Both chambers of the Virginia legislature this week approved bills to help people clear prior marijuana convictions from their records.
The state Senate passed legislation on Thursday that would provide individuals with an opportunity to have cannabis possession convictions expunged—one of the latest in a series of marijuana reforms that legislators have advanced during the summer special session.
Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) introduced the bill, which would require individuals to first pay “all court costs, fines, and restitution, and for five years to have elapsed since the date of conviction” before their court and police records could be cleared. Beyond cannabis possession, people would also be eligible to petition for an expungement of other low-level offenses such as using a fake ID to buy alcohol.
The House of Delegates also approved a separate expungement bill on Wednesday. It would establish “a process for the automatic expungement of criminal records for certain convictions, deferred dispositions, acquittals, and for offenses that have been nolle prossed or otherwise dismissed,” according to a summary. Those with marijuana possession convictions would be eligible for the expungement.
That bill has been transmitted to the Senate and referred to the Judiciary Committee. Since both chambers have now passed expungement legislation, albeit in different forms, it is likely that some kind of bicameral deal on the issue can be negotiated in order to get a proposal to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
“These bills include long overdue steps the Commonwealth should immediately take to begin undoing the damages inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of Virginians during the state’s failed multi-decade experiment with prohibition,” NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginians deserve the opportunity to expunge their records of marijuana-related offenses, the majority of which no longer carry a criminal penalty in the Commonwealth.”
Virginia lawmakers approved a bill to decriminalize simple marijuana possession earlier this year, and it went into effect on July 1. It makes possession of up to one ounce a civil penalty punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time. But while advocates view that development as a significant victory, legislators are also looking for ways to build upon the reform.
For example, both chambers passed bills to further reduce criminal penalties for cannabis possession last week. The legislation would make possession in a motor vehicle a secondary offense instead of a primary one. The measure would also prevent law enforcement from conducting searches or seizing property based on the odor of marijuana alone.
“Prohibiting law enforcement searches based solely on the odor of marijuana will greatly reduce non-essential interactions between police and otherwise law-abiding members of the public,” Pedini said. “Eliminating those interactions is of even greater importance during the pandemic.”
Making possession a secondary offense means that a summons couldn’t be issued unless a person is also charged with a separate, second violation.
The House version contains a unique provision to prohibit individual jurisdictions from enacting ordinances that would make a violation a primary offense if it’s considered a secondary offense under state law.
House lawmakers also recently approved a bill that would give people issued a summons for cannabis possession the option of prepaying the civil penalty instead of having to go to court.
Meanwhile, Del. Jennifer Carroll (D), who is running for governor in 2021, also introduced legislation during the special session to legalize marijuana possession. While decriminalization has been enacted, the new bill would amend the code to stipulate that “it is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to possess a controlled substance other than marijuana.” The measure has been referred to the House Courts of Justice Committee.
All of these incremental reforms come as legislators continue to pursue a broader legalization plan in the Commonwealth that would include a system of regulated and taxed sales and production.
The decriminalization bill that passed earlier this year contained a provision that called for the establishment of a working group to study and make recommendations about adult-use marijuana legalization. That panel has met twice and expects to issue its report to the legislature at the end of November.
Meanwhile, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee is doing its own analysis on ending cannabis prohibition and will similarly report on its findings before the end of the year.
While some lawmakers plan to incorporate findings from those reports into a legalization bill in 2021, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus is calling for an expedited process and isn’t interested in waiting for the results.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Congressional Bill Filed To Protect Marijuana Consumers From Losing Public Housing
A congresswoman on Thursday reintroduced a bill that would allow people living in federally assisted housing to use marijuana in compliance with state law without fear of losing their homes.
As it stands, people living in public housing are prohibited from using controlled substances in those facilities regardless of state law, and landlords are able to evict such individuals. But the bill from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) would change that.
It would provide protections for people living in public housing or Section 8 housing from being displaced simply for using cannabis in states that have legalized it for medical or recreational purposes.
“Individuals living in federally assisted housing should not be denied admission, or fear eviction, for using a legal product,” Norton said on Thursday. “Adult use and/or medical marijuana is currently legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia, and over 90 percent of Americans support legalized medical marijuana.”
The legislation would also require the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to enact regulations that restrict smoking marijuana at these properties in the same way that tobacco is handled.
“HUD, like DOJ, should not be allowed to enforce federal marijuana laws where states have taken action to legalize marijuana,” the congresswoman said, referring to a congressionally approved rider that prevents the Department of Justice from interfering with state medical cannabis laws.
Norton filed earlier versions of the Marijuana in Federally Assisted Housing Parity Act in 2018 and 2019, but they did not receive hearings or votes.
In 2018, a Trump administration official said that she was working to resolve conflicting federal and state marijuana laws as it applies to residency in federally-subsidized housing, but it’s not clear what came of that effort.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also raised the issue during a committee hearing in 2019, pressing former HUD Secretary Ben Carson on policies that cause public housing residents and their families to be evicted for committing low-level offenses such as marijuana possession.
She pointed to two specific HUD policies: the “one strike” rule, which allows property managers to evict people living in federally assisted housing if they engage in illicit drug use or other crimes, and the “no fault” rule, which stipulates that public housing residents can be evicted due to illicit drug use by other members of their household or guests—even if the resident was unaware of the activity.
Ocasio-Cortez and then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also filed legislation that year that would protect people with low-level drug convictions from being denied access to or being evicted from public housing.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also introduced an affordable housing bill last year that included a provision to prevent landlords from evicting people over manufacturing marijuana extracts if they have a license to do so.
Read the text of the marijuana housing legislation below:
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.
