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Vermont House Approves Bill To Legalize Marijuana Sales

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The Vermont House of Representatives approved a bill on Wednesday to legalize the sale of marijuana in the state.

Following weeks of committee action advancing the legislation, the full chamber cleared the bill in a 90-54 vote.

Vermont lawmakers approved legislation to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation of cannabis for personal use in 2018, but the system lacks a retail component. The current proposal would resolve that by implementing a tax-and-regulate model similar to those in most other legal states.

The Senate already approved the bill with a veto-proof margin during the first half of the legislative biennium in 2019. This year, it was amended and approved by the House Government Operations, Ways & Means and Appropriations Committees.

“Since 2004, we have taken a step-by-step approach to reform,” Rep. John Gannon (D) said in his opening remarks, adding that the legislation “benefits from the research conducted by the governor’s commission on marijuana.”

“The key features of it though are as follows: consumer protection,” he said. “It replaces an illicit market with a strictly regulated market, provides safe access to predictable and tested products, no access to cannabis establishments are allowed for anyone under the age of 21.”

An additional House floor vote—expected on Thursday—will be needed to finalize the bill’s passage through the chamber, though that is largely seen as a formality following Wednesday’s approval. After that point, House and Senate leaders will likely appoint members to a bicameral conference committee to reconcile differences between the two bodies’ versions of the legislation.

“Vermonters are one step closer to reaping the benefits associated with cannabis regulation,” Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment. “The House’s passage of S. 54 is an important step forward, and an overwhelming majority of Vermonters want to see it become law.”

Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, said that with “today’s historic vote, the Vermont House has affirmed what most Vermonters have long known: the War on Drugs approach to cannabis has failed.”

“Regulating the commercial production and sale of cannabis is better for consumers, for public safety, and for our rural economy,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Today, common sense prevailed.”

In general, the bill would establish a commercial cannabis market in the state, create various categories of business licenses, establish a government agency to oversee the new industry and set tax rates on legal sales. It would set limits on product potency, capping THC in cannabis flower at 30 percent THC and limiting concentrates to 60 percent THC. The legislation also includes provisions to changes references in current state law from “marijuana” to “cannabis.”

Throughout the process, the bill has been subject to amendments, including on the floor.

Changes approved by the Government Operations Committee include adjusting the timeline for implementation, increasing deference to the state’s Department of Health for rulemaking, banning flavored vape cartridges and clarifying zoning rules.

The Ways & Means Committee proposed amendment changing the tax structure that was approved by the chamber. The revision calls for a 14 percent excise tax on cannabis sales, in addition to the state’s six percent sales tax. There would not be a local tax.

Another amendment from the Appropriations Committee requires tax revenue deposited into an education fund to be designated for a grant for an after-school program. It was strongly approved in a voice vote on the floor.

That policy is backed by legislative leaders and it’s also meant to appeal to Gov. Phil Scott (R), who after opposing commercial legalization has signaled that he may be supportive if revenue can fund his after-school proposal.

MPP’s Simon said this “bill presents Gov. Phil Scott with a great opportunity to continue his evolution on cannabis policy, and he should seize it.”

The committee also amended the bill to reduce the size of the Cannabis Control Board, which would be responsible for regulating the marijuana market. The bill was also amended to stipulate that 30 percent of revenue should go toward a substance misuse treatment program.

The full body signed off on all of those committee-recommended changes, and three additional amendments were proposed by members ahead of the floor vote to approve the overall bill.

After the legislation left Ways & Means, there were some concerns that not enough revenue would go toward individual municipalities. A amendment was approved by the House providing for local licensing fees to address that.

A measure to increase the size of grow facilities eligible for craft cultivation licenses from 500 to 1,000 sq. ft. was also approved by the chamber. It would also limit the maximum THC content per edible to 50 mg.

Finally, the House rejected a proposal to remove language about where tax revenue should go and allocate it to the education fund in general, rather than specify how it should be spent.

Several members have indicated they may file additional amendments to the bill prior to its final approval on Thursday. In any case, once the House gives final passage to the legislation, there are a number of areas where that chamber and the Senate will have to reconcile differences between their respective versions.

For example, the chambers have proposed differing approaches to impaired driving and the use of roadside drug testing devices. That’s an important component, as Scott has expressed serious concerns about impaired driving, and so it will likely factor into his decision to sign or reject the bill.

The tax rate is another issue, with the Senate’s version calling for a lower tax rate than the House’s.

Residents in the state are strongly in favor of the reform move, according to a poll released earlier this month by the Marijuana Policy Project. It showed that about three-in-four Vermonters support allowing adults to purchase marijuana “from regulated, taxpaying small businesses.”

In neighboring New Hampshire, the House approved a bill last week that would create a policy similar to what Vermont currently has, allowing adults to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use without a retail component.

Smokable Hemp Bill Heads To Virginia Governor’s Desk, And Lawmakers Approve Legal Marijuana Study

Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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.

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.

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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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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