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Virginia Marijuana Legalization Bills Sail Though Committees As Key Friday Deadline Nears

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Proposals to legalize marijuana in Virginia cleared key committee votes in both chambers of the state legislature over the weekend and Monday morning as lawmakers raced to qualify the bills for full floor votes ahead of an upcoming mid-session deadline on Friday.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and top lawmakers unveiled the legalization plan in mid-January, on the first day of a short 2021 legislative session scheduled to end later this month. To survive into the next stage of the session, versions of the marijuana proposal must pass the Senate and House of Delegates by Friday, the state’s so-called crossover deadline.

“This is a breakneck speed for us,” Del. Vivian Watts (D), vice chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee, said at a virtual meeting on Sunday, where the panel voted to approve the House version of the legislation, HB 2312, and refer it to the House Appropriations Committee. If it succeeds there, the measure would next advance to the House floor.

On the Senate side, the Judiciary Committee approved that chamber’s version of the bill, SB 1406, at a hearing Monday morning after it cleared that panel’s Expungement subcommittee over the weekend. That bill now goes to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, before potentially proceeding to the full Senate.

All told, the two marijuana legalization bills sailed through a total of five committees and subcommittees over the past three days alone.

Despite amendments made in both chambers, lawmakers at hearings over the weekend said they have lingering questions over numerous specific details, including business regulation, effective dates, social equity and penalties for violating proposed limits on possession and sales. Legislative leaders repeatedly stressed that there would be further opportunities to make changes as the proposal proceeds.

“This has been a very robust process involving a number of members on a number of committees, and it continues,” Watts said Sunday afternoon before calling for a vote on the bill. “With that understanding, this is a work in progress.”

Reform advocates said lawmakers’ immediate goal is to get the bills to the floor so they can clear the crossover hurdle. If the legislation don’t get floor votes by Friday, legalization is dead for the session.

“At this point it’s unnecessary to get mired in minutiae,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Currently, efforts are largely focused on advancing the bills to their required floor votes before the crossover deadline, and in a posture that is generally acceptable by the majority of each chamber.”

That dynamic was on display Saturday at a hearing of the House General Laws Committee, as members began digging into a new rule in the chamber’s bill that would prevent licensed marijuana companies from owning multiple categories of business licenses, a practice known as vertical integration. Some members of the committee said they worried that prohibiting vertical integration altogether could hurt small cannabis businesses that might, for example, want to both grow cannabis plants and process them into products such as edibles or tinctures.

One public commenter, representing the Cannabis Business Association of Virginia, suggested adding a class of microbusiness licenses that would allow small companies to vertically integrate. The comment drew follow-up questions from lawmakers, but the committee’s chair, Del. David Bulova (D), told colleagues he was “hesitant about making any changes on the fly.”

Ultimately the panel approved the bill without further addressing vertical integration, with Bulova assuring the committee the matter would be taken up again. “This is not the final decision,” he said. “I can’t imagine this would be the final stop with respect to how we land on vertical integration.”

Other proposed changes are more certain to make it into the final legislation. For one, the Virginia’s alcohol regulators won’t be in charge of overseeing the legal marijuana market, as originally proposed in the governor’s bill. Instead, the House General Laws Committee voted to mirror a change made last week by the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee and establish a new, separate regulatory body for marijuana called the Virginia Cannabis Authority.

To accommodate the creation of the new agency, committees in both chambers also agreed to push back the start of legal sales one year, to January 1, 2024.

It’s still not settled when simple possession of marijuana would become legal, although Senate lawmakers moved in subcommittee to make it so that would occur on July 1 of this year.

“Otherwise all we’re doing is setting up a situation where people are paying civil fines for something that is going to be completely legal eventually,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellen (D), who introduced the successful amendment in the Senate Judiciary’s Expungement Subcommittee. Home cultivation would not be legalized until cannabis stores come online in 2024 under the chamber’s bill, however.

Last year the state passed legislation decriminalizing possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, replacing existing penalties with a $25 civil fine and no threat of jail time. The law took effect last July.

Some House lawmakers who met over the weekend, however, worried legalizing possession too soon before opening licensed stores could end up fueling the illicit market. It’s an issue likely to see further discussion as the bill continues its path through the legislature.

