Beto O’Rourke announced that he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination on March 14, 2019, and quickly signaled that marijuana reform would be a main feature of his campaign.
The former congressman, who dropped out of the race on November 1, has been a critic of the war on drugs for much of his political career, going back to his tenure on the El Paso City Council, and he’s spoken about the issue earlier and more often than many of his Democratic opponents.
This piece was last updated on November 5, 2019 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.
Legislation And Policy Actions
During his time in Congress, O’Rourke was the chief sponsor of one piece of drug reform legislation and cosponsored several others.
He introduced a bill that would have prohibited the federal government from withholding a state’s apportionment of federal funds for highway infrastructure if the state failed to enact and enforce laws requiring that individuals with drug convictions have their licenses revoked or suspended.
“Finding employment and earning legal income is crucial for people trying to stay out of the criminal justice system,” he said in a Medium post about the legislation. “Further, we know that license suspensions undermine recovery efforts for those with drug use problems and the formerly incarcerated.”
O’Rourke also cosponsored about two dozen drug reform bills focusing on federal cannabis and hemp laws.
He signed onto legislation to end marijuana prohibition and, on six occasions, to protect states that have legalized marijuana from federal intervention. He also cosponsored a bill that would automatically seal the criminal records of individuals convicted for non-violent federal marijuana offenses and another that would allow students to maintain their federal financial aid if they have a cannabis possession conviction.
“We stand a better chance of keeping kids from using marijuana if it is sold by regulated businesses instead of by teenagers on street corners and middle school playgrounds,” he wrote in a 2014 email to supporters, touting his cosponsorships. “Regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana would limit bloated black market profits from empowering murderous criminal enterprises that have grown too powerful in many U.S. neighborhoods and in neighboring Mexico.”
If we want to keep drugs away from kids, profits away from criminals, & focus on opioid epidemic & start saving lives, end the war on drugs.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) May 12, 2017
Other legislation that received O’Rourke’s cosponsorship included a broad bill to close the policy gap between federal and state marijuana laws, several others designed to expand research into medical cannabis, including for veterans, three to remove CBD from the list of federally banned substances and legislation to allow doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to recommend cannabis to veterans.
At a time when it's legal in 29 states, veterans in Texas have come up to me at our town hall meetings and said that while it is the only thing that eases their pain, they are treated as a criminal in our state for seeking it out.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) May 9, 2018
He’s also supported congressional efforts to legalize industrial hemp and provide banking access to state-legal marijuana businesses. The congressman cosponsored additional bills to allow cannabis businesses to take advantage of tax credits or deductions and also to require a federal study on the impact of state marijuana programs.
The congressman also voted in favor of House floor amendments to shield states with medical cannabis laws from federal enforcement in 2014 and 2015, and to extend that protection to any state with legal recreational cannabis or CBD medicines alone. O’Rourke voted for amendments to let VA doctors recommend medical cannabis three times, to protect states that have legalized industrial hemp four times and once to secure access to banks for marijuana businesses.
That was all during his six years in the House. But O’Rourke has a longer history of pushing for drug reform, including when he served as a member of the El Paso City Council.
In fact, it was O’Rourke’s bold stance on drug policy that helped launch his national political career, as The Intercept reported. As the drug war raged along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2009, the council member introduced an amendment that called for a conversation about legalizing marijuana and “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics.”
The measure passed 8-0, but then-Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX) pressured the mayor to veto it and told council members that the city would be at risk of losing federal funds in the veto was overridden. After an override vote narrowly failed, O’Rourke decided to primary Reyes for the congressional seat, ultimately defeating the incumbent in an upset that likely led many other politicians rethink their approach drug war politics.
O’Rourke’s surprise Democratic primary win came in spite of the fact that Reyes emphasized the challenger’s drug policy views in sensationalized attack ads.
Cruz also tried to use the resolution against O’Rourke during their 2018 Senate battle, characterizing his challenger as a supporter of legalizing “heroin and cocaine and fentanyl.”
On The Campaign Trail
Just hours into his campaign, O’Rourke spoke about cannabis reform at a coffee shop in Iowa, signaling that the issue would be front and center as he found his footing in an already crowded race.
