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Vermont House Speaker Says Majority Of Lawmakers Back Legalizing Marijuana Sales

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Legislation to tax and regulate recreational marijuana sales has a good chance of passing in Vermont in 2020, according to one of the state’s top elected officials.

During a Thursday press conference in which House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D) discussed legislative priorities for the 2020 session, the speaker said there is currently enough multi-party support in her chamber to pass a bill legalizing cannabis commerce next year.

“Given what I’ve heard from people, I believe there is a solid tri-partisan majority in the House that would like to see tax and regulate pass this year,” Johnson said.

When pressed again to answer the question, specifically, of whether the bill has a significant chance of passage, Johnson continued, “I believe there is the will in the House to pass it this year.”

The new comments come despite Johnson previously saying that the legislation isn’t a top priority in the new session.

As for where the bill stands once it potentially comes back to the Senate, Ashe, whose chamber approved a cannabis commerce bill earlier this year, said the legislation remains in “wait and see mode” because of changes the House may end up making to the proposal.

“Because the bill is not a final product, obviously members in the Senate who were particularly active in drafting it on our side are keeping tabs but are waiting to worry about differences until we get the final product,” Ashe said.

Watch Johnson and Ashe’s marijuana legalization comments, about 37:30 into the video below: 

The Senate approved a cannabis sales legalization bill in February. But as the first half of the biennial session came to a close in the spring, it became clear that the bill would not reach the House floor for a vote despite having advanced at the committee level.

Had the bill been approved, it would have acted as a building block on legislation Vermont lawmakers approved January 2018 to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation of marijuana. Gov. Phil Scott (R) signed the bill later that month, but sales and other means of cannabis commerce are prohibited.

In light of the current law’s lack of regulatory measures, advocates for cannabis reform in Vermont welcomed Johnson’s latest comments on the issue.

Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate from Middlebury, told Marijuana Moment that the speaker’s remarks “underscore the importance of the work that the House Government Operations Committee has already done to address legislators’ concerns about youth access to cannabis, traffic safety and environment protection.”

Johnson said at the press conference that concerns such as roadside safety, youth usage and the marijuana production’s impact on the environment must be addressed before the bill is to see a floor consideration in the new year.

“The legislature returns in early January, and I look forward to the bill being brought to a vote in short order,” Silberman noted.

Johnson’s latest clarification of her stance comes on the heels of a top Vermont health official’s endorsement of legal recreational marijuana sales.

During a radio interview with WDEV last week, Cynthia Seivwright, director of the state Department of Health’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, said that regulating cannabis commerce in the state would better protect public health than current policy does.

“Without the regulation, we don’t know what’s in it,” Seivwright said when asked whether a regulatory model that is similar to that for alcohol makers sense for cannabis. “We can’t control the potency of it. We can’t control the access, and we definitely don’t want children and adolescents to have access to it. … We at the Health Department support a regulated system.”

That said, the governor has raised concerns about the idea of legalizing marijuana sales, saying that he isn’t prepared to sign such legislation until he feels comfortable that law enforcement have the tools they need to deal with issues related to driving under the influence.

Oklahoma Activists Take First Step To Put Marijuana Legalization On State’s 2020 Ballot

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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.

Xander Peters is a freelance journalist living in New Orleans. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Reason, Earther and other publications.

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Nine Members Of Congress Tell DEA To Revise Proposed Hemp Rule On THC Content

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Nine members of Congress sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Tuesday, urging the agency to revise its proposed hemp regulations.

DEA released an interim final rule (IFR) for the crop in August, and it said the regulations were simply meant to comply with the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives. But stakeholders and advocates have expressed serious concerns about certain proposals, arguing that they could put processors at risk of violating federal law and hamper the industry’s growth.

Reps. David Joyce (R-OH) and Denver Riggleman (R-VA) led the letter and pointed specifically to a provision of DEA’s IFR that could impact processing hemp extracts. The agency stipulated that “any such material that contains greater than 0.3% of Δ9-THC on a dry weight basis remains controlled in schedule I.”

