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Where Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Stands On Marijuana

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced that he’s making another run for the Democratic presidential nomination on February 19, 2019 and he suspended his campaign on April 8, 2020.

From his time as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, to his years in the U.S. Senate, Sanders has established himself as a champion of drug policy reform, particularly when it comes to marijuana. NORML gave the senator an “A+” grade based on his legislative track record.

This piece was last updated on April 8, 2020 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.

Legislation And Policy Actions

Sanders has been behind some of the earliest and most wide-ranging legislative efforts to fundamentally change federal cannabis laws. He was the first major presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization during his last bid and, in 2015, filed the first-ever Senate bill to end federal cannabis prohibition.

He’s also attached his name to a number of reform bills in Congress, going back to his time in the House, as well as during his Senate tenure. That includes recent pieces of legislation such as the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and punish states with discriminatory enforcement, as well as the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would federally deschedule cannabis.

More than 20 years ago, Sanders cosponsored a House bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. He also signed onto legislation that would reschedule cannabis and protect states with legal medical cannabis. He cosponsored versions of that bill in the 107th, 108th and 109th Congresses.

When Sanders arrived in the Senate, he began supporting efforts to reform federal hemp laws. He cosponsored three versions of a bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to remove hemp from the definition of marijuana under the CSA, for example. And last Congress, he put his name on legislation to legalize industrial hemp.

The senator also backed bills to shield banks from federal prosecution if they choose to accept marijuana business accounts in legal states.

In November 2019, Sanders cosponsored a bill that would effectively legalize medical cannabis for military veterans.

On four occasions in the House, Sanders voted in favor of amendments to protect legal medical marijuana states from federal intervention. He voted against a resolution in 1998 that was meant to express “the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.”

Also during his time in the House, Sanders was critical of the now-notorious 1994 Crime Bill, arguing that it was “not a crime prevention bill” but “a punishment bill, a retribution bill, a vengeance bill.” However, he ultimately voted for it, and said he did so because it included provisions he did support such as the Violence Against Women Act.

In a 2015 Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, Sanders recalled that during his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the local police “had more important things to do” than arrest people for using cannabis.

On The Campaign Trail

Sanders released a marijuana reform plan in October that outlines steps he would take to end federal cannabis prohibition and ensure that the industry is equitable if he is elected president.

The senator said he would deschedule cannabis through executive order within 100 days of his administration, support efforts in Congress to make that policy permanent and move to expunge the records of those with prior convictions.

But that timeline got pushed up significantly in February 2020 when Sanders said he would use executive action to federally legalize marijuana in all 50 states on the first day of his presidency.

Top campaign aides reportedly included marijuana legalization in a list of proposed executive orders that Sanders could issue in the early days of his presidency, though Marijuana Moment talked to a number of experts who raised serious questions about whether a president can unilaterally legalize cannabis as he’s proposed.

When pressed on the feasibility of unilateral legalization action, a spokesperson for Sanders said that as president he would “pursue every avenue possible” to achieve the reform.

At a Chicago rally, the senator invited a crowd of about 15,000 supporters to witness him signing an executive order to legalize cannabis.

At a Democratic debate in February, Sanders was pressed on his legalization plan.

“We have a criminal justice system today that is not only broken, it is racist. We’ve got more people in jail than in any other country on earth, including China. One of the reasons for that is a horrific war on drugs,” he said. “I do believe that on day one, we will change the federal Controlled Substances Act which, if you can believe it, now equates heroin with marijuana. That’s insane.”

He also said at the debate that minorities should be empowered to participate in the cannabis industry—a point that some pushed back on but was later defended by the Minority Cannabis Business Alliance.

His initial plan also contained several other unique proposals, including a ban on participation in the industry by tobacco companies, encouraging cannabis firms to be incorporated as cooperatives or nonprofits and enacting market and franchise caps.

In an interview on Showtime’s Desus & Mero, Sanders emphasized the need to prevent large corporations from taking over the industry.

