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Virginia Conference Committee Faces Saturday Deadline To Finalize Marijuana Legalization Proposal

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Virginia lawmakers are working to reconcile conflicting House and Senate marijuana legalization bills this week, scrambling to reach deals on matters such as business licensing and criminal penalties ahead of a legislative deadline on Saturday.

Each chamber passed its own legalization bill earlier this month, building off a plan introduced in January by legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who last year committed to legalizing cannabis in the commonwealth. While the two measures—each spanning more than 500 pages—are substantially similar, key differences remain on a range of hotly debated topics.

“This is one of the largest, most significant pieces of legislation debated in the commonwealth in decades, with years of preparation, study and research leading up to its proposal,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director for NORML and executive director of the group’s Virginia chapter, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginia is one of the single most prepared states to undertake a legalization effort.”

Both measures (HB 2312 / SB 1406) would allow adults 21 and older to purchase up to an ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to four cannabis plants (two mature) for personal use. Commercial production and retail sales would be regulated by the state, and tax from the legal industry would fund investment in pre-K education and public health initiatives. The two bills would each create a new agency to regulate cannabis instead of have the state’s existing alcohol authority do so as was originally envisioned by Northam.

But as the proposals have made their way through each chamber, amendments have led to competing approaches on the finer details of legalization.

Some disagreements are relatively simple. The Senate bill would legalize personal possession of marijuana later this year, for example, while the House proposal would keep penalties in place until as late as 2024 to align the change with the launch of legal sales.

Other differences are more complex, especially those around how businesses would be licensed and regulated. Vertical integration of businesses—under which a single company could grow, process and sell cannabis products—would be banned under the House bill. The Senate measure, meanwhile, would allow vertical integration only if a business were to pay $1 million fee into a state equity fund.

The decision on that rule would affect how easily the state’s existing medical marijuana businesses, which are vertically integrated, could participate in the new adult market.

While both bills would leave the total number of business licenses in the state up to local regulators, the House bill would limit individual license holders to no more than five licenses apiece in an effort to avoid the market being dominated by large marijuana businesses. The Senate bill would only limit the number of cultivation licenses any one individual could hold.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 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.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Social equity applicants would be given licensing priority under both versions of the legislation in an effort to recognize the drug war’s racial and economic disparities, but who qualifies for equity status isn’t settled. Lawmakers have debated whether people who attended the state’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) should be eligible, for example, or whether businesses could qualify simply by employing people impacted by the drug war or giving a portion of profits to equity groups.

The two chambers also differ on the issue of local control. The Senate measure would allow individual cities to ban cannabis companies within its borders, while the House bill would allow businesses statewide, although facilities would still be subject to local zoning requirements.

Further controversy surrounds how violations of the new law would be penalized. The Senate proposal creates a number of new criminal penalties, such as making it a misdemeanor—rather than the state’s current $25 fine—for consuming cannabis in public. It would also criminalize consuming cannabis in a moving vehicle, even in the case of a passenger eating a cannabis edible. Driving under the influence of marijuana would remain a crime under both bills.

The House bill also makes clear that adults 21 and older are free to share small amounts of cannabis between them so long as the marijuana isn’t exchanged as part of a larger transaction, as in the case of quasi-legal delivery services that have tried to skirt gifting laws in other states.

Penalties for minors caught with cannabis are more restrained under the House bill, with youth subject to a $25 civil fine and referral to a substance education or treatment program. The Senate bill, meanwhile, would impose a $250 fee for a first offense and criminal charges and even jail time for subsequent convictions.

Expungement of prior convictions could occur under both bills, although the House bill specifies that a larger portion of eligible expungements would happen automatically. Separate legislation advancing this session (HB 2113 / SB 1339) would make changes to the state’s expungement processes more broadly.

Pedini, at NORML, called the House bill “much better when it comes to post-legalization penalties,” noting that the reform group has encouraged the members of the conference committee to avoid rolling back progress recently made with the decriminalization law Northam signed last year, which replaced criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with a $25 civil fine and no threat of jail time.

Advocates have noted that even as overall marijuana arrests have fallen since the decriminalization law took effect, data from the state Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court show persistent racial disparities in possession charges. Black Virginians accounted for 52 percent of all such charges, the group Marijuana Justice found, despite just 20 percent of the state’s population being Black.

