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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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DEA Denies Request To Protect Iowa Medical Marijuana Program, But State Still Considering Action

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rejected a petition to exempt Iowa’s medical marijuana program from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) this month, Marijuana Moment has learned. But the activist who filed the request plans to push again for the exemption—and the state itself is considering separately filing a petition of its own to the federal agency.

The ask here is unconventional and hasn’t been pursued by any other state that has legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. But longtime activist Carl Olsen has worked with members of the Iowa Department of Public Health to etch out a plan to pursue the exemption under an existing federal statute in accordance with a bill that state lawmakers passed earlier this year.

Olsen’s initial petition, submitted in 2019, was rejected by DEA on November 10. The agency said in a letter that it was denied “because the [Controlled Substances Act] controls marijuana under schedule I, and your requested exemption would result under the circumstances in the lapse of regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal sanctions applicable to substances placed on the various CSA schedules.”

But from the activist’s perspective, DEA didn’t do its due diligence in reviewing the statute that he claims provides for the state-level exemption. And he’s got the tentative backing of the health department, which is still considering submitting its own request, albeit on a different time schedule. The body might wait until President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, as they feel his administration may be more amenable than the current one.

DEA regulations stipulate that the agency’s administrator “may grant an exemption in his discretion, but in no case shall he/she be required to grant an exception to any person which is otherwise required by law or the regulations.”

Owen Parker, program manager for the health department’s Office of Medical Cannabidiol, told Marijuana Moment that officials are “still evaluating as how to implement” the requirement in the Iowa bill that passed this year to push federal agencies on protecting health care facilities in the state from federal punishment.

“No final decisions have been made at this time,” he said.

The language of the state legislation in question doesn’t specifically call on regulators to submit an exemption application.  Instead, it broadly calls on the public health department to “request guarantees from the agencies of the federal government providing funding to educational and long-term care facilities that facilities with policies allowing patients to possess medical cannabidiol on the grounds of the facilities…or allowing facility staff to administer medical cannabidiol to a patient shall not lose eligibility for any federal funding due to such policies.”

Members of the state Medical Cannabidiol Board said during a meeting in September that the DEA exemption application process would be the most effective way to establish protections from losing funds as a result of its existing medical marijuana program.

That said, at another meeting this month, Parker reported that “internally here at the Department we are still working on that brief, and there’s other discussions that we’ll need to have before moving forward on anything.”

For Olsen’s rejected individual petition, the activist said he intends to submit a request for reconsideration by DEA—rather than go straight to a federal appeals court with a lawsuit. And in that request, he plans to stress that the state is weighing moving forward with a petition of its own.

In addition to asserting that federal law preempts state policies on marijuana, DEA also said in their response to Olsen that the agency is bound by international treaty obligations to maintain the plant’s general restrictive federal classification, and that’s part of the reason it denied the petition. But according to Olsen, those treaties only obligate them to place cannabis in certain schedules of the CSA and and do not address the U.S. statute that provides for administrative exemptions.

For what it’s worth, Iowa’s medical cannabis is more limited than those that have been established in many other states. For example, it limits registered patients to a maximum of 4.5 grams of THC per 90-day period. Prior to a reform adopted by the legislature earlier this year, patients could only access cannabis products with up to three percent THC content.

It remains to be seen whether DEA will approach the state’s application differently than Olsen’s, if and when it’s filed. The agency has historically resisted rescheduling requests, let alone full exemptions, for marijuana.

Scientists and veterans sued DEA this year, arguing that the legal basis it has used to justify keeping cannabis in Schedule I is unconstitutional. They asked for a review of its decisions to reject rescheduling petitions across several decades.

A federal appeals court denied a request from DEA to dismiss the lawsuit In August.

Read DEA’s response to the Iowa activists’s marijuana exemption request below: 

DEA response to exemption r… by Marijuana Moment

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Marijuana Legalization Opponents Ask Courts To Overturn Voters’ Will In Several States

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Unable to sway public opinion and persuade voters to reject marijuana legalization on Election Day, prohibitionists have taken a different new in their efforts to block state-level reform: litigation.

In three states, there are lawsuits pending that seek to overturn voter-approved legalization initiatives. And in one state, cannabis opponents succeeded this year in preventing voters from even having a chance to decide on a reform measure.

While every single drug policy reform initiative that made the ballot passed in red and blue states alike this month, prohibitionists increasingly seem to be giving up the public messaging fight to change voters’ minds and are instead resorting to the courts, challenging reform measures on largely technical matters.

Those legal fights are ongoing in Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota, all of which ultimately legalized cannabis is some form on Election Day.

The Mississippi Supreme Court recently set deadlines for legal filings in a case from the city of Madison challenging the medical cannabis initiative that overwhelmingly passed with 73 percent of the vote. The suit was filed days before the election, with the mayor not weighing in on the merits of the measure but contending that its placement on the ballot was unconstitutional due to statutory signature gathering requirements.

The secretary of state and attorney general condemned the action as a “woefully untimely” lawsuit. The Supreme Court said the filers have until December 7 to submit written arguments and the secretary of state has until December 28 to respond.

Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use tried to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.

The plaintiffs are now pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.

In South Dakota, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom and state Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Rick Miller filed a lawsuit in the state’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court last week, claiming that the proposal to legalize marijuana that passed with 54 percent of the vote should be invalidated. The suit, which is partly paid for with state funds, says the constitutional amendment violates a 2018 requirement that “no proposed amendment may embrace more than one subject.”