“[A]s we move toward the legalization of marijuana, I don’t want large corporations profiting,” he said. “I want the people who’ve been hurt the most to be able to benefit. The folks who should be involved in the legal marijuana business will be people of color.”

The cannabis industry pledges build on an earlier criminal justice plan Sanders released, which also called for marijuana legalization as well as the implementation of safe consumption sites for other currently illegal drugs.

“It is time to admit the criminalization of marijuana was a disaster, especially for communities of color, and allow those most impacted to move forward with their lives,” the plan says. “Our job now is to legalize marijuana and vacate and expunge past marijuana convictions, and ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs.”

Prior to the South Carolina primary, his campaign released an ad touting Sanders’s support for cannabis legalization.

During a campaign event in New Hampshire in February 2020, Sanders reiterated his pledge to legalize marijuana nationwide through executive action, and he also admitted he wasn’t as familiar with the consequences of the drug war prior to running for president.

Sanders discussed his promise for immediate legalization at several other events that month.

Watch Sanders talk about the proposal below, around 29:40:

At a Democratic presidential debate just before the New Hampshire primary, Sanders said he wants to “end the war on drugs, which has disproportionately impacted African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.”

He added that private prisons should be abolished, characterizing them as a part of a “racist system, from top to bottom.”

His campaign site states that Sanders will “legalize marijuana and vacate and expunge past marijuana convictions, and ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs.”

It also says he will “[e]nd, once and for all, the destructive “war on drugs,” including legalizing marijuana.”

“We must finally put an end to the disastrous, so-called ‘War on Drugs,’” he said in February 2020. “This includes legalizing marijuana, releasing those imprisoned because of it, expunging their records, and investing in the communities devastated by this decades-long assault.”

Following the release of Sanders’s cannabis reform plan, one of his top advisors said that the senator isn’t ruling out covering medical marijuana through his Medicare for All proposal.

Sanders released a plan for military veterans on Veterans Day that called for doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be able to recommend medical cannabis to their patients and also help those discharged for marijuana offenses apply for a review of their case.

Sanders was among several lawmakers who said in September that comprehensive marijuana reform that addresses social equity should be prioritized before Congress passes a cannabis banking bill that is viewed as largely friendly to the industry.

The candidate has repeatedly stressed that prohibition has disproportionately impacted communities of color and talked about the need for social equity in the legal market.

“We cannot let corporate America take over hemp and marijuana,” he said in Iowa in June. “The people who suffered, the people who went to jail, the people who were arrested deserve to be able to make some money from what is now legal.”

“The American people are united on issue after issue,” he tweeted in November, linking to a Marijuana Moment article on a poll showing growing support for legalization. “We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice.”

“Donald Trump has no problem pardoning white collar criminals. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown Americans are sitting in jail because of marijuana convictions or because they can’t afford bail,” Sanders said in February 2020. “That injustice is what we’re going to end.”

The senator urged employees at one of Illinois’s largest cannabis companies to vote in favor of unionization in January.

Sanders, rapper Killer Mike and actor Danny Glover had an extensive discussion about the harms of marijuana criminalization in September.

“When marijuana is legal all over America we are not going to allow a handful of corporations to control that industry, we are gonna do everything we can to make sure they are the people who have suffered the most benefit and profit from the legalization of marijuana,” Sanders said at a rally in October.

As former Vice President Joe Biden was facing criticism for suggesting cannabis may be a gateway drug, Sanders emphasized that he wants to “ make marijuana legal in every state in the country.”

He reiterated that point during a campaign event in New Hampshire in November, and again in California the next month. The senator made similar remarks during a stop in Iowa in January.

During a campaign event in South Carolina, Sanders asked people to raise their hands if they know someone who’s been arrested for cannabis possession. When an abundance of hands shot up, he said that’s “why all over this country states are doing the right thing and either decriminalizing or legalizing the possession of marijuana.”

