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Washington Lawmakers Hear Drug Decrim Bill After Supreme Court Strikes Down Prohibition

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With Washington State lawmakers weighing their options after a court ruling that struck down the state’s law criminalizing drug possession, legislation favored by reform-minded lawmakers received its first committee hearing on Monday.

Senate Bill 5476 is one of at least nine measures introduced in response to the state Supreme Court’s February decision, State v. Blake, and is widely seen as among the more likely of the bills to make it across the finish line before the legislative session ends on April 25. If passed, it would represent a shift away from the punitive drug war and toward a public health approach to substance use.

Possession of small, “personal use” amounts of controlled substances by adults 21 and older would remain decriminalized under the bill. Adults found with anything under those amounts—adopted from neighboring Oregon’s voter-passed decriminalization law—could be referred to evaluation and treatment but would see no criminal or civil penalties. Opening or using controlled substances in public would be subject to a $125 civil fine, which would help defray administrative costs resulting from the state’s abrupt decriminalization.

The bill would reinstate criminal charges, however, for activity outside the carveout for simple possession. Adults with more than the personal use amounts would be subject to a Class C felony, while possession by anyone under 21 would be a gross misdemeanor.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee took nearly an hour of initial testimony on Monday but, as planned, did not vote on the bill. Further action has not yet been scheduled.

Sen. Manka Dhingra (D), the proposal’s sponsor, said at the hearing that both the timing and the outcome of the Blake decision were unexpected. Within hours after the ruling, police departments across the state announced they would immediately halt arrests for drug possession. Prosecutors, too, began preparing to drop ongoing cases and file orders vacating past convictions. Courts and the state Department of Corrections are now scrambling to address the consequences.

“There were two questions” in the wake of the decision, Dhingra told the committee. “One was, ‘Does the state need to act?’ Overwhelmingly the response was yes. And the second one was, ‘What should the response be?’”

There’s less of a consensus on the second question so far. While more progressive lawmakers see the ruling as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink the state’s approach to substance use disorders and mental health, more centrist and conservative members have balked at the idea of removing all penalties for drugs, which they say is tantamount to legalization.

A number of competing proposals have also been introduced. Some, including SB 5468, SB 5475 and HB 1560, would more or less return the state’s possession law to how it was before the Blake decision, adding a provision that would require that a defendant “knowingly” possess the drug. A similar bill, SB 5471, would also add a $3,000 civil fine for anyone “unknowingly” in possession. Another, HB 1561, would reinstate felony charges and increase sentences for simple possession.

Some Republican-backed bills offer alternative approaches to the consequences of the court decision. HB 1562 would allow local governments to recriminalize drug possession, while HB 1558 would fund law enforcement training programs around substance treatment disorder. HB 1559 would allow police officers to detain minors for substance possession and refer them to treatment.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Dhingra described SB 5476 to Marijuana Moment as a compromise bill meant “to get the votes needed.” She said she was aware of criticisms by some reform advocates, such as the criminal charge for minors in possession of controlled substances, but noted that among her colleagues, “I think a lot of people draw the line on children.”

She said that the felony-level charge for possession of more than the personal use amount would ensure that control of possession cases is handled by district attorneys rather than less-experienced criminal prosecutors at the municipal level. The Class C felony designation, she added, would make the charge among the lowest priority for prosecutors.

Washington voters, meanwhile, are generally supportive of decriminalization, according to a new statewide poll commissioned by advocates. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said lawmakers should use the Blake decision to “reconsider and replace past drug possession laws with more effective addiction and treatment alternatives,” while only 35 percent favored making a technical change to return to the past system.

Nearly 3 in 4 voters (73 percent) said the state’s approach to problematic drug use has been a failure. Just 9 percent called it a success, while 18 percent were unsure.

While members of the Ways and Means Committee made few comments about the bill during Monday’s hearing, those who spoke at public comment included prosecutors and public defenders, local government advocates, advocacy groups and individuals in treatment for substance use disorder, among others.

Russell Brown, executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA), told the panel that the group supports many of the bill’s provisions, including penalties for juvenile use and establishing a felony for adult possession of more than personal use amounts.

