New congressional bill pressures states to expunge drug convictions

Just two weeks into his short term in the House, a congressman who stepped in to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) has filed a bill to expunge all federal records for people with non-violent drug convictions and also put pressure on state and local governments to do the same.

Rep. Kwanza Hall (D-GA), a former Atlanta City Councilman who successfully sponsored a local marijuana decriminalization measure in 2017, introduced the legislation on Wednesday. Text of the bill isn’t available yet, but the congressman briefly described the proposal in a floor speech.

He said the bill “would expunge all records of nonviolent offenders impacted by the ‘war on drugs’ and other various crime bills for any state and local government that is the recipient of federal crime dollars.”

That latter provision is notable, as expungements legislation that’s been introduced in Congress generally only extends to people with federal drug convictions or provides funds to states to help with any such efforts they choose to launch. Hall’s legislation would take it a step further, presumably by punishing state and local governments that don’t clear past drug conviction records by withholding federal funds from those jurisdictions.

But with about a month left before the end of the session, at which point Hall’s short term will expire, it’s unlikely the bill will advance.

In any case, this isn’t Hall’s first dip into drug policy reform. As noted, he previously sponsored an Atlanta ordinance that removed the threat of jail time for possession of one ounce or less of cannabis. Instead, the penalty for that offense in Atlanta was made to be a maximum $75 fine.

“While this is a significant step forward for all of Atlanta—and especially parents who fear their children may be jailed for what used to be an unjust marijuana law—it was also just a common-sense reform,” he said at the time.

“I don’t smoke weed, but I think this is one thing I had to stand up on,” he said in an interview before the vote. “We don’t need to see people’s live go up in smoke.”

Hall also participated in a policy summit that the Minority Cannabis Business Association hosted in Atlanta in 2017.

Earlier this month, the new congressman celebrated the House passage of a bill to federally legalize marijuana—one of his first votes after being sworn in on Capitol Hill.

Hall’s congressional office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for a copy of his new bill, and the Library of Congress has not yet posted it.

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Seven in ten Americans back expunging marijuana convictions, new poll finds

Seven in ten Americans support clearing the records of people with non-violent marijuana convictions, according to a new poll.

The YouGov survey, which was released on Tuesday and involved 7,141 participants, asked whether U.S. adults “support or oppose expunging marijuana-related convictions for non-violent offenders?”

Seventy percent of respondents said they favor the policy, with 46 percent strongly supporting it. There was majority back among every demographic surveyed, including political ideologies, regions of the U.S., age, gender and income level.

expunging marijuana convictions surveyVia YouGov

Eighty-one percent of Democrats back expungements, compared to 57 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents.

Via YouGov

Support was strongest in the Midwest and Northeast (72 percent each) and lowest in the South (69 percent).

Via YouGov

The findings for where Americans stands on expungements is roughly equivalent to national support for broader marijuana legalization. A poll published by Gallup last month found that 68 percent of respondents were in favor of legalizing cannabis for adult use, which the firm said is its “highest reading” since it started polling voters on the issue in 1969.

The release of these survey results come shortly after voters in five states approved initiatives to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. That includes reform wins in traditionally conservative states such as Montana and South Dakota.

Despite the overwhelming support for the policy change among Democrats, President-elect Joe Biden has so far only backed more modest reforms such as decriminalizing possession and expunging prior cannabis convictions.

But he may feel pressure to adopt a more progressive stance given that the Democratic-controlled House last week approved a bill to federally legalize marijuana.

That piece of legislation also contains a provision to expunge the records of those with federal cannabis convictions.

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House approves federal cannabis legalization bill

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to federally legalize marijuana in a historic vote on Friday.

It’s the day that cannabis reform advocates have been building toward for years—a full floor vote to end prohibition in a chamber of Congress.

Prior to the bill’s approval in a 228 to 164 vote, Republican lawmakers spent days criticizing their Democratic counterparts for even bringing the legislation to the floor.

While the vote was mostly along party lines, five Republicans supported the reform and six Democrats opposed it.

Under the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, cannabis would be federally descheduled and those with prior convictions would have their records expunged. The descheduling provisions would be retroactive, too.

Despite the unprecedented House victory for reformers, few believe the legislation stands a chance in the Republican-controlled Senate, at least before the end of the current Congress early next month. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead sponsor of the Senate companion version of the bill.

Ahead of the bill’s passage, debate on the floor largely consisted of Democrats making the case that the reform will help to right the wrongs of the racist war on drugs, and Republicans arguing that legalization would cause harms to children and public safety and that now is not the right time to consider the issue in any case.

“Across this nation, thousands of men and women have suffered needlessly from the federal criminalization of marijuana, particularly in communities of color and have borne the burden of collateral consequences for those ensnared in criminal legal systems that have damaged our society across generations,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said in her opening remarks. “This is unacceptable and we must change our laws. It is time for Congress to catch up with the reforms that states are enacting.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor of the legislation, said that while he feels the bill is “flawed,” he is voting for it “because the federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation.

