Capitol Confidential: THC bill would kill Arizona’s medical marijuana system
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.
Arizona lawmakers tell patients: Go smoke hemp
Arizona’s medical marijuana program isn’t perfect, but it’s offered hundreds of thousands of people relief and is considered one of the more robust medical cannabis programs in the country.
Many patients would be forced to purchase on the illegal market. The state's existing dispensaries might not survive.
A group of Arizona lawmakers last Thursday introduced HCR 2045, a bill that would all but kill the program by outlawing the sale of any medical marijuana product containing more than 2% THC. That’s nearly hemp-level potency.
That ultra-low limit would put Arizona’s 200,000+ registered patients in a quandry. Many would be forced to purchase on the illegal market. The state’s existing dispensaries might not survive.
As written, it’s not yet clear whether the bill is intended to apply only to concentrates or also to cured flower. It’s also not clear if the bill is even constitutional. Voters passed Arizona’s medical marijuana law in 2010, and voter-passed initiatives are extremely difficult to amend in Arizona. Prior attempted changes—including one that tried to exclude college students, and another banning all cannabis extracts—have been struck down by state courts.
Law enforcement is behind the new bill. The director of the state Department of Public Safety, Frank Milstead, has raised the alarm about cannabis extract, which “looks like motor oil,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s easier to move across the border. You don’t have to backpack it. They can put it cars and hide it in barrels and jugs,” he said. “And all they want to do is get you or your kids addicted to this so you keep buying it.”
Lawmakers in Washington state last month rejected a similar bill that would have capped adult-use cannabis concentrate potency at 10% THC.
Meanwhile, autism bill advances
In better news for Arizona patients last week, a bill that would extend medical marijuana access to patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and opioid use disorder cleared the House Health and Human Services Committee on a 7-1 vote, with one member not voting. Advocates have long fought to add autism to the state’s list of qualifying conditions, with mothers in particular taking lead role in pushing the change.
The state Department of Health Services in 2018 denied a petition to add the condition due to lack of sufficient scientific evidence, a decision an administrative judge later upheld. Since then, however, research has progressed. A 2019 study in the journal Nature backed up the mothers’ claims, concluding: “Cannabis in ASD patients appears to be [a] well tolerated, safe and effective option to relieve symptoms associated with ASD.”
New York Gov. Cuomo has cannabis ‘questions’
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been promising to advocate for adult-use cannabis legalization in New York for more than a year, is finally catching up on the required reading. At the very least, it’s a cram session: He said last week that he plans to visit at least three states that have legalized marijuana: “Massachussetts, Illinois, and California or Colorado, which are three states that have legalized and have different versions,” the governor said. “You look at states that have legalized marijuana, many of them have generated more questions.”
It’s reassuring that Cuomo is doing his homework. On the other hand, it raises questions about legalization’s timeline. In his comments, the governor said he wants “the best bill and the best system when we pass it, and I want it to pass by April 1.” Cuomo emphasized last week that legalization is “a top priority” for his administration: “I’m going to give it all to get it done in the budget.”
Cuomo last month included cannabis legalization in his state budget proposal. He did the same thing last year only to see the Legislature strip it from that bill. A standalone legalization measure later failed as lawmakers clashed over details of the plan. It’s an open question whether Cuomo will be any more effective this year.
California bill would protect workers who use medical marijuana
Nearly 25 years after California legalized medical marijuana, patients still have few protections in the workplace. A positive drug test frequently means a lost job.
A newly introduced bill from Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) would change that, requiring both public and private employers to accommodate workers and job applicants who use doctor-recommended cannabis.
Opponents are outraged, warning that the measure would risk turning workers into zombie drones. “Allowing drug use in the workplace—including requiring an employer to accommodate an employee’s marijuana use—could jeopardize the safety of other workers as well as the public,” the California Chamber of Commerce said in a statement against the bill. (For perspective, keep in mind: Most doctors aren’t drug tested. )
Ellen Komp of California NORML thinks the bill doesn’t go far enough. She says the state should ban all pre-employment urine screenings. Supporters of the measure note that because patients can test positive for THC long after the effects of the drug wear off, workers can currently be fired even if they never show up to work impaired. In Colorado, a legislative panel recently nixed a similar proposal.
Ooh, tax news!
