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.
South Dakota Lawmakers Form Cannabis Caucus To Address Marijuana Legalization Issues
The Senate majority leader said enacting a regulatory framework for legal cannabis will probably require more than one session of work.
By By: Nick Lowrey, South Dakota News Watch
Entrepreneurs across South Dakota are already taking steps to claim a share of the state’s soon-to-be-legal marijuana market, but legislators and regulators are off to a slow start in crafting laws and rules to govern the controversial new industry.
The sale, possession and use of recreational and medicinal marijuana are set to become legal in South Dakota for the first time on July 1. But when the 2021 South Dakota legislative session started on January 12, only one bill regarding marijuana had been filed.
A group of 15 Republican lawmakers have formed what they call a “Cannabis Caucus” to address marijuana issues this session. But leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties say discussions on preparing for legalization and regulation of the business of marijuana sales, possession and use—one of the top matters facing the 2021 Legislature—have barely begun.
One high-ranking Senate leader said enacting a regulatory framework for legal marijuana will probably require more than one session of work and will likely spill into the 2022 session or require a special session to complete.
“Not everything will be done at the end of this session,” said Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack, R-Union Center. “I know there has been talk about the need for a special session.”
Marijuana entrepreneurs, however, are not waiting for the Legislature to act. Many have been working for months to get businesses ready for the July 1 legalization date. The South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office handled 907 more new business filings during the last three months of 2020 than it had during the same period of 2019, many of them related to legal weed.
Exactly how many new business filings are related to marijuana is unknown, as the secretary of state’s office does not require new businesses to indicate a purpose or sales plan, said Jason Luntz, deputy secretary of state.
But as of January 11, a search of public business filings on the secretary of state’s website found more than 40 businesses with the words “cannabis,” “marijuana,” “pot” or “dispensary” in their names. Most of those businesses organized as limited liability companies or registered their business names after voters approved marijuana legalization on November 3, 2020.
Even as a court challenge of the legalization of recreational marijuana remains unresolved, experts say the state needs to move quickly to establish clear rules for growing and selling marijuana commercially. The state will need to license and regulate sales outlets, set up tax collections, define penalties for selling marijuana to minors and make laws related to the marijuana black market, said Kittrick Jeffries, a former marijuana industry compliance officer and founder of a new Rapid City-based cannabis consulting firm called Dakota Cannabis Consulting.
“I think South Dakota has a great opportunity here…but there are some really key things that need to be done before July,” Jeffries said.
If lawmakers and state regulators do not have the framework of a commercial market in place before marijuana becomes legal on July 1, anyone who wants to use cannabis after that date would be pushed to buy from the black market, which could expand and compete with legal, tax-paying retailers, Jeffries said.
Black market competition could weaken South Dakota’s legal marijuana market, leaving local businesses more vulnerable to interstate competition should the federal government choose to legalize marijuana, Jeffries said.
A few legislators have been considering marijuana regulation in the early days of the 2021 session. Rep. Mike Derby, R-Rapid City, is playing a lead role in forming what he calls the “Cannabis Caucus.” Derby said the group’s goal is mostly to share information and help educate other lawmakers as opposed to offering legislation or coordinating votes. Members plan to meet for the first time on January 21 to review bill drafts, Derby said.
One of the big issues Derby plans to work on is providing clarity for local governments. Dozens of marijuana businesses are already preparing to begin commercial marijuana growing operations or are preparing to open retail sales outlets in South Dakota. Municipal governments will need guidance on how to safely zone for often large, indoor marijuana farms needed to supply wholesale and retail outlets, Derby said.
“At the end of the day, we want to respect the will of the people,” Derby said. “We have an opportunity to look at what other states have passed, learn from their best practices, learn from their mistakes and maybe create a better process.”
Rep. Mary Fitzgerald, R-St. Onge, has called for legislation that would make using marijuana in a vehicle and driving while high illegal. South Dakota does not have laws banning marijuana use in vehicles or driving while high because any use or possession of marijuana is still illegal. As of January 13, Fitzgerald had not filed any legislation regarding marijuana use.