Speaking to a crowd in Iowa, Beto O'Rourke says "we should end the federal prohibition on marijuana," adding that the people hurt most by marijuana prohibition "do not look like this room. They are browner and blacker than most of America." https://t.co/jVu5m4xu8R pic.twitter.com/2LJM3fQC36
— CNN (@CNN) March 14, 2019
He said the country “should end the federal prohibition on marijuana” and observed that those most impacted by prohibition “do not look like this room. They are browner and blacker than most of America.”
In September, the candidate released a detailed marijuana-focused plan that included using federal cannabis tax revenue to fund a “Drug War Justice Grant” program to give direct monthly payments to formerly incarcerated people.
I believe today what I believed then: We don’t only need to legalize marijuana. We also need to repair the damage done to communities of color that have been locked up in our criminal justice system, or locked out of opportunity, because of the War on Drugs.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 19, 2019
It would also promote equity in the cannabis industry by tying federal funds for states to requirements that licensing fees be waived for low-income people who have been convicted of cannabis offenses. Small marijuana businesses would be protected from predatory investors under the plan, and a majority of licenses would be awarded to companies owned by minorities and people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Those cannabis proposals were reiterated in a broader criminal justice reform plan the candidate published in October, which also pledged to end mandatory minimum sentencing, cash bail and private prisons—positions the candidate had previously taken elsewhere.
Let’s end cash bail, private prisons, and the war on drugs. Let's confront the true legacy of slavery, of segregation, suppression, of how people have been criminalized & kept down based on their race and ethnicity. Only that truth will allow us to begin to repair the damage done
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) March 30, 2019
If we believe in real justice reform in the face of the largest prison population on the face of the planet — one disproportionately comprised of people of color — let us not just end the prohibition of marijuana but expunge the record of those arrested solely for possession.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) March 30, 2019
That same month, O’Rourke released a substance use and addiction policy plan that called for broad decriminalization of drug possession, as well as the establishment of safe injection sites and other harm reduction measures to prevent overdoses.
Every day, more than 130 human beings overdose on opioids. 47,000 lose their lives to this epidemic every year. We need to be there for every victim of this crisis and hold accountable everyone who created it. Here’s our plan: https://t.co/XJ1wdhec5e
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) October 24, 2019
During a campaign stop in Nevada in April, O’Rourke seemed to recommend medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids to a woman who said it was becoming more difficult to obtain the prescription for pain management in the midst of the drug crisis.
An unexpected q for O’Rourke from a woman who says she can only stand with the aid of opioids but that it’s getting harder to obtain them because of the epidemic. O’Rourke seems to suggest marijuana as an alternative for opioids.
— Nick Riccardi (@NickRiccardi) April 27, 2019
The former congressman has repeatedly argued that pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic.
“We are busting people for possession of marijuana—putting them in jail, forcing them to check a box on every employment application after their lease, making it impossible to attend [universities] because they no longer qualify for federally backed student loans,” he said during a CNN town hall in May. “And yet no one from Purdue Pharma has spent a night in jail or paid any significant consequence. We gotta do better.”
Last night, we outlined 6 ways to reform the justice system:
1⃣End a war on drugs that has become a war on people
2⃣End the prohibition on marijuana
3⃣Expunge the records of those locked away for possessing it
4⃣Eliminate private prisons
5⃣End mandatory minimums
6⃣End cash bail pic.twitter.com/gsCYeI4mKf
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) May 22, 2019
While O’Rourke would later voice support for decriminalizing drugs beyond marijuana in the plan noted above, he sidestepped a question about the policy during the event.
At a Democratic presidential debate in October, the candidate said he agreed that decriminalizing opioids could mitigate the overdose crisis. He also talked about the importance of providing military veterans with access to cannabis.
Imagine if instead of prescribing our veterans opioids, we could prescribe them marijuana, because we made it legal in our country. Let's hold drug companies responsible for the opioid crisis—and end the war on drugs. pic.twitter.com/eJ1ypDnvL6
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) October 16, 2019
In an interview with ABC News, O’Rourke noted that he’s been in favor of “an end to the war on drugs and an end of the prohibition on marijuana years before any other major candidate did it.”
