The governor of Vermont on Tuesday signaled that he might veto a bill to legalize marijuana sales in the state, citing concerns about whether the legislation that has been sent to his desk adequately addresses racial equity.
Gov. Phil Scott (R) had previously centered his criticism of the policy change on issues such as impaired driving, taxes and local control. Some advocates suspect that his newly expressed worries about racial justice amount to a cop-out to justify rejecting the reform bill after legislators revised it to largely account for the other issues he’d raised.
The comments came during a gubernatorial debate between Scott and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D), a vocal advocate for cannabis reform.
“In terms of the pot bill, I haven’t made up my mind about that. I have received a lot of groups—racial equity groups—that are asking me to veto it,” Scott said. “I was leaning towards letting it go, but I’m really questioning that at this point. I want to hear and listen from them.”
He also criticized the lieutenant governor, saying that as the presiding officer of the Senate, he should’ve been able to hear from these groups to get their input on the bill. Zuckerman said that the logistical challenges of legislating remotely via video conferences amid the coronavirus pandemic created difficulties in ensuring more voices could be represented the process. But he argued that the marijuana commercialization bill, S. 54, does in fact promote social equity.
“There are many provisions in the bill that do address support for minority- and women-owned businesses. And there’s definitely more work to do,” Zuckerman said at the debate, which was hosted by VTDigger. “You know as well as I, you often don’t get everything in your efforts, and there’s more work in this.” He added that separate companion legislation to automate expungements for those with prior marijuana convictions was also designed with racial justice in mind.
“Sometimes the efforts are put into multiple bills, as you know, and it’s easy to take advantage of sort of how the system can be confusing for people to maybe not always know what’s going on,” he said. “We know in the next administration, we’ll have to work to improve on that bill. But to delay it for another year is economic opportunity delayed, it is also criminal justice reform delayed, and we need to be moving forward and do more in the future.”
Scott previously alluded to organizations he’s recently heard from who opposed S. 54 during a press briefing earlier this month, but he didn’t specify that they were expressing concerns about racial equity. He also said that he was generally pleased with the process that the legislation went through as a bicameral conference committee worked to resolve differences between versions of the legalization bill that had previously passed the House and Senate.
In a letter sent to the governor last week, the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance argued that the bill “fails to address in any significant way the devastating historical social and economic impact of marijuana on African Americans, the current impact of systemic racism on the cannabis industry or the disadvantages of emerging growers!”
“In short, Black people and small farmers are not made whole and fail to economically benefit from this bill,” it states. “Please veto this policy to give us the opportunity to ensure that it addresses harm and provides everyone an opportunity to thrive.”
The Vermont Growers Association similarly voiced opposition to S. 54, writing in a recent statement that the bill “will make life harder for everyday Vermonters by artificially limiting economic development opportunities by favoring established players and creating unreasonable barriers to market entry for new participants.”
The organizations Justice For All, NOFA-VT, Rural Vermont and Trace have also put out statements against the proposal.
With these latest comments from the governor, advocates for the bill are frustrated that it seems that process and the final product will have been for naught if the governor vetoes it.
Vermont legalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivation of two plants in 2018, but there are currently no regulations in place that allow for retail sales.
Dave Silberman, a pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told Marijuana Moment that the governor is “desperate to find any politically viable excuse to veto the cannabis regulation bill, now that the legislature has adequately addressed all of the areas he previously claimed to be concerned with: that towns opt in, rather than opt-out, of allowing cannabis retailers, that police be able to deploy saliva tests to detect impairment, and that tax revenues be allocated to prevention and after-school programming.”
“S.54 and the related expungement bill (S.234) lay a strong foundation for continued work to repair the damage done by 80 years of prohibition,” he said. “That Gov. Scott and his team never once mentioned racial equity as an area he was so much as aware of, let alone concerned with, until after the bill was finalized, says it all: he is shamelessly using racial justice as a smokescreen.”
Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment that “from a racial justice perspective, cannabis prohibition has been a disastrous public policy, and Vermont’s limited legalization law is only a modest improvement.”
“The legislators who developed S. 54 clearly intend to replace prohibition with an equitable, regulated industry—such as by prioritizing licensing for minority-owned businesses,” he said. “Further advocacy will be needed to ensure that the bill lives up to its promises, but the status quo is unacceptable and Vermont urgently needs to move forward.”
In an op-ed published last week, MPP Executive Director Steve Hawkins, who is Black, wrote that if both the tax-and-regulate and expungement bills are signed into law, “Vermont would go from having the worst legalization law in the country to one of the more forward-thinking.”
“Vermont’s status quo is untenable,” he said. “If our movement had insisted on every measure being perfect, Vermonters might still be criminals for possessing cannabis—medical or otherwise. S.54 and S.234 represent incredible progress for consumer safety, Vermont’s economy, and racial and social justice. They deserve Vermonters’ support and Scott’s signature.”
Under the cannabis commerce bill, a new Cannabis Control Commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for retailers, growers, manufacturers, wholesalers and labs. The body would also take over regulation of the state’s existing medical cannabis industry from the Department of Public Safety .
