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.
— Alexandra Samuels (@AlexSamuelsx5) March 4, 2019
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.”
Getting ready to layout #HB63 in committee. Proud to have strong bipartisan support behind this bill that would create a civil penalty for low grade possession of marijuana. Ready for the work ahead to get this passed! #txlege Watch here https://t.co/t079fXDyCg CC: @TxMJPolicy
— Joe Moody (@moodyforelpaso) March 4, 2019
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.
Proud to be in Austin to testify against HB63. Don’t believe the myths. Marijuana is, in fact, a dangerous drug that destroys people’s lives and is detrimental to public safety in Grand Prairie and the State of Texas. @GrandPrairiePD #Texas pic.twitter.com/bObBqVZckV
— Ronnie Morris (@ChiefMorrisGPPD) March 4, 2019
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.”
California Governor Approves Changes To Marijuana Banking And Labeling Laws
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a handful of marijuana bills into law on Tuesday, making a series of small adjustments to the nation’s largest legal cannabis system. More sweeping proposals such as overhauling the state’s marijuana regulatory structure will have to wait until next year, the governor said.
Among the biggest of the new changes are revisions to banking and advertising laws. With many legal marijuana businesses are still unable to access financial services, Newsom signed a bill (AB 1525) to remove state penalties against banks that work with cannabis clients.
“This bill has the potential to increase the provisions of financial services to the legal cannabis industry,” Newsom wrote in a signing statement, “and for that reason, I support it.”
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have been working for months to remove obstacles to these businesses’ access to financial services at the federal level. A coronavirus relief bill released by House Democratic leaders on Monday is the latest piece of legislation to include marijuana banking protections. Past efforts to include such provisions have been scuttled by Senate Republicans.
In his signing statement on the banking bill, Newsom directed state cannabis regulators to establish rules meant to protect the privacy of marijuana businesses that seek financial services, urging that data be kept confidential and is used only “for the provision of financial services to support licensees.”
Another bill (SB 67) the governor signed on Tuesday will finally establish a cannabis appellation program, meant to indicate where marijuana is grown and how that might influence its character. The system is similar to how wine regions are regulated.
Under the new law, growers and processors under the new law will be forbidden from using the name of a city or other designated region in product marketing unless all of that product’s cannabis is grown in that region. Similar protections already apply at the county level.
For outdoor growers, the new law recognizes the importance of terrior—the unique combination of soil, sun and other environmental factors that can influence the character of a cannabis plant. For indoor growers, it provides a way to represent a hometown or cash in on regional cachet.
Most of the other new changes that the governor signed into law are relatively minor and will likely go unnoticed by consumers. One, for example, builds in more wiggle room on the amount of THC in edibles (AB 1458), while another would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide services to law enforcement (SB 1244).
The bills were approved by state lawmakers earlier this month, as the state’s legislative session drew to a close.
Other pieces of cannabis legislation passed by the legislature this session were met with the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, Newsom rejected a proposal (AB 1470) that would have allowed processors to submit unpackaged products to testing labs, which industry lobbyists said would reduce costs. Currently products must be submitted in their final form, complete with retail packaging. Newsom said the proposal “conflicts with current regulations…that prevent contaminated and unsafe products from entering the retail market.”
“While I support reducing packaging waste, allowing products to be tested not in their final form could result in consumer harm and have a disproportionate impact on small operators,” Newsom said in a veto statement.
Those changes to testing procedures should instead be considered next year, Newsom said, as part of a pending plan to streamline California’s cannabis licensing and regulatory agencies.
“I have directed my administration to consolidate the state regulatory agencies that currently enforce cannabis health and safety standards to pursue all appropriate measures to ease costs and reduce unnecessary packaging,” he wrote. “This proposal should be considered as part of that process.”
Newsom also last week vetoed a bill (AB 545) that would have begun to dissolve the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees the legal industry. In a statement, the governor called that legislation “premature” given his plans for broader reform.
“My Administration has proposed consolidating the regulatory authority currently divided between three state entities into one single department,” Newsom wrote, “which we hope to achieve next year in partnership with the Legislature.”
Earlier this month, the governor signed into law one of the industry’s top priorities for the year—a measure (AB 1872) that freezes state cannabis cultivation and excise taxes for the entirety of 2021. The law is intended to provide financial stability for cannabis businesses in California, where taxes on marijuana are among the highest in the nation.
The state’s leading marijuana trade group, the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), applauded the governor’s moves. All the bills approved by Newsom this week had the industry group’s support.
