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Why Did Pro-Legalization Lawmakers Vote To Ban People With Drug Convictions From Employment?

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Drug policy reform advocates are wondering why several of their most trusted allies in Congress voted last week to bar people with controlled substances convictions from being able to land certain jobs.

An amendment that broadly prohibits child care providers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from employing individuals with felony drug convictions and other criminal records passed with a strong bipartisan vote of 401-19 on support on the House floor last week. And that includes yes votes from several lawmakers who are especially supportive of marijuana legalization and broader drug law reform efforts.

The amendment to the Veterans’ Access to Child Care Act stipulates that VA child care facilities “may not provide child care…if the center, agency, or provider employs an individual who has been convicted of a sex crime, an offense involving a child victim, a violent crime, a drug felony, or other offense the Secretary determines appropriate.” (Italicized emphasis added.)

The ban also applies to non-VA facilities that participate in the VA child care program.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a leading proponent of marijuana legalization, voted for the amendment. So did Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who called for federal cannabis descheduling after the House passed a bipartisan sentencing reform bill he helped lead efforts to pass. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), now co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, voted “aye,” as well.

Other pro-legalization members who voted for the amendment include Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

As shown by the text above, the amendment in question also bans people with convictions for violent crimes, sex offenses and crimes involving children from working at a VA child care facility, so it’s possible that some lawmakers felt pressured not to vote against those restrictions. But beside the felony drug conviction ban, the amendment also gives the VA secretary discretion to exclude people for any crime he deems relevant—an entirely open-ended category that criminal justice reform advocates strongly oppose.

“I thought we were beyond this type of gotcha vote garbage,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “These bans do nothing to improve safety, and only serve to demonize people—mostly people of color—who already struggle to gain employment and reintegrate into society.”

“House Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for using their new majority to promote Willie Horton politics.”

The proposal seemed to reveal fissures in the Democratic party’s attitude toward drug policy and reentry, with several newly elected members voting against the amendment.

Freshmen congresswomen including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) all opposed the amendment, as did Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who serves as a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Another standout “no” vote was cast by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee who indicated recently that he will use his position to bring cannabis legislation to votes.

A handful of Republicans also opposed the measure.

“Only 19 of us, Republicans and Democrats, think a 65-year-old grandma shouldn’t be prohibited from working an office job at a Veterans Affairs child care facility simply because she had a marijuana conviction at age 18,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) wrote on Friday.

While there’s a growing recognition in Congress that the drug war is a policy failure that has caused long-term harm, particularly to marginalized communities, people with drug convictions continue to be targeted in exclusionary legislation.

A recent example of that comes from the 2018 Farm Bill, which included a provision federally legalizing hemp but at the same time bars people with felony drug convictions from participating in the industry for a period of 10 years. Earlier versions of the bill made that ban indefinite, but drug reform advocates fought for and won a compromise in the final legislation.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), who introduced the VA child care amendment, said in a press release that the legislation “means less stress for our veterans who would need to otherwise arrange for childcare to make an appointment.”

Veterans “have also told me that this bill will help veterans make and attend appointments because they wouldn’t have to worry about arranging childcare,” she said. “This acknowledges both the needs of our veterans and creates a support network for them.”

But that’s not how criminal justice reform advocates see it.

“There’s all of this wonderful rhetoric about how there’s bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform and the need to give people second chances, but when they pass overwhelmingly these restrictions on employment or benefits, it’s a continuing policy approach of being ‘tough on crime’ and banishing people permanently because of their record,” Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at the Sentencing Project, told Marijuana Moment.

“It’s very tiresome and it’s completely counterintuitive to what we know about how to successfully reintegrate people into communities after a conviction and helping them get back on their feet,” she said. “Making these blanket bans doesn’t do that.”

Representatives for Blumenauer, Jeffries and Gabbard did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Congressional Committee Could Take Up Marijuana Reform ‘Fairly Soon,’ Chairman Says

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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

Politics

Cory Booker Endorses Bill To Legalize Marijuana In New Jersey

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Efforts to legalize marijuana in New Jersey received a high-profile endorsement on Friday, with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) voicing support for the bill in a statement.

The senator, who is a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and also sponsored congressional legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition, is the latest in a growing list of political leaders who’ve advocated for the bill, which was approved by state Senate and Assembly committees earlier this week and is expected to receive floor votes in both chambers on Monday.

“New Jersey is the first state in the country to couple decriminalizing marijuana with strong criminal justice reform measures to redress the decades of immense harm inflicted by an unfair system,” Booker said. “All too often, communities of color and low-income individuals are unjustly impacted by our broken drug policies, but by including measures to expunge records and reinvest in the communities most impacted, our state has the opportunity to lead in prioritizing social justice.”

The bill’s focus on social equity provisions has been critical in shoring up support as the legislature gets closer to a vote. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has been putting out calls to advocates and lawmakers to get the legislation advanced, which would fulfill a campaign promise of his.

“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”

It’s been a complicated process to form a coalition united around passing legalization in New Jersey. Disagreements between the governor and lawmakers about certain aspects of the bill such as tax rates and regulatory structures were finally resolved earlier this month when a compromise was reached. And amendments to expand expungement provisions gave the mayors of the state’s two largest cities proper assurance to back the legislation.

That said, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (D) and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (D) continue to push for automatic expungements, as opposed to virtual expungements. Murphy said that automatic expungements is not a feasible policy.

“Now more than ever, we must work together,” the mayors said in a statement on Friday. “Again, we stand in unison in support of this legislation that could potentially become New Jersey’s law. We should aim to become a model state from which other states can clearly follow. We should address these issues in a manner that protects our communities and the people that live here.”

On Thursday, the governor’s office also released a list of quotes from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders voicing support for the legalization legislation.

“If we have learned anything at all, it is that the status quo has been disproportionately unfair to minority communities,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said. “This bill is a step in the right direction to correct that inequality.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) agreed, saying the legalization bill will “advance social justice, legal justice and economic justice in meaningful ways.”

“This is an opportunity for continued progress as we strive for a society that respects the rights of everyone,” he said.

Whether the legislation will be approved is yet to be seen. NJ.com is keeping track of where lawmakers currently stand on the bill, and as of Friday afternoon their online whip count shows that a majority in the Senate plan to vote against it, while votes allocated so far in the Assembly are roughly even.

New Jersey Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill

Photo courtesy of Jamelle Bouie.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Connecticut Lawmakers Hold Two Simultaneous Hearings On Marijuana Legalization Bills

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Two Connecticut committees held hearings on bills to legalize marijuana and expand the state’s medical cannabis program on Friday.

The proposed legislation would permit adults 21 and older to possess, purchase and consume certain amounts of marijuana for personal use. The House bill also includes a number of social equity provisions that are meant to encourage people from communities that were disproportionately impacted by prohibition to participate in the legal industry.

While reform advocates generally support the bills, they’ve also made a series of recommendation to increase the focus on restorative justice and to include policies such as allowing home cultivation.

In the legislature’s General Law Committee, witnesses including a commissioner for the state’s medical cannabis program and social equity advocates testified about HB 7371. That bill would establish a governor-appointed commission to regulate the industry, give licensing priority to individuals from communities most impacted by the drug war and require the commission to conduct a study on permitting a home grow option and microbusinesses.

“The time has come to move this forward. We think this is a fantastic start [and] there is definitely some amazing language in here,” Jason Ortiz, president of Connecticut United for Reform and Equity (CURE), said at the hearing. “There’s just some other pieces that we think undermine the really good parts that we can strike out and maybe amend and move the basic ideas forward.”

Advocates want to change the legislation so that home cultivation and microbusinesses are allowed from the outset, for example.

“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), testified.

Over in the Judiciary Committee, experts dedicated significant time to testimony about the public health and safety impacts of cannabis legalization. Lawmakers pressed the witnesses on issues such as labeling requirements, what kinds of edibles should be allowed, impaired driving and the mental health affects of consuming high-THC marijuana varieties.

The bill before that panel, SB 1085, would also legalize cannabis for adult use. But the legislation has a focus on expungements for individuals with prior marijuana convictions for possession of 1.5 ounces or less.

As with the House bill, advocates are supportive of the spirit of the legislation but feel certain provisions fall short. For example, MPP said that expungements should apply to convictions for any kind of cannabis conviction. The organization also called for a home grow option, which is not included in either legalization bill under consideration.

Two other pieces of cannabis legislation were discussed at the Judiciary committee hearing. One would create a misdemeanor penalty for driving while consuming marijuana and provide $500,000 in funding for law enforcement to train officers as drug recognition experts. The other bill specifies that employers don’t have to provide special accommodations for employees who use cannabis while working.

As one of the states considered most likely to legalize cannabis in 2019, the hearings offer another example of how the conversation around reform has shifted from “should it be legal” to “how should it be legal,” with the hearings largely concentrated on defining and promoting social equity provisions.

If either bill makes it through the legislature, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) is expected to sign.

He’s called the issue one of his “priorities” for the current legislative session and spoke about the issue during a budget speech last month.

Committee votes are expected on Monday.

Military Veterans Organizations Press Congress On Medical Marijuana Research

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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GOP Lawmakers Want Marijuana Banking Vote Delayed In Congress

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A key congressional committee is scheduled to vote on far-reaching legislation that would expand marijuana businesses’ ability to store their profits in banks on Tuesday.

But key Republican lawmakers on the panel are now asking Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) to delay the vote.

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

Read the full letter seeking a delay in the marijuana banking vote below:

GOP seeks delay on marijuan… by on Scribd

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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