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Virginia Prosecutor Announces His Office Will Not Pursue Marijuana Possession Cases

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On his first day in office on Thursday, the new prosecutor for Fairfax County, Virginia announced that he will not be pursuing cases of low-level marijuana possession.

But that action has already hit a snag, with a judge rejecting Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano’s guidance and denying a motion to dismiss one such a case. Judge Mark Simmons reportedly said that each case needs to be reviewed individually, and twice refused the prosecutor’s request to dismiss a possession case.

But in subsequent cases on Thursday, Simmons did dismiss possession charges per the prosecutor’s request.

Descano, a former federal prosecutor who campaigned on reducing mass incarceration and ending the drug war, is following the lead of several other commonwealth’s attorneys who’ve emphasized the need for prosecutorial discretion when it comes to cannabis offenses.

“I did not come to this decision lightly,” he said in a press release. “This deliberate policy shift is a result of significant meetings, research, and thoughtful considerations. It’s based on a thorough look at our criminal justice system, downstream consequences, and most importantly our community.”

“I dedicated myself to the pursuit of justice as a lawyer which means I dedicated myself to this very type of reform. When I raised my hand and took the oath of office I also dedicated myself to serve our community by providing justice for all to the best of my ability. Therefore, consistent with a prosecutor’s duty to seek justice and my dedication to our community, I have directed my office to dismiss prosecutions of adults for simple possession of marijuana.”

Last year, two Virginia prosecutors—Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood and Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales—said that they would dismiss misdemeanor possession cases under certain circumstances.

But in Norfolk, a coalition of judges banded together to block the move, arguing that such a policy change would have to be codified in the legislature, rather than handled at the prosecutor’s level. The dispute reached the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled in May that judges have the authority to accept or reject judicial directives from the commonwealth’s attorneys.

With that, the Fairfax County judge’s decision to reject Descano’s possession policy is unlikely to face a further legal challenge.

Additionally, the Fairfax County Police Department said on Thursday that it will not be changing internal policy on enforcing marijuana possession offenses.

In any case, what the prosecutor’s announcement does signal is a growing sentiment in Virginia that courts and law enforcement shouldn’t waste resources on pursuing low-level cannabis offenses.

“The current approach to marijuana possession is not working for Fairfax County,” Descano wrote in the policy directive. “Prosecuting adults for marijuana possession wastes resources, hurts our neighbors and our communities, and does not significantly improve community safety.”

“It is clear that there are inadequacies and injustices in how our criminal justice system deals with possession of marijuana and that they make our communities less safe,” he said.

While judges can continue to resist reform attempts ordered by prosecutors, legislative change that can’t be ignored may be on the horizon.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who ran on decriminalization in 2017 and talked about the policy in his State of the Commonwealth address last year, is pushing for the legislature to achieve that goal, which has been made all the more likely since Democrats reclaimed control of both chambers of the General Assembly in November’s elections.

Lawmakers have already prefiled bills decriminalize and legalize marijuana for the 2020 legislative session.

The state’s top cop is also on board with comprehensive cannabis reform. Attorney General Mark Herring (D) hosted a summit last month that involved discussions with representatives of states that have legalized marijuana.

Herring, who is running for governor in 2021, has also laid out a reform agenda that he says will begin with decriminalization and expungements and he hopes will eventually lead to full cannabis legalization.

Read Descano’s full marijuana prosecution policy directive below:

FFX CA Policy Directive 20-… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

This story has been updated to include additional quotes from Descano and the policy directive.

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Buys Marijuana On State’s First Day Of Legal Sales

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Vice President Pence Slams Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ COVID Bill

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Vice President Mike Pence on Monday criticized the inclusion of marijuana banking language in the latest House-passed coronavirus relief bill.

During an interview with Fox Business’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” the vice president discussed GOP priorities for future COVID-19 legislation and said they were at odds with those of Democrats.

“In the House of Representatives, I heard the other day that the bill that they passed actually mentions marijuana more than it mentions jobs,” Pence, who consistently voted against cannabis amendments when he served in Congress, said. “The American people don’t want some pork barrel bill coming out of the Congress when we’ve got real needs from working families.”

This is one of the more high-profile examples of Republicans condemning the cannabis provisions, but it’s far from the only one. Just last week, Pence’s chief of staff, who previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, made similar remarks.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been one of the most vocal critics, though he’s largely focused on specific industry diversity reporting requirements of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act that were included in the COVID legislation along with the basic financial services provisions of the bill.

The SAFE Banking Act, which previously passed the House as a standalone bill, is primarily meant to protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

The prospects of getting the House version to the president’s desk seem dim, as negotiations between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have stalled.

President Trump, meanwhile, has decided he’s not waiting for lawmakers to reach a deal and issued an executive order over the weekend that calls for new unemployment benefits, student loan payment deferrals and more.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said on Sunday that Democrats are “ready to meet the White House and Republicans halfway.” What remains to be seen, however, is whether “halfway” would involve cannabis banking protections.

Democrats have made the case that granting cannabis businesses access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview last week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.

“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.

While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still the House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.

The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.

Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.

In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.