“We have seen a generation, particularly of black and brown youth, locked up for offenses that not should have not resulted in any incarceration whatsoever,” he said.

The fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), said cannabis criminalization represents “a stain on our democracy,” emphasizing ongoing racial disparities in enforcement despite the fact that black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rates.

Congressional Cannabis Caucus Co-chair Barbara Lee (D-CA) said the MORE Act “is an important racial justice measure” and “the product of years of work by so many activists and advocates and young people—and it’s long overdue.”

“It’s time to end these unjust laws which has shattered the lives of so many young people of color,” the congresswoman, who presided over the chamber during the final vote, said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), another Cannabis Caucus co-chair and longtime marijuana reform advocate, gave an impassioned speech in support of the bill.

“We’re not rushing to legalize marijuana,” he said. “The American people have all ready done that. We’re here because Congress has failed to deal with the disastrous war on drugs and do its part for the over 50 million regular marijuana users [who live in] every one of your districts.”

“It’s time for Congress to step up and do its part,” he said. “We need to catch up with the rest of the American people.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) repeated the GOP criticism of Democratic priorities with this vote and slammed the tax provisions of the MORE Act.

“This bill—it’s not enough just to legalize marijuana. They want taxpayers to pay for it,” he said of Democrats. “This bill sets up a grant program. This is the marijuana business infrastructure bill.”

Prior to the vote on final passage, the House considered a motion to recommit—the minority party’s only tool to amend the bill—from Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) to add language clarifying that “an employer may test an employee or applicant for cannabis use to ensure workplace and public safety.” That proposal was rejected by a tally of 218 to 174, with one member voting present.

“In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic House Democrats are rushing to pass a sweeping marijuana legalization bill without considering the unintended consequences the legislation will have on workplace and public safety,” she said. The vote on the motion will occur after the vote on passage.

“Wars are costly, and the war on marijuana is no exception,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) said. “The costs of the war on marijuana have disproportionately fell on the backs of blacks and Latinos.”

Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) noted that “than half of all Americans live in a state where cannabis is legal” and said Congress should “align federal cannabis laws with the will of the people. Let’s take full advantage of the medical benefits of cannabis.”

He also thanked House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the bill’s sponsor, for including one of his proposals to require a study of the benefits of medical cannabis for veterans in an adopted manager’s amendment.

“For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health,” Nadler, who was not present for the debate, said in a written statement.

“Whatever one’s views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrests, prosecution, and incarceration at the Federal level has proven unwise and unjust,” he said.

“The bottom line is, this vote is about freedom,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) said. “It’s about freedom of choice for every American to make their own decisions for themselves without fear of the government coming and arresting them.”

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) voiced opposition to the legislation and inaccurately claimed that voters in his state “barely” approved a measure to legalize marijuana during last month’s election. In fact, it passed 60-40 percent—a point Blumenauer later clarified.

The chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), said the bill “will restore justice to our most marginalized communities and it will boost our economy.” She added that “communities of color have disproportionately suffered from the so-called war on drugs” and they “have also been locked out of traditional capital markets.”

“That is why the MORE Act is the best legislation to advance progress on this issue,” she said.

It’s been about a year since the legislation cleared the Judiciary Committee. Advocates have been pushing for a floor vote ever since, and leadership initially said that would take place in September. But certain centrist Democrats urged a delay, citing concerns about the optics of advancing the reform before passing another round of coronavirus relief.

Leadership agreed but promised a floor vote before the year’s end. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) recently announced that the action would take place this week, and the procedural rules for floor consideration were approved in committee on Wednesday. The House began preliminary debate and accepted the rule—which closed the bill to further amendments—on Thursday.

GOP lawmakers have repeatedly hit House leadership after plans of the vote on the MORE Act were announced. While many have lashed out on Twitter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took to the floor of his chamber to condemn the move on Thursday, sarcastically mocking Democrats for “spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana.”

One House Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), echoed the GOP criticism, saying that this “isn’t the right way” to advance reform and arguing that lawmakers should instead be focused on COVID-19 relief.

Before coming to the floor, the legislation was revised in a Rules Committee Print, transmitted from Nadler’s Judiciary panel, and further modified in a manager’s amendment he filed. Most of the revisions were technical in nature, though there was one significant change as it relates to the proposed tax structure for marijuana.

As now structured, the MORE Act would make it so cannabis would be federally taxed at five percent for the first two years after implementation and then increased by one percent each year until reaching eight percent. After five years, taxes would be applied to marijuana products based on weight rather than price.

The bill would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

A new Cannabis Justice Office under the Justice Department would be responsible for distributing funds providing loans for small cannabis businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The bill also seeks to minimize barriers to licensing and employment in the legal industry.

It would also establish a Community Reinvestment Grant Program. Tax dollars appropriated to that program would go to job training, legal aid for criminal and civil cases such as those concerning marijuana-related expungements, literacy programs and youth recreation and mentoring services, among other programs.

