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.
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. 2/3
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 8, 2020
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.
Senator Touts New Marijuana Legalization Bill In Floor Speech On Racial Justice
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) talked up her new marijuana legalization bill during a speech on racial justice that she delivered on the Senate floor on Thursday.
The senator, whose “Substance Regulation and Safety Act” was introduced late last month, said that ending cannabis prohibition could help law enforcement devote more resources to serious crimes, rather than continue to criminalize people in a racially disparate manner.
“We could actually improve public safety by devoting resources to combating violent crime, rather than over-enforcing low-level offenses in communities of color. Let’s think about what this means for marijuana offenses,” Smith said. “The federal marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that contributes to mass incarceration and over-policing of communities of color.”
“White and black people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but a black person is almost four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense. The federal government is behind both state law and public opinion. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia already allow some type of marijuana use, despite the longtime federal prohibition.
While the senator recently introduced her own legalization bill, she also called on Congress to pass a separate reform bill that she’s cosponsored: the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act.
The legislation “would address the devastating impact on communities of color of a war on drugs by expunging marijuana-related convictions and then reinvesting in community,” she said.
“It is time to legalize marijuana, and we should do it in a practical and commonsense way that protects the health and safety and the civil rights of our communities.”
Watch the senator discuss cannabis policy and racial justice below:
Her own bill, meanwhile, “would ensure that marijuana is regulated to protect the health and the safety of youth, of consumers and of drivers,” she said. “We do this without replicating the racist enforcement patterns of our current drug policy.”
Neither piece of legislation has advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate so far. The House version of the MORE Act cleared the Judiciary Committee last year, however, and a committee chairman’s staffer told Marijuana Moment last month that there are plans in the works to get it to the floor for a vote in September.
During her speech, Smith also discussed a number of other proposals concerning policing reform and racial justice. She announced the introduction of another new bill that she says “would help, state, local and tribal governments reimagine policing in their communities by funding innovative projects and best practices that will transform how we deliver public safety and other social services.”
The senator’s marijuana legalization bill would federally deschedule cannabis, require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop rules that treat the substance in the same way as tobacco, create a national research institute to evaluate the risks and benefits of use, require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to impose quality control standards and mandate that the Department of Transportation study methods for detecting THC-impaired driving.
The descheduling provisions “are retroactive and shall apply to any offense committed, case pending, or conviction entered, and, in the case of a juvenile, any offense committed, case pending, or adjudication of juvenile delinquency entered, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of this Act,” the text of the bill states.
HHS would have to come up with a “national strategy to prevent youth use and abuse of cannabis, with specific attention to youth vaping of cannabis products.” Further, text of the legislation states that the department would be required to “regulate cannabis products in the same manner, and to the same extent,” as it does with tobacco.
That includes “applying all labeling and advertising requirements that apply to tobacco products under such Act to cannabis products.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be tasked with working with other agencies to develop policies on allowing marijuana imports and exports.
The legislation further contains racial justice provisions. For example, HHS would have to consult with “consult with civil rights stakeholders” to determine “whether cannabis abuse prevention strategies and policies are likely to have racially disparate impacts” within 100 days of the bill’s enactment.
The Department of Transportation would similarly have to determine whether its impaired driving prevention policy “is likely to contribute to racially disparate impacts in the enforcement of traffic safety laws.”
Agencies charged with establishing these regulations would have one year following the bill’s enactment to finalize those rules.
A federal age requirement for marijuana sales would be set at 21 under the measure.
The legislation was introduced one day after the House approved a spending bill amendment that would protect all state, territory and tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention.
Smith’s focus on marijuana reform comes as lawmakers in her home state of Minnesota push for legalization, with a top legislator unveiling a comprehensive plan for legalizing cannabis for all adults 21 and older in May.
