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Task Force Doesn’t Recommend Legalizing Marijuana To Biden, Despite Support From Panel Members

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Legalizing marijuana is not among the recommendations made to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by a criminal justice task force his campaign created in partnership with former 2020 primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Advocates had held out hope that the panel would push the former vice president to join the majority of U.S. voters—and a supermajority of Democrats—in backing legal cannabis. But, despite the fact that most individual members of the Biden-Sanders group have previously gone on record in favor of legalization on an individual basis, its report mostly reiterates the candidate’s existing marijuana position while adding a few specifics.

“Decriminalize marijuana use and legalize marijuana for medical purposes at the federal level. Allow states to make their own decisions about legalizing recreational use. Automatically expunge all past marijuana convictions for use and possession,” the document, released on Wednesday, says.

“Lift budget rider blocking D.C. from taxing and regulating legal marijuana and remove marijuana use from the list of deportable offenses,” it continues. “Encourage states to invest tax revenue from legal marijuana industries to repair damage to Black and brown communities hit hardest by incarceration.”

The 110-page document also says that “Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level.”

“We will support legalization of medical marijuana, and believe states should be able to make their own decisions about recreational use,” it says. “The Justice Department should not launch federal prosecutions of conduct that is legal at the state level. All past criminal convictions for cannabis use should be automatically expunged.”

Legalizing marijuana had reportedly been a topic of discussion and contention for the criminal justice panel, and some members have spoken publicly about their desire for Biden to further evolve his cannabis position since the task force was convened.

“We didn’t reach consensus on legalization. That conversation will have to continue. But we did agree on some important new aspects of marijuana policy for the vice president’s agenda,” Chiraag Bains, a former federal prosecutor who was a member of the criminal justice task force, told Marijuana Moment. “We agreed on lifting the D.C. budget rider to allow the District to regulate and tax marijuana, removing marijuana from the list of deportable offenses and pushing states to invest revenue from the marijuana industry to repair damage to the Black and brown communities that have been most harmed by over-policing and over-incarceration.”

“That last piece is incredibly important,” said Bains, who severs as director of legal strategies for Demos. “These policies will help build racial justice, reduce harm and repair generational damage caused by the racist War on Drugs.”

To that end, the task force document also speaks to broader drug policy issues beyond cannabis.

“It is past time to end the failed ‘War on Drugs,’ which has imprisoned millions of Americans— disproportionately people of color—and hasn’t been effective in reducing drug use,” it says. “Democrats support policies that will reorient our public safety approach toward prevention, and away from over-policing—including by making evidence-based investments in jobs, housing, education, and the arts that will make our nation fairer, freer, and more prosperous.”

While Biden’s campaign put representatives onto the task force and presumably exerted considerable influence on the scope of its report, the document doesn’t necessarily represent new positions supported by the candidate himself; rather, it constitutes recommendations to him and to the Democratic National Committee to consider when drafting its 2020 party platform.

“For the millions of Americans facing hardship due to President Trump’s failed coronavirus response, this election offers the chance to usher in a stronger, fairer economy that works for our working families,” Biden said in a press release. “I commend the Task Forces for their service and helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country. And I am deeply grateful to Senator Sanders for working together to unite our party, and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come.”

In addition to Bains, other members of the criminal justice panel included former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Tennessee Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D), South Carolina Rep. Justin Bamberg (D), Linn County, Iowa Supervisor Stacey Walker (D) and Biden campaign spokesperson Symone Sanders. Separate task forces created by Biden and Sanders focused on issues such as health care, immigration and climate change.

The group called on Biden to “support diversion programs” and “reduce criminal penalties for drug possession and support increased use of drug courts and treatment diversion programs instead of incarceration for those struggling with substance use disorders.”

“The misguided and racist federal war on drugs and the systematic criminalization of poverty means that one in three Black men—and one in six Latino men—will spend time in jail or prison at some point in their lives, reducing their lifetime earnings and making it harder to get a job upon release and build family and community resources,” the recommendation document says.

“Substance use disorders are diseases, not a crimes [sic]. Democrats believe no one should be in prison solely because they use drugs,” it continues. “And rather than involving the criminal justice system, Democrats support increased use of drug courts, harm reduction interventions, and treatment diversion programs for those struggling with substance use disorders.”

