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Divided States: NJ, NY and Massachusetts Uniquely Approach Cannabis Legalization

After cannabis legalization efforts failed earlier this year, voters and lawmakers are looking at new strategies and methods to further expand medical marijuana programs or authorize the recreational use of the plant material.  This blog synthesizes several threads concerning states and their desire to support legalization.  Will micro changes at the state level spell relief…

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After cannabis legalization efforts failed earlier this
year, voters and lawmakers are looking at new strategies and methods to further
expand medical marijuana programs or authorize the recreational use of the
plant material.  This blog synthesizes
several threads concerning states and their desire to support
legalization.  Will micro changes at the
state level spell relief for cannabis consumers nationwide?  Read on.

New Jersey:  The Garden State’s voters, not politicians, will decide on cannabis legalization in 2020.  New Jersey lawmakers gave up their effort to draft legislation for legal recreational cannabis, and will instead put the question on the 2020 ballot for voters to decide.  Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, said he will push ahead with a plan to expand the state’s medical program and for legislation that would expunge the records of those convicted of nonviolent cannabis-related crimes.  “It’s hard to do it legislatively, I admit,” Gov. Phil Murphy announced.  “It’s always been a default to go to a referendum and ask the people.”  This means that the power to end pot prohibition will be vested in the will of the voters.

New York:  Lawmakers in New York are planning to introduce a new marijuana bill that they hope will become law.  After the failure to include legalized recreational marijuana in the New York state budget earlier this year, sponsors of the legislation say they are introducing this new cannabis bill that they hope stands a better chance at becoming law.  The bill includes creating a single governmental unit that would regulate all cannabis-related products.  Some of the revenue collected from taxes would be used to invest in communities that were disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition, and records of nonviolent crimes would be expunged. 

Massachusetts:  Licensed marijuana cafes could eventually open in Massachusetts, after the state Cannabis Control Commission voted to approve a “social consumption” pilot program in up to a dozen Massachusetts cities and towns.  Currently, four states – Alaska, California, Nevada, and Colorado – authorize social consumption.  The Cannabis Control Commission on Thursday approved a policy that ultimately could allow marijuana to be sold at cafes and public events.  By a 3-2 vote, commissioners approved a framework for a social consumption pilot program.  “There is a strong desire to have this,” commission chairman Steve Hoffman explained.  “I believe it’s the will of the people.”  Social consumption would give people a space to buy and consume marijuana legally outside of a home, similar to buying drinks at a bar.   The commission’s vote in favor of cannabis cafes has the potential to provide a safer environment to consume the plant legally as well as infuse more money into the Massachusetts economy. Remember, a well-regulated, legal substance is far better than a poorly-regulated, illegal one.

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Cannabis in 2021: NewsMunchies’ Wish List for the New Year

2020 has been one for the record books.  In 2021, cannabis can be a solution to some of the problems posed by COVID-19 and racial injustice.  My top wish list selection would be for President-elect Joe Biden to enthusiastically approach cannabis legalization at the federal level.  Once Biden is sworn in, what a dream it…

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2020 has been one for the record books.  In 2021, cannabis can be a solution to some of the problems posed by COVID-19 and racial injustice.  My top wish list selection would be for President-elect Joe Biden to enthusiastically approach cannabis legalization at the federal level.  Once Biden is sworn in, what a dream it would be if he ended the disastrous War on Drugs.

Democratic leaders have pledged an end to federal marijuana prohibition, and now that Republicans lost control of the Senate, the Biden administration could have an opening to move in on major marijuana reform.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who will be the Senate Majority Leader, has a history of introducing comprehensive reform of marijuana laws, including the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, as well as the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE Banking Act), which was introduced as a proposed add-on to COVID-19 legislation.  The SAFE Banking Act is a bipartisan bill seeking to align federal and state “banking services access” laws by prohibiting federal banking regulators from penalizing banks and credit unions servicing marijuana-related businesses.

