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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.


Illinois Will ‘Blow Past’ $1 Billion In Legal Marijuana Sales In 2021, Chamber Of Commerce President Says



“Are we going to get to a billion dollars? I think we’re going to blow past the billion dollars based on the experience in smaller states,” the Chamber leader said.

By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square

Illinois’s cannabis industry is growing up fast, with adult-use recreational cannabis sales expected to hit $1 billion by year-end.

In March alone, Illinoisans spent $110 million on recreational marijuana.

Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said one factor contributing to Illinois’ explosive growth is that most neighboring states haven’t legalized marijuana yet.

“What we saw early on in states like Washington and Colorado is they did have demand come in from surrounding states, which frankly benefits our industry and benefits the taxes collected,” Maisch said.

Cannabis sales have already surpassed alcohol’s tax revenues for the state, and Maisch said he thinks $1 billion estimates are conservative.

“Are we going to get to a billion dollars? I think we’re going to blow past the billion dollars based on the experience in smaller states,” Maisch said.

There are only a couple of things that could stop Illinois’ explosive cannabis market growth, Maisch said. He said that policymakers could ruin things by pushing taxes too high as evidenced by the tobacco market.

“As taxes have gone up and up and up, they’ve pushed people all the way into the black market or they’ve created this grey market in which people are ostensibly paying some of the taxes, but they’re still getting sources of tobacco products that avoid much of the tax,” Maisch said.

The other thing that could head off continued growth is other states opening up recreational-use markets.

“So if you start to see surrounding states go to recreational, that’s definitely going to flatten the curve because we’re not going to be pulling in demand from other states,” Maisch said.

Maisch points out some concerns that accompany the explosion of Illinois’s recreational cannabis market including workforce preparedness.

“All of those individuals who are deciding to go ahead and consume this product are really taking themselves out of a lot of job opportunities that they would otherwise be qualified, so there’s a real upside and a downside,” Maisch said.

While it’s easy to track the revenues this industry brings into state coffers, he points out, it will be harder to track the lack of productivity and qualified individuals to operate heavy machinery and other jobs that require employees to pass a drug test.

This story was first published by The Center Square.

DEA Finally Ready To End Federal Marijuana Research Monopoly, Agency Notifies Grower Applicants

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DEA Finally Ready To End Federal Marijuana Research Monopoly, Agency Notifies Grower Applicants



The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Friday notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

This is 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.

It was almost five years ago that DEA under President Barack Obama first announced that it was accepting applications for additional manufacturers. No approvals were made during the Trump administration. And the delay in getting acceptances has led to frustration—and in some cases, lawsuits—among applicants.

But on Friday, organizations including the Biopharmaceutical Research Company (BRC), Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) and Groff NA Hemplex LLC were notified by the agency that their requests were conditionally accepted.

“DEA is nearing the end of its review of certain marijuana grower applications, thereby allowing it to soon register additional entities authorized to produce marijuana for research purposes,” DEA said. “Pending final approval, DEA has determined, based on currently available information, that a number of manufacturers’ applications to cultivate marijuana for research needs in the United States appears to be consistent with applicable legal standards and relevant laws. DEA has, therefore, provided a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to these manufacturers as the next step in the approval process.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the move, and it’s unclear just how many organizations have received a DEA communication so far.

Matt Zorn, who has represented SRI in a suit against DEA over the processing delays, told Marijuana Moment that the agency explained that it is “moving forward” with the facility’s application and that it appears to be “consistent with public interest” to give the institute the ability to grow marijuana for study purposes.

SRI’s Dr. Sue Sisley is in a process of completing a memorandum of agreement that DEA requested “so that it can be executed and official,” according to a press release.

BRC CEO George Hodgin said in another press release that after being finalized, “this federal license will forever change the trajectory of our business and the medicinal cannabis industry.”

“The DEA’s leadership will set off a nationwide wave of innovative cannabis-derived treatments, unlock valuable intellectual property and create high quality American jobs,” he said. “The BRC team is already familiar with DEA compliance procedures based on our extensive history of controlled substances activity, and our world class staff is ready to hit the ground running on this new business arm that the DEA has authorized.”

DEA said it has presented applicants that appear to meet legal requirements “with an MOA outlining the means by which the applicant and DEA will work together to facilitate the production, storage, packaging, and distribution of marijuana under the new regulations as well as other applicable legal standards and relevant laws.”

“To the extent these MOAs are finalized, DEA anticipates issuing DEA registrations to these manufacturers,” the agency said. “Each applicant will then be authorized to cultivate marijuana—up to its allotted quota—in support of the more than 575 DEA-licensed researchers across the nation.”

DEA said it “will continue to prioritize efforts to evaluate the remaining applications for registration and expects additional approvals in the future” and will publicly post information about approvals as they are finalized.

Following a 2019 suit against DEA by SRI, a court mandated that the agency take steps to process the cultivation license applications, and that legal challenge was dropped after DEA provided a status update.

