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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.

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Politics

Federal Medical Marijuana Amendment Author Dies At 79

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If you’ve only been paying close attention to marijuana policy for a few years, Maurice Hinchey’s name is one you may not recognize.

But if you are a patient who relies on medical cannabis or an entrepreneur in the legal marijuana industry, you owe Hinchey, who died this week, a debt of gratitude.

As a Democratic congressman from New York, Hinchey was the original sponsor of the federal spending provision that now protects state medical cannabis laws from Department of Justice interference.

First introduced in 2001 and then periodically after that, the measure wasn’t even enacted until after Hinchey retired from Congress in 2013.

The next year, after repeatedly failing on the floor of the House of Representatives, the measure was finally approved with a bipartisan vote and was included in a Fiscal Year 2015 spending bill signed into law by then-President Obama in late 2014.

Here’s a video of Hinchey introducing and debating the measure for the first time, in July 2001:

(Scroll to 10:08:20.)

In 2001, only eight states had legalized medical cannabis, a far cry from the 29 state laws that are now on the books.

Instead of insisting on a vote that would almost certainly have lost, Hinchey withdrew the amendment following a passionate debate.

Two years later, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California teamed up with the Democrat on the officially rebranded Hinchey-Rohrabacher measure.

That lost, by a vote of 152 to 273:

(Scroll to 10:14:05.)

The bipartisan duo teamed up on the amendment several more times in subsequent years, losing each time.

(Scroll to 2:56:05.)

(Scroll to 6:36:00.)

(Scroll to 10:31:25.)

(Scroll to 7:24:25.)

Then, in 2014, after Hinchey retired, Democrat Sam Farr of California joined with Rohrabacher in sponsoring the measure. By that time, many more members of Congress represented places where constituents were using medical cannabis in accordance with state law.

Finally, the dam had broken. The Rohrabacher-Farr measure passed the House by a vote of 219 to 189. It got included in the final spending bill that year, and it was approved the next year, as well, by an increased tally of 242 to 186.

While House Republican leadership has since blocked floor votes on the measure and other cannabis amendments, it remains current law thanks to victories in the Senate Appropriations Committee and its language not being deleted from short-term federal funding extension bills to keep the government operating.

That’s the case at least until December 8, when current federal funding — along with policy riders like the medical cannabis protections — are set to expire.

In the meantime, advocates working to convince Congress to include the provision in Fiscal Year 2018 legislation should take a moment to consider the efforts of the late congressman whose work more than a decade and a half ago began to make the federal government take medical marijuana seriously.

Photo courtesy of the Hinchey Family.

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Politics

Former Republican A.G. Warns Sessions Against Marijuana Crackdown

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Current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be wrong to crack down on state marijuana laws, one of his Republican predecessors says.

“To prosecute an act that is otherwise lawful under state law, one could make the argument [that] as a matter of policy, we’ve got other priorities we ought to be spending our resources on,” Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general during President George W. Bush’s administration, said in an interview with Newsweek.

“With respect to everything else going on in the U.S., this is pretty low priority,” he added.

And what’s more, cracking down on seriously ill people who rely on medical cannabis and their providers who are following state laws would look bad, Gonzales warned his successor.

“The optics just aren’t very good, quite frankly,” he said.

As a U.S. senator, Sessions was long one of Congress’s most vocal opponents of legalization, saying last year that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

But while deploying threatening and concerning comments about cannabis policy from time to time as attorney general, he hasn’t moved to rescind Obama-era guidance that generally allows states to implement their own marijuana laws without federal interference. At least not yet.

Last week, at a House hearing, Sessions testified that the previous administration’s approach remains in effect for now.

Gonzales, in the Newsweek interview, said that Sessions would probably clear any big cannabis moves with the White House first.

“What people often fail to understand or appreciate, is that the attorney general works for the president,” he said. “While the attorney general has a great deal of say about law enforcement policy, so does the White House. When Jeff Sessions makes something, he responds to the White House.”

On the campaign trail, President Trump repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws, going so far as to say he personally knows people who benefit from medical cannabis.

Despite Gonzales’s apparent supporting for letting states enact their own marijuana polices today, his Justice Department argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 that it had the right to punish medical cannabis patients who were following local policies.

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Top GOP Senator’s Bill Lets DC Legalize Marijuana Sales

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Washington, D.C. would finally be allowed to legalize marijuana sales under a new bill authored by a powerful Republican senator.

Voters in the nation’s capital approved a ballot initiative that legalized cannabis possession and home cultivation in 2014. But under a current annual budget rider, the city is not allowed to spend its own money setting up a legal regulatory system for marijuana sales. As such, the city can’t earn tax revenue on recreational marijuana like Colorado and seven other states that have ended prohibition are.

That would change under legislation released on Monday by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

The new bill, which funds various federal agencies and concerns appropriations covering the District of Columbia government, is totally silent on the matter of D.C. marijuana sales. That means that if its language is enacted as part of a Fiscal Year 2018 spending agreement, the ban in current law will disappear.

But, unfortunately for marijuana legalization advocates, it’s not that easy. The version of 2018 spending legislation approved by the House in September not only continues the current ban but actually broadens its language to close a potential loophole that advocates had urged D.C. officials to pursue in order to fund regulation of legal cannabis sales.

As a result, if the language in the new bill released by Cochran on Monday is approved by the Senate, the differences will need to be reconciled by a conference committee made up of a handful of members from either chamber. And at that stage, behind closed doors, anything could happen.

In 2015, Cochran made a similar move by excluding the D.C marijuana sales ban language in a chairman’s mark. But the House-passed ban was included in that year’s version of final spending legislation anyway.

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