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Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

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Texas would become the 25th state in the U.S. to remove the threat of being jailed as a punishment for possessing small amounts of marijuana under a bill approved by the state House of Representatives on Monday.

The legislation, which would punish people caught with an ounce or less of cannabis with a $500 fine instead of arrest and incarceration, passed by a vote of 98 to 43.

Rep. Joseph Moody (D), the chief sponsor, amended the bill on the floor in order to win more support from colleagues. An earlier version included a lower fine—$250—and would have treated low-level possession as a civil infraction instead of a class C misdemeanor as is the case under the revised proposal.

But its broad effects remain the same: No arrest or incarceration for people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

They will also avoid long-term criminal records as long as they follow terms of deferral assigned by judges, such as doing community service or completing drug education classes. The provisions, which individuals can take advantage of as much as once a year, also apply to possession of paraphernalia.

“Texans have suffered under failing marijuana policies for far too long,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said. “Rep. Moody’s bill will help preserve valuable public safety resources and keep a marijuana charge from derailing someone’s life.”

The proposal also sets out a procedure for people to have marijuana offenses expunged—meaning that they would not have criminal records, which can have long-lasting consequences on employment, housing, educational opportunities and the ability to maintain a driver’s license.

While Gov. Greg Abbott (R) opposes broader cannabis legalization, he said during a reelection debate last year that he is open to more limited reforms such as those that would be accomplished under the decriminalization bill.

“One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana,” he said. “I would be open to talking to the legislature about reducing the penalty for possession of two ounces or less from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor.”

“Although this compromise isn’t as far as I’d like to go, I’m not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect,” Moody said of the amendment prior to the vote, noting that he spoke with the governor’s office on Monday about the changes. “If this is what we can do, then this is what we must do.”

The Republican Party of Texas endorsed decriminalizing cannabis last year.

“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,” reads a platform plank approved at the 2018 party convention.

In neighboring New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed a marijuana decriminalization bill into law earlier this month.

The Texas legislation was approved by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee last month. After an additional House vote for third reading approval, expected as soon as this week, it will head to the Senate for consideration.

“This is a historic step forward in changing Texas’s current draconian marijuana laws,” Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, said. “Now, we turn our sights to the Senate so that this important policy can make its way through the legislative gauntlet and start helping Texans.”

Last week, the House voted to unanimously approve a bill to legalize industrial hemp and its derivatives, including CBD.

Meanwhile, legislation to expand Texas’s limited medical cannabis program has cleared a key House committee and could reach the floor soon.

While there is no strict legal definition of “decriminalization,” advocacy groups including the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) use the term to describe laws that avoid incarceration for low-level cannabis crimes, with most decriminalized states issuing fines to people caught possessing the drug.

“HB 63 would save thousands of Texans from life-altering and traumatic arrests and incarceration, while freeing up police resources to focus on crimes that have victims,” Karen O’Keefe, MPP’s state policies director, said.

Twenty-four other states—including 10 that have legalized marijuana outright—already have policies on the books that do not send first-time low-level cannabis possessors to jail.

Besides Texas, a number of other states may soon enact such laws.

Alabama’s Senate Judiciary Committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill this month. It has not yet been scheduled for floor action.

Lawmakers in Hawaii are working to reconcile the differences between versions of marijuana decriminalization legislation that have passed the House and Senate there.

A Missouri House committee also approved a bill to decriminalize cannabis this month.

This piece was first published by Forbes.

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 15-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.)

Politics

New Jersey Voters Will Decide On Marijuana Legalization Next Year, Senate Leaders Say

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New Jersey lawmakers are giving up on plans to enact marijuana legalization through the legislature and are now seeking to put the question before voters on the 2020 ballot.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D) announced on Monday that while they had “made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively,” the “votes just aren’t there.” As a result, they filed a proposal that would allow residents to vote on legalization as a constitutional amendment.

“We are moving forward with a plan to seek voter approval to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey,” the leaders said in a press release. “We introduced legislation today to authorize a public referendum for a proposal that will lead to the creation of a system that allows adults to purchase and use marijuana for recreational purposes in a responsible way.”

“This initiative will bring cannabis out of the underground so that it can be controlled to ensure a safe product, strictly regulated to limit use to adults and have sales subjected to the sales tax,” they said.

The plan, which NJ.com first reported, is to have the legislature to approve the referendum proposal and get the ballot measure set for a vote in the general election next November. Sweeney and Scutari said they are “confident it will be approved by the Senate, the Assembly and the voters.”

“We will now move forward with a plan that helps correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color,” they said. “We can make real progress towards social justice at the same time that cannabis is made safe and legal.”

Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he is “disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo—which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color—will continue.”

“However, I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November,” he said. “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”

After months of negotiation, it became apparent that that progress wasn’t going to happen legislatively in the short-term, with Sweeney indicating as early as May that legalization would likely have to be decided through a voter referendum.

Text of the resolution calling for a referendum doesn’t offer many details about what the proposed legal cannabis market would look like; rather it generally describes a system allowing adults 21 and older to use and purchase marijuana from authorized retail facilities. The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission would be responsible for regulating the program. And cannabis sales would be subject to the state sales tax, with no additional excise tax added.

