State and local government officials continue pushing cannabis reforms across the country. They expect the changes to improve race relations, limit police brutality and bring in much-needed revenue.
The changes started gaining momentum amid the pandemic-induced recession and gained steam following the police killing of George Floyd and ongoing protests over police brutality. Legalization activists have repeatedly highlighted how police use marijuana as a reason to stop or arrest civilians in interactions that can and have turned deadly.
Places such as Ohio, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado and Nashville, Tenn., have taken various steps to change their cannabis laws over the past few weeks. Other states have also either advanced related legislation or raised the issue to consider.
This week, Kansas City, Mo. stepped out of the business of marijuana prosecution.
The city council voted Thursday to remove marijuana possession from city code. The new ordinance notes the racial disparity in arrest rates for marijuana charges and that the city’s population is 30% Black. It adds that keeping marijuana possession unlawful causes “valuable city resources to be spent in a manner which no longer makes sense.”
“We took it out of all of our books,” Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) told WeedWeek. Now, “it’s not a violation.”
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‘One step at a time’
Federal and state laws remain. But federal prosecutors are unlikely to pursue cases involving small amounts of marijuana, Lucas said. After voters approved MED in 2018, the district attorney for Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, said she would no longer prosecute possession charges.
This week’s move brings the city closer to broad decriminalization of marijuana, one of Lucas’ campaign promises, and toward eventually leveraging it as an economic development tool.
“It’s one step at a time,” he said, decrying the “absolute failure” of America’s drug enforcement practices over the past few decades. He also stressed a need to shift from a punitive criminal approach on drugs to ones that prioritize treatment.
“It’s pretty clear that local government is kind of the only game in town,” he said of creating positive changes in peoples’ lives on the issue right now.
A budget solution
Also on Thursday, Pennsylvania legislators urged Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and state senate leaders to consider legalizing REC to raise revenue.
A letter from 15 Democrat state senators stresses “dire” revenue forecasts due to COVID. They pointed to the “bipartisan issue” of legalization as a solution.
The letter cited polls saying two-thirds of likely state voters support legalization. Furthermore, the writers argued, legalization is popular across political parties, genders, ages and ideologies. It could also help avoid raising taxes and create jobs at a time when millions are out of work.
The lawmakers pointed to the state’s own MED program as “a roadmap to success.” The state’s MED started dispensing to patients in early 2018. Its second year brought a 500% increase in MED sales. The number of dispensaries increased 50% last year and the number of patients exceeded 150,000. “This has translated into millions of dollars in tax revenue that would never have existed.”
They expect REC to bring in about $581M annually for the state. “We know medical marijuana works, we know medical marijuana raises revenues, and we know [REC] will as well,” they wrote.
While full legalization seems to be gaining support in many precincts, the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry is campaigning against Constitutional Amendment A, which would create a regulated REC industry in the deep red state.
The proposal, which voters are slated to decide in November, would set a 15% tax on REC sales and require the state legislature to pass laws by 2022 regulating the cultivation, processing and sale of hemp.
“I think we have an even chance of defeating it,” chamber president and chief lobbyist David Owen said of the REC measure.
“The question before us is, should we put this in the constitution? Our answer is, no way,” he said.
The chamber’s membership includes hospital systems, financial institutions and a manufacturers association. Its concerns include the impact on employment.
While provisions in the measure allow for employers to fire or not hire someone who fails a drug test, those provisions may erode over time, Owen said. He’s also concerned about difficulties in testing impairment and cannabis-induced accidents that insurance may not cover.
“There are some social costs. There are going to be people that are impaired, doing things like driving and working,” he said. “This puts another intoxicant into broader use”
Owen also objects to the constitutional process the proposal uses. Any efforts to advance REC should go through elected officials, he argued, rather than by altering the state’s constitution so that future changes require another statewide ballot measure.
“You can’t change some of the details of this without a statewide vote,” he said. “It has the flexibility of a brick.”
To oppose the measure, the chamber plans to partner with business, religious and other groups to advertise, do mailings and engage in debates. COVID has knocked out the possibility of going door-to-door or setting up booths at regional summer fairs.
The strategy will make it clear to voters that MED, which South Dakotans will also vote on in November, is separate and “we’re taking no position on that,” Owen said. Initiated Measure 26 would enable MED access for those with serious health problems and a doctor’s recommendation. Under the proposal, the state’s health department would oversee a system of dispensaries.
Owen suspects MED may pass, after it failed a couple of previous times. He said his wife survived stomach cancer and her physicians at times had recommended getting a hold of marijuana in some form.