But prosecutors remain divided on the issue of decriminalization, he said. “There’s certainly a split within WAPA on the ultimate question of whether personal use or whether we use some other tool, like a mandatory diversion to treatment or some graduated penalty.”

Andy Miller, Benton County prosecutor, said he’s among those who “is concerned about decriminalization of personal use,” arguing that it “would remove an incentive for drug courts and drug diversion programs.”

Greg Banks, Island County prosecuting attorney, was less skeptical. “I’m one of a number of prosecutors who are not opposed to decriminalizing personal use amounts for adults as part of a comprehensive strategy,” he said.

On the criminal defense side, Willy Jefferson Jr., of the Washington Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Washington Defender Association, told the panel the bill itself is unnecessary. He argued the Blake decision did not get rid of other elements of the state’s drug laws—only possession.

“[A drug] has to be in something—that’s drug paraphernalia,” which remains illegal, Jefferson noted. “You can’t give it away—that’s a delivery. And you can’t possess it with intention to deliver—that’s a felony. And so these laws will hurt people. We don’t need them.”

Others, however, such as Lisa Daugaard, a founding staff attorney at the Public Defender Association, warned that if the state doesn’t pass SB 5476 or a similar state-level law regarding possession, “most local jurisdictions will pass their own ordinances criminalizing drug possession, and there is compelling legal analysis that they legally can do so.”

Many drug reform advocates were broadly supportive of the bill but said it needed to provide more support to people in need, such as by investing in expanded drug treatment outreach and recovery services.

“The war on drugs has particularly hurt Black, brown and Indigenous communities,” said Sybill Hyppolite, legislative director for the Washington State Labor Council. “This bill provides a minimum statewide standard of protection from this punishment. This is an important step, and also we know more is needed to undo the war on drugs, to build a true system of care.”

Earlier this session, lawmakers considered a separate bill, HB 1499, that would have decriminalized simple possession and reinvested in broader treatment and recovery services. That measure also would have established an expert panel to set personal use amounts. It passed a House committee but failed to meet a mid-session legislative deadline.

Rep. Lauren Davis (D), the lead sponsor of that bill, said the Blake decision has rightly called into question the criminalization of drug use, “but that has taken all the air out of the room about how do we actually serve these individuals.”

“If you fail to treat the underlying substance use disorder, there will be no reduction in recidivism,” she told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “How do we create a person-centered paradigm of care, and, importantly, how do we fund it?”

“Frankly, the only way that you are ever going to get the more progressive caucus, particularly of the House, to ever vote to recriminalize,” she added, “is if you’re going to create the architecture for and truly fund that diversion mechanism.”

In a letter to the Senate Ways and Means Panel, the advocacy group Treatment First WA, which helped organize and introduce HB 1499, urged lawmakers to pass SB 5467.

“This moment calls for a pragmatic, statewide approach to next steps,” the group wrote. “What makes this moment challenging is not that we lack an understanding of the damage done by past policy, or evidence to support better policy, but that we are breaking new ground, and we need action in a very short window of time.”

Read the new Washington drug decriminalization poll below:

Cops Can’t Arrest You For Smoking Marijuana On Sidewalks, NYPD Says In Post-Legalization Memo

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.

Business

New House Bills Would Make Cannabis Businesses Eligible For Federal Small-Business Aid

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Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced three new bills to make state-legal marijuana businesses eligible for federal small business services, including loans, disaster relief and grant programs.

The package of legislation is aimed at establishing parity for cannabis businesses, which are currently prohibited from receiving federal aid due to marijuana still being classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. The country’s legal cannabis industry nevertheless now supports nearly 320,000 full-time jobs in the U.S., according to industry estimates.

The measures are largely similar to legislation introduced by the lawmakers in 2019, with some small changes.

One bill, sponsored by House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), would allow marijuana businesses to access resources from the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). The Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021, which had not been assigned a bill number as of Tuesday afternoon, would expand access to services such as microloans, disaster assistance and the agency’s loan guaranty program.

“With more and more states pursuing legalization, including my home state of New York, there are a growing number of legitimate small businesses that are excluded from critical SBA programs,” Velázquez said in a statement, noting that much of the cannabis industry consists of small businesses.

