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Biros' Blog

Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol? Not So Fast

By Aaron G. Biros
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You’ve heard it in a lot of campaigns to legalize cannabis on a state level and even as the name of a bill in Congress for legalization on the federal level. The Marijuana Policy Project through their campaigns in several states, along with activists, politicians and lobbyists, have used the phrase “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol” as a rallying cry to pass legislation reforming cannabis laws. This isn’t an attack on them; those campaign names serve the cause well, moreover it was the name of successful campaigns in Massachusetts, Maine, California, Alaska and Colorado among others. It is a relatable and fair comparison, helping to normalize the concept of adults using cannabis in a legal environment.

But that feeling of validation is short-lived after lawmakers write the actual regulations. In reality, I don’t think a single state can confidently say they actually regulate cannabis like alcohol. Most states do not allow public or social consumption of cannabis; many people that would like to enjoy cannabis in a social setting are restricted to the confines of their home.

420 Rally at Civic Center Park, Denver, CO.
Photo: Cannabis Destiny

Voters in Colorado passed Amendment 64 in 2012 with this language in the very beginning of the bill: “In the interest of the health and public safety of our citizenry, the people of the State of Colorado further find and declare that marijuana should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol.” If you look closely, you can see how important phrasing is when it comes to the specific regulations. The key words here are “a manner similar to alcohol,” not exactly like alcohol. That language is critical to understanding how regulators address the double standard.

The most obvious way lawmakers regulate cannabis like alcohol is through a tiered system of license holders: manufacturers, distributors or wholesalers and retailers. Many states might set a limit on potency, just like they do with alcohol, according to Pamela S. Erickson, former executive director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Both of the drugs are taxed and there are usually regulations for both governing the advertising of products, such as preventing targeting youth or encouraging high consumption. Regulators might limit the store hours or locations for both cannabis and alcohol. Beyond those similarities, there are a number of areas where cannabis is over-regulated and alcohol is seemingly under-regulated. It is very possible that much of this has to do with the power of the alcohol lobby. In 2016, the alcohol industry spent over $26 million on lobbying efforts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit, nonpartisan group that tracks lobbying efforts. During election season, the alcohol industry spent more than $11 million on campaign contributions. There are several examples of the alcohol industry actively fighting legalization efforts, including paying for anti-cannabis ads in a Politico newsletter and even funding opposition campaigns. While this doesn’t exactly pertain to the regulation of cannabis versus alcohol, it gives you a glimpse of how deep their coffers go and the amount of influence they have on politics.

Last year, the city of Denver passed a ballot measure, Initiative 300, which will legalize the social consumption of cannabis in permitted venues. The Denver Social Consumption Advisory Committee met for the final time last week. That committee designed two styles of permits: one for events and one for established businesses, which would receive a designated consumption area permit (DCA). Those permitted venues must be 1,000 feet from schools, child-care centers or drug rehabilitation centers. They need a waste plan, compliance with the Indoor Air Quality Act and they cannot sell cannabis products. Rachel Gillette, attorney in the cannabis law group and shareholder at Greenspoon Marder, says the legal implications of the initiative are still up in the air. “This was a step in the right direction,” says Gillette. “You can’t pass a law to regulate marijuana like alcohol and then say people can only use it in their home. You are going to run into problems like people smoking on the street. This is why this initiative was introduced.”

Rachel K. Gillette, Esq., practicing at the cannabis law group in Greenspoon Marder

The general idea here is B.Y.O.P.- bring your own pot. They cannot have a liquor license, the location cannot be accessible to the general public, they have to submit a detailed security plan and patrons have to sign a waiver to get in, according to Westword. Signing a waiver to get into a bar should seem asinine to anyone, but I have been to some dive bars where a waiver could’ve definitely been useful. The point is that cannabis doesn’t lead to violence or destructive behavior, alcohol is the drug that does that. There is plenty of evidence to support that, including a comparative risk assessment of the drugs, which found alcohol’s danger to be strongly underestimated previously.

Senate Bill 63 in the Colorado State legislature would have been very similar, issuing licenses for “marijuana consumption clubs.” However that bill was voted down last Thursday, largely due to the uncertainty of federal policy, according to ABC News.

Amendment 64 also has specific language saying you cannot consume cannabis in a public space, but that is not exactly the case with liquor, even when you consider open container and public intoxication laws. “In my previous interactions with the state and particularly the liquor licensing authority, they consider liquor-licensed premises to be de facto public spaces but you can’t consume cannabis there, which is why hotels, bars and restaurants explicitly prohibit cannabis consumption, they have a liquor license,” says Gillette. “There is a bit of conflict in the law here.”

Yet other rules, such as mandatory childproof containers for cannabis retailers, seem a bit draconian compared with buying a bottle of twist-off wine from the grocery store. “Childproof packaging isn’t required in liquor stores anywhere,” says Gillette. “Why cant responsible adults be trusted to keep it out of a child’s reach? Unfortunately there is a lot of trepidation to allow responsible adults to be responsible when it comes to cannabis.” In some ways, we are seeing states begin to regulate cannabis very closely to how they would alcohol, yet there is a long way to go. “There is still this nanny state mentality where we run the risk of regulating it to the point of absurdity,” says Gillette. For now at least, we need to be cognizant of the age-old stigma and work to normalize social cannabis use in a legal sense. Until that time comes, we will have to tolerate lawmakers regulating cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol, not exactly like alcohol.

Bipartisan Cannabis Reform Effort Unveiled in Congress

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith, seven measures were introduced today at the Capitol, covering a variety of issues that, if signed into law, would ease many of the legal implications on the federal level affecting cannabis businesses in legal states currently.

