Ben Adlin scours the nation’s statehouses for the bills that may change the way you enjoy cannabis. (uschools, Amanda Goehlert/iStock)
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.
‘Safe and Smart Arizona’ widens the tent
Legalization advocates have coalesced behind a single 2020 ballot proposal to legalize adult-use cannabis. Supporters of a rival campaign confirmed last week that they’ll endorse the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, led by a group of existing medical marijuana dispensaries. Phoenix New Times reports that the rival group, the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce (AZC3), will also merge its board with the Marijuana Industry Trade Association of Arizona (MITA), which previously endorsed the Smart and Safe Arizona Act.
AZC3, which consists of growers, manufacturers, lawyers, and others peripheral to the industry, has long criticized the proposal, saying it would give too much power to large dispensary owners who already control much of the state’s medical market. “We would like to have seen some things changed in the initiative,” AZC3 board member Mason Cave told New Times, “but at this point, with that being the only path forward, the board agreed to lend its support to Smart and Safe.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers in the House last week voted to approve a bill that requires warning labels on medical marijuana and imposes a new tax on cannabis to fund research into the link between THC and schizophrenia or violent behavior. An earlier version of the bill capped THC in medical products at 2% THC, but that provision was defeated.
Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who supported the THC cap, said he became concerned after reading a book that claims cannabis causes widespread violent psychosis. “Not everybody’s going to become paranoid schizophrenic and act out violently,” Bowers said in a committee hearing last month, “but a lot of people are.” The book Bowers referenced has been widely criticized by scientists and academics as junk science.
In better news, HB 2049, which would allow medical marijuana access for children with autism, passed out of the Committee of the Whole (COW). The legislation is moving largely because of the efforts of mothers of children with autism, who have pushed for years to add the qualifying condition.
HB 2049, which would allow medical marijuana access for children with autism in AZ, passes Committee of the Whole.
— Jamie Warren (@JamieABC15) March 12, 2020
Three-year tax holiday coming in California?
California is making headway on a bill to reduce cannabis taxes for the next three years. It’s a move that the state’s licensed industry leaders say will help them compete with the decades-old unlicensed market, which remains strong in the state despite.
Last week in Sacramento, the Assembly Committee on Revenue and Taxation heard from small businesses and major industry players who say they’re struggling to remain viable. Michael Wheeler, vice president of Flow Canna, said his company laid off one-fifth of its staff last year after the company failed to meet its revenue projections. “Demand just doesn’t justify the real estate and the staff to trim that much cannabis,” Wheeler said. The committee was hearing arguments on AB 1948, by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, (D-Alameda), which would suspend the state’s cannabis cultivation tax for a three-year period and reduce the state excise tax.
Meanwhile, a report last week from the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy says that the slow growth of California’s legal industry is “largely due to a slow licensing process for retail stores and lax enforcement against illegal stores.”
COVID-19 slowly killing New York legalization
The writing was already on the wall when Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier this month that he might have to postpone his cannabis fact-finding tour of legal states due to COVID-19 fears. Now, as the specter of the disease rises, lawmakers are increasingly signaling that the state budget and coronavirus response are their top concerns. That means marijuana legalization might have to wait until next year.
That’s a disappointment for legalization supporters, but it’s worth acknowledging that Cuomo hadn’t been doing very well on his pledge to advocate for legalization this year anyway. The push to include legalization in this year’s state budget was already behind schedule.
Meanwhile, as we all hunker down to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Slate gives us a first-person account of the epidemic and its fallout from a door-to-door cannabis delivery guy in NYC. “Usually over text, the interactions are real simple. But face-to-face, I always feel like I’m a counselor,” says the vendor. “And now all the conversations are about coronavirus.”
Quick hits, state by state
Alabama: The state Senate approved a medical marijuana legalization bill last week, setting up what could be a contentious fight in the House. Senators voted 22-11 in support of the measure last Wednesday after hours of sometimes heated debate.
Leading the opposition in the Senate was Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), who described the comparatively modest medical marijuana bill as taking a “pedal to the metal” approach. The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence), replied: “I’m beginning to wonder how long you left your training wheels on.”
