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Washington Senate Replaces Drug Decriminalization Bill With Revised Measure To Reinstate Penalties

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A bill that would have formally decriminalized drugs in Washington State was gutted on the Senate floor on Thursday, with lawmakers approving a dramatically revised version that instead reinstates criminal penalties following a state Supreme Court ruling that overturned prohibition.

The action sets up a possible showdown with more progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives who have said they won’t vote for legislation that returns to a criminal war on drugs.

Washington has been without a law against drug possession since a divided state Supreme Court abruptly struck it down February, after ruling that a narrow portion of the decades-old law was unconstitutional. Lawmakers have since scrambled to address the decision—which has halted drug arrests and prosecutions across the state and freed dozens of people incarcerated on drug possession charges—before the legislative session ends on April 25.

On the Senate floor on Thursday evening, a bill that originally would have left drug possession decriminalized was amended to instead make possession a gross misdemeanor, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine—a change that led its lead sponsor to vote against the measure.

Prior to the court decision, drug possession was classified as a felony.

Senators passed the amended version of the bill, SB 5476, on a 28–20–1 vote. It next proceeds to the House, where it’s scheduled for an initial hearing in the Appropriations Committee on Monday, with possible committee action slated for Wednesday, April 21.

Watch the senators discuss the drug penalties legislation, around 1:01:33 into the video below: 

As amended, the Senate-passed bill represents a moderate reform to Washington’s now-invalidated felony law against possession. It requires the prosecutors divert people for first- and second-time possession charges to evaluation and treatment programs, and allows for the possibility of further diversions with a prosecutor’s approval.

“I think that this striking amendment will help move us forward as we continue negotiations in these final 10 days with the body across the way toward having a response that will provide services and treatment and help for people who are struggling with substance use disorder,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D), who brought the amendment, said on the Senate floor.

The bill in its original form represented a more significant shift away from the drug war. It would have imposed no penalties for possession of small, “personal use” amounts of drugs, instead routing people to evaluation and treatment services for substance use disorder.

Some senators who initially supported SB 5476 ultimately changed their vote after the misdemeanor amendment was adopted. The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D) said she could no longer support the proposal.

“The way we are doing this, I’m glad there’ll be opportunities for diversion, but it needs to be not through the criminal justice system,” Dhingra said during floor debate. “I understand this is my bill, I understand my name is on there, but I will be voting no on this today.”

Many senators who weighed in on the bill Thursday said it was important that the legislature pass something before the session end, given the sweeping impact of February’s state Supreme Court decision, State v. Blake. In a statement issued after the floor vote, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said that not passing a state law on drug possession “means a patchwork of local ordinances that will be confusing to Washingtonians and won’t provide equal justice across the state.”

Generally speaking, state drug laws are understood to preempt those of Washington’s cities and counties. With the state law against possession gone, localities could establish their own laws and penalties, and some have already begun doing so.

“The bill we passed today is not the final word on the subject,” Billig said in a statement. “It is a compromise that keeps this important legislation moving so that we can do our duty as the representatives of the people of our whole state.”

Representatives in the House, however, have indicated more openness to leaving drug possession decriminalized this session. On Thursday, lawmakers in favor of broader drug reform introduced a new bill, HB 1578, which would expand treatment and recovery services and reclassify low-level possession as a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $125 and no possibility of jail time.


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.

Of all the measures currently in play this session, the new bill is the one that most closely resembles neighboring Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure passed by voters in November. But its path forward is uncertain: HB 1578 would need to pass both chambers of the legislature in less than two weeks.

Likewise, it remains unclear how the House will receive the Senate-passed bill, SB 5476, in its new form. More progressive members of the Democratic caucus have said they won’t vote for legislation that reimposes criminal penalties for simple possession, but it’s not certain they’ll be able to muster enough support to pass a decriminalization measure.

If House lawmakers were to amend the Senate bill before passing it, the legislation would need to go to a conference committee, where members of both chambers would iron out differences in the two versions of the bills.

Earlier this year, before the Supreme Court’s decision, a House committee passed a separate bill, HB 1499, that would have ended criminal penalties for personal use amounts of drugs and instead routed people to evaluation and treatment. It would have also significantly expanded the state’s outreach and recovery programs for people with drug use disorders. That measure failed to proceed further after missing a legislative deadline last month.

