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.
A man appeared (w/o a lawyer) on a simple possession charged, CA moved to nolle pros, Judge Mark Simmons denied the motion. CA again moved to dismiss case, Judge denied.
— Drew Wilder (@DrewWilderTV) January 2, 2020
But in subsequent cases on Thursday, Simmons did dismiss possession charges per the prosecutor’s request.
After denying prosecutor’s move to drop marijuana possession prosecution in first case before him, Judge Simmons has gone on to dismiss others. Plan to drop all marijuana possession cases in Fairfax County will be a case-by-case and judge-by-judge situation.
— justin jouvenal (@jjouvenal) January 2, 2020
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.
A few simple possession cases have since been nolled prossed. Couple more to go. Judge is being clear about hearing each case individually and not interested in a blanket approach.
— Drew Wilder (@DrewWilderTV) January 2, 2020
Additionally, the Fairfax County Police Department said on Thursday that it will not be changing internal policy on enforcing marijuana possession offenses.
Fairfax County PD says Descano’s policy will not change nor affect how officers enforce Virginia’s marijuana possession laws.
— Drew Wilder (@DrewWilderTV) January 2, 2020
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:
This story has been updated to include additional quotes from Descano and the policy directive.
Louisiana Lawmakers Send Medical Marijuana Expansion And Cannabis Banking Bills To Governor’s Desk
Louisiana lawmakers sent bills to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program and to allow cannabis businesses to access banks to the governor’s desk over the weekend.
The expansion legislation—which the House of Representatives initially approved last month and cleared the Senate on last week with one amendment—would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.
Because the Senate added language that requires dispensaries to record medical marijuana purchases in the state prescription monitoring program database, it had to be returned to the House for reconsideration. The final version was approved by the body in a 74-16 vote on Sunday and is now being transmitted to Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for signature or veto.
As originally drafted, the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R) would have simply added traumatic brain injuries and concussions to the list of conditions that qualify a patient for a marijuana recommendation. But it was amended in a House committee to add several other conditions as well as language stipulating that cannabis can be recommended for any condition that a physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Under current law there are only 14 conditions that qualify patients for the program.
Bagley told Marijuana Moment he’s “excited” that patients “can now have another choice for pain relief.”
“This entire process for me has been to help people in pain that had no other choice but opioids,” he said. “My seat on the Traumatic Head and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund has opened my eyes to people who are constantly in pain. I’m proud to have lead the charge to help people in need, not only in District 7, but the state of Louisiana.”
Another bill headed to Edwards’s desk would protect banks and credit unions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by state regulators. That measure cleared the Senate on Friday by a tally of 29-0 after being approved by the House last month.
Lawmakers also passed a House bill to provide legal protections for doctors who recommend medical marijuana as well as authorized medical facilities that have cannabis patients in their care. The vote was 34-2 in the Senate on Friday, and a committee amendment meant it had to head back to its originating chamber, which made an 80-11 vote of concurrence on Sunday, sending the legislation to the governor.
A House-passed resolution to create “a task force to study and make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry projected workforce demands” was given final approval by the Senate on Sunday in a vote of 28-6. Text of the legislation states that “there is a need to study the workforce demands and the skills necessary to supply the cannabis industry with a capable and compete workforce, including physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners.”
Also on Sunday, the House voted 95-0 to reject changes to a bill to establish rules for industrial hemp and CBD products. On Friday, the Senate had voted 34-0 to advance the legislation while adding an amendment allowing regulators to obtain criminal records of applicants. The House speaker, who is the lead sponsor of the legislation, took exception to the language and is now seeking a bicameral conference committee to reach an agreement.
Bagley, the medical cannabis expansion legislation sponsor, had also introduced a House-passed bill to provide for delivery services to patients, but he voluntarily withdrew it from Senate committee consideration last month and told Marijuana Moment it’s because he felt the medical marijuana expansion legislation would already allow cannabis products to be delivered to patients like other traditional pharmaceuticals.
The delivery bill would have required a government regulatory body to develop “procedures and regulations relative to delivery of dispensed marijuana to patients by designated employees or agents of the pharmacy.”
It remains to be seen if regulators will agree with Bagley’s interpretation, as doctors are still prohibited from “prescribing” cannabis, and marijuana products are not dispensed through traditional pharmacies. That said, state officials recently released a memo authorizing dispensaries to temporarily deliver cannabis to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s possible they will be amendable to extending that policy on a permanent basis.
The Senate was also slated to consider separate House bills adding specific new medical cannabis qualifying conditions over the weekend but did not bring them up. It’s not clear what the practical impact of those proposals would be if Bagley’s broader measure allowing doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any debilitating malady is enacted.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Congressional Resolution Condemns Police Brutality And War On Drugs
Twelve House members introduced a resolution on Friday condemning police brutality in light of the recent law enforcement killings of two black individuals that have galvanized mass protests. The measure specifically notes the racial injustices of the war on drugs.
The resolution is partly motivated by the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, where a police officer suffocated him to death, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, where she was fatally shot by police during a botched drug raid.
Protests have erupted across the U.S. this week, with calls for justice and law enforcement accountability. The new House measure, if adopted, would formally align the body with that sentiment, condemning police brutality, racial profiling and excessive use of force.
The drug war has contributed to those problems, the lawmakers said, with people of color being more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than white people despite similar rates of consumption.
The “system of policing in America, and its systemic targeting of and use of deadly and brutal force against people of color, particularly Black people, stems from the long legacy of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the War on Drugs in the United States and has been perpetuated by violent and harmful law enforcement practices,” a provision of the resolution states.
In addition to condemning “all acts of brutality, racial profiling, and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and calls for the end of militarized policing practices,” the resolution urges the Justice Department to investigate individual cases of police violence and racial profiling and establish all-civilian review boards to provide community oversight of policing.
The measure also “calls for the adoption of sound and unbiased law enforcement policies at all levels of government that reduce the disparate impact of police brutality and use of force on Black and Brown people and other historically marginalized communities.”
Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Karen Bass (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) led the resolution. Other cosponsors include Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), James McGovern (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA).
The resolution @Ilhan & I are introducing today aims to ensure that those responsible are held accountable and calls for systemic reforms at all levels of government to end the scourge of police brutality in our society. #SaveLivesNow https://t.co/8vlMiY4j83
— Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (@RepPressley) May 29, 2020
“From slavery to lynching to Jim Crow, Black people in this country have been brutalized and dehumanized for centuries,” Omar said in a press release. “The war on drugs, mass criminalization, and increasingly militarized police forces have led to the targeting, torture and murder of countless Americans, disproportionately black and brown.”
We can’t just continue to watch our communities be brutalized by the police.
I am proud of my sisters in Congress for joining me in condemning police brutality and look forward passing this resolution. https://t.co/qeSaRB5dMZ
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 29, 2020
“The murder of George Floyd in my district is not a one-off event. We cannot fully right these wrongs until we admit we have a problem,” she said. “As the People’s House, the House of Representatives must acknowledge these historical injustices and call for a comprehensive solution. There are many steps on the path to justice, but we must begin to take them.”
Advocacy groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Drug Policy Alliance, Color of Change, ACLU chapters and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have endorsed the resolution.
This measure is being introduced one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor.
In that letter, the legislators cited prior excessive force incidents with two of the three officers involved in Taylor’s shooting—as well as prior alleged improper enforcement by the department’s SWAT team in a botched marijuana raid—as evidence of the need for an investigation.
“For too long, Black and brown bodies have been profiled, surveilled, policed, lynched, choked, brutalized and murdered at the hands of police officers,” Pressley said about the new resolution. “We cannot allow these fatal injustices to go unchecked any longer. There can be no justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or any of the human beings who have been killed by law enforcement, for in a just world, they would still be alive. There must, however, be accountability.”
Joe Biden’s New Disability Plan Includes Boosting Medical Marijuana Research
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s new plan for people with disabilities involves promoting research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana.
The former vice president, who remains opposed to broader cannabis legalization, said he will “ensure people with disabilities have a voice in their government and are included in policy development and implementation.” That includes cannabis policy.
“A Biden Administration will prioritize the research needed to advance science-based federal policies related to the use of marijuana for medical conditions, chronic pain, and disabilities,” the plan, released on Thursday, states.
Thirty years ago, I proudly cosponsored the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. It was an enormous step forward, but there's more work to do. So today, I’m releasing my plan to achieve full participation and equality for people with disabilities: https://t.co/psuNvKzYej
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) May 28, 2020
This is another example of Biden featuring marijuana issues in broader policy platforms. Earlier this month, he released a plan on racial justice that included his existing modest cannabis reform proposals for decriminalization and automatic expungements.
But while advocates agree with the need for those policy changes, they’ve remained disappointed about Biden’s ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization—something they argue should go hand-in-hand with the social justice principles he’s touted.
The presumptive nominee has argued that more research needs to be done on the potential risks and benefits of marijuana before he’s be open to legalization. In a recent interview, a host pushed back and said, anecdotally, there have been decades of research given that millions of people consume cannabis.
Biden agreed and said he knows “a lot of weed smokers” but, in agreeing to that premise, he seemed to signal the people he knows who consume marijuana have demonstrated the need to maintain prohibition.
While he’s given no indication that he’s willing to embrace legalization ahead of the November election, some are holding out hope that a criminal justice task force he formed with former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will push him in that direction. Most of the members of that group support legalization.
The former vice president does support legalizing medical marijuana, rescheduling cannabis under federal law, decriminalizing the plant, providing for automatic expungements and allowing states to set their own laws.