This Week in Statehouse Action: Sweet Leaf edition

This Week in Statehouse Action: Sweet Leaf edition

Happy Earth Day to those who observe!

And who doesn’t observe? Extraterrestrials, maybe?

But don’t they want us to fix our own planet so we don’t go off and dirty up theirs?

Anyway, this missive missed 4/20 by just a couple of days, but that’s also a holiday worth celebrating.

Regardless of whether you do or plan to partake of marijuana, its increasing legality is a very good thing.

Why?

Because racial equity, criminal justice, and economics, that’s why.

Marijuana laws have historically—and still are—used to criminalize Black and Brown people, waste taxpayer resources, and fuel the mass incarceration crisis.

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Decriminalization and legalization are important steps in the right direction, but they’re not enough.

Which is where the economics bit comes in.

Even as the federal government remains out of step with the clear direction of the country (more than two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization, up from barely one-third 20 years ago), four states have already legalized weed for recreational use just this year.

  • Those four states are New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia.

You’ll never guess what those four states have in common.

… oh wait, you’re reading this, so of course you will.

(But for the newbs, all of these states have Democratic-majority legislatures and Democratic governors.)

  • Because of the long history of racial iniquity in marijuana prosecutions and convictions, Democrats in each of these states prioritized righting these longstanding wrongs in their respective legalization efforts.
    • In New Jersey, prioritization for marijuana business licenses will be given to those located in “impact zones,” which are localities that were “negatively impacted by past marijuana enterprises that contributed to higher concentrations of law enforcement activity, unemployment, and poverty,” according to the new state law.
      • Those zones will also see a higher share of tax revenue from weed sales: 70% of sales tax proceeds from recreational marijuana will be sent to these impact zones as grants, loans, and other financial aid.
  • In New Mexico, the state’s new legalization law was passed with a companion measure that will automatically erase many past marijuana convictions.
  • In New York, people convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized will have their records automatically expunged, and 40% of tax revenue from cannabis sales will be reinvested in the communities of color hardest-hit by the decades-long folly known as the “war on drugs.”
  • In Virginia, 30% of tax revenue from marijuana sales will go to communities most impacted by America’s racist “war on drugs.”
    • When retail weed sales begin (currently slated for 2024, although possession and home cultivation become legal this July), entrepreneurs who’ve been charged with marijuana-related offenses or who graduated from historically Black colleges and universities will be given preference in business licensing.

Anyway, because data is fun, here’s some from Civiqs’ ongoing tracking poll of Americans’ views on whether cannabis should be legal, broken down by state (mouse over each state to see how popular legalization is in your neck of the woods, or visit Civiqs.com to dig into this data by age, gender, party, education level, and more!):

It’s interesting to note that the states where marijuana has been legal (for medicinal use, if not recreational) the longest (Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont) are also the states in which legal marijuana is most popular—a strong indication that legal weed has not led to conservative-prophesied disasters.

Okay, back to the actual holiday at hand. Earth Day!

And would you believe that Democratic-majority state legislatures have been making positive moves on environmental issues?

… well, yeah, probably.

I mean, honestly, who the hell else is going to do it?

  • In Delaware, Democrats pushed the state’s renewable energy mandate up to 40% by 2035.
  • In Massachusetts, Democrats passed the most significant update to the state’s environmental law since 2008, codifying the ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse emissions to net-zero by 2050 and setting sector-specific emission reduction targets.
    • This wide-ranging climate legislation also requires the state buy more electricity from offshore wind and establishes new appliance efficiency standards.
  • In New Mexico, Democrats’ new law will allow the state to set environmental standards “more stringent” than federal law (a big change from how the law is currently written, which permits state regulations “no more stringent” than federal policies).
  • In Rhode Island, Democrats passed sweeping climate legislation aimed at cutting the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.
  • In Washington, Democrats passed a cap on carbon emissions that will help the state meet its goal of reducing these emissions by 50% before 2050.

Yay good news!

But you know I’ve got to keep it real with you, which is why I have to talk about some bad news.

Specifically, Republicans state lawmakers’ all-out assault on Americans’ right to protest.

It’s timely for two reasons:

1. Almost a year after George Floyd’s murder was filmed by bystanders, the cop who stole his life was convicted this week on two counts of murder and one of manslaughter.

2. The video of Floyd’s murder led to worldwide protests of police violence against people of color.

Anyway, it’s not exactly news that Republicans lawmakers, generally speaking, are huge fans of cops.

  • Consequently, they’ve resisted calls for police accountability and reform in states they govern.
  • And they’re super not into all these inconvenient and noisy demonstrations against the cops who perpetrate this violence.

So what are Republicans doing about it?

Criminalizing protests, of course.

