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Texas Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Gets Committee Hearing

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Texas lawmakers heard over two hours of testimony on a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana on Monday.

Just before the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee’s hearing on the legislation began, four committee chairs announced they were signing on as cosponsors of the proposal.

House Bill 63, introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D) of El Paso, would set civil instead of criminal penalties for people found in possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. The violation would carry a $250 fine that could be increased to a misdemeanor charge after three repeat violations.

Currently 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.

“I want to make very clear that HB 63 isn’t legalization or medical expansion,” Moody told the committee. “It’s an enforcement alternative, which is to keep marijuana illegal but enforce those laws with a civil penalty instead of a criminal one.”

At the hearing, lawmakers heard from members of law enforcement and the criminal justice system that both support and oppose decriminalizing marijuana.

Nueces County district attorney Mark Gonzalez made the drive to Austin to testify for the bill, even though he was scheduled to lead a capital murder case in Corpus Christi the next day. In addition to supporting HB 63, Gonzalez talked about the diversion program his county and others are implementing to keep low-level drug offenders out of prisons.

“We have to decide enough is enough and to be smart on crime,” he said. “The time is now.”

Senior District Judge John Delaney of Bryan, Texas pointed out in prepared testimony that the bill would reduce the number of drivers licenses that are suspended following a marijuana conviction.

“License suspensions are in some ways more onerous than jail sentences,” Delaney said. “A suspension isn’t over at the end of the suspension period. The suspension continues until the driver takes certain action to get it reinstated. He must fill out an application for reinstatement, pay a $100 fee, purchase expensive SR-22 insurance, and complete a drug education course.”

“The combined cost of these items is a serious barrier for many Texans,” he added.

Delaney said reducing penalties would also save officers’ time.

“Then there are the costs of jailing, feeding, clothing and attending to the medical needs of over 54,000 prisoners a year, plus the costs of processing these individuals through the court system, sometimes with the benefit of court-appointed lawyers,” he said.

Under Moody’s bill, people caught possessing small amounts of cannabis would have the option to take an education course or do community service if they are unable to pay the fine.

During testimony, three police chiefs from around the state testified in opposition to the bill, calling marijuana a dangerous drug and a threat to public health. All three advocated for allowing officers to exercise their own discretion in whether a person should be arrested.

According to an explanatory document circulated by the bill’s supporters, HB 63 would “promote uniformity on a statewide level. The bill would provide legislative guidance to a patchwork system of cities and counties that have attempted to address this on their own.”

“Arrests and prosecutions have little deterrent effect and haven’t caused a decline in marijuana use in Texas, but they do actually make our streets more dangerous by diverting law enforcement from more serious crimes and spurring drug-related violence,” it argues.

If the bill is enacted, marijuana found by police would still be seized and destroyed, in line with current practice.

“Driving while impaired by marijuana is still DWI,” the sponsors’ document reads. “If a marijuana user is causing problems in public, they can still be arrested for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, or any number of things.”

John “Jay” Hall, a retired lieutenant from the Houston Police Department, submitted written testimony on the effects of cannabis prohibition, which he saw firsthand in his 30 years on the force. According to arrest reports from the Texas Department of Public Safety, marijuana accounted for half of 128,003 simple drug possession arrests in 2017.

“This bill also reflects that we are smart on crime with respect to our morality and ethics when we see the devastation that previous marijuana laws have done, especially to communities of color,” he wrote. “This bill shows that we are changing course to allow individuals the opportunity to keep their lives on track.”

Similar legislation advanced out of committee last session but did not receive a floor vote in time to advance.

The bill’s return to Austin comes in the midst of a shift in public perception regarding cannabis. A 2018 survey from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune 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. And Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said he’s open to reducing penalties.

David Sloane is a criminal defense attorney from Fort Worth who previously served on the police force in Tarrant County. He described the marijuana arrests he made as “like getting the low-hanging fruit.”