“Philadelphia police stopped 25,000 cars because they ‘smelled marijuana.’ 84% were African American drivers. They found marijuana only 12% of the time,” Sanders tweeted. “Our job must be to end the War on Drugs—and get racial bias out of law enforcement at the same time.”

“I’m not telling you to do marijuana—in fact I’m telling you not to do it—but people are going to do it whether I want it or not,” he said in September. “I don’t want your lives destroyed if you choose to do it.”

During an event in California, Sanders reiterated his pledge to nationally legalize marijuana on his first day in office.

On that first day, “we begin the process of ending the war on drugs,” he said at another event.

In an op-ed for Marijuana Moment, a Nevada Campaign Co-Chair for Bernie 2020 wrote that the candidate’s cannabis reform plan “ goes beyond legalizing marijuana to address the shortcomings of our historically racist criminal justice system.”

In a lighter moment on the campaign trail, the candidate did an interview with a Sanders impersonator who asked the real Sanders about whether his Medicare for All plan could be expanded to provide psilocybin mushrooms for all for want it.

The senator said that under the war on drugs, “men on street corners dealing pot were thrown in jail” and that wants “to see a war on the corporate greed that is killing Americans. I want to see top executives held personally liable for actions that led to the deaths of more than 42,000 people.”

“We are not only going to legalize marijuana; we are going to expunge past convictions for marijuana possession,” Sanders said in December, thanking State’s Attorney for Cook County, Illinois Kim Foxx for calling for expungements.

“The War on Drugs has been a disaster,” he said. “We need to legalize marijuana nationwide, invest in the communities that have been destroyed by its criminalization, and expunge past marijuana-related convictions.”

“The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster. We need to legalize it,” he said in December. “We need to expunge past convictions.And we need to invest in communities destroyed by the war on drugs.”

“Marijuana must be legalized,” he said. “All our people imprisoned because of it must be returned home to their families and their records expunged.”

In the midst of an outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries, Sanders initially called for the vaping industry to be “shut down”—but his campaign quickly reversed that position.

Throughout his campaign, Sanders has highlighted his early leadership on the cannabis legalization front.

“The time is right to end the so-called war on drugs,” he said in June. “Well, four years ago [when he called for legalization], that seemed like a radical idea. Not so radical today. State after state after state is either decriminalizing or legalization the possession of marijuana.”

He made a similar point in July while discussing Nevada’s decision to legalize, stating that in Nevada, the policy is “not such a radical idea today.”

In January, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), visited a Las Vegas dispensary on behalf of Sanders, alongside state campaign staffers for the candidate, and discussed regulating cannabis and promoting social equity in the industry.

It didn’t take long for Sanders to incorporate drug reform into his 2020 presidential bid. In his announcement video, he reiterated that the government “needs to end the destructive war on drugs.”

While the candidate has been a leader on the cannabis front and has often vaguely called for ending the war on drugs, he’s yet to specifically embrace a broader drug decriminalization position—a policy supported by contenders such as South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).

He said on the Joe Rogan podcast that he’s not in favor of legalizing drugs beyond marijuana, and said later that same month that he’s “not there yet” on removing criminal penalties for possession of other drugs.

Sanders has made a habit of congratulating cities, states and countries for advancing marijuana reform.

“Congratulations to Illinois for legalizing marijuana and expunging 770,000 marijuana-related cases. It is time to legalize marijuana nationwide,” he said after a cannabis legalization bill was signed in June.

“Thank you Illinois for doing the right thing by expunging marijuana convictions. Tens of thousands of Americans every year get criminal records for possessing marijuana,” he also said. “Meanwhile ZERO major Wall Street executives went to jail for destroying our economy in 2008 as a result of their greed, recklessness and illegal behavior.”

“When we are in the White House we are going to expunge criminal records for marijuana possession and decriminalize it nationwide,” he said.

