Click to access texto-normativo-para-nueva-iniciativa-1.pdf

Taliban Announces Deal To Grow Cannabis In Afghanistan Amid Questions Over Company’s Involvement

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