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Texas Lawmakers Hold Marijuana Decriminalization Hearing

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A Texas House committee is scheduled to hear testimony on Monday about a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

House Bill 63, introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D) of El Paso, would make possession of up to an ounce of cannabis a civil penalty carrying a fine of $250. This change in the law would eliminate the threat of arrests, jail time and criminal records that are currently associated with most low-level marijuana charges.

Under the proposed legislation, which will be considered by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, people could still be charged with a Class C Misdemeanor after being caught with marijuana three times.

The bill is the first of a bevy of cannabis-related legislation in Texas to get a hearing this session, but it is not the Lone Star State’s first two-step with reforming marijuana laws. The legislation being heard Monday is identical to a bill that passed out of the same committee in the last session, but didn’t make it to the floor in time for a vote.

Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said the bill has been in development since 2015, when it was first introduced.

Fazio said the bill has three goals:

“We want to see no arrests, no jail time and most importantly no criminal records,” she told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “The trouble in Texas is that everything is criminal. There are no civil offenses.”

Ten states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing the legal use of the drug by adults, and even more have made possession of marijuana a civil, rather than criminal penalty. But in Texas, individuals found in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana can face misdemeanor charges that could result in 180 days in jail or fines up to $2,000.

Public attitudes toward marijuana appear to be changing, according to recent data from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. Their 2018 survey found that a majority of Texans support cannabis law reform. The Republican and Democratic parties of Texas have both adopted marijuana reform planks in their party platforms.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said in an election debate last year that he is open to supporting marijuana policies akin to decriminalization.

“One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana,” he said.

Aside from the decriminalization legislation, a number of other cannabis-related bills have been filed for the 2019 legislative session.

Marc Levin, the vice president of criminal justice policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation said his group hasn’t taken a position on House Bill 63, but has supported lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in the past.

“There’s no evidence that’s arresting people and putting them in jail for small amounts of time is actually doing anything to reduce marijuana use,” he told the Texas Tribune.

Meanwhile, the state’s NORML chapter has organized a letter-writing campaign in support of the bill. As of this writing, the group has sent more than 1,500 messages to lawmakers.

Fazio said Monday’s hearing would include testimony from a judge, a retired Houston Police Department officer, a former prosecutor and individuals who have faced prosecution for cannabis.

“It makes no sense to take away a person’s driver’s license, and with it their ability to work and earn a living, just because they’re caught in possession of marijuana when they aren’t under the influence,” Senior District Judge John Delaney said in his prepared remarks.

Chances Are ‘Good’ That Whole Foods Will Sell Marijuana Products, CEO Says

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.

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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