The amended bill, SB 165, prohibits smoking and vaping products, sets a 75-milligram daily limit on THC intake, and requires the Legislature itself to sign off on any new qualifying conditions. While a number of amendments introduced Wednesday imposed further restrictions on the prospective program, supporters think they could ultimately help the bill’s political chances. The legislation now heads to the House, where Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) has said he’s in “wait and see mode” on the measure.
Colorado: The House Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee unanimously passed a measure last Thursday to allow the state’s legal cannabis industry access to “preventative crop loss measures,” similar to how other agricultural industries have crop insurance. It’s another step toward parity for cannabis. The bill now moves on to the House Finance Committee.
Connecticut: It wasn’t clear the new push by Gov. Ned Lamont to legalize cannabis in Connecticut was going to get the support it needed to pass the Legislature this year. Now it’s uncertain whether there will be a Legislature in session to pass it. Concerns about COVID-19 have closed the state Capitol until at least March 30, and that could force lawmakers to wait until next session to take up the issue.
“There’s nothing earth-shattering that can’t be done nine months from now when we go back into session,” Senate Republican leader Len Fasano told the Hartford Courant. “There’s always another session. We have to focus our energy on protecting the public, making sure they don’t panic, and trying to make sure that businesses remain open.” We understand. Go slow the spread of coronavirus, lawmakers, and be sure to legalize cannabis when you come back.
Florida: The effort to limit THC for medical marijuana patients in Florida has been defeated just a week after it was introduced. The state Senate last Friday stripped the 10% THC cap, which would have applied only to registered patients under 21 years old, from a larger healthcare bill. The provision was opposed by many veterans, including Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersberg), who warned that the cap would make it more difficult to deal with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Georgia: Take it from those of us who track a lot of legislation: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s online widget that shows a bill’s chances of passing is pretty cool. Is it accurate? We can’t say. But it currently puts the chances of Georgia’s hemp-licensing bill passing the Legislature at 78%. The bill, HB 847, requires specific licenses in order to process hemp in the state. (Honestly, AJC’s statistical number-crunching is probably more interesting at this point than the measure itself.)
Hawaii: Nine cannabis-related bills have made it through the midpoint of this year’s legislative session. Most of them involve minor changes to the state’s medical marijuana program, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported in a roundup last week. The idea is to “generally making medical cannabis potentially available to more people.” Among them are measures to allow the state Department of Health to permit medical marijuana deliveries, to prohibit employers from discriminating against medical marijuana patients, and to allow dispensary sales of infused edibles and plant cuttings for home cultivation.
Idaho: Idaho lawmakers shook their collective finger at plans to legalize hemp in the state, with a House panel killing a bill that would let the state join the 48 others with legal hemp programs. Opponents argued that the plan to allow hemp farming for food, fiber, and other uses would open the door to “hemp-marijuana culture.” The bill’s main proponent scoffed at the allegation at a hearing last week. “I don’t think any of us have any intention of opening up Idaho to marijuana,” said Rep. Caroline Nilsson-Troy (R-Genesee). “We put so many sideboards on this bill, as I said, we could haul an elephant.” Whatever that means, it goes to show how hard it is to get Idaho’s Legislature to pass a bill having anything remotely to do with cannabis. From all appearances, state lawmakers would rather target transgender people.
Indiana: Gov. Eric Holcomb has been very clear that he’s not going to support legalizing cannabis until federal prohibition ends. So it’s no surprise that some Indiana medical patients who treat conditions with cannabis are going to nearby legal states like Illinois and Michigan to pick up products and bring them home. Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter has advice for those patients: “Don’t get caught. Don’t. Get. Caught,” he told local TV station QTHR. “That substance in Indiana is still illegal.” (A further heads up: So is transporting it across state lines.) It’s a tough place for police to be in, and an even more difficult predicament for patients. A silver lining: Carter says his officers so far haven’t seen an increase in arrests or traffic accidents related to legal cannabis in neighboring states. “The reality is, we haven’t seen an uptick,” he said. “We were kind of expecting that, but we’ve not seen it.”