“NORML has long warned that decriminalization, while an important step to reducing marijuana-related arrests, will only do so by about 50 percent, and will unfortunately not address the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws,” Pedini said. “The legislature must act swiftly to stop the harm by legalizing the responsible use of cannabis by adults and begin undoing the harms of prohibition inflicted overwhelmingly on poor, young, Black, and Brown Virginians.”

Virginia NORML has been tracking several other cannabis-related bills this session, a few of which have already made it to the governor’s desk. Most notably, lawmakers on Tuesday signed off on legislation to allow the production and sale of raw, so-called botanical cannabis to medical marijuana patients. Another measure, which passed the House earlier this month and is set to be considered by the Senate on Wednesday, would prevent workers from discharging, disciplining or discriminating against an employee for being a lawful medical marijuana patient. That bill would not restrict an employer’s ability to fire someone for being high on the job.

Pedini urged lawmakers considering the legalization bills to adopt clearer language on how to incorporate the state’s existing medical marijuana businesses into the state’s new market to ensure that both systems flourish.

“The committee has everything they need to reach a resolution in advance of the Saturday deadline,” they said. “If they don’t reach an agreement or fail to pass the bills, it’s purely for political reasons, and reasons that blatantly ignore public opinion.”

Some lawmakers, however, have already floated the idea of delaying certain portions of the legislation. The Senate version of the bill contains a clause that would force the legislature to vote again next year before the legal market could move forward, and it would ask voters to weigh in through a nonbinding referendum on next year’s ballot.

“We’re part-time legislators. It’s 46 days and a 13,000-line bill. This bill makes more substantive change in the law than anything I’ve seen in the whole time I’ve been down here,” Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an interview earlier this month. “We want to get it right. We need to have it back before us next year.”

The focus on legalizing the “right” way has become a common refrain among Virginia officials. Announcing his commitment to enacting policy change, Northam said late last year he was “committed to doing it the right way.”

Asked by the Times-Dispatch about the House and Senate bills, a spokesperson for Northam replied: “Both bills would legalize marijuana in the right way.”

Democratic lawmakers began formally pushing for legalization last summer, a day after the new state marijuana decriminalization law took effect. In November, a legislative working group issued recommendations to lawmakers and the governor about how best implement a legal cannabis program, and a separate workgroup of state cabinet officials also prepared a study on the issue, which together became the basis for Northam’s proposal.

“Legislative leaders in Virginia deserve a big round of applause for their commitment to ending cannabis prohibition and replacing it with sensible regulation,” said Matt Simon, senior legislative analyst for Marijuana Policy Project, which is also tracking the differences in the two bills. “There are still a few details that still need to be resolved in the legislation, but overall we are happy with the direction things appear to be going and hopeful that legislators will agree on a policy that works for all Virginians.”

Even if state lawmakers pass a reconciled legalization bill in coming days, there would still be a long way to go before legal sales begin. Under both bills, Virginia’s first legal adult-use sale wouldn’t occur until 2024.

“While this protracted timeline is both unnecessary and far from ideal, what’s most important is that the measure succeed. In the next legislative session, we can make improvements,” Pedini said. “What we cannot do is continue to kick the legalization can down the road for yet another year.”

New Jersey Attorney General Orders Marijuana Cases To Be Dropped Following Legalization Bill Signing

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images

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.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

Business

New House Bills Would Make Cannabis Businesses Eligible For Federal Small-Business Aid

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Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced three new bills to make state-legal marijuana businesses eligible for federal small business services, including loans, disaster relief and grant programs.

The package of legislation is aimed at establishing parity for cannabis businesses, which are currently prohibited from receiving federal aid due to marijuana still being classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. The country’s legal cannabis industry nevertheless now supports nearly 320,000 full-time jobs in the U.S., according to industry estimates.

The measures are largely similar to legislation introduced by the lawmakers in 2019, with some small changes.

One bill, sponsored by House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), would allow marijuana businesses to access resources from the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). The Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021, which had not been assigned a bill number as of Tuesday afternoon, would expand access to services such as microloans, disaster assistance and the agency’s loan guaranty program.