That suit argued that the marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi is of poor quality, does not reflect the diversity of products available on the commercial market and is therefore inadequate for clinical studies.

That’s also a point that several policymakers have made, and it’s bolstered by research demonstrating that the federal government’s cannabis is genetically closer to hemp than marijuana that consumers can obtain in state-legal markets.

Last year, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary to move forward with licensing approvals due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party.

SRI filed another suit against DEA in March, claiming that the agency used a “secret” document to justify its delay of approving manufacturer applications. And that was born out when the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel document was released last year as part of a settlement in the case, revealing, among other things, that the agency feels that its current licensing structure for cannabis cultivation has been in violation of international treaties for decades.

Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved

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Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Medical Marijuana Legalization Ballot That Voters Approved



A voter-approved initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi has been overturned by the state Supreme Court.

On Friday, the court ruled in favor of a Mississippi mayor who filed a legal challenge against the 2020 measure, nullifying its certification by the Secretary of State. The lawsuit was unrelated to the merits of the reform proposal itself, but plaintiffs argued that the constitutional amendment violated procedural rules for placing measures on the ballot.

While the court acknowledged that a “strong, if not overwhelming, majority of voters of Mississippi approved Initiative 65” to legalize medical cannabis in the state, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s (R) petition was valid for statutory reasons.

Madison’s challenge cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.

The secretary of state and other officials pushed back against the lawsuit and argued that a plain reading of the state Constitution makes it clear that the intention of the district-based requirement was to ensure that signatures were collected in a geographically dispersed manner—and the result of the campaign met that standard.

But in the court’s 6-3 ruling released on Friday, the justices said that their hands were tied. The legislature or administration might be able to fix the procedural ballot issue, but it had to follow the letter of the law.

“We find ourselves presented with the question squarely before us and nowhere to turn but to its answer,” the decision states. “Remaining mindful of both the November 3, 2020 election results and the clear language in section 273 seeking to preserve the right of the people to enact changes to their Constitution, we nonetheless must hold that the text of section 273 fails to account for the possibility that has become reality in Mississippi.”

In sum, a Census-driven change in the number of congressional districts in Mississippi “did, indeed, break section 273 so that, absent amendment, it no longer functions,” meaning there’s no legal way to pass a constitutional ballot initiative in the state.

“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress. To work in today’s reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”

“We grant the petition, reverse the Secretary of State’s certification of Initiative 65, and hold that any subsequent proceedings on it are void,” the court ruled.

One justice who dissented said that the district-based requirement is arbitrary as it concerns Mississippi elections. While the federal government defines the state as having four congressional districts, the state Constitution “lays out the five districts,” and “there have been zero changes to the five districts” as far as the state’s laws are concerned.

In any case, this marks a major defeat for cannabis reform activists in the state who collected more than 214,000 signatures for their initiative. Sixty-eight percent of voters approved a general ballot question on whether to allow medical cannabis, and 74 percent signed off on advocates’ specific measure in a separate question.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi,” Ken Newburger, executive director for the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, said in a press release. “Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end. The Court ignored existing case law and prior decisions. Their reasoning ignores the intent of the constitution and takes away people’s constitutional right.”

“It’s a sad day for Mississippi when the Supreme Court communicates to a vast majority of the voters that their vote doesn’t matter,” he said.

Under the voter-approved initiative, patients with debilitating medical issues would have been allowed to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal included 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would have been able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

There was an attempt in the legislature to pass a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the event that the court overruled the voter-approved initiative, but it failed to be enacted by the session’s end.

The Mississippi State Department of Health told WJTV that it will cease work on developing medical cannabis regulations in light of the court ruling.

“However, the agency has certainly learned a lot in the process of putting together a successful medical marijuana program, and we stand ready to help the legislature if it creates a statutory program,” Liz Sharlot, director of the Office of Communications for the department, said.

This is the latest state Supreme Court setback to affect cannabis reform efforts.

Last month, the Florida Supreme Court dealt a critical blow to marijuana activists working to legalize marijuana in the state—killing an initiative that hundreds of thousands of voters have already signed and forcing them to start all over again if they want to make the 2022 ballot.

While a Nebraska campaign collected enough signatures to qualify a reform initiative in 2020, the state Supreme Court shut it down following a legal challenge. It determined that the measure violated the state’s single-subject rule, much to the disappointment of advocates.

In South Dakota, the fate of an adult-use legalization initiative that voters approved last November is also in the hands of the state’s Supreme Court, where a sheriff is challenging its constitutionality based on a single subject rule as well.

Opponents to a Montana marijuana legalization measure that was approved by voters have also filed lawsuits contesting the voter-approved initiative for procedural reasons, arguing that its allocation of revenue violates the state Constitution. While the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case last year, it did not rule on the merits and left the door open to pursuing the case in district and appeals court, which plaintiffs then pursued.

Read the Mississippi Supreme Court ruling on the medical cannabis initiative below: 

Mississippi Supreme Court m… by Marijuana Moment

Congressional Bill Filed To Protect Marijuana Consumers From Losing Public Housing

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