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Three Dozen House Dems Call for Pot Clemency, OR Governor Will Sign Drug Recriminalization Bill, More... (3/15/24)

Submitted by Phillip Smith on

A marijuana legalization bill continues to move in the Hawaii legislature, Minnesota lawmakers ponder marijuana social equity licensing changes, and more. 

The White House. Three dozen congressional Democrats call on Biden to act on clemency for pot prisoners. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Three Dozen House Democrats Call on Biden for Marijuana Clemency. Led by Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and marijuana reform stalwart Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), 36 House Democrats have sent a letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to grant clemency to the "many individuals" now doing time in federal prison for pot offenses. 

"The continued incarceration of these individuals continues the racist legacy of the war on drugs, contradicts the current societal and legal trends regarding marijuana, and represents an unnecessary burden on our morals and justice system," the representatives wrote. They added, "You have a unique ability to lead on criminal justice reform and provide immediate relief to thousands of Americans."

Biden has said repeatedly that "no one should be jailed for using or possessing marijuana," but has used his pardon and clemency powers in only a limited fashion. In April 2022, he commuted eight marijuana-related sentences, and he has issued multiple rounds of pardons, but those have gone to people who have already served their time—not those still behind bars. 

"Unfortunately, none of the previous pardons released a single person from federal prison for marijuana offenses," the House members wrote. "Federal courts sentence only a couple hundred simple marijuana possession cases each year, and no one sentenced for simple possession is in federal prison. The general pardon also failed to provide much relief to those haunted by criminal records—the bulk of federal marijuana cases involve felony offenses, which, unlike the misdemeanors you pardoned, impose serious civil disabilities (e.g., disenfranchisement) and crippling collateral consequences (e.g., barriers to employment, housing, and education).

"We ask that you commute the federal prison sentences of all individuals who are incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses," they said. "We also call upon you to pardon such offenses for people who already live peacefully in free society and to support federal legislation to expunge marijuana offenses. In doing so, you would be helping to fulfill the promises you’ve made, while also meaningfully improving people’s lives and building upon the historic statement made by your previous general pardon."

Hawaii House Committees Jointly Advance Senate Marijuana Legalization Bill. Meeting jointly, the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs committees have approved a marijuana legalization bill that has already passed the Senate, Senate Bill 3335.  The measure passed 7-3 in Judiciary and 5-1 in Hawaiian Affairs. 

The bill would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by people 21 and over and create a framework for taxed, licensed, and regulated sales.  

"I am really trying to follow the lead of the attorney general to come up with a balanced, reasonable, and moderate bill that protects public safety and public health, and basically sets up a regulatory framework so that we can have an adult-use cannabis industry that will function well and is fair and reasonable," said Rep. David Tarnas (D), the sponsor of companion legislation and chair of the Judiciary panel.

The bill advanced in the House only after being amended to address concerns from activists. One successful amendment reduces the penalty for selling marijuana to a minor from a felony to a misdemeanor. Another would allow caregivers to administer non-smokeable medical marijuana to a minor on school grounds. Yet another would allow institutions of higher education to allow possession of use of marijuana by students 21 and over. 

More minor adjustments include adding a position to the cannabis regulatory board for a member with "expertise in Hawaii’s agricultural community," Tarnas said, as well as cleaning up language to clarify conflicting uses of "cannabis paraphernalia" and "cannabis accessories."

The bill now goes to the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. If it passes there, it would then head for a Senate floor vote. 

Minnesota Lawmakers File Social Equity Bill. With the support of the state Office of Cannabis Management, Senator Lindsey Port (DFL-Burnville) has filed a bill aimed at addressing social equity concerns around the nascent legal marijuana industry, Senate File 73. Companion legislation has been filed in the House. 

The bill would allow businesses that qualify as social equity applicants to obtain licenses early to prepare for sales going live sometime next year. The state would also shift from a points-based system to a lottery system. 

The bill also amends the state's existing marijuana law requiring that 100 percent of a company's majority owners meet social equity criteria to qualify for social equity licenses. The measure would lower that requirement to 65 percent. 

Under the law, applicants can obtain an additional 20 points if they meet social equity criteria, which include whether they’ve been convicted of a marijuana offense, whether they live in an area disproportionately policed for marijuana crimes, and whether they’re located in an underrepresented area. 

Charlene Briner, interim director of the Office of Cannabis Management, said that a lottery system would lead to a more equitable outcome for the state’s marijuana industry. "On the surface, it would seem that inherently, a points-based system is a little more effective," Briner said in a news conference this month. "But what we have seen is that even the most objective measures have an element of subjectivity to them."

Drug Policy

Oregon Governor Says She Will Sign Drug Recriminalization Bill. At a news conference this week, Gov. Tina Kotek (D) made clear that she will sign a bill that ends the state's experiment with drug decriminalization, House Bill 4002, which creates a new misdemeanor of small-time drug possession. The bill also gives counties the option of a "deflection program," which would let police refer drug offenders to drug treatment instead of sending them to court. 

But Kotek also said signing the bill into law was only a beginning in addressing the state's drug, crime, and homelessness problems. 

"Legislators knew that they needed to come into session and figure some things out as it relates to our addiction crisis. The legislature's work this session is but one step in making sure we help Oregonians suffering from addiction, while also ensuring community safety," Kotek said. 

"This is not a ‘one and done’ conversation," she said. "This is ‘here's the next path, can we implement it and are people going to do what they say they were going to do.’ We have counties saying they're going to voluntarily going to implement the deflection. ‘Are they going to do it, are they going to do it well? Do they have what they need?’ These are the types of things as a state we can dive deeper into local level issues, and then be with them as a partner to say ‘Okay, you need something else? Let's come into '25 and look into whatever it is you're looking for.’"

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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