The only bill regarding marijuana legalization that had been filed by January 13 came from the Department of Revenue. Senate Bill 35 asks the Legislature to give the department $4 million to cover the costs of regulating the marijuana industry until tax revenue starts coming in. The bill also asks lawmakers to give the state Department of Health about $135,000 to help cover the cost of regulating medical marijuana.
Any recreational marijuana bills that legislators pass could be negated by a lawsuit seeking to declare the recreational marijuana vote result as unconstitutional. Backed by Gov. Kristi Noem (R), the lawsuit was filed by Highway Patrol Superintendent Rick Miller and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, who argue that the constitutional amendment passed by voters, known as Amendment A, should not have been on the November 3 ballot and is unconstitutional because it was too broad.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for January 27 in Hughes County circuit court, but no trial date has been set. The circuit court’s final ruling and any subsequent appeals to the state Supreme Court likely won’t be settled until well after the 2021 legislative session ends.
Ian Fury, a spokesman for Gov. Noem, said the governor is in discussion with lawmakers about marijuana legalization but has not engaged in filing or pushing any specific legislation so far. “Many legislators have an interest in this topic and we want to give them the opportunity to convey their thoughts and ideas on behalf of their constituents,” Fury wrote in an email to News Watch.
Some lawmakers question whether the Legislature should be involved in regulating recreational marijuana at all.
“My interpretation of Amendment A is that it doesn’t allow the Legislature to do anything,” said Sen. Arthur Rusch, R-Vermillion, vice-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Amendment A did not provide a regulatory framework for the industrial production or commercial sale of large amounts of cannabis. Instead, the amendment requires the state Department of Revenue to devise licensing and regulatory mechanisms that allow for the sale of recreational marijuana by April 1, 2022. Rusch said he believes Amendment A gave full authority over recreational marijuana regulation to the Department of Revenue.
“That’s one of the reasons I believe [Amendment A] is unconstitutional,” Rusch said.
Still, legislative leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties acknowledged that a clear majority of South Dakota voters wanted to see marijuana legalized and that the Legislature is obligated to implement legalization measures.
“Our feet are set in concrete. Until the courts rule or voters overturn it in another election, it is our job to move forward with legalization,” Cammack said.
Cuomo’s New York Marijuana Legalization Plan Draws Mixed Reviews From Advocates
After much anticipation, the full text of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) marijuana legalization proposal was released late Tuesday night as part of his budget request for 2021.
So far, the measure has been met with mixed reviews from advocates and stakeholders. While many feel encouraged that the groundwork seems to have been laid for a legal cannabis market, some are taking issue with provisions related to equity and regulatory control, as well as a continued prohibition on home cultivation. The proposal also lacks license categories for delivery services and on-site consumption.
The governor has released various details about his legalization plan in recent weeks, but this is the first time that the specific legislative language is available. Cuomo has twice attempted to enact the policy change through previous budgets, only for the idea to stall amid disagreements over details with lawmakers. This time around, the administration and legislators seem confident reform will advance, especially in light of legalization being enacted in neighboring New Jersey.
But based on feedback from advocates, it appears that there will still be significant efforts to amend the governor’s proposal as it is considered by the legislature.
Here are some of the main features of Cuomo’s legislation:
-There would be no home grow option for medical cannabis patients or recreational consumers. The governor’s budget proposal last year did include the option for patients but excluded the adult-use market—a decision that prompted controversy, especially after it was revealed that major marijuana companies urged the governor to continue criminalizing home cultivation.
-Cuomo and his budget director on Tuesday touted a new provision allocating $100 million in cannabis tax revenue to grants for communities most impacted by prohibition over four years. But advocates say that amount is far too little, which may create conflict when the bill heads to the legislature, where leaders have emphasized the need to aid people from communities harmed by the drug war.
-When it comes to local control, individual municipalities with populations of 100,000 or more will have the option to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. The way the legislation is written, if a county decides to opt out, it wouldn’t apply to any cities within its jurisdiction that also have a population of 100,000 or more unless they proactively chose to enact their own ban. They have until the end of 2021 to opt out.
-The bill does not create licenses for delivery services or for on-site consumption at dispensaries, but does allow regulators to create additional license types, which leaves the door open for those categories to potentially come online in the future. It also provides for the issuance of caterer’s permit, which would allow the “service of cannabis products at a function, occasion or event in a hotel, restaurant, club, ballroom or other premises” where marijuana could “lawfully be sold or served” during certain hours.
-The proposal generally disallows vertical integration for adult-use cannabis businesses, preventing them from having ownership over everything from production to sales. However, existing medical cannabis organizations may be able to submit applications for recreational licenses and stay vertically integrated.
-Advocates are also pushing back against the concentration of power that would be given to an individual executive director of the proposed new Office of Cannabis Management, which would be responsible for regulating the marijuana and hemp markets.
-The governor is calling for three types of taxes on recreational cannabis products: one based on THC content to be applied at the wholesale level, a 10.25 percent surcharge tax at the point of purchase by consumers and applicable state and local sales taxes.
Activists expect that this proposal will serve as a starting point for negotiations with legislators, several of whom may well push for a greater emphasis on social equity in legalization legislation.
“It is encouraging that Governor Cuomo has now acknowledged the need to devote resources to social equity and community reinvestment in his plan to legalize adult use cannabis, but it is disappointing that his proposal, as stated, devotes only a fraction of the funding that is needed in these program areas,” Melissa Moore, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release.
“We, along with our community and legislative allies, have long said that legalization needs to be done right if it is to be done right now—that means centering communities that have borne the brunt of racist enforcement for far too long. Governor Cuomo has listened to the calls to include social equity in his legalization platform. But to the communities that have been brutalized by the immoral war on drugs for so long, the current proposal does not go even remotely far enough. We will not give up on getting this done right.”
Cuomo has recognized the need to enact the reform to promote racial justice and social equity, but he’s also repeatedly emphasized the economic opportunity that legalization represents, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The administration is projecting that the state will take in $350 million annually in marijuana tax revenue once the program is up and running. Eventually, $50 million a year will go to social equity grants to promote participation in the industry by disadvantaged people.
A memo on budget revenue states that the proposal “would establish a robust social and economic equity program” that will involve “providing technical assistance, training, loans and mentoring to qualified social and economic equity applicants.”
Under the proposal, regulations for the state’s industrial hemp program seem as though they would go largely unchanged compared to the rules that took effect this year.
Unlike past sessions, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If the governor were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
To that end, New York’s legal cannabis market could end up looking more like what’s outlined in a bill introduced by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 cosponsors at the beginning of this month. The legislation would make it so adults 21 and older would be able to purchase cannabis and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
It would also provide for automatic expungements for those with prior cannabis convictions and it also includes low- or zero-interest loans for qualifying equity applicants who wish to start marijuana businesses.
An 18 percent tax would be imposed on cannabis sales. After covering the costs of implementation, revenue from those taxes would go toward three areas: 25 percent for the state lottery fund, so long as it’s designated for the Department of Education; 25 percent for a drug treatment and public education fund and 50 percent for a community grants reinvestment fund.
In any case, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance in 2021, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.
Virginia Senate Marijuana Committee Approves Amendments To Legalization Bill
A Virginia Senate subcommittee focused on marijuana policy met for a second time on Wednesday, agreeing to a set of amendments to a cannabis legalization bill that are expected to be formally adopted by a full committee on Friday.
The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Marijuana Subcommittee initially discussed the legislation a day earlier, on Tuesday, taking public testimony and debating issues such as which agency should regulate the legal cannabis program and whether local jurisdictions should have to opt in or out to allow marijuana businesses to operate.
At the most recent meeting, members reached several agreements on amendments in concept that will be taken up by the full panel. They also moved to refer the revised legislation to the Judiciary Committee and then the Finance Committee before it advances to the Senate floor.
The bill at hand was unveiled by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) last week and is being carried by top Senate and House leaders.
It would create a system of regulated and taxed marijuana sales and production, and allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use, two of which could be mature.
One of the decisions the subcommittee made was to recommend that an independent agency be responsible for regulating the marijuana program, rather than the state’s existing alcohol control department as would be the case under the governor’s bill as introduced. That also means that the timeline for sales implementation would have to be pushed back to 2024 instead of 2023 to provide time to stand up a new regulatory body.
“The committee feels that an independent agency is the right solution,” Chairman Jeremey McPike (D) said, adding that “this line of business is much different than the current work of” the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.
The recommendation also calls for quarterly updates on the progress of regulatory implementation. If those show significant progress, legal sales could potentially come earlier than 2024.
The panel also narrowly agreed that the home cultivation option for adults should remain in the bill.
In terms of local control, members said that they would prefer for municipalities to have to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses in their areas if they didn’t want them, instead of being required to proactively opt in as is written in the current legislation. That recommendation comes in response to a recent policy change in Virginia that no longer allows for “dry” counties and instead requires jurisdictions to opt out of allowing alcohol businesses via referendum.
There was also some discussion about social equity licensing policy, with the panel urging a tightening of eligibility requirements. While the current bill says a business must have 50 percent ownership by disadvantaged people, the panel recommended upping that to 66 percent, for example.
The subcommittee talked about co-location issues and advised that there should be language added that allows overlap in recreational marijuana, medical cannabis and hemp production and sales. The current proposal could effectively restrict companies to just one or another form of cannabis.
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Brad Copenhaver, who testified on behalf of the Northam administration, said they “don’t see any issues as long as the products are kept separate, especially on a cultivation facility.”
“We don’t see any issues with that,” he said, “as long as the products themselves can be separately labeled and identified” and “as long as we can track and trace that.”
Members agreed to the overall set of amendments in concept in a 4-3 vote.
Next, the bill will get a full Rehabilitation Committee vote on Friday, where members will formally consider the subcommittee’s amendments. Judiciary will get the legislation next and, in its jurisdiction, will likely take on provisions related to crimes and penalties. After that, Finance will look at components such as the proposed tax policy.
Meanwhile, a companion bill in the House of Delegates is expected to be introduced soon and will be considered by the chamber’s Courts of Justice Committee on Friday.
The legislation’s provisions as introduced have been informed by two official state studies on legalization that were recently conducted by a legislative commission and a separate working group comprised of four Virginia cabinet secretaries and other officials, both of which looked at how to effectively implement legalization and submitted recommendations to the governor’s office late last year.
Those studies were required under a marijuana decriminalization bill that was approved last year.
Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into the new legislation, including provisions to promote social equity in the cannabis market. Notably, it would also apportion almost half of the tax revenue the state collects from marijuana sales to funding pre-kindergarten education—a policy championed by First Lady Pamela Northam.
A new 21 percent tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, and local jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses to operate could levy an additional three percent tax. Existing state sales taxes would also apply on purchases, for a total potential 30 percent tax rate.
Revenue from the new state tax would go toward funding pre-k education (40 percent), a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund (30 percent), substance misuse and treatment programs (25 percent) and public health initiatives (five percent).
This introduction of the bill comes one month after the governor included provisions to lay the groundwork for cannabis legalization in a budget proposal that also calls for millions of dollars to support expungements. Northam had campaigned on merely decriminalizing possession, but he publicly backed broader legalization of marijuana for adult use in November.
Northam said during his State of the Commonwealth address last week that cannabis prohibition was deliberately enacted as a means to discriminate against people of color.
Separate legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use was filed by Del. Steve Heretick (D) earlier this month. A companion version of that bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Morrisey (D), was also up for consideration by the Senate panel on Tuesday, but he asked that it be “rolled in” to the governor’s proposal and that he be added as a chief sponsor. That request was approved by members.
Meanwhile, legislation to stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is set to take effect after lawmakers adopted recommended changes from the governor in October.
Also during the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.