Marijuana Makes People Stupid, Hillary Clinton Implies In Dig At New York Times Columnist

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

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Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative Officially Qualifies For November Ballot

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A measure to legalize marijuana in Arizona officially qualified for the November ballot on Monday.

The secretary of state announced that activists turned in enough valid petitions to make the cut one month after about 420,000 raw signatures were submitted.

Under the measure, adults could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

The initiative also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program

Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.

The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said that her office verified petitions submitted by the Smart and Safe Arizona campaign and determined that they turned in approximately 255,080 valid signatures. At least 237,645 were needed to qualify.

The measure will be designated on the ballot as Prop. 207.

It’s been a long road to the ballot for activists, who at one point asked the state Supreme Court to allow them to collect signatures electronically amid the coronavirus pandemic. That request was ultimately rejected.

Prohibitionists attempted to keep the measure off the ballot by filing a suit in state court, arguing that the official summary of the initiative was misleading because it omitted certain provisions. The court disagreed and rejected the suit last week, though it’s still possible the legalization opponents will appeal.

Arizona voters narrowly rejected a marijuana legalization initiative in 2016. But in a survey of likely voters released last month, more than six-in-ten (62 percent) said they now support legalizing cannabis, while 32 percent are opposed.

Opponents of the proposal, including Gov. Doug Ducey (R), recently released official voter guide arguments against the initiative. Supporters filed arguments as well, and all will be circulated to voters in a pamphlet printed by the state.

The governor, in his submission, argued that legalization is “a bad idea based on false promises.”

Meanwhile, pro-legalization activists are asking supporters to share personal stories about why they support the cannabis ballot measure.

Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country: 

The Washington, D.C. Board of Elections certified last week that activists submitted enough valid signatures to place a measure to decriminalize plant- and fungi-based psychedelics in the nation’s capital.

Oregon’s secretary of state confirmed last month that separate measures to legalize psilocybin therapy and decriminalize possession of all drugs while expanding treatment services will appear on the November ballot.

Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.

Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.

Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group last week, hopes are dashed.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.

Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Federal Drug Decriminalization Model Unveiled By Top Reform Group

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A leading drug policy reform group recently unveiled a framework to federally decriminalize all illicit drugs that they hope will be embraced by Congress.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said ending the drug war will help address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and promote public health. The proposal is being rolled out ahead of the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, the legislative basis of today’s federal drug criminalization.

Full bill text of the proposed “Drug Policy Reform Act” isn’t available yet, but according to a summary, it will contain provisions to end strict sentencing constructs such as mandatory minimums for drug conspiracy offenses, provide for expungements and end collateral consequences for drug convictions like the denial of public benefits and educational loans. It would also defund federal drug agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“There are many elected officials—on and off the Hill—that speak to the sentiments of drug decriminalization, continually touting drug use should be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue—most notably when it comes to marijuana,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager at DPA’s Office of National Affairs, told Marijuana Moment.

“However, tides are shifting and this transformational political moment calls for this roadmap we have provided legislators to begin repairing the extensive devastation the failed drug war has created beyond marijuana and beyond talking points,” she said. “There are congressional offices and allies who are, in fact, ready to see the end of criminalizing people for drug use actualized; we’re looking forward to working with them to lay the groundwork for this much needed reform in Congress.”

Criminal penalties for simple possession would be removed on the federal level. While Congress can’t change state laws under which a majority of people punished for drug offenses are prosecuted, the proposal states that federal dollars would no longer go to states for drug enforcement purposes. Also, military equipment would not be allowed to be transferred to local or state law enforcement departments for drug enforcement, no-knock warrants and surveillance technologies for drug offenses would be prohibited and employment discrimination based on criminal conviction disclosures would also be banned.

Under the proposed legislation, drug scheduling classification responsibilities would be shifted from DEA to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

NIH would also led a rulemaking task force to create a definition for “personal use quantities” and establish a process for “facilitating voluntary access to services for those seeking addiction treatment,” according to the summary.

The legislation would also promote investments in harm reduction programs to treat substance misuse.

“Removing criminal penalties for drugs is a first step in repairing the harms of the drug war,” Theshia Naidoo, managing director of criminal justice law and policy at DPA, said in a press release.

“In 2018 alone, over 1.6 million people were arrested on drug charges, over 86 percent of which were just for possession. These arrests can have impacts that last for a lifetime, often preventing access to employment, housing, financial aid for college, and even jeopardizing parental rights or immigration status,” she said. “And as we all know too well, these laws are far from equal. They are disproportionately enforced on Black, Latinx & Indigenous people, resulting in generational trauma, vilification and economic hardship on entire communities.”

At the state level, voters in Oregon could make the state the first in the nation to decriminalize possession of all drugs after an initiative to enact that policy change officially qualified for the ballot last month.

Insiders at the Vermont Democratic Party are also circulating a draft platform that proposes adding an end criminalization for drugs as a 2020 plank.

While neither President Trump or presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has backed broad drug decriminalization, presidential nominees for the Libertarian and Green Parties have both voiced support for the policy change.

Read DPA’s summary of its proposed drug decriminalization legislation below:

DPA decriminalization model by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Vermont Democrats Call For Decriminalizing Drugs And Legalizing Marijuana Sales In Draft 2020 Platform

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