Previously, Joe Biden had been a “tea teetotaler” when it came to support for any mood-enhancing or mind-altering substances.  His father battled alcoholism and his son fought addiction to cocaine.  Going with an “oldie but goodie,” the President-elect had promoted a gateway drug theory about cannabis being the first step to more hard core, dangerous drugs.  

As a result, my wish list for cannabis reform is just that – a desire for cannabis reform and most likely, rescheduling – because I’m under no illusion cannabis will be legalized under Biden.  In 2021, cannabis is not just about the high; it’s about the economy, racial justice, and a culture worth fighting for.

The Economy 

The threat of a deep, national recession should signal to lawmakers it’s time to look at ways to steer the American economy so it doesn’t fall off a cliff.  The economic waters are exceptionally rough, and to not explore every possible revenue stream would be a huge disservice to citizens.  Many local and state leaders in cannabis-friendly states are relying heavily upon the tax income it mines from all those cannabis flower and THC-gummy bear sales.  

Cannabis reform is key to an economic recovery post-COVID.  Repealing the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s served as a major catalyst to help create millions of jobs and generate the equivalent of billions in tax revenues during the Great Depression.  Now, states across the country are turning to cannabis businesses as a source of tax revenue and jobs creation.  States such as California, Colorado, and Illinois continue to set cannabis sales records.  

National decriminalization in the United States could result in billions in tax revenue, and an estimated 1.5 million new jobs.  Unlike other businesses during COVID-19, people still ordered both recreational and medical cannabis during the lockdowns.  State’s weed windfall produced jobs and tax revenue that is too significant to ignore. 

Black Lives Matter

2020 has brought deep-rooted systemic racism in our country to the forefront.  The names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are nationally recognized.  These high-profile, fatal incidents of violence against Black people have prompted widespread protests and a national discussion about systemic racism. 

Our criminal justice system reveals that communities of color bear the brunt of our nation’s most egregious and unjust cannabis policies.  Despite cannabis usage rates between whites and non-whites being similar, Blacks are arrested for cannabis offenses at a rate of nearly 4:1, compared to whites.

People of color are historically targeted by selective enforcement and discriminatory sentencing practices.  The War on Drugs has been a tool to target Black and Brown people, and change life trajectories in those communities for millions of people.  This means that, in the middle of a pandemic, thousands of people of color are currently stuck in crowded, unsafe prisons for minor drug offenses.  We must restore the lives of those hurt by these prejudicial policies of the past. 

In-Person Socialization 

Once we come out of this hellish coronavirus ordeal that has claimed the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans, people will want out of their homes.  Dining out is vital to our community, experiences, humanity, and sanity.  Public cannabis consumption spaces, known as “social consumption lounges” or smoke clubs will thrive in a post-COVID world.  They fill a gap in society that protects the consumer and gives them a place to enjoy marijuana products worry-free without breaking the law.  

Cannabis lounges allow patrons to safely use products that they purchased on-site.  Some cannabis lounges in recreational cities like Denver are private clubs that require you to pay a fee but they are well worth it; these membership clubs build a strong sense of community that is missing in a coronavirus world.  

Cannabis lounges are changing the culture and education around the plant and its many uses.  These are stylish, elegant, comfortable, and welcoming spaces.  (Cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Denver require smoke lounges to have air filtration systems for the comfort and safety of patrons’ experiences.)  

My wish is that we find a new humanity and a new kindness as it relates to cannabis in 2021.  There are many reasons to be hopeful in the new year. 

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What a RELEAF: Congress May Finally Decriminalize Cannabis

Cannabis rescheduling is no longer out of reach.  Last December, which feels like a lifetime ago, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act), which sought to decriminalize cannabis nationally by removing it from the federal government’s Schedule I controlled substance list.  However, in 2020, the MORE Act…

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Cannabis rescheduling is no longer out of reach.  Last December, which feels like a lifetime ago, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act), which sought to decriminalize cannabis nationally by removing it from the federal government’s Schedule I controlled substance list. 