In new changes that some reform advocates take exception to, the legislation also stipulates that the heads of the Transportation Department and Coast Guard may continue to include marijuana in drug testing programs for safety-sensitive positions and clarifies that the expungement provisions only apply to “non-violent marijuana offenders” and bars so-called “kingpins” from obtaining expungements.

Advocates were optimistic about the bill’s advancement through the House, but it should be noted that its prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate this session are dim. McConnell is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.

Still, the historic nature of a vote by a chamber of Congress to legalize marijuana is hard to overstate. While the House has on two previous occasions approved amendments to shield all state marijuana laws from federal interference (which later died in the Senate), never before has legislation to formally remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act advanced on Capitol Hill.

Legalization advocates heralded the vote as a watershed moment for the movement.

Justin Stekal, political director of NORML, said this “is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States.”

“This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years—when California became the first state defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition—that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies,” he said. “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations—arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”

Aaron Smith, chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association said that “the symbolic and historical importance of the MORE Act passing in the House cannot be overstated.”

“This vote stands as a rebuke of failed and harmful prohibition policies, and represents a growing understanding of their racially and economically disparate impacts,” he said. “Americans are increasingly ready to see cannabis legal for adults and sensibly regulated, which they showed through their representatives today and at the ballot box last month.”

Steve Fox, a strategic advisor to the Cannabis Trade Federation, said it is “a day of celebration for everyone who has worked to end cannabis prohibition over the past 25 years. All of those efforts have built toward this day.”

While celebrating the overall legislation, Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins noted that “it falls short of a perfect bill and at least one provision can hopefully be removed before final enactment.”

“An amendment inserted in the final days before today’s vote would empower the federal government to prevent Americans who have been charged with cannabis-related felonies from working in the marijuana industry,” he said. “This policy could block many of those individuals accused of prior marijuana offenses from participating in the legal market, which will inhibit our ability to create an equitable and fair marijuana industry. The fact that it might apply to people who were never even convicted of a crime makes it particularly unacceptable.”

Overall, the passage of the legalization legislation could send a strong signal to the incoming presidential administration, and it sets the stage for similar action in 2021—especially if Democrats win control of the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia next month.

Given President-elect Joe Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges. While Harris is sponsoring the MORE Act, she’s indicated that she would not necessarily push the president-elect to adopt a pro-legalization position.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For his part, Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service released an analysis of the MORE Act last month, finding that the bill’s passage could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government.

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Key House committee sends marijuana legalization bill to floor for vote

A key House committee advanced a bill to federally legalize marijuana on Wednesday, clearing its path to a floor vote that leadership said will come on Friday.

While several amendments to the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act were submitted to the Rules Committee, most were not deemed in order for floor consideration. A manager’s amendment offered by the bill’s sponsor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), will be attached under the rule approved by the panel, however.

This was the last step before the bill is taken up by the full chamber, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said in a briefing with reporters that it will start with debate on Thursday, a day ahead of the final vote.

Under the rule approved by the panel in a voice vote, the legislation will be closed to further amendments on the floor, and members defeated a Republican proposal to keep the bill open to changes.

There will be one hour of debate on the bill in the House, and that time will be “equally divided and controlled by the chair and ranking minority member” of the Judiciary Committee.

The bill’s consideration was a historic development for cannabis reform advocates. If the Democratic-controlled House ultimately approves the legislation, it would mark the first time that a chamber of Congress voted not just to protect state marijuana programs from federal interference but to formally deschedule the plant.

Watch the Rules Committee hearing on the MORE Act below:

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) said in his opening remarks that the legislation “will reform the disastrous war on drug laws,” and its advancement “is a testament to the many Americans who have pushed Congress to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level for many years now.”

It also “brings restorative justice to so many Americans while providing resources to those harmed by the war on drugs,” he said.

“Some have wondered why we are acting on this now,” he said. “Well, I think it’s long past time and, in the words of Martin Luther King, ‘the time is always right to do what is right.’”

The MORE Act “really is designed to eliminate decades of bad law and decades of discrimination,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), a cosponsor of the bill, said. “The cannabis laws were arbitrarily added to our statutes back in 1970 without any study, without any real effort to determine whether there were benefits or detriments of whatever. And thousands and thousands and thousands of people have been incarcerated ever since.”

Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) said that he opposes the legislation but agrees that the federal-state marijuana policy conflict needs to be resolved one way or another.

“It is easy to talk about these issues at town hall meetings,” he said. “It is hard to legislate on these issues.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said that it “is with a great sense of relief that I am supporting this long overdue measure and encourage the rest of my colleagues to do so as well.”

“This is not to promote drug use. It is not to undermine law enforcement. But rather to bring justice to millions of Americans,” she said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), citing recent state-level votes to legalize cannabis and the consequences of prohibition, said this “is an opportunity for this Congress to move in the right direction, to listen to those concerns and to allow the states to move forward.”

“This is an opportunity for the federal government to get in step with what has happened in states across the country,” he said.