The former congressman’s longstanding support for drug policy reform was also featured in a campaign video released in September.
Since my time on the El Paso City Council, I've been advocating for legalizing marijuana. We will never erase the damage done by the War on Drugs—the lives lost, the years spent behind bars—but we can end the cruelty today and begin to right the wrongs of our past. pic.twitter.com/Ho5gO6kUJ5
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 21, 2019
“Since my time on the El Paso City Council, I’ve been advocating for legalizing marijuana,” he said in a tweet. “We will never erase the damage done by the War on Drugs—the lives lost, the years spent behind bars—but we can end the cruelty today and begin to right the wrongs of our past.”
O’Rourke said during a trip to the Southern border that the war on drugs and the deportation of convicted individuals has contributed to violence that has led people in South American to flee north for refuge.
“Whether it’s our war on drugs/or the fact that we have departed people out of our jails… and literally created the gangs that people are now fleeing. We have some culpability in this. But we also have the opportunity to make it right.” –@BetoORourke outside of the #Clint camp pic.twitter.com/gWrv4DSONd
— Andrew Kimmel (@andrewkimmel) June 30, 2019
“Too many fathers are unjustly away from their kids today because of a failed war on drugs waged disproportionately on communities of color, a cash bail system that punishes people for being poor, and a private prison industry funded by needlessly putting more people behind bars,” he wrote in June. “To permanently reshape the justice system, we must not just end the prohibition of marijuana and expunge the records of those arrested for possession but we must end cash bail, prisons for profit, mandatory minimums, & the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline. As president, I will.”
To permanently reshape the justice system, we must not just end the prohibition of marijuana and expunge the records of those arrested for possession but we must end cash bail, prisons for profit, mandatory minimums, & the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline. As president, I will.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) June 17, 2019
“Mass incarceration begins in kindergarten—when a child of color is more likely to be suspended or expelled,” the O’Rourke said in October. “We need to end the school-to-prison pipeline, end for-profit prisons, end cash bail, end the War on Drugs, and bring about transformative justice.”
Mass incarceration begins in kindergarten—when a child of color is more likely to be suspended or expelled.
We need to end the school-to-prison pipeline, end for-profit prisons, end cash bail, end the War on Drugs, and bring about transformative justice. pic.twitter.com/z44qHOGd3j
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) October 29, 2019
He also applauded a court ruling that ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the opioid crisis, writing that it’s “about damn time.”
About damn time. We can't accept living in a country where Americans are in jail for possessing marijuana—but not a single Pharma exec has spent even a night behind bars for the opioid crisis. The least they can do is pay up. https://t.co/dbWlTHdJBc
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 26, 2019
“We can’t accept living in a country where Americans are in jail for possessing marijuana—but not a single Pharma exec has spent a night behind bars for the opioid crisis,” he said. “The least they can do is pay up.”
During a campaign event in Los Angeles, O’Rourke met with advocates for social equity in the legal cannabis market and tweeted that legalizing marijuana “isn’t enough.”
“We also need to make sure those most impacted by the War on Drugs have a chance to benefit from his growing industry,” he said.
Part of that involves ensuring that “those most impacted by the war on drugs are the ones benefiting from the economic activity related to marijuana,” he added.
Legalizing marijuana isn't enough. We also need to make sure those most impacted by the War on Drugs have a chance to benefit from this growing industry. Thanks to everyone at Equity First Alliance and Cage-Free Cannabis in L.A. for sharing their stories with me today. pic.twitter.com/BJDjNLr4gg
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 18, 2019
O’Rourke also discussed restorative justice policies in a meeting with cannabis business owners in Oakland.
LIVE NOW: Beto at Cannabis, Equity, and Justice Roundtable https://t.co/58r0OrlpFn
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 19, 2019
“What is flower?” @BetoORourke asks this staffer at Blunts + Moore dispensary in East Oakland. The Democrat from Texas wants to legalize #marijuana and is proposing drug war justice grants for marijuana offenders. @nbcbayarea #Election2020 #BetoORourke pic.twitter.com/0UotDJlrDy
— Melissa Colorado (@melissacolorado) September 19, 2019
He said during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session that he will “end the war on drugs and treat it “not as a criminal justice challenge but as a public health opportunity.”