That’s problematic, the lawmakers said, because in many cases the process of extracting cannabinoids from hemp temporarily causes THC levels to increase beyond that threshold. And so while Congress intended to legalize those extracts, businesses that produce the materials could find themselves inadvertently breaking the law.

“Our offices have received countless calls from constituents involved in the hemp industry who are extremely fearful that simply following the provisions of the Farm Bill will result in criminal liability under the IFR,” the lawmakers’ letter states. “The IFR will likely have the effect of inhibiting these nascent state hemp programs thereby harming those American companies and workers who chose to pursue careers in the hemp industry and made significant investments to effectuate those aspirations.”

Therefore, the lawmakers are “requesting a resolution to this issue as quickly as possible,” adding that “DEA must revise the IFR to eliminate the ambiguities set forth above and provide peace of mind to all Americans who have chosen to pursue a career in the hemp industry.”

Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Glenn Grothman (R-WI), Don Young (R-AK), Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) also signed the letter.

A public comment period on DEA’s proposed rules closed on Tuesday. It saw more than 3,300 submissions, many of which focused on issues with the “work in progress” hemp THC issue.

“This IFR’s criminalizes work in progress hemp extract, a fundamental component of any consumer hemp/CBD product, and will negatively impact the hemp/CBD industry at a time when financial pressure is already high,” one commenter wrote. “Hemp and subsequent extracts are not controlled substances.”

Another issue identified by more than 1,000 commenters concerns delta-8 THC. The most widely known cannabinoid is delta-9 THC, the main component responsible for creating an intoxicating effect, but delta-8 THC from hemp is also psychoactive and is an object of growing interest within the market.

Because DEA’s proposed regulations state that all “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain schedule I controlled substances,” some feel that would directly impact the burgeoning cannabinoid, as its converted from CBD through the use of a catalyst—and that could be interpreted as a synthetic production process.

In any case, it’s not clear whether DEA deliberately crafted either of these rules with the intent of criminalizing certain hemp producers—but stakeholders and advocates aren’t taking any chances.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which also closed this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Read the congressional coalition’s letter to DEA on its hemp rule below: 

DEA IFR Letter by Marijuana Moment

State And Local Marijuana Regulators Demand Congress Prioritize Federal Legalization Bill

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Pennsylvania House Votes To Protect Medical Marijuana Patients From DUI Charges

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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved an amendment on Tuesday that would protect medical marijuana patients from being penalized under the state’s DUI laws for using their legal medicine.

The proposal cleared the chamber as an amendment to a broader piece of legislation concerning motor vehicle policies. It passed in a 109-93 vote.

As it stands, registered medical cannabis patients can be convicted of driving under the influence of a controlled substance if THC metabolites are detected in their blood. That’s despite the fact that marijuana can remain present in the body well after someone is considered impaired.

The House-approved amendment, which is now attached to a bill previously passed by the Senate, exempts “marijuana used lawfully in accordance with” the state’s medical cannabis law from DUI statutes.

“I think that you can ask any veteran or anybody that’s using medical cannabis right now, if they took the prescription on Monday, [on] Wednesday, they’re not high,” Rep. Ed Gainey (D) said in a floor speech before the vote. “And if they got pulled over, they darned shouldn’t be charged for being intoxicated or under the influence of medical marijuana.”

“I think we’re putting an undue burden on the people of Pennsylvania if we’re saying this is what we want to do after we fought so hard to pass medical marijuana and we know what it’s done to help the people of Pennsylvania,” he said.

The amendment is similar in intent to separate standalone legislation introduced by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R) in June to end the “zero tolerance” DUI policy for medical marijuana.

While Pennsylvania legalized medical cannabis in 2016, with the first dispensaries opening two years later, the law has not caught up as it concerns impaired driving. A person can test positive for THC for weeks after last consuming marijuana, rendering traditional roadside tests incapable of determining active impairment.

Several legal cannabis states have enacted per se THC limits in blood, similar to blood alcohol requirements. However, evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.

A study published last year, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.

Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance… studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”

The modest cannabis DUI reform approved by the Pennsylvania House comes amid repeated calls from the state’s leaders to more broadly legalize marijuana for adult use.

Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in a speech stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.

That marked the third time in three months that the governor has held events focused on making the case for legalization. Last month, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), a longstanding legalization advocate, has been similarly vocal about his position. In speeches and on social media, the official has expressed frustration that Pennsylvania has yet to enact the policy change, especially as neighboring like New Jersey are moving in that direction.

He said last month that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously legalize cannabis before voters next door in the Garden State enact the policy change this November.

Fetterman also recently hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.

While Wolf initially opposed adult-use legalization, he came out in support of the reform last year after Fetterman led a statewide listening tour last year to solicit public input on the issue.

Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

State And Local Marijuana Regulators Demand Congress Prioritize Federal Legalization Bill

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Montana Supreme Court Rejects Challenge To Marijuana Legalization Initiative

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The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the state’s November ballot.

With weeks before the election, opponents asked the court to quash the measure, arguing that because it involves appropriating funds, it violates state statute on citizen initiatives.

The court didn’t weigh in on the merits of the challenge; rather, it said the petitioners with the campaign Wrong for Montana (WFM) failed to demonstrate “urgency or emergency factors” that would justify moving the case into its jurisdiction instead of going through trial and appeals courts first.

It left the door open for the opponents to take its challenge through the traditional process. Brian Thompson, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, told Marijuana Moment that they now intend to file the suit in district court “soon,” but he wasn’t able to provide an exact timeline.

“We express no opinion on the merits of WFM’s constitutional challenge, nor to its right to pursue this challenge in district court,” the justices wrote. “However, WFM’s claim does not present an appropriate basis on which to invoke this Court’s original jurisdiction. Even if it did, WFM has wholly failed to establish that urgency or emergency factors make litigation in the trial courts and the normal appeal process inadequate.”

Dave Lewis, policy advisor to the pro-legalization New Approach Montana, said in a press release that this “was an easy decision for the Montana Supreme Court.”

“At best, this lawsuit was a frivolous longshot,” he said. “At worst, it was an intentional effort to create confusion right before the election.”

The measure in question would establish that adult-use marijuana system. The lawsuit did not target a separate, complementary initiative that would specify that only those 21 and older could participate in the legal market.

It is the case that state statute says citizens “may enact laws by initiative on all matters except appropriations of money and local or special laws” and that the initiative does allocate cannabis tax revenue to certain programs. But prior measures that have appeared on the state’s ballot have done so as well.

Under the proposal, half of the public revenue generated from marijuana sales would go toward environmental conservation programs—a provision that earned the campaign key endorsements last month.

The initiative is already on the ballot and voting has started, so presumably if the court had sided with the plaintiffs, the votes simply wouldn’t have been counted or implementation would have been prevented. It is also possible that a court could rule that monies raised by legal cannabis sales under the initiative would simply into the state’s general fund instead of toward the specific programs delineated in its current text.

“We’re receiving strong support from voters across the state,” Lewis, who is a former Republican state senator and former budget director for three Montana governors, said. “Instead of making a coherent argument against the initiatives, our opponents tried to deprive Montanans of their constitutional right to a citizen initiative process.”

“Our opponents are desperately throwing everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks,” he added. “They’re resorting to fear tactics and misinformation because they know that a majority of Montana voters are ready to vote yes on legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana for adults 21 and over.”

In neighboring Nebraska, the state Supreme Court did rule last month that a measure to legalize medical cannabis that had qualified for the November ballot could not proceed because it violated the state’s single-subject rule for ballot initiatives.

Recent polling indicates that Montana voters are positioned to approve the legalization proposal. Forty-nine percent of respondents in a survey released last week said they support the policy change, with 39 percent opposed and 10 percent remaining undecided.

This story has been updated to include comment from Thompson.

Read the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling on the marijuana challenge and the original lawsuit below:

Montana Marijuana Lawsuit by Marijuana Moment

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