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Capitol Confidential: COVID-19 could derail New York cannabis legalization

March 8, 2020
Capitol Confidential is a pop-up column tracking dozens of cannabis bills and initiatives across the nation. We’ll continue to offer a weekly roundup of political action through the end of the legislative season in June.

Coronavirus could stall New York legalization

New York’s effort to legalize cannabis this year didn’t need another obstacle, but then came the novel coronavirus. Yes, the effects of COVID-19 now threaten to derail Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fact-finding tour de cannabis in other legal states. “I hope that we can get that done on time, but this is a priority,” Cuomo said of the outbreak in comments to reporters last week. The governor had planned to tour legal states, including Massachusetts, Illinois, and California or Colorado. (He had even planned to hire an official taster!) But interstate travel doesn’t seem like such a hot idea right now.

The deadline to legalize through the city’s budget process, which Cuomo said is his preferred option because he isn’t sure there’s support for a standalone bill, is next month. Meanwhile, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the key sponsor of a bill to legalize adult-use cannabis, said she wouldn’t support any compromise on legalization that leaves out social equity provisions. She wants to see a dedicated funding stream for communities adversely affected by the state’s drug laws. Disagreement over similar issues slowed progress on a legalization proposal last year. Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ first social equity store is scheduled to open in Boston on Monday morning.

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Florida moving to limit THC for under-21 patients

House Republicans are moving forward with a plan to cap THC in medical marijuana products for patients under 21. The provision, included in a health care package (HB 713) passed by the House last Friday on a 79-31 vote, would impose a 10% THC limit on products sold to patients under 21.

Proponents such as House Speaker José Olivia had suggested they would limit THC for all medical marijuana patients, but that proposal drew pushback from veterans and other groups. Senate President Bill Galvano, however, indicated the Senate likely wouldn’t agree to the proposed limit, noting that a similar amendment had been dropped in that chamber after members from both parties opposed it. “Obviously there was no support for that in the Senate,” he told reporters last week.

Quick hits, state by state

Connecticut: Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to legalize cannabis enjoyed its first public hearing before the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee last week. The committee didn’t vote on the measure, but members heard hours of impassioned testimony, including support from some of the state’s top officials. Opponents called the plan a money grab by greedy companies at a time when the state government is struggling to pay its bills. Advocates called the hearing a first step on Connecticut’s road to legalization, but even some supporters of have been skeptical the governor’s plan can earn enough votes in the Legislature.

Georgia: The House last week passed a scaled-back version of a bill to require specific licenses in order to process hemp in the state. An earlier iteration of HB 847 would have tied misdemeanor charges to unlicensed hemp possession, which critics worried would put people at risk of arrest and prosecution over CBD oils. The new version, which passed the House 157-9, removes those criminal penalties. The bill still needs approval from the Senate before it heads to the governor’s desk.

Hawaii: State senators OK’d a plan to eliminate felony charges for low-level drug possession. The Senate passed SB 2793 on a 21-4 vote last week, though it seems nobody’s completely happyf with the bill. Opponents say people caught with drugs already have ways of avoiding felony charges under the current system. Drug policy reformers, meanwhile, say the measure is only a half-step forward. They argue that misdemeanor charges for drug possession under the proposal would still mean that people caught with drugs could be incarcerated, which they say is neither effective nor humane as a means of treatment.

Idaho: The House last week passed a bill to regulate vape stores, which supporters arguing is necessary to keep vaping products out of the hands of minors. HB 538 would require that vape shops be licensed and inspected by the state Department of Health and Welfare. Opponents, including Rep. Vito Barbieri, who owns a vape shop, said the measure is unnecessary because the products are already illegal for minors to possess. Rep. Scott Syme, who voted for the bill, said it would provide a needed enforcement mechanism. “Sometimes when your pants are drooping and you’ve got suspenders, you need to put a belt on,” he said. “I think this is a belt.”

Indiana: Indiana is now surrounded by states with legal cannabis, either for medical or adult use. Now some lawmakers say it’s time to catch up. The Jeffersonville News and Tribune took a dive into where Indiana lawmakers stand on legalization. Don’t get your hopes up: The headline begins, “UP IN SMOKE…” and things don’t improve much from there. “The argument is if we use it medicinally, then we’ll use it recreationally,” Rep. Mike Karickhoff told the paper, describing his position as open-minded but cautious. “But it’s still illegal federally, and Gov. [Eric] Holcomb has been very firm he’s not going to support any legislation until the federal government legalizes it.”

