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Virginia Groups Push Governor To Amend Marijuana Decriminalization Bill On His Desk

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The governor of Virginia is being pulled in two directions by drug policy and civil rights reform groups over a marijuana decriminalization bill that lawmakers sent to his desk last month.

One group, Virginia NORML, is seeking to add an emergency clause to the legislation so that its provision take effect as soon as possible, rather than on July 1 as stated in the bill’s current text.

The other, ACLU’s Virginia chapter, is asking Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to request that the legislature make a series of large-scale amendments to the bill before he signs it. Those changes would remove language allowing law enforcement to prosecute people for intent to distribute for possession of less than one ounce, remove certain penalties against juveniles caught possessing cannabis and encourage minority participation in a working group that lawmakers have tasked with studying broader legalization and issuing recommendations.

The ACLU’s proposals were previously considered and rejected by lawmakers, and so their prospects are dubious, insiders say. The group had continually urged lawmakers to defeat the decriminalization proposal throughout the legislative session, arguing that much broader reforms are needed and going so far as to say that the incremental approach would be worse than the state’s status quo of total cannabis criminalization.

“The fact is marijuana laws overwhelmingly target people in Black and Brown communities,” the ACLU chapter said in a letter to Northam. “The legislation you’ve been asked to sign will only contribute to that inequality. The war on drugs has always been a war on people, particularly on people of color and experts point to policing practices and the racial history behind marijuana prohibition as leading to arrest disparities. Virginia must address and eliminate discriminatory police practices.”

“The proponents of this legislation argue that it is a reasonable intermediate step pending full legalization and regulation of marijuana. That is simply not the case,” the group told the governor. “The way that the bill is structured, the fact that it remains unlawful to possess even a small amount of marijuana means that police may, and likely will, continue to rely on the ‘smell test’ to justify otherwise completely pretextual stops.”

Other reform advocates such as those at Virginia NORML agree that the decriminalization bill—which would make possession of up to one ounce of cannabis punishable by a $25 fine and no threat of jail time—doesn’t go far enough, but they view it as an important incremental step toward comprehensive legalization.

And because of the coronavirus outbreak, they argue it’s imperative that the governor recommend an emergency clause to expedite the implementation of decriminalization to reduce unnecessary arrests and jail time that could further spread the virus. The change would still require a vote in the legislature, which is constitutionally obligated to reconvene on April 22 to consider gubernatorial amendments and vetoes.

“Law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and probation officers are currently required by law to interact with members of the public for the sole purpose of enforcing cannabis prohibition—policies proven to be expensive, opposed by an overwhelming majority of Virginians, and without benefit to public safety,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“Because of the unique public health threat we are now facing, one that is only exacerbated by close physical contact, Virginia NORML recommends Governor Northam add an emergency clause to SB2 and HB972 so that they may take effect as soon as possible in order to mitigate interactions not consistent with CDC social distancing guidelines between these public servants and otherwise law-abiding Virginians,” Pedini said.

Northam has until April 11 to act on the legislation.

Virginia NORML is also calling on the governor to “immediately deprioritize the enforcement of criminal and civil violations specific to nonviolent marijuana offenses, withdraw all charges for those facing prosecution for nonviolent marijuana offenses, review and release those currently incarcerated solely for the commission of nonviolent marijuana offenses, and waive all pending probation requirements for those convicted solely of nonviolent marijuana offenses.”

Should the governor recommend the added clause, versions of which in past legislation have stated simply “an emergency exists and this act is in force from its passage,” there may still be some complications related to the process of getting it through the legislature during the current pandemic. Assuming lawmakers are able to meet come April 22, it’s expected that they would need to find a large space to allow for social distancing outside of their usual chambers.

If the addition does get a favorable vote, decriminalization would take effect as soon as the bill receives the Northam’s final signature.

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New Congressional Resolution Condemns Police Brutality And War On Drugs

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Twelve House members introduced a resolution on Friday condemning police brutality in light of the recent law enforcement killings of two black individuals that have galvanized mass protests. The measure specifically notes the racial injustices of the war on drugs.

The resolution is partly motivated by the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, where a police officer suffocated him to death, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, where she was fatally shot by police during a botched drug raid.

