Capitol Confidential: COVID-19 suspends legislative sessions across USA

Published on March 22, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020
house vote, cannabis, cbd, marijuana legalization
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.

Coronavirus distancing & sheltering orders halt most legislative action

The state-by-state rollout of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders last week effectively ended the 2020 legislative session in many state capitals last week. The state legislatures that continue to meet are focusing their attention almost exclusively on bills related to the continued operation of critical state functions and COVID-19 response.

Leafly will continue to cover national and state developments in cannabis politics, but most cannabis-related bills have been put on hold due to the coronavirus health crisis. Capitol Confidential’s weekly cadence will move to a monthly schedule, with regular news coverage of major political events.

New York budget due April 1, likely without legalization

This year’s push to legalize cannabis in New York has gone from messy to downright chaotic.

Even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo renewed his call for cannabis legalization to be included in state budget legislation, critics last week urged him to focus on passing a less controversial budget quickly to address the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit the state comparatively hard so far.  “This is both a public health and a moral issue,” Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) told Newsday. “Let’s have this conversation after we get through the public health crisis.”

Another lawmaker echoed that sentiment: “I don’t believe marijuana is going to be negotiated in this budget in the next few days,” Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) told WMHT. “I just don’t see it as realistic.” Budget legislation is due by April 1. Amid the uncertainty, lawmakers last week unveiled a revised bill to legalize, which could still be rolled into the state budget, even though many supporters doubt that will happen.

California cannabis tax cut advocates want online signature gathering

Advocates for a proposed ballot measure to reduce cannabis taxes asked state officials to let them take their signature-gathering effort online amid a coronavirus social-distancing effort that last week became a statewide shelter-in-place order.

The proposed initiative would reduce taxes on medical and adult-use cannabis in California and require 50% of tax revenue to help develop and support the industry. Kyle Jaeger at Marijuana Moment, however, writes that “this particular campaign hasn’t been taken very seriously by the broader reform community, which has cast doubts that its signature gathering drive would be successful regardless of the current health crisis.” One reason to sort of care anyway: The effort has the support of filmmaker Kevin Smith and actor Jason Mewes, of Jay and Silent Bob fame. Snoochie boochies.

Quick hits, state by state

Colorado: There’s not a ton of exciting cannabis legislation in the pipeline this year—unless you count industry access to “preventative crop loss measures”—but the fate of just about everything this legislative session went up in the air last week as lawmakers scrambled to figure out how to proceed amid the coronavirus emergency. Much of the work in the immediate future is expected to focus on measures related to COVID-19 and its broader consequences.

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Connecticut: The effort by Gov. Ned Lamont to legalize cannabis in Connecticut already looked questionable last week, with the Capitol closed until at least March 30. But that date will likely be extended, and it’s hard to say for how long. The good news: Connecticut wants to legalize marijuana. The bad news: It’s not clear when that will happen.

Delaware: The Delaware Legislature has closed for the “foreseeable future” as part of the COVID-19 response, the House speaker and Senate president announced last week. That means an end (for now) to efforts by lawmakers to protect the gun rights of medical marijuana patients under state law and to allow patients to grow cannabis at home. Neither bill had moved for more than a month, though, so it wasn’t likely they were heading anywhere, anyway.

Georgia: The state’s entire Legislature has been encouraged to self-isolate after Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) disclosed late last week that he tested positive for COVID-19. Earlier in the week, Beach had suffered from a mild fever and a cough, even reportedly telling bystanders he didn’t feel well. He nevertheless showed up at the Capitol while awaiting his test results, issuing a statement saying he felt he was “in the clear.” He has since asked for Georgia residents’ prayers, both for himself “as well as all the others in our state who are going through this right now—and those who soon will.” It’s not immediately clear how a state hemp-licensing bill will proceed as lawmakers determine their next steps.

Hawaii: With the legislative session roughly halfway finished, lawmakers last week decided to take an eight-week recess, effective immediately. The session will resume subject to the call of Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, adding that lawmakers expect the session will pick up where it left off after COVID-19 risks stabilize.

That leaves a handful of cannabis-related measures temporarily up in the air, including bills that seem especially relevant today: One would allow the state Health Department to allow medical marijuana deliveries, and another would greenlight the sale of infused edibles and plant cuttings for home cultivation. Meanwhile, you’ve probably heard of distilleries that have started using their alcohol to make hand-sanitizer. Here’s a Honolulu cannabis manufacturing plant that’s planning to produce and give away hand sanitizer for free. While the product will only be available to the company’s 329 dispensary patients for now, eventually the manufacturers say they plan to produce free hand sanitizer for Oahu’s first responders.

Iowa: Like many states across the country last week, Iowa saw a suspension of the state Legislature, with lawmakers planning to take a minimum 30-day break after meeting early in the week “to consider resolutions regarding continuity of government to ensure delivery of essential services to Iowans.” For patients who’ve been following the effort to adjust THC limits on medical marijuana, the move presses pause on a controversial effort, supported by Gov. Kim Reynolds, to cap THC at 4.5 grams of THC per patient per 90-day period.

Kentucky: Kentucky was one of the state legislatures that decided to press forward last week, with lawmakers meeting in the Capitol. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s governor has asked lawmakers either to quickly pass a two-year budget or to temporarily adjourn and come back later for a special session. But whatever happens, there hasn’t been movement on the effort to legalize medical marijuana since the House approved a bill last month. It looked like it was facing an uphill battle in the Senate, but its prospects are even more uncertain now.

It’s a shame, especially after Gov. Andy Beshear last week told local 44 News that he supported legalization. “I am pro-medical marijuana,” he said. “I think it is going to be so helpful for our chronic pain patients that we are not filling their medicine cabinets with opioids that get other people addicted and drive this drug epidemic.”

Louisiana: Less than a month into the state’s legislative session, lawmakers last week decided to adjourn until at least the end of March because of coronavirus concerns. “The public health crisis at hand has placed the legislature in unchartered waters,” said Senate President Page Cortez. “With every decision we make, we are balancing the health and welfare of our citizens, staff, and legislators with our constitutional responsibilities. At this time, we believe it is in the best interest of our state to temporarily adjourn the session.” That puts on hold at least three pieces of cannabis-related legislation, including efforts to add qualifying conditions and an unusual measure that would allow individual local governments to legalize cannabis.

Maine: The Legislature abruptly adjourned last week after meeting to consider emergency legislation regarding the state’s coronavirus response. That means Maine’s pending cannabis bills, including a bill to allow delivery and a separate measure mandating laboratory testing of cannabis products, are on hold for now. Stay tuned.

Maryland: A bright spot last week in cannabis legislation: Lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) desk that would shield nearly 200,000 past cannabis convictions from public view. It’s not the expansive, automatic-expungement bill that the measure’s authors originally introduced, but if enacted, it would prevent the publicly available Maryland Judiciary Case Search database from displaying convictions that occurred prior to Oct. 1, 2014. A separate bill to expand the state’s decriminalization policy from 10 grams of cannabis to up to an ounce (about 28.5 grams) didn’t see action before the Legislature adjourned early last week due to COVID-19, but lawmakers are set to come back to the Capitol in May for a special session.

Massachusetts: There are a few cannabis bills pending in the Statehouse, but those were frozen last week as lawmakers pivoted to COVID-19. The Worcester Telegram described last week in the state capital as follows: “The focus on Beacon Hill last week was the coronavirus. There were no roll call votes in the House or Senate.” Lawmakers met informally, and the Statehouse itself remained closed to the public. Cannabis-related legislation still in play this session includes a bill to prohibit employers from disciplining workers for legal, off-site medical cannabis use and a measure to allow on-site cannabis consumption lounges with local approval, but who knows when normal business will resume.

Michigan: After approving a $125 million package for COVID-19 aid to the state last week, lawmakers adjourned until this Tuesday. According to the Big Rapids Pioneer, the Legislature has scheduled special sessions for one day per week as the coronavirus crisis unfolds. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist had already signed legislation this session requiring certain warning labels and informational brochures be included with cannabis products.

Nebraska: The campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska is putting its signature drive on hold until “it is responsible to continue,” Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana announced on Facebook over the weekend. “We look forward to the opportunity to get back out there to help Nebraskans create meaningful change for each other,” the organization said, “and we wish you and your loved ones health and peace of mind right now.” The group is reportedly developing a plan to help keep supporters active and engaged until the effort can resume.

New Hampshire: A measure to legalize cannabis for personal use and a separate bill to allow medical marijuana patients to grow their own are dead in the water for now as New Hampshire lawmakers recess until at least April 10. What was initially a weeklong break was extended last week.

Ohio: Ohio legalization proponents are facing a difficult task between now and July 1: How to collect 443,000 signatures from state-registered voters during a global pandemic. Efforts in other states are taking a variety of approaches. Some, like in California, have asked state officials to allow them to gather signatures online, though those officials haven’t yet agreed to the proposal. Others, such as in Nebraska, have called off their signature-gathering campaigns until it’s safe to continue.

Oklahoma: After a legislative staffer tested positive for COVID-19 and the Tulsa World editorial board urged the Legislature to “get its work done and go home,” lawmakers have announced that they won’t return to the Capitol this week. The House will be working remotely and can work by proxy, according to the World, while Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat has announced that chamber will remain closed through at least March 27. A relevant bill that will likely be delayed: allowing home delivery of medical cannabis.

Tennessee: A hearing on a medical marijuana legalization bill was canceled last week due to the coronavirus, and it’s not clear when the matter will be picked back up again. Lawmakers canceled committee meetings and instead met privately last week to discuss a bevy of bills, from COVID-19 relief to raising the user fee for 911. Amid the scramble, cannabis has fallen by the wayside. It’s likely to be picked up when the Legislature returns, but it’s not certain when that will be.

Virginia: As legislatures across the country postpone key meetings and votes, aren’t you glad Virginia lawmakers passed cannabis decriminalization earlier this month? Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is expected to sign the bill, which would remove criminal penalties for simple cannabis possession and replace them with civil fines starting at $25. The measure also includes a path for people with cannabis convictions to request that their records be expunged.

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Ben Adlin
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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