In September,  reform opponents successfully bumped an initiative to legalize medical cannabis off of Nebraska’s ballot on what essentially amounts to a technicality.

While the campaign collected enough signatures to qualify the measure, the state Supreme Court shut it down following a legal challenge. It determined that the measure violated the state’s single-subject rule, much to the disappointment of advocates. But activists have already started petitioning to get a simplified version of proposal on the state’s 2022 ballot.

Arizona activists, who succeeded in getting a legalization measure approved on Election Day, had a different experience following a legal challenge in the summer. Opponents there filed suit arguing that the 100-word summary of the initiative misled voters, but that argument did not hold up in court.

Legalization opponents point out that with voter support for marijuana reform increasing, prohibitionists are now left with few options to stop popular reforms.

NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a blog post that the opposition lawsuits are “cynical, and arguably frivolous, attempts to undermine the democratic process.”

“Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box,” he said. “Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes. Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”

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Oregon County Prosecutor Stops Drug Possession Cases Early Following Decriminalization Vote

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Prosecutors in an Oregon county will no longer pursue low-level drug possession cases.

The move comes weeks after voters approved a historic initiative decriminalizing all drugs—but also months before it’s due to formally take effect statewide.

In a letter sent to police chiefs on Monday, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office said that while it opposes the policy change, officials recognize the will of voters and feel that “having officers investigate and submit cases for a prosecution in the weeks leading up to February 1, which will not lead to any sanction or court supervised treatment, is not the most effective use of criminal justice resources.”

Under the initiative, which passed with 58 percent of the vote, simple drug possession will be treated as a Class E infraction, punishable by a maximum fine of $100 and no jail time. That fine can be waived if an individual shows a court they have completed a substance misuse assessment.

The measure also calls for investments in substance misuse treatment, using tax revenue from legal marijuana sales.

“While we fundamentally disagree with this measure, ceasing to prosecute these matters prior to February 1 is consistent with the will of the voters, which we must respect,” the district attorney’s office said in the email, first reported by Kind Leaf Journal, adding that “misdemeanor [possession of a controlled substance] is still unlawful” until the effective date.

“The decision of our office is not intended not divest local law enforcement officers the ability to conduct lawful investigations, searches and arrests,” the letter states. “Good communication about this significant change is paramount.”

This early discretionary reform action is consistent with how several counties in the state approached cannabis policy after Oregon voters approved an adult-use marijuana legalization initiative in 2014.

“It’s a smart decision to stop arresting and jailing people for personal drug possession before Measure 110 officially goes into effect as Oregon voters have spoken loud and clear that it’s time to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal one,” Anthony Johnson, a chief petitioner for the decriminalization initiative, told Marijuana Moment.

“There is simply no reason to waste law enforcement resources and our taxpayer dollars on personal drug cases,” he said. “Other district attorneys across Oregon should promptly follow suit and enact the will of the voters.”

The vote in Oregon has also inspired efforts in neighboring Washington State to pursue a drug decriminalization model. While activists considered attempting to put it on the state ballot in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic derailed that plan—and earlier this month, the campaign said they would soon be announcing a sponsor of a reform bill to push for its passage legislatively in the 2021 session starting January.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s attorney general issued a memo this week directing prosecutors to suspend most marijuana possession cases following voter approval of a statewide legalization ballot measure this month.

Read the full letter to Oregon police chiefs on the decriminalization policy below: 

Dear Chiefs:

As you are aware, Oregon voters passed Measure 110, which decriminalizes, among other things, possession of up to 1 gram of heroin, 2 grams of methamphetamine and cocaine, 12 grams of psilocybin, 40 user units of LSD 40 pills/capsules containing synthetic opiates.

The measure takes effect on February 1, 2021. At that time, persons found to be in possession of these controlled substances will be referred to local municipal or justice courts and subject to the newly created Class E infraction, which carries a maximum $100 fine. This fee will be waived if the offender provides proof of participation in a substance abuse assessment. There is no requirement that the person engage in treatment.

As the voting public has overwhelmingly passed this measure, effective 11/23/20 the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office will stop charging new Unlawful Possession of Controlled Substance cases that will otherwise be decriminalized on February 1. It is our belief that having officers investigate and submit cases for a prosecution in the weeks leading up to February 1, which will not lead to any sanction or court supervised treatment, is not the most effective use of criminal justice resources.

While we fundamentally disagree with this measure, ceasing to prosecute these matters prior to February 1 is consistent with the will of the voters, which we must respect.

Investigations where a juvenile is found to possess controlled substances in amounts that will be decriminalized should still be referred to the Juvenile Department so the juvenile can have the opportunity for supervised treatment. There is a juvenile workgroup convening who will eventually offer guidance about what to do with juvenile referrals after February 1.

Until February 1, misdemeanor PCS is still unlawful. The decision of our office is not intended not divest local law enforcement officers the ability to conduct lawful investigations, searches and arrests.

Good communication about this significant change is paramount. If you have any questions or need clarification about this decision, I encourage you or anyone in your agencies to contact me directly. We look forward to our presentation on December 15th where we will discuss additional specifics of M110 and its search and seizure implications.

Chris Owen

Chief Deputy District Attorney

Clackamas County DA’s Office

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