HB 1499, for its part, stemmed from an effort to put a drug decriminalization initiative on Washington’s ballot last year. Supporters pivoted to a push through the legislature after pressing pause on their signature-gathering campaign after COVID-19 first broke out in the Seattle area early last year.

Advocates for reform have noted that the state’s criminal enforcement of drug possession laws has had a strong bias against people of color, particularly the state’s Black, brown and Indigenous communities.

In her comments on the Senate floor, Dhingra echoed that point, arguing that the Blake decision presents a chance for lawmakers to finally begin to address those racial disparities.

“I will say that the Supreme Court did provide us with an opportunity,” she said, “an opportunity to really think about what we as a state and as a nation have been doing in regards to the war on drugs, and to really think critically of the impact that this has had very, very specifically on Brown and Black families.”

“The racial impact of our drug laws cannot be understated,” Dhingra continued. “When we take a look at mass incarceration, when we take a look at families with a single mom who is bringing up her children, when we take a look at parents who cannot find a job because of their criminal history, cannot find housing, cannot seek recovery, it comes down to the manner in which we have been enforcing our drug laws.”

Rep. Roger Goodman (D), the lead sponsor of the new House measure, HB 1578, which would make possession a civil infraction, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday evening. In an interview with Marijuana Moment last month, however, he called the Blake decision “both a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s an opportunity for us to come up with a more effective approach that does less harm,” he said, “but we don’t have the opportunity to be deliberate and inclusive in conversations with interested parties, so it’s not as well thought-out a proposal as it would be otherwise. It has to be an interim measure.”

Just five years ago, few state legislatures would have dreamed of letting drugs remain decriminalized after a court decision like Blake. Now attitudes are beginning to shift.

“There’s this phenomenon called discontinuous change,” Goodman told Marijuana Moment, “where nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then the Berlin Wall falls down. We’re getting to that place in drug policy where it’s a tipping point.”

Oregon voters ended prohibition of low-level drug possession at the ballot during last November’s election, which has contributed to the national conversation.

In both Maine and Vermont, lawmakers have also recently unveiled legislation last month to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs. Last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said last month that he’s “open-minded” on decriminalizing all drugs.

California Bill To Legalize Possession Of Psychedelics Clears Second Senate Committee

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 Lawmakers Float Special Session To Restore Medical Marijuana Following Supreme Court Ruling

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Without a special session, the earliest that the Legislature could enact a medical marijuana program would be in January when the 2022 session begins.

By Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today

A special legislative session is being discussed by political leaders in the wake of last week’s explosive ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court striking down both the state’s new medical marijuana program and the entire initiative process where citizens can gather signatures to place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.

Sources close to the issue said that lawmakers have broached the issue of a special session with Gov. Tate Reeves’s (R) office.

Without a special session, the earliest that the Legislature could enact a medical marijuana program would be in January when the 2022 session begins. And it would take even longer to re-instate the initiative process since it would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and then approval by voters presumably during the November 2022 general election.

During a special session, legislators could have an opportunity to create a medical marijuana program and perhaps to fix the language in the state’s initiative process that resulted in last week’s Supreme Court ruling.

House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) says he supports Reeves calling a special session to allow legislators to reinstate the state’s initiative process.

“We 100% believe in the right of the people to use the initiative and referendum process to express their views on public policy,” Gunn said in a statement. “If the legislature does not act on an issue that the people of Mississippi want, then the people need a mechanism to change the law. I support the governor calling us into a special session to protect this important right of the people.”

Efforts to garner comments from Reeves and Lt. Gov Delbert Hosemann (R), who presides over the Senate, have been unsuccessful thus far. On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, Bailey Martin, a spokesperson for Reeves, told the Daily Journal in Tupelo, “Like most Mississippians, Gov. Reeves is interested and intrigued by the Supreme Court’s decision on the recent ballot initiative. He and his team are currently digesting the Court’s 58-page opinion and will make further comment once that analysis is complete.”

Senate President Pro Tem Dean Kirby, (R), said he has not heard discussions about a special session, but said, “I would not be opposed to a special session” to take up the issue of medical marijuana. He pointed out the Senate passed a bill earlier this year in the 2021 session that would have put in place a medical marijuana program if the Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative. The House did not take up the Senate proposal, opting to wait for the Supreme Court ruling.

Kirby said he had not studied the issue of whether there should be an effort in special session to take up fixing the entire initiative process.

Rep. Robert Johnson, (D), the House minority leader, who was critical of last week’s Supreme Court ruling, said he would support a special session to take up both issues.

Secretary of State Michael Watson (R), who oversees state elections and the initiative process, said via social media he also supports the governor calling a special session.

“I strongly encourage Gov. Reeves to call a special session to address this issue,” Watson said, adding that the issue of medical marijuana also should be taken up during a special session. Watson also said the Legislature should take steps to ensure initiatives approved earlier by voters are not rendered void by the Supreme Court decision released Friday afternoon.

In a 6-3 ruling last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November and in the process voided the state’s initiative that has been in effect since 1992.

In the process of voiding the process, six initiatives that were at varying stages of trying to garner the required number of signatures were killed. Those efforts were:

  • Expanding Medicaid.
  • Enacting early voting.
  • Enacting term limits.
  • Legalizing recreational marijuana.
  • Giving voters the opportunity to restore the old flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem in its design.
  • Replacing the 1890 flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem. That already has been done by the Legislature.

The Supreme Court ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the city of Madison and its mayor, Mary Hawkins Butler. The lawsuit alleged the initiative process should be voided because the Constitution requires the signatures to be gathered equally from five congressional districts as they were configured in 1990. In 2000, the state lost a U.S. House seat based on U.S. Census data, rendering it impossible to gather the signatures as mandated in the Constitution, the lawsuit argued.

The state’s highest court agreed.

Also at issue is two initiatives that passed in 2011 where the signatures were gathered from the original five congressional districts and whether they will be efforts to challenge those proposals. Those initiatives enacted a requirement to have a government-issued photo ID to vote and a prohibition on the government taking private land for the use of another private entity. After voters approved placing the voter identification issue in the Constitution, it also was approved as general law by the Legislature. So, if the voter ID initiative is struck down, it is not clear how it would impact the general law.

When asked if the Southern Poverty Law Center might challenge the voter ID initiative based on the Supreme Court ruling, Brandon Jones, policy director with the group, said “Like a lot of other folks, we are in the very early states of considering options for voters and the issues impacted by last week’s ruling. We haven’t made any decision yet.”

SPLC also would have been heavily involved in the effort to pass a Medicaid expansion initiative had it not be halted by the Supreme Court ruling.

This story was first published by Mississippi Today.

Voters In Conservative Louisiana Districts Support Legalizing Marijuana, Poll Shows With House Vote Scheduled

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Minnesota Lawmakers Approve Smokable Medical Marijuana As Broader Legalization Stalls

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A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota that recently passed the House isn’t advancing in the Republican controlled Senate this session—but advocates scored a different kind of victory on Monday when it comes to expanding the state’s medical cannabis program.

That includes legalizing smokable forms of marijuana for registered patients.

Over the weekend, a bicameral conference committee approved the reform, in addition to several other marijuana-related changes, as part of an omnibus health bill. The House adopted that report on Monday in a 77-57 vote, and the Senate followed suit in a 66-1 vote, sending it to the governor’s desk.

This is just the kind of compromise that House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), sponsor of the broader legalization measure that moved through 12 committees before being cleared by the chamber, predicted would come about in the face of GOP resistance to the idea of ending prohibition altogether.

The most significant change to Minnesota’s medical cannabis program would allow adults 21 and older to access smokable marijuana products. If the final legislation is signed by the governor, that policy would have to take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.

There are few remaining states that have medical cannabis programs in place but where smokable products are still prohibited. The Louisiana House approved a bill to allow access to flower products, and it’s heading to the Senate floor. In Alabama, the governor has a medical marijuana legalization bill on her desk that would include a ban on smokable cannabis.

Back in Minnesota, dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the proposed omnibus legislation. The report further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.

“Over the course of 12 public hearings this year and a statewide tour visiting 15 communities, Minnesotans were loud and clear that our state’s medical cannabis program was too expensive, and that allowing flower could significantly improve access,” Winkler said in a press release.

“As a result of Minnesotans who made their voices heard over the course of years—whether you are a veteran suffering from PTSD, a person with a serious health condition, or a parent with a sick child—more people will gain the ability to live healthy, fulfilled lives,” he said. “Without Minnesotans’ activism and personal stories, and without a historic vote in the Minnesota House to legalize cannabis for adult use, this accomplishment would not have been possible.”

There was one change attached to the health bill that could be of concern to advocates. It would make it so regulators could remove health conditions that qualify patients for medical marijuana if they receive a petition from a member of the public or a task force. Currently, the commissioner is only able to approve new conditions or modify existing ones.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 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.

Still, activists are excited about the overall expansion of the program under the legislation.

“Quite contrary to the claim of some GOP members that reforms to the state’s restrictive medical cannabis program are the ‘backdoor’ to full legalization, the adult-use bill helped open the front door this session for the sorely needed reforms patient advocates have been working toward for years,” Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, told Marijuana Moment.

These are generally positive developments for advocates and patients, but there’s still disappointment over the fact that Winkler’s full legalization bill has stalled in the Senate.

Gov. Tim Walz (D), who hasn’t been especially vocal about the issue in recent weeks as the legislation has advanced, weighed in on the House passage of the legislation on Friday.

“I’ve thought for a long time about that,” he said, adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”

“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”

“I know a lot of states—other states, conservative states like South Dakota—others have done this. I think there’s a way to do it,” he added. “I say that as a father of a 14-year-old. I certainly don’t encourage it. I certainly wouldn’t encourage my son to over-abuse alcohol. I wouldn’t encourage him to do some of those things, but when adults are of a certain age I trust them to make a good decision.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), meanwhile, reiterated his opposition to legalization in an interview with WCCO-TV over the weekend, though he said medical cannabis expansion and lowering criminal penalties for marijuana are areas of interest.

“What I do think we should continue to explore is lowering the criminal offenses—and are there medical reasons that we’re missing?” he said. Those are two things that I hear a lot of, but just making recreational marijuana illegal, I don’t think that’s wise.”

Rep. Rena Moran (D), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, commented in a separate interview with the station that cannabis criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color and has funneled “way too many people into the criminal justice system.”

While it seems the legislature is heading into a special session to pass the state budget after not being able to get it done by Monday’s end of the regular session, it seems unlikely that the Senate would be willing to take up the legalization bill during that time.

The majority leader’s legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.

Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.

On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.

Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.

The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.

People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.

Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.

Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.

The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.

Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.

Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.

In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.

Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

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The governor of Alabama on Monday signed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state that was sent to her desk earlier this month.

Following the measure’s passage, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signaled that she intended to sign after “thoroughly reviewing it.” But while there was a general expectation that she would recommend amendments, she signed it as is.

While the measure was approved with a two-to-one margin in both the House and Senate, some Republican lawmakers vigorously opposed its passage, staging a lengthy filibuster that delayed the final votes.

“Signing SB 46 is an important first step,” Ivey said in a press release. “This is certainly a sensitive and emotional issue and something that is continually being studied. On the state level, we have had a study group that has looked closely at this issue, and I am interested in the potential good medical cannabis can have for those with chronic illnesses or what it can do to improve the quality of life of those in their final days.”

In addition to being able to sign or veto the bill, Ivey had had the opportunity to propose line-item amendments and send it back to lawmakers, who could then approve or reject them. But she apparently did not see the need to pursue that option.

“As research evolves, [Sen. Tim Melson (R)] and I discussed how critical it is to continue finding ways to work on this to ensure we have a productive, safe and responsible operation in Alabama,” the governor said.

While Ivey hasn’t been especially vocal about the issue, she was asked about a prior medical cannabis legalization bill in 2019 and said, “I’m still trying to get the details, but if it’s tightly controlled and limited to just those illnesses as verified by medical professionals, it’d be worth considering.”

A restrictive medical marijuana bill is essentially what lawmakers sent to the governor.

Under the legislation as approved, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers in future sessions.

The bill also prohibits raw cannabis, smoking, vaping and candy or baked good products. Patients would instead be allowed to purchase capsules, lozenges, oils, suppositories and topical patches.

For physicians to be able to recommend cannabis to patients, they would have to complete a four-hour continuing education course and pass an exam. The course would cost upwards of $500 and doctors would also be required to take refresher classes every two years.

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth (R) expressed support for the reform—and he called on lawmakers to send the bill to the governor ahead of their final votes.

“I support legalizing medical marijuana to help those with cancer and other serious medical issues ease their pain,” he posted on Twitter. “The majority of the medical community agrees. The Alabama House should pass this important bill before the session ends.”

Ivey signed a bill in 2019 that established a medical cannabis study commission. That piece of legislation was originally a medical marijuana legalization bill that cleared the Senate but then was gutted in the House.

Late last month, the governor signed another bill that expands expungement eligibility for certain convictions, including misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved

Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.

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