Iowa Democrats Introduce Bill To Legalize Pot

Democratic lawmakers in Iowa on Tuesday introduced legislation that would legalize adult-use marijuana in the state and pave the way for a regulated cannabis market. 

“We’ve listened to Iowans and heard from people of all parties in all corners of the state who strongly believe it’s time to legalize marijuana. This common-sense bill we’re introducing today isn’t about politics, it’s about people,” said Jennifer Konfrst, the Democratic leader in the state House of Representatives, as quoted by local news station KCRG. “Our bill is an opportunity this session to put partisanship aside and work together to get something done that a majority of Iowans want.”

The bill, according to KCRG, would also expand Iowa’s existing medical cannabis program.

It would also “seek to decrease penalties for marijuana possession and expunge records for non-violent marijuana convictions,” according to the station. 

“It is across party lines. It is across the place where you live in the state: rural, urban and suburban. And it is time to do this,” Konfrst said, as quoted by The Gazette

There is polling data to back Konfrst’s assertion. 

A Des Moines Register poll in 2021 found that 54% of adults in Iowa supported legalizing cannabis for recreational use, while 39% said they were opposed. 

Another poll from the Des Moines Register released the year prior showed virtually the same numbers.

But the new bill still faces long odds in Iowa’s General Assembly, where both the state Senate and House are controlled by Republicans who have signaled they’re in no mood for legalization.

“I have been clear in the past that I do not believe marijuana legalization is the right path forward for Iowa,” said Republicans state House Steve Holt, as quoted by The Gazette. “This is not an issue that has received much support from the judiciary committee in my time as chair, and I do not expect this session to be different. Iowans have expressed a very different set of priorities to me and my Republican colleagues.”

The Gazette noted that Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, has also “opposed any efforts to legalize marijuana in Iowa.”

In 2019, Reynolds vetoed a measure that “sought [to] amend and expand the state’s low-THC/high CBD access program,” and “would have expanded the pool of health professionals eligible to recommend medical cannabis products and it would have opened the program up to those with severe or chronic pain. It also would have removed the three percent THC cap on medical cannabis products,” according to NORML.

“Ultimately, I believe Iowa must proceed cautiously to ensure that any expansion of our medical CBD program is thoughtful and deliberate,” Reynolds said in her veto statement at the time, as quoted by NORML.

The bill introduced this week by Democrats would allow “Iowans 21 and older to purchase weed for recreational use from a licensed store, and includes a 10% excise tax and 1% surcharge,” and would “would funnel money towards schools, mental health, and local public safety departments,” according to local news station KWWL.

“Imagine that kind of revenue to Iowa schools, mental health services and local public safety,” said Democratic state House Rep. Lindsay James, a co-sponsor of the proposal, as quoted by The Gazette.

James pointed to the success of Colorado’s recreational cannabis program.

“I will say this: in 2021 alone Colorado’s marijuana industry generated $423 million in tax revenue,” James said, as quoted by Radio Iowa.

According to Radio Iowa, the proposal would also clear the way for referendums to “determine if a marijuana business could be established in a county.”

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Maryland Gov. Wants To Avoid Long, Drawn-out Cannabis Rollout

Voters in Maryland last year elected a new governor and approved an initiative legalizing recreational cannabis. 

Now, the freshly sworn-in Gov. Wes Moore will lead the effort to implement the state’s marijuana law.

“People of the state overwhelmingly chose to decriminalize cannabis. So we as a state now have an obligation to make sure that the will of the people is both heard, but that we do have a swift and equitable rollout,” Moore, a Democrat, told Politico in an interview that was published this week.

Moore won handily in his race against Republican Dan Cox in November, 65% to 32%, to become Maryland’s first black governor. 

In the same election, Maryland voters approved Question 4, which legalized recreational marijuana use for adults in the state and also laid the groundwork for a regulated retail cannabis market, by roughly the same margin. 

When the calendar flipped to 2023 this month, parts of that new cannabis law took effect

Possession of as many as one-and-a-half ounces of weed no longer constitutes a crime in Maryland; instead, it is currently only a civil violation. It will be fully legal starting in July.

Additionally, Marylanders who have a marijuana-related conviction on their records will have it expunged from their records by the summer of 2024, although they have the option to petition and ask a judge to resentence in order to have it scrubbed sooner. 

The state’s regulated cannabis market, however, likely won’t launch until 2024 or 2025. 

In his interview with Politico this week, Moore said it is important for the rollout of the new marijuana program to not be long and drawn out.

“That is something that we will be [working with] the legislature during this session and something that we are going to have to lay out when we look at our budgetary agenda.

That is how we’re making sure that the process of the rollout of cannabis is going to be equitable, it’s going to be transparent and it’s going to be quick,” said Moore, who was sworn in as governor on Wednesday. “We cannot have a process that takes 18 to 24 months to roll out, because if this goes on too long, what you’re doing is you’re inviting the illegal market back into it. Then you’re going to run into some of the same challenges that some of these other states are having or have had.”

Moore added, “This has to be something where, once we have everything in place when it comes to cannabis, from distribution, taxation and revenue returns, [if you’re buying on the black market] then that, like any other illegal transaction, is now an illegal transaction. I think that’s one of the reasons why, again, we want to make sure we’re being transparent, equitable and quick within this process.” 

Sixty-seven percent of Maryland voters approved Question 4 in November, while only 33% voted against the measure. 

Question 4 was backed financially by the cannabis giant Trulieve, which already operates medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.

The “Yes on 4” campaign was led by Eugene Monroe, a former player for the Baltimore Ravens.

“Tonight voters in Maryland made history by bringing the era of failed marijuana prohibition to an end,” Monroe said in November after Question 4 passed. “For decades, the unequally enforced criminalization of cannabis in Maryland inflicted damage upon Black and Brown communities. We must turn the page on that disturbing history by centering Maryland’s legal marijuana market around racial equity. Cannabis legalization will create good-paying jobs, open up doors for small business owners, and generate new tax revenue for our state. Legislators in Maryland have a responsibility to ensure people in historically underserved communities are able to enjoy those benefits.”

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Biden Mentions Freeing Prisoners with Cannabis Convictions in MLK Day Speech

On Jan. 16, President Joe Biden spoke at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast event in Washington D.C., which was hosted by the National Action Network. In his speech, he briefly included a mention of consumers in prison for cannabis convictions. “And one other thing about equal justice. I’m keeping my promise,” he said in his speech. “No one—I’ll say it again—no one should be in federal prison for the mere possession of marijuana. No one.”

“In addition to that, they should be released from prison and completely pardoned and their entire record expunged so that if they have to ask, ‘Have you ever been [convicted]?’ You can honestly say, ‘No.’”

During his speech, he also mentioned his efforts to help release Brittney Griner, the all-star WNBA athlete who was detained and sentenced in Russia for possessing a small amount of cannabis oil. “And we brought Brittney Griner home just in time for Christmas.  And we have more to bring home as well,” he said briefly.

Biden appears committed to his promise to prevent citizens from being convicted and sent to federal prison for cannabis crimes, especially since his initial announcement in October 2022. Previously, Biden signed an infrastructure bill in November 2021, which included improvements for cannabis studies. In December 2022, he signed a bill called the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act which “establishes a new registration process for conducting research on marijuana and for manufacturing marijuana products for research purposes and drug development.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted to propose an amendment that would redefine simple cannabis possession in order to help guide judges preceding over cannabis possession cases. The USSC also released a report on Jan. 10 which analyzes data on cannabis possession sentences. During Fiscal Year 2021, 4,405 people received extra points on their criminal history record because of a cannabis possession conviction, and 1,765 entered a “higher criminal history category” because of that conviction. The report also found a decline in the number of people convicted for federal simple possession, from 2,172 in Fiscal Year 2014 to just 145 in Fiscal Year 2021.

The USSC initially estimated in an October 2022 report that 6,577 people could potentially receive pardons.

Biden’s pardon announcement in October has led other state governors to take similar action. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced that he would be exploring statewide weed pardons, and later signing an executive order in November to allow medical cannabis use. More than 1,450 Arizona residents with federal cannabis possession convictions were pardoned on Oct. 25, 2022. 

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued more than 45,000 pardons in November 2022. “We are a state, and a nation, of second chances. Today, I am taking steps to right the wrongs of a flawed, inequitable, and outdated criminal justice system in Oregon when it comes to personal marijuana possession,” Brown said in a statement. “For the estimated 45,000 individuals who are receiving a pardon for prior state convictions of marijuana possession, this action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”

Most recently, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf granted 369 pardons on Jan. 12, which adds to a total of 2,540. “I have taken this process very seriously—reviewing and giving careful thought to each and every one of these 2,540 pardons and the lives they will impact,” Wolf said. “Every single one of the Pennsylvanians who made it through the process truly deserves their second chance, and it’s been my honor to grant it.”

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New Poll Shows Two-Thirds of Americans Support Legalizing Weed

More than two-thirds of Americans are in favor of legalizing small amounts of cannabis for personal use, according to the results of a poll released on Monday. The new Monmouth University poll also showed broad support for President Joseph Biden’s recent executive order to pardon federal convictions for low-level marijuana possession and found that most Americans believe that cannabis is safer than alcohol.

“Polling from a variety of sources shows that support for marijuana legalization has been increasing consistently over the past twenty years,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

The poll found that overall, 68% of respondents support legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Cannabis legalization was supported by 76% of Democrats, 73% of independent voters and 52% of Republicans. Young people showed the strongest support for legalizing marijuana, with 87% of those under 35 years old, while just over a majority (53%) of those aged 55 and older support legalization. 

Two-Thirds Support Biden’s Pardons

The Monmouth poll also showed strong support for Biden’s announcement on October 6 that he would pardon federal convictions for simple marijuana possession, with 69% of all respondents saying that they backed the president’s move.

“Biden’s action is in line with how the vast majority of Americans feel about this issue,” Murray said.

However, most were unsure about the scope of the pardons. An analysis by The New York Times determined that the pardons will affect about 6,500 people who were convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and thousands more in the District of Columbia. A quarter (25%) thought the number of convictions pardoned was less than 1,000, while a fifth (21%) thought the total was more than 10,000. One-fourth (26%) said the number was in the actual range of 1,000 to 10,000 convictions, while 29% declined to estimate.

More than half of Americans (54%) said that legalizing marijuana will have no impact on the number of crimes related to other drugs. A quarter (25%) said they believed legalizing marijuana would increase the number of other drug crimes, while 16% said that other drug crimes would decrease as a result of cannabis legalization.

Majority Believes Alcohol Is More Dangerous Than Weed

Most respondents (54%) said that they believed alcohol is more dangerous than weed, while only 7% said marijuana is more dangerous and 38% said they thought the two substances are equally dangerous. A plurality of respondents (45%) also thought pot is safer than tobacco. Only 13% said marijuana was more dangerous than tobacco and 38% said they were equally dangerous.

More than half (54%) of American adults said that they had tried marijuana, including 54% of Democrats, 51% of Republicans and 56% of independents. Those who had tried marijuana were more supportive of legalization, with 87% of those with personal experience with the plant favoring legalization and less than half (47%) of those who have never tried pot in favor of legalizing small amounts of cannabis.

Brian Vicente, founding partner of the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, believes that the strong support for marijuana legalization revealed by the new poll is likely to be reflected in next month’s midterm elections, when five states will be voting to legalize adult-use cannabis.

 “This poll is a milestone in cannabis policy, with a stunning 68% of Americans now supporting legalization. Importantly, we now have a majority of both major political parties and a broad swath of Americans regardless of age now supporting reform,” Vicente wrote in an email to High Times

“This research, combined with the overwhelmingly positive response to President Biden’s recent actions to pardon marijuana convictions is creating the most energized climate around cannabis reform that our country has seen in a decade,” he added. “This climate is likely to contribute to another 4 or 5 states legalizing cannabis on November 8th. All these factors will provide a boost to cannabis reformers in DC, which makes significant federal reform a real possibility this year.”

The Monmouth University Poll was conducted by telephone from October 13 to 17, 2022 with 808 adults in the United States. The results have a margin of error of +/- 5.2 percentage points for the full sample.

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Arizonans Benefitting From Biden’s Weed Pardons

More Arizonans with federal convictions for marijuana possession will benefit from the pardons recently announced by President Joseph Biden than past offenders from nearly every other state, according to a report from azcentral. 

An analysis from the United States Sentencing Commission found that more than 1,450 people from Arizona were convicted of federal marijuana possession charges between 1992 and 2021, representing more than 20% of the estimated 6,500 such convictions affected by the pardons. California is the only state with more people who will be pardoned under the executive action, with about 1,550 federal convictions for low-level cannabis possession. The only other state with more than 1,000 such convictions was Texas, with 1,015.

It is not clear how many of those with federal marijuana possession convictions also had other convictions that were not covered by the pardons. However, Arizona had the highest number of convictions for simple marijuana possession than any other state since 2015, according to Sentencing Commission information. Approximately 93% of the 500 convictions during that time resulted in prison sentences, the data show.

“For a lot of people out there, I imagine this is a really welcome relief,” said Jonathan Udell, an attorney with the Rose Law Group and acting co-director of Arizona NORML.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there that really feel the sting of being branded a non-law-abiding citizen,” he continued. “And this sends a very big message to those people that you’re not a bad person because you smoked a plant one time that grew out of the ground or possessed some grass in your pocket.”