After Hawaii decriminalized low-level marijuana possession, Sanders said, “If someone had said ten years ago that more than half the states in the country will decriminalize marijuana, people would have called them crazy. A movement for criminal justice reform made it possible.”

“Congratulations Hawaii on becoming the 26th state to end the failed criminalization of marijuana,” he wrote.

Sanders responded to the passage of a bill that expanded New York’s marijuana decriminalization law by stating, “Good. Now let’s do every other state and territory in the country.”

He also thanked Colorado for its leadership on the cannabis reform front, adding “that is what we have got to do nationally. And what we also have to do is expunge the records of those people arrested for possession.”

Sanders congratulated Canada on the one year anniversary of the country’s implementation of a legal marijuana program, writing “Vermont shares a border with Canada, and as far as I can tell, the sky has not fallen and the cities have not plunged into anarchy on the other side.”

Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), another 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, joked about support for medical cannabis during a debate that followed a heart attack the Vermont senator experienced.

“Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana,” Booker said, to which Sanders replied, “I do. I’m not on it tonight.”

Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts

Sanders has been outspoken about his support for marijuana reform in speeches, during debates and on social media. His messaging around the issue typically falls into one of three categories:

1. Marijuana is not comparable to other drugs listed in Schedule I of the CSA, and it should be removed from that list, accordingly.

“Right now, marijuana is listed by the federal government as a Schedule I drug—meaning that it is considered to be as dangerous as heroin. That is absurd,” he said during a rally at George Mason University in 2015. “In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana.”

He lamented that “marijuana is listed side-by-side with heroin” during a campaign event at the University of Iowa.

“I know that you are an intelligent group of people and, very seriously, I know and I hope very much that you all understand what a killer drug heroin is,” he said. “There are two ways out when you do heroin: Number one, you’re gonna get arrested and go to jail. Number two, you’re gonna die. Stay away from heroin.”

“But in terms of marijuana what we are seeing is a lot of lives have been really hurt, because if you get a criminal record for possession of marijuana it could impact your ability to get a job,” he said. “And that is why I have introduced legislation and will move forward as president to take marijuana out of the Controlled Substances Act.”

And when then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton proposed rescheduling cannabis and placing it in Schedule II, Sanders said he appreciated that she was addressing the issue but that her proposal “ignored the major issue,” which is that it would place “marijuana in the same category as cocaine and continue to make marijuana a federally regulated substance.”

2. Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war and are more likely to be arrested for marijuana despite the fact that usage rates are roughly the same among different racial groups.

“We must recognize that blacks are four times more likely than whites to get arrested for marijuana possession, even though the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana,” Sanders said in a press release. “Any serious criminal justice reform must include removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.”

“I am glad to see Baltimore will no longer prosecute marijuana possession and will move to vacate some convictions,” Sanders said after the city’s top prosecutor made that announcement in early 2019. “Thousands and thousands of people across the country have had their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use—and it’s disproportionately affecting people of color. It is time to decriminalize marijuana and end the failed war on drugs.”

“Where it becomes a racial issue, it turns out that whites and blacks utilized marijuana roughly equal,” Sanders said during an interview with rapper Killer Mike in 2015. “Four times as many blacks are arrested for possession as whites. It becomes a racial issue.”

“The reality is that both the African-American community and the white community do marijuana at about equal rates,” he emphasized at a debate in Wisconsin. “The reality is four times as many blacks get arrested for marijuana.”

3. It is an injustice that young people can have their lives upended by a non-violent cannabis conviction while Wall Street bankers avoid prosecution for financial crimes.

“If some kid in Iowa or Vermont today is picked up possessing marijuana, that kid will get a police record that will stay with him for the rest of his life,” Sanders said at a rally in Iowa in 2016. “But the executives on Wall Street who drove this country into the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, whose greed and illegal behavior resulted in millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes, their life savings, these executives who pay billions of dollars in settlement agreements with the government, not one of them has been prosecuted. Not one of them has a criminal record.”