“People need help, treatment, support, long term recovery,” he said. “They don’t need to go to jail or be locked up in prison.”
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
O’Rourke has been ahead of the national drug reform conversation for some time, and his embrace of ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana has been frequently emphasized in speeches and social media posts.
It’s time to end the war on drugs. That starts by ending the federal prohibition on marijuana.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 21, 2018
About a year after O’Rourke’s resolution passed the council but was later vetoed, he told audience member at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference that the congressman threatening council members about the vote “was the best thing that could possibly happen to move the debate forward.”
That’s because “it drew so much attention and so much criticism and so much coverage nationally and internationally that it did much more than a unanimously passed resolution left on its own could have ever done,” he said.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoForCongress) February 22, 2012
O’Rourke became something of a face of bold drug policy reform, speaking at a Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference in 2010 and recalling his experience with the resolution.
But there was a moment, as he launched his challenge against Reyes, that he and his advisors considered softening his position.
Before his book, Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico, was published, members of his campaign committee worried about drawing too much attention to his views on marijuana. But O’Rourke was apparently convinced that doing so would make him just like any other politician, according to Politico, and he pushed ahead.
And by the time he got to Congress, there was no more questioning where he stood. He promised, shortly after taking office, that he would be “getting more involved” in the issue and that he’d “do so through the perspective of the community I represent.”
True to form, he signed onto a bipartisan letter in 2014 imploring President Barack Obama to deschedule marijuana.
“You said that you don’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, a fully legalized substance, and believe it to be less dangerous ‘in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. This is true. Marijuana, however, remains listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act at Schedule I, the strictest classification, along with heroin and LSD. This is a higher listing than cocaine and methamphetamine, Schedule II substances that you gave as examples of harder drugs. This makes no sense.”
In another letter, he and several colleagues proposed cutting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) funding for its cannabis eradication program. And O’Rourke joined lawmakers in a separate letter urging Obama to promote ending the global war on drugs at a United Nations meeting.
Veterans access to medical cannabis was a priority for O’Rourke, who not only cosponsored legislation to accomplish that but also circulated a petition on the question of expanding access to send a message to Congress.
“We’ve agreed that when these veterans come back and transition into civilian life that we’re going to be there for their medical needs whatever they are,” he said. “Right now we’re talking about making sure that in those states where marijuana is already legal, VA doctors are able to discuss marijuana as a possible treatment option.”
We've got to allow doctors to prescribe what's in the best interests of our veterans, including cannabis. The research is clear: we need to stop denying legal access to something that will significantly ease the pain many of our veterans are living with.https://t.co/LkkwUzznra
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) June 7, 2018
He sent out an email blast in 2014, fundraising on his drug reform platform.
“As a rational and humane country, we can decide, as we did with alcohol that the harms in the prohibition of marijuana far outweigh any gains in security and in our efforts to keep these drugs away from our fellow citizens,” he wrote.
And weeks before announcing his presidential bid, he sent out another email asking supporters to join him in the fight to legalize cannabis.
In an interview with Texas Monthly, O’Rourke stressed the need for federal legislation to end the war on drugs, and not just leave it up to states to legalize on an individual basis.
“Ending the prohibition on marijuana—not making it a state-by-state issue and hiding behind this baloney states’ rights defense, but instead making the tough but important decision to federally end the prohibition on marijuana—is gonna save lives, save billions of dollars, move us from a country that imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country on the face of the planet into one that sees more of those same citizens leading productive, taxpaying, constructive lives in communities all over our state.”
In an appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, O’Rourke reiterated his support for ending marijuana prohibition, saying the country has “the chance to do the right thing.”
“We have the world’s largest prison population bar none,” he said.
In his Senate run against Cruz where O’Rourke’s pro-reform agenda became a central feature of his candidacy. In his announcement speech, he said the country has “an opportunity to end this failed war on drugs.”