A 30 percent THC limit would be imposed on cannabis flower, while oils could contain up to 60 percent THC. Flavored vape cartridges would be banned.
Local jurisdictions would have to proactively opt in to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area. Municipalities would also be able to establish their own regulations and municipal licensing requirements.
A timeline for the legislation states that it would formally take effect on October 1, 2020—but regulators would then have to make a series of determinations about rules and licensing before retail sales would launch. Dispensary licenses would have to be issued on or before October 1, 2022.
A fiscal analysis on the final bill projects that Vermont will generate between $13.3 million and $24.2 million in annual cannabis tax revenue by Fiscal Year 2025. Licensing fees will lead to additional funds for the state, but the regulatory board created by the legislation will set those levels at a later date. For now, the Joint Fiscal Office estimates the fees could lead to another $650,000 in revenue every year. Municipalities hosting marijuana businesses will also be able to levy additional local fees.
The expungements bill that is also being transmitted to his desk would make it so those with convictions for marijuana possession of up to two ounces, four mature plants and eight immature plants prior to January 2021 would have their records automatically cleared. Those who receive expungements would be notified by mail.
It’s not clear what will happen if Scott vetoes the legal cannabis sales bill. It passed the Senate with a veto-proof margin, but fell shy of that threshold in the House. The governor vetoed an earlier version of the noncommercial legalization bill in 2018 before negotiating changes with lawmakers that made him comfortable with signing a revised bill.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
State And Local Marijuana Regulators Demand Congress Prioritize Federal Legalization Bill
A coalition of state and local marijuana regulators sent a letter to House leadership on Wednesday, demanding that they prioritize a marijuana legalization bill that’s expected to get a floor vote following the election.
The letter, which is being supported by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), says that regulators “need comprehensive support in their individual and collective efforts to more responsibly and equitably manage challenges and develop solutions associated with cannabis and cannabis policy.”
They said the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act represents a solution, and they urged legislators to vote in favor of it when it comes up for a vote.
Enacting the reform “would ensure that the federal government is a partner to state and municipal regulators both in our collective responsibility to serve our community through the reform of failed cannabis policies and in our collective responsibility to recognize and correct injustices,” they wrote, adding that criminalization has created “widespread” harms that disproportionately impact communities of color.
🚨BREAKING🚨 @DrugPolicyOrg Joins State & Municipal Cannabis Regulators in Calling on Congress to Prioritize Federal Marijuana Reform by Passing #MOREAct 📢 FULL QUOTE from @DPA_ONA Dir. @MaritzaCPerez IN THREAD 👇 https://t.co/NPXrZ6LLK6
— Matt Sutton (@MattSuttonEP) October 21, 2020
“As such, our attempts to eliminate these harms must be systemic and comprehensive and will require collective leadership at every level of government and collaboration amongst both the public and private sectors in order to achieve outcomes by centering equity in cannabis policy development, reform and implementation,” they wrote.
Nine regulators from Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Massachusetts and Illinois signed the letter.
“For those of us who manage state and municipal cannabis policies, and for those individuals who have been and continue to be impacted by cannabis policy, the need for comprehensive federal reform is clear and urgent,” the letter states. “Existing federal prohibition policies are antithetical to our collective responsibility to promote policies that are based in science, compassion and harm reduction.”
Leadership initially signaled that a floor vote on the MORE Act would happen in September, but following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing marijuana reform before another coronavirus relief package, it was postponed until after the election.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) subsequently made a commitment that the body would bring up the bill sometime “later this autumn.” While advocates were disappointed by the delay, they’re confident the MORE Act will clear the chamber with some bipartisan support when it’s ultimately scheduled for action.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said last month that he was “confident” it would pass the House.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor on the bill, also said that he would be voting “yes” on the MORE Act, though he expressed criticism about a provision that would impose a federal excise tax on marijuana sales to be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war, calling them “reparations.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) said “I intend to vote yes on the bill” in an interview with Politico.
McClintock, along with Gaetz, voted for the MORE Act when it was marked up by the Judiciary Committee last year.
“These regulators know first-hand the complications of regulating a substance that remains illegal at the federal level and the harms imposed as a result on communities of color and low-income people,” Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at DPA, said in a press release. “They also understand that creating a safe and equitable industry, which the MORE Act does, provides a historic opportunity to begin repairing the extensive damage prohibition has caused over the last 50 years.”
Prior to the vote’s postponement, DPA and more than 120 other civil rights and drug policy reform groups such as the ACLU and NAACP sent a letter to House leadership emphasizing the need to pass the MORE Act to promote social justice.
Read the latest letter from the regulators on cannabis reform below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Key New Jersey Senate Committee Cancels Marijuana Legalization Hearing On Implementing Referendum
A New Jersey Senate committee announced on Wednesday that it would be taking public testimony on Thursday about how to implement marijuana legalization if voters approve the reform referendum next month—but the panel canceled the event later in the day.
