Vermont lawmakers plan to introduce at least two bills this legislative session to decriminalize the possession of drugs, with one of those proposals expected early next week.
State Rep. Brian Cina (P/D) told Marijuana Moment in an interview that his legislation, which he is planning to introduce on Tuesday, would remove penalties around an array of plant- and fungi-based psychedelics, including psilocybin, mescaline, ibogaine and DMT.
“Humans have had a close relationship with plants and fungi that goes back to the very beginning of humanity,” Cina said in an interview. “But the legacy of colonization has left us with the criminalization of these medicinal, spiritual, religious, entheogenic medicines.”
Another forthcoming Vermont bill would decriminalize small amounts of all drugs, although details of that legislation aren’t yet public. Rep. Selene Colburn (P/D) said at a press conference that an all-drug decriminalization bill is currently being drafted and will be introduced later this session.
“We’re still figuring out the model, but it does look to the work that’s happened in Oregon as a potential template,” she said, referring to the drug decriminalization ballot measure that voters in that state approved in November.
Colburn didn’t immediately respond on Thursday to an emailed request for more details.
Sarah George, state’s attorney for Chittenden County, said at Wednesday’s event that drugs “are not illegal because they are dangerous, but they certainly are more dangerous because they’re illegal.”
“Everything is safer when it’s legalized and regulated,” George said, “and legal drugs are safer than illegal drugs.”
Other legislation still in the works for this session could decriminalize buprenorphine, commonly used to treat opioid use disorder, and regulate the sale of kratom, a popular but controversial herbal medicine and painkiller alternative.
“In general there’s many of us trying to decriminalize human behavior that’s become sort of stigmatized and judged by others but the main impact is on the person,” Cina told Marijuana Moment. In the case of substance use, he said, “the greatest impact is the health impact on the person and the social impact.”
Cina previewed the proposal to deregulate plant-based entheogens in a video call this week with the group Decriminalize Nature, which has helped lead successful efforts to decriminalize certain drugs in other jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C.
During the event, the lawmaker showed a draft of his bill and walked attendees through how it would amend current law.
“What we do is, right now in the section that defines a hallucinogenic drug, it includes peyote and psilocybin and all these other drugs that you see,” Cina explained. “What we do is we strike those out, we basically say they’re not counted.”
The entire list of drugs that would be removed from “regulated” status—effectively deleting them from the state’s list of controlled substances—includes peyote, ayahuasca, cacti containing mescaline, psilocybin, psilocin, ibogaine, DMT and any plant containing those substances.
“I know other people have other conceptions about how we should do this,” Cina said on the call. “This is one way we’re trying to do it. It’s part of a multi-pronged strategy to defelonize all drugs and decriminalize many.”
Cina told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he expects to have seven co-sponsors for the bill when it’s first introduced, which would be a sign of growing support for the policy change. A similar bill introduced by Cina last session, H.878, earned three other cosponsors and was never heard in committee.
There have been some small changes from last year’s proposal, most notably regarding what drugs it would deregulate. Last year’s bill applied to psilocybin, ayahuasca, peyote and kratom. This year’s bill removes kratom and expands the list of deregulated plants and substances to include ibogaine, DMT and certain plants and fungi containing those compounds.
“To maximize the decriminalization, we include the substance and the plant,” Cina said.
He said the new bill would likely begin its path in the House Judiciary Committee, although that won’t be known for sure until it’s introduced and referred.
As for kratom, Cina said lawmakers will deal with the drug—already widely sold across the country—under separate legislation, the Kratom Consumer Protection Act, that would legalize and regulate sales. That bill would set a minimum purchasing age for kratom and include rules meant to ensure product purity and dosage.
The bill to decriminalize natural psychedelics takes a different route, simply removing the substances and the plants that produce them from the state’s drug laws. As Cina describes it, the bill would instead treat hallucinogenic plants like non-psychoactive mushrooms and cactuses.
“The best way I can explain it,” he told the Decriminalize Nature audience, “is we’re just treating them like other plants and fungi.”
Some state officials have already expressed opposition to decriminalization of additional drugs beyond marijuana, calling it a step too far.
“Philosophically I would struggle with trying to understand how the public safety or the public health would be improved by the decriminalization of heroin,” Attorney General TJ Donovan said on a podcast hosted by VTDigger this week.
Asked if he would support the decriminalization of any drugs, Donovan replied, “I think we have it: We have marijuana, we have alcohol.”
Donovan acknowledged, however, that he and others are evolving on the idea as they’re presented with evidence that drug reform policies can reduce harm. “Some people use drugs, we know that,” he said. “How do we reduce the harm of that and to the community?”
Donovan said he supports some drug reform policies, such as needle exchange programs, and is “open to the idea” of safe injection sites.
“We should be guided by science, we should be guided by data and we shouldn’t be afraid to have these tough conversations as we continue to evolve,” he said.
The attorney general has already revised his stance on marijuana, initially favoring simple decriminalization of the drug but eventually embracing legalization as a way to regulate safety and eliminate the illegal market. “You can’t tell Vermonters that you can legally possess something and be absolutely silent on how they obtain it,” he said.
The state legalized possession and home cultivation of cannabis sales in 2018 and last year moved to add a legal and regulated sales component.
The Vermont Democratic Party, for its part, signaled late last year that it’s on board with the broader policy change. At a virtual meeting in September, the party adopted a platform that includes a call to “adopt an approach to the possession and misuse of drugs that is motivated solely by the principles of public health and harm reduction, rather than punishing undesirable private behavior, while avoiding the criminal justice system altogether.”
Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate who led the drafting of the platform’s criminal justice provisions, told Marijuana Moment at the time that “as a party, we’ve fully recognized that the War on Drugs has completely failed to reduce problematic drug use, and in fact fuels the racial biases we see in policing today, all without contributing to public safety.”
Elsewhere across the country, lawmakers are considering similar reforms to roll back or eliminate penalties for the possession of many drugs.
A Republican lawmaker in Iowa introduced a bill earlier this month that would remove psilocybin from the list of controlled substances and another to let seriously ill patients use psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, DMT and other drugs.
In Texas, a state legislator introduced a bill last week to require the state to study the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine in the treatment of certain mental health conditions.
On Thursday, a California lawmaker, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D) introduced legislation that would legalize the possession and social sharing of a number of drugs, including psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ketamine, mescaline, ibogaine, DMT and MDMA. It would also provide for the expungement of past criminal records for possession or use. The state would establish a task force under the proposal to study potential future regulatory systems around psychedelics, with a report due in 2024.
“This bill is part of a larger push to end the failed War on Drugs, which has disproportionately harmed underserved communities of color,” said Assemblymember Evan Low (D), a cosponsor of that bill. “Our bill helps to lead us on a path to decriminalizing substance abuse so we can focus on providing addiction treatment instead of paying for jail cells and ignoring the larger problem.”
As Cina in Vermont told Marijuana Moment this week, “We don’t need to police each other more. We need to take care of each other better.”
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.