In a very important development, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, joined Rep. Earl Blumenauer as a lead sponsor of the 280E tax reform bill. According to an NCIA press release, that bill is The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 and was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

That bill gives cannabis businesses in legal states the opportunity to take business deductions like any other legal business. Right now cannabis businesses cannot deduct any expenses related to sales, given its Schedule I status. “Cannabis businesses aren’t asking for tax breaks or special treatment,” says Smith. “They are just asking to be taxed like any other legitimate business.”

Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act in the House, which would put cannabis in the section of code that regulates intoxicating liquors, essentially giving the ATF oversight authority. “The flurry of bills on the Hill today are a reflection of the growing support for cannabis policy reform nationally,” says Smith. “State-legal cannabis businesses have added tens of thousands of jobs, supplanted criminal markets, and generated tens of millions in new tax revenue. States are clearly realizing the benefits of regulating marijuana and we are glad to see a growing number of federal policy makers are taking notice.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Photo: Michael Campbell, Flickr

Sen. Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer introduced The Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap (RAMP) Act, which addresses banking and tax fairness for businesses, civil forfeiture, and drug testing for federal employees. Both Blumenauer and Wyden represent Oregonians, who could benefit tremendously if it becomes legislation. Rep. Blumenauer also introduced The Marijuana Tax Revenue Act, which would put a federal excise tax of initially 10% on cannabis sales, then rising to 25% after five years, according to the NCIA press release.

States in Northeast Push Legalization Bills Following Massachusetts, Maine

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Election Day in November, two major states in the Northeast legalized recreational cannabis: Maine and Massachusetts. It seems that a handful of other states in the region are looking to legalize recreational cannabis now that their neighbors have done so.

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New Hampshire Capitol Photo: Jim Bowen, Flickr

In New Hampshire, a bipartisan bill was introduced on January 4th to establish “a commission to study the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana.” The commission formed by House Bill 215 aims to “study the experiences of states that have or are in the process of legalizing and regulating the recreational use of marijuana by adults, with particular attention to be given to the ways the changes in marijuana laws in Maine and Massachusetts, as well as Canada, impact our state,” the bill states. Notably, the bill provides for a representative from the Marijuana Policy Project to be a member of the committee.

Photo: David L, Flickr
Photo: David L, Flickr

New Hampshire Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn (D) says he plans to sponsor a recreational legalization bill separate from House Bill 215. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Woodburn would work with lawmakers and stakeholders to set a timeline and regulatory framework.

In Connecticut, a number of lawmakers have sponsored bills this session that would legalize recreational cannabis. Senate President Martin Looney (D) filed a bill that would legalize, regulate and tax cannabis, with the tax revenue going to the state’s general fund, according to the New Haven Register. State Rep. Melissa Ziobron (R) introduced a piece of legislation that would legalize adult use over the age of 21. Lawmakers are optimistic that with Massachusetts legalizing it, perhaps the outcome will be different than previous failed attempts to push cannabis legalization.

Providence, RI Photo: David Wilson, Flickr
Providence, RI
Photo: David Wilson, Flickr

Lawmakers in Rhode Island told reporters they want to be the first state to legalize recreational cannabis via the state legislature, rather than a ballot initiative, the most common path to legalization for other states. Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Scott Slater of Rhode Island, both Democrats, plan to introduce a legalization bill, the seventh year in a row that such a bill has been introduced in the state. They are also hopeful that after Massachusetts’ legalized it in November, they will have more success this time around. “Our constituents think it is time for lawmakers to pass this legislation, and we should listen to them,” says Miller. “If we fail to pass the bill this year, we will lose significant ground to Massachusetts.” Their bill would tack on a 23% tax on cannabis sales.

In each state’s case, lawmakers are keeping a close eye on Massachusetts and Maine’s regulations and tracking their progress. While the bills in the state legislatures are nascent in their journey to becoming law, the important takeaway is that geographic proximity to states with legalized cannabis is a catalyst for reform in New England.

logo for MPP massachusetts

Legalize Marijuana and Regulate it Like Alcohol: Marijuana Policy Project

By Aaron G. Biros
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logo for MPP massachusetts

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is a non-profit political organization, and has taken the leading role in several successful state-level marijuana policy reforms. Founded in 1995, MPP has most notably led the 2012 Amendment 64 initiative in Colorado to legalize marijuana for adults and regulate it like alcohol as well as the successful 2014 campaign under a similar name in Alaska.

logo for MPP massachusetts
The Massachusetts MPP Campaign Logo

While MPP has been active at both the federal and state level, Matt Schweich, director of state campaigns for the organization, works in a handful of states to pass bills through state legislatures. In particular, Schweich’s work has put an initiative on the ballot in Nevada, and MPP is working with a coalition of groups on an initiative in California, both of which are scheduled for 2016.

In both Massachusetts and Arizona, Schweich and his team are leading the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaigns, where they manage political committees and lobby for legalization.

MPP campaign logo AZ
The Arizona MPP Campaign Logo

“We named the campaign [Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol] because we want that to be the central message to the voter,” says Schweich. “We need to get the message across that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol, and it makes no sense to punish users of marijuana.”

“It is common sense to understand that one is less harmful to the user and society in general, [and] in light of the fact that alcohol is legal, it makes no sense to keep marijuana illegal,” he adds.

According to Schweich, voters in their respective states should be given the independence to decide how to handle licensing and regulations, depending on the jurisdiction, just like state liquor laws.

On a national level, MPP has a federal policy team currently working on the fight for marijuana businesses to gain access to banking and financial services.