  • A just-signed Florida law is getting all the buzz in this space, and while it’s far from the only anti-protest measure out there, it certainly deserves the notoriety it’s getting.
    • This new law is expansive. Here’s a breakdown of its badness.
      • It expands the legal definition of “riot,” a third-degree felony, to include any group of three or more individuals whose shared intent to engage in disorderly and violent conduct results in “imminent danger” of property damage or personal injury.
        • Notably, the new definition does not require that the individuals’ conduct actually be disorderly or violent or that they commit any actual damage or injury.
      • It makes a “riot” consisting of 25 or more people or one that “endangers the safe movement of a vehicle” automatically an “aggravated riot,” a new 2nd degree felony.
        • Thus, large groups of protesters or ones that block traffic, even temporarily, could face up to 15 years in prison.
      • It creates a new criminal offense (first degree misdemeanor) of “mob intimidation,” defined as a group of three or more people who act with a “common intent” to compel “or attempt to compel” another person to “do or refrain from doing any act,” or “assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint” against their will.
        • This is obviously stupidly broad and vague and will be used to just arrest protesters for whatever.
      • It creates a new third-degree felony for anyone who “willfully and maliciously defaces, injures, or otherwise damages by any means” statues, flags, paintings, displays, or other “memorials” if the value of the damage is more than $200.
        • “Deface” is not defined in the law, so protesters who apply paint or graffiti to a monument in the course of a peaceful protest could face up to five years in prison.
      • It encourages violence against protesters by creating a new affirmative defense in civil lawsuits so a defendant could avoid liability by establishing that the injury, death, or damage they committed “arose from” conduct by someone “acting in furtherance of a riot.”
      • It creates a new civil right of action against a municipal government that fails to provide “respond appropriately to protect persons and property during a riot or unlawful assembly,” making localities civilly liable for personal injury, property, or other damages.
        • This could encourage municipal governments to adopt overly aggressive police responses to protests to avoid lawsuits.

The fact of the matter is that laws are already on the books in each and every state that criminalize actual riots and actual criminal conduct that might occur adjacent to an otherwise peaceful protest.

But rather than use the tools already at their disposal, Republicans in Florida and elsewhere want to make it easier for cops to punish those who would stand up to their racist and violent practices.

And by elsewhere, I mean

  • Oklahoma: Its new anti-protest law creates new penalties for protesters who obstruct traffic while participating in a “riot” and protects drivers who “unintentionally” hit them.
    • A person who participated in a “riot” and “obstructed” the “normal use” of a public street or highway is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, a $5,000 fine, and restitution for any property damage.
      • “Riot” is already broadly defined under existing Oklahoma law, to include a group of three or more people who make “any threat to use force.”
    • The new law also shields a driver who injures or kills someone while “fleeing from a riot” from civil and criminal liability as long as they did so “unintentionally,” were “exercising due care,” and held a “reasonable belief” that they needed to flee to protect themselves.
  • Similar measures that essentially criminalize protesting are moving through legislatures in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

These anti-protest laws aren’t all a direct response to the anti-police racism and violence protests spurred by George Floyd’s murder.

Some are clearly a reaction to anti-pipeline or other environmental protests in recent years.

  • Arkansas: A recently-signed law establishes harsh new penalties for protestors around gas and oil pipelines and other “critical infrastructure.”
    • The law broadly defines “critical infrastructure” to include a range of posted or fenced-off areas associated with natural gas and crude oil production, storage, and distribution, including pipelines and pipeline construction sites and equipment.
    • Under the law, purposely entering or remaining on any “critical infrastructure” is a Class D felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
    • The law also creates a felony offense for anyone who purposely and unlawfully “causes damage” to critical infrastructure.
      • Any amount of “damage”—which the law does not define—is a Class B felony under the law, punishable by 20 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
        • So, for example, protesters who hold a peaceful sit-in at a pipeline construction site and paint protest slogans on construction material could face long prison sentences and exorbitant fines.
  • Similar anti-”infrastructure protest” bills are pending in Alabama and Montana.

Remember that Democrats in several states responded to widespread protests of police violence and racism by actually engaging on the issue (although not always in a satisfactory way), increasing accountability, oversight, and transparency as well as, in three Democratic-trifecta states, effectively doing away with qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that law enforcement has used for many years to shield police officers from individual liability for their misconduct.

Republicans, on the other hand, clearly intend to subject those protesting police violence and racism to … more police violence and racism.

For further reading on the various anti-protest bills percolating in legislatures across the country, the International Center for Not-for-profit Law has a great—and filterable—resource here.

Welp, that’s a wrap for this week. You’re a sport to wade through all that legalese, especially if you’re reading this while, ah, observing Tuesday’s “holiday.”

However you unwind, though, you deserve it. Maybe you should even take a day off from the things that you do, get some extra relaxing in so you can come back fresh on Monday.

But instead of printing this out and showing it to your boss, perhaps just … send her the link. Save a tree.

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