“It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but oddly enough not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy,” he said during a speech before the National Urban League. “Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Before he got behind full marijuana legalization, Sanders’s position on drug policy has varied somewhat.

During a U.S. Senate run in 1971 as a candidate for Vermont’s Liberty Union Party, Sanders said that if he was elected, “All laws relating to prohibition of abortion, birth control, homosexual relations, and the use of drugs would be done away with,” The Washington Free Beacon reported.

“In a free society, individuals and not government have the right to decide what is best for their own lives, as long as their actions do not harm others,” he said during the same campaign.

When he was campaigning to be governor of Vermont in 1972, he seemed to embrace legalizing all drugs in an attempt to pushback against what he described as the “gradual erosion of freedoms and the sense of what freedom really means” under the administration of President Richard Nixon, writing that the government should “abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior.”

During the gubernatorial run, Sanders was quoted praising “the British system of hard drug treatment,” through which the government distributed heroin to people with a history of severe opioid addiction.

“I’m not saying drug use isn’t a definite problem, but making drugs illegal isn’t helping solve anything,” he said in 1971. “If heroin were legal, at least we’d know the dimensions of the problem, and be able to deal with it rationally.”

As states like Colorado began legalizing cannabis for adult use, Sanders said in interviews that he recognized that the issue was gaining popularity and pledged to study it closely. He voiced support for Vermont’s decriminalization policy and medical marijuana legalization generally.

Sanders also complained about how federal laws impede the effective implementation of state-level marijuana programs, stressing that cannabis businesses struggle to access banking services, for example.

“I think there are things that the federal government can do that would make it easier for states that want to go in that direction to be able to do so,” he said in 2015. “What the federal government can do is say to the state of Colorado that if you choose to vote to legalize marijuana, we will allow you to do that without restrictions.”

He also called for federal decriminalization as a response to the “continuation of millions of people over the decades getting police records because they were caught possessing marijuana.”

Sanders has criticized moves from the Justice Department under President Donald Trump to dismantle guidelines on federal marijuana enforcement priorities.

“No, Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions. Marijuana is not the same as heroin,” he said in a statement last year before Sessions rescinded the Cole memo. “No one who has seriously studied the issue believes that marijuana should be classified as a Schedule I drug beside killer drugs like heroin.”

“Quite the contrary. We should allow states the right to move toward the decriminalization of marijuana, not reverse the progress that has been made in recent years,” he said.

In 2018, Sanders said that “prohibition against alcohol did not work in the 1920s, and prohibition against marijuana and other drugs is not working today,” adding that the war on drugs “has to be rethought in a very, very fundamental way.”

He made a similar argument in a book he released in 2018.

“The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s was a failed policy,” Sanders wrote. “The prohibition of marijuana has also failed.”

Sanders appeared in a livestream video with Booker in April 2018 to announce his support for the Marijuana Justice Act.

“We are spending $80 billion locking people up,” Sanders said. “Think about what it would mean if we invested that money in our people instead of more jails.”

He also congratulated Canada when the country passed a law legalizing cannabis for adult use and said “it is long past time that we in the United States end the federal prohibition on marijuana.”

And he congratulated Seattle when the city’s judges decided to green light expungements for past marijuana possession convictions.

“We must decriminalize marijuana nationally and expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes,” he wrote.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

Sanders said that he smoked marijuana decades ago but that the plant “didn’t do much for me.”

“I smoked marijuana twice and all I did was cough my guts out, so it didn’t work for me,” he said at a rally in Las Vegas. “But I do understand other people have had different experiences.”

“My recollection is I nearly coughed my brains out, so it’s not my cup of tea,” he said in a radio interview.

That said, the senator has made a point of emphasizing that his efforts to reform marijuana laws is not meant “to encourage anybody to smoke marijuana.”