“That wasn’t an arrest report I put on the top of the stack for everyone to see. I stuck that underneath because I wasn’t proud of what I’d done,” he said. “I didn’t see the harm they had done to society.”

Sloane said a majority of the cases his practice now takes are for similar marijuana possession charges.

“It’s insane to have me come here and ask for lower penalties,” he said. “It’s going to put me out of business but you know what? It’s the right thing to do.”

Legalization advocates were pleased with how the hearing went.

“We’re thrilled to see such tremendous bipartisan support for House Bill 63,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “This bill represents common ground amongst Democrats and Republicans who are ready to move forward with a more reasonable approach to marijuana policy.”

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DC Activists Have A New Plan To Get Psychedelics Decriminalization On The Ballot Despite Coronavirus

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Activists in Washington, D.C. are considering a new strategy to get a measure to decriminalize psychedelics on the November ballot, with the coronavirus outbreak having forced them to suspend in-person signature gathering.

While Decriminalize Nature D.C. hoped that officials would pass emergency legislation allowing the digital collection of signatures, they aren’t actively considering that option. And the District Council’s chairman said he would not simply place the initiative on the ballot for voters to decide regardless of the signature count.

That’s left the group in a challenging position. But they’re not out of ideas yet.

Now the campaign is exploring the possibility of conducting “micro-scale petition signature collection” to make the ballot. The plan would involve having petitions mailed to supporters, who would circulate it and collect signatures from “registered DC voters in their immediate vicinity, such as family, roommates, friends and close-by neighbors” and then return the signed petitions to the campaign headquarters.

They’ve launched an online survey to determine the feasibility of the option. It asks prospective volunteers to estimate how many signatures they could theoretically collect under that limited scope and provide their mailing information should the campaign decide to move forward with the plan.

This is one of the last remaining options for the 2020 effort, which is working to make a wide range of psychedelics among the district’s lowest law enforcement priorities.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said during a press conference on Friday that he “would not say that we’re looking for legislative action to put [the initiative] on the ballot” outside of the conventional process.

Board of Elections Chairman Michael Bennett also took a question about the prospect of allow electronic signature collection. He said his panel is not considering the possibility “at this point.”

Watch the comments below, starting around 22:15:

Decriminalize Nature D.C. is one of numerous groups working to change local and state drug policy laws. And it’s not alone in its struggle amid the current pandemic.

A California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

Arizona activists shared some more positive news last week, however, announcing that they have collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot—though they have not yet been submitted to or verified by the state.

Marijuana Legalization Left Out Of New York Budget, According To Draft Summary Document

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Marijuana Legalization Left Out Of New York Budget, According To Draft Summary Document

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The New York legislature seems poised to eliminate a proposal to legalize marijuana through the budget this year, according to an unverified document outlining the policies included in the spending legislation currently under final negotiations ahead of a vote this week.

The draft budget report, which was shared with Marijuana Moment, includes a line stating that the “Adopted Budget omits the Executive proposal to legalize adult use cannabis.”

It also “eliminates $34.31 million in funding for the Office for Cannabis Management,” a government body that would have been responsible for regulating the marijuana market.

The apparent exclusion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) legalization proposal, while disappointing to reform advocates, is not entirely surprising in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. While the governor repeatedly stressed that the policy change should be enacted through the budget, he and top lawmakers have tried to temper expectations in recent weeks as legislative priorities have shifted during the pandemic.

But to some, the draft adopted budget report isn’t necessarily a death knell for the reform move, and they hope lawmakers can still accomplish legalization this year through separate legislation.

“We are disappointed adult use is not in the budget since it would have been a huge economic benefit to New York farmers and small businesses,” Allan Gandelman, president of the NY Cannabis Growers & Processors Association, told Marijuana Moment. “We hope to continue working with the governor and the legislature to get this done as soon as possible.”

