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The new year marks the start of the 116th Congress, as well as the launch of numerous state legislative sessions.As lawmakers return to work at the state and federal levels, elected officials and advocates for social justice and marijuana reform alike are plotting their cannabis legislation goals.

WeedMaps News contacted some of the leading legislative changemakers to ask what's on their agenda for 2019.

Sam D'Arcangelo, director, Cannabis Voter Project (CVP)

D'Arcangelo said the 2019 goals of the Cannabis Voter Project (CVP) are to register, inform, and motivate more voters to go to the polls and vote in upcoming elections. CVP, which was launched by HeadCount.org, a musician-driven organization to encourage voter participation, aims to reach voters interested in cannabis policy and inform them of the views of elected officials. CVP helped HeadCount register 80,000 new voters for the 2018 elections. HeadCount has registered more than 500,000 voters since 2004.

CVP reaches prospective voters via its website that details where legislators and governors stand on cannabis reforms. The organization also assists with registration online and signs up voters at concerts and other events.

“This year, we're planning to expand those efforts by updating our website, registering more voters at public events and having a presence at more dispensaries,” D'Arcangelo said. “Our goal is to get people involved in the electoral process and we use cannabis policy as an entry point. We want to keep people engaged because there is a lot happening in marijuana policy.”

Paul Armentano, deputy director, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)

Armentano predicted “unprecedented political momentum at the state level in favor of regulating the adult cannabis use market.”

For the first time, a significant number of governors campaigned and won on platforms that included legalization, he said.

“Similarly, at the federal level, we expect to see Congress — and in particular, members of the House of Representatives — vote on a number of key bills and amendments to amend and lift various legal and regulatory hurdles, such as prohibitions on veterans' access to medical cannabis and restrictions on banks and other financial institutions from entering into relationships with legal cannabis businesses.”

Armentano said, given the high level of public support favoring marijuana policy reform, it would be “political malpractice for elected officials to ignore the desires of this growing and influential voting bloc.”

Michael Collins, Director of the Office of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)

Collins said at the federal level, the alliance sees many opportunities with Democratic control of the U.S. House.

“We think it's possible to end prohibition and attack racial injustices through several proposals introduced before,” Collins said. “In terms of the appropriations process, we see an opportunity in Washington, D.C., because we feel very strongly that Democrats recognize that marijuana legalization must incorporate remedies to address past racial injustice.”

However, Collins predicted serious obstacles in the GOP-dominated U.S. Senate, because leaders there oppose legalization.

He said the alliance intends to pursue reform in legislation issues such as reinvesting in communities devastated by the war on drugs, expungement of criminal records, and promoting diversity in the marijuana industry.  

Democratic Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, majority leader of the New York State Assembly

Peoples-Stokes said legalizing marijuana in New York absent social justice initiatives would be a mistake.

“There are many people who have suffered mass incarceration and had their lives ruined because of marijuana prosecutions,” said Peoples-Stokes, who predicted the state Legislature could legalize marijuana as soon as this year or in 2020.

“But the damages done to communities of color have to be rectified first under any legalization. People's records have to be sealed.”

Under New York law, she said, expungement is an option requiring a “constitutional-type amendment” — and that requires a longer process. Sealing records would mean those convicted won't have to hire lawyers to clear their records, and it would open access to loans and jobs.”

She said some of the tax revenues garnered from marijuana sales should be directed to the communities affected by the mass incarcerations spurred by the war on drugs. That could take the form of investing in community schools, re-entry programs, low-interest loans, or technical assistance to cannabis entrepreneurs.

Neal Levine, CEO, Cannabis Trade Federation

Levine said the federation is building a national coalition to pass the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, a 2018 bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would exempt from prosecution under the federal Controlled Substances Act individuals and companies who are in compliance with state laws on cannabis.

“We are optimistic about our chances because we have bipartisan support in both houses. The president has said he supports it and will sign it into law,” Levine said.

He expects increased state and local reform activity nationwide.

“At the state level I think we'll see more in the way of records expungement,” he predicted. “The No. 1 thing we can do from a social justice standpoint is to stop the arrests. If we can pass STATES Act, we'll see an acceleration of states passing reform laws as well.

“And once the state-federal conflict has ended, we can start to get some national legislative uniformity as an industry. It took decades for prohibition to take root, and one clean piece of legislation won't take care of everything. It won't all happen at once.”

He said a whole suite of initiatives is included in the STATES Act, some of which will address banking.

“Will we see Wells Fargo and the Bank of America get into cannabis banking? Probably not. But local community banks? Absolutely.”

Morgan Fox, spokesman, National Cannabis Industry Association

Fox said the 1,700-member organization also is aiming to schedule a congressional hearing on the STATES Act.

“We're also working with members in states that already have passed reform to get the best regulatory structure possible, taking into account public safety, community values, and business climate,” he said. “The conversation has changed a lot in recent years, from 'should we?' to 'how should we?' legalize marijuana.”

Fox said his association is confident that at minimum, a banking bill may pass allowing cannabis businesses to access loans and safely save their profits in U.S. banks. He added that nascent social justice conversations will likely escalate as more states consider legalization. He said eliminating fines for cannabis behavior, expunging criminal records for small weed possessions and some form of reparations are being included in prospective state and federal legislation.

Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies, Marijuana Policy Project (MPP)

O'Keefe said her reform advocacy organization has seen movement toward legalization in Midwestern state legislatures and governors but is witnessing potentially explosive growth in the Northeast.

“We foresee three to five new legalization states this year,” O'Keefe said. “New Jersey negotiations were slowing passage. Illinois and Connecticut both have supportive governors and legislatures open to passing reform laws.”

Illinois' J.B. Pritzker and Connecticut's Ned Lamont, both Democrats who took office in January, called for their states to legalize marijuana.

She said the governors of New York (Andrew Cuomo) and New Mexico (Michelle Lujan Grisham) have been supportive, and Delaware, Minnesota, and Rhode Island are discussing legalization.

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