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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.

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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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