Marijuana Under A Sanders Presidency

As the first major presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization—and as someone who has introduced and cosponsored some of the most far-reaching cannabis bills in Congress—Sanders has already made marijuana history in his career. He signaled again in his announcement speech that addressing the harms of the drug war would be a priority if he’s elected, and part of that agenda would likely involve seriously considering legislation to end the federal prohibition of marijuana.

While most 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have backed legalization at this point, Sanders’s long-standing record of standing up for drug policy reform gives voters relatively strong assurance that marijuana legalization would be near the top of his priorities as president.

Where Presidential Candidate Amy Klobuchar Stands On Marijuana

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.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Federal Financial Regulatory Agency Head Says Marijuana Banking Among Most Challenging Issues

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The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) said this week that marijuana business banking represents one of the most “challenging issues that I have encountered” at the agency.

“At a federal level it is still an illegal substance. And at many state levels, it’s now legal, and it’s legal to frankly bank it at a state level,” Chair Jelena McWilliams said. “And so banks find themselves caught between the federal regulatory regime and the state.”

While Congress continues to debate legislation to resolve the conflict, McWilliams told Crain’s Detroit that in the interim, she tells banks there’s “so much uncertainty in this space that as a federal regulator, I still have to say, it’s illegal to bank marijuana. But to the extent that you’re doing it because it’s legal in your state, please follow FinCEN guidance.”

“We know we have banks that are banking marijuana businesses, and you know, we can’t bless them and say ‘go ahead and do it,'” she added. “But to the extent you’re doing it because it’s legal in your state, follow FinCEN guidance.”

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued guidance in 2014 for financial institutions that service cannabis businesses.

Advocates have been encouraged that the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act could still advance through Congress this year. The legislation, which would protest banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, cleared the House last year and now awaits action in the Senate Banking Committee.

Separately, the bill’s language was inserted into a House-passed coronavirus relief package last month. Its chief sponsor in the chamber, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), recently said he feels there’s a 50-50 chance the legislation will make it past the Senate.

Multiple Republican lawmakers criticized the inclusion of the marijuana banking language in the House package, arguing that it is not germane and is part of a Democratic wish list. However, its Senate sponsor, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), told Marijuana Moment he disagrees and feels the SAFE Banking Act should advance through the vehicle of COVID legislation.

Beyond the bipartisan support for the standalone bill in the House last year, a coalition of 34 state and territory attorneys general—including seven Republicans—are urging Congress to pass the coronavirus legislation with the banking language.

Congressional Bill Requires Legal Marijuana States To Consider Impaired Driving Policies

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Vermont Senate Votes To Double Amount Of Marijuana That Can Be Possessed And Grown Without Jail Time

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The Vermont Senate approved a bill on Thursday that would double the amount of marijuana that can be possessed and grown without the threat of jail time

The legislation also contains provisions for automatic expungements that stand to clear the records for thousands of misdemeanor cannabis convictions.

While the state legalized possession of up to one ounce and cultivation of two plants in 2018, possession of a second ounce or third or fourth plant is currently considered a misdemeanor.

The expungement bill, which cleared the chamber in a voice vote, was amended to add language making it so possessing up to two ounces or growing that third or fourth plant would be treated as a civil infraction punishable by a $100 fine and no jail time.

Possession of more than two ounces or four plants would be treated as a misdemeanor, and individuals convicted could go through a court diversion program.

The main component of the legislation as originally introduced, however, concerns expungements. Text of the bill states that the “court shall order the expungement of criminal history records of violations of 18 V.S.A. § 4230(a)(1) that occurred prior to July 1, 2020” and the “process for expunging these records shall be completed not later than July 1, 2021.”

“Upon entry of an expungement order, the order shall be legally effective immediately and the person whose record is expunged shall be treated in all respects as if he or she had never been arrested, convicted, or sentenced for the offense,” it continues. “The court shall issue an order to expunge all records and files related to the arrest, citation, investigation, charge, adjudication of guilt, criminal proceedings, and probation related to the sentence.”