“There are still a multitude of finer points to debate, and that’s to be expected a little further along in the legislative process,” said Pedini, who also serves as national development director for NORML. “Should both bills succeed, they will be sent to a conference committee for reconciliation.”

Other changes made by House lawmakers over the weekend would affect wide-ranging issues around business licensing, social equity, criminal justice and home cultivation of cannabis.

Under changes adopted by the General Laws Committee, the number of business licenses available would be capped at a maximum of 400 retail, 25 wholesale, 60 manufacturing and 450 cultivation. Licensees could only hold licenses of a single type—vertical integration would be prohibited—and no entity could have more than five licenses.

The state’s four existing medical marijuana businesses would be able to apply for licenses under the separate adult-use system, but they wouldn’t have an advantage in getting licenses or be able to start sales early. Some lawmakers questioned the rationale for that approach.

Del. Paul Krizek (D), who chairs the House General Laws ABC and Gaming Subcommittee and helped coordinate the panel’s marijuana legislation, explained that the provision was aimed at promoting small business and local control over comparatively large marijuana companies operating in multiple states. The same justification was behind limiting vertical integration.

“Our goal was to craft the best regulatory framework we can to legalize adult use of marijuana in a safe and equitable manner,” Krizek said.

Retail stores under the House bill would be permitted to sell only marijuana products and paraphernalia—not meals, snacks or other goods, as once envisioned in the bill. Marijuana products would need to be tested for both contaminants and THC potency.

Both retailers as well as licensed cultivators could sell seeds and immature plants to adults 21 and over, who would be allowed to grow up to two mature cannabis plants and two immature plants at home for personal use. But unlike the Senate’s version of the bill, which would allow adults to grow the plants indoors or outdoors, changes adopted by the House General Laws Committee on Saturday would allow only indoor grows.

The committee also established a social licensing category for businesses that are at least 66 percent controlled by alumni of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Commonwealth, an effort to ensure that those from communities most harmed by the war on drugs share in the new industry’s profits.

The House committee also adopted changes to licensing provisions aimed at protecting union organizing efforts in the cannabis industry, allowing state regulators to suspend the business license of a marijuana company that “fails to stay neutral on union organizing efforts or does not pay prevailing wage per the U.S. Department of Labor or designates more than 10 percent of employees as independent contractors,” David May, an attorney at the state Division of Legislative Services, said at Saturday afternoon’s hearing.

House lawmakers made further changes at the Courts of Justice hearing on Sunday, clarifying a rule that would allow adults over 21 to gift each other up to an ounce of marijuana and increasing penalties for personal possession of between one and five pounds of cannabis.

Regarding the legislation’s plan to automatically expunge past convictions for low-level marijuana possession, Colin Drabert, deputy director of the Virginia State Crime Commission, said there might be technical issues with how those cases are coded. The obstacle could force individuals to petition the court themselves to erase past criminal convictions.

Lawmakers didn’t immediately address that concern, however. Watts, the vice chair, suggested “a technical amendment that could possibly be handled at the floor or appropriations committee.”

While lawmakers took public testimony during the hearings, they did not propose any amendments in response to comments.

Billie Brown, founding member of the Cannabis Equity Coalition of Virginia, was one of a handful of public commenters who urged lawmakers to ensure the bill recognizes the harm the war on drugs has done Black and brown people and invests in rebuilding those communities.

In testimony before both House committees, Brown urged lawmakers to increase funding from marijuana revenues to the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, which would direct money to scholarships, job training and workforce development, low- and zero-interest loans for social equity marijuana business applicants and other programs for historically marginalized populations.

Currently 30 percent of revenue from the legal system would go to the equity fund, while another 40 percent would go to fund pre-kindergarten education. Brown called for the full 70 percent to be directed toward equity. The ACLU of Virginia has called for a similar change.

“While CECA is in favor of funding pre-K,” Brown told lawmakers, “this has always been a direct obligation of Virginia taxpayers from the general fund.”

Other issues lawmakers considered but did not immediately act on included limits on advertising—which many said they hope to make as strict as possible without violating free speech protections, in order to avoid appealing to children—as well as certain homegrow and consumption rules that seem to privilege homeowners over rental tenants and those living in public housing. Changes to those and other provisions of the bills could still be coming.