While the legislature decided to leave adult-use legalization up to voters as a ballot measure, legislators must still develop regulations to enact the system—and the temporarily scheduled hearing appeared to be a first step in that process.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was set to “receive public testimony concerning the legislative implementation of Public Question No. 1 on the General Election ballot, which, if approved, would legalize cannabis for personal, non-medical use by adults age 21 years or older,” a notice stated. “Public Question No. 1 would also create a legalized cannabis marketplace overseen by the State’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission.”
Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), who chairs the committee and previously introduced a legalization bill that did not advance to a floor vote, said earlier this month that he’s been working in recent weeks with the governor’s office and legislative leaders to finalize a detailed enabling bill to implement legal market regulations.
He said the measure, which could be enacted as soon as the first week of November, would look similar to a bill he previously introduced, though he wants to add a retroactive provision to end cannabis-related prosecutions for pending cases.
“This is something about social justice. This is an economic opportunity for New Jersey,” the senator said at the time. “We can be the first state in the Northeast—absent Massachusetts, but in our economic area—to move forward and I want to be a leader in this.”
A staffer with the Office of Legislative Services told Marijuana Moment in an email that “the public hearing scheduled for October, 22, 2020 at 9:30 am has been canceled” and said it was “unknown” if the event will be rescheduled.
In any case, if polling is any indication, it appears that voters are poised to pass the cannabis referendum on their ballots next month.
A survey released on Tuesday found that that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the marijuana referendum. Just 29 percent are opposed to the policy change and six percent remain undecided.
The results are statistically consistent with three prior polls from the same firm, as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two to one support for the measure. A separate survey released last week by Stockton University showed three to one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.
For his part, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has been actively campaigning in favor of the referendum, participating in fundraisers and ads to encourage voters to approve it.
For example, the governor recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month, outlining why he’s embraced the policy change. Murphy said that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars, and he emphasized that prohibition is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
The governor similarly said in a recent interview that the marijuana reform proposal prioritizes social justice.
“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” he said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”
Murphy also recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.
The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”
NJ CAN 2020, one of two campaign committees working to pass the cannabis referendum, released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads last week, after having published one prior ad. Meanwhile, campaign finance records compiled show that legal marijuana supporters are out-raising opponents by a ratio of nearly 130:1.
In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advance in the Senate.
This story was updated to reflect the hearing’s cancellation.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Virginia Bill To Ban Police Searches Based On Marijuana Smell Gets Governor-Suggested Changes
The governor of Virginia suggested changes on Wednesday to bills that would stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana.
Thankfully for cannabis reform advocates, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) isn’t asking lawmakers to amend the marijuana odor provisions of the broader proposal to reform policies for law enforcement searches. Instead, according to a press release sent by his office, he is suggesting an unrelated change to ensure police “can initiate a traffic stop when an individual is driving at night without the use of both headlights and/or without the use of both break lights.”
The House and Senate will now consider the amendment, thought it’s not clear when they will do so. If the governor’s proposal is adopted by lawmakers without changes, the legislation will be formally enacted without needing his signature. Otherwise, it will come back to his desk for action.
Northam’s move comes one week after he signed separate legislation that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.
Together, when enacted, the two new reforms will build upon the measure to decriminalize cannabis that the governor signed earlier this year, which makes it so possession of up to one ounce of cannabis is punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record.
Under the new search-focused legislation, if enacted, “no law-enforcement officer may lawfully stop, search, or seize any person, place, or thing solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana, and no evidence discovered or obtained as a result of such unlawful search or seizure shall be admissible in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding,” according to a summary.
“Eliminating non-essential interactions based on marijuana odor between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding citizens is an important step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia,”Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML’s development director and the executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “However, it is only by legalizing the responsible use of cannabis by adults that the Commonwealth can end its failed experiment with prohibition and begin repairing the decades of damage done to its communities and citizens.”
The Virginia legislature has been especially active on cannabis reform this year. But that said, lawmakers have not been able to reach an agreement during the special session on legislation to provide expungements for prior marijuana convictions that had appeared destined for Northam’s desk after passing either chamber in differing forms.
Under the House-passed measure, eligible convictions would have been automatically expunged after a period of eight years. The Senate’s version, meanwhile, would have allowed people to petition to have their records cleared after a period of five years. The House bill covered more drug crimes, as well.
A conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers was appointed and tasked with ironing out the differences, but the negotiators couldn’t reach a deal by the time the special session’s agenda wrapped up last week.
During the state’s regular legislative session earlier this year, the governor and legislators also expanded Virginia’s limited medical cannabis program in addition to enacting the decriminalization law.
All of these incremental changes come as legislators continue to pursue a broader adult-use legalization plan in the Commonwealth that would include a system of regulated and taxed sales and production.
The decriminalization bill that passed contains a provision that calls for the establishment of a working group to study and make recommendations about adult-use marijuana legalization. That panel is expected to issue its report to the legislature at the end of November.
Meanwhile, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee is doing its own analysis on ending cannabis prohibition and will similarly report on its findings before the end of the year.
A bill to legalize marijuana possession was filed for the special session by a delegate running to replace the term-limited Northam in 2021, but it did not advance out of the committee to which it was referred.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.