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Virginia Marijuana Decrim Push Gets Boost Ahead Of Governor Election

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In less than a week, Virginia voters will elect a new governor, and polls to date have generally shown that they narrowly favor a candidate who has promised to push for decriminalizing marijuana.

Now, Democrat Ralph Northam’s plan to remove cannabis’s criminal penalties if he is elected just got a bipartisan boost from a high-ranking Republican.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment announced this week that he plans to file a bill to decriminalize first-time low-level marijuana possession offenses in the new legislative session starting in January.

The GOP leader’s move comes as the State Crime Commission is wrapping up a study on consequences of Virginia’s marijuana criminalization laws. More than 112,000 people were arrested for first-time marijuana offenses between 2007 to 2016, the commission found.

Norment’s bill, which is still being drafted, would reportedly remove criminal penalties for such first-time cannabis busts and make them punishable by fines, mandatory education and driver’s license suspensions

In the meantime, marijuana has become a relatively prominent issue in the state’s gubernatorial race.

Northam, the Democratic nominee and currently the state’s lieutenant governor, has consistently argued for decriminalization, often framing it in stark racial justice terms.

“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana,” he wrote, for example, earlier this year. “African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”

Meanwhile, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie doesn’t support decriminalization per se but has proposed changes to allow people to avoid jail for first- and second-time low-level cannabis offenses.

Find out what else Northam and Gillespie have said about marijuana decriminalization and medical cannabis during the gubernatorial campaign:

Marijuana Is A Big Issue In Next Month’s Elections

Majority Leader Norment, who led the push for the state Crime Commission to do the study on decriminalization, predicted that the chances of his bill being enacted next year are 50-50.

While the legislation would need to earn majority support from the state’s Republican-controlled Senate and House of Delegates, a boost from a supportive governor — even if a Democrat — would likely help keep the pressure on lawmakers to take the issue seriously.

Northam is ahead by a few points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls on the race.

The election is on Tuesday.

New Jersey voters will also elect a new governor next week, and marijuana has become a central issue in that campaign as well.

If you value staying updated on cannabis news, please start a monthly Patreon pledge to support Marijuana Moment!

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Cory Booker Bill Would Let Students With Drug Convictions Keep Financial Aid

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Every year, about 1,000 students lose some or all of their federal financial aid because they admit to having a conviction for a marijuana or other drug offense. But a Senate bill filed on Friday would change that.

One provision of the bill—which aims to “streamline the financial aid application process” overall—would eliminate a question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) regarding drug convictions. Currently, applicants must answer this question:

“Have you been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (such as grants, work-study, or loans)?”

In some cases, a “yes” response could mean the difference between going on to graduate or dropping out. Low-income students, who might not be able to afford tuition without federal aid, are particularly impacted.

That’s why a growing number of civil rights, drug reform and higher education groups have called for the question to be removed from the FAFSA. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and a coalition of six other senators hope their new bill will achieve that goal.

“We know that when a student completes the federal financial aid form, he or she is more likely to receive aid, attend college, and graduate from college,” Booker said in a press release. “But sadly, less than half of today’s high school students complete the form, and students from underserved backgrounds complete the form at even lower rates than their peers.”

“Our bill would simplify the complicated process in order to reduce barriers to higher learning for students from marginalized populations.”

A similar House bill introduced by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) last year also called for the elimination of the drug conviction eligibility question on the FAFSA.

The “Simplifying Financial Aid for Students Act” would do more than just remove that one question. It would also take steps to simplify the process of determining financial aid eligibility and make the FAFSA available to the young immigrants known as DREAMers, for example.

But the drug conviction question is an important one that’s penalized tens of thousands of students since Congress first enacted the aid ban in 1998. There have been efforts to revise the question so that students don’t automatically lose all of their aid if they self-report a drug conviction, but even a partial loss can derail students on the path to higher education.

“The drug conviction question, which remains on the FAFSA, serves solely as a deterrent to higher education from the students who might benefit from it most: particularly, students of color whose communities have been overpoliced and marginalized by the drug war,” Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Marijuana Moment.

“We champion any effort to assure students equitable access to education, and look forward to the day when young people who are unlucky enough to be caught using drugs are not punished for the same behavior that half of their peers get away with.”

Initial cosponsors of Booker’s financial aid reform bill are Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Doug Jones (D-AL), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

New Congressional Bill Would Automatically Seal Marijuana Records

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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Marijuana ‘Farmers Markets’ Won’t Happen In California Yet After Bill’s Failure

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Popular marijuana events in California like the Emerald Cup will take on a different flavor than hoped for this year, after a bill that would have allowed licensed growers to sell directly to consumers at temporary events was defeated in the state Legislature.

Cannabis producers like the small and medium growers in the northern California counties that make up the Emerald Triangle have for years sold directly to consumers at “marijuana farmer’s markets” and events like the Emerald Cup, a long-running end-of-the-harvest celebration.

But under current state law following the passage of Prop. 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, direct sales are no longer allowed unless a grower also has a retail sales permit—for which a small operation may not qualify, even if they can afford it—or if they conduct sales in tandem with a licensed retailer.