The legislature must still vote on the final budget, but there’s little time left to hash out a deal on comprehensive reform ahead of a Wednesday deadline. Sen. Liz Krueger (D) filed a revised standalone legalization bill earlier this month, language of which could have theoretically been inserted into the budget, but it’s not clear that option remains on the table.

Marijuana Moment reached out to Senate and Assembly leadership for comment about the draft budget summary, but representatives were not immediately available. The document, which according to its metadata was last modified on Sunday afternoon, contains highlighted sections for issues that are “still open” for negotiation, but that is not the case for the cannabis items.

This is the second year in a row that Cuomo has pitched legalization as part of his spending plan. Last year, months of negotiation between his office and lawmakers failed to produce a passable bill—with disagreements centering on issues such as how tax revenue would be allocated—and so the effort carried over to this year.

The governor seemed confident that 2020 would be the year for legal cannabis in New York, and he included the proposal in his State of the State address in January. As recently as last week, he indicated the effort was still alive, though he also recognized that it may prove too complicated an issue to ultimately deliver through the budget this round.

“We will pass a budget and address the policy items that we laid out and we discussed because it’s not just about passing a budget and the numbers,” he said. “There are many policy initiatives that I laid out back in January, and we’re going to pursue all of them.”

“The only caveat was if you have a really complex issue that normally would require weeks of nuanced, detailed negotiation to do it right, that we won’t do. Because I don’t want to pass any bills that are not really intelligent that I then have to come back and deal with again next year,” he continued. “If it’s a highly complex issue, I get it and then let’s put it off because we don’t want to do something sloppy.”

Another part of the governor’s legalization plan originally involved visiting legal cannabis states to learn from their experiences and take lessons back home. However, Cuomo said that trip was also impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, drug policy reform efforts across the country are struggling amid the pandemic.

Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. In Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics similarly wrote to the mayor and local lawmakers, imploring them to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

Another California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

Arizona activists shared some more positive news last week, however, announcing that they have collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot—though they have not yet been submitted to or verified by the state.

Senate Housing Bill Would Prevent Evictions For State-Legal Marijuana Extraction

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Senate Housing Bill Would Prevent Evictions For State-Legal Marijuana Extraction

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A new congressional bill designed to promote affordable housing in the U.S. includes a provision that would prevent landlords from evicting people over manufacturing marijuana extracts if they have a license to do so.

Under the legislation, filed earlier this month by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), there’s a list of “just causes for eviction” such as failure to pay rent or causing significant damage to a property.

The “manufacture of a cannabinoid extract” is another cause for eviction, “unless the tenant holds a license to manufacture the cannabinoid extract under Federal, State, or Tribal law.”

Curiously, however, the bill lacks any additional protections for other state-legal cannabis activities, including simple possession. It’s possible that a drafting error is to blame, but Merkley’s office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment.

Just above the manufacturing provision is another that states that “the unlawful manufacture, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance” is ground for eviction, though it contains no caveat exempting state-legal activity as cause for eviction.

Despite the growing number of states moving to allow cannabis for medical or recreational use, it remains “unlawful” under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

While advocates would likely applaud the inclusion of state-legal protection language, it’s also the case that eviction proceedings are handled at the state level, and so some courts would presumably defer to state law when it comes to cannabis-related eviction cases.

Also, when it comes to the manufacturing provision, states generally do not provide licenses that would specifically allow individuals to produce marijuana extracts in their residences, so it’s unclear how impactful that policy would be in practice if enacted into law.

Of course, the cannabis provision is just one notable part of a comprehensive housing bill, which aims to “address the shortcomings of our current housing policies and funding levels by holistically addressing disparities and systematic obstacles and ensuring an equitable outcome for the most vulnerable Americans.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) rolled out a different kind of housing reform bill last year that would protect people with low-level drug convictions from being denied access to or being evicted from public housing.

Letting VA Doctors Recommend Medical Marijuana To Veterans Won’t Cost Anything, Congressional Analysts Say

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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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