Despite the modest reforms included in the document, legalization advocates are not pleased with the end result of the panel’s recommendations.

“It is impractical at best and disingenuous at worst for the Biden campaign to move ahead with these policy proposals,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said. “Rescheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act would continue to make the federal government the primary dictators of cannabis policy, and would do little if anything to address its criminal status under federal law.”

“Rescheduling marijuana is intellectually dishonest,” he added. “Just as cannabis does not meet the strict criteria of a Schedule I controlled substance, it similarly does not meet the specific criteria that define substances categorized in schedules II through V.”

In February, Biden appeared to mistakenly say marijuana is “at the point where it has to be basically legalized” before correcting himself and insisting that further research be done before he commits to actually supporting policy change beyond the modest reforms such as decriminalization and federal rescheduling he had already backed.

The task force document also touches specifically on the opioid crisis at length:

“The opioid epidemic has devastated American communities, and the Trump Administration has completely failed in its response, leaving millions of families desperate for help. Democrats will make medication-assisted treatment available to all who need it, and will require publicly supported health clinics to offer medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. Democrats recognize that incarcerated people suffer from serious mental health and substance use disorders at higher rates than the general population, which is why we will support expanded access to mental health care in prisons and for returning citizens. We will ensure no one is incarcerated solely for drug use, and support increased use of drug courts, harm reduction interventions, and treatment diversion programs for those struggling with substance use disorders.”

“End the Opioid Epidemic: The opioid epidemic remains a national epidemic, devastating rural communities. The Task Force believes we must end the epidemic by holding pharmaceutical corporations accountable, increasing access to medication-assisted therapy across rural, urban, and suburban communities, improving medical and behavioral supports for incarcerated people and better assisting their re-entry into communities, increasing access to life-saving treatments, investing in harm reduction strategies, and fully funding research on current and future interventions.”

Sanders, who during his own campaign had pledged to legalize marijuana nationwide by executive action on his first day in office, said that the report fell short of what he would have recommended but still represents progress.

“Though the end result isn’t what I or my supporters would’ve written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country,” he tweeted.

In an interview in April, Sanders declined to list legalizing marijuana among the issues he thought the task force could bring Biden around to supporting.

Democrats’ 2016 platform endorsed rescheduling cannabis, allowing states to set their own laws and “providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization.”

“We support policies that will allow more research on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty,” is said.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s reelection campaign is working to highlight Biden’s long record of supporting harsh drug penalties during his time as a senator and is seeking to position the incumbent as the criminal justice reform candidate.

While Trump has signed modest criminal justice reform legislation and granted clemency to a small number of individuals incarcerated on drug charges, he has also has voiced support for using the death penalty against people who sell drugs and has urged police to be rough with suspects.

When it comes to marijuana, he personally opposes legalization but has said that states should be able to set their own cannabis laws without federal interference and has voiced support for pending legislation to exempt state-legal activity from the Controlled Substances Act.

But his administration has also taken a number of hostile actions when it comes to cannabis.

Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, rescinded Obama-era guidance known as the Cole memo. Under that directive, federal prosecutors were advised not to pursue action against people for state-legal cannabis-related activity, except under a limited set of circumstances.

The president has on several occasions released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore a long-standing rider that blocks the Department of Justice from interfering with state-legal medical cannabis programs, and he has asked Congress to end the medical marijuana protections as part of his own budget proposals—something the Obama administration also previously did to no avail.

Despite his pledged support for medical cannabis and states’ rights, Trump apparently holds negative views toward marijuana consumption, as evidenced by a leaked 2018 recording in which he said that using cannabis makes people “lose IQ points.”

The Trump administration has also used marijuana as a way to punish immigrants. In 2019, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo stating that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related activities such as working for a dispensary—even in states where marijuana is legal—is an immoral offense that makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship. That same year the Justice Department issued a notice that it was seeking to make certain cannabis offenses, including misdemeanor possession, grounds to deny asylum to migrants.

Most Republican voters join the vast majority of Democrats in supporting legalizing marijuana, according to Gallup.