While Virginia’s legalization proposal has a long way to go with just weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers said so far they’re impressed by the effort that the bill’s lead patrons, as well as other lawmakers and advocates, have put into the policy change.

The state’s legalization proposal stemmed from an official state study conducted by a legislative commission on legalization as well as a working group consisting of four state cabinet secretaries and other officials. Those studies were part of the marijuana decriminalization bill passed last year.

“This is the product of an incredible amount of hard work,” Del. Mark Levine (D) said at Sunday’s hearing, “and it shows in the 563-page bill.”

Chuck Schumer Says Marijuana Reform Bills Are Being Merged As Congress Moves To Legalize

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

Politics

Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved

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A voter-approved initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi has been overturned by the state Supreme Court.

On Friday, the court ruled in favor of a Mississippi mayor who filed a legal challenge against the 2020 measure, nullifying its certification by the Secretary of State. The lawsuit was unrelated to the reform proposal itself, but plaintiffs argued that the constitutional amendment violated procedural rules in place.

While the court acknowledged that a “strong, if not overwhelming, majority of voters of Mississippi approved Initiative 65” to legalize medical cannabis in the state, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s (R) petition was valid for statutory reasons.

Madison’s challenge cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.

The state pushed back against the lawsuit and argued that a plain reading of the state Constitution makes it clear that the intention of the district-based requirement was to ensure that signatures were collected in a geographically dispersed manner—and the result of the campaign met that standard.

But in the court’s ruling released on Friday, the justices said that their hands were tied. The legislature or administration might be able to fix the procedural ballot issue, but it had to follow the letter of the law.

“We find ourselves presented with the question squarely before us and nowhere to turn but to its answer,” the decision states. “Remaining mindful of both the November 3, 2020 election results and the clear language in section 273 seeking to preserve the right of the people to enact changes to their Constitution, we nonetheless must hold that the text of section 273 fails to account for the possibility that has become reality in Mississippi.”

In sum, a Census-driven change in the number of congressional districts in Mississippi “did, indeed, break section 273 so that, absent amendment, it no longer functions,” meaning there’s no legal way to pass a constitutional ballot initiative in the state.

“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress. To work in today’s reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”

“We grant the petition, reverse the Secretary of State’s certification of Initiative 65, and hold that any subsequent proceedings on it are void,” the court ruled.

One justice who dissented said that the district-based requirement is arbitrary as it concerns Mississippi elections. While the federal government defines the state as having five congressional districts, the state Constitution “lays out the five districts,” and “there have been zero changes to the five districts” as far as the state’s laws are concerned.

In any case, this marks a major defeat for cannabis reform activists in the state who collected more than 214,000 signatures for their measure and saw 68 percent of voters approve it last year.

Under the voter-approved initiative, patients with debilitating medical issues would have been allowed to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal included 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would have been able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

There was an attempt in the legislature to pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the event that the court overruled the voter-approved initiative, but it failed to be enacted by the session’s end.

This is the latest state Supreme Court setback to affect cannabis reform efforts.

Last month, the Florida Supreme Court dealt a critical blow to marijuana activists working to legalize marijuana in the state—killing an initiative that hundreds of thousands of voters have already signed and forcing them to start all over again if they want to make the 2022 ballot.

While a Nebraska campaign collected enough signatures to qualify a reform initiative in 2020, the state Supreme Court shut it down following a legal challenge. It determined that the measure violated the state’s single-subject rule, much to the disappointment of advocates.

Read the Mississippi Supreme Court ruling on the medical cannabis initiative below: 

Mississippi Supreme Court m… by Marijuana Moment

Congressional Bill Filed To Protect Marijuana Consumers From Losing Public Housing

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Congressional Bill Filed To Protect Marijuana Consumers From Losing Public Housing

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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: 

Norton cannabis housing bill by Marijuana Moment

Drug Possession Is Officially A Crime Again In Washington, But As A Misdemeanor Instead Of Felony

Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.

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FDA Clears Researchers To Study MDMA Use By Therapists Being Trained In Psychedelic Medicine

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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.

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.

Nebraska Activists Relaunch Medical Marijuana Ballot Campaign After Legislative Filibuster Blocks Bill

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