Ending cannabis prohibition requires attacking the flawed logic of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Fortunately, the foundations of cannabis reform are built on solid legs. They are Medical cannabis, Industrial hemp, and Recreational marijuana. The CSA simply refused any possibility of medical purposes. The marihuana Act of 1937 split hemp into the preferred drug of the jazz degenerate and the hempy weed that grows by the stream. As long as they are separate, they are marginalized and weak. It was not until the scapegoat of the cannabis family, recreational marijuana, got its chance at relevance when it was legalized in 2012. The following years validated the will of the voters as it spread across the USA. In 2018 industrial hemp and medical cannabis became the benefactors.
Recreational cannabis won big. Really big. Elected officials are proactively establishing regulations from the top down. The year started out in Vermont, where Republican Governor Phil Scott grudgingly signed a cannabis legalization bill into law.[i]This year, Vermont became the first state to enact cannabis legislation through their legislature and the ninth state to legalize recreational cannabis. Both major choices for Governor of Vermont this year supported cannabis: Phil Scott signed the aforementioned cannabis bill into law[ii]and his challenger, Christine Hallquist, was a vocal supporter of legal cannabis.[iii]11 other successful gubernatorial campaigns remarked positively about cannabis legalization.[iv]
State ballot questions ranged from non-binding advisory questions in Wisconsin[v]to full legalization in Michigan[vi]. The Midwest also got medical access in Missouri.[vii]Utah joined the list of growing states to approve legal access to medical cannabis.[viii]The only cannabis loser this year was in North Dakota, who shot the moon with a legalization question that failed on Election Day there.[ix]They keep on trying though, so don’t expect them to go home quietly. Oh, and the Canadian Senate voted in June to legalize recreational cannabis throughout the country.[x]The law came in to effect in October.
There were also some local wins as well. A dispensary owner won a seat on the South Lake Tahoe City Council.[xi] The owner of a local ganja shop recently went from embattled business owner to City Council member in two years. This is another indication of how quickly things are turning around in 2018.
Another California community, Los Angeles, is beginning a social equity program. Social equity programs started in Oakland a few years ago, where a couple of young black ladies started a non-profit called The Hood Incubator.[xii]The founders of The Hood Incubator were keenly aware that “As recently as 2015, Oakland officers arrested black residents nearly 20 times more often than white residents for cannabis-related crimes.” Yet, “black people had owned or founded less than 5 percent of cannabis businesses nationwide and, across all industries, black-founded startups had received just 1 percent of venture capital funding.”[xiii]The city of Los Angeles is now the second city to bring this program to their residents[xiv].
This idea of “Social equity” is not one that is traditionally American. Yet, Illinois and Massachusetts are also deciding on their own social equity programs to complement their cannabis laws. The Massachusetts cannabis regulatory body responsible is called The Cannabis Control Commission. They have so far “issued 76 provisional licenses…None of those are to minority-owned businesses”[xv].
Illinois wants to be ahead of the curve as legalization comes to their state. The newly-elected Governor, J.B. Pritzker, was quite vocal about legalizing cannabis in his campaign. He even dedicated a 265-word declaration page on his campaign site: https://www.jbpritzker.com/marijuana/.Their lawmakers have shifted their thinking from ““whether or not cannabis should be legal” to “how it should be legal””[xvi].
Colorado, California, and Delaware have all passed legislation that will expunge cannabis felonies[xvii][xviii][xix]. Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey have legislation written and are waiting for a vote[xx][xxi][xxii].
Even the United States congress has a plan to legalize cannabis. The Congressional Black Causus issued a press release in June that indicated their support for “decriminalizing marijuana and investing in communities that were destroyed by the War on Drugs…We also support expunging the records of those previously convicted of misdemeanors for marijuana offenses.”[xxiii]
Soon after the Democrats took control of the house, Earl Blumenaur, the co-founder of the Cannabis Caucus, wrote a memo that stated the Democrats’ path forward. “The memo he sent to Democratic leadership reads in part, “committees should start marking up bills in their jurisdiction that would responsibly narrow the marijuana policy gap—the gap between federal and state marijuana laws—before the end of the year. These policy issues … should include: Restorative justice measures that address the racial injustices that resulted from the unequal application of federal marijuana laws.””[xxiv]
As the very base that embraces the “tough on crime” approach watches the compassionate side of the country loosen cannabis laws, they are scrambling to establish dominance while maintaining the “moral high ground”. Good, evangelical views intersect with states’ rights at industrial hemp. This intersectionality happened at the 2018 Farm bill, where industrial hemp was removed from the CSA and put it within the purview of the USDA. (CBD was also removed, but the FDA was a bit butt hurt…read on).
This hardy plant indicates the growing bipartisan power that the cannabis plant holds today. Even grumpy old Mitch McConnel could not resist the smell of money that the hemp plant exudes. His 2018 farm bill:
“officially reclassifies hemp for commercial uses after decades of statutes and legal enforcement conflating hemp and marijuana, the Farm Bill distinguishes between the two by removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. (While the two are closely related, hemp lacks the high concentration of THC that is responsible for the high from smoking marijuana.) This would effectively move regulation and enforcement of the crop from the purview of the Drug Enforcement Agency to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”[xxv]
It is a big deal. Of course, this does not mean that the south would accept recreational cannabis. Mitch McConnell still believes that ““I do not have any plans to endorse the legalization of marijuana,” he said, adding that marijuana and hemp are “two entirely separate plants…It is a different plant. It has an illicit cousin which I choose not to embrace,””[xxvi]
That is okay, though. Dinosaurs like him are on the way out. Pete Sessions will be joining him. He is the drug warrior who single-handedly blocked more than 36 amendments from getting a full floor vote[xxvii]. He lost the mid-term election to a former NFL football player and medical-cannabis advocate, Colin Allred.[xxviii]
Another Southern Dinosaur lost his way when the top lawman in the country got fired over the Thanksgiving holiday. 2018 ended Jeff Sessions’ reign on terror. He is not a Senator nor Attorney General anymore. He has endorsed and inflicted the “tough on crime” approach for decades. As Attorney General, he withdrew the “Cole Memo” that gave Justice Department attorneys a clear idea of what is legal and what is not legal cannabis business activities. He also blocked research into medical cannabis.[xxix]While it is unclear what direction medical cannabis research will take moving forward, it will not be from the embodiment of the obstructionist south, Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.
The single biggest thing to happen this year, however, has to be the medical relief component of cannabis that the FDA announced in June. Their approval of Epidiolex led to a conflict with the CSA, leaving cannabis in legal limbo.[xxx]The FDA even flexed on the Senate when they had to remind Senator McConnell that there is a list of CBD drugs that are not yet approved by the FDA.[xxxi]
All of this leads to an incredibly successful 2019 for the cannabis industry. The politics this year scream “legalize it”. There were campaigning politicians, on both sides, who saw the political value of supporting a legal cannabis market during their campaign. Cannabis legalization has not been muttered in a presidential debate once in these last 20 years. Not once has this issue been important enough to put on record in a debate, despite the massive relaxation of cannabis laws over the past two decades. It looks like there will be one president in 2020 who said “I legalized”. Job done.