This year was a pivotal one for marijuana.
It began with then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sending waves of uncertainty and fear over the cannabis industry and legalization supporters on January 4, when he formally rescinded Obama-era guidelines protecting state marijuana laws.
But as 2018 went on, even more states ended up changing their laws to allow for legal recreational or medical cannabis use despite the conflict with federal law. Efforts to end national prohibition in Congress picked up steam as well. And several nations moved to significantly overhaul their marijuana laws.
Here’s a look back at marijuana’s 10 biggest victories of the year:
Lawmakers Start Passing Marijuana Legalization Bills
It didn’t take long for pro-legalization forces to get a victory on the board after Session’s anti-cannabis attack. Just hours later, on the very same day the attorney general threw the previous administration’s federal cannabis protections in the trash, Vermont lawmakers voted to approve a marijuana legalization bill. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, went on to sign the legislation, which allows adults to grow and possess small amounts of cannabis but does not provide for a system of legal sales. That made Vermont the first state in the nation to enact legalization by an act of lawmakers instead of through a ballot initiative.
In September, lawmakers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory, also enacted a marijuana legalization bill that was later signed into law by Gov. Ralph Torres (R). Unlike the Vermont policy, CNMI’s approach does include legal cannabis commerce. The territory, which previously did not have a medical marijuana law, became the first place in the U.S. to go straight from having cannabis illegal across the board to allowing recreational use.
These two new laws—signed by Republican governors—mark an evolution in the country’s move toward legalization. Whereas the other states that had previously ended prohibition did so through acts of voters, it is now clear that politicians are comfortable enough with the issue to take matters into their own hands.
Three Red States Legalize Medical Cannabis
Support for marijuana reform transcends party lines, a political reality made clear by the fact that voters in Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah all overwhelmingly approved medical cannabis ballot measures this year while at the same time voting to elect Republicans to the U.S. Senate or nominate conservative candidates for statewide office. In Oklahoma, medical marijuana was on the primary election ballot—a situation legalization supporters have long sought to avoid because younger and more progressive voters who have been thought more likely to support cannabis reform don’t show up as reliably in non-presidential elections. But the decisive win in the red state during an off-year primary shows that medical cannabis can pass almost anywhere any time it is put before voters, whether presidential years, primaries or midterms.
First Midwestern State Legalizes Marijuana
During last month’s midterms, voters in Michigan strongly approved a ballot measure making their state the fist in the Midwest to legalize adult-use marijuana. No longer relegated to the coasts, legal markets for recreational marijuana are now an emerging nationwide trend. Separately, while not nearly as far-reaching as ending prohibition and allowing legal sales, voters in five Ohio cities also approved local cannabis decriminalization ballot measures on Election Day, signaling that a regional Midwest movement for marijuana reform is on the rise.
Pro-Legalization Candidates Win Governors’ Races
Aside from the wins at the ballot box for cannabis measures this year, voters also elected a number of new governors who campaigned on promises to legalize marijuana.
In Illinois, Democrat J.B. Pritzker sailed to victory after a campaign in which he made marijuana legalization a centerpiece of his platform. Minnesota Gov.-elect Tim Walz (D), who has worked on cannabis issues in Congress, also backs ending prohibition.
In addition to approving a legalization ballot measure, Michigan voters elected Gretchen Whitmer (D), who publicly supported the initiative and called cannabis an “exit drug” away from opioids, as governor. In New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who won the governor’s race, said legalizing marijuana will bring “hundreds of millions of dollars to New Mexico’s economy.” Connecticut Gov.-elect Ned Lamont (D) said that legalizing marijuana will be among his “priorities” in 2019.
While reelected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) previously called marijuana a “gateway drug,” in recent months he appointed a working group to draft a bill to end cannabis prohibition for lawmakers to consider in 2019, and the chances of that passing were improved as Democrats took control of the state’s Senate in the midterms.
Members of Congress Act To Fix Federal-State Marijuana Gap
The rapid evolution of the politics of marijuana isn’t just happening on the state level. Many more members of the U.S. House and Senate became active in the fight to end federal cannabis prohibition in 2018.
More than just being ineffective in stopping states from changing their marijuana laws, Sessions’s anti-cannabis move seems to have actually spurred more federal lawmakers to view ending national prohibition as an important issue, with dozens of members of Congress quickly weighing in on the need for reform in the wake of his rescission of the Obama-era memo.