Iowa: State lawmakers are moving forward with a plan to relax the limit on THC in medical marijuana programs, replacing the current percentage-based limit of 3% THC in retail products with a 90-day total limit of 4.5 grams THC per patient. The House narrowly passed a bill last week on a 52-46 vote, and it comes just weeks after Gov. Kim Reynolds first publicly weighed in, saying she was “comfortable” with that limit. A competing proposal in the Senate would set the limit at 25 grams THC per 90 days, and Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale) told the Des Moines Register he will try to negotiate a higher amount than 4.5 grams, but Rep. Jarad Klein (R-Keota), replied that he thinks the governor has “given us a pretty clear indication of what she wants.” Democratic Rep. John Forbes of Urbandale, a pharmacist, said he has patients that currently receive more THC than would be allowed under the House bill. “I’ve had a couple of patients tell me if we pass legislation that limits it to the 50 milligrams per day, which is the 4.5 grams per 90 days, they will probably drop off the program — and they’ll have to have something for pain relief, so they’ll go back on their opioid medications,” he said.
Louisiana: Among the new bills introduced at the start of the state’s legislative session last week were measures to expand qualifying conditions for Louisiana medical marijuana patients. There are three bills being tracked by NORML: HB 158, which would add certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; HB 330, which would add chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia; and HB 455, which would authorize patients in hospice and palliative care. Another piece of legislation, a proposed constitutional amendment that we wrote about last week, would set up a system whereby municipal governments could allow residents to vote to legalize cannabis locally. The proposal raises all sorts of logistical questions, such as how cannabis would be grown, transported, and regulated across the state.
Maine: A controversial Maine medical marijuana bill became slightly less so after state lawmakers last week removed provisions to ban small-scale extraction and require federal background checks on members of the state’s legal industry. The measure now focuses on cannabis lab testing and would require potency labels on all products. Under current law, the only time a retailer must test their product is to substantiate an advertising claim such as containing a certain amount of THC or CBD, or being pesticide-free.
Maryland: Maryland lawmakers advanced two bills last week to reduce the criminal impacts of cannabis possession. On Wednesday, the House approved a measure, 94-43, that would expand the state’s existing decriminalization limit from 10 grams of cannabis up to an ounce (just under 28.5 g). Fines for low-level possession would range from $100 for the first offense up to $500 for third and subsequent offenses. The House also passed a bill that would automatically expunge “All court records and police records relating to any … charge of possession of marijuana … where marijuana is the only charge.” Both measures now go to the Senate for consideration.
Massachusetts: Lawmakers in Massachusetts passed bills through committee last week to protect medical marijuana patients consumers from workplace discrimination and allow on-site consumption of cannabis at social clubs. H4522 would prohibit employers from disciplining workers or job applicants for legal, off-site medical cannabis use. H4524, meanwhile, would set up a system for local jurisdictions to vote on whether to allow “licensed marijuana social consumption establishments” that would permit on-site cannabis consumption by adults 21 and over. Both bills passed out of the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy and will go on to be heard by House committees.
Mississippi: Mississippi voters will now have two medical marijuana legalization measures to choose between in November, and many advocates are upset about that. A newly approved ballot question that won Senate approval last Thursday describes a relatively restrictive system in somewhat vague detail, as reporter Tom Angell notes at Forbes: The new question “says that medical marijuana must be of ‘suitable pharmaceutical quality,’ though that is undefined.” The measure is likely to draw voter support away from an activist-led ballot initiative that qualified for the ballot back in January. That measure would approve medical marijuana access for patients with 22 specific medical conditions. Patient advocates believe the new Legislature-backed measure was added to intentionally interfere with the more robust legalization effort.
Missouri: A drug-control measure approved by Missouri senators on a 28-1 vote last week contains a provision that would ban cannabis-infused candy, lollipops, cotton candy, and edibles shaped like fruits or animals from the state’s medical marijuana market. The effort is aimed at preventing children from accidentally eating infused edibles, but as we’ve seen in other states, easily-consumed edibles are also important for many medical patients who are sometimes limited in the forms of cannabis they can consume. A similar bill already passed the House, clearing a likely path for the proposal to become law.
New Hampshire: A House committee will hold hearings this week on legislation that would allow medical cannabis patients to grow their own plants for personal use. SB 420 was passed last month by the Senate. Even if it were to winHouse approval, it’s not clear how the measure would be received by Gov. Chris Sununu, who last year vetoed a similar homegrow measure after it was passed by lawmakers. Supporters will either need to win over the governor or muster a few more votes to overturn another veto.
New Jersey: Who’s lobbying New Jersey lawmakers? More and more, it’s people trying to influence cannabis policy. According to NJ.com, cannabis-related lobbying expenses in the state climbed about 36% percent last year, from $1.4 million to $1.9 million.
Oklahoma: There’s a handful of cannabis bills making their way through the Legislature this session, including a measure that would allow medical marijuana delivery. Under HB 3227, which passed the House of Representatives last Tuesday,] dispensaries could contract with licensed medical marijuana transporters, who would deliver cannabis directly to patients’ doors. There are a handful of other proposed tweaks to the state program that are worth reading up on in more detail in this recent roundup by the Oklahoman.
South Carolina: South Carolina’s plan to legalize and regulate medical cannabis is scheduled for a committee hearing in the Senate this week, coming before the chamber’s Committee on Medical Affairs on Thursday. The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act would allow access to medical marijuana for qualifying patients, but it would prohibit inhalation or smoking of the drug. It has stiff opposition from law enforcement, but in a poll last month, only 13.7% of state voters agreed cannabis should be illegal. Nearly 70% preferred either medical-only or full legalization. Let’s see if anyone in Columbia is listening.
South Dakota: As the clock ticked down to the end of South Dakota’s legislative session, lawmakers there finally signed off on a proposal to legalize industrial hemp. The measure, which won signoff from the full Legislature on Thursday of last week, now heads to Gov. Kristi Noem, who has said she will support it. A major holdup was funding to administer and regulate the program, the Associated Press reports. Noem eventually secured $3.5 million from lawmakers, including $1.9 million in startup fees and another $1.6 million annually to run the program, with budget lines including things like drug-sniffing dogs. Lawmakers complained the program could be done more cheaply but eventually relented to the governor’s requests.
Tennessee: Tennessee lawmakers added a critical amendment to a medical marijuana bill that’s currently in the Senate. The change, approved last Wednesday, delays the implementation of the state medical marijuana program until the federal government ends prohibition. That’s a big contingency, and it could slow the rollout of any medical marijuana program indefinitely. Luckily a separate House version of the measure, set to be debated in committee this week, does not contain the provision.
Utah: Utah lawmakers sure do like making changes to the state’s medical marijuana program, which launched in the state only this month. A new bill from Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost (D-Salt Lake City) HB 425, contains a number of new adjustments, adding to a string of other tweaks by lawmakers. The proposed changes include lengthening the period of time a medical cannabis card is valid and adding legal protections for medical facilities that treat patients who have medical marijuana cards. The measure passed the House earlier this month and last Monday won approval of a Senate committee. It now heads to the full Senate floor.
Virginia: Virginia lawmakers sent decriminalization legislation to the governor’s desk after finally signing off on the bill last weekend, a day after the legislative session was scheduled to end. It’s a major victory for Virginia, removing criminal penalties for simple cannabis possession and replacing them with a $25 fine for the first offense. The measure also includes a path for people with cannabis convictions to request that their records be expunged. Separately, the Legislature signed off on a plan to research the impact of legalizing cannabis in the state.
Washington: The state Legislature has signed off on Washington’s first cannabis social equity program in an effort to help diversify the state’s legal cannabis industry, sending a bill to the governor last Friday for his signature. Social equity is a popular component of today’s legalization efforts, but the idea hadn’t quite caught on in 2012, when Washington voters ushered in legal cannabis. While the specifics of the program have yet to be determined, the bill will authorize state regulators to issue certain licenses to equity applicants, helping open up an industry that’s long been disproportionately stacked against people of color in the state. According to the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, fewer than 1% of the state’s 556 existing cannabis business licenses were issued to Black owners.