Kentucky: A bill to legalize medical marijuana has passed the state House, but opponents last week rallied in an effort to stall the measure in the Senate. “We’ve watched other states go down the road of medical marijuana which, not shortly thereafter, many times led to legalization,” said Chris Cohron of the Kentucky Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, one of a number of officials who spoke against the bill in Frankfort last week. “This is a slippery slope that we do not need to, for the youth of the commonwealth of Kentucky, need to go down.” The House approved the bill last month, but it’s not clear it will get a vote in the Senate. Meanwhile, Senate opponents have filed a competing measure calling for more research instead of legalization.

Louisiana: Think a patchwork of different state laws on cannabis can be confusing? A new bill in Louisiana, where the legislative session kicks off this week, would allow individual cities choose to legalize cannabis for adults, including “the sale, possession, distribution, and use of marijuana within the jurisdiction of the governing authority.” In other words, New Orleans alone could theoretically legalize, while the rest of the state remained closed. The proposed constitutional amendment wouldn’t change state cannabis laws generally but would instead allow cities to hold elections asking voters if they’d like to legalize locally. It’s an interesting step forward, but it’s also a long shot. To qualify for November’s ballot, the measure needs support from two-thirds of both houses of the state Legislature.

Maine: Cannabis delivery is legal in California and a handful of other states. Now some Maine lawmakers want the state’s new legal cannabis retailers to have delivery as an option, too. A bill approved last week by a legislative committee would give regulators the ability to create adult-use cannabis delivery licenses. But as the Portland Press-Herald’s Penelope Overton reports, “That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, even if the bill, L.D. 1621, were to become law.” State regulators—the ones who would be setting the delivery rules—opposed the bill when it was introduced, saying it would mean reworking the bulk of state licensing regulations and could delay the expected summertime launch of the state’s adult-use market.

Maryland: Groups of legislators want to help people with low-level cannabis convictions avoid ongoing consequences from those records, but they’re having trouble agreeing on exactly how to do it. The Senate version of the proposal, which was heard in committee last week, would automatically expunge criminal records related to cannabis possession where no other convictions occurred. The House version takes a different approach, shielding cannabis convictions rather than erasing them entirely. Proponents of the House version say it’s a simpler process than expungement, which some worry could be a logistical headache. Other states have managed to expunge thousands of past convictions with help from private technology organizations.

Massachusetts: License applicants who qualify for the state’s Economic Empowerment program could gain access to no-interest loans under a bill, S.1123, that won a favorable report from the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy. The measure, by Sen. Nick Collins, would enshrine those equity programs into state law and create a fund to provide no-interest loans to qualifying license applicants. “As we continue to strive to reduce disparities in economic opportunity, mobility, and the criminal justice system, it is important that this industry proactively invest in equitable outcomes for all communities,” Collins said. Members of the Cannabis Control Commission last month wrote to lawmakers in order to encourage more support for equity efforts, including a provision to allow state regulators to review and enforce municipal governments’ agreements with local cannabis businesses.

Minnesota: It’s been more than three weeks since House Leader Ryan Winkler reportedly said he would introduce an adult-use legalization bill within two weeks. Winker has said that the proposal would be “the best legalization bill in the country to date,” although he’s also acknowledged it’s “highly likely it will take more than a year to get it done.” It’s possible Winkler’s simply putting finishing touches on the bill or working to build a coalition of support within the Capitol. Either way we’re starting to get a little impatient after all the hype.

Missouri: The effort to sort through Missouri’s medical marijuana licensing mess continued last week. At this point it’s difficult to separate political grandstanding from legitimate criticism of alleged conflicts of interest among government officials and multi-state cannabis operations. Read the latest update in the Springfield News-Leader. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Star editorial board asks: “How did Missouri screw up medical marijuana licenses?”