“We thank Governor Newsom for prioritizing these bills, which seek to reduce regulatory burdens, improve enforcement, expand financial services and enhance the state’s cannabis appellation’s program,” CCIA Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said in a message to supporters on Wednesday. “Like so many, the cannabis industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges and setbacks in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom Administration, and the Legislature, as we pursue a robust policy agenda in 2021.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore
Mixed Arizona Marijuana Polls Raise Questions About Legalization Ballot Measure’s Prospects
Reform advocates are anxious to see how a marijuana legalization initiative in Arizona will fare this November. But predicting the outcome is complicated by a new pair of dueling polls that show mixed results.
The campaign behind the legalization measure, Smart and Safe Arizona, shared an internal poll on Wednesday with Marijuana Moment that showed 57 percent of likely voters in support for the effort, with 38 percent in opposition.
The survey, which was conducted September 24-29, shows that 83 percent of supporters say they are certain to vote for the measure. Opposition was just as certain, however, by a margin of 82 percent to 12 percent.
Seventy-two percent of Democrats support the legal cannabis initiative, as do 70 percent of independents and 42 percent of Republicans.
But while those results are largely consistent with several surveys this year have shown varying degrees of majority support for adult-use legalization among Arizona voters, a separate poll released on Tuesday that’s being touted by opponents indicates that the margin is slimmer than advocates would hope—with 46 percent of respondents saying they want the policy change and 45 percent saying they don’t.
n= 600 LVs, MOE +/- 4.0%, Survey Conducted 9/8- 9/10
— OHPI (@OHPredictive) September 29, 2020
When the same firm, OH Predictive Insights (OHPI), conducted a poll asking the same basic question about legalizing cannabis in July, 62 percent of likely voters said they favor legalization. The month prior, about 65 percent said they back the legal cannabis ballot measure in a survey from a different pollster, HighGround.
The notable dip based on the new OHPI poll appears to be largely attributable to declining support among people over 55, those who live in rural areas, independents and Republicans.
“As election day nears, voters appear to be focusing on what’s on the ballot. And while the campaign to oppose marijuana legalization is anemic compared to 2016, voters still have concerns about the effort,” OHPI Chief Mike Noble said in a press release, referring to an earlier legalization initiative that Arizonans rejected four years ago after a campaign in which the opposition received significant funding, including from a pharmaceutical company.
#AZPOP #POLL: “As election day nears, voters appear to be focusing on what’s on the ballot, and while the campaign to oppose marijuana legalization is anemic compared to 2016, voters still have concerns about the effort,” says @MikePNoble
— OHPI (@OHPredictive) September 29, 2020
But the reform campaign isn’t deterred. Far from it, actually. In addition to sharing their internal poll, a spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the memo for the separate survey showing dwindling support actually bolstered its contributions by another $250,000—in the early part of the day alone.
“We’re giving this poll as much credence as we should—none. It’s absurd to think that while Arizona is on pace to sell a record amount of cannabis ($1.25B) to a record number of cardholders, popularity is waning,” Smart and Safe Arizona Campaign Manager Stacy Pearson told Marijuana Moment, referring to purchases in the state’s existing medical cannabis system. “Cash register receipts and internal polling do not align with OH’s prediction.”
“That said, their polling memo has certainly helped our cause. We have generated more than $250,000 in contributions today, and it’s not even noon,” she said on Tuesday morning.
In the campaign’s internal poll, 65 percent of those surveyed believe the measure, Prop. 207, would have a positive effect on the state’s economy, compared to 26 percent who said it would have a negative effect.
The OHPI poll involved interviews with 600 likely Arizona voters from September 8-10. The internal campaign poll involved 800 respondents.
Colton Grace, communications associate for the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana, told Marijuana Moment after viewing only the OHPI poll that it’s “great to see that the support for marijuana legalization—which is never as popular as the industry claims it is in the first place—is dropping rapidly ahead of the vote in Arizona.”
“This effort is no different than that of 2016 in that it is nothing more than a for-profit scheme that benefits a select group of investors while unleashing serious harms on the majority of the state,” he argued.
Another survey released this month from a separate firm showed that a slim majority of voters (51 percent) support the ballot measure.
Under the legalization initiative, adults could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
The measure also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program
Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.
The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.
Read the full internal poll from the Arizona marijuana legalization campaign below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
New Jersey Governor Works To Get Out The Vote For Marijuana Legalization Referendum
The governor of New Jersey is amplifying his support for a marijuana legalization referendum that will appear on the state’s November ballot.
In an email blast sent by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee on Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wrote that legalization was a priority of his as he campaigned for governor, and he emphasized racial disparities in cannabis enforcement.