However, in 2020, the MORE Act faced an uphill battle in an unfriendly, Republican-controlled Senate.  In fact, Senate Republicans balked at the measure.  But the tide has turned.  In the aftermath of the insurrection by domestic terrorists at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Republicans aren’t in a position of power anymore. 

Georgians deserve our sincerest appreciation, for the Senate’s power shift makes cannabis rescheduling no longer just a pipe dream.  Both Senators-elect Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock are on record in support of ending federal marijuana prohibition.  The results of Georgia’s Senate runoff elections give us cannabis advocates and consumers tremendous hope for nationwide decriminalization.  Their win gives Democrats a slim majority in the Senate to perhaps pass even more progressive cannabis legislation in the 117th Congress.  

President-elect Joe Biden now has both chambers to advance his agenda.  He stated during the campaign that his administration would pursue cannabis decriminalization and seek expungements for people with cannabis-related convictions. 

More about the MORE Act:  If passed by both the House and Senate, the MORE Act would deschedule cannabis, allow states to govern their commercial cannabis programs, implement a 5% federal retail tax on cannabis products, and direct that tax revenue to aid groups disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a recent interview that if Democrats retake control of his chamber, he will prioritize advancing marijuana legalization legislation.  Well, it happened.  They came, they saw, they conquered. I suppose if you don’t have Russian interference in elections, that sort of thing can happen. 

Currently, 15 states now have laws protecting recreational cannabis use, and 36 have laws protecting medical use, despite the fact that cannabis possession is still illegal under federal law.  Due to pro-Trump terrorists storming Capitol Hill, Republican leaders are calling for removing Trump from office.  As such, the future of the U.S. feels greener and brighter than ever. 

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MORE Act Could Federally Decriminalize Cannabis

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, sponsored by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level and allow states to set their cannabis regulation policies.   Removing cannabis from the government’s list of controlled substances and removing existing criminal penalties for people who grow, sell or use it would be historic. …

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The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, sponsored by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level and allow states to set their cannabis regulation policies.  

Removing cannabis from the government’s list of controlled substances and removing existing criminal penalties for people who grow, sell or use it would be historic.  Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat and founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, called the MORE Act the “most comprehensive federal cannabis reform legislation” ever considered.  

The Act would also expunge the records of those with prior cannabis convictions and impose a federal 5% cannabis tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war, and, let’s be honest, COVID.  Other provisions include expansion for medical cannabis with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  

However, the MORE Act may not pass easily in a Republican-controlled Senate.  Cannabis advocates desperately needed a Blue Wave on Nov. 3, 2020.  Approval of the MORE Act may hinge on the outcome of the two Georgia Senate runoff elections in January, which needs Democratic victors to secure Democratic control of the House and Senate. 

Will the MORE Act pass?   Is the bill likely to be considered by the Senate prior to the end of the legislative session later in December?  The Act has set a vote by Congress between December 2-4, 2020.

According to a new Gallup poll, 49% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats support full legalization of marijuana.  Seven in 10 Americans support legalizing the possession and use of cannabis by adults.  But without a Senate open to considering the legislation, any major bills passed by the House are likely to be blocked. 

The MORE Act remains a key component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism, turning around the economy, and advancing criminal justice reform.  The MORE Act is a significant, if not purely symbolic, step in the direction of legalizing marijuana federally. 

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

To be clear, the MORE Act would not create a federal regulatory structure for cannabis or force states to change their own laws.  This is why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s criticism of the Act perplexes me, but so does everything he does. 

McConnell has openly criticized the House efforts towards the MORE Act, tweeting, “This is their effort at coronavirus relief?”  Considering his party has done a bang-up job of combating COVID, my answer to his ill-timed and uninformed question would be a certifiable, “Yes.” 

To date, despite state legalization efforts, millions of Americans continue to consume a product the federal government still categorizes as a highly dangerous illegal drug with no medical value.

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