Compared to Velázquez’s 2019 bill, the new version adds clauses meant to expand the availability of services. While the 2019 bill applied to SBA itself, provisions in the new legislation also prevent SBA intermediaries, private lenders and state and local development companies from declining to work with businesses simply because of their marijuana-related work.

Another new section deals with debentures—certain unsecured loan certificates—and clarifies that SBA may not decline to purchase or guarantee a debenture just because of a business’s involvement in cannabis. Nor can other small business investment companies decline to provide assistance to the cannabis sector.

“This legislation will spark growth by extending affordable capital to small firms in the cannabis space,” she continued. “Simultaneously, the bill acknowledges the structural disadvantages facing entrepreneurs of color and seeks to level the playing field.”

Another newly refiled measure, H.R. 2649, sponsored by Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA), would establish a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) grant program to provide funding to state and local governments to help them navigate the licensing process for cannabis businesses. The bill, which also removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, specifies that the grant money should be used to benefit communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

“My bill would act as a poverty-buster and help homegrown small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy and our neighborhoods. We need to make sure that the booming legal cannabis industry does not become consolidated in the hands of a few big companies,” Evans said.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

A third bill, H.R. 2649, from Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME), would prohibit SBA partners that provide guidance and training services from denying help to businesses solely because of involvement in cannabis. The changes would affect providers such as SBA’s Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and the Veterans Business Outreach Centers, among others.

“Our continued economic recovery depends on the health of American small businesses of all kinds. Especially in this environment, no Maine small business owner should be turned away from crucial SBA programs that could help them create jobs and lift up the economy,” said Rep. Golden. “My bill would help address this problem by providing small business owners directly or indirectly associated with the cannabis industry with access to the services and resources they need to get their small businesses off the ground and grow.”

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have been making headway on other cannabis-related proposals. The House passed a cannabis banking bill on Monday, and broader legislation to legalize cannabis at the federal level is expected to be introduced soon.

The banking legislation would ensure that financial institutions can take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators. The full House passed the bill on a 321–101 vote.

“Even if you are opposed to the legalization of cannabis, you should support this bill,” sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said on the House floor. “The fact is that people in states and localities across the country are voting to approve some level of cannabis use, and we need these cannabis businesses and employees to have access to checking accounts, payroll accounts, lines of credit, credit cards and more.

Other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are working on legislation that would end federal cannabis prohibition completely.

Schumer said last week that the long-awaited proposal would be introduced “shortly” and placed on the floor “soon.” Schumer has so far declined to discuss the bill’s specifics, though he’s stressed that it will prioritize small businesses and people most historically impacted by the drug war.

In an interview with Marijuana Moment this week, Schumer worried that passage of the House banking bill could actually undermine broader congressional cannabis reform this year.

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his own legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House in a landmark vote last year but did not advance in GOP-controlled the Senate.

Meanwhile, support for legalization among U.S. voters continues to grow. More than 9 in 10 Americans (91 percent) now support legalizing cannabis for either medical or adult use, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Friday. Sixty percent of respondents said that cannabis should be legal for both medical and adult use. Thirty-one percent said it should be legalized for therapeutic purposes only, while just eight percent said it should continue to be criminalized across the board.

A majority of those in every age, race and political demographic included in the poll said they feel marijuana should be legal in some form, although many Republicans remain wary of adult-use legalization. Seventy-two percent of Democrats favored both medical and adult-use legalization compared to only 47 percent of Republicans.

Among the minority in opposition to federal legalization: President Joe Biden (D). White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the president’s position on the issue “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the reform. on Tuesday, Psaki refused to say whether Biden would sign or veto a cannabis legalization bill if passed by Congress.

The president instead backs modestly rescheduling the plant, decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, expunging prior marijuana records and letting states set their own policies.

Read the full text of the new legislation below:

Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021 by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Ensuring Access to Counseli… by Marijuana Moment

Homegrown Act by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

 

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.
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Politics

Biden Won’t Commit To Sign Marijuana Bill If Passed By Congress, Press Secretary Says

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say whether President Joe Biden would sign or veto a bill to federally legalize marijuana if it arrives on his desk, noting that his cannabis policy position is at odds with broader proposals that congressional Democratic leaders are working on.