“Legalization would right those wrongs while also spurring massive economic development opportunities, job creation, and new tax revenue,” he said. “Now, we have the opportunity to get this done and finally legalize adult-use marijuana here in the Garden State, and I need your help to make it happen. Vote Yes on Public Question #1 on your ballot.”
It’s clear that marijuana prohibition is causing serious, lasting damage to our state. Now, we have an opportunity to fix that and finally legalize adult-use marijuana in NJ. Vote Yes on Question 1. #TurnThePage https://t.co/dkq6zsHvVV
— Phil Murphy (@PhilMurphyNJ) September 30, 2020
“It has taken longer than we hoped to get to this point. Many well-meaning leaders have their reasons for opposing legalization, and we take their objections seriously,” he added. “But the overwhelming evidence points to a clear reality that this is something we must do to make our state both stronger and fairer.”
Murphy also wrote about the economic toll of enforcing prohibition, the long-lasting consequences of having a marijuana conviction on a person’s record and the fact that a growing number of states are legalizing cannabis for adult use.
“Voting Yes on Public Question #1 will legalize marijuana for adult use, while also creating a new regulatory structure to make sure operators are following the law and ensure that minors are not able to purchase the product. Legalization will not be the end of the story—there is more work to do, particularly in expunging past marijuana-related offenses. This is our chance to make history in New Jersey, and it’s all up to you.”
The governor said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.
Legalize it. pic.twitter.com/8gIbogvwW4
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) September 29, 2020
Legislators attempted to enact the policy change during the last session, but when negotiations stalled, they opted to put the question to voters in the form of a referendum. If the measure is approved on Election Day, the legislature will then have to pass implementing legislation containing details for how the legal cannabis market will work.
Recent polling indicates that the proposal has strong support among New Jersey voters. A survey from the law firm Brach Eichler that was released last week shows that 65 percent of likely voters are in favor of the policy change. That’s consistent with the results of a poll the firm published last month, signaling that support is steady.
The governor’s message to voters comes one week after NJ CAN 2020, a coalition of civil rights and drug policy reform groups, launched their first video ad promoting the legalization referendum.
In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill last month that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time.
Read Murphy’s full email in support of approving the legalization measure below:
When I first announced my campaign for Governor, legalizing adult-use marijuana was one of my top priorities. It was as clear then as it is now — marijuana prohibition causes serious, lasting damage to our state, especially to the 35,000 mostly young, Black and Hispanic residents who are arrested for possession of marijuana every year. In fact, Black residents are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White residents. Legalization would right those wrongs while also spurring massive economic development opportunities, job creation, and new tax revenue.
Now, we have the opportunity to get this done and finally legalize adult-use marijuana here in the Garden State, and I need your help to make it happen. Vote Yes on Public Question #1 on your ballot.
It has taken longer than we hoped to get to this point. Many well-meaning leaders have their reasons for opposing legalization, and we take their objections seriously. But the overwhelming evidence points to a clear reality that this is something we must do to make our state both stronger and fairer. Consider for example:
New Jersey spends about $147 million a year on the legal processing of marijuana possession and makes 35,000 annual arrests. Using our public safety dollars for marijuana arrests doesn’t make us any safer. By legalizing adult-use marijuana, we can free up police resources to focus on serious, violent and unsolved crimes, and reinvest those saved dollars into social services.
Our current marijuana laws can ruin lives based on one decision. Under current law, a person can land in jail over marijuana – with a criminal record that stigmatizes them for life and can make it harder to get a job, an apartment or a credit card; to adopt a child; or to visit one’s own children. Legalization has the potential to remove unfairly harsh punishments now suffered by entire families due to marijuana offenses.
Over the past decade, 11 other states and Washington, DC have all legalized adult-use marijuana. These states have not faced significant health or safety problems, have raised billions of dollars for vital public services, and have been able to focus law enforcement on more serious and violent crimes. We know that marijuana legalization works – and passing this ballot measure will allow New Jersey to take advantage of everything that we’ve learned from the states that went before us.
Voting Yes on Public Question #1 will legalize marijuana for adult use, while also creating a new regulatory structure to make sure operators are following the law and ensure that minors are not able to purchase the product. Legalization will not be the end of the story — there is more work to do, particularly in expunging past marijuana-related offenses.
This is our chance to make history in New Jersey, and it’s all up to you. Vote Yes on Public Question #1. You may need to turn over your Vote by Mail ballot or flip to the second page to find Public Questions, so make sure to examine your ballot carefully.