Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Pennsylvania Gov advocating for full legalization to aid economic recovery amidst COVID pandemic

In this post back in March, I wondered aloud "In a post-COVID economy, will job creation and tax revenue from marijuana reform become irresistible?".  Five months later, I am sad that we are not yet to a "post-COVID" era, but can still note this new piece at Marijuana Moment revealing a prominent development serving as a kind of answer to my question.  The piece is headlined "Pennsylvania Governor Calls For State-Run Marijuana Sales To Boost Economy Amid Coronavirus," and here are excerpts:

The governor of Pennsylvania is calling on lawmakers to legalize marijuana to aid the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic — and he’s floating the idea that the state itself would sell the cannabis to consumers.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) talked about his plan to address the COVID-19 crisis and included legalization prominently in his agenda. Tax revenue from marijuana sales could help “supplement” relief loans provided by the federal government, he said.  Asked about the prospects of advancing legalization legislation through a Republican-controlled legislature, the governor said, “I think there was some appetite for it before and my hope is that with the pandemic and the hit that we’ve taken to revenues that there might be a little more interest in it right now.”...

Unlike Colorado and all other legal markets, however, Wolf is suggesting that lawmakers pursue a state-run cannabis model.  “The proposal is, that for people that people over 21 years of age, I think we have a state store system that would be an ideal way to distribute it,” he said.  “But I think it’s also a way that the state could actually get some tax revenue from something that people are evidently already doing.”

The governor also acknowledged that tax revenue from marijuana sales wouldn’t occur immediately, but he stressed the need to implement regulations quickly so that they can begin collecting those dollars as soon as possible.  According to an outline of the plan, 50 percent of that tax revenue “would be earmarked for historically disadvantaged businesses.”

“Along with the call to the General Assembly to pass legislation legalizing the sale and use of recreational marijuana, the governor proposes that a portion of the revenue be used to further restorative justice programs that give priority to repairing the harm done to crime victims and communities as a result of marijuana criminalization,” it states.  “Also, the governor wants the General Assembly to pursue criminal justice reform policies that restore justice for individuals convicted of marijuana-related offenses.”...

Shortly after the governor announced that he is embracing the reform, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model as Wolf is now proposing. With this new plan, Wolf is also aligning himself with a majority of Senate Democrats, who sent him a letter last month, arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

Prior to state shelter-in-place and social distancing mandates, Rep. Jake Wheatley (D) announced that he would be introducing a revised legalization bill for the session. The lawmaker, who filed a similar bill last year, wrote that his proposal will be “the most comprehensive and well-vetted legislation providing for a legal adult-use cannabis industry.” It would also provide for expungements and releasing people from prison for non-violent drug offenses.

Outside of Pennsylvania, other leaders are recognizing that taxing and regulating marijuana can provide a much-needed economic boost amid the coronavirus pandemic. In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said in May that the state needs to explore every option for economic relief, and that includes passing cannabis legalization.  The governor of New Jersey said last month that legalizing cannabis could simultaneously help the state recover economically from crisis while also promoting racial justice.  New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was asked in May about whether marijuana legalization could serve as a tool for economic recovery and he expressed support for the proposal, stating that while the legislature hasn’t yet accomplished the policy change, “I believe we will” down the line.

A few of many prior COVID-cannabis related posts:

August 25, 2020 in Campaigns, elections and public officials concerning reforms, Political perspective on reforms, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 14, 2020

A classic, modern (or modern, classic) debate on "Should We Legalize Marijuana?"

Newsweek has brought together two leading voices in the marijuana reform conversation here under the headline  "Debate: Should We Legalize Marijuana? | Opinion."  Here is how the opinion editor sets up the discussion and links to the commentary:

Drug overdoses in America have inexplicably skyrocketed over the past five years. We are, it seems, facing terrible societal crises of mass despondency and lonely atomization. What's more, the stuff peddled to kids today, more potent in terms of THC level than ever before, ain't exactly your grandpa's weed from Woodstock. But on the other hand, surely the War on Drugs has been an abject failure, needlessly ruining lives and locking up youngsters who wouldn't otherwise have a chance at success in live. And as American public opinion shifts, is it finally time to fully legalize recreational marijuana?

