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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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Kamala Harris Touts ‘Commitment’ To Marijuana Decriminalization And Expungements Under Biden Administration

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (D-CA) again pledged in a new interview that decriminalizing marijuana would be an administrative priority if she and Joe Biden are elected.

Speaking to The Grio on Saturday, the senator discussed the would-be Democratic administration’s criminal justice agenda, contrasting it with that of President Donald Trump. She reiterated the cannabis reform would be among their policy goals.

“We have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses,” Harris said. “When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits.”

Watch Harris discuss criminal justice and marijuana reform, starting around 12:00 into the video below: 

While reform advocates have appreciated the senator’s repeated calls for cannabis reform on the campaign trail, they’ve taken issue with her tendency to refer to the drug war in the past tense—as she did here by talking about the impact the policy “had”—as though those prosecutions and enforcement disparities haven’t persisted.

In fact, recently released FBI data shows that there were 1,558,862 drug-related arrests in the U.S. last year, about a third of which were for marijuana. That amounts to a new drug bust every 20 seconds on average.

There’s also some frustration that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization—a policy not supported by the former vice president despite its popularity among Democrats.

Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.

In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”

In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.

Top Senate Democrat Includes Marijuana Banking Protections In New Coronavirus Relief Bill

Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

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Top Senate Democrat Includes Marijuana Banking Protections In New Coronavirus Relief Bill

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The top Democrat in the Senate introduced a coronavirus relief bill on Monday that contains provisions to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

As Congress and the White House continue to negotiate details of a potential COVID-19 relief deal, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) seemed to take a page from a recently passed House version that also includes language of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act.

It’s unclear whether the Trump administration or Republican-controlled Senate will be amenable to including cannabis provisions in any package that has a chance of being enacted, but advocates view Schumer’s move in the meantime as a positive signal that Democrats will continue to press the issue.

If lawmakers hope to pass the next round of coronavirus relief ahead of the election, Tuesday appears to be the last opportunity to strike a deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been actively attempting to find common ground on COVID-19 aid, but it remains to be seen whether they will reach an agreement that can be approved by both chambers and signed by the president.

The cannabis banking language has twice appeared in House-passed COVID-19 proposals, and the chamber has approved it both times. That said, it hasn’t advanced without controversy, as multiple Republican lawmakers and White House officials have criticized its inclusion, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in particular has been a vocal opponent of the measure, though he’s largely tailored his criticism to certain provisions of the SAFE Banking Act that require industry diversity reporting.

Democrats and reform advocates have defended adding the marijuana-related components to a coronavirus bill, stressing that it would mitigate the spread of the virus by giving cannabis businesses access to the banking system and minimizing cash-only transactions. It could would also increase access to financial institutions in a way that could give small businesses access to needed capital, they say.

Senate Republicans did not add cannabis banking language to their own version of COVID relief legislation filed in July.

But Democratic leaders in both chambers are evidently willing to keep up the fight, and the House even highlighted the diversity component in a summary of its legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in July that she agrees that the banking measure is an appropriate component of the bill.

In July, bipartisan treasurers from 15 states and one territory sent a letter to congressional leadership, urging the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any COVID-19 legislation that’s sent to the president’s desk. Following GOP attacks on the House proposal, a group of Democratic state treasurers renewed that call.

The House last year approved the standalone SAFE Banking Act. For months, the legislation has gone without action in the Senate Banking Committee, where negotiations have been ongoing.

Where the newly filed Senate COVID-19 bill goes from here is uncertain—but its introduction gives some reason to believe that Schumer sees a potential path forward. It also signals that the cannabis issue, including broader legislation to end federal prohibition, is poised to advance in 2021 if Democrats win control of the chamber in next month’s elections.

Pelosi has said that she will decide by the end of Tuesday whether the negotiations with the Trump administration can lead to a relief package that could be passed before Election Day.

Marijuana Legalization In Texas Would Generate Billions In Tax Revenue, New Economic Analysis Shows

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Marijuana Legalization In Texas Would Generate Billions In Tax Revenue, New Economic Analysis Shows

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Texas stands to generate billions of dollars in marijuana tax revenue and create tens of thousands of jobs if the plant is legalized, according to a new economic analysis.

While the legislature has been resistant to pursue the policy change, the report from Vicente Sederberg LLP makes a compelling case for legalizing and regulating cannabis sales in the state, at least from an economic perspective.

It finds that, given the estimated adult-use marijuana market, there would be $2.7 billion in cannabis sales annually in Texas. And if the state followed Colorado’s tax model, it could bring in more than $1.1 billion in marijuana tax dollars per biennium.

Further, the comparative analysis projects that 20,000-40,000 jobs would be directly created in the legal industry, in addition to ancillary positions for “contractors and construction firms, electrical and water service providers, HVAC manufacturers and installers, processing equipment producers and retailers, and other professionals.”

“We also expect it would bolster the hospitality industry, which would benefit communities that rely on tourism; especially those that have recently been severely impacted by the novel coronavirus, such as San Antonio, Houston, and Corpus Christi,” the report states.

Beyond tax revenue from cannabis sales, Texas could also see an extra $10 million annually if business licensing fees are set at $5,000.

“In addition to generating revenue and creating jobs, regulating cannabis for adult use would also realize significant criminal justice savings,” the report says, adding that Texas would save an estimated $311 million per year in criminal justice resources if marijuana was legalized.

“States across the country are seeing the benefits of legalizing and regulating cannabis,” Shawn Hauser, a partner at Vicente Sederberg, said in a press release. “It is inspiring lawmakers in prohibition states to reexamine the efficacy and costs of their current policies and take a closer look at the alternatives.”

“A regulated cannabis market would be an economic boon for the Lonestar State,” she said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue and tens of thousands of new jobs would be especially helpful in overcoming the losses stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Texas is leaving an enormous amount of money on the table by keeping cannabis illegal.”

Marijuana reform could also potentially clear up regulatory complications that have resulted from the state’s legalization of the plant’s non-intoxicating cousin, hemp.

Because the crops are virtually indistinguishable, it appears that hemp’s new legal status has made it difficult for police to determine whether a given seized substance is allowable hemp or still-illegal marijuana, and that has led to fewer cannabis cases overall.

Prosecutors have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases since hemp was legalized. And state officials announced in February that labs wouldn’t be performing testing in misdemeanor cases, with the Texas Department of Public Safety saying it “will not have the capacity to accept those.”

Marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, according to state data released last month.

The Texas House speaker in July acknowledged that legalizing cannabis could help resolve the state’s budget shortfall—but he doesn’t support the policy change regardless.

“Repealing marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a reasonably regulated market is a win-win for Texas,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Even with modest taxation, legal cannabis for adult use would bring in much needed revenue and free up valuable public safety resources.”

“Considering our projected budget shortfall, Texas lawmakers should consider this a big opportunity for our pro-business state,” she said. “The people of Texas will also benefit when we are no longer saddling responsible cannabis consumers with criminal records that often keep them from accessing education and employment.”

Last year, the House voted to approve a decriminalization bill that would’ve made possession of one ounce or less of cannabis punishable by a $500 fine and no jail time, but it failed to advance to a Senate floor vote by the end of the session.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of State Health Services attempted to impose a ban on the sale of smokeable hemp, but they were sued and a judge gave the plaintiffs a procedural victory in July, temporarily lifting the prohibition. The judge said last month that the ban can’t be enforced until the case is heard in court in 2021.

Read Vicente Sederberg’s report on the economic impact of legalization in Texas below: 

Economic Benefits of Regula… by Marijuana Moment

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