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The War On Ballot Initiatives Has Marijuana In The Crosshairs (Op-Ed)

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Cannabis reform opponents are seeking to block measures from appearing on the ballot and trying to overturn them after they pass.

By Matthew Schweich, Marijuana Policy Project

There is often a clear and direct contradiction between the will of the people and the laws of the people. For over one hundred years, Americans have used the ballot initiative process to correct these situations by directly enacting policies that politicians have rejected or ignored.

Cannabis legalization has been a notable example over the past decade. Between 2012 and 2020, voters in thirteen states approved ballot initiatives to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and over. Five more states have legalized through legislative action.

And yet, based on public opinion, the number of legalization states should be much higher and cannabis should have been legalized at the federal level years ago.

But due to the unique history of the war on cannabis, politicians have lacked the courage to address this issue even when their constituents demand action. The ballot initiative process, which exists in 24 states, was the key to making major progress on cannabis legalization in the United States.

Many other issues have also managed to overcome establishment opposition through hard-fought ballot initiative campaigns. In recent years, voters in states across the political spectrum have approved initiatives for Medicaid expansion, paid medical and family leave, restoring voting rights of former felons, and increasing the minimum wage.

A ballot initiative is a pure expression of the will of the people. Described simply, it requires a group of dedicated and hard-working citizens to do three things: write a law, collect a large number of signatures from registered voters in order to qualify for the ballot and then earn the approval of a majority of voters at the next election.

Unfortunately, the war on drugs may have partly inspired a war on democracy. Across the country, ballot initiatives on a range of issues are under attack. This assault on the will of the people takes four main forms, and cannabis reform provides an example of each.

First, our opponents are working to restrict future ballot initiatives. In Idaho, politicians have enacted new geographic distribution requirements that will make ballot initiative signature drives extremely difficult to complete. The Idaho Legislature also came close to proposing a constitutional amendment (which would have required voter approval next year) to ban any and all future drug policy reform ballot initiatives including medical cannabis.

Second, our opponents are filing lawsuits to prevent initiatives from qualifying for the ballot. Last year, the Nebraska Supreme Court, in a widely criticized decision, disqualified a proposed medical cannabis ballot initiative that had already collected 190,000 voter signatures.

Third, our opponents are filing lawsuits to overturn ballot initiatives after they have been approved by voters. This month, the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected any concept of common sense or fairness and used an outdated signature drive geographic distribution requirement to overturn a medical cannabis policy that was enacted by voters at the 2020 election. In doing so, the justices also suspended all future ballot initiatives in Mississippi until politicians allow them to be restored.

In South Dakota, Governor Kristi Noem (R) is using taxpayer money to fund an ongoing lawsuit to overturn Amendment A, the cannabis legalization policy approved by 54 percent of voters last year. Her lawyers are arguing for a very narrow and unreasonably strict interpretation of an existing law requiring that initiatives only address one area of policy. They are making this case despite the fact that every component of Amendment A relates to the cannabis plant.

Fourth, our opponents are trying to pass legislation to delay or undo the laws enacted through ballot initiatives. Noem, in her never-ending quest to trample on the will of her constituents, provides yet another example. After orchestrating the lawsuit against Amendment A in late 2020, Noem launched a legislative attack on Measure 26, the medical cannabis policy approved by 70 percent of South Dakotans last year (in 2020, South Dakota became the first state to legalize recreational cannabis and medical cannabis at the same time).

For the first several months of 2021, Noem worked very hard to pressure lawmakers into passing a bill that would severely delay implementation of Measure 26, including legal protections for patients.

Despite her actions to undo Amendment A and delay Measure 26, she offered no compromise in the form of an interim decriminalization policy. In effect, her position was that South Dakotans with serious health conditions including cancer, epilepsy and many others should continue to face a maximum penalty of one year in county jail for possession of even one gram of cannabis.

The South Dakota cannabis reform movement fought back hard. Voters contacted their state representatives and state senators and demanded that they reject the governor’s proposed delays. In the end, Noem’s attack on medical cannabis was defeated. But the outcome of the Amendment A lawsuit is still unknown—a ruling from the South Dakota Supreme Court is expected soon.

Noem’s actions reflect a broader trend within America’s conservative establishment. Many Republican politicians, inspired by former President Donald Trump, have embraced a win-at-all-costs philosophy that extends beyond policy debates and into the underlying structure of our republic. They are actively working to thwart the will of the people. In doing so, they are rejecting core American values of liberty, justice and self-determination.

The Declaration of Independence states, quite rightly, that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Ballot initiatives are an effective protection against governments that betray this ideal.

Matthew Schweich is deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

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Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill

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The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.

His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.

“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.

“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”

It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.

The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.

Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.

In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.

Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures

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Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures

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Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.

This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.

The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.

CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.

“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”

The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.

A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).

A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”

The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.

The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.

Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.

Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”

With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.

Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.

Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.

A legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).

A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.

There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.

After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.

Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.

Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.

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Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.

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A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”

While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.

The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.

Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.

The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.

That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.

“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.

Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.

“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”

The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.

She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”

However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.

While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.

She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.

Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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