Further, it comes shortly after the Democratic National Committee rejected an amendment to adopt legalization as a 2020 party plank, with members opting instead to embrace more modest reforms. Advocates suspend that there may have been pressure for the panel not to formally embrace a policy change that is opposed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State
Oregon officials finalized a series of analyses this week on separate ballot measures to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and decriminalize drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that the decriminalization initiative would reduce felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug possession by 91 percent, and that reduction would be “substantial for all racial groups, ranging from 82.9% for Asian Oregonians to approximately 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.”
Overall, the policy change would result in a 95 percent drop in racial disparities for possession arrests, the panel projects.
“The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests.”
The conviction estimate was included in the panel’s draft analysis first released last month, but the final version was expanded to include the arrest data as well. The new document also notes that “disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others”—a point that activists hoped the panel would include.
That said, the commission noted it “lacks sufficient or appropriate data in each of these areas and therefore cannot provide estimates for these other stages.”
The new report, published on Wednesday, cites research indicating that the resulting “drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others.”
The decriminalization proposal was the first ballot initiative in the state’s history to receive a report on the racial justice implications of its provisions under a little-utilized procedure where lawmakers can request such an analysis.
This information will be included in a voter pamphlet as a factual statement from the secretary of state’s office.
“Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more,” Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign, said in a press release.
Both the psilocybin therapy and drug decriminalization measures also received final explanatory statements and fiscal impact statements this week.
For the therapeutic psilocybin legalization initiative, the Financial Estimate Committee said that it projects the measure will have an impact of $5.4 million from the general fund during the two-year development period. After the program is established, it will cost $3.1 million annually, “which will be covered by the fees and tax funds for the administration and enforcement of the Act.”
The explanatory statement says the measure “directs the Oregon Health Authority to regulate the manufacture, delivery, purchase, and consumption of psilocybin, a psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms, at licensed psilocybin service centers” and that a “person would be allowed to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin only at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
It also describes an initial two-year development period during which officials will research and make recommendations on “the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat mental health conditions,” after which time the new law will allow “a client who is at least 21 years of age to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin initiative, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “satisfied with the explanatory statement and believe it captures the thoughtful approach we took that led to psilocybin therapy being on the ballot this November.”
“Specifically, we were happy to see the regulations and safeguards that are built into the measure highlighted in the explanatory statement,” he said. “We also believe that the fiscal committee saw and respected our approach to keep the psilocybin therapy program revenue neutral once up and running.”
The drug possession decriminalization measure is expected to cost $57 million annually, according to state officials, but it will be covered by marijuana tax revenue, which is “estimated at $61.1 million in 2019-21 and $182.4 million in 2021-23” and would therefore be “sufficient to meet this requirement.” Cannabis revenue to cities and counties would be reduced under the measure.
The reform would also save money through reduced drug enforcement. “These savings are estimated at $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23,” the analysis says. “This will reduce revenue transferred from the Department of Corrections for local government community corrections by $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23. The savings are expected to increase beyond the 2021-23 biennium.”
The initiative “mandates the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each existing coordinated care organization service area in the state,” the separate explanatory statement says, and describes how they would be funded with marijuana tax revenue.
“The measure eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles,” it says. “Instead, possession of these specified quantities of controlled substances becomes a non-criminal Class E violation for which the maximum punishment is a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.”
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
A measure to effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics has officially qualified for the November ballot in Washington, D.C.
Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last month.
Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Read the full state analysis of the Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin therapy measures below:
Top White House Official Blasts Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ Coronavirus Bill
Vice President Mike Pence’s top staffer on Thursday joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing House Democrats for including marijuana banking provisions to the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief bill.
Marc Short, who is Pence’s chief of staff and previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, discussed the COVID-19 legislation during an interview with Fox Business, and he described the Democratic proposal as a “liberal wish list” with “all sorts of things totally unrelated to coronavirus.”
“In one instance they have provided guarantees for banking access for marijuana growers,” Short said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus.”
He’s referring to language that was inserted from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Numerous Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have been critical of the provision, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.
Democrats, for their part, have made the case that granting cannabis businesses with access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview this week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.
“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.
While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.
The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.