Advocates say that thousands of Vermonters could see their records automatically cleared because of the revised possession language.

However, the bill must still advance through the House before going to the governor’s desk, and there may be logistical and procedural challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic.

This development comes as legislators and activists continue to push for the legalization of marijuana sales in the state.

Both the House and Senate approved legislation to create such a tax-and-regulate model for cannabis. A bicameral conference committee, which as been appointed to merge the differences between the chambers’ bills but has not met yet, is one of the last steps needed to allow for legal cannabis commerce. The Senate approved S. 54 with a veto-proof majority last year during the first half of the two-year legislative session. The House voted in favor of its version of the legislation in February.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) said last month that the legislature will reconsider the legislation to legalize marijuana sales later this year, though she feels lawmakers and the administration are appropriately focused on responding to the health crisis for now.

Gov. Phil Scott (R), who reluctantly signed the earlier noncommercial legalization bill into law, has voiced concerns with adding legal sales to the mix. In particular, he is worried about road safety issues. That said, top lawmakers and an administration official indicated earlier this year that the governor is “at the table” in discussions about the current legislation and would be open to using cannabis tax revenue to fund an after-school program he’s pushing.

New Mexico Marijuana Legalization Effort Gets Boost From Ouster Of Anti-Reform Senators

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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New Mexico Marijuana Legalization Effort Gets Boost From Ouster Of Anti-Reform Senators

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Several key New Mexico state senators who have helped to block marijuana legalization legislation are on their way out after Tuesday’s primary election.

The secretary of state has called at least major four races where progressive challengers in districts across the state have won their contests against conservative-leaning incumbents. The Senate president pro tem, Finance Committee chair and several other lawmakers who remain opposed to adult-use legalization were rejected by Democratic voters.

While marijuana reform wasn’t the only thing on voters’ minds, with other major issues such as reproductive rights being at issue in the election, cannabis legislation has been one area where candidates have been pressed during the course of their campaigns.

The results bode well for the prospects of enacting legalization within the next year—a policy supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D). In recent interviews, the candidates replacing the incumbents have broadly embraced comprehensive reform.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen (D) lost on Tuesday. The leader was asked in a recent survey about her views on cannabis reform and said that “[a]t this time I will not support the legalization of recreational marijuana in New Mexico” and simply committed to “look at all Legislation that comes before the Senate and evaluate it on its merits.”

She also voted against cannabis reform on several occasions, including for a proposed 2016 constitutional amendment to establish a legal marijuana market in the state.

Meanwhile, her challenger, Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Hamblen, said, “I support the legalization of recreational marijuana as it can provide much needed jobs, can be regulated, and communities can benefit from the taxation.”

“Plus, by legalizing it, we can stop criminalizing people of color and focus more on incarcerating those with legitimate crimes,” she said.

Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith (D) lost his race against retired special education teacher Neomi Martinez-Parra. Smith’s panel declined to act on a House-passed legalization bill last year, ending its prospects. He also voted against the 2016 measure on the floor.

“I do not support legalizing the use until the federal government steps to the plate,” he said recently. “I have over 600 Border Patrol stationed in my district and they will enforce the federal law.”

Martinez-Parra, meanwhile, said the state “needs to diversify its revenue” and legalization represents an opportunity to that end.

“We cannot rely on oil as the major source of revenue,” she said. “I support legalizing and taxing the sale of marijuana, as long as we have the right regulation in place to protect our children.”

Given the opening for Smith’s chairmanship, advocates say the prospects of enacting broader drug policy reform, even beyond marijuana legalization, will be significantly increased since he lost.

Another opponent to comprehensive cannabis reform, Sen. Clemente Sanchez (D), was also shown the door. The senator said that while he supports the state’s medical cannabis program, he felt “we need to ensure that the recreational sales do not hurt it and we are not there yet.”

“We need to make sure that law enforcement can test for impairment and we don’t have that yet. And most importantly we need to keep out of our youth,” he said.