Meanwhile, policy nerds should skim the Legislative Analyst’s Office play-by-play of Gov. Newsom’s cannabis-related plans. Among the proposals: changes to who’s responsible for tax collection, various expenditures of cannabis tax revenue, and the creation of a consolidated cannabis licensing agency, the Department of Cannabis Control. “The Governor also expressed interest in other changes to cannabis taxes,” the LAO report notes, “but has not provided any additional details on these potential changes.”
Quick hits, state by state
Alabama: An Alabama Republican’s plan to legalize medical marijuana cleared a key vote last Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, which passed 8-1, would prohibit smoking and vaping products, allowing only tablets, topicals, and certain edibles, which would be taxed at 9%. It now goes to the full Senate, which last year passed a similar bill before it was scuttled in the House. The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Tim Melson (Florence), says Senate Bill 165 is an updated and more politically feasible version of last year’s bill, but it still faces organized opposition led by State Attorney General Steve Marshall, who has warned that legalizing medical marijuana could create a public health crisis. Speaker of the House of Representatives Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia), has said he’s in “wait and see mode” on the measure: “The sponsor of the bill has done a lot of work.”
Colorado: A bill to protect Colorado workers from being fired for off-the-clock cannabis consumption was killed in committee last week on a 10-0 vote. Most of the committee members said they felt the issue should be addressed, but “they were scared off by the lack of sufficient scientific impairment testing for marijuana use, as well as claims from the bill’s opposition that the bill would lead to less safe workplaces across the state,” Denver Westword reported. “Right now, we don’t have a reliable method for testing impairment in the workplace.” said Rep. Shannon Bird (D-Westminister), who added that she would be open to legislation that protects only registered medical marijuana patients rather than all adult consumers.
Connecticut: The Progressive Caucus of the state House of Representatives, which includes nearly half of the body’s 91 Democrats, included cannabis legalization as part of its legislative agenda unveiled last week. Rep. Michael D’Agostino (D-Hamden) said the group’s proposal, which is still being drafted, would also include social equity and expungement provisions. Earlier this month, Gov. Ned Lamont introduced a 108-page adult-use legalization bill that would tax and regulate the drug. The earliest possible start date would be July 2022. Last week the Connecticut Clergy Coalition, which represents more than 100 congregations, came out in support of the bill, saying the need for cannabis regulation crosses racial, ethnic, and gender lines.
Florida: A whole mess of cannabis bills before the Legislature this year include proposals to protect employees, add sickle cell disease as a qualifying condition, exempt veterans from the state’s medical card fee, expunge past criminal records, and more. So why aren’t lawmakers doing anything with them? Almost halfway through the legislative session, the Miami Herald reports, “no committee has yet to hear any of the wide range of bills filed to address a list of issues in Florida’s medical marijuana program.”
Georgia: A bill that would make it a crime to transport hemp plants without proper documentation passed the House Agriculture Committee last Tuesday. The vote on the bill, HB 847, which critics worry would put people at risk of arrest and prosecution over CBD products, comes a year after the state General Assembly approved a hemp farming bill. products.
Idaho: A holdout on nearly all things cannabis, Idaho is finally eyeing the legalization of hemp. The state is one of three, along with Mississippi and South Dakota, that have not submitted a hemp program to the U.S. Department of Agriculture since the 2018 farm bill lifted the federal prohibition on hemp. Farmers say the state’s slow progress on hemp is costing them money. The measure would also make it a misdemeanor to transport hemp without proper permits. Important note from the Idaho Press: “The bill does not deal with the question of the legality of hemp products or CBD oil for human consumption.”
Iowa: Lawmakers are discussing how to legislate THC in medical marijuana. The House Public Safety Committee last week voted to approve a small increase in THC potency as well as a total limit on THC purchases of 4.5 grams over 90 days. The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, approved a separate measure with higher potency limits and a 25-gram limit on total THC purchases in a 90-day period. All of the numbers appear up for debate. “We’re going to continue to work on the language and see what that looks like,” Gov. Kim Reynolds told Radio Iowa last week. “Those conversations are still taking place, so I’m not going to draw a line in the sand right now while we continue to work with the House and the Senate to come to some resolution.”
Kansas: Simple cannabis possession is a misdemeanor in Kansas—at least your first two times. The third offense is a felony. A bill pending in the Legislature would change that, reducing a person’s third conviction for possession of up to 25 grams of cannabis to a misdemeanor. Possession with intent to distribute would remain a felony. In testimony before a House panel last Wednesday, opponent Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist for multiple law enforcement associations, warned that “there are many unknowns that will be ignored” if that happens, adding that legislators should consider issues such as whether people in prison for cannabis possession are enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs. Nick Reinecker, a former Republican congressional candidate, testified in favor of the bill. “I don’t normally agree with the ACLU,” he said, “but on an issue such as cannabis, I think you can recognize that there is plenty of bipartisan support when it comes to such a simple, modest change such as this.”
