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With State Law Against Drug Possession Overturned, Washington Governor Frees 15 People From Prison



Fifteen people incarcerated on drug possession charges in Washington State will be released from prison following commutations issued this week by Gov. Jay Inslee (D), nearly two months after the state Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony law against simple possession of controlled substances.

The governor’s office announced the commutations on Tuesday, saying that 13 of the petitions had already been signed, and two more were expected to be finalized later in the day—with even more to come soon.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are working to pass legislation to respond to the court ruling, State v. Blake, before the legislative session ends later this month.

Inslee’s signing of the commutation petitions, submitted by people currently in prison solely on simple drug possession charges, essentially cuts through the ongoing process of clearing past possession convictions and resentencing people accordingly. It means that the 15 people, already eligible for release following the Supreme Court decision, will be released sooner than they would have through judicial procedures. None of the convictions have been legally valid since the court case was decided in late February.

“While prosecutors and the courts have worked to vacate the convictions of individuals convicted and sentenced under this now-invalidated drug possession statute,” Inslee’s office said in a news release, “the governor has endeavored to use his clemency authority to expeditiously facilitate a more immediate release for other individuals in custody solely on these convictions.”

Fewer than 100 people in the state were estimated to be incarcerated on possession charges alone shortly after the Supreme Court issued its decision. That number has already dropped to about two dozen people, Taylor Wonhoff, deputy general counsel for Inslee, told the Seattle Times. The bulk of the releases were handled earlier by county prosecutors and courts.

Wonhoff said the governor’s office recently created a very simple commutation petition form, then circulated it to people through the state Department of Corrections to people imprisoned for drug possession. “What we did was created a very basic petition,” he said, “which basically says, ‘Here’s my name, here’s my signature, I want a Blake commutation.’”

As of Tuesday evening, the Times reported, 12 of the 13 people whose petitions had already been signed had already been released from state custody. Even people whose sentences are commuted, however, will still need judges to clear the now-invalid convictions from their criminal records.

The Supreme Court decision came unexpectedly for lawmakers, who are now working to decide how to address the fallout of the ruling. While the court said only a narrow part of the law was unconstitutional—the fact that it failed to require that defendants knowingly possess a drug—it voided the possession law completely.

“Although we knew it had been winding its way through the courts,” Rep. Roger Goodman (D) said last month, “with everything else, we forgot about it. Then this earth-shaking opinion comes out right in the middle of the legislative session.”

In addition to weighing how to fund court costs of identifying and resentencing individuals whose convictions are no longer lawful, the legislature is also considering whether—and how—to replace the state’s felony drug possession law. Democrats and Republicans have introduced bills that would reinstate the felony charge for simple possession, but a progressive bloc in the House of Representatives that has grown more powerful in recent years insists that the chamber won’t pass legislation that re-establishes criminal penalties for small amounts of drugs.

Of several bills introduced in the wake of the ruling, one leading proposal, SB 5476, would leave simple drug possession decriminalized. As introduced, the measure would establish “personal use” amounts of controlled substances, and adults found with anything less than those amounts see no criminal or civil penalties, although they could be referred to evaluation and treatment for substance use disorder. Opening or using controlled substances in public would be subject to a $125 civil fine, which would help defray administrative costs resulting from the state’s abrupt decriminalization.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee took initial public testimony on the bill earlier this month, and at a hearing this past Saturday voted to advance the bill without recommendation to the Senate Rules Committee. Little if any debate is expected in that committee before the bill advances to the full Senate floor for what’s likely to be a contentious debate.

Several amendments have already been introduced and are expected to be taken up on the Senate floor. Most are contained in a proposed substitute bill by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D), the sponsor of the original bill, and are relatively minor clarifications. Among the more major changes, the substitute authorizes the presiding judge in any county to appoint commissioners that would assist the court with resentencing and vacating convictions affected by the Blake decision. It also clarifies that anyone under 21 found in possession of controlled substances would be under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts and require the courts to offer diversion to treatment for a person’s first offense. The substitute also eliminates a provision requiring a $125 fine for public drug use to fund court administrative costs.

Two competing amendments would gut the original decriminalization proposal and reinstate felony drug possession charges for drug possession committed knowingly. One was put forward by Sen. Lynda Wilson (R) and would also establish a state legislative workgroup to study further drug reform measures.

