A top New York lawmaker said on Wednesday that the legislature should first move to pass a marijuana legalization bill that she introduced before entering into any negotiations with the governor’s office about the separate cannabis plan he recently unveiled.
While Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included a proposal to legalize adult-use marijuana in his latest budget request released this month, several provisions of the measure have already proved controversial with advocates and would likely lead to a standoff with legislative leaders.
To prevent another breakdown in negotiations over the details—as has happened the last two times the governor put legalization in his budget request—Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) said the legislature should start by passing her legislation and then work with Cuomo’s office to find a middle ground.
“In some ways I’m pleased that the governor has submitted a proposal again,” she told Spectrum News. “But I do think that, in all honesty, this is the third time that he’s done this, and so I think the proper thing for us to do as a legislature is to approve the bill that [Sen. Liz Krueger (D)] and I’ve been carrying for the last six years.”
“I think we should approve our bill on the floor and then we should begin negotiating with the governor to get through the budget process,” she said.
A final New York budget is due to be enacted by April 1, meaning that the top assemblymember wants lawmakers to pass the legislature’s own legalization bill within the next several weeks.
“The governor has taken an action,” she said. “Now I think it’s critical for the legislature to take an action. And then based on that we should begin the negotiations to see what we come out with.”
Peoples-Stokes outlined some of the specific issues she has with the governor’s proposal, namely as they concern social equity. She said, for example, that Cuomo’s plan to put a portion of marijuana tax revenue toward equity grants for communities most impacted by the drug war was a step in the right direction but should be codified in statute.
“I think it’s a much longer process, and I don’t think that you can just go year-by-year. You’re going to have to have a consistent process to really have impact on people’s lives, so I’d like to see it in statute,” Peoples-Stokes said. “By the way, the governor has put it in his budget three times, but he’s not governor for life. There’s going to be a governor after him. And I think that we should have it in statute so that it’s clear that there is a commitment to these people who have given so much to get us to this point. It’s only fair.”
Additionally, the assemblywoman addressed a provision of the governor’s plan that would increase penalties for selling marijuana to people under 21—making it a class D felony punishable by up to 2.5 years in prison instead of a misdemeanor as it currently is.
“Why would we want to make it more difficult for people? No, you should not be selling this product to anyone under 21, nor should you be selling them cigarettes or alcohol or anything else like that. But you should not have a felony as a result of it, so I think that that bears some additional conversation,” she said. “And again, I believe once we get our legislation approved, then we can begin a negotiation process to come up with the right bill that will have the right impact.”
Peoples-Stokes said that a key difference in how she and the governor are approaching this policy is that her interest is to “to save people’s lives,” whereas Cuomo seems largely interested in closing the state’s budget gap, while still addressing social equity to an extent.
“Until we fix these issues, we’re not going to heal as a society,” she said. “We’re not going to bring things into fruition where they need to be.”
The top lawmaker left room for making a deal on how much cannabis revenue should be earmarked to help people from communities harmed by the drug war.
“I’m not wedded to 50 percent,” she said. “Although that’s where we start, because there’s always room to negotiate.”
Meanwhile, the governor’s assistant counsel for health argued in a New York State Bar Association webinar this week that his legalization plan does represent a serious move toward equity, saying that the proposed grant money is “a significant piece of the revenue that’s being reinvested to try to repair some of the effects of a really wrongheaded war on drugs.”
Watch the administration official discuss Cuomo’s marijuana social equity provision below:
In an interview with Marijuana Moment this week, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) also addressed advocates’ concerns about certain policies that made their way into Cuomo’s proposal. She said that the increased penalties for underage sale reflects the administration’s interest in “making sure that no one under the age of 21 is participating” in the marijuana market.
However, she left the door open for revisions, saying that “much of it is going to be negotiated with the legislature, and all these details can be resolved with their input as well.”
Another component that activists hope will change concerns the lack of a home cultivation option in the governor’s request. The lieutenant governor said that while such activity would not be allowed under the budget proposal as submitted, “everything is always on the table” as the administration works with legislators to enact legalization.
The separate bill being carried by Peoples-Stokes and Krueger does include a home cultivation option, allowing adults 21 and older to grow up to six plants for personal use.
It would also provide for automatic expungements for those with prior cannabis convictions and it also includes low- or zero-interest loans for qualifying equity applicants who wish to start marijuana businesses.
Unlike in past sessions, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If the governor were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
In any case, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance in 2021, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Disagreements Threaten Virginia Marijuana Legalization Deal As Deadline Approaches
Conference committee members are divided over a proposed delay in regulatory decisions until next session, but have reportedly settled on delaying legalization of cannabis possession in any case.
By Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury
With a Saturday deadline approaching, state lawmakers in the House and Senate are still working to resolve differences over landmark legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia.
As of Thursday evening, it was unclear whether the two chambers would be able to reach an agreement on the bill, which Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has made a priority in his final year in office.
At least one lawmaker privately doubted the legislation would pass. Others, however, remained optimistic even as they acknowledged negotiations had grown tense, suggesting a vote was possible as early as Friday.
According to five sources familiar with the talks, the primary point of contention is language sought by the Senate that would delay decisions about how the new market is regulated until next year. Members of the chamber said during hearings last month they felt the legislation was too expansive and complex to complete work on during the 45-day session.
Lawmakers in the House have resisted, arguing the delay is unnecessary, citing in-depth studies conducted by legislative analysts and Northam’s administration. House lawmakers have also expressed discomfort about voting to legalize the drug without finalizing plans for a legal marketplace, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.
If a bill does emerge from the conference negotiations, it’s likely to disappoint civil rights advocates who have been pushing for an immediate end to criminal penalties related to the drug.
Both the House and Senate passed legalization bills that wouldn’t allow sales of recreational marijuana to begin until January 1, 2024—time both sides agree they need to set up a new cannabis authority to regulate the industry.
But they have differed over whether criminal penalties related to the drug should stay in place until legal sales begin. The House advanced legislation that wouldn’t end prohibition until 2024 while the Senate proposed legalizing possession of an ounce or less of marijuana beginning July 1 of this year.
The House, whose members worried that repealing criminal penalties before legal sales are permitted would encourage the black market, appear to have won the debate, with Senate negotiators agreeing to maintain existing criminal penalties until 2024, according to the sources.
The approach stands in contrast to a legalization bill signed by New Jersey’s governor on Monday, which immediately ended criminal penalties for possession of up to six ounces even though retail sales aren’t expected to begin until 2022 at the earliest.
Advocates had called the Senate’s position the minimum the legislature could do to address criminal penalties before the retail marketplace opens. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who proposed it, said it didn’t make sense to continue prosecuting people for something lawmakers had voted to legalize.
“We can’t risk more people being caught in the system for acting in ways that will soon be legal,” wrote a coalition of 25 advocacy organizations led by the ACLU of Virginia and the reform group Marijuana Justice.
Lawmakers skeptical of repealing criminal penalties before there are legal avenues to buy the drug have said they view the decriminalization legislation they passed last year, which reduced penalties for simple possession to a $25 civil fine, an adequate interim step.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, director of Marijuana Justice, countered that the approach unnecessarily allows the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws against Black Virginians to continue for three years. She said court data obtained by advocates shows that even with reduced fines, Black people are four times more likely than White people to face citations despite using the drug at the same rate.
“The commonwealth’s ‘decriminalization’ enforcement maintains Virginia’s racial disparities and goes against Governor Northam’s stated commitment to social equity, racial equity, and economic equity for marijuana legislation,” she wrote in a statement.
The two chambers are continuing to debate another focus for advocacy groups: how to treat people under 21 caught with the drug. As drafted, the Senate’s version would dramatically increase penalties for underage users caught with the drug, increasing the civil penalty for possession from $25 to $250 for people ages 18 to 20. Minors would face a $200 civil penalty for a first offense.
Valerie Slater, the director of RISE for Youth, which advocates for reforming the state’s juvenile justice system, said she favors the House’s approach, which would also increase penalties for underage possession, but only on subsequent offenses.
But she pointed to New Jersey’s new law as a better alternative, which calls for a written warning for a first offense, a call to parents for a second offense and referral to community services for a third offense. Members of the state’s Black Legislative Caucus opposed fines, worrying “police would continue to stop and fine minority youth more frequently than White people under 21,” according to The Star-Ledger.
“At no point should this be a crime for kids,” she said. “Can we just take New Jersey’s language and drop it into ours? It would be ideal.”
Kansas Governor’s Medical Marijuana Bill Introduced As Lawmakers Take Up Separate Legalization Proposal
A bill championed by the governor of Kansas to legalize medical marijuana and use the resulting revenue to expand healthcare was officially introduced on Wednesday. The move comes as lawmakers held back-to-back hearings on separate reform legislation this week.