Biden’s Pardons Affect 6,500 Convictions

On October 6, Biden announced that he had issued an executive order to pardon all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. The pardons will affect about 6,500 people who were convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and thousands more with similar charges in the District of Columbia, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”

Biden also called on state governors to take similar action in their jurisdictions, where the vast majority of cannabis possession charges are filed and prosecuted as state offenses. Additionally, the president directed Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department to review the continued classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act. According to the legislation, the Schedule 1 classification is meant for drugs with no medical value and a high risk of abuse.

Activists Demonstrate at White House for Cannabis Clemency

Although many marijuana policy reform activists and representatives of the cannabis industry hailed Biden’s pardons as a historic step, others were unsatisfied with the limited scope of the action, which offers no relief for other federal marijuana-related convictions and resulted in no federal prisoners being released from prison. On Monday, activist groups including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, D.C. Marijuana Justice, the Last Prisoner Project and Maryland Marijuana Justice demonstrated outside the White House, calling on Biden to take more significant action on cannabis clemency.

“It was a failed opportunity to make real change. The president could have done so much more than he did,” Steve DeAngelo, co-founder of the Last Prisoner Project, told the Washington Post. “He really only did the bare minimum thing that he could do to generate a positive-sounding press release.”

Featuring speakers including hip hop icons Redman and M1 of Dead Prez, a 50-foot inflatable joint and the arrest of at least one protester for passing through a security gate without authorization, the demonstrators urged Biden to release all federal prisoners with nonviolent marijuana-related convictions. Cannabis activist Adam Eidinger, co-founder of D.C. Marijuana Justice, said the protestors’ demands include releasing 100 prisoners immediately and all 2,800 by Christmas.

“The greatest civil rights tragedy of the modern era is putting people behind bars for cannabis,” said Eidinger. “If we get any kind of interest from the White House, and they are willing to schedule meetings with representatives of those protests, then I imagine that we’ll call off civil disobedience and declare victory.”

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Puerto Rico Bill Would Expunge Low-Level Weed Possession Convictions

A senator in Puerto Rico has filed a bill that would expunge convictions for low-level marijuana possession. The sponsor of the legislation, independent Senator José “Chaco” Vargas Vidot, filed the bill on October 11, saying that he was inspired by President Joseph Biden’s announcement five days earlier that he would pardon federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.

The senator from Puerto Rico was referring to an announcement Biden made on October 6 in which the president said that he would issue an executive order to pardon all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. The president’s pardons will affect about 6,500 people who were convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and thousands more in the District of Columbia, according to a report from The New York Times. Biden also called on governors to take similar action at the state level, where the vast majority of cannabis possession charges are filed and prosecuted.

“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement on October 6. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”

Under Vidot’s plan, possession of up to five grams of cannabis would be decriminalized. The senator said the amount allows for a presumption of personal use, while larger quantities would still be subject to prohibition.

Stiff Penalties for Pot Possession in Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, convictions for possession of any amount of cannabis are considered felonies that carry penalties of two to four years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 for the first offense. Punishment for subsequent offenses is even harsher, with the time behind bars increased to four to 10 years, according to information from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

According to inmate population information from Puerto Rico’s Department of Corrections (DCR), 65% of prisoners, or about 5,000 of the 7,000 people behind bars, suffer from problematic substance misuse. The DCR report also reveals that about 8% of men and 11% of women prisoners began using drugs after they entered the correctional system.

“Undoubtedly, these figures reflect a problem of availability of substances within the country’s prison institutions,” Vidot said. “Thus, people who report that they were not substance users prior to the conviction begin this process of consumption and addiction within the institution,” Vidot said. “For those people who were already fighting the disease of drug addiction when entering the penal system, the condition worsens within it.”

Following Biden’s announcement, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said that he would not follow the example set by the president’s executive order to pardon marijuana possession convictions, adding that DCR records indicate that no prisoners are being held for possession of marijuana. But Vidot countered that the agency’s records do not contain enough information to make that determination.

“The governor has already said that he will not give way to the executive order, lacking the will and courage to take an important step for justice,” Vidot said. “It is statistically impossible to know the number of inmates for simple possession of marijuana, because when they arrive at Corrections they tell them the law they violated, not the specific drug. Now the question is, who will have the courage to join me and give way to this in Puerto Rico?”

In 2018, Vidot, who is also a public health worker, introduced Senate Bill 912, a measure that would decriminalize possession of all controlled substances. And while the new bill is focused specifically on cannabis possession, the senator noted that he would like to see the Puerto Rican government eliminate all penalties for drug possession.

“Even though the goal should be the decriminalization of all drugs, as several advanced jurisdictions have already successfully done, with this proposal we advance the decriminalization of cannabis or marijuana, taking the first step in that direction,” he said.

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