Kentucky: Medical marijuana legalization made it halfway through the state Legislature last week, with the House approving the bill on a 65-30 vote. Getting the measure through the Senate is expected to be a tougher battle. Smoking cannabis would be prohibited under the proposal, and whether to allow edibles would be a question left to regulators. A recent amendment would require that hospitals report when medical marijuana patients are diagnosed with cannabis hyperemesis syndrome.
Maine: Lawmakers in Augusta heard arguments last week on a proposal to expunge certain cannabis convictions after five years have passed. The bill, LD 1897, would apply mostly to nonviolent and low-level felonies and would require people seeking expungement to petition a court to make the change. The Legislature’s Criminal Law Advisory Committee says the measure contains numerous problems and would create administrative obstacles. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. James Dill (D-Old Town), testified that it’s “neither appropriate nor productive to allow someone who does not present a danger to society to lose opportunities to move forward with their life, based on a mistake they made and were punished for a long time ago.” Thirty-four other states have already established similar programs.
Maryland: Maryland allows incarcerated patients to access doctor-recommended medical marijuana. But some in law enforcement want to end that provision, and lawmakers recently introduced legislation to do just that. Similar bills have failed during the past two legislative sessions, but the bill’s sponsor in the House, Del. William Wivell (R-Washington), said he introduced one again at the request of Washington County Sheriff Doug Mullendore. “It’s an important issue to him,” Wivell said.
Michigan: Cannabis products in Michigan will be required to carry labels warning pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers about possible health risks, under legislation signed into law last Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. Both medical and adult-use products will be required to carry the labels, and an informational pamphlet must be made available to customers at every point of sale.
Minnesota: What’s been teased as “the best legalization bill in the country to date” by House Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL) will be introduced within two weeks, the lawmaker said at a press conference last Tuesday. Winkler and Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL) recently went on a statewide tour to discuss legalization, and rumors of the bill have been swirling around the Capitol since last month. “We will introduce carefully-considered legislation in the very near future,” Winkler said last week. “If any state can do this right, Minnesota can.” For all the hype, the bill’s advocates are warning that the path toward passage will be a long one. Winkler has said it’s “highly likely it will take more than a year to get done.”
Missouri: While some legal states have moved to protect medical marijuana patients from discrimination in the workplace, a Missouri lawmaker wants to do the opposite. Senate Bill 610 by Republican Sen. David Sater would grant the right to employers to drug test employees randomly and fire them if they test positive. “When you make legislation like this, you’re almost criminalizing people who are medical marijuana users,” said Abrahama Keys, executive director of Greater St. Louis NORML. “We don’t have anything that tests for, say, sleeping drugs; sleeping drugs can impair you on the job. However, there’s no test in place or [legislation] in place.”
New Hampshire: The House advanced an adult-use legalization bill last Thursday on a 236-112 vote, sending the measure to the Senate. The bill would allow adults 21 and older to grow and possess a limited amount of cannabis. They could also give it as a gift to other adults. Commercial cultivation, processing, and sales would remain forbidden. To buy legally, New Hampshire residents would have to continue to send their tax dollars to Massachusetts.
Passage in the Senate is expected to be more difficult, and proponents have acknowledged they’re unsure whether Gov. Chris Sununu, who has opposed past cannabis reforms, could be convinced to sign the bill. The proposal would set up a system similar to that of neighboring Vermont, where only homegrow and gifting are allowed. Lawmakers there are currently considering a bill that would eventually allow for commercial growth, retail sales, and state tax revenue.
New Mexico: High hopes at the beginning of New Mexico’s short lawmaking session fizzled out last week as the Legislature adjourned on Thursday. Nearly all of the marijuana bills failed, including an almost-yearlong push to legalize adult-use cannabis. Lawmakers also scrapped a proposal to allow local research facilities to grow or purchase cannabis for studies as well a plan to enable tribal groups to craft their own medical marijuana programs. The one cannabis bill that did become law was SB 139, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law last Thursday. That measure clarifies that the state’s medical marijuana program “is reserved for New Mexico residents and reciprocal patients enrolled in out-of-state programs” only, according to a press release from Lujan Grisham’s office.