She was also asked about his stance on marijuana banking reform, the disconnect between public opinion favoring legalization and the president’s opposition and whether Biden plans to revisit clemency applications for those facing federal sentences over cannabis.

The noncommittal response to the legalization question comes on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20—a day that has seen a wide range of politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), voice support for comprehensive marijuana reform.

Psaki was pressed on the Senate leader’s remarks and asked whether Biden would support legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition if Congress approved it.

“The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” she said. “He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana so that’s his point of view on the issue.”

Biden’s positions to that end are well known, but an outstanding question has been whether his opposition to adult-use legalization is so strong that he would reject a reform proposal such as those currently being drafted in the House and Senate.

Asked directly what action the president would take if a federal legalization bill was sent to his desk, Psaki signaled that he wouldn’t be inclined to sign it, stating “I just have outlined what his position is, which isn’t the same as what the House and Senate have proposed, but they have not yet passed a bill.”

The reporter followed up to ask about a separate cannabis pledge Biden made as a presidential candidate, when he said people incarcerated in federal prisons over non-violent marijuana offenses should be released.

Psaki said that would be addressed if cannabis was rescheduled to Schedule II—a dubious claim given that there are still serious penalties for offenses involving substances in that category as well. She also didn’t provide any insight into whether the president is proactively pushing for the modest scheduling change.

Later in the briefing, the press secretary was asked where Biden stands on legislation to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. The House approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act along bipartisan lines on Monday.

She said it was a “good question,” but she wasn’t sure and told the reporter she would follow up with a response later.

When pushed on Biden’s opposition to the legalization in the face of mounting, majority support among Americans, Psaki said that while he’s in favor of decriminalization and legalizing medical marijuana, he wants more research on the “positive and negative effects” of adult-use legalization.

“He’ll look at the research once that’s concluded,” she said. “Of course we understand the movement that’s happening toward it. I’m speaking for what his position is and what long, consistently has been his position. He wants to decriminalize, but again, he’ll look at the research of the positive and negative impacts.”

The press conference ended with a final question about cannabis policy—specifically whether the Biden administration plans to revisit requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions. The reporter cited the case of Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California, as an example.

“Given, as you’ve noted in the briefing, the president’s support for decriminalization, support for expunging exactly these types of offenses, are there any plans to revisit some of those bids for clemency?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I would just take it as an opportunity to reiterate that the president supports legalizing medicinal marijuana,” Psaki said. “It sounds like this would have been applicable in this case, and of course decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records. In terms of individual cases, I can’t get ahead of those obviously.”

These question come, of course, on 4/20. But they also come at a time when there’s a concerted push in both chambers of Congress to seize the opportunity they have with Democratic control to pass legalization legislation.

Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have been working on a bill on their side. The majority leader told Marijuana Moment on Monday that he’s working to push the president in a pro-legalization direction as they draft the measure.

Schumer said last week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

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.
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Culture

How Politicians Are Celebrating The Marijuana Holiday 4/20 This Year

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The country has come a long way since the days of politicians dismissing or shying away from marijuana issues. And a good example of that shift is the ever-growing number of lawmakers who are leaning into the cannabis holiday 4/20 with calls for reform.

For example, to kick of Tuesday’s Senate session, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke on the floor about the need to end federal marijuana prohibition, saying that “hopefully the next time this unofficial holiday 4/20 rolls around, our country will have made progress.”

Then there are the tweets—so many tweets—from state and congressional lawmakers, office seekers and regulators marking the occasion. It’s become a theme each year, and as more states pursue legalization, it seems more elected officials have grown comfortable embracing the holiday in their own ways.

Here’s what politicians are saying about cannabis this 4/20: 

Members of Congress

Congressional candidates

State officials and parties

Local officials

Former federal officials

International lawmakers

Meanwhile, dozens of brands and organizations are also celebrating 4/20 with a variety of promotions, events and calls to action.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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.
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