After the majority leader announced that the body would take up the MORE Act this week, the Rules Committee placed a revised version of the legislation, transmitted by Nadler, on its schedule.

While most the changes included in the Rules Committee Print are technical in nature, one significant revision concerns the proposed tax structure for cannabis sales outlined in the bill.

As originally drafted, the legislation would have imposed a five percent tax on marijuana products, revenue from which would be used in part to fund a grant program to support communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. In the most recent version, that language was removed and replaced with text that more closely reflects a separate descheduling bill, the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act.

The modified tax provisions of the MORE Act would make it so cannabis would be federally taxed at five percent for the first two years after implementation and then increased by one percent each year until reaching eight percent. After five years, taxes would be applied to marijuana products based on weight rather than price.

Nadler’s separate manager’s amendment stipulates that the heads of the Transportation Department and Coast Guard may continue to include marijuana in drug testing programs for safety-sensitive positions. It also clarifies that the bill’s expungement provisions only apply to “non-violent marijuana offenders” and bars so-called “kingpins” from obtaining expungements. Finally, the amendment from the Judiciary Committee chairman would direct the federal government to study the use of marijuana by military veterans.

Several other lawmakers also submitted amendments for Wednesday’s meeting, but none were cleared for consideration on the floor.

An amendment filed by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) would have deleted provisions creating programs that provide grants for restorative justice and community reinvestment, as well as a new Cannabis Justice Office in the Department of Justice. It would also have eliminated a requirement to collect data on diversity within the cannabis industry. Gaetz is the only GOP House cosponsor of the MORE Act—and while he said this summer that he would be supporting it, he challenged these components.

An amendment from Rep. Justin Amash (L-MI) would have stricken the entire bill and replaced it with language that still deschedules cannabis and prohibits discrimination against marijuana consumers and businesses. However, it would have removed the creation of a federal cannabis tax and the programs its revenue would fund.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) introduced an amendment that would have broadened the types of expenses covered by a provision providing waivers for cannabis business license application fees.

Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC) proposed an amendment to delay the enactment of federal marijuana descheduling and other reforms until the Department of Transportation develops “best practices for the recognition and testing of drivers impaired by marijuana.”

Advocates celebrated the advancement of the historic cannabis legislation.

“Members of the U.S. House of Representatives on both sides of the aisle now have the opportunity and responsibility to come together and pass this important piece of legislation,” Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins said. “The prohibition and criminalization of marijuana has led to decades of injustice and devastating consequences, and it’s clear that a strong majority of Americans do not support the status quo. It is past time for Congress to take real action.”

Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that “the historic nature of today’s progress cannot be overstated.”

“For the first time in American history, the public will see the ‘People’s House’ vote to end the senseless, cruel, and racist policy of marijuana criminalization and prohibition,” he said.

Overall, the MORE Act would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions. The descheduling provisions would be retroactive.

The bill would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

A new Cannabis Justice Office under the Justice Department would be responsible for distributing funds providing loans for small cannabis businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The bill also seeks to minimize barriers to licensing and employment in the legal industry.

While the bill still calls for the establishment of a Community Reinvestment Grant Program, the revised version Nadler filed would remove a line calling for it to specifically fund “services to address any collateral consequences that individuals or communities face as a result of the War on Drugs.”

Tax dollars appropriated to that program would instead more generally go to job training, legal aid for criminal and civil cases such as those concerning marijuana-related expungements, literacy programs and youth recreation and mentoring services, among other programs.

Advocates are optimistic about this latest development and the likely House vote, but it should be noted that its prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate this session are dim. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.

That said, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming Biden administration.

Given Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For his part, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service released an analysis of the MORE Act last month, finding that the bill’s passage could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government.

Numerous Republican members of Congress criticized House Democrats over the planned legalization vote, dismissing the significance of the issue and arguing that it’s an inappropriate time to take it up. They were publicly joined by one House Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), who said this “isn’t the right way” to advance reform and lawmakers should instead be focused on COVID-19 relief.

There were certain centrist Democrats like Lamb who also took issue with advancing the bill when the House first announced plans to hold a vote in the chamber in September. There were concerns about the optics of approving marijuana reform before passing another coronavirus bill, and they convinced leadership to postpone the vote.

That said, several of those same lawmakers ended up losing their seats on the same Election Day as voters in conservative states approved marijuana legalization ballot measures, calling into question their strategic thinking on the politics of cannabis.

This story was updated to include quotes and actions from the hearing.

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New York marijuana legalization support is higher now than ever before, poll finds

New York voters support legalizing marijuana by a nearly two-to-one ratio, according to a new poll released on Tuesday.

The Siena College survey found that 60% of registered voters in the state back legalizing cannabis, compared to 32% who oppose the reform. That’s up significantly from February, when a poll showed support for ending marijuana prohibition ahead by a margin of 55% to 40%.

The new finding is “the strongest support legalization has ever had in a Siena College poll,” the school said in a press release.