The governor downplayed the change, saying it “corrected a drafting error” in an update to the state’s medical cannabis law. Last year a state judge ruled that the state’s Department of Health was required under existing law to issue cards to anyone with a qualified condition, regardless of where they live. After the Legislature wrapped up the session Thursday, the governor said she would continue pushing for legalization, even if it means proposing a constitutional amendment in order to put the plan before voters. Citizen initiatives are not allowed in New Mexico.
Oklahoma: A handful of changes could be coming to Oklahoma’s medical marijuana program under seven bills that sailed through the House Rules Committee last week. Among the most notable bills to pass were a measure to allow home delivery of medical marijuana in certain cases, a proposal to recognize out-of-state medical marijuana patients, and a plan to establish a separate medical marijuana regulatory agency.
Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania has a new legalization measure in play. State Rep. Jake Wheatley (D) last week announced HB 2050, an updated version of a bill he introduced last year. The bill, which had not yet appeared on the Legislature’s website at the time of this report, “creates a structured process for growers, processors & dispensaries, with money going to social programs, student loan forgiveness & affordable housing,” Wheatley said on Twitter, adding that also would create a path to expunging past cannabis convictions.
Today I’m announcing updated legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis, which includes help for disadvantaged people & victims of the war on drugs. pic.twitter.com/N7roO8vCwX
— Jake Wheatley (@RepWheatley) February 18, 2020
For his part, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) said earlier this month that he supports legalization and thinks many Republicans do, too, regardless of the Legislature’s hesitance on the issue. “The Republicans control both halves of the legislature, but privately, a lot more Republicans support it as a whole,” Fetterman said. “You need revenue to help Presque Isle State Park or schools or whatever. You’re saying no to billions of dollars over the next 15 or 20 years by not legalizing marijuana.”
South Carolina: South Carolina could finally join the majority of states with medical marijuana programs under bills filed in the state House and Senate this session. At a House committee meeting last Wednesday, lawmakers heard from patients and supporters of the proposal. Law enforcement representatives said they were concerned with the plan, with one warning that impaired driving could increase. A teenager and his aunt explained how cannabis treated his epilepsy far more effectively than prescription drugs. “I used to take 20 pills a day and still and seizures,” he said. “Now I take none and have no seizures.” The committee voted not to take any action until hearing further testimony.
Utah: The struggle to hammer out details of Utah’s forthcoming medical marijuana system is threatening to delay the program’s launch. Senate Bill 121 would replace voter-approved Proposition 2, which legalized medical marijuana in the state. Many of the proposed changes are relatively minor, but some would affect significant portions of consumers. Private employers would be able to forbid medical cannabis use among workers, but public employers would have to accommodate it. The bill would also nix the requirement that cannabis be sold in individual blister packs, instead requiring secure containers. And in an effort to avoid false positives for driving under the influence, the bill says DUIs must be based on signs of impairment and the “active metabolite” of THC. Many common tests screen for THC’s inactive metabolite, which can persist in the body for weeks after consumption and does not indicate impairment.
Virginia: Lawmakers from Virginia’s House and Senate are working to reconcile two versions of a cannabis decriminalization measure in order to send a clean bill to Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The House and Senate have each already passed bills, which were then sent to the other chamber. It’s not the most elegant process, but cannabis reform advocates say it’s an important step forward. “Fortunately, the patrons were able to reach a consensus and move the bills forward,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginians have waited long enough for this important step, one that will dramatically reduce both marijuana arrests and the collateral consequences that follow such charges.”
Washington: Washington lawmakers are looking at who’s in control of the state’s five-year-old cannabis program, and many don’t like what they see. The House last week passed a bill aimed at addressing racial inequity in the state’s cannabis industry by funneling previously forfeited, canceled, and revoked marijuana business licenses into a new social equity program. Thirteen such licenses currently exist, and the bill would create a social equity task force to recommend whether more should be issued. Money would also be earmarked for licensing, business, and other assistance for equity applicants. Washington’s cannabis laws have long been an obstacle to building an equitable industry. Hats off to Seattle Times staff reporter Claudia Law for taking a serious look at the issue.
West Virginia: The state Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill last Tuesday that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program, allowing for a wider range of qualifying conditions and increasing the number of allowed dispensaries in the state. The bill also contains numerous other administrative provisions, such as requiring state officials to monitor the price of medical marijuana, expanding cannabis research by colleges and medical schools, and mandating more education for medical cannabis workers who interact with patients or caregivers.