Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced on February 9, 2019 that she was running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and she suspended her campaign on March 5, 2020.
While Warren is widely known as an advocate for consumer protections and Wall Street regulation, she’s also developed a reputation as a champion for modernizing marijuana laws. As such, she has an A grade from NORML.
That wasn’t always the case, as the senator was previously somewhat dismissive of cannabis reform attitudes, and declined to endorse her home state of Massachusetts’s legalization ballot measure ahead of Election Day 2016—but her position quickly evolved as public opinion on the issue shifted demonstrably in favor of reform, particularly among Democratic primary voters.
This piece was last updated on March 6, 2020 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race. It will continue to be updated on a rolling basis.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Warren is the lead sponsor of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which she filed in partnership with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in April 2019 as well as an earlier version in June 2018. The legislation would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from federal interference and is also aimed at addresses banking access issues for the cannabis industry.
The senator has co-sponsored several other major pieces of cannabis reform legislation. That includes two wide-ranging bills from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): the CARERS Act, which was designed to protect medical marijuana patients from federal enforcement efforts and stimulate research into the plant, and the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove marijuana from the CSA and direct federal courts to expunge the criminal records of those previously convicted of a cannabis-related offense. The latter bill also goes beyond the regular “states’ rights” mantra long expressed by reformers on Capitol Hill by actually withholding funding from states that maintain discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws.
A more recent bill from House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) that would deschedule cannabis and reinvest in communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition also received her cosponsorship.
During the 115th Congress, she cosponsored legislation to encourage the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans.
In 2019, Warren signed onto stronger legislation that would require VA to study medical cannabis.
She also teamed up with Gardner in December 2019 to introduce bills aimed at protecting military veterans and immigrants from being punished for working at state-legal cannabis businesses.
“Veterans have sacrificed so much for us,” she said of the legislation. “But our outdated federal marijuana laws prevent vets who work in their state’s legal cannabis industry from getting a VA-backed home loan to realize the dream of homeownership. I have a bipartisan bill for that.”
Veterans have sacrificed so much for us. But our outdated federal marijuana laws prevent vets who work in their state’s legal cannabis industry from getting a VA-backed home loan to realize the dream of homeownership. I have a bipartisan bill for that. https://t.co/2NJt0PIMvS
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) December 19, 2019
Warren has not had the opportunity to vote on any marijuana bills or amendments during her time in the Senate.
The senator led a letter directed to the DEA in December 2019, demanding an update on the agency’s efforts to increase the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers for research purposes. The letter also inquired about the prospects of rescheduling the plant.
In March 2017, Warren signed a letter expressing concern about remarks from then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who hinted at a federal crackdown on legal cannabis states. The letter encouraged the Justice Department to allow states to operate legal cannabis systems without fear of federal intervention.
In November 2017, the senator wrote a letter to Trump’s then-nominee to head up the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar. In the letter, she said the administration should consider legalizing cannabis as a means to combat the opioid epidemic, citing research indicating the legal states experience lower rates of opioid overdoses compared to non-legal states.
And in January 2018, she sent a letter with a bipartisan coalition co-signers imploring Trump to direct former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reinstate the Cole memo, an Obama-era document providing guidance on federal marijuana enforcement. Doing so would “create a pathway to more comprehensive marijuana policy that respects state interests and prerogatives,” the lawmakers wrote.
On The Campaign Trail
In February, 2020, Warren released a detailed marijuana-focused plan that includes promises to begin the federal cannabis legalization within 100 days of taking office, involve communities harmed by the drug war in the marijuana industry, respect other nations’s drug laws and allow Washington, D.C. to enact legal sales.
Warren’s earlier criminal justice reform plan, which was released in August 2019, calls for the legalization of cannabis and safe injection facilities where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
She has pledged to deschedule cannabis through executive action if elected.
The candidate released a plan for veterans in November 2019 that emphasizes her support for “legislation to study the use of medical cannabis to treat veterans as an alternative to opioids, because we need to pursue all evidence-based opportunities for treatment and response.”
She also issued a plan for Native Americans that calls for tribal marijuana programs to be protected against federal intervention, and later cited her cannabis reform work in a lengthy letter responding to ongoing criticism from tribal members about how she has characterized her own heritage.
During a Democratic debate in February, she said that rival candidate Pete Buttigieg did not adequately explain racial disparities in marijuana arrests that took place during his time as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“You have to own up to the facts. And it’s important to own up to the facts about how race has totally permeated our criminal justice system,” she said. “We need to rework our criminal justice system from the front end on what we make illegal all the way through the system and how we help people come back into the community.”
At a campaign stop in Iowa in March, 2019, Warren said that “it’s just time to legalize [marijuana] nationally.”
FULL AUDIO: Senator Elizabeth Warren gives her response to my question to her on marijuana in a press gaggle in Waterloo, IA on March 2, 2019 pic.twitter.com/4l1hKJg4aZ
— Kyle Mazza (@KyleMazzaWUNF) March 2, 2019
After President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison for bank and tax fraud, Warren compared it to a case of a homeless man receiving a life sentence over $20 worth of cannabis.
Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, commits bank and tax fraud and gets 47 months. A homeless man, Fate Winslow, helped sell $20 of pot and got life in prison. The words above the Supreme Court say "Equal Justice Under Law"—when will we start acting like it?
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) March 8, 2019
“The words above the Supreme Court say ‘Equal Justice Under Law’—when will we start acting like it?” she wrote.
Warren criticized a budget proposal from Trump that would revoke current protections for state medical cannabis laws.
The President’s new budget would end @TheJusticeDept’s policy not to interfere in states’ marijuana laws. Just more proof that federal marijuana policies are broken & outdated. I support legalization – & @SenCoryGardner & I have a bipartisan bill to end the federal marijuana ban. pic.twitter.com/5EP9zAtsHt
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 15, 2020
Warren touted endorsements for her STATES Act from the governors of Massachusetts, California and other states, writing that her legislation is “long overdue.”
Our federal marijuana laws perpetuate our broken criminal justice system, impede research, restrict veterans' access & hinder economic development. Marijuana should be legalized, & I’ll work with anyone – GOP, Dem, Independent, Libertarian, vegetarian – to push for these reforms.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) June 6, 2019
“Our federal marijuana laws perpetuate our broken criminal justice system, impede research, restrict veterans’ access & hinder economic development,” Warren said. “Marijuana should be legalized, & I’ll work with anyone – GOP, Dem, Independent, Libertarian, vegetarian – to push for these reforms.”
“Let’s be clear: Our government criminalizes too many things and sends too many people to jail,” she said in November, including marijuana legalization in a list of policies she’ll push for.
Let’s be clear: Our government criminalizes too many things and sends too many people to jail. In a Warren administration, we will:
☑️ Repeal the 1994 Crime Bill
☑️ Legalize marijuana
☑️ Undo the legacy of the War on Drugs
☑️ End cash bail and private prisons
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) November 24, 2019
Warren discussed racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement at a CNN town hall event in April and took a question from a voter who challenged her on the fact that she hasn’t always supported cannabis reform.
Right now in this country, Black Americans are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than white Americans. That’s not right. We need to legalize marijuana—and I have a bipartisan bill would end the federal ban on marijuana. #WarrenTownHall
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) April 23, 2019
“I supported Massachusetts changing its laws on marijuana,” she said, setting aside the fact that she did not actually endorse several cannabis measures her state’s voters approved over the years. “Massachusetts had decriminalized at that point and I thought it made a lot more sense for Massachusetts to go ahead and legalize marijuana, and I now support the legalization of marijuana.”
In December 2019, a top aide on Warren’s campaign told Marijuana Moment that a claim being circulated that her team rejected a job applicant over a cannabis offense was false.
Ahead of a National Cannabis Industry Association conference in Boston in January 2020, Warren sent a letter welcoming the group to her home state.
The full letter.
"Our federal cannabis laws are outdated, and it is time to reverse the history of failed cannabis policies that have harmed communities and threatened our nation's public health and safety." – @SenWarren pic.twitter.com/GsjxWGhoXo
— National Cannabis Industry Association (@NCIAorg) January 17, 2020
The senator told America Quarterly that Latin American countries legalizing marijuana or other drugs would not undermine U.S. interests
“The ‘War on Drugs’ has criminalized addiction, destabilized the region, and failed to significantly curb violent effects of the drug trade. It has not made us safer,” she said. “I support the legalization of marijuana. It’s time for a new approach that emphasizes evidence-based treatment while reducing and preventing criminal violence.”
The senator contributed an essay for a publication on criminal justice issues that touches on broader reforms she wants to enact.
“We should legalize marijuana and wipe clean the records of those who have been unjustly jailed for minor marijuana crimes; end private prisons and the proﬁt incentives that pervert the goal of our justice system; provide more help for people struggling with domestic abuse, substance use disorders, and mental illness; and end the practice of branding the formerly incarcerated with a scarlet letter that closes doors to education, employment, and opportunity,” she wrote.
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
The federal government needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana. States should make their own decisions about enforcing marijuana laws.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) April 20, 2018
“Outdated federal marijuana laws have perpetuated our broken criminal justice system, created barriers to research, and hindered economic development,” Warren said in a press release when filing the STATES Act. “States like Massachusetts have put a lot of work into implementing common sense marijuana regulations – and they have the right to enforce their own marijuana policies. The federal government needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana.”
No one should go to jail for a joint. But more Americans are arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined. And black Americans are nearly 4x more likely to be arrested for it than whites. My new bill will help put an end to this two-tiered justice system.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) June 7, 2018
“Forcing legitimate marijuana businesses to operate a cash-only business is dangerous,” she said in a press release about cannabis banking legislation. “It creates unnecessary public safety issues for communities and business owners. The SAFE Banking Act is a common sense bill that would advance state efforts to regulate the sale of marijuana and support businesses working to establish reliable business operations.”
“Another option to tackle the opioid crisis is to invest in more research on alternative pain therapies, including physical therapy and new drugs that don’t have abuse potential,” Warren said during a 2016 hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “Medical marijuana might also be a viable alternative, but the truth is we just don’t know,” she said, noting the barriers to research that exist due to federal prohibition.
Medical marijuana might be a viable alternative to opioids for pain treatment, but truthfully, there's a lot we just don't know.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 25, 2016
I'll keep pushing our federal agencies to reschedule marijuana as part of crafting a rational research & public health strategy.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) August 11, 2016
When @realdonaldtrump ran for president he said marijuana policies should be left up to states. He should stick to his word and let states implement their own regulations – upending them only creates confusion, and puts our public health & safety at risk. https://t.co/pFNvbWzdr2
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 25, 2018
Yesterday, marijuana became available for legal purchase in Massachusetts. There’s been so much progress at the state level. Now it’s time to end the federal ban on marijuana. I have a bipartisan plan to do that: https://t.co/fckXEKrTNp
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) November 21, 2018
“The best studies suggest that African Americans and whites use marijuana at the same rates, but African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested for [it] than whites,” she said during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire. How about we legalize marijuana and get rid of all those cases?”
In another campaign stop Warren said she “voted in favor of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts” and that she believes “we should legalize it nationally.”
Warren’s 2018 Senate reelection website included a marijuana petition as a list-building tactic.
“Our current marijuana policies are unjust and they don’t make sense. That’s why I’m fighting for reform,” it says. “Add your name to join the fight.”
Her current presidential campaign website highlights her work on marijuana in a few places.
One page meant to push back against the idea that she is “too partisan to get things done” touts her “bipartisan bill to end the federal ban on marijuana – allowing states, territories, and tribes to set their own policies on legalization, decriminalization, and medical marijuana.”
“There’s a lot more to do to reform our marijuana laws, but letting states make their own choices would be a powerfully important start – and it’s something Democrats and Republicans agree on,” the site says.
Another page addressing issues related to her heritage and criticisms of how she has framed it cites Warren’s legislation as a way to “ensure that our country’s cannabis policies don’t leave Indian Country behind.”
“For many Native tribes, cannabis represents an important opportunity for economic development, and for some it has cultural or medicinal importance,” the site says. “Elizabeth introduced the STATES Act with Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner to safeguard the ability of states, territories, and tribes to decide how to enforce their own marijuana policies. The STATES Act – and especially its important tribal provisions – has received strong support from Indian Country.”
Another page says that “it’s not equal justice when a kid with an ounce of pot can get thrown in jail while a bank executive who launders money for a drug cartel can get a bonus.”
“We need criminal justice reform and we need it now,” the site says. “That means ending racial disparities in our justice system. It means banning private prisons. It means embracing community policing and demilitarizing our local police forces. It means comprehensive sentencing reform and rewriting our laws to decriminalize marijuana.”
The senator hasn’t always been receptive to broad reform:
In 2003, Warren suggested that the profits in tax revenue from legal marijuana could be outweighed by the consequences, writing in a book that “drug addiction, health problems, traffic accidents, and so forth” represent the “downside of marijuana.”
The candidate tried to use the pro-legalization stance of former Massachusetts Rep. Dan Winslow (R) against him as he sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2013. She said, “I advise everyone to pay very close attention to Dan Winslow’s platform. He has a 100 percent ranking from the gun lobby and he’s for the legalization of marijuana. He wants us armed and stoned.”
In 2011, Warren voiced opposition to marijuana legalization for recreational purposes, stating that medical cannabis “is one thing,” but she’s not “generally” supportive of broader reform.
— Tommy X-TrumpIsARacist-opher (@tommyxtopher) December 27, 2019
She also angered some cannabis reform advocates by staying on the sidelines of Massachusetts’s 2016 legalization ballot campaign, coming only so close as to say she “would be open to the possibility of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts” prior to Election Day.
But that didn’t stop her from later falsely stating that she actually endorsed the measure.
“Yes, I did,” she said earlier this year. “Oh, I did.”
While the senator later clarified that she voted in favor of the measure in the privacy of the voting booth, that explanation fell far short of what Bay State advocates were hoping to see from their progressive senator.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Warren said in a 2018 interview that she has never smoked marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Warren Presidency
Warren’s evolution on cannabis issues over the past two years has transformed her into one of Congress’s leading advocates for ending federal prohibition, a stance she would be expected to take with her into the Oval Office if she’s elected.
Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Virginia Lawmakers Send Marijuana Legalization Bill To Governor’s Desk Just Hours Before Deadline
Virginia lawmakers approved a bill to legalize marijuana with just hours left before the deadline to get legislation to the governor this session.
The Senate and House of Delegates approved differing reform proposals earlier this month, and negotiators have since been working to reconcile the bills in conference committee—a contentious process that at times appeared as if it would end without a deal.
But on Saturday, lawmakers agreed to the bicameral compromise plan.
The Senate voted 20-19 to approve the conference committee report on its bill as well as the identical version for the House legislation. The House voted to approve the conference report on its bill, 48-43, with two abstentions. When considering the Senate version, the House voted 47-44, with one abstention.
“It’s been a lot of work to get here,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the legislation, said prior to the Senate vote. “But I would say that we’re on the path to an equitable law allowing for responsible adults to use cannabis.”
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D), the chief sponsor of the her chamber’s legalization bill, said that “racial justice is about more than addressing penalties for simple possession.”
“It is about reformative justice that provides equitable and social economic opportunity for individuals and communities which have been harmed by disproportionate policing and prosecution of cannabis,” she said. “Legalizing cannabis does not end systematic racism but it does remove one of the tools used in advancing systematic racism.”
The compromise legislation now goes to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who supports ending cannabis prohibition.
Among the most pressing issues for lawmakers to negotiate in recent weeks was the timeline for crafting regulations for the cannabis market. The Senate has pushed for a reenactment clause to be included which would extend the process into next session, whereas the House side wanted to complete legislative work during the current session, arguing that enough research has already been done to effectively decide the issue. But Senate negotiators won out, meaning that the legislature will revisit cannabis regulations and post-legalization penalty structures next session.
Another major area of contention dealt with how the state would approach cannabis possession in the time between the bill’s signing and implementation of legal sales going into effect. Under both versions, the adult-use market wouldn’t launch until January 1, 2024 to give the state time to establish a regulatory agency to oversee the program. While the Senate had wanted to make the legalization of simple possession and home cultivation take effect starting on July 1 of this year, negotiators ultimately agreed to delay it to coincide with commercialization in 2024.
In the meantime, under the deal, a new Virginia Cannabis Control Authority will begin work this July to lay the ground for a legal marijuana industry.
Here are some of the other major provisions that were resolved in conference:
Referendum—The Senate version of the bill would have asked voters to weigh in on legalization through a nonbinding referendum on this November’s ballot. But the issue became increasingly contentious in recent days and conference negotiators decided to drop the idea.
Local control—Whereas the Senate measure called for individual cities to be able to ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area, the House version did not include an opt-out provision. Conferees decided to allow municipalities to elect to ban cannabis commercialization, but they must do so by December 31, 2022.
Penalties for youth—Under the House bill, minors caught possessing cannabis would be subject to a $25 fine with a referral to substance misuse treatment. The Senate, meanwhile, proposed a $250 fine for youth possession for the first offense and then criminal charges and even jail time for subsequent convictions. The agreed-upon final legislation would continue the current approach of treating youth possession as a delinquency, subject to a civil penalty of up to $25, but add a mandatory substance misuse treatment or education program or both. There would be no interaction with courts for such youths. For people between the ages of 18 and 20, the conference deal would continue the existing $25 fee that exists under the state’s decriminalization law and add that they may be ordered to enter a treatment or education program or both.
Social equity—Both versions of the legislation called for licensing priorities for social equity businesses, but there were differences in how each chamber defined what constitutes a social equity applicant. The final legislation defines an equity business as one that has at least 66 percent ownership by people who have been convicted of misdemeanor marijuana offenses (or have family members with such convictions) or people who live in a geographic area that is economically distressed or has a disproportionate rate of cannabis policing. People who graduated from a historically black college or university located in the state would also qualify. Also, beginning on July 1, the state would establish Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund and a Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund.
Vertical integration—The House’s measure would ban vertical integration, a process that would allow a single company could control aspects of growing, processing and selling marijuana products. The Senate, meanwhile, wanted to allow vertical integration only if a cannabis business paid a $1 million fee into a state equity fund. Under the final legislation, vertical integration will be generally limited but will allow existing medical cannabis and hemp businesses to partially vertically integrate. Micro-businesses will also be able to vertically integrate.
In general under the legislation, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use. It also allows people to petition for suspended or modified sentences for marijuana convictions and establishes criteria for sealing past records.
The bill would set a cannabis excise tax of 21 percent and allow localities to add an additional 3 percent tax on top of the state’s existing 6 percent retail sales tax. Revenue would partly fund pre-K education programs for at-risk youth and would support the new equity funds as well as addiction prevention and treatment services and public health initiatives.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
The proposal would create a new cannabis-focused state agency to regulate the legal market as opposed to having it fall under the existing alcoholic beverage authority as was the case under the governor’s original plan.
Post-legalization penalties set to go into effect in 2024, which are subject to renewal by the legislature next session, would include a $25 fine for possessing between one ounce and one pound in public. For public consumption, there would be a civil penalty of no more than $25 for first offense. A second offense would come with a $25 civil penalty and an order to enter a substance misuse treatment or education program, or both. Third or subsequent offenses would constitute a Class 4 misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time. Meanwhile, bringing marijuana across state lines would be a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Now that the final bill is headed to Northam’s desk, the governor will have the opportunity to suggest amendments to lawmakers, who can then adopt the suggestions as is or change or reject them, at which point the bill would go back to the governor for final action.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, said the bill’s passage “is another historic step for cannabis justice” that will “replace the failed policy of cannabis prohibition with one that promotes Virginia’s economy as well as Virginians’ public health and safety.”
“This effort remains a work in progress and our efforts in Virginia are far from over,” Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said. “NORML is dedicated to continuing our work with lawmakers and regulators to advance legislative reforms that are most closely aligned with the views of the majority of Virginians who desire a safe, legal cannabis market. In particular, we hope to expedite the timeline with which Virginia adults will no longer face either criminal or civil penalties for the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis.”
Matt Simon, senior legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said it’s “exciting that Virginia is on track to end cannabis prohibition and replace it with sensible regulation.”
“Lawmakers in other states are already taking notice and seeking to learn from Virginia’s example,” he said.
Earlier on Saturday, the ACLU of Virginia and other groups had urged lawmakers to defeat the final proposal prior to the release of its actual text, saying that the provisions as described in media reports showed it to be a “symbolic marijuana legalization bill made behind closed doors that does not advance the cause of equal justice and racial justice.”
BREAKING: We, @thcjusticenow, @RISEforYouth, and @JusticeFwdVa urged Virginia lawmakers to vote no on a symbolic marijuana legalization bill made behind closed doors that does not advance the cause of equal justice and racial justice in Virginia. https://t.co/kS47X9qK7g
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) February 27, 2021
The Virginia NAACP argued that the bill, based on press accounts, “includes Systemically Racist probable cause provisions” and pledged that its members “will not stand by while Jim Crow’s sister Jane tries to creep her way into Virginia law.”
We will not stand by while Jim Crow’s sister Jane tries to creep her way into Virginia law.”
— Virginia NAACP (@NAACPVirginia) February 27, 2021
But after the bill’s text came out, NAACP issued an updated statement saying that while the final legislation “is not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction.”
The Virginia NAACP will not rest until full equity and restorative justice is achieved.”
— Virginia NAACP (@NAACPVirginia) February 28, 2021
The ACLU, for its part, maintained its opposition, saying that lawmakers “failed to legalize marijuana for racial justice” and “paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist War on Drugs with legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice.”
The new changes, which would not legalize simple possession until 2024, do nothing to break the chains of marijuana prohibition.
It would delay & deny justice to all those whose lives have been upended & who are still being harassed by police on the streets every day.
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) February 28, 2021
All of this legislative action comes a little over a month after Northam and top lawmakers initially unveiled their legalization proposal.
The cannabis legislation’s structure was informed by separate studies conducted by a legislative research body and a working group made up of state cabinet officials.
Support for legalizing marijuana is strong in Virginia, according to a poll released this month. It found that a majority of adults in the Commonwealth (68 percent) favor adult-use legalization, and that includes most Republicans (51 percent).
The legislature has also taken up a number of other more modest cannabis reform proposals this session.
Bills to allow medical patients to access whole-flower cannabis in addition to oils, facilitate automatic expungements for certain marijuana convictions, protect employment rights of medical cannabis patients and allow those in hospice and nursing facilities to access medical marijuana have also advanced this session.
Virginia lawmakers passed separate legislation last year that decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, replacing existing penalties with a $25 civil fine and no threat of jail time. The law took effect last July.
Read a summary of the provisions of the Virginia marijuana legalization conference report below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Mexico House Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill, With Senate Action Imminent
The New Mexico House of Representatives on Friday approved a bill to legalize marijuana in the state, one day ahead of a scheduled Senate committee hearing on that chamber’s separate proposals to end cannabis prohibition.
The legislation that cleared the House—which would allow adults 21 and older to possess “at least” two ounces of cannabis and grow up to six mature and six immature plants for personal use—recently sailed through two committees before moving to the floor, where it was approved in a 39-31 vote.
The measure is favored by reform advocates because—unlike other House and Senate reform measures that have been introduced this session—it would prioritize using tax revenue from marijuana sales to support reinvestments in communities most impacted by the war on drugs. It also stands out for including provisions to automatically expunge prior cannabis convictions.
Meanwhile, the Senate Tax, Business & Transportation Committee will take up three separate legalization bills on Saturday.
Rep. Javier Martinez (D) introduced the House legislation, which would establish a system of regulated marijuana sales. It would require rules for the market to be implemented by January 2022.
“As I dove into this work years ago, I realized that, to me, legalizing recreational cannabis is not about the money,” Martinez said on the floor prior to the vote. “It’s a great revenue source for the state, but that’s not why I’m doing it.”
“Legalizing adult use of cannabis is probably going to be good for tourism. Legalizing is probably going to be good in terms of creating jobs and a new homegrown industry,” he said. “But really when you get to the core of why I’m doing this and why I’ve worked on this for so long, it’s because I have seen the faces of the people who have most been impacted by this terrible and unwinnable war on drugs. It’s one that we cannot win.”
The Taxation & Revenue Committee approved a substitute version of the measure on Wednesday that includes a number of changes, including moving the start of legal sales back to January 1, 2022 from October 1 of this year. That would apply to existing medical cannabis dispensaries and microbusinesses, with sales for other retailers set to start September 2022.
Language was also removed in committee that earmarked tax revenue for a community reinvestment fund and a low-income patient subsidy program. The fund accounts will still be created, but it would be up to lawmakers to steer money to them in future sessions once cannabis revenue starts coming in.
Other modifications include language on regulatory authority for the cannabis market, allowing health and safety inspections of businesses, addressing workplace and employment issues, replacing fines and fees for youth who violate the law with a civil infraction penalty, stipulating that people can petition for resentencing for offenses made legal and adjusting the state excise tax on marijuana from nine percent to eight percent while giving local jurisdictions the option to levy an additional four percent tax.
On the floor on Friday, members additionally accepted a technical amendment to add back in a section of the bill that had been inadvertently deleted by committee staff.
Rep. Randal Crowder (R) offered an amendment to allow local jurisdictions to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses. But after it was pointed out to him that its broad language would have unintentionally impacted medical cannabis operations as well as recreational ones, he withdrew it. A second, revised version, was more narrowly drafted to focus only on adult-use operations, but it was blocked by a successful motion to table it.
“Cannabis legalization in New Mexico is one step closer to the finish line,” Emily Kaltenbach, senior director of resident States and New Mexico for the Drug Policy Alliance, said after the vote. “After tonight’s debate, we’re even more optimistic that this bill has a path to the governor’s desk.”
She argued that the House bill is superior to the three measures the Senate panel will take on Saturday.
“Given HB 12 puts the lives of New Mexicans ahead of solely business interests, it is critical it be the vehicle for legalization as the issue moves forward,” she said. “HB 12 legalizes cannabis in an equitable way that begins to repair the harms that have disproportionately impacted Hispanic/Latinx, Black, Native and Indigenous people in New Mexico. New Mexicans are absolutely ready to see marijuana legalization become a reality in the state, but they have made it clear that repairing the damage done by the drug war is non-negotiable.”
For her part, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has repeatedly talked about the need to legalize as a means to boost the economy, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. She said during a State of the State address last month that “a crisis like the one we’ve experienced last year can be viewed as a loss or as an invitation to rethink the status quo—to be ambitious and creative and bold.”
The governor also included cannabis legalization as part of her 2021 legislative agenda that she released last month and said in a recent interview that she’s “still really optimistic about cannabis” this session.
That optimism is bolstered by the fact that several anti-legalization Democrats, including the Senate president pro tem and the Finance Committee chair, were ousted by progressive primary challengers last year.
Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year is coming from neighboring Arizona, where voters approved legalization in November and where sales officially launched earlier this month.
New Mexico shares another border with Colorado, one of the first states to legalize for adult use. Cannabis is also expected to be legalized across the southern border in Mexico, with lawmakers facing a Supreme Court mandate to end prohibition by April.
Earlier, in 2019, the House approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but it died in the Senate. Later that year, Lujan Grisham created a working group to study cannabis legalization and issue recommendations.
Polling indicates that voters are ready for the policy change. A survey released in October found that a strong majority of New Mexico residents are in favor of legalization with social equity provisions in place, and about half support decriminalizing drug possession more broadly.
Last May, the governor signaled that she was considering actively campaigning against lawmakers who blocked her legalization bill in 2020. She also said that she’s open to letting voters decide on the policy change via a ballot referendum if lawmakers can’t send a legalization bill to her desk.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Connecticut Marijuana Hearing Shows Governor’s Legalization Bill Likely To Be Amended After Equity Pushback
Connecticut lawmakers took a full day’s worth of public testimony on Friday about Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) plan to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults. The legislation has drawn harsh criticism from social equity advocates since its unveiling earlier this month as part of the governor’s budget, and the bill’s supporters said at Friday’s hearing that they’re open to making changes to address those concerns.
“This is not a final bill,” Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, told equity advocates during his testimony to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “We want to sit at the table. We want you at the table.”
Before Friday’s official legislative hearing, a group of reform advocates critical of the governor’s proposal held a press conference to bring attention to what they say are shortcomings of the bill’s licensing, equity and criminal justice provisions. Among them, they argue the governor’s plan, SB 888, would give an overwhelming advantage to businesses in the state’s existing medical marijuana system by allowing them early control of the legal adult-use industry. That would likely make it hard for smaller applicants or Black and brown people trying to enter the new market as business owners rather than as employees.
One speaker at the press conference, Rep. Anne Hughes (D), said she would be willing to vote against the governor’s bill if it doesn’t end up including a stronger emphasis on equity.
“If we put equity applicants at the back of the line,” Hughes said, “I don’t think we can ever repair that. I don’t think we can catch up.”
Critics of the governor’s plan have drawn attention to a separate legalization bill, HB 6377, which includes additional equity measures, such as early registration for equity license applicants and funding for low-interest business loans.
Supporters of the governor’s bill struck a conciliatory tone at Friday’s hearing, denying that the two proposals are in conflict. “These bills aren’t competing,” said Jonathan Harris, a senior advisor to the governor. “They’re actually complementary.”
Jason Ortiz, a drug policy advocate and president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association who served as chair of the governor’s cannabis licensing working group last year, has been critical of Lamont’s proposal, arguing that the administration effectively ignored his suggestions for how to build an equitable industry. In a Facebook post on Thursday, he said the governor’s legalization plan “creates a white only market for an indefinite period of time.”
At Friday morning’s press conference, Ortiz said equity advocates would be happy to help strengthen Lamont’s proposal.
“We were available months ago and we’re available now. The governor just needs to pick up his phone and call Reps. [Robyn] Porter and her colleagues,” he told Marijuana Moment after the event, referring to backers of the separate legalization bill, HB 6377.
State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D), meanwhile, has said the cannabis legalization bills need to be “pulled apart and put back together,” according to The Connecticut Examiner, adding that there’s still “a lot of work to be done.”
“We need to be start taking all of these different ideas and putting them together,” House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) told the Examiner, “so we can have an actual bill to rally the votes behind.
For her part, Porter, who chairs the Labor Committee, said during Friday’s hearing that she’s confident that HB 6377’s provisions will be considered in an eventual compromise bill.
As introduced by Lamont in his budget proposal earlier this month, SB 888 would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and purchase products from licensed stores, which would be scheduled to open in May 2022.
Homegrow would be forbidden under the plan, and some but not all marijuana-related convictions from before October 2015 would be automatically expunged. Fiscal estimates project the market could make the state more than $33 million in revenue in fiscal year 2023, growing to $97 million by 2026. Beginning in 2024, half of all state excise tax would be earmarked for municipal aid and equity spending.
Ortiz—whose criticisms were acknowledged by Lamont advisor Harris at Friday’s hearing—identified a number of criminal justices areas of the bill he said were “lacking” during his testimony to the panel, noting that SB 888 does not decriminalize home cultivation or expunge an array of cannabis convictions, including for possession of more than for ounces of cannabis.
“At the core of equity is decarceration, getting folks out of prison; decriminalization, making sure we’re not putting more people in prison; and expungement, making sure the records of whatever interaction they have don’t follow them,” he said. “SB 888 acknowledges the need for all of those, but then doesn’t actually do it in policy.”
Fascinating to watch what's unfolding in Connecticut between the cannabis bill that represents equity (HB 6377) and the cannabis bill that represents a whole lot of lip service and nothing else (SB 888, hearing now). Follow @therealcurect to stay updated and show support. https://t.co/UB6AxrC8wv
— Shaleen Title (@shaleentitle) February 26, 2021
Friday’s hearing—the first to consider the governor’s legalization proposal—drew extensive written and oral testimony. Among those who submitted statements ahead of the hearing were a number of state officials expressing their support for legalization, which is expected to bring tens of millions of dollars in state revenue.
“S.B. 888 will help create jobs, foster an emerging and growing industry in our state, and help support the state and local tax base—all areas that are critical as our state emerges from the pandemic,” wrote David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development and a senior economic advisor to the governor.
Officials also said the policy change would align Connecticut with other nearby states, ensure limits on advertising and products designed to appeal to children, protect the rights of employers to prohibit cannabis use and support social justice.
“Legalizing cannabis means taking meaningful strides to address our state’s criminalization of cannabis to date and the disproportionate impact this has had on communities of color,” said Marc Pelka, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management.
Commissioner of Consumer Protection Michelle Seagull and others noted that nearby sources of legal, regulated cannabis are increasingly available to state residents. “Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont already have some form of a market for adult-use cannabis,” she wrote, “bills were just signed into law by New Jersey’s Governor, and New York and Rhode Island are poised to legalize adult-use this year. We cannot ignore or avoid this fact.”
That was a sentiment echoed by Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella, who pointed out that surrounding states are enacting legalization and that “cannabis is already among us and law enforcement is dealing with it and expending resources on it.”
Department of Banking Commissioner Jorge L. Perez similarly said the governor’s proposal “recognizes that the trend nationally and in nearby states is to legalize the adult use of recreational cannabis” and that it regulates marijuana in way that “prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon said she appreciates that the bill “protects public health by providing adult access to safe products and preventing advertising and retail locations that would appeal to children.”
Others who submitted testimony in support include Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Mark D. Boughton, Department of Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby and Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Sibongile Magubane.
Some in law enforcement and health care submitted testimony against the legalization plan.
“The rush towards legalization of recreational marijuana ignores how profit-driven corporations hooked generations of Americans on cigarettes and opioids, killing millions and straining public resources,” said the Connecticut State Medical Society. “Connecticut has an obligation to protect the health and welfare of its citizens and rushing to legalize a potentially unsafe drug abdicates this responsibility.”
The state Police Chiefs Association, meanwhile, said it opposes the bill primarily because no qualified roadside test exists to detect cannabis-impaired driving. “While the presence of a police officer trained in Advanced Roadside Impairment Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) or the presence of a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) may potentially assist in the evaluation of a motorist,” the group said, “there is presently no legal device in which to test such operators. The DRE evaluation mentioned in this [bill] is a process which occurs after the arrest is made.”
The governor’s own written testimony ahead of Friday’s hearing underscored the drug war’s failure. “The war on cannabis did little to protect public health and safety, and instead caused significant injustices for many residents, especially people in black and brown communities,” Lamont wrote.
“One thing on which most of us agree is that social equity must be included in any adult-use market we create. While there is significant consensus around that goal, there are many different approaches as to how to best accomplish it,” he added. “This hearing is the continuation of this critical conversation.”
Despite disagreement over policy details, many expect legalization to happen Connecticut’s near future. Ritter, the speaker, said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.”
Should this year’s effort fail, Ritter said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. A poll released last year found that nearly two-thirds of voters (63.4 percent) either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported recreational legalization.
Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor