What was once a crowded Democratic presidential race has winnowed down to two major candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden. For marijuana reform advocates, the stakes are high.
While the opponents diverge on a variety of issues, cannabis legalization represents one of the clearest examples of their ideological divide.
Put simply, Sanders was one of the earliest proponents of the reform move, becoming the first major presidential candidate to call for federal legalization in 2015 and filing the Senate’s first-ever bill to deschedule cannabis under federal law. In his current campaign, he’s included a legalization plank prominently in his platform with a pledge to take bold executive action early in his administration.
Biden, meanwhile, played a key role in enacting punitive anti-drug laws during his time as a senator, and he’s maintained opposition to legalization even as the vast majority of his party has come to embrace the policy change. That said, at a time when polls show that the vast majority of Democratic voters support ending cannabis prohibition, he has begun to embrace some modest reforms during the course of the campaign.
The issue didn’t come up at the two candidates’ first head-to-head debate on Sunday, but given the significant public interest in marijuana reform, those differences are sure to be highlighted in the weeks to come. For the time being, however, here’s an overview of the Sanders-Biden drug policy divide.
Adult-use marijuana legalization: YES.
For a U.S. senator, Sanders is a long-time supporter of recreational cannabis legalization. After calling for the policy change in 2015, he filed the first-ever Senate bill to federally legalize. He’s since made the policy a core tenet of his platform, repeatedly calling for comprehensive reform on the trail and laying out plans to get it done if elected.
Medical cannabis legalization: YES.
It was more than two decades ago that Sanders cosponsored a House bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. He’s argued that the plant can serve as an alternative to prescription opioids, and he’d also made the case that it can be an effective treatment option for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Drug possession decriminalization: NO.
Unlike some former candidates, the senator has declined to back decriminalizing drugs beyond cannabis. Pressed on the issue last year, Sanders said he’s “not there yet” on the policy change. That said, Sanders has repeatedly issued vague calls to “end the war on drugs.”
Sanders frequently couples his call for legalization with a pledge to expunge prior marijuana convictions. He’s insisted that it’s not enough to end prohibition but to right the wrongs of prohibition, and expungements are a key part of that restorative justice plan.
Social equity: YES.
The candidate has proposed a series of social equity measures as part of his legalization plan. Part of that involves promoting participation in the market by people from communities harmed by the war on drugs. To ensure that the industry is not controlled by a handful of corporations, he also said tobacco companies should be barred from participating, and he’d encourage cannabis firms to incorporate as cooperatives or nonprofits, while also enacting market and franchise caps.
Administrative action: YES.
Sanders said that on his first day in office, he would issue an executive order to immediately legalize marijuana in all 50 states. An earlier plan he rolled out explained that he would appoint cabinet officials who are friendly to legalization to more systematically enact reform. Legal experts have challenged the idea that a president could unilaterally make cannabis legal across the country on day one, however.
States’ rights to legalize: YES, WITH A CAVEAT.
During his time in the House, Sanders voted four times in favor of amendments to prevent the Justice Department from interfering in local medical cannabis programs and he has since repeatedly backed the idea of letting states legalize despite ongoing federal prohibition. That said, it’s not clear if his new pledge to legalize marijuana across the country means he would try to force states to repeal any criminalization laws they wish to keep on the books.
Descheduling cannabis: YES.
The senator has pledged to immediately remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act through executive action. He’s consistently criticized the current status of cannabis as a Schedule I drug under federal law, calling it “insane” that it’s placed in the same restrictive category as heroin.
Safe consumption sites for illegal drugs: YES.
Sanders released a criminal justice reform plan last year that calls for the legalization of safe consumption sites where individuals can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment and get assistance going into treatment.
Personal use: YES.
The candidate said he’s consumed cannabis twice decades ago, but he’s said it “didn’t do much for me.”
Adult-use marijuana legalization: NO.
The former vice president has consistently maintained an opposition to recreational legalization. He came under fire from reform advocates last year after suggesting his reasoning was that cannabis may be a gateway to more dangerous drugs—a comment he subsequently walked back. More recently, he’s emphasized that he wouldn’t get on board with the policy change until more research was done to determine whether the plant is harmful.
Medical cannabis legalization: YES.
Biden has recently said he’s in favor of federally legalizing cannabis for medical purposes.
Drug possession decriminalization: UNCLEAR.
While the issue came up in a presidential debate he participated in, Biden was not pressed on the issue, and he hasn’t proactively taken a position in favor of the policy change. That said, while he has called for ending incarceration for drug use he has also coupled that with an insistence that people caught with illegal substances be diverted to treatment. Presumably people who refuse would face some kind of punishment, potentially including incarceration, though the candidate hasn’t specified.
Part of Biden’s criminal justice reform plan does call for automatic expungements. The candidate has said that nobody should be incarcerated for non-violent cannabis offenses, and he’s said those currently behind bars for such crimes should be released.