“With more and more states pursuing legalization, including my home state of New York, there are a growing number of legitimate small businesses that are excluded from critical SBA programs,” Velázquez said in a statement, noting that much of the cannabis industry consists of small businesses.

Compared to Velázquez’s 2019 bill, the new version adds clauses meant to expand the availability of services. While the 2019 bill applied to SBA itself, provisions in the new legislation also prevent SBA intermediaries, private lenders and state and local development companies from declining to work with businesses simply because of their marijuana-related work.

Another new section deals with debentures—certain unsecured loan certificates—and clarifies that SBA may not decline to purchase or guarantee a debenture just because of a business’s involvement in cannabis. Nor can other small business investment companies decline to provide assistance to the cannabis sector.

“This legislation will spark growth by extending affordable capital to small firms in the cannabis space,” she continued. “Simultaneously, the bill acknowledges the structural disadvantages facing entrepreneurs of color and seeks to level the playing field.”

Another newly refiled measure, H.R. 2649, sponsored by Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA), would establish a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) grant program to provide funding to state and local governments to help them navigate the licensing process for cannabis businesses. The bill, which also removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, specifies that the grant money should be used to benefit communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

“My bill would act as a poverty-buster and help homegrown small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy and our neighborhoods. We need to make sure that the booming legal cannabis industry does not become consolidated in the hands of a few big companies,” Evans said.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 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.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

A third bill, H.R. 2649, from Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME), would prohibit SBA partners that provide guidance and training services from denying help to businesses solely because of involvement in cannabis. The changes would affect providers such as SBA’s Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and the Veterans Business Outreach Centers, among others.

“Our continued economic recovery depends on the health of American small businesses of all kinds. Especially in this environment, no Maine small business owner should be turned away from crucial SBA programs that could help them create jobs and lift up the economy,” said Rep. Golden. “My bill would help address this problem by providing small business owners directly or indirectly associated with the cannabis industry with access to the services and resources they need to get their small businesses off the ground and grow.”

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have been making headway on other cannabis-related proposals. The House passed a cannabis banking bill on Monday, and broader legislation to legalize cannabis at the federal level is expected to be introduced soon.

The banking legislation would ensure that financial institutions can take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators. The full House passed the bill on a 321–101 vote.

“Even if you are opposed to the legalization of cannabis, you should support this bill,” sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said on the House floor. “The fact is that people in states and localities across the country are voting to approve some level of cannabis use, and we need these cannabis businesses and employees to have access to checking accounts, payroll accounts, lines of credit, credit cards and more.

Other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are working on legislation that would end federal cannabis prohibition completely.

Schumer said last week that the long-awaited proposal would be introduced “shortly” and placed on the floor “soon.” Schumer has so far declined to discuss the bill’s specifics, though he’s stressed that it will prioritize small businesses and people most historically impacted by the drug war.

In an interview with Marijuana Moment this week, Schumer worried that passage of the House banking bill could actually undermine broader congressional cannabis reform this year.

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his own legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House in a landmark vote last year but did not advance in GOP-controlled the Senate.

Meanwhile, support for legalization among U.S. voters continues to grow. More than 9 in 10 Americans (91 percent) now support legalizing cannabis for either medical or adult use, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Friday. Sixty percent of respondents said that cannabis should be legal for both medical and adult use. Thirty-one percent said it should be legalized for therapeutic purposes only, while just eight percent said it should continue to be criminalized across the board.

A majority of those in every age, race and political demographic included in the poll said they feel marijuana should be legal in some form, although many Republicans remain wary of adult-use legalization. Seventy-two percent of Democrats favored both medical and adult-use legalization compared to only 47 percent of Republicans.

Among the minority in opposition to federal legalization: President Joe Biden (D). White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the president’s position on the issue “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the reform. on Tuesday, Psaki refused to say whether Biden would sign or veto a cannabis legalization bill if passed by Congress.

The president instead backs modestly rescheduling the plant, decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, expunging prior marijuana records and letting states set their own policies.

Read the full text of the new legislation below:

Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021 by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Ensuring Access to Counseli… by Marijuana Moment

Homegrown Act by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

 

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Politics

Biden Won’t Commit To Sign Marijuana Bill If Passed By Congress, Press Secretary Says

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say whether President Joe Biden would sign or veto a bill to federally legalize marijuana if it arrives on his desk, noting that his cannabis policy position is at odds with broader proposals that congressional Democratic leaders are working on.

She was also asked about his stance on marijuana banking reform, the disconnect between public opinion favoring legalization and the president’s opposition and whether Biden plans to revisit clemency applications for those facing federal sentences over cannabis.

The noncommittal response to the legalization question comes on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20—a day that has seen a wide range of politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), voice support for comprehensive marijuana reform.

Psaki was pressed on the Senate leader’s remarks and asked whether Biden would support legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition if Congress approved it.

“The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” she said. “He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana so that’s his point of view on the issue.”

Biden’s positions to that end are well known, but an outstanding question has been whether his opposition to adult-use legalization is so strong that he would reject a reform proposal such as those currently being drafted in the House and Senate.

Asked directly what action the president would take if a federal legalization bill was sent to his desk, Psaki signaled that he wouldn’t be inclined to sign it, stating “I just have outlined what his position is, which isn’t the same as what the House and Senate have proposed, but they have not yet passed a bill.”

The reporter followed up to ask about a separate cannabis pledge Biden made as a presidential candidate, when he said people incarcerated in federal prisons over non-violent marijuana offenses should be released.

Psaki said that would be addressed if cannabis was rescheduled to Schedule II—a dubious claim given that there are still serious penalties for offenses involving substances in that category as well. She also didn’t provide any insight into whether the president is proactively pushing for the modest scheduling change.

Later in the briefing, the press secretary was asked where Biden stands on legislation to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. The House approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act along bipartisan lines on Monday.

She said it was a “good question,” but she wasn’t sure and told the reporter she would follow up with a response later.

When pushed on Biden’s opposition to the legalization in the face of mounting, majority support among Americans, Psaki said that while he’s in favor of decriminalization and legalizing medical marijuana, he wants more research on the “positive and negative effects” of adult-use legalization.

“He’ll look at the research once that’s concluded,” she said. “Of course we understand the movement that’s happening toward it. I’m speaking for what his position is and what long, consistently has been his position. He wants to decriminalize, but again, he’ll look at the research of the positive and negative impacts.”

The press conference ended with a final question about cannabis policy—specifically whether the Biden administration plans to revisit requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions. The reporter cited the case of Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California, as an example.

“Given, as you’ve noted in the briefing, the president’s support for decriminalization, support for expunging exactly these types of offenses, are there any plans to revisit some of those bids for clemency?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I would just take it as an opportunity to reiterate that the president supports legalizing medicinal marijuana,” Psaki said. “It sounds like this would have been applicable in this case, and of course decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records. In terms of individual cases, I can’t get ahead of those obviously.”

These question come, of course, on 4/20. But they also come at a time when there’s a concerted push in both chambers of Congress to seize the opportunity they have with Democratic control to pass legalization legislation.

Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have been working on a bill on their side. The majority leader told Marijuana Moment on Monday that he’s working to push the president in a pro-legalization direction as they draft the measure.

Schumer said last week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

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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Culture

How Politicians Are Celebrating The Marijuana Holiday 4/20 This Year

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The country has come a long way since the days of politicians dismissing or shying away from marijuana issues. And a good example of that shift is the ever-growing number of lawmakers who are leaning into the cannabis holiday 4/20 with calls for reform.

For example, to kick of Tuesday’s Senate session, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke on the floor about the need to end federal marijuana prohibition, saying that “hopefully the next time this unofficial holiday 4/20 rolls around, our country will have made progress.”

Then there are the tweets—so many tweets—from state and congressional lawmakers, office seekers and regulators marking the occasion. It’s become a theme each year, and as more states pursue legalization, it seems more elected officials have grown comfortable embracing the holiday in their own ways.

Here’s what politicians are saying about cannabis this 4/20: 

Members of Congress

Congressional candidates

State officials and parties

Local officials

Former federal officials

International lawmakers

Meanwhile, dozens of brands and organizations are also celebrating 4/20 with a variety of promotions, events and calls to action.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

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.
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