Protests have erupted across the U.S. this week, with calls for justice and law enforcement accountability. The new House measure, if adopted, would formally align the body with that sentiment, condemning police brutality, racial profiling and excessive use of force.

The drug war has contributed to those problems, the lawmakers said, with people of color being more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than white people despite similar rates of consumption.

The “system of policing in America, and its systemic targeting of and use of deadly and brutal force against people of color, particularly Black people, stems from the long legacy of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the War on Drugs in the United States and has been perpetuated by violent and harmful law enforcement practices,” a provision of the resolution states.

In addition to condemning “all acts of brutality, racial profiling, and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and calls for the end of militarized policing practices,” the resolution urges the Justice Department to investigate individual cases of police violence and racial profiling and establish all-civilian review boards to provide community oversight of policing.

The measure also “calls for the adoption of sound and unbiased law enforcement policies at all levels of government that reduce the disparate impact of police brutality and use of force on Black and Brown people and other historically marginalized communities.”

Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Karen Bass (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) led the resolution. Other cosponsors include Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), James McGovern (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA).

“From slavery to lynching to Jim Crow, Black people in this country have been brutalized and dehumanized for centuries,” Omar said in a press release. “The war on drugs, mass criminalization, and increasingly militarized police forces have led to the targeting, torture and murder of countless Americans, disproportionately black and brown.”

“The murder of George Floyd in my district is not a one-off event. We cannot fully right these wrongs until we admit we have a problem,” she said. “As the People’s House, the House of Representatives must acknowledge these historical injustices and call for a comprehensive solution. There are many steps on the path to justice, but we must begin to take them.”

Advocacy groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Drug Policy Alliance, Color of Change, ACLU chapters and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have endorsed the resolution.

This measure is being introduced one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor.

In that letter, the legislators cited prior excessive force incidents with two of the three officers involved in Taylor’s shooting—as well as prior alleged improper enforcement by the department’s SWAT team in a botched marijuana raid—as evidence of the need for an investigation.

“For too long, Black and brown bodies have been profiled, surveilled, policed, lynched, choked, brutalized and murdered at the hands of police officers,” Pressley said about the new resolution. “We cannot allow these fatal injustices to go unchecked any longer. There can be no justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or any of the human beings who have been killed by law enforcement, for in a just world, they would still be alive. There must, however, be accountability.”

Federal Judge Gives Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Activists A Boost With Signature Gathering Ruling

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Joe Biden’s New Disability Plan Includes Boosting Medical Marijuana Research

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Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s new plan for people with disabilities involves promoting research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana.

The former vice president, who remains opposed to broader cannabis legalization, said he will “ensure people with disabilities have a voice in their government and are included in policy development and implementation.” That includes cannabis policy.

“A Biden Administration will prioritize the research needed to advance science-based federal policies related to the use of marijuana for medical conditions, chronic pain, and disabilities,” the plan, released on Thursday, states.

This is another example of Biden featuring marijuana issues in broader policy platforms. Earlier this month, he released a plan on racial justice that included his existing modest cannabis reform proposals for decriminalization and automatic expungements.

But while advocates agree with the need for those policy changes, they’ve remained disappointed about Biden’s ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization—something they argue should go hand-in-hand with the social justice principles he’s touted.

The presumptive nominee has argued that more research needs to be done on the potential risks and benefits of marijuana before he’s be open to legalization. In a recent interview, a host pushed back and said, anecdotally, there have been decades of research given that millions of people consume cannabis.

Biden agreed and said he knows “a lot of weed smokers” but, in agreeing to that premise, he seemed to signal the people he knows who consume marijuana have demonstrated the need to maintain prohibition.

While he’s given no indication that he’s willing to embrace legalization ahead of the November election, some are holding out hope that a criminal justice task force he formed with former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will push him in that direction. Most of the members of that group support legalization.

The former vice president does support legalizing medical marijuana, rescheduling cannabis under federal law, decriminalizing the plant, providing for automatic expungements and allowing states to set their own laws.

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Federal Judge Gives Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Activists A Boost With Signature Gathering Ruling

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Activists behind a marijuana legalization initiative in Arkansas are seeing glimmers of hope that they will be able to qualify for the November ballot despite serious setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A federal judge ruled on Monday that the secretary of state must accept signatures that were not collected in-person or notarized, as has been required by existing policy, because of excessive burdens that imposes on campaigns amid the health crisis. Legalization advocates say the temporary injunction, which comes before a final ruling, gives them confidence their measure can qualify ahead of a July 3 deadline to submit signatures.

Now people can download, print and mail in signed petitions—significantly bolstering the chances the legal cannabis campaign can make up for the petitioning deficit created by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements enacted due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the April lawsuit that brought about the federal injunction (which was not filed by legalization activists but by another initiative campaign), plaintiffs also made the case that full-scale electronic signature gathering should be permitted. U.S. District Judge P. K. Holmes empathized with that request in his order, noting that in many scenarios outside the ballot process, officials have recognized the validity of digitally signed documents—including in legal proceedings he oversees.

“It is not that electronic signatures cannot similarly be determined to be genuine. In fact, electronic signatures are commonplace and accepted for all manner of official business, and not only by the State, but by this Court,” he said. “Counsel for Plaintiffs and the Secretary of State electronically signed the briefing on this very motion, and the Court has electronically signed this opinion and the order.”

However, the judge said there must be a balance that takes into account the state’s interest in ensuring the validity of signatures and so he’s doubtful the final ruling will provide for digital signatures.

In any case, the court’s temporary injunction bodes well for the marijuana reform campaign, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, which says it was on the path to qualifying before in-person signature gathering was suspended. Melissa Fults, executive director of the group, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Wednesday that she’s confident the new policies will help the initiative get placed before voters.

“I am still confident. We’re going to give a hard push these next four-and-a-half weeks—hoping and praying that we get signatures and get them turned in and get on the ballot,” she said. “And I think it’ll pass once it gets on the ballot.”

Arkansas voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.

As the state begins the process of reopening, Fults said the campaign will also be engaging in limited in-person collection with enhanced safety mechanisms in place, as well as “drive by” gathering for people to sign the initiative from their vehicles.

In order to make the ballot, the group needs to submit about 90,000 valid signatures from registered voters by July 3. Fults said they’ve collected roughly 20,000 so far, and so these last five weeks will prove critical.

Under the proposal, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to four ounces of cannabis flower and grow up to six plants and six seedings.

A minimum of one dispensary must be licensed per county, and there must be at least 30 shops per congressional district.

Tax revenue from marijuana sales would first go toward implementation. After that, 60 percent would be used to fund public pre-K and after school programs and 40 percent would fund the operations of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Another campaign that was working to put cannabis legalization on the state’s ballot told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Tuesday that it is ending its effort for the year and will shift its focus to 2022. An Arkansas True Grass spokesperson said “we weren’t able to do any of our spring events” because of the virus, leaving them without an opportunity to qualify.

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform efforts throughout the country: 

Activists in Montana and Nebraska have resumed signature gathering with new safety measures in place for campaigns to legalize adult-use marijuana and medical cannabis, respectively.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort asked the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office. That request was denied but in March the campaign expressed optimism that they had amassed enough signatures to qualify anyway.

Separate Oregon campaigns to decriminalize drug possession while significantly expanding substance misuse treatment and to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes recently submitted more than enough raw signatures to qualify for ballot access, though they must still be verified.

Activists in Washington State are continuing to work on a drug decriminalization and treatment measure.

Washington, D.C. activists behind a psychedelics decriminalization campaign are more confident that they will be able to make the ballot after the District Council voted in favor of a series of changes to signature gathering protocol.

A federal judge recently ordered Ohio officials to accept electronic signature submissions to place local marijuana decriminalization measures on the ballot—a decision that could potentially have positive implications for a statewide legalization campaign in the works.

California activists had hoped to get a measure to legalize psilocybin on the state’s November ballot, but the campaign stalled out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A California campaign seeking to amend the state’s cannabis law asked for a digital petitioning option, but state officials haven’t signed on.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists said they plan to continue campaign activities for a marijuana legalization initiative, but it’s more likely that they will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Idaho medical cannabis activists announced that they are suspending their ballot 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.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

Read the federal judge’s order on Arkansas signature gathering below: 

20-5070 Miller Et Al v. Thu… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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