During his time as chair of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, he made a floor motion to specifically request that a legalization bill be referred to his panel in order to kill it. He also voted against legal cannabis on the floor.

Pamela Cordova, a retired educator, beat the incumbent, and she has embraced comprehensive cannabis reform.

“I support legalizing recreational marijuana, with strong regulation and taxation,” she said. “I believe our limited law enforcement resources can be better spent addressing more serious criminal behavior. New Mexico will benefit from the millions of dollars in tax revenue to our general fund at a time we most need it.”

Sen. Richard Martinez (D) appears to have lost his race to Leo Jaramillo, though the secretary of state hasn’t called the race yet. The senator voted to kill a legalization bill in the Judiciary Committee this year, though his record also involves introducing legislation to establish safe injection facilities in the state and voting for the 2016 legalization measure. Even so, advocates say he’s become increasingly conservative in his votes.

Jaramillo, on the other hand, stated clearly that marijuana “should be legal for both medical and recreational purposes.”

“It will attract new industries to the state and trim New Mexico’s heavy economic independence on oil production,” he said. “The legalization of recreational cannabis will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The legalization of marijuana would be one step in a new direction.”

Sen. Gabe Ramos (D), who was appointed to the office last year, is out after losing to school psychologist Siah Correa Hemphill. He hasn’t cast a vote on legalization during his time in the seat, though advocates expected that he would align himself closer to the conservative faction of the party. When discussing the issue, he’s stressed that he would have to see the final product before making a decision, though he anticipated passage.

“I really want to see the actual bill before it gets on the floor,” he said in January. “I have a feeling that it’s going to pass, with restrictions.”

“We’ll have to look closely at those restrictions, what they’re going to be,” he added. “I know there’s a lot of concern from the legislators that I’ve talked to, but if we got a good bill with restrictions, I think it could pass. The proof will be in the pudding, he said, when it goes through the committees and then to the floor.”

Hemphill said “I support legalizing recreational marijuana in New Mexico as a way to free up law enforcement to address more pressing criminal activity.”

“With proper regulation and taxation, marijuana sales could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenue for schools, roads, and healthcare,” she said.

While Tuesday night’s election results generally favored cannabis reform advocates, there were a couple examples of opponents holding on to their seats.

Incumbent Sen. George Muñoz (D) defeated a progressive challenger, and he’s previously voted against legalization. Likewise, Judiciary Chair Joe Cervantes (D) won his reelection race. His panel voted to table a legalization bill during the short session at the beginning of the year.

During that hearing, the chair raised concerns with provisions around labor union influence on the marijuana industry and directing the state to subsidize medical cannabis purchases for low-income patients. He also took issue with the specifics of language allowing people with past drug convictions to obtain licenses.

Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico state director for Drug Policy Action, told Marijuana Moment that, overall, the election results mean that “New Mexico takes one step closer to legalizing cannabis.”

“As a result of last night’s primary, a handful of powerful Senate Democrats who supported the drug war status quo and blocked cannabis legalization year after year have lost their elections,” she said. “The Democratic candidates, if they win in November, are likely to vote in favor of cannabis and other drug policy reform measures.”

The vote “signals that New Mexico can become the next state to legalize cannabis for the right reasons: protecting consumers, keeping cannabis out of the hands of our children, putting medical cannabis patients first, reinvesting back into communities most harmed by prohibition and diversifying our economy.”

It remains to be seen whether legislators will again make an attempt to pass legalization legislation when they convene for a special session on June 18, but what’s clear is that voters sent a message by ousting these key senators: they’re ready for progressive change. When the new legislature is seated for the 2021 session, several Democratic opponents of legal cannabis will be gone, and they will likely have been replaced by supporters.

In December, a cannabis working group established by the governor released a poll showing overwhelming public support for cannabis legalization.

New York Senator Pushes To Legalize Marijuana As Part Of Criminal Justice Package Amid Protests

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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