This week, of Law Enforcement Action Partnership debates Dr. Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana on one of the perennial questions facing the American populace. We hope you enjoy the detailed, lively exchange.

As is often the case, these two advocates make their arguments eloquently and effectively. Franklin stresses the myriad criminal justice harms and inequities that have resulted from marijuana prohibitions; Sabet stresses the myriad public health risks and inequities that may result from marijuana legalization and commercialization.  Most of their points are sound, and I often think the crux of the marijuana reform debate turns on one's perspective on whether one is more concerned with documented criminal justice harms and inequities from prohibition or with potential public health risks and inequities that may result from marijuana legalization and commercialization.

August 14, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Thorough review of "Where Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris Stands On Marijuana"

1563932774784Regular readers surely know of my appreciation for all the work done at Marijuana Moment to cover all sorts of marijuana issues, and this recent posting on the record on Senator Kamala Harris highlights why that resource does so much more than anyone else on this front.  Specifically, the posting goes on and on, because Harris has a long record, and here is how the coverage gets started (with links from the original):

Joe Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his vice presidential running mate, the campaign announced on Tuesday.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s choice to join him on the ticket has evolved significantly on marijuana policy over her career.  Though she coauthored an official voter guide argument opposing a California cannabis legalization measure as a prosecutor in 2010 and laughed in the face of a reporter who asked her about the issue in 2014, she went on to sponsor legislation to federally deschedule marijuana in 2019.

It remains to be seen whether she will push Biden in the same direction, as the former vice president has maintained opposition to ending marijuana prohibition despite supermajority support among Democrats.

While Harris, a former attorney general of California, made marijuana reform a major component of her criminal justice platform when she unsuccessfully ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, she’s been less vocal about the issue since dropping out in December 2019.

Convincing Biden to come around seems like a steep task in any case.  Some advocates suspect that the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee voted against an amendment to add legalization as a 2020 party plank specifically because it’s at odds with the presumptive nominee’s agenda.  Biden has drawn the line at decriminalizing marijuana possession, expunging past convictions, modest federal rescheduling, medical cannabis legalization and letting states set their own policies.

But it remains the case that Harris is the chief Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act — a comprehensive piece of legalization legislation that includes various social equity and restorative justice provisions.  Advocates will be watching to see if she continues to advocate for the reform move as she’s on-boarded to the Biden campaign.

The senator indicated in July that she doesn’t plan to push the presumptive presidential nominee on the issue.

Here’s a deeper look at where Harris stands on marijuana [click through to see it all]:

August 13, 2020 in Campaigns, elections and public officials concerning reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Political perspective on reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Is the Black Lives Matter movement now significantly advancing the marijuana reform movement?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Politico piece.  The headline, "Black Lives Matter movement sparks 'collective awakening' on marijuana policies," and the start of the piece suggests the answer to the question is yes:

States and cities across the country have overhauled their marijuana policies in recent months, propelled by the Black Lives Matter protests over racial inequality and police brutality.

Since protests began in early June, many states and municipalities have adopted new cannabis regulations. Nashville, Tenn., stopped prosecuting minor marijuana possession cases.  Portland, Ore., redirected all cannabis tax revenue away from the Portland Police Bureau.  Colorado’s Legislature passed a long-stalled proposal to address social equity and scrap old marijuana convictions, and Sonoma County, Calif., and New York state expanded their programs to erase cannabis criminal records....

Cannabis was legalized in Colorado almost eight years ago, but without a social equity program or the expungement of cannabis-related convictions.  Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Singer first pushed for expungement of cannabis records in 2014 and has pressed for marijuana possession charges to be wiped ever since.

But Singer said it was the protests around racial justice that finally got the proposal to the governor’s desk with strong bipartisan support — the social equity and expungements bill only garnered one “no” vote in the state Senate.  Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law at the end of June.