Assembly Bill 2641, introduced by Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa) would have allowed the state Bureau of Cannabis Control to issue temporary licenses for “on-site sales and consumption of cannabis” at temporary events.

The bill died for the year after it was held in committee this week.

According to a committee analysis, it was opposed by major California cannabis brands like Canndescent, a large-scale cultivator, and by the United Cannabis Business Association, which represents Los Angeles and Orange County-area retail dispensaries.

Supporters included county governments in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, where the economy relies heavily on small-scale marijuana growers, and the California Cannabis Industry Association.

With its failure, small and medium growers without sales permits may be shut out from end-of-year sales events. Coming in a year of falling prices and restricted access to retail, some small growers are expected to go out of business, industry advocates say.

“I’m really hopeful we’ll still have awesome events, but they’re not going to be the same behind the scenes,” Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers’ Association, which sponsored the bill, told Marijuana Moment on Friday.

Of 900 licensed growers in California that would have been able to sell at events like the Emerald Cup, Allen said he expects 400 to go out of business this year regardless. Of the rest, the livelihoods of about half rely on temporary sales events, he said.

“For years, these types of events have been lifelines for small growers,” he said. “For the smallest licensed growers, these are life or death.”

“There’s a few hundred members who won’t be here next year because we lost that bill.”

Other marijuana-related bills did pass the committee process before a legislative deadline this week and will go for votes on the floors of the state Assembly and Senate. A bill must pass both chambers before it can go to Gov. Jerry Brown (D) for signature.

Bills that advanced include:

*SB 1294, which would create a statewide equity program to encourage and assist people of color and other small operators to enter the marijuana industry

*SB 829, which would create a new license to allow for medical cannabis products to be given away free of charge (a “compassion care license”)

*SB 1409, which would allow for state agriculture authorities to create an industrial-hemp farming program

*AB 1863, which would allow marijuana businesses to make certain tax deductions

*SB 311, which clarifies the commercial marijuana distribution process

Also this week, legislation which would have created state-chartered banks to serve the cannabis industry was held for review, effectively killing it for the year.

“This is a serious public safety issue that deserves swift resolution,” Sen. Bob Hetrzberg (D), that bill’s sponsor, said in a press release. “We’ve got barrels of cash buried all over the state, businesses being ransacked, and it’s clear that the federal government won’t act. It’s a shock to me that the state government may not act this year either – especially after this bill passed through nearly every step with bipartisan support and little to no opposition.”

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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Baker Who Denied Same-Sex Couple Now Complaining About Marijuana-Themed Cake Requests

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Remember the Colorado “cake artist” who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012? Well, after taking his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and winning a procedural victory this year, he’s still having issues, according to a new lawsuit filed on Tuesday.

Part of the problem is that people keep requesting that he make marijuana and Satan-themed baked goods, Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips said. And he’s blaming Colorado officials for allegedly targeting him and creating a hostile environment for his family and business. Phillip’s lawsuit names several members of the Colorado Civil Rights Division, the state attorney general and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper as culpable.

Phillips has made it patently clear that he won’t design cakes that conflict with his religious views—namely his belief that being gay or transgender is at odds with Christian values—but that also apparently extends to “controlled substances like marijuana and alcohol,” according to the complaint.

Yet some jokesters seem to be testing the cake man.

In the year after the Supreme Court announced it’d take Phillips’s case, he “received other requests for cakes celebrating Satan, featuring Satanic symbols, depicting sexually explicit materials, and promoting marijuana use.”

Via US District Court for District of Colorado

The complaint cites a specific example of someone calling his shop for an admittedly esoteric occasion:

“The caller asked Phillips to create a ‘birthday’ cake for Satan. The caller requested that the cake feature a red and black theme and an image of Satan smoking marijuana. Phillips declined to create that cake because it included designs that would have expressed messages in violation of his religious beliefs.”

The complaint doesn’t specify which tenet of Christianity explicitly prohibits the depiction of cannabis. But in any case, this is far from the first time that marijuana policy and religious rights have tangoed.

In fact, a campaign opposing a medical marijuana initiative in Utah cited the Supreme Court baker case ruling in a lawsuit also filed this week, which alleges that one provision of the measure would infringe upon religious liberties.

Because the Utah measure includes language that prevents landlords from discriminating against medical cannabis cardholders, the group said Mormons would encounter situations where they’d be forced to rent to people who engage in activities against their religion.

“In the United States of America, members of all religions, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have a constitutional right to exercise their religious beliefs,” the complaint states, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “This includes the right not to consort with, be around, or do business with people engaging in activities which their religion finds repugnant.”

“The State of Utah is attempting to compel the speech of Utah landowners by suppressing their ability to speak out against cannabis use and consumption by only renting to tenants who do not possess or consume cannabis and who support their viewpoints in opposition against cannabis possession and consumption.”

Activists are skeptical that argument will hold up in court.

Feds Call Out Religious Discrimination Against Marijuana Consumers

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Jeffrey Beall.

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