“I do think that that’s the direction we need to go,” Wilson said at the Ways and Means Committee hearing. “I think putting knowingly back into the statute is what will be at least a good fix right now, and then we study it later. I’m afraid that if we do too much now that we won’t get it quite right—or right at all.”

The other major amendment, from Sen. Keith Wagoner (R), would temporarily reinstate felony possession charges but also step up SB 5476’s proposed penalties for public drug use to a Class 1 civil infraction, which carries a $250 fine. It would also create some optional programs to divert drug cases to evaluation and treatment, “so you can be diverted once or maybe twice with a prosecutor’s authority,” Wagoner said at the hearing.

“Yeah, I’m not going to pretend to have written the entire amendment,” he told the panel, “but I think the point that we’re trying to do, you’re trying to recognize…first of all, we’ve got a big problem and we’ve got to do something about it now. But this doesn’t have to be a permanent solution.”

Dhingra told the panel that the policy embodied in the competing amendments “actually goes back to about five years ago to where we were as Washington State.”

The Ways & Means Committee discussed the mechanics of the proposed amendments on Saturday but did not act on them, leaving them to be discussed later on the Senate floor. “Rather than going through all of the amendments and motions, we’re going to move that we move that to the rules committee without rec,” said committee chair Sen. Christine Rolfes (D), “and continue in-depth policy discussion in preparation for floor action.”

The panel voted 15–7–3 to advance the bill without amendments, with Wilson and Wagoner voting to kill the measure rather than fight for their amendments on the Senate floor.

On the House side, Goodman, a longtime drug reform advocate who supports ending criminal penalties for simple possession, told Marijuana Moment earlier this month that with the legislative session set to end on April 25, “time is our enemy in this enterprise.”

“The Blake decision is both a blessing and a curse,” he said, “because it’s an opportunity for us to come up with a more effective approach that does less harm, but we don’t have the opportunity to be deliberate and inclusive in conversations with interested parties, so it’s not as well thought-out a proposal as it would be otherwise. It has to be an interim measure.”

“The story to tell of this issue isn’t about drugs,” he added. “This is about helping your loved ones—your neighbors, your friends, your children—who are in trouble. The two big messages are: What we’re doing isn’t working, and we want to help people.”

In February, Goodman’s panel approved a separate bill to decriminalize drug possession and expand treatment services, but it failed to advance further by a key legislative deadline.

Just five years ago, few state legislatures would have dreamed of letting drugs remain decriminalized after a court decision like Blake. Now lawmakers in Washington have the opportunity to be the first to decriminalize drugs through the legislature—and there’s a chance they’ll take it.

“A lot has changed in the past five years. Since our most recent president, there’s an appetite for more radical transformation of our society and to react to retrograde policies of the past century,” Goodman said. “Also those who are active in the political sphere are younger, even over the course of these last several years.”

Oregon voters historically ended prohibition of low-level drug possession at the ballot during last November’s election, which has contributed to the national conversation.

In both Maine and Vermont, lawmakers have also recently unveiled legislation last month to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs. Last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said last month that he’s “open-minded” on decriminalizing all drugs.

“There’s this phenomenon called discontinuous change,” Goodman told Marijuana Moment, “where nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then the Berlin Wall falls down. We’re getting to that place in drug policy where it’s a tipping point.”

Biden’s Pick To Lead DEA Voiced Openness To State Medical Marijuana Program

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.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.


Senate’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Aims To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries



Senate leaders released a massive and long-anticipated infrastructure bill late on Sunday—and after weeks of bipartisan negotiations, the legislation includes provisions that aim to allow researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.

The bill also encourages states that have enacted legalization laws to educate people about impaired driving.

The language on scientists’ access to retail cannabis products was attached to an earlier version of infrastructure legislation in a Senate committee, and it’s substantively the same as a provision included in a House-passed infrastructure bill.

The measure makes it so the transportation secretary would need to work with the attorney general and secretary of health and human services to develop a public report within two years of the bill’s enactment that includes recommendations on allowing scientists to access retail-level marijuana to study impaired driving.

The cannabis provision stipulates that the report must contain a recommendation on establishing a national clearinghouse to “collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research that includes marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully available to patients or consumers in a state on a retail basis.”

It specifies that scientists from states that have not yet enacted legalization should also be able to access to dispensary products that are being sold in jurisdictions that have ended prohibition.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) sponsored the committee amendment that contains these reforms, and he argued that the changes are necessary in order to promote research into impaired driving and create a national standard for addressing such activity.