But as the article continues, it becomes less clear if anything really big is changing with marijuana reform as racial justice gets more attention:

[M]any of the states and cities that did change their marijuana policies were already moving in that direction. Nashville spent the last six years reducing the number of marijuana arrests, before the protests motivated District Attorney General Glenn Funk to stop prosecuting possession entirely.  Portland was already reassessing where cannabis tax revenue was directed, and the “defund the police” movement provided the catalyst for the city council to change the budget. In many of these cases, conversations around racial justice simply pushed legislation over the finish line in a jurisdiction that was already working on it.

And it’s clear that the racial justice conversation has not convinced the most vocal skeptics.  In Pennsylvania, for example, the state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police is not changing its anti-legalization position.  Even some Democratic lawmakers in the state remain unconvinced about the current legalization effort, despite the demonstrations....

On Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear that racial justice protests have affected the motivation to pass marijuana policy reform.  While many of the issue’s most prominent advocates have been silent on federal legalization in the last two months, House leaders are now considering a vote on the MORE Act — which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge some records — sometime this fall....

In June, Congress tried to reach an agreement on police reform.  The House passed a sweeping policing bill largely along partisan lines.  Senate Republicans introduced a more modest package of reforms, which Senate Democrats ultimately killed because it did not go far enough.  Missing from either chamber’s proposal was anything that would overhaul federal marijuana policies. Even many of the most ardent champions of marijuana legalization as criminal justice reform were silent.

A few of may prior related posts:

August 9, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Better Branding on the Big Screen: How the Marijuana Industry Could Use Product Placement to Increase Public Support"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Tyler Riemenschneider, a recent graduate The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.  (This paper is yet another in the on-going series of student papers supported by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.)   Here is this latest paper's abstract:

Reefer Madness is often credited for spreading anti-marijuana sentiment across the country.  Could modern movies depicting marijuana have the opposite effect?  This paper asks whether film can influence our opinions on marijuana use and legalization.  If movies do have a persuasive effect, the marijuana industry may seek to utilize film as a way to build public support.  One method for doing so would be product placement.

This paper discusses potential strategies the industry could use to implement product placement, as well as the legal and industry barriers that could prevent or minimize the industry’s ability to engage in the practice.  However, a measured approach to product placement could be a viable persuasive tool for the industry.

August 9, 2020 in Film, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

"Legal Cannabis Provides A Bright Spot In A Bleak Economy"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Forbes piece.  Here are excerpts:

The pandemic has hobbled entire sectors of the economy but the cannabis industry is surviving, even thriving. Sales are up as consumers turn to marijuana for stress relief and recreation.  Companies in the industry are making those sales easier and safer with online ordering to reduce contact between retailers and customers.  There are even a variety of new products for consumers to try.

Consumers may be cutting their spending, but not on cannabis.  Retail sales of medical and recreational cannabis in the U.S. is predicted to top $15 billion by the end of 2020 according to the Marijuana Business Factbook.  That’s an increase of about 40% over 2019 sales.

Two thousand people who consume marijuana regularly were surveyed by Verilife and reported using more cannabis during the pandemic.  Their increased consumption upped their average monthly spend on cannabis from $49 to $76.  Greg James, the publisher of Marijuana Venture and Sun Grower magazines, said at least part of the sales increase is due to the bars closing. “Staying home and enjoying a joint or edible becomes the thing to do,” he said....

Of course, the cannabis industry is not a money-printing machine, even when demand expands.  Basic business rules apply including follow the intricate laws carefully, keep pristine records, and hire excellent employees.  Most businesses fail because they "have questionable management and unrealistic business plans,” said James.  He has spoken with hundreds of cannabis companies during the six years his magazines have been published.  “As with most businesses, the successful ones quickly adapt and figure out how to manage with the new normal,” he said. “Good management and well trained employees are as valuable in Cannabis as in every other industry.”

August 4, 2020 in Business laws and regulatory issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another example of stark racial disparity in marijuana enforcement in a northern city headed by an African-American police chief

Chief Hawkins headshotA couple of years ago, I noted in this post a local press piece from Minneapolis reporting on low-level marijuana stings being stopped after an extreme racial disparity was revealed ("46 of 47 arrested were black").   I thought this story was notable not only because of the extreme disparity in arrests, but also because this took place in a northern city and one in which the new police chief was African-American. 

Of course, two years later, Minneapolis is a key location for the intersection of policing and racial justice due to the needless killing of George Floyd.  But this lengthy local story from another northern city headed by an African-American police chief highlights that stark racial disparity in marijuana enforcement is still often the norm, not the exception  The piece is headlined "In Albany, marijuana arrests fall almost entirely on Black residents," and here are excerpts:

Last year, New York Civil Liberties Union lawyers released a report that showed police in Albany County overwhelmingly arrested minorities for low-level marijuana violations.  At the time, police insisted they did not target minorities and Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins vowed to examine what was behind the disparity in his city.

But a year later, a Times Union review of Albany police data from July 9, 2019, to July 9, 2020, shows little has changed. The city's police department made arrests or wrote tickets for marijuana-related offenses 134 times, ranging from violation-level tickets to felony-level possession arrests.  According to the department’s data, 97 percent of the time, those arrested or ticketed were Black.  Only four white people were charged with marijuana offenses during the time period despite nationwide evidence that shows Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate.

Hawkins said violent-crime and quality-of-life investigations drive many of the arrests, but his vow to conduct an in-depth investigation of the matter was sidetracked by the department's need to focus on matters connected to the coronavirus pandemic.

The arrests are happening nearly two years after District Attorney David Soares said he would no longer prosecute minor marijuana arrests when it is the only charge a defendant faces.  The data shows that the majority of the arrests were for low-level offenses, either violations or low-level misdemeanors.  Seventy six of the 134 incidents were for unlawful possession of marijuana, a violation.  Twenty-five arrests were for felony amounts of marijuana, which is at least 8 ounces of the drug.

Debora Brown-Johnson, president of the Albany NAACP branch, said the organization had a conversation with the police department about its approach to marijuana cases after the NYCLU study was released last year.  Last week, she said the organization remains concerned and the issue is something Mayor Kathy Sheehan needed to address. “Questions still exist, what’s going on here, is this a targeted group?” she said....

In an interview, Hawkins said a more in-depth examination of the department’s marijuana enforcement had been delayed while the city confronts difficulties with the pandemic but he defended the way his officers enforced the laws around marijuana possession.  Hawkins said all of the felony-level arrests and many of the other citations were connected with police investigations into violent crime or “major” quality-of-life issues related to drug use and sales.  “It’s always concerning when you see that all of the arrests were black males,” said Hawkins, who is Black. “It’s not surprising to me that when we’re concentrating on addressing violent crime … we’re going to pull in some marijuana-related issues.”

In recent months, violence in the city has spiked but there has been no corresponding rise in marijuana arrests.  Since June 13, the department has written one marijuana citation, for a violation-level offense on July 26.  From the department’s data it is difficult to make connections between specific arrests and investigation into major crimes or shootings.  Of the 134 arrests and citations, 117 are related to calls for a crime in progress, according to the data, but the statistics give no indication of what crimes were being committed or investigated.

Hawkins said the areas with more marijuana citations are locations where police are receiving more calls for service, such as West Hill, Arbor Hill and the South End. According to patrol-zone-level data, 30 percent of the marijuana citations and arrests happened in the area bordered by Central Avenue, Judson Avenue and Lark Street, which includes parts of Arbor Hill and West Hill.  It is unclear if the tickets result in any meaningful prosecutions.  Last summer the state decriminalized the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. The maximum penalty is $50 for possessing less than 1 ounce of pot and a maximum of $200 for between 1 and 2 ounces.

After Soares' office said it would no longer prosecute cases where the sole charge was possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana, the Sheriff’s Department said it would stop writing possession tickets.  The city police department, however, decided to continue to make those arrests.  The department has had conversations about how to handle low-level possession tickets and Hawkins said officers were not out on patrol looking for minor marijuana crimes.  “We’re not stopping young men in the community and writing them minor possession of marijuana tickets, it’s just not happening,” he said. “I’m not seeing that these young men are being targeted but it’s concerning to me that that they are the ones who are impacted by this.”