FDA Clears Researchers To Study MDMA Use By Therapists Being Trained In Psychedelic Medicine
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already authorized clinical trials into the therapeutic potential of MDMA for patients with post-traumatic stress disorders—but now it’s given the green light to a psychedelics research institute to expand its studies by administering the substance to certain therapists.
Volunteer therapists who are being trained to treat people with PTSD will be able to participate in the Phase 1 trials to gain personal experience with the treatment option. This is a complementary research project that comes as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is in the process of conducting Phase 3 trials involving people with the disorder.
The development comes months after Canadian regulators announced that certain therapists would be allowed to take psilocybin in order to gain a better understanding of the psychedelic when treating patients.
MAPS sought permission to proceed with the therapist-specific trials in 2019, but FDA placed them on a 20-month hold because of concerns about the merits, risks and credentials of investigators. MAPS appealed that hold, providing evidence about the study’s scientific value and ability of its staff, and FDA cleared them on Tuesday.
— MAPS (@MAPS) May 13, 2021
The organization “chose to dispute” FDA’s hold not just because of the impact it had on the planned studies, “but in an attempt to resolve an ongoing issue with the FDA regarding investigator qualifications across studies,” it said in a press release on Wednesday.
“While the term ‘dispute’ may seem adversarial, this process can actually strengthen the relationship and trust between us and our review Division and ensures the Division has support on this project from the [FDA] Office of Neuroscience,” MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) CEO Amy Emerson said. “This decision demonstrates how our strategic, data-driven strategy in challenging the FDA rulings can be successful.”
Now MAPS is able to launch the Phase 1 clinical trials into MDMA-assisted therapy for therapists.
It will be designed to “measure development of self-compassion, professional quality of life, and professional burnout among clinicians delivering the treatment to patients,” the association said.
Getting personal experience with the substance “is widely considered to be an important element in preparation and training to deliver psychedelic-assisted therapies.”
This will “support the goals of the MDMA Therapy Training Program to provide comprehensive training to future providers,” and it “builds capacity to deliver quality, accessible care to patients, pending approval of MDMA-assisted therapy as a legal prescription treatment,” MAPS PBC Director and Head of Training and Supervision Shannon Carlin said.
FDA first granted MAPS’s request for an emergency use authorization for MDMA in PTSD in 2017. The organization expects to complete its Phase 3 trails in 2022.
The scientific expansion move also comes as the psychedelics decriminalization movement continues to build in the U.S.
Missouri Regulators Derail Medical Marijuana Business Ownership Disclosure Effort With Veto Threat
Missouri regulators say they feel requiring medical marijuana business license ownership disclosures under a House-approved amendment could be unconstitutional, and they may urge the governor to veto the legislation.
By Jason Hancock, Missouri Independent
An effort by lawmakers to require disclosure of ownership information for businesses granted medical marijuana licenses was derailed on Thursday, when state regulators suggested a possible gubernatorial veto.
On Tuesday, the Missouri House voted to require the Department of Health and Senior Services provide legislative oversight committees with records regarding who owns the businesses licensed to grow, transport and sell medical marijuana.
The provision was added as an amendment to another bill pertaining to nonprofit organizations.
Its sponsor, Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said DHSS’s decision to deem ownership records confidential has caused problems in providing oversight of the program. He pointed to recent analysis by The Independent and The Missourian of the 192 dispensary licenses issued by the state that found several instances where a single entity was connected to more than five dispensary licenses.
The state constitution prohibits the state from issuing more than five dispensary licenses to any entity under substantially common control, ownership or management.
On Thursday, a conference committee met to work out differences in the underlying bill between the House and Senate.
Sen. Eric Burlison, a Republican from Battlefield and the bill’s sponsor, called the medical marijuana amendment an “awesome idea. I think it’s awesome.”
However, he said opposition from the department puts the entire bill in jeopardy.
“The department came to me,” he said, “and said they felt that this was unconstitutional.”
DHSS has justified withholding information from public disclosure by pointing to a portion of the medical marijuana constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2018 that says the department shall “maintain the confidentiality of reports or other information obtained from an applicant or licensee containing any individualized data, information, or records related to the licensee or its operation… .”
Alex Tuttle, a lobbyist for DHSS, said if the bill were to pass with the medical marijuana amendment still attached, the department may recommend Gov. Mike Parson veto it.
The threat of a veto proved persuasive, as several members of the conference committee expressed apprehension about the idea of the amendment sinking the entire bill.
Merideth said the department’s conclusion is incorrect. And besides, he said, the amendment is narrowly tailored so that the information wouldn’t be made public. It would only be turned over to legislative oversight committees.
Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, chairman of the special committee on government oversight, said the amendment is essential to ensure state regulators “are following the constitution, that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
The medical marijuana program has faced intense scrutiny in the two years since it was created by voters.
A House committee spent months looking into widespread reports of irregularities in how license applications were scored and allegations of conflicts of interest within DHSS and a private company hired to score applications.
In November 2019, DHSS received a grand jury subpoena, which was issued by the United States District Court for the Western District. It demanded the agency turn over all records pertaining to four medical marijuana license applications.
The copy of the subpoena that was made public redacted the identity of the four applicants at the request of the FBI. Lyndall Fraker, director of medical marijuana regulation, later said during a deposition that the subpoena wasn’t directed at the department but rather was connected to an FBI investigation center in Independence.
More recently, Parson faced criticism for a fundraiser with medical marijuana business owners for his political action committee, Uniting Missouri.
The group reported raising $45,000 in large donations from the fundraiser. More than half of that money came from a PAC connected to Steve Tilley, a lobbyist with numerous medical marijuana clients who has been under FBI scrutiny for more than a year.