As written, the draft ballot question is worded somewhat confusingly. Voters would be asked: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”

“Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis,” it continues. “The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Retail sales of cannabis products in this new market would be subject to the State’s sales tax, and no other form of tax.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said in a press release that his chamber “will vote on legislation to put an adult-use cannabis question before the voters.”

“We plan to pass the measure this year and next in order for New Jerseyans to have the opportunity to make the decision in November 2020 when we expect voter turnout to be high due to the presidential election,” he said.

Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana celebrated news of the legislature abandoning plans to pursue legalization legislatively this session and said it would invest resources into a campaign to dissuade voters from supporting the proposed ballot initiative.

While adult-use legalization hasn’t panned out as advocates hoped, Murphy did sign a bill significantly expanding the state’s medical cannabis program in July. Sweeney had pointed to that reform move as one reason legalization negotiations stalled.

It’s not clear how the ballot approach is going to impact discussions about regionally coordinating legalization plans in the Northeast, which has been ongoing since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) met to talk about the issue over the summer.

During a joint meeting of governors from around the region last month, Murphy said that “doing things in an intelligent, coordinated, harmonious way is good for the entirety of not just our states but our residents” and emphasized the need for social justice components in a legal cannabis market.

Read the text of the New Jersey marijuana legalization referendum resolution below:

NJ Marijuana Ballot Bill by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Sanders Pledges Legal Marijuana ‘In Every State’ As Biden Faces ‘Gateway Drug’ Backlash

This story has been updated to include comments from the governor and assembly speaker.

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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Sanders Pledges Legal Marijuana ‘In Every State’ As Biden Faces ‘Gateway Drug’ Backlash

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As former Vice President Joe Biden faces a backlash over his suggestion that marijuana could be a ‘gateway’ drug, rival presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, are touting their own support for cannabis reform proposals

One day after Biden said he doesn’t support national cannabis legalization because there’s “not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” Sanders offered a competing vision, emphasizing in a speech that he wants to “make marijuana legal in every state in the country,” rather than allow prohibition to continue in certain states.

The senator also discussed other elements of a cannabis reform plan he released last month, including his pledge to “expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana” and provide funding to promote participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities most impacted by the war on drugs.

“It sounds unfair that when we legalize marijuana, you end up having a handful of corporations controlling that industry,” Sanders said during the Sunday event in Las Vegas. “We have built into our criminal justice program an effort to provide many billions of dollars in help to people in the African-American community, Latino community, other communities, the people who have been hit the hardest by the war on drugs, to help them profit off a legal marijuana system.”

Watch Sanders’s marijuana comments, around 33:00 into the video below: 

Sanders described his three-step plan to prevent large corporations from controlling the cannabis market during an interview on Showtime’s Desus & Mero last month.

Separately, he took to Twitter on Sunday to highlight new polling showing that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.

Meanwhile, Harris also appeared to take a direct hit at Biden over his “gateway drug” comment, stating that the debate on that matter is already settled.

“Let’s be clear: marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized,” she tweeted, adding that she’s glad that a bill she and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed earlier this year to federally deschedule cannabis is scheduled for a vote in the House this week.

Harris herself has faced pushback from reform advocates and challengers who point out that the senator was involved in criminalizing cannabis consumers, and opposed legalization, during her time as a prosecutor.

Yang, for his part, presented a visual contrast to Biden on Monday, sharing photos of him smiling, surrounded by dozens of trimmed marijuana plants in an undisclosed facility.

He also wrote in a tweet that cannabis “should be legal nationwide” and linked to a campaign site page laying out his reform plan.

“It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist,” Yang said.

Biden has drawn criticism from lawmakers outside of the presidential race as well, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) calling him out on Monday.

“Get with the program, @JoeBiden,” the congressman, who has spearheaded Capitol Hill efforts to end federal prohibition, said. “Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.”

“The war on drugs has ruined countless lives,” he said. “It’s past time we end this senseless prohibition.”

AOC Calls For Decriminalizing The Use Of All Drugs

Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.

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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AOC Calls For Decriminalizing The Use Of All Drugs

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voiced support for decriminalizing the use of all drugs on Sunday.

The freshman congresswoman tweeted that drug decriminalization, as well as marijuana legalization, are “matters of public health.”

This marks a development in Ocasio-Cortez’s drug policy platform. Previously, she called for decriminalizing the use and research of psychedelics, emphasizing the therapeutic potential of the substances.

To that end, she introduced an amendment to a spending bill in June that would remove a rider that advocates argue has inhibited research into the potential therapeutic benefits of Schedule I drugs such as psilocybin and LSD. The House rejected that measure in a floor vote, however.

There’s a growing push to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs beyond cannabis. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), both Democratic presidential candidates, are in favor of the policy. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang supports decriminalizing opioids as a means to combat the drug overdose crisis.

Ocasio-Cortez recently gave her endorsement to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But while the senator was the first major presidential candidate to back marijuana legalization during his 2016 run, he said this year he’s “not there yet” on broader drug decriminalization. It’s not clear if the congresswoman’s role as a surrogate on his campaign will ultimately influence him to adopt the policy.

But as more candidates debate the best way forward on various drug reform proposals, with cannabis legalization being a given for almost all contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden remains several paces behind. He opposes adult-use legalization and said on Saturday that marijuana may be a gateway to other, more dangerous substances.

Biden Says Marijuana Might Be A Gateway Drug

Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.

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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