Advocates have been waiting to see whether the committee-approved language would make it into the bipartisan negotiated bill. And the fact that it did stay intact following extensive negotiations between Democrats and Republicans who worked to craft the deal is significant. The Senate is expected to take up the bill on the floor this week.

If it passes, the amended legislation would then need to go back to the House for consideration before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The bill says the cannabis research report must also broadly examine “federal statutory and regulatory barriers” to studies on marijuana-impaired driving.

The transportation legislation also contains a separate section that would require legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider methods of educating people about and discouraging impaired driving from cannabis. Advocates take issue with that language simply because it targets legalized jurisdictions while ignoring the fact that marijuana-impaired driving takes place regardless of its legal status.

An earlier version of the transportation bill cleared the House last Congress with identical marijuana provisions but did not advance in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Since its initial introduction last year, some steps have been taken to resolve that issue. Most notably, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

That marks a significant development—and one of the first cannabis-related moves to come out of the Biden administration. There is currently a monopoly on federal cannabis cultivation, with the University of Mississippi having operated the only approved facility for the past half-century.

But that move from DEA would still not free up researchers to access marijuana products from state-legal retailers in the way the transportation legislation would encourage if enacted.

While advocates are supportive of measures to reduce impaired driving, some have raised issues with the implication that legalizing cannabis increases the risk of people driving while under the influence. Research isn’t settled on that subject.

A federally funded study recently promoted by the National Institute of Justice also found that the amount of THC in a person’s system after consuming marijuana is not an accurate predictor of impairment.

Colorado Could Vote On Marijuana Tax Hike To Fund Education Programs After Campaign Submits Signatures

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Colorado Could Vote On Marijuana Tax Hike To Fund Education Programs After Campaign Submits Signatures



A Colorado campaign appears to have submitted enough signatures to place a ballot initiative before voters in November that would raise marijuana taxes to fund programs that are designed to reduce the education gap for low-income students.

The Colorado Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) measure would give low- and middle-income families a $1,500 stipend to have school-aged children participate in after-school programs, tutoring and summer learning activities.

The state excise tax on sales adult-use cannabis products would increased from 15 percent to 20 percent to fund the effort.

Supporters say this policy is especially needed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated income-related learning gaps for students. But some marijuana industry stakeholders—and even the state’s largest teachers union—have expressed concern about the proposal.

In any case, the LEAP campaign turned in about 200,000 signatures for the measure to the secretary of state’s office on Friday. It only needs 124,632 valid signatures to qualify.

Monica Colbert Burton, a LEAP campaign representative, told Colorado Public Radio that the sizable signature turn-in “really demonstrates the broad support around the state for this issue.”

“The learning loss that we’ve seen during the pandemic is so much higher than we’ve ever seen before particularly for our low-income families and our students that don’t have access to the same resources,” Colbert Burton said.

Beyond imposing the extra five percent tax on cannabis, the initiative also calls for a repurposing of state revenue that it generates from leases and rents for operations held on state land. Advocates estimate that the measure would translate into $150 million in additional funding annually.

But according to an analysis from Westword, adding the tax to the existing 15 percent special tax would’ve only created $80 million in added revenue based on 2020 sales figures.

Some stakeholders and cannabis advocates have come out strongly against the proposal.

“That this initiative is being pushed at a moment in Colorado when the cannabis industry is trying to create more equity and bring economic growth to marginalized communities harmed by the racist Drug War is especially tone deaf,” Hashim Coates, executive director of the trade group Black Brown and Red Badged, said in a press release. “But that is to be expected when the backers of this measure are affluent white men.”

“Let’s just be perfectly clear: this is a regressive tax—which always harms Black and Brown consumers the most. This is going to a voucher program—which always harms Black and Brown communities the most,” Coates said. “And it’s targeting the marijuana industry as a magical bottomless piggy bank—which will devastate the Black and Brown owned cannabis businesses the most. Can we just let the black community breathe for a moment after this pandemic before we start taxing them to death?”

The measure is being endorsed by a two former governors, about 20 sitting state lawmakers, several former legislative leaders and several other educational organizations.

But in June, the Colorado Education Association withdrew its support for the proposal over concerns about how it would be implemented.

The next step for the initiative is for the secretary of state’s office to verify that there are enough valid signature in the batch LEAP supporters turned in.