Social equity: NO.
Biden’s opposition to adult-use legalization means he has not weighed in on the various restorative justice provisions floated by advocates who want to ensure minority participation in an economy that the candidate want to keep illegal.
Administrative action: UNCLEAR.
While Biden supports a modest change in marijuana’s federal classification, it’s not clear if he would enact it administratively or call on Congress to do so.
States’ rights to legalize: YES.
The former vice president said that while he would not push for comprehensive legalization, he would respect the rights of states to implement their own cannabis programs.
Descheduling cannabis: NO.
Biden has rejected fully ending federal marijuana prohibition by descheduling cannabis. Instead, he’s backed modestly rescheduling cannabis to Schedule II in order to free up research into the plant.
Safe consumption sites for illegal drugs: N/A.
The candidate has not proactively offered his stance on safe consumption facilities, nor has he appeared to have been asked about it.
Personal use: NO.
It does not appear that Biden has publicly commented on any personal experience he has had with marijuana or other drugs.
While both candidates have pledged to let states enact their own legalization laws and enact certain federal reforms, only Sanders has said he supports actually ending cannabis prohibition and would take executive action on the issue.
Note: This analysis did not include Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who while still in the race has received just two pledged delegates of the 1,991 required to secure the nomination.
Idaho Medical Marijuana Activists ‘Likely’ To Seek Signature Gathering Relief After Court Ruling
A campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Idaho is preparing to potentially collect signatures again, as they are likely to seek the same relief that a federal court recently granted a separate campaign that found its petitioning efforts crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.
The judge said activists behind Reclaim Idaho, which is pushing an initiative on school funding, can start collecting signatures in-person and electronically for 48 days starting July 9. While the Idaho Cannabis Coalition wasn’t involved in that case, they feel the ruling will apply to them and they’re actively monitoring the situation.
“We are in the process of working with the local medical marijuana campaign to assess whether Judge Winmill’s order provides a route for the medical marijuana initiative to still qualify for the November ballot,” Tamar Todd, legal director for the New Approach PAC, which is lending support to the state cannabis effort, told Marijuana Moment.
“The medical marijuana campaign is similarly situated to the Reclaim Idaho campaign and will likely ask for a similar extension of time and permission to collect signatures electronically from the Secretary of State, and if necessary, from the District Court,” she said. “I don’t know the exact timeline as there are a number of moving pieces but it will be quick.”
On June 23, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill gave the state two options: either allow electronic signature gathering for 48 days or simply place the Reclaim Idaho initiative on the ballot regardless of the signature requirement. The state chose neither and proceeded to request that the ruling be stayed.
The judge denied the state’s request to stay the order, so the signature gathering for the school funding campaign can proceed on July 9. The state has since filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to challenge the lower court’s ruling.
“The district court order severely and unquestionably disrupts Idaho’s election,” the state deputy attorney general wrote in the motion.
The deadline to submit 55,057 signatures to qualify the cannabis initiative passed on May 1, shortly after the group announced it was suspending petitioning activities because of the health crisis and the stay-at-home social distancing measures the state enacted. The cannabis campaign said it has about 45,000 raw signatures on hand at this point, and they’re confident that can fill the gap if they get the deadline extension and electronic petitioning option.
Under the proposed measure, patients with qualifying conditions could receive medical cannabis recommendations from physicians and then possess up to four ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
While advocates say passing medical marijuana in one of the remaining states without such policies on the books would be a victory for patients in its own right, it could also have outsized federal implications. A House-passed bill to protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators is currently sitting in limbo in a Senate committee chaired by a senator who represents the state.
Creating a medical marijuana program in Idaho, which is one of small handful of states that don’t yet even have limited CBD laws, could put additional pressure on Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) to move the financial services legislation in Congress.
Summer Dreams Of Marijuana-Infused Slushies Are Melted By Oklahoma Regulators
Bad news for Oklahoma medical marijuana patients trying to beat the summer heat with a marijuana-infused slushy: State regulators say the icy beverages “are unlikely to meet requirements set forth in Oklahoma statutes and rules” for cannabis products.
As the weather heats up, THC-infused slushy machines have been popping up at more and more Oklahoma dispensaries. Made by companies such as Glazees, which offers flavors such as watermelon and blue raspberry, the THC-infused drinks sell for about $12-$15.
But despite their popularity with some patients, regulators say the slushies fail to comply with a number of state rules, such as a requirement that products be packaged in child-resistant containers. Dispensaries themselves also “are not allowed to alter, package, or label products,” regulators said.
State rules further require that all medical marijuana products be tested in their final form. “In this instance, the finished product is the slushy mixture to be dispensed to patients/caregivers, not the syrup,” regulators said. “If water, ice, or any other substance is added to the product, additional testing is required to ensure the product is safe for consumption and final-product labeling is accurate.”