Nebraska: Former Sen. Tommy Garrett, a Republican, announced he would team up with the group Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana to qualify a medical marijuana legalization ballot measure the group has been collecting signatures for during recent weeks. Garrett chairs a group called Adopt a Decrease in Oppressive Property Taxes (ADOPT) and says the measure “will improve health outcomes for citizens across the state, while also raising millions of dollars in revenue and economic growth.” The proposed initiative would guarantee the right of patients 18 and older to use, possess, access, purchase, and “safely and discreetly produce an adequate supply of” cannabis to treat a serious medical condition. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Garrett said medical marijuana tax revenue could be used to reduce property taxes.

Nevada: Curious how cannabis legalization is affecting Nevada’s drivers? So are state lawmakers, who are looking into how to tweak the state’s DUI laws to better reflect the effects of cannabis impairment and the ways they differ from alcohol and other drugs. No sweeping proposals just yet, but the Nevada Independent has an in-depth update on where things currently stand.

New Jersey: A New Jersey Assembly panel last week passed a bill that would allow patients to get medical marijuana recommendations through online visits with doctors. Last month the Senate passed its own version of the bill, S-619. Meanwhile, NJ.com has an update on where legalization organizers are with fewer than 250 days left to go before the election. Lawmakers last year approved a plan to put adult-use legalization to voters on November’s ballot. While polling numbers show strong support, there’s a lot left to do before Election Day.

Ohio: Ohio legalization advocates are giving a ballot measure another go. Proponents last week submitted an initial petition and their first 1,000 signatures, though they have a long path ahead to qualify for November’s ballot. Ohio voters in 2015 voted down a separate legalization initiative that many critics, including some major reform groups, criticized as unfairly favorable to a small number of initial businesses.

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Oklahoma: The petitions are rolling in to put adult-legal cannabis on Oklahoma’s ballot. State Question 812 would legalize cannabis for adults over 18 as well as decriminalize cannabis, requiring the state Department of Corrections to release people serving time for various cannabis crimes. Another petition filed Wednesday, State Question 811, aims to reinforce the state’s existing medical marijuana system as well as legalize cannabis for adults 18 and older.

Oregon: Oregon drug treatment advocates said last week that they’d collected enough signatures to qualify a measure for November’s ballot that would remove criminal penalties for the simple possession of drugs. If passed, it would be the first statewide decriminalization measure in U.S. history. Part of an effort to reframe the state’s approach to drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one, the proposal would remove the risk of incarceration for people caught with small amounts of drugs, and it would tap cannabis tax revenue to expand the state’s worst-in-the-nation access to treatment services.

Pennsylvania: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a supporter of a bill introduced last month to legalize adult-use cannabis in the state, poked fun at hyperbolic fear of the drug on Twitter last week. “But what about the spiking mARiJUaNA OverDoSE dEAThS?! Oh, wait- there’s Zero. Like Ever,” he wrote. “Let’s just #LegalizeIt.”

Rhode Island: Two legislators want to loosen restrictions on the state’s medical marijuana system with a plan that they say would better serve patients. The proposal would expand qualifying conditions to include “any serious health condition,” allow an unlimited number of dispensaries, cut dispensary license fees by 99% (from $500,000 to $5,000), and eliminate certain tax and regulatory measures. One of the legislation’s sponsors, Sen. Joshua Miller, said it incorporates recommendations of the Medical Marijuana Patients Coalition, an advocacy group that issued a report on the program in January.

Tennessee: Tennessee’s two legislative chambers gave very different receptions to a proposal introduced last week that would legalize medical marijuana. A House committee on Tuesday approved the bill, which would allow only oils, tinctures, lotions, and pills—not flower, vape products, or edibles. On Wednesday, however, a Senate committee decided to delay a vote on its version of the bill over concerns from one of the members. The legislation still stands a chance, but observers agree it faces a difficult path to becoming law.

Virginia: The question of whether to decriminalize cannabis in Virginia still hadn’t been resolved as of Saturday night as lawmakers scrambled to wrap up the legislative session. It appeared legislators planned to extend the lawmaking session later into the week, but as of press time it wasn’t clear whether decriminalization would get a vote or be among the potentially hundreds of bills left outstanding when elected officials return home.

Wyoming: Wyoming lawmakers want to be sure that hemp grown in the state isn’t high-THC marijuana. The state House last Friday passed legislation to set up fees to fund inspection and disposal of hemp plants. The Senate passed a different version of the measure, so the bill now heads back to the Senate for a concurrence vote.

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Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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