Gov. Laura Kelly (D) has pushed for legalizing medical cannabis and using that revenue to support Medicaid expansion, and now Rep. Brandon Woodard (D) has filed a measure to do just that. He introduced it in the House Federal & State Affairs Committee, where members heard testimony on the separate legalization bill on Wednesday and Thursday.
“By combining broadly popular, commonsense medical marijuana policy that will generate significant revenue with Medicaid expansion, all logical opposition to expansion is eliminated,” Kelly said at a press briefing on Wednesday. “This bill just makes sense.”
Watch the governor discuss the medical cannabis and Medicare expansion bill, starting around 6:16 in the video below:
“In the face of the worst public health crisis our country has seen in a century, I’m even more committed to delivering healthcare and jobs and support for our hospitals through Medicaid expansion,” she said. “I urge the legislature to take Representative Woodard’s proposal seriously and to also consider the implications if they should fail to pass expansion yet again.”
Under Woodard’s bill, a draft version of which was shared with Marijuana Moment, there would be 21 medical conditions that qualify patients for cannabis—including cancer, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic or intractable pain—and regulators would be able to add additional conditions later.
— Brandon Woodard (@Woodard4Kansas) February 24, 2021
The secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would be responsible for developing regulations for the program by July 1, 2023. That includes setting a standard for a 90-day supply of cannabis that a registered patient could possess. It would then be tasked with issuing patient and caregiver registrations and identification cards.
The director of Alcoholic Beverage Control would have its own role in the program, issuing licenses for marijuana “cultivators, laboratories, processors, distributors and retail dispensaries.”
“For too long, the Kansas Legislature has ducked the topic of legalizing medical cannabis. An overwhelming, bipartisan majority of Kansans support medical marijuana, as well as Medicaid expansion,” Woodard told Marijuana Moment. “It’s time to expand healthcare coverage to more than 100,000 Kansans, while giving Kansans the opportunity to use a legal, compassionate therapy to treat a variety of conditions.”
“Whether Kansas chooses the path of legalization of medical, recreational, or something in between, I’m glad that the conversation is finally happening and the people of Kansas are watching,” he said.
While the representative’s bill would make it so Kansas would join the vast majority of states that have legal medical marijuana markets, it is restrictive as far as advocates are concerned. It would, for example, prohibit smoking or vaping cannabis. And it sets a 35 percent THC limit for marijuana flower. Home cultivation by patients would not be allowed.
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The governor first announced a plan at the beginning of the month to enact medical marijuana legalization and use cannabis tax revenue to fund Medicaid expansion. And she said more recently that she wants voters to put pressure on their representatives to get the reform passed.
The Federal & State Affairs panel started debate this week on a separate medical marijuana legalization bill that’s been introduced this session, sponsored by the committee itself. Supporters and opponents of the reform testified on the proposal on Wednesday and Thursday, and advocates anticipate it will get a vote in the next 10 days before heading to the floor.
The first hearing consisted of those who favor the policy change, including a veteran, health care worker and former state lawmaker. The second involved testimony from neutral or opposing parties.
Former state Rep. Willie Dove (R) urged the committee not to “take this for granted.”
“We’re not talking about hippies from the 60s. You’re talking about individuals, law-abiding citizens, that really want to make something happened for their families,” he said. “And I would like to say that the revenue generated from this will be greatly appreciated in Kansas because it does help our bottom line.”
Like the Kelly bill, the committee-sponsored legislation lists 21 conditions that would qualify patients for the program, including chronic pain, HIV and post-traumatic stress disorder. Smoking and vaping products would be prohibited, however. It would also not provide for home growing.
“Veterans of all ages and ideologies are in favor of medical cannabis more than any other demographic,” George Hanna, codirector of Kansas NORML and a veteran, said. “Every veteran’s organization, representing every generation and political perspective, has overwhelmingly come out in support of safe access. I personally have had several physicians, within the VA itself, privately support medical cannabis.”
The opposing testimony on Thursday touched on a variety of talking points—that the scope of the qualifying conditions for medical marijuana is too large, legalization would increase youth access to cannabis, THC concentration levels are too high and ingestion by pregnant women or adolescents is dangerous.
But industry stakeholders with the Kansas Cannabis Business Association (KCBA) told Marijuana Moment that the testimony, particularly from law enforcement representatives, was notably “negligent and dispassionate, with most of their concerns rebutted by [Chairman John Barker (R)] on the spot.”
“Essentially the message was, ‘if 30 other states have found solutions to those problems, you can too,” KCBA’s Erin Montroy said.
A separate medical cannabis legalization bill was introduced by the Senate Commerce Commerce this month, though it has not seen action.
The measure’s language largely reflects legislation that was introduced in the House last year. Patients would be eligible for medical cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation if they have a condition that significantly inhibits their ability to conduct daily activities or if the lack of treatment would pose serious physical or mental harm.
Registered patients would be allowed to grow and possess at least four ounces of marijuana. The bill would also establish a Kansas Medical Cannabis Agency to oversee the program.
Read the draft text of Woodard’s medical cannabis legalization bill that he’s carrying for the governor below:
Montana Lawmakers Weigh Bill To Limit Marijuana Businesses
The committee also considered legislation on employment protections for medical cannabis patients.
By Keila Szpaller, The Daily Montanan
Glenn Broughton grew his medical marijuana business from a small storage shed to an operation that employees nearly 30 people, and if he’s shut down, he said he’ll go bankrupt.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life of what is going to happen to me at a pen-stroke,” said Broughton, who operates in Missoula, Lolo and St. Regis.
The business owner testified Wednesday before the House Business and Labor Committee against House Bill 568. The bill would allow roughly 115 marijuana dispensaries in the state—or not more than one per 10,000 people in a county, but 10 maximum—compared to the 355 medical dispensaries that are currently open.
No members of the public spoke in favor of the legislation.
In November, voters passed an initiative that legalizes recreational marijuana by 57 percent, and the Montana Department of Revenue anticipates accepting license applications in October.
Sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, the bill would limit dispensaries to be no closer than 1,000 feet from a school, daycare, place of worship, park or playground. It also would limit dispensaries to one per 10,000 residents in a county or up to 10 dispensaries maximum in one county.
“The people of Montana have asked us to have recreational marijuana in our state,” Sheldon-Galloway said. “My bill is just asking for some sideboards.”
Opponents, though, argued the sideboards would “squash the little guy” and favor massive operations flush with cash over smaller homegrown businesses. They also said the prohibitions go too far to realistically implement.
Sam Belanger, who said he read Montana’s marijuana legalization bill from cover to cover, told the committee he didn’t think the location restriction of 1,000 feet as the crow flies—rather than 500 feet and on the same street—would work in cities and towns.
“It eliminates almost all viable options for any dispensary in the state inside municipalities,” said Belanger, of Ronan.
Kate Cholewa, a cannabis advocate who has worked on related legislation in Montana, said the math simply doesn’t pencil out. When medical users were “tethered,” or tied to a specific provider, she said a business with 200 customers could make a good living.
With proposed limits, providers would have six times those customers. She also wondered who would be deciding who gets the the small number of licenses that would be available if the bill is enacted.
“This is just an invitation to problems and corruption,” Cholewa said.
Pepper Petersen, president of the Montana Cannabis Guild, said one of the reasons he helped draft Initiative-190, the legalization bill, is that recreational marijuana can generate tax revenue for the state.
“Most of that coal economy is gone. We need a replacement for that money,” Petersen said.
He estimated the revenue for state coffers could hit nearly $100 million a year for both recreational and medical marijuana. A study from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana estimated a 20 percent tax on recreational marijuana could result in $43.4 million to $52.0 million a year from 2022 to 2026.
As part of her argument in favor of the bill, Rep. Sheldon-Galloway pointed to the relatively high use of marijuana among Great Falls middle and high school students compared to the state average. In Alaska, she said school suspensions for marijuana increased 141 percent after legalization.
Chuck Holman, though, said Montanans don’t want more regulations, and Cascade County needs to deal with its own problems.
“That county needs to address it themselves,” Holman said.
Wednesday, the committee heard a separate bill related to medical marijuana, House Bill 582.
Sponsor Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, said he brought the bill forward because one of his constituents told him she lost her job because of her use of medical marijuana for a debilitating condition.
He said the bill wouldn’t allow the use of medical marijuana on the job, but it would prevent an employer from barring a person from using medical marijuana off the job for a medical condition.
Several opponents argued the bill wouldn’t make sense for industries where employees operate heavy equipment or must have a CDL, a commercial driver’s license. Jason Todhunter, with the Montana Logging Association, said logging is a highly hazardous industry, and some employers choose to conduct drug testing.
“This would muddy the waters on what we could check for,” Todhunter said.
The committee did not take action on either bill on Wednesday.