Though the stark racial disparity in the Albany data on marijuana enforcement is what rightly generates headlines here, the story is also a revealing account for how marijuana enforcement ends up embedded in and connected to other aspects of policing even when states and localities have made significant decriminalization efforts.

August 4, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Is the COVID pandemic really "eating away at the illicit marijuana market"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the headline of this new Politico piece which is fully headlined "The pandemic is eating away at the illicit marijuana market: Legal sales have boomed since March, though it’s hard to say how many customers previously bought from illegal dealers."  Here are excerpts:

The legal marijuana industry has spent years battling illegal sellers who have eaten away at its market share and undercut its prices. But the coronavirus has proven to be a boon for legal pot shops, as customers fear the risks associated with inhaling questionable products and are nervous about letting sellers into their homes.

Legal operations have moved quickly to take advantage of the situation, seizing on relaxed rules to expand shopping options in states across the country, including curbside pickups and deliveries. Also, pandemic-frazzled Americans are simply getting stoned more often.

“It's understandable that people may be more hesitant to get their products from sources that are unregulated,” said Kris Krane, CEO of 4Front Ventures, which operates dispensaries in multiple states. “They may not want to go to their dealer’s house, or they may not want to have their dealer come into their house, at a time when people are social distancing and not supposed to be interacting with people that they don't know.”

In addition, cities that never allowed pot shops in their towns, even in states where marijuana is legal, are rethinking the local bans in search of fresh tax revenue. And more people than ever are registered as medical marijuana patients: Florida added nearly 5,000 patients a week in June, and more than 50,000 since March.

The data is murky — credible sales figures on illegal marijuana transactions are inherently difficult to come by — and it’s likely that those sales are also booming as anxious Americans smoke more weed while hunkered down. But many close industry watchers believe the current circumstances are pushing more Americans into state-legal markets. Revenues are expected to hit $17 billion this year, according to New Frontier Data — a 25 percent spike over 2019.

Mitch Baruchowitz, managing partner at cannabis investment firm Merida Capital Partners, argued in a paper in May that the pandemic is “cannibalizing” the illegal market. He hasn’t seen anything in the ensuing months to change that assessment. “The vast majority of the current growth in the cannabis space is being driven by consumers transitioning from the black market to the legal market,” Baruchowitz wrote.

The boom in sales is driven in large part by new legal markets, particularly the start of recreational sales in Illinois and Michigan. But even some states with relatively mature markets have seen big spikes in sales. In Oregon, for example, monthly revenues jumped from just below $70 million during the first two months of this year to more than $100 million in May and June....

Even with this year’s rapid growth, however, the legal marijuana market is still dwarfed by illegal sales, which New Frontier estimates at $63 billion for this year. Nowhere is the underground weed market a bigger problem than in California, where it’s estimated that 80 percent of marijuana sales are still from illegal sources — and most industry officials are deeply skeptical that the pandemic will significantly alter that reality in the short term....

Michigan faces a similar problem in quashing illegal sales: The vast majority of cities in the state — including Detroit — still don’t allow recreational pot shops to operate. In addition, marijuana cultivation is still ramping up in the state, since full legalization only took effect in December. “Demand, especially in the adult-use market, is still higher than the supply as the production in the industry continues to grow,” said Andrew Brisbo, executive director of Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency. “That keeps prices still higher than I think they will be in the long term.”

Industry officials are divided on whether the pandemic is eroding the illicit marijuana market, but there’s little doubt that the current economic troubles will push more states to consider legalization. That’s in large part because states' desperation for cash is only going to grow. Even if marijuana taxes would only make a difference at the margins, it undoubtedly will prove enticing to lawmakers.

Some New York lawmakers are pushing this idea, after legalization efforts failed in each of the last two years. They’ll likely face even greater pressure to enact recreational sales if New Jersey voters pass a recreational legalization referendum in November, as expected. Even in deep red states, the idea is likely to get a good look. A Republican lawmaker in Oklahoma has argued the state should look at allowing recreational sales, suggesting it could raise $100 million per year.

August 2, 2020 in Business laws and regulatory issues, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (3)