Nearly every demographic across age, party, regional and racial lines has majority or plurality support for legalizing cannabis.

As has historically been the case, those who identify as Democrats were more likely to back the policy change (63%) compared to Republicans (48%). Sixty-eight percent of independents said they favor legalization.

The only demographic surveyed where opposition exceeded support was for ideologically conservative respondents, who are against legalization, 44% to 50%.

A separate survey released last month by Spectrum News and Ipsos similarly found that 61% of New Yorkers back the reform, compared to 30% who oppose it.

Legalization could become more than an idea in the Empire State next year, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and top lawmakers have indicated that the reform will be prioritized.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said on Monday that “it’s not so much a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and it’s a matter of how” the state legalizes cannabis for adult use.

While there are still outstanding provisions that need to be negotiated—principally concerning how tax revenue is allocated—the senator made clear that the legislature is positioned to advance the issue, especially since New Jersey voters approved a legalization referendum this month.

Cuomo said earlier this month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize marijuana in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to offset economic losses from the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor has included cannabis legalization in his last two annual budget proposals, but negotiations have consistently stalled over the details. A top aide said last month that the administration plans to give it another try in 2021 and the governor confirmed in a separate recent interview that he felt the reform would be accomplished “soon.”

Election Day also gave the Senate a supermajority of Democrats, meaning they will have more leverage to pass a legalization bill as they see fit because lawmakers could potentially override a veto if Cuomo takes issue with the details of the proposal.

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SXSW wants you to vote on weed and psychedelics panels for 2021 event

Dozens of marijuana-related panels have been proposed for next year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) event, and several other submissions mention psychedelics. Now the festival needs the public’s help in deciding which ones make the cut.

Through Friday, SXSW is asking people to comment and vote on 48 proposed panels for SXSW 2021 that involve cannabis and four that mention psychedelics. The festival, normally a trendy annual event in Austin, will be held online in March.

Proposals for the panels span the gamut, from issues of social equity in legal cannabis to DIY healthcare and home entheogenic medicines. Most of the proposals have an industry feel—a nod to the festival’s “cannabusiness” track featured in recent years—while other pitches are especially timely: More than one mentions cannabis and COVID-19.

Anyone is free to comment on the proposals through the festival’s PanelPicker tool. To vote, you’ll need to sign up for a free SXSW account.

Among some of the notable names put forward for the 2021 festival include Bay Area recording artist and entrepreneur Berner, co-founder of the marijuana brand Cookies; Cat Packer, director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation; Al Harrington, a former NBA player who founded his own cannabis company; and Toi Hutchison, senior advisor on cannabis control to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D).

There’s a lot of overlap between panel topics, so be sure to look through them all. Try searching with terms like “cannabis” or “psychedelics.” Many carry the festival’s “cannabusiness” tag.

Here’s just a taste of some of the options that could be featured at SXSW 2021:

  • Celebrities Redefining Cannabis Entrepreneurship — It wouldn’t be SXSW without celebrity. This panel features Gilbert Anthony Miliam Jr., the musical artist better known as Berner, who co-founded and runs the trendsetting cannabis brand Cookies. The panel centers on how entrepreneurs of color in the marijuana space are working to rectify past injustices of the drug war and what the future intersection of entertainment and cannabis might look like.
  • The Future of Cannabis Is Appellation Designation — Interested in craft cannabis? Representatives from Big Rock Partners, Sonoma Hills Farm, Henry’s Original and Moonmade Farms discuss how a new California “appellation of origin” law could impact growers and help inform consumers about where their cannabis comes from.
  • The Stoners and the Suits: Building Bridges — One of the earliest entrepreneurs to enter legal cannabis, Andrew DeAngelo, president of DeAngelo Brothers Productions LLC, shares how he’s been “both a ‘stoner’ and a ‘suit’” during his 35 years in the marijuana business and offers ideas about how to build trust between groups that often find themselves at odds.
  • DIY Healthcare: From Seed to Self Reliance — For those who like to get their hands dirty, Amanda Reiman, CEO and founder of Personal Plants, explains home production and processing of plant-based medicine, including cannabis and psychedelics.
  • Can We Ensure Equity In Cannabis Policy? #YesWeCan — This solo panel by Cat Packer, director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation, focuses on how we can “build a more equitable society for those previously and currently affected by cannabis policy,” as well as other areas of society affected by cannabis policy. Packer, who previously worked for the advocacy group the Drug Policy Alliance, shares her perspective as a self-described “agitator” within the space and acknowledges there’s still work to be done.
  • The Crop They Won’t Share–Disrupting Legalization — “Legal Cannabis Doesn’t Care About Black People,” begins the description of this panel, which notes that 96 percent of cannabis business licenses in the U.S. have gone to white owners. Featuring speakers such as Toi Hutchison, senior advisor on cannabis control to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), and Melek Dexter, founder and CEO of Lets ReUP and Do Better Project, this is yet another worthy look at the need for social justice in the cannabis industry.
  • The Urgency for An Equitable Cannabis Industry — Another proposed panel centering on the need for social equity in cannabis, this one features a more industry-side perspective. It includes Tahir Johnson, business development and diversity and inclusion manager at the National Cannabis Industry Association, as well as Curaleaf VP of Social Responsibility Khadija Tribble and representatives from Lantern and Fyllo.
  • Psychedelics: Rewiring Mental Health Care — Professors from Johns Hopkins University and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine are among the speakers on this panel looking into the therapeutic uses of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. Panelists will explain psilocybin’s potential benefits to treat psychiatric and behavioral disorders, discuss common misconceptions and examine existing problems in mental health care.
  • Reporting on the Corporatization of Psychedelics — With more and more interest in the mental health applications of psychedelics, yet another illicit drug market could soon go legal. In this panel, the CEO and managing editor of DoubleBlind Mag, which covers psychedelics, sit down to discuss how cannabis paved the way for psychedelics and how for-profit interests could upset efforts at equity.

It’s not yet clear how many of the proposals will be selected. In 2019, the festival boasted more than 20 cannabis events, including discussions on entrepreneurship by women and the prospect of marijuana reform in Texas. Sixty-two cannabis proposals were submitted for consideration in that festival.

SXSX’s 2019 cannabis track also caused some controversy when former House Speaker John Boehner (R), who joined the board of a major cannabis firm after leaving office, delivered a keynote address, which drew protests from social justice advocates who argued that corporate marijuana firms had overlooked equity issues.

SXSW 2020 was scheduled to feature 24 different cannabis panels, but the festival was canceled due to the pandemic.

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Virginia governor calls for marijuana legalization in 2021 as commission issues recommendations on provisions

The governor of Virginia said on Monday that he wants the state to legalize marijuana and will work with lawmakers to pass a reform bill in 2021. His comments come on the same day that a legislative commission tasked with studying the issue issued  recommendations to lawmakers on how a legal cannabis market could be structured.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) campaigned on simple decriminalization, a policy he signed into law earlier this year, but until now had never previously taken a stand on broader adult-use legalization.

“We are going to move forward with the legalization of marijuana in Virginia. I support this and I’m committed to doing in the right way,” he said during a briefing, adding that it’s “not going to happen overnight.”

“Marijuana laws have been based originally in discrimination and undoing these harms means things like social equity licenses, access to capital, community reinvestment and sealing or expunging people’s prior records,” Northam said.

That’s consistent with the analysis put forward in a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) on Monday. The panel made recommendations on the policy change from a number of angles—including economic, social equity and public health. Members drew from the experiences of other states that have enacted legalization, as well as existing research into the topic.

Although the panel did not formally recommend whether legislators should pursue legalization, they noted the projected tax revenue the Commonwealth could bring in and possible restorative justice policies that could help repair the damages of the drug war if the state were to enact the reform.

JLARC was tasked with conducting the study and issuing recommendations as part of a resolution approved by the legislature earlier this year.

“If Virginia legalizes marijuana, the General Assembly would need to make several policy choices,” the commission said in its report. “The General Assembly would need to determine legal limits on the amount of marijuana an individual could possess; where marijuana could legally be smoked or consumed; the legal age for marijuana use; and whether to allow individuals to grow their own plants. Legislators would also need to determine whether to adjust existing penalties for illegal distribution and possession above the legal amount.”

The panel made 45 recommendations and also gave lawmakers 29 “policy options” related to legalizing cannabis. They based the recommendations on interviews with more than 100 stakeholders and more than 200 prior studies on the issue.

Here are some of the main findings

  • By legalizing marijuana, the state would see an 84% reduction in cannabis-related arrests.
  • If the state enacted the reform and taxed marijuana sales at a rate of 25-30 percent, it could bring in $154-$308 million in revenue annually five years after implementation.
  • The cannabis program could also create upwards of 11,000 jobs by year five.
  • Social equity in the industry could be promoted using a variety of tactics. For example, Virginia could use some tax revenue to support reinvestment programs for communities most impacted by the drug war. Legislators could also prevent vertical integration and provide loans for small businesses.
  • The commission said their review of studies on legalization in other states shows that more people would consume marijuana, but evidence indicates that youth use would remain the same, if not decline.
  • Local jurisdictions should have “substantial authority” over how to regulate, or whether to allow, cannabis facilities. That includes allowing them to set licensing caps on marijuana retailers.
  • Members agreed that the industry should be privatized, rather than having the state control it.
  • Legislators should wait to set up the basic market infrastructure prior to deciding on whether to allow cannabis delivery services or on-site consumption.
  • Allowing home cultivation would provide a low-cost access option for consumers and, if lawmakers provide for it, they should set a two-to-six plant limit per adult.
  • JLARC also said that the legislature should establish restrictions on marijuana labeling and advertising to deter youth consumption.

“I’d like to emphasize that we were directed to look at how Virginia could legalize marijuana and create a commercial market,” Mark Gribbin, JLARC’s project manager for this report, said during a presentation on Monday. “We’re not asserting if that should be done.”

Northam’s office, in a press release, said that he is “working closely with lawmakers to finalize legislation” to legalize cannabis ahead of the 2021 session that begins in January.

He said the proposal will need to address social, racial equity and economic equity. It also must protect public health, limit young people’s access to cannabis, align with the state’s Indoor Clean Air Act and include data collection components to track implementation.

Last week, top Virginia lawmakers signaled that legal cannabis could have enough support to be enacted in 2021.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said there is a “good chance” it could happen, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D) put the odds at “slightly better than 50-50.”

Meanwhile, legislation to stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is set to take effect after lawmakers adopted recommended changes from the governor this month.

Also during the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.

Together, when enacted, the two new reforms will build upon the measure to decriminalize cannabis that the governor signed earlier this year during the regular legislative session, which makes it so possession of up to one ounce of marijuana is punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record.

But not all proposed reforms advanced.

Lawmakers were ultimately not able to reach an agreement during the special session on legislation to provide expungements for prior cannabis convictions that had appeared destined for Northam’s desk after passing either chamber in differing forms. The issue died in conference.

A bill to legalize marijuana possession was filed for the special session by a delegate who is running to replace the term-limited Northam as governor in 2021, but it did not advance out of the committee to which it was referred.

Meanwhile, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is considering running again next year, endorsed Northam’s call for legal cannabis in a tweet.

Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who had considered a run for governor but has decided to seek another term in his current office, said that the new JLARC report “just confirms what I have long been saying – Virginia needs to allow legal, regulated adult use of marijuana as a matter of public safety, justice, equity, and economic opportunity.”

During this year’s regular legislative session, the governor and lawmakers also expanded Virginia’s limited medical cannabis program in addition to enacting the decriminalization law.

Beyond the JLARC study, several executive agencies—including “the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security—have formed a work group that is also studying the potential implications of legalization, and their report is due by the end of this month. That action is required under the approved decriminalization bill.

“It comes as no surprise that Governor Northam has announced his support for legalizing the responsible use of cannabis by adults,” NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, told Marijuana Moment.

“Governor Northam has always been thoughtful in his approach to cannabis policy,” Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of Virginia NORML and is a member of the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Work Group, said. “NORML appreciates that social equity, racial equity and economic equity are among his top considerations for legalization. We look forward to continuing our work with the administration and the legislature to ‘get this right.’”

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AOC wants to work with Republicans to legalize marijuana and end War On Drugs

Democrats and Republicans might be divided on a number of major policy issues, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said on Thursday that ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana are increasingly standing out as exceptions to hyper-partisanship in Congress.

The congresswoman made the point during a virtual town hall alongside cannabis reform ally Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), stating that since she took office, it’s been encouraging to see members on both sides of the aisle come together on issues concerning “civil rights policy and civil liberties,” including ending “drug prohibition laws.”

“We’ve been able to propose solutions on a wide spectrum towards decriminalization, towards legalization, and that is increasingly becoming a position that more Republicans are amenable to,” she said.

For example, her spending bill amendment to divert $5 million in funding from the Drug Enforcement Administration to an opioid treatment program was approved without opposition in the House last year, Ocasio-Cortez said.

“That’s defund before defund became a widespread demand that we heard this year—and Republicans supported it,” she said, referencing progressive calls to defund law enforcement amid protests over police killings of black Americans. “So there are some areas where you can find common ground.”

Blumenauer also said at the event that “part of why we are fighting so hard to eliminate the failed prohibition on cannabis is because that’s been a tool that’s been used against people of color in particular that has horrific consequences and helps fuel that prison pipeline that has wreaked such havoc on our communities.”

To that end, Ocasio-Cortez said that, beyond federally legalizing cannabis, it’s important for lawmakers to ensure that any regulated markets that emerge are structured in a way that encourages participation by communities most hurt under prohibition.

“There are different ways that we can go about legalizing cannabis in the United States, and you can go about it in a way that concentrates power in a [Big Agriculture] way that concentrates power in big banks and that cuts out small mom and pops,” she said. “And then there’s another path towards legalization where everyday people and especially the black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs can be at the front of the line of enjoying the economic benefits of legalization.”

“I think we’re just so past due to make sure that we’re legalizing cannabis in the United States and that we’re expunging people’s records from the absolutely unjust war on drugs,” the congresswoman said. “It is an incredible priority.”

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Mexican Senate will vote on marijuana legalization bill by end of October, majority leader says

The Mexican Senate will likely vote on a bill to legalize marijuana within the next two weeks, the chamber’s majority leader recently said.

Activists have been eagerly awaiting action on the reform legislation since the Supreme Court deemed personal possession and cultivation of cannabis unconstitutional in 2018—though some are pushing for a greater emphasis on social equity before lawmakers pass the pending bill in its current form.

The high court in April granted a second deadline extension to give legislators additional time to enact the policy change amid the coronavirus pandemic, pushing it to December 15. That said, Ricardo Monreal, the ruling MORENA party’s leader in the Senate, said the chamber will advance the bill before the end of October.

It’s not clear if the legislation will go through the committee process or straight to the floor given that tight timeline. Zara Snapp, a legalization activist with the Instituto RIA and the coalition #RegulacionPorLaPaz, told Marijuana Moment that advocates have similarly heard from senators that the plan is to quickly pass the proposal and they’re “hopeful” that’s the case.

If the Senate passes the legal cannabis bill it will still have to go before the other house of the nation’s Congress, the Chamber of Deputies.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in August that marijuana reform legislation will advance in the new session. The bill was approved by several committees earlier this year, but the COVID-19 outbreak derailed negotiations.

The civil rights group México Unido outlined its concerns about the current proposal in a Twitter thread on Tuesday, contending that as drafted it would allow select companies to monopolize the industry.

They said that amending the measure should be “a matter of distributing the benefits of the market among those who have been most affected” by cannabis criminalization, according to a translation.

The legalization bill that’s set to advance this coming session was revised during a joint meeting of the Justice, Health, Legislative Studies and Public Safety Committees in March.

The proposal would allow adults 18 and older to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use. Individuals could grow up to 20 registered plants as long as the total yield doesn’t exceed 480 grams per year. Medical patients could apply to cultivate more than 20 plants, however.

Legal personal possession would be capped at 28 grams, but possession of up to 200 grams would be decriminalized.

The Mexican Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis, a decentralized body established under the measure, would be established and responsible for regulating the market and issuing licenses for marijuana businesses.

The bill proposes a 12 percent tax on cannabis sales, with some revenue going toward a substance misuse treatment fund.

Public consumption would be permissible, except in spaces designated as 100 percent smoke-free. Hemp and CBD would be exempt from regulations that apply to THC products.

An earlier version of the legislation was approved by Senate committees last year ahead of the court’s previous October 2019 deadline.

Sen. Julio Ramón Menchaca Salazar, also of the MORENA party, said in April that while legislators must still resolve certain disagreements about the legislation, legalizing cannabis could fill treasury coffers at a time when the economy is recovering from the pandemic.

As lawmakers work to advance the reform legislation, there’s been a more lighthearted push to focus attention on the issue by certain members and activists. That push has mostly involved planting and gifting marijuana.

Last month, a top administration official was gifted a cannabis plant by senator on the Senate floor, and she said she’d be making it a part of her personal garden.

A different lawmaker gave the same official, Interior Ministry Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero, a marijuana joint on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies last year.

Cannabis made another appearance in the legislature in August, when Sen. Jesusa Rodríguez of the MORENA party decorated her desk with a marijuana plant.

Drug policy reform advocates have also been cultivating hundreds of marijuana plants in front of the Senate, putting pressure on legislators to make good on their pledge to advance legalization.


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Pennsylvania governor again calls on lawmakers to legalize marijuana

The governor of Pennsylvania is at it again, delivering yet another speech on Tuesday about the need to legalize marijuana in the state.

For someone who just last year came out in favor of the policy change himself, Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) repeated criticism of the Republican-controlled state legislature for failing to enact cannabis legalization in the months since is notable.

In what has now become a monthly series of press appearances focused on legalization, the governor has stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.

“There’s much more that needs to be done to reverse the decades of injustice, and we need to start by decriminalizing cannabis and legalizing it for adult use,” he said at Tuesday’s event, which also featured remarks from Rep. Maureen Madden (D) and a local hemp farmer. “The majority of Pennsylvanians support legalizing cannabis for adult use, and it’s a needed step toward restorative justice.”

“It would provide the economic benefits during a time of great economic strain. All these things are good, positive steps for Pennsylvania,” he added. “Legalizing cannabis will open up another untapped industry in Pennsylvania, one with the potential to bring in millions, actually billions, of dollars of revenue as we’ve seen in other states.”

This marks the third month in a row that Wolf has held events focused on making the case for legalization. Last month, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.

“We need the economic growth, we need the revenue and we need the restorative justice that the legalization of adult-use cannabis will provide,” he said on Tuesday. “So once again, my third call to the General Assembly to send legislation to my desk to legalize cannabis for adult use. It’s what Pennsylvania wants. It’s what Pennsylvania needs.”

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), a longstanding legalization advocate, has been similarly vocal about his position. In speeches and on social media, the official has expressed frustration that Pennsylvania has yet to enact the policy change, especially as neighboring like New Jersey are moving in that direction.

He said last month that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously legalize cannabis before voters next door in the Garden State enact the policy change this November.

Fetterman also recently hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.

While Wolf initially opposed adult-use legalization, he came out in support of the reform last year after Fetterman led a statewide listening tour last year to solicit public input on the issue.

Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to an outline of the governor’s legalization proposal, 50 percent of that tax revenue “would be earmarked for historically disadvantaged businesses.” And he said on Tuesday that additional revenue could be given directly to small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic.


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