Some observers have suspected that Trump could issue a surprise endorsement of cannabis legalization as Election Day approaches as a way to outflank Biden and undermine Democrats’ support from young people in particular. If the president has in fact been considering such a move, the Biden-Sanders task force’s refusal to even recommend legalizing marijuana to the presumptive Democratic nominee presents perhaps his greatest opening on the issue yet.

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

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Local Massachusetts Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Psychedelics Decriminalization Measure

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Local Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics—the latest in a national movement to reform laws on entheogenic plants and fungi.

Prior passing the measure in a 9-0 vote, the Somerville City Council took testimony from two people with personal experience benefiting from the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Several members of the council also discussed the failures of the drug war and the potential medical value of entheogenic substances, particularly as it concerns mental health.

The resolution was supported by the mayor.

“By decriminalizing psychedelic plants, Massachusetts can mainstream harm-reduction strategies as therapists and health providers embrace these compounds for physical, psychological, and spiritual relief,” Decriminalize Nature, Bay Staters for Natural Medicines and the Heroic Hearts Project said in written testimony to lawmakers.

“Somerville has a chance to empower our neighbors, friends, and loved ones to seek the physical and spiritual relief they need and put public health above incarcerating people even in cases of addiction and abuse of controlled substances,” they wrote.

Under the proposal, enforcement of laws against psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca would be among the city’s lowest priorities. It also calls on the county prosecutor to cease pursing cases for persons charged with possessing or distributing entheogens.

The measure states that “the City Council hereby maintains it should be the policy of the City of Somerville that the investigation and arrest of adult persons for planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, engaging in practices with, and/or possessing entheogenic plants… shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Somerville.”

It also stipulates that “no City of Somerville department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Somerville Police Department personnel, should use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults.”

The resolution emphasizes that the measure would not allow for commercial sales of these substances, nor would it permit driving while under the influence of them.

“I love living in a city where this is not controversial and you got unanimous support,” Council President Matt McLaughlin said at the close of the meeting. “Let’s end this war on drugs, and this is a good step.”

Watch the lawmakers discuss the psychedelics reform resolution, starting around 25:45 into the video below: 

With Thursday’s vote, Somerville joins a growing number of cities across the U.S. that have enacted psychedelics decriminalization. Most of the reforms have advanced legislatively, though Washington, D.C. became the first jurisdiction to decriminalize via the ballot in November.

Three other cities—Oakland, Santa Cruz and Ann Arbor—have also decriminalized possession of plant-and fungi-based psychedelics.

In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes. The governor announced in November that applications for an advisory board to oversee implementation of the program were being accepted up until January 1.

Much of this reform progress can be traced back to Denver, which became the first city in the country to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May 2019. Since then, activists in more than 100 cities have expressed interest in pursuing psychedelics decriminalization.

In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution last month that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.

A California state senator plans to file a bill to decriminalize psychedelics for the 2021 session.

Meanwhile, after Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution in September, a county prosecutor recently announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”

Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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North Dakota Lawmakers File Bill To Significantly Expand Marijuana Decriminalization Law

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North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in the state.

The legislation, which was filed on Monday, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.

Under the current statute, possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, with no jail time. The new proposal would make possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carries a $50 fine.

Further, possession of more than one ounce and less than 250 grams would be treated as an infraction, rather than a class B misdemeanor, as it is currently classified.

Possessing more than 250 grams of marijuana would be a class B misdemeanor and possessing more than 500 grams would be a class A misdemeanor.

The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R) and Sen. Scott Meyer (R) in their respective chambers. It’s been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

“It’s encouraging to see Rep. Roers Jones and her colleagues continue the push to reduce harsh and senseless penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in North Dakota,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Decriminalization is no substitute for legalizing and regulating marijuana for adults, as several of North Dakota’s neighbors have now done. But passage of this bill would continue the trend of progress the state has seen in recent years.”

Activists are moving forward with plans to put a cannabis legalization ballot initiative before voters in 2022.

The measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use, was submitted to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Monday. If its language is accepted, the campaign will be able to start signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

The same team behind the new initiative came close to putting a similar measure on the state’s ballot last year, but petitioning efforts were impeded by the coronavirus pandemic.

A separate group of advocates, Legalize ND, also attempted to qualify a different legalization initiative in 2020 that would have allowed retail sales but excluded a home grow option. That organization is also considering plans for its own 2022 measure.

Previously, a 2018 legalization push that did qualify for the ballot was defeated. Voters in the state did approve a measure to legalize medical cannabis in 2016, though the law was scaled down by the legislature the following year.

While activists are skeptical that the legislature has the appetite to enact the policy change on their own, it is the case that lawmakers may feel increased pressure given that voters in neighboring South Dakota and Montana elected to legalize cannabis in November.

Read the new North Dakota marijuana decriminalization bill below: 

North Dakota Decriminalizat… by Marijuana Moment

New Mexico Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Is A 2021 Priority

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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A Virginia Senate committee held an initial hearing on Friday on a bill to legalize marijuana that was introduced with support from the governor just two days ago.

The legislation’s quick consideration by the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee is an early sign that lawmakers intend to advance it expeditiously. Two additional hearings are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in a newly formed subcommittee of the panel that’s specifically focused on cannabis policy.

The bill, which is being carried by top Senate and House leaders, would create a system of regulated and taxed marijuana sales and production, and allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use, two of which could be mature.

After the bill is considered by the new marijuana-focused subcommittee next week, the full Rehabilitation panel is expected to hold a vote next Friday to refer it to the Senate Judiciary Committee. After that panel considers the legislation, it would head to the Finance Committee before coming to the full Senate floor.

At the initial hearing, members heard testimony from a representative of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) administration and asked questions about components of the bill such as those concerning expungements and social equity grants.

The legislation’s provisions have been informed by two official state studies on legalization that were recently conducted by a legislative commission and a separate working group comprised of four Virginia cabinet secretaries and other officials, both of which looked at how to effectively implement legalization and submitted recommendations to the governor’s office late last year.

Those studies were required under a marijuana decriminalization bill that was approved last year.

Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into the new legislation, including provisions to promote social equity in the cannabis market. Notably, it would also apportion almost half of the tax revenue the state collects from marijuana sales to funding pre-kindergarten education—a policy championed by First Lady Pamela Northam.

The state’s alcohol regulatory body would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority, and it would be responsible for promulgating rules and issuing licenses.

A new 21 percent tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, and local jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses to operate could levy an additional three percent tax. Existing state sales taxes would also apply on purchases, for a total potential 30 percent tax rate.

Revenue from the new state tax would go toward funding pre-k education (40 percent), a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund (30 percent), substance misuse and treatment programs (25 percent) and public health initiatives (five percent).


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Brad Copenhaver, who testified on behalf of the Northam administration on Friday, emphasized that the “keystone of this entire bill is marijuana legalization of a social equity endeavor.”

Advocates have celebrated the bill’s introduction and are optimistic about the prospects of getting the reform enacted this session, but they also feel the legislation as proposed can be improved upon.

One problematic provision from advocates’ perspective is that the bill would make public consumption a misdemeanor, whereas currently it is a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine.

Additionally, it seems to increase the fine for people aged 18-20 who possess cannabis. The fine would be $250 for a first offense, and the legislation also stipulates that underage people could be subject to mandatory substance misuse treatment for violating the law.

This introduction of the bill comes one month after the governor included provisions to lay the groundwork for cannabis legalization in a budget proposal that also calls for millions of dollars to support expungements. Northam had campaigned on merely decriminalizing possession, but he publicly backed broader legalization of marijuana for adult use in November.

Northam said during his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday that cannabis prohibition was deliberately enacted as a means to discriminate against people of color.

“The administration’s proposal does an excellent job of centering equity and restorative justice, but we are greatly concerned by the proposed rollbacks of newly enacted decriminalization measures and creation of new crimes for consumption and possession,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“Not only would this escalation in criminalization not increase public safety, this will specifically target young, Black, Brown, and poor Virginians, those who are already overwhelmingly and disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition,” Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said. “Governor Northam wants to get this right, and NORML will be offering policy guidance to help the administration do just that. It’s time to move forward, not backward, with cannabis policies in the Commonwealth.”

Separate legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use was filed by Del. Steve Heretick (D) last week.

Meanwhile, legislation to stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is set to take effect after lawmakers adopted recommended changes from the governor in October.

Also during the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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