Our country has an incarceration rate higher than any other nation on the planet. This at a time when Jeff Sessions wants to double down on the failed war on drugs. Let's end it altogether. https://t.co/G9XTqrBL7b
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) March 15, 2018
“We have an opportunity, after more than half the states in this union have stopped locking people up for marijuana convictions—have filled our jails so that we imprison more of own people than any other country—and make sure that we help those who are struggling with addiction, with drug use, find a better way, a connection to the help and the care that they deserve,” he said.
In numerous interviews, and in road trip videos posted on his social media accounts, O’Rourke talked about the need to legalize marijuana. While he made sure to stress that he wasn’t endorsing its use, he has framed the issue as necessary to repair injustices within our criminal justice system.
We must urgently address imbalances in our criminal justice system. Start by ending mandatory minimums for minor drug offenses, ending the fed. prohibition on marijuana, ending cash bail, stopping the use of private prisons, and providing an environment that welcomes re-entry.
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) June 28, 2018
“[W]e are doing to almost ensures that marijuana’s going to be more available to them in middle school and certainly in high school than if it were controlled and regulated in its sale,” he said. “We have to reform our drug laws. We have to end the war on drugs.”
"We have to acknowledge that we have a war on drugs, that has become a war on people. We need to end that war, get those people out from behind bars, and raising families, and back in their place at home." – @BetoORourke #NAACPConvention
— Derrick Johnson (@DerrickNAACP) July 16, 2018
“Who’s going to be the last black man to be behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in the rest of the United States?” O’Rourke asked at a campaign stop. “We need to end the war on drugs that’s become a war on people.”
Speaking at a Baptist church, O’Rourke talked about racial disparities in marijuana enforcement amidst an outcry over the death of Botham Jean, a Texas man who was killed by a police officer who entered his apartment.
“How can it be in this day and age—in this very year, in this community—that a young man, African American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?” O’Rourke asked. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what is released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen? How can that be just in this country?”
“Let me ask you this: in a country where the majority of the states in the union have already decided to make marijuana legal in one form or another—where people in California and Colorado and the Northwest are getting filthy rich legally selling marijuana today—who is going to be the last African American boy or man to rot behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in almost every other single part of the country?”
Legalization quickly proved to be a winning issue among voters, O’Rourke told Roll Call.
“If I don’t bring it up in a meeting, it is brought up by a constituent,” he said. “I can be in a small town [or] big city, and it cuts across party lines.”
Throughout the race, though, Cruz attempted to cast O’Rourke as a radical who supports legalizing fentanyl at a time that the U.S. is grappling with an opioid crisis. After PolitiFact deemed that characterization “FALSE,” the senator called the organization a “liberal parody site.”
.@PolitiFact is a liberal parody site. When his Dem primary opponent said Beto “wants to legalize drugs” they said “half true.” When I said same thing, they say “false.” The text of the O’Rouke resolution calls for a “debate on ENDING THE PROHIBITION ON NARCOTICS.” ALL narcotics. https://t.co/4ceMUwGFJl
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 3, 2018
In an attack ad, Cruz said that O’Rourke’s comments on the drug war showed that he was “just too reckless for Texas.”
.@TedCruz also has a new TV ad contrasting his work on unemployment drug testing with @BetoORourke's 2009 comments about the war on drugs (Background: https://t.co/cLxvNdigIs). #txsen pic.twitter.com/leVOnazXaN
— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) August 3, 2018
“I don’t want to legalize narcotics,” O’Rourke said at a CNN town hall event. “I do think we should end the prohibition on marijuana and effectively control and regulate its sale and make sure those who need it for medicinal purposes are able to obtain it.”
"I don't want to legalize narcotics. I do think we should end the prohibition on Marijuana and effectively control and regulate its sale and make sure those who need it for medicinal purposes are able to obtain it," O'Rourke says #TexasTownHall https://t.co/29rQpKYtsa pic.twitter.com/sh8F9CBlAc
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) October 18, 2018
The two candidates clashed on marijuana and drug policy at a debate.
“I want to end the war on drugs and specifically want to end the prohibition on marijuana,” O’Rourke said. “What I do want to ensure is that where, in this country, most states have decided that marijuana will legal at some form—for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes or at a minimum be decriminalized—that we don’t have another veteran in this state, prescribed an opioid because the doctor at the VA would rather prescribe medicinal marijuana but is prohibited by law from doing that.”