The OMMA has received multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries. Learn more here: https://t.co/3b6XFzYe2f pic.twitter.com/MPq4Z3PWft
— Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (@OMMAOK) July 2, 2020
Regulators didn’t specify how adding water or ice to cannabis products could affect consumer safety, however.
The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) issued the update on Thursday in what it called a “slushy-machine guidance” memo. The office said it had received “multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries.”
It’s not the first obstacle encountered by Oklahoma marijuana businesses, which began popping up across the state voters passed a medical marijuana law in 2018.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging medical cannabis expansion bill, which would have allowed out-of-state residents to obtain temporary licenses, permitted licensed businesses to deliver marijuana to customers and eliminated jail time for for first-time possession convictions. But Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) then vetoed the bill, and lawmakers didn’t hold a vote to override the action.
Oklahoma activists also filed a proposed marijuana legalization ballot measure in December, but it’s unlikely the campaign can gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters this November. Their signature-gathering was largely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only last week did the state Supreme Court rule that the campaign could initiate petitioning. Supporters now have about 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel
Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans To Legalize Marijuana, One Day After Decriminalization Takes Effect
Only a day after a new marijuana decriminalization law took effect in Virginia, top state lawmakers are announcing that they’re already looking ahead to full legalization.
A group of Democratic legislators on Thursday announced plans to introduce a bill to legalize and regulate a commercial cannabis market in the state. While the measure isn’t set to be filed until next year, lawmakers framed legalization as necessary in the fight for social and racial justice.
“Decriminalizing marijuana is an important step in mitigating racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but there is still much work to do,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said in a press release. “While marijuana arrests across the nation have decreased, arrests in Virginia have increased.”
Other lawmakers backing the broader legalization push include Sens. Adam Ebbin (D) and Jennifer McClellan (D), as well as Del. Steve Heretick (D).
On Wednesday, the state’s new marijuana decriminalization policy took effect. The law, approved by lawmakers earlier this year and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), removes criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession. Under the change, having up to an ounce of cannabis is now punishable by a $25 fine and no threat of jail time or a criminal record.
Prior Virginia law punished simple marijuana possession with up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine and a long-term criminal record.
“This bill will prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession while we move toward legalization with a framework that addresses both public safety and racial equity in an emerging market,” Herring said of the new law, which she sponsored in the House of Delegates and Ebbin led in the Senate.
The decriminalization measure also contains a provision to study future legalization. It requires a bevy of executive agencies, including “the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security,” to convene an expert working group to study the matter. That panel’s report is due in November.
A separate legislative agency, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), is also studying the impacts of possible legalization as the result of yet another resolution approved by lawmakers this year.
Lawmakers said on Thursday that the JLARC report, which is due in December, would inform how they shape legalization legislation they expect to file in 2021.
“Elements of the JLARC study include review of best practices from states such as Illinois that have developed a legal framework, testing and labelling recommendations, and measures to reduce illicit sales,” according to a press release from Ebbin’s office. “The study will also examine how best to provide redress and economic opportunity for communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition, and recommend programs and policies to reinvest in affected communities.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus doesn’t want to wait for the results of the two reviews, however, and is pushing fellow lawmakers to take up cannabis legalization during a special session in August. In addition, the caucus has said its members intend to file bills to implement automatic expungement, ban no-knock warrants, require courts to publish racial date on people charged with low-level offenses and enact other sweeping criminal justice reforms.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director for the legalization advocacy group NORML and executive director of the group’s Virginia chapter, said the organization, which has worked with lawmakers on past reforms, looks forward to continuing to bring evidence-based cannabis policy to Virginia.
“For far too long, young people, poor people, and people of color have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization, and Virginia must take immediate steps to right these past wrongs and undo the damage that prohibition has waged upon hundreds of thousands of Virginians,” Pedini said. “It is time to legalize and regulate the responsible use of cannabis by adults in the Commonwealth.”
Ebbin said that despite the meaningful step of decriminalization, the state still has a long way to go.
“Today Virginia is taking an important first step in reducing the harm caused by the criminalization of cannabis,” he said in a statement. “The prohibition of marijuana has failed and the consequence of this failure has been felt overwhelmingly by Virginians of color, but it has not ended. It will only end when it is replaced by a regulated adult-use market that emphasizes equity—making whole those who have been burdened most by making sure they have a seat at the table and access to the marketplace. We are looking forward to doing the hard work needed to get this right.”
In the meantime, the Senate Democratic Caucus has announced it will pursue a bill during the special session next month to end law enforcement searches of people or vehicles based solely on the smell of marijuana, which critics say is a recipe for discriminatory enforcement. The group also noted that the chamber approved legislation during the regular legislative session that would have expunged certain marijuana charges and convictions, but that those bills didn’t make it to the governor’s desk.