One legislator, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), went so far as to place a hold on President Trump’s Justice Department nominees over the dispute.
And while congressional Republicans blocked dozens of cannabis amendments, refusing to allow any to reach the House floor for votes, more bills to end or amend federal marijuana prohibition were filed in the 115th Congress than ever before, and they garnered record numbers of cosponsors.
And with the Democratic takeover of the House in the midterms, many observers believe that the chamber will pass far-reaching marijuana reforms in the 116th Congress, a plan for which Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) laid out in a comprehensive step-by-step “blueprint” toward federally legalizing cannabis in 2019.
Longtime Prohibitionists Flip To Support Marijuana Reform
Several of the lawmakers who vocally spoke out for ending federal marijuana prohibition this year have historically been actively hostile to cannabis reform.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), long one of Congress’s most ardent legalization opponents, announced during the course of a tough primary challenge that she finally came around to the notion that her constituents who follow California cannabis laws shouldn’t be arrested by federal narcotics agents.
Feinstein’s home state colleague, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who many believe to be preparing for a 2020 presidential run, once simply laughed in the face of a reporter who asked her about marijuana legalization. Now, the former prosecutor is all-in on ending prohibition, signing her name this year onto a far-reaching bill that would punish states with discriminatory cannabis enforcement.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has rarely met a federal drug criminalization policy he didn’t like, changed his mind on marijuana in 2018 and filed his own bill to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.
And one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), who opposed legalization in his home state of Massachusetts and consistently voted against even limited medical cannabis amendments in Congress, also evolved and now supports legalization.
While it is likely true that some of this position flipping is at least partially motivated by genuine rethinking about the policy of prohibition, it’s hard to believe that politics doesn’t have something to do with it as well. Polling now consistently shows that a growing majority of the country supports legalizing cannabis. Gallup, for example, found in October that 66% of Americans—including a majority of Republicans—are now on board with legalization.
This new politics of marijuana is likely to become more and more apparent to politicians who are still reluctant to embrace cannabis reform as a growing number of states change their laws.
President Trump Voices Support For Marijuana Bill
In a situation that stemmed directly from his own attorney general’s anti-cannabis moves, President Trump ended up lending his support to a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition.
Following Gardner’s blocking Justice Department nominees in protest of Sessions’s rescission of the Obama-era marijuana memo, the senator spoke directly with the president and elicited a pledge for the administration to respect local legalization laws in exchange for lifting his hold. Following that, he teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to file legislation to shield state marijuana policies from federal interference.
When asked about the proposal during an impromptu press conference outside the White House, Trump said he “really” supports the bill, a comment that made him the first sitting president to embrace legislation to end the federal prohibition of marijuana.
Hemp Is About To Become Legal
After decades of being caught up in the broader prohibition of cannabis, marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin hemp is poised to finally become a legal crop.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), no fan of marijuana, nonetheless actively championed the legalization of hemp through this year’s Farm Bill, going so far as to take the unusual step of naming himself to the conference committee charged with reconciling the Senate version, which had his hemp language in it, with the House version, which did not.
McConnell and other congressional leaders announced recently that the negotiated bill that will be sent to President Trump’d desk includes provisions to finally and officially remove the crop from the Controlled Substances Act. The legislation, which will bolster the growing market for hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD), is expected to be enacted by year’s end.
Canada Legalizes Marijuana
In addition to having prohibition-free zones within its own borders in a growing number of states, the U.S. now has a whole country where cannabis is legal just over its northern border.
While Canada is the second nation in the world to end prohibition after Uruguay, it is the first major global economic player to do so. The move has spurred the creation and growth of several huge publicly traded cannabis companies.
As the Canadian system of legalization gets off the ground, it is likely to spur the U.S. and other nations to more seriously consider modernizing their approaches to marijuana.
Mexican Presidential Administration Backs Legalizing Cannabis
Speaking of legalization just over U.S. borders, the new administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which took office this month, is already making moves to end cannabis prohibition.
In late October, the nation’s Supreme Court struck down the criminalization of using, possessing and growing personal amounts of marijuana as unconstitutional. But López Obrador’s team was already considering legalization even before the ruling. Weeks earlier, members of his incoming cabinet spoke about cannabis policy with Canadian officials during a trip to that country.