This development comes days after Colorado officials announced the launch of a new office to provide economic support for the state’s marijuana industry.

Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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 division, which was created as part of a bill signed into law in March, is being funded by cannabis tax revenue. It will focus on creating “new economic development opportunities, local job creation, and community growth for the diverse population across Colorado.”

Gov. Jared Polis (D) had initially asked lawmakers back in January to create a new a new cannabis advancement program as part of his budget proposal.

Beyond this program, the state has worked to achieve equity and repair the harms of prohibition in other ways.

For example, Polis signed a bill in May to double the marijuana possession limit for adults in the state—and he directed state law enforcement to identify people with prior convictions for the new limit who he may be able to pardon.

The governor signed an executive order last year that granted clemency to almost 3,000 people convicted of possessing one ounce or less of marijuana.

Funding for the new office is made possible by tax revenue from a booming cannabis market in the state. In the first three months of 2021 alone, the state saw more than half a billion dollars in marijuana sales.

The lack of access to federal financial support for marijuana businesses became a pronounced issue amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the Small Business Administration saying it’s unable to offer those companies its services, as well as those that provide ancillary services such as accounting and law firms.

Polis wrote a letter to a member of the Colorado congressional delegation last year seeking a policy change to give the industry the same resources that were made available to other legal markets.

California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals

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California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals



A California senator is asking the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide clarification on whether hospitals and other healthcare facilities in legal marijuana states can allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis without jeopardizing federal funding.

State Sen. Ben Hueso (D) on Thursday sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure inquiring about the policy. Confusion about possible implications for permitting marijuana consumption in health facilities led pro-legalization Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to veto a bill meant to address the issue in 2019.

Hueso refiled a nearly identical version of the legislation for this session, and it’s already passed the full Senate and one Assembly committee. It’s now awaiting action on the Assembly floor before potentially being sent to Newsom’s desk.

“Ryan’s Law would require that hospitals and certain types of healthcare facilities in the State of California allow a terminally-ill patient to use medical cannabis for treatment and/or pain relief,” the senator wrote in the letter to the federal officials, with whom he is asking to meet to discuss the issue. “Currently, whether or not medical cannabis is permitted is left up to hospital policy, and this creates issues for patients and their families who seek alternative, more natural medication options in their final days.”

Hospitals that receive CMS accreditation are generally expected to comply with local, state and federal laws in order to qualify for certain reimbursements. And so because marijuana remains federally illegal, “many healthcare facilities have adopted policies prohibiting cannabis on their grounds out of a perceived risk of losing federal funding if they were to allow it.”

But Hueso said that his office received a letter from CMS several months ago stating that there are no specific federal regulations in place that specifically address this issue and that it isn’t aware of any cases where funding has been pulled because a hospital allows patients to use medical cannabis.

Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

Additionally, because the Justice Department has been barred under annually renewed spending legislation from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state-level medical marijuana programs, the senator said, “we believe the risk of federal intervention is little to none.”

“This confirmation from CMS been quite a breakthrough and we are optimistic it will alleviate the Governor’s concerns,” the letter continues. “However, I want to underscore that, prior to receiving this response, even the Governor of California was under the impression that CMS rules prohibited hospitals and healthcare facilities from allowing medical cannabis use.”

“Undoubtedly other states are struggling with this issue, too,” it says. “As more states decriminalize cannabis and even create recreational markets, we must not forget to also update the books for the most important consumers of all—patients.”

“While ideally the federal government will remove cannabis from its Schedule I designation, I appreciate that this is a lengthy and complex process. In the interim, it would be extremely helpful if you could provide clarification that assures Medicare/Medicaid providers that they will not lose reimbursements for allowing medical cannabis use on their premises. This clarification would go a long way to help hospital staff, security, above all, patients.”

Becerra, while previously serving as California attorney general and as a member of Congress, demonstrated a track record of supporting marijuana law reform.

Meanwhile, there are efforts in both chambers of Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are currently soliciting feedback on draft legalization legislation they introduced this month.

Meanwhile, a separate House bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity in the industry was reintroduced in May.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was filed with a number of changes compared to the version that was approved by the chamber last year.

Read the letter from the California senator to Becerra below: 

Marijuana hospital letter t… by Marijuana Moment

Rhode Island House Speaker Says ‘No Consensus’ On Marijuana Legalization, But It’s ‘Workable’

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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