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Texas Officials: State Crime Labs Will Refuse Marijuana Tests In Simple Possession Cases

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The Texas Department of Public Safety says it will not perform testing to distinguish between hemp and marijuana in misdemeanor cases. That means local agencies in many areas will have to use costly private labs or forego pursuing cannabis cases.

By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

The Texas Department of Public Safety is almost ready to roll out its long-awaited lab test to tell if cannabis is newly legal hemp or illegal marijuana. But DPS Director Steve McCraw notified Texas law enforcement agencies this month of a crucial caveat: The state labs won’t do testing in misdemeanor marijuana possession cases.

That will likely entrench what has become a patchwork system of marijuana enforcement across the state. Possession of a small amount of pot could mean no criminal charges in one county and jail time in a neighboring one. In Texas, misdemeanor marijuana offenses include possession of up to 4 ounces and the sale or delivery of up to 7 grams.

The situation comes after the Texas Legislature changed the definition of marijuana last year in order to legalize hemp, drawing a new distinction between two substances that can look and smell the same. The illegal drug changed from the cannabis plant to cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC, the compound in the plant that produces a high.

As lawmakers moved that legislation forward, DPS asked them for additional funding to test THC levels — and thus determine if cannabis is marijuana — in both felony and low-level possession cases. McCraw’s letter this month said the legislature did not provide money for testing in misdemeanor cases, so “DPS will not have the capacity to accept those.”

Since the law change, prosecutors across the state began taking very different approaches to pursuing marijuana charges. Some are prosecuting pot cases as before, depending on circumstantial evidence without lab results. Others stopped accepting new low-level marijuana cases unless police could hand over a lab report that showed what they had was illegal.

It was a report public labs in Texas couldn’t produce yet, pushing local agencies to costly private labs or leaving pot cases to sit on the shelf as government scientists scrambled to come up with a new test to chemically distinguish legal hemp from illegal marijuana. McCraw said that test is nearly ready, but it’s only for felonies — and only for plant materials, not oils or edibles.

The DPS decision not to accept misdemeanor cases was always a possibility, but “there were some prosecutors that were still holding out hope that they would get some help from the state,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

“It is yet another unfunded mandate, and it’s another hurdle to successfully prosecuting these cases,” he said.

The new THC test in state labs is expected to be finalized at the end of March, and DPS will need another two months to get it implemented, McCraw said in the letter. Afterward, the agency expects to take about 75 days to test the 845 felony plant cases local agencies have already sent over before moving on to cases sitting in police or prosecutor evidence rooms.

Some law enforcement agencies have already found their own solutions to marijuana enforcement in the months since the law changed. Denton County is one whose district attorney now requires police to submit a lab report before a case will be prosecuted, but it has not stopped arrests, said First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck.

“Most of our agencies are using private labs,” she said. “I’m going to assume they’re going to continue doing that.”

Beck said the county has seen a drop in marijuana cases, but not as large as the drop statewide, where cases have plummeted. She said some police agencies in her conservative county aren’t pursuing low-level marijuana cases anymore, but most are pursuing them even though it now costs more to do so.

Big cities often have their own local crime labs, but the DPS labs have long been the testing agency for narcotics for most of Texas, according to Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Louderback. He said the DPS decision and the hemp law have “unequivocally” affected midsize cities to rural communities the most.

“At a minimum, it will affect rural law enforcement who don’t have the resources for this and rural prosecutors,” he said.

But he acknowledged that DPS has limited resources and a history of large backlogs. In his letter, McCraw said DPS labs analyze more than 50,000 felony drug cases a year, and more than 80,000 misdemeanor marijuana arrests occur annually.

DPS told lawmakers last year that it would likely need millions of dollars tied to the hemp bill to be able to differentiate between marijuana and hemp in criminal proceedings.

“DPS can only speculate on the volume of cases where a defendant might claim the substance for which they are arrested is actually hemp,” the agency wrote in a budget request attached to the bill. “Also, DPS labs do not currently routinely test marihuana for misdemeanor charges unless the prosecutor or law enforcement officer makes a special request because it is needed for trial.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Politics

Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation

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A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.

“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.

“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”

“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”

Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.

“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”

“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.

Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.

“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”

Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.

For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.

Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.

Eleven Senators Push To Let Marijuana Businesses Access Federal Loan Programs

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus

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North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.

“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”

Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.

“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”

The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.

North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.

The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.

California activists for campaigns to amend the state’s legal cannabis program and legalize psilocybin mushrooms are asking for a digital signature option.

Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

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.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.

Virginia Groups Push Governor To Amend Marijuana Decriminalization Bill On His Desk

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.
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Arizona Legal Marijuana Campaign Asks Supreme Court To Allow Electronic Signatures Amid Coronavirus

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Several campaigns to put initiatives on Arizona’s November ballot—including one to legalize marijuana—are asking the state Supreme Court to allow electronic signature gathering amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has made in-person ballot petitioning all but impossible.

Smart and Safe Arizona, the group behind the cannabis measure, along with three other campaigns, filed a petition with the court on Thursday, requesting that it direct the secretary of state to let them digitally collect signatures. They stressed that the infrastructure already exists, as residents are able to use a system called E-Qual to sign ballot petitions for individual candidates running for office.

While the marijuana campaign has already gathered more than 320,000 signatures, which is well over the required 237,645 signatures for statutory proposals, they have yet to be verified and activists would like to continue collection efforts to ensure that they qualify for the ballot.

In the filing, the groups argued that limiting the E-Qual system to office seekers is unconstitutional. However, state law stipulates that it can only be used for that purpose, so it remains to be seen whether court action will produce the intended result. There was a bill filed last year to expand its utility to allow digital signature gathering for initiatives, but it has not advanced in the legislature.

“Legal access to E-Qual for these citizen initiatives is the right thing for public health and democracy,” attorneys representing the groups said in a statement. “Following Governor Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order issued Monday and current CDC recommendations, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures on paper, at people’s homes, or in public spaces, is impossible to do safely and responsibly during this pandemic. E-Qual is a very reasonable remedy.”

The legalization petition would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. People 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.

“The Committees have explored potential alternatives, such as mailing petitions to interested persons to circulate within their families,” Smart and Safe Arizona Campaign Manager Stacy Pearson said in a declaration filed with the court. “This, however, is expensive, inefficient, and has no realistic likelihood of permitting the Committees’ to gather large numbers of valid petition signatures.”

The legalization group was joined by campaigns to limit school vouchers, provide sentencing reform and increase taxes on the wealthy to fund public education in the petition. Separately, two other campaigns—to enact voting reform and end surprise hospital billings—filed a similar lawsuit in a federal court on Thursday.

Smart and Safe Arizona is not the only drug policy reform campaign to request electronic signature gathering since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Activists in California released a video last month asking 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.

Others have generally shut down campaign activities in light of the pandemic, which has resulted in shutter businesses and shelter-in-place orders across the country.

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.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Idaho Activists Suspend Campaign To Legalize Medical Marijuana Due To Coronavirus

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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