Cruz’s campaign attacks didn’t seem to intimidate O’Rourke. He even played alongside legendary musician and cannabis enthusiast Willie Nelson, strumming and singing to the song “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” at a concert in the midst of the campaign.
In an op-ed for The Houston Chronicle, O’Rourke again called for the end of the drug war, which he said “has long been a war on people, waged on some people over other people.”
“Who is going to be the last man—more likely than not a black man—to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in more than half of the states in this country? We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to their full potential and to the greatness of this country.”
The candidate has also supported decriminalizing marijuana possession in his home state of Texas and expunging criminal records for prior cannabis possession convictions.
“Not only must we end the prohibition on marijuana, we must expunge the arrest records of those who arrested solely for the possession of something,” he said.
O’Rourke’s embrace of ending the drug war also extends globally, according to a list of action items he proposed as part of his immigration platform.
“End the global war on drugs,” he wrote. “An imprisonment- and interdiction-first approach has not worked, has accelerated the erosion of civil society in much of Latin America and has militarized a public health issue to the detriment of all concerned.”
After then Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama era guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities last year, O’Rourke posted a video calling the decision a “terrible policy for our state and our country” that “sends us backwards.”
He also discussed cannabis reform during a roundtable discussion with other pro-reform lawmakers.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
“Like many people in this country, I’ve used marijuana,” he said during a campaign stop in September 2019. “Like many white people in this country, I was never stopped or frisked or arrested or put behind bars or had to check a box on every employment application form saying that I had a conviction because that never happened to me.”
While shaping his "End the War on Drugs" Plan @BetoORourke held a round table in LA & spoke to local activists. Part of the plan ensures "those most impacted by the War on Drugs are the ones benefiting from the economic activity related to marijuana." VIDEO of Beto on this issue pic.twitter.com/ewMnbQMMkM
— Tim Perry (@tperry518) September 19, 2019
“It wasn’t my experience. Disproportionately that experience has fallen to people of color in this country,” he said.
During his time in New York City, O’Rourke said he was around people who occasionally smoked cannabis and admitted that he was one of those people.
“Pot, yeah, there was definitely, you know,” he told The New York Times. “There was, uh, I don’t know how to put this, but yeah. People smoked pot, but not habitually.”
And beyond marijuana, O’Rourke revealed that in the 1980s he used the handle “Psychedelic Warlord” to post as a member of an online hacking group. That said, he did say in response to a voter’s question that he has never tried LSD.
Marijuana Under An O’Rourke Presidency
O’Rourke stands out among many of the current Democratic presidential candidates as someone who has long challenged prohibitionist drug policies and floated bold reform ideas before marijuana legalization entered the political mainstream. His track record and talking points are consistent, and he reiterated his call for ending cannabis prohibition within hours of announcing his candidacy. Therefore it is likely that he would to some extent prioritize federal marijuana and drug policy reform if elected president.
Mississippi Lawmakers Float Special Session To Restore Medical Marijuana Following Supreme Court Ruling
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.
We've received numerous questions regarding the recent Supreme Court decision and the next steps for Mississippi's citizen-driven initiative process. Here are my thoughts: pic.twitter.com/1U47omY17g
— Michael Watson (@MichaelWatsonMS) May 17, 2021
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.
Minnesota Lawmakers Approve Smokable Medical Marijuana As Broader Legalization Stalls
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.
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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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill
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.”
I've signed SB 46 pertaining to medical marijuana. I would like to thank Sen. Tim Melson & Rep. Mike Ball for their hard work over the last few years & their commitment to continue to work on this to ensure we have a productive, safe & responsible operation in AL. #alpolitics pic.twitter.com/2IUBZVEKpI
— Governor Kay Ivey (@GovernorKayIvey) May 17, 2021
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. The majority of the medical community agrees. The Alabama House should pass this important bill before the session ends. https://t.co/LRjOK6ji3d
— Will Ainsworth (@willainsworthAL) May 1, 2021
“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.
Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.