Subsequently, Sen. Olga Sánchez Cordero filed a bill to legalize and regulate cannabis production and sales. She is now the nation’s interior secretary. The government hasn’t said when it plans to push the legislation, but its party and partners control the legislature, so advocates expect that the U.S. could soon be surrounded on both its northern and southern borders by countries where marijuana is legal nationwide.
There May Still Be More Marijuana Wins By The End Of The Year
Aside from the seeming inevitability that more states will legalize marijuana and federal reform efforts will progress in 2019, it is possible that there are still more huge cannabis wins yet to come before 2018 is over.
For example, lawmakers in New Jersey advanced a marijuana legalization bill out of committee last month. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) supports ending prohibition, and the legislation could still end up on his desk for signing by the end of the year.
In any case, 2018 has already been a year that saw marijuana policy reform significantly advance on the state, federal and international levels, a scenario that bodes extremely well for the legalization movement heading into 2019.
North Dakota Marijuana Activists Turn Hopes To 2020 Ballot Measure Following Legislative Defeat
Despite the narrow defeat on Wednesday of a bill that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, activists in North Dakota say they are looking ahead to 2020, when they’ll try to push for broader cannabis legalization through a ballot measure.
The activist group Legalize ND stated their intentions to take the issue to voters in the upcoming general election in a Facebook post following the legislation’s failure.
“The legislature has proven they have 0 interest in reform, and that they are unwilling to live by their pledge to pass decriminalization as an alternative to full legalization,” the post said.
The legislation, supported by Gov. Doug Burgum (R), would have removed criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce or two mature plants. The current misdemeanor offense that carries a penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine would have been replaced with a non-criminal offense that carried a $200 fine. The bill also set new penalties for possession of paraphernalia including pipes, containers or growing tools as a non-criminal offense with a $100 fine.
Instead, members of the House voted the measure down 43-47, with four abstentions.
Activists with Legalize ND and Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, who introduced the failed decriminalization bill, did not return calls from from Marijuana Moment seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the House approved separate legislation Monday that would add new conditions for which residents can use medical cannabis, increase the number of professionals who can recommend its use and expand the allowed methods of consumption. The House also voted to allow cancer patients to have higher amounts of medical marijuana.
North Dakota’s first medical cannabis dispensary is set to open next week in Fargo, the Associated Press reported. Acreage Holdings will open a facility called The Botanist in Bismark.
In 2018, North Dakota voters rejected a marijuana legalization measure, which would have set no limit on the amount of the drug that people could possess or cultivate. Two years earlier, voters approved a separate measure allowing medical cannabis in the state.
North Dakota officials hope to have dispensaries up and running in the state’s eight major cities by fall.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Marijuana Companies Urged Governor To Ban Cannabis Home Cultivation, Document Shows
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) took marijuana reform supporters by pleasant surprise when he endorsed legalization last year after previously calling cannabis a “gateway drug” that should remain prohibited. But for advocates, there was at least one major disappointment in store when he got around to revealing the details of his plan: the proposal, unveiled as part of his budget last month, would ultimately include a ban on home cultivation of recreational marijuana.
Home growing—seen by many as a commonsense policy that ensures access to cannabis for individuals who can’t afford retail prices, live too far from a dispensary or just want to flex their green thumbs—has been a feature of almost all legal adult-use marijuana systems operating in the U.S., with the exception of Washington State’s. So what’s behind the New York governor’s opposition to letting adults cultivate their own crops?
It could be that Cuomo took a page from the commercial cannabis industry. Literally.
Roughly a month before the governor announced the details of his legalization proposal, a New York-based marijuana business association—led by the executives of the state’s major licensed medical cannabis providers—sent a policy statement to Cuomo’s office in the interest of offering “some thoughts on various issues associated with a transition from medical to adult-use.”
One of those thoughts centered on the businesses’ desire to prevent consumers from growing their own marijuana.
Politico first reported the existence of the document, created by New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA), in December. This month, Marijuana Moment obtained the full 29-page memo through a state freedom of information law request.
There are some broad recommendations that most legalization supporters would take no issue with, such as encouraging individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition to participate in the legal industry and leveraging partnerships to expand research into medical cannabis.
But a chapter titled “The Fallacy of Home Grow” makes very specific—and, in the eyes of advocates, misleading—arguments against allowing marijuana cultivation for personal use.
The group recognized that people want home cultivation because of “currently high prices of medical marijuana” or because they see it as an “individual civil liberty.” But according to NYMCIA, home cultivation “creates a significant public safety and black market risk.”
The industry organization listed five claims to support that argument:
1. Home grow will make it impossible for the state to eliminate the black market.
2. Home grow will make it impossible for law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal products, thus frustrating enforcement efforts.
3. Home grow will undermine the state’s harm reduction goal of ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is grown without noxious pesticides or other contaminants.
4. Home grow will undermine the state’s public health interest in ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is tested, packaged, and and labeled correctly.
5. Home grow will cost the state tax revenue, thus hindering the state’s ability to fund priorities such as drug abuse treatment and community investment.
Per that last point, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that New York state would miss out on some sales tax revenue if residents decided to grow their own plants. But the other side of that dilemma is that it’d likely mean missed profits for cannabis businesses, including those affiliated with NYMCIA.
“From our perspective, it’s really hard to see any real reason—other than individual and corporate greed—to be against home cultivation at this point,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “There’s not a lot of rational concerns when it comes to allowing a limited amount of plants for an individual to grow at home.”
Melissa Moore, New York deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, also pushed back against NYMCIA’s claim that a home grow option would make eliminating the illicit market “impossible.”
It’s the “fallacy of ‘The Fallacy of Home Grow,'” as she put it. It would make more sense to attribute difficulties reducing illicit market sales to state tax rates on retail cannabis, she said in a phone interview.
“It’s really disingenuous to try to say that it would not be possible to eliminate the illicit market if we allow for home grow. That certainly hasn’t been the experience of other states that allow home grow.”
Moreover, NYMCIA’s position is not consistent with that of other marijuana industry groups such as the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), which argues that allowing home growing can actually benefit businesses.
“NCIA does not oppose limited home cultivation,” Morgan Fox, media relations director at the group, said in an email. “In fact, it can act as an incubator for people to develop skills which can be used in the legal cannabis industry, which benefits businesses as well as individuals looking to enter the market. Much like home brewing has helped spur interest the craft beer market, limited home cannabis cultivation can do the same in legal states.”
Who is involved in NYMCIA and why do they want to ban home cultivation?
Marijuana companies Columbia Care, Etain, PharmaCann, The Botanist and Acreage NY, Vireo Health and MedMen were all listed as members of NYMCIA in the memo to Cuomo’s office. (MedMen later acquired PharmaCann, and more recently, NYMCIA urged MedMen to leave the association amid a controversy over racist remarks allegedly made by the company’s executives).
(A separate controversy previously enveloped Columbia Care, which owns dispensaries and grow facilities in multiple states, after its Massachusetts-based subsidiary, Patriot Care, was discovered to be advocating against letting certain people with past drug convictions work in the legal cannabis industry).
Acreage Holdings, a cannabis firm that Republican former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner joined as a board member, declined to comment for this story through a public relations firm that represents the company.
A MedMen spokesperson said in a statement to Marijuana Moment that it “respects the right of those who choose to cultivate cannabis for their personal use,” but did not respond to specific questions about the company’s involvement in drafting the policy statement that urged New York officials to continue prohibiting such activity.
Jeremy Unruh, director of public and regulatory affairs at PharmaCann, told Marijuana Moment that the document “was our industry association’s first go at formulating some broad policy positions” prior to meeting with the governor’s office and that the company’s “position on home grow is far more nuanced than a simple approve/oppose.”
“Those policy points you have are sound, but our positions have evolved (and will continue to do so) as we’ve had a chance to socialize these concepts” with other stakeholders, Unruh said. He argued that New York has superior quality control standards in place for medical cannabis and that while the company recognizes “the nature and value of civil liberty” of home cultivation, allowing it would pose public health risks.
But ultimately, “Our position is this: We support the governor’s homegrow proposal,” he wrote in an email.
While recommending that lawmakers ban personal cultivation of recreational marijuana, Cuomo did include a home grow option for medical cannabis patients in his budget plan.
(Full disclosure: Several members of the companies involved in NYMCIA support Marijuana Moment through monthly Patreon pledges, or have in the past.)
Cannabis reform advocates aren’t buying NYMCIA’s claims.
It is quite obvious that NYMCIA’s affiliates have a financial stake in the shape of whatever marijuana law eventually emerges from the New York legislature. And their opposition to a home grow option is a point of concern for advