Tuesday’s state and local elections across the U.S. saw several gains for the marijuana reform movement, as well as some potential setbacks. Legislatures shifted, cities decided on cannabis business expansion and new officeholders were seated.
A wave of newly elected prosecutors could further shape the drug policy landscape throughout the country, with a “mixed bag” of results coming out of the elections. District attorneys elected in Virginia campaigned on largely pro-reform platforms, but drug warriors kept their seats in places like Pennsylvania and New York.
From Virginia to California, here’s a rundown of the most consequential election outcomes as it concerns marijuana policy.
In Virginia, where broad marijuana reform has routinely stalled session after session, Democrats seized the majority in both the Senate and Assembly. The new composure of the legislature bodes well for the prospects of passing cannabis decriminalization and comprehensive medical marijuana legislation in 2020.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who campaigned on decriminalization during his election in 2017, said on Wednesday that the issue remains a priority, and Attorney General Mark Herring told Virginia Mercury last month that lawmakers will likely pursue that policy change first and then “get to work on a larger study about how and when we could move toward legal and regulated adult use.”
So far @GovernorVA is saying he’s looking to tackle these issues moving forward:
— Olivia Ugino (@OliviaNBC12) November 6, 2019
“The majority shift will bring a sea change to marijuana policy in the Commonwealth,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, said. “Virginia spent over $100M in 2018 enforcing prohibition, which flies in the face of public opinion. Three quarters of Virginians favor fines not crimes for possession of marijuana, and six out of ten support legalizing adult-use. Finally, Virginia has a path to implement evidence-based policies that reflect the attitudes of its constituents.”
Voters in the state also elected several reform-minded prosecutors, including Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano, who’s pledged that his office would not prosecute low-level cannabis offenses. Buta Biberaj, who also won her bid for a prosecutor position in the commonwealth, agreed that nobody should be incarcerated for marijuana possession.
In one of the most notable development of the night, a Democratic candidate who supports medical cannabis legalization appears to have beaten out an incumbent Republican in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race. Current Attorney General Andy Beshear narrowly defeated Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who has also spoken in favor of medical marijuana but adamantly opposes recreational legalization.
Beshear’s campaign site states that he wants medical cannabis legalization to be put to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment, which he said he’d vote for, in part because of its potential use as an alternative to opioids.
“I would vote for it because I’ve seen the impact opioids have had on every Kentucky community,” the governor-elect said. “So many Kentucky families have seen a loved one fall into addiction, and their lives have been devastated. If medical marijuana is an alternative and gives people the chance to get pain relief without being subjected to opioids, I think it’s something we’ve got to explore.”
Beshear also said that legalization could generate tax revenue that can be used to fund the state’s pension system—a position that puts him at odds with Bevin.
Asked about funding the pension system. @AndyBeshearKY points to gaming and medical marijuana as answers to the funding issue. @GovMattBevin says he's the only governor to fully fund it and says the system needs to change structurally.
— Christy Bollinger ABC 36 (@ChristyB_News) October 15, 2019
During an interview with WBKO in April, Beshear also voiced support for decriminalizing drug possession, including for substances beside cannabis.
“No one who is caught simply possessing marijuana should ever go to jail, or should ever go to prison,” he said, adding that those suffering from addiction to other illicit drugs should be “in treatment, not jail.”
Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, a strong proponent of the the hemp industry, held onto his seat. Following the election, Quarles celebrated the expansion of the hemp industry, noting that “during the first term we were dedicated to putting Kentucky first… and here in Kentucky, we are making hemp great again.”
Newly reelected Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles touts the recent growth of the hemp industry in the commonwealth: "You know, during the first term we were dedicated to putting Kentucky first…And here in Kentucky, we are making hemp great again." #kypolitics
— Morgan Watkins (@morganwatkins26) November 6, 2019
But while the commissioner said he’s not opposed to medical cannabis legalization, he’s decidedly less vocal about the issue compared to his competitor Robert Conway, who brought up the policy during his concession speech.
Ag Commissioner Robert Conway gives his concession speech. Says he doesn’t give a damn about the D or R next to a person’s name. He cares about the K – we’re all Kentuckians who should care for fellow Kentuckians. Gives a shout out to medical marijuana https://t.co/0OLuWeNJkY pic.twitter.com/4CBiF0Rv0R
— Matthew Glowicki (@MattGlo) November 6, 2019
Cannabis was also featured in the concession speech for Greg Stumbo, who ran for attorney general and lost to Daniel Cameron. Stumbo closed his speech “with an anecdote about medical marijuana helping a family” and called for its legalization, Courier Journal reporter Matthew Glowicki said.
Greg Stumbo up now. He lost to Daniel Cameron, now the first African American to hold the office. Stumbo keeps his speech short, closing with an anecdote about medical marijuana helping a family, calls for its legalization https://t.co/kwT82XLNaj pic.twitter.com/Ty3y7QjhkV
— Matthew Glowicki (@MattGlo) November 6, 2019
In Mead, voters chose not to allow adult-use cannabis businesses to operate in their city. Loveland voters similarly rejected a proposal to allow marijuana firms, six years after the city first banned them. But the cannabis market did get a boost in Louisville, where voters approved a marijuana excise tax and adopted a policy allowing cannabis cultivation facilities to operate in their jurisdiction.
The city of Deerfield’s Village Board voted in favor of allowing adult-use marijuana businesses to operate in their jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Arlington Heights Village Board opted not to welcome cannabis firms.
“For me, there is no compromise on this issue,” Mayor Tom Hayes said.
Voters in Camden elected to establish a process to obtain licenses for cannabis manufacturing businesses. Retail facilities for recreational and medical cannabis will be allowed under ordinances approved by voters in Newry on Tuesday.
A nonbinding referendum to allow adult-use cannabis sales in Agawam was soundly defeated in a 2,682-1,831 vote.
Ten cities throughout Michigan voted on measures to allow or prohibit adult-use marijuana businesses to operate in their jurisdictions—and seven of those opted to block the industry. The votes come roughly a year after the state’s legal cannabis law was approved by voters.
Allen Park, Hudson City, Keego Harbor, Marenisco Township, Mount Pleasant, South Haven and Walled Lake each voted against proposals to allow cannabis businesses to operate in their towns, or in favor of measures calling for a ban on recreational cannabis facilities. Crystal Township, Lincoln Park and Northfield Township residents cast votes in favor of the industry.
Efforts to reform New Jersey’s marijuana laws have been complicated, largely because of opposition from the Republicans in the legislature. Those efforts will face a slightly tougher road following Tuesday’s election, where the GOP picked up seats in the Assembly, as well as one seat in the Senate. That said, lawmakers have said they may take a shot at passing a legalization bill in the lame duck session before the newly formulated legislature is seated.
Three cities in Ohio voted in favor of resolutions to decriminalize the possession of cannabis, while three others rejected similar proposals. The pro-decriminalization votes build on gains the state has made at the local level over the past four years, which have seen more than a dozen cities approve measures to loosen penalties on possession, either through voter-approved initiatives or the local government action.
This piece was updated to add comment from Virginia NORML.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
AOC Blasts Biden’s ‘Reagan-Era’ Marijuana Talking Points
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s suggestion that cannabis could be a gateway drug was “risky” and a “Reagan-era talking point,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said in an interview with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.
While the congresswoman said she acknowledged that “there are folks, when it comes to the marijuana issue, that have a wide range of opinions within the Democratic party,” she also feels that “we have moved on as a country” on the need to end cannabis prohibition.
“These are Reagan-era talking points that were behind one of the worst and most shameful phases of American policy, which is mass incarceration,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referencing the former Republican president’s anti-drug crusade that largely relied on fear-mongering and campaigns such as “Just Say No.”
“That rhetoric is rhetoric of mass incarceration. The only thing that marijuana, due to the failures of U.S. policy, is a gateway to is our mass incarceration system.”
“That needs to end, marijuana needs to be legalized, drugs need to be decriminalized for consumption,” she said. “These are very simple issues of public health.”
The congresswoman first voiced support for decriminalizing all drugs in a tweet on Sunday; she previously called for decriminalizing the consumption of psychedelics alone in a video taped for activists at a drug policy reform conference earlier this month.
Biden, who played a central role in enacting punitive drug laws during his time in the Senate, has been sharply rebuked by reform advocates after he said on Saturday that “there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not [cannabis] is a gateway drug” and that he wanted to see more debate on the issue “before I legalize it nationally.”
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), both presidential candidates, also seemed to criticize Biden, implicitly contrasting his comments with their respective plans to end federal marijuana prohibition. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang told CNN that he thinks “Joe actually will end up evolving on this issue over time if he sees the same evidence that I have.”
Ocasio-Cortez, in the new interview with Marijuana Moment, said she feels as if “any person who has had, like me, family, friends, neighbors that have been stopped, frisked, incarcerated and trapped in this system would know how risky of a statement that is,” referring to Biden’s “gateway drug” comments.
She also weighed in on the debate over what kind of marijuana reform legislation should be pursued in Congress, as the House Judiciary Committee prepares to mark up legislation from Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) that would federally deschedule cannabis and address social equity issues.
While some have voiced concerns that pursuing a wide-ranging legalization bill—as opposed to something more narrowly tailored and states’ rights-focused—will slow down the reform process given the current makeup of the Senate, the congresswoman said that with “matters of justice, it’s not about slowing it down, it’s about doing it right.”
“The problem is that if we don’t pass a bill with the social elements inside it then we compound on the racial wealth gap, we compound on the same folks who got rich off of private prisons are going to turn around, invest those profits into legal marijuana and we’re going to have the same economic discrimination that we had,” she said.
“If we just pass the financial piece, it’s just going to be another Wall Street market that’s going to exploit people so we can’t go down that road,” she added, referencing a House-passed bill that would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.
Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed For 2020 After Democrats Reclaim Legislature
A Virginia lawmaker prefiled a bill on Monday for the 2020 session that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana—a piece of reform legislation that stands a much better chance of passing after voters elected Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature earlier this month.
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) introduced the proposal, which would make possession of up to one ounce of cannabis punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty. Currently, simple possession carries up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
Decriminalization was among the campaign promises made by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who also called for the policy change in his State of the State address in January, but reform efforts have stalled to date in the Republican-controlled legislature.
The governor said earlier this month that decriminalization is a 2020priority for his administration, a goal that now appears much more achievable since Democrats have reclaimed control of both the House of Delegates and Senate.
“The new majority creates a real pathway for the passage of decriminalization in the 2020 General Assembly,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “SB2 is a common sense approach to a policy supported by three out of four Virginians.”
Here’s how the bill would amend the state’s law on cannabis possession:
“Any person who violates this section is
guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be confined in jail not more than 30 days and fined not subject to a civil penalty of no more than $500, either or both; any person, upon a second or subsequent conviction of a violation of this section, is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor $50. Any civil penalties collected pursuant to this section shall be deposited into the Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund.”
Additionally, the legislation would make it so that only individuals who’ve committed criminal violations, or juveniles who’ve committed civil violations, would be subject to penalties such as a suspended sentence, substance abuse screening or driver’s license suspension.
“The bill also allows a person to petition for expungement of convictions and deferred disposition dismissals for marijuana possession when all court costs and fines and orders of restitution have been paid,” a summary states.
While it’s yet to be seen whether the new legislature will pursue broader reform such as adult-use legalization or an expansion of the state’s limited medical cannabis program, recent polling indicates that Virginians are ready to move ahead. Sixty-one percent of Virginia residents favor recreational legalization, according to a survey released in September.
Marijuana Legalization Will Get A Floor Vote This Congress, Key Chairman Predicts
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said on Tuesday that he’s optimistic about the prospects for getting his comprehensive marijuana legalization bill out of committee and onto the floor by the end of this Congress.
During a press conference with lawmakers and advocates, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) also told Marijuana Moment that part of the reason he expects floor time is because he’s actively communicating with other committee chairs, requesting that they waive jurisdiction of the reform legislation to expedite its progress.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, introduced by Nadler, would federally deschedule cannabis and provide for expungements and reinvestments in communities most impacted by the war on drugs. The panel confirmed that members will mark up the legislation on Wednesday at 10:00 AM ET.
The chairman—as well as Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and the executive directors of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP)—spoke at the event.
Watch lawmakers discuss the federal marijuana legalization vote below:
While the MORE Act has been referred to seven additional committees, Nadler told Marijuana Moment that his panel is “carrying on conversations” about getting other panels to waive jurisdiction.
“I don’t anticipate that to be a big problem,” he said. “We are looking forward to moving this to the floor at an appropriate time when we’ve done some more educational work and have the votes.”
“For too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past,” Lee, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said, adding that this bill is “rooted in equality, justice and fairness.”
For too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past! Proud to work with @RepJerryNadler on the MORE Act, which decriminalizes marijuana at the federal level, enacts restorative justice, and makes the cannabis industry more diverse and equitable. #WeWantMORE pic.twitter.com/w3narSOOP8
— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) November 19, 2019
Blumenauer said that the country has “seen more progress is the last 40 months than we’ve seen in the last 40 years” when it comes to marijuana policy.
“We shouldn’t settle any longer for incremental change,” he said. “We must commit to the restorative justice that’s in this.”
“This is the Congress that can end the failed prohibition of cannabis.”
Nadler said that he expects the bill to clear his panel with bipartisan support, predicting that more Republican members will sign onto the legislation as it advances.
To that end, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is so far the lone GOP cosponsor of the MORE Act, told Marijuana Moment that he’s “pleased to see historic steps being taken in the Judiciary Committee on the issue of cannabis.”
“The MORE Act is not perfect, but it advances the discussion on cannabis reform and allows the Congress to take much-needed action on this important issue,” the congressman, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said. “I look forward to participating in the discussion this week.”
Nadler left open the possibility that lawmakers could make compromises on the legislation later down the road, but he added that he doesn’t believe it will have to come to that, and that it would be a mistake to scale down the legislation at this early stage of the process.
“This will remove a stain on people’s record but really a stain on the United States of America,” Cohen said. He also joked that when Blumenauer described the bill as the “best piece of cannabis legislation” he’s seen, another way of putting it is that the MORE Act is the “Acapulco Gold of marijuana legislation,” referencing a variety of cannabis popular in the 1960s.
— NORML (@NORML) November 19, 2019
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of DPA, said that “marijuana prohibition has, for millions of black and brown people in the U.S., been the gateway to arrests, incarceration, loss of livelihoods and lives.”
“Those are concrete, real harms, that affect real people every day,” she said. “Continuing the status quo of prohibition is not just inaction: it means turning your back on those harms, and condemning hundreds of thousands every year to continuing that misery and oppression.”
“What is most important here [is] this will free up law enforcement resources to a great level,” Neill Franklin of LEAP said. “I hope that others realize what this will do for public safety coast-to-coast in this country.”
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) tweeted support for the MORE Act during the press conference and said that “[a]s more states fully legalize cannabis, it’s time for Congress to decriminalize it.”
As more states fully legalize cannabis, it’s time for Congress to decriminalize it. The MORE Act will:
✅ Deschedule cannabis
✅ Expunge low-level offenses
✅ Create 5% federal tax on cannabis
I’m proud to be a co-sponsor of this bill. It’s time to move forward. https://t.co/85cnQUuwJF
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) November 19, 2019
There’s been significant pressure from reform advocates to advance the legislation, especially since the full House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would protect banks servicing marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Several reform groups, including the ACLU, wrote a letter to House leadership ahead of that vote asking for a delay, arguing that Congress must pass comprehensive legalization that addresses social equity concerns before moving ahead with legislation viewed as largely favorable to the industry.
Historic vote planned in @HouseJudiciary. The MORE Act would deschedule marijuana & provide restorative justice to those hurt by the failed War on Drugs.
— Progressive Caucus (@USProgressives) November 19, 2019
Meanwhile, some feel that the House would be better off voting on a more limited, states’ rights-focused reform bill such as the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would simply carve out an exception in federal law allowing states to implement cannabis programs, because they believe it stands a better chance at passing in the GOP-controlled Senate.
While observers generally expect the MORE Act to pass out of committee as well as the House, there are still questions about what kind of amendments members might offer and how that will impact the vote.
#WA voters recognized the harm of the war on drugs in 2012 when they voted to legalize cannabis. Now, I’m proud to support the MORE Act, so we can give back to minority communities adversely impacted by this futile crackdown. https://t.co/UyIdgvUMDB
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) November 19, 2019
In any case, Wednesday’s vote will be one of the most highly anticipated congressional developments in the cannabis reform movement, with members not just debating the end of federal prohibition—which happened in a House subcommittee in July—but actually voting on a bill that would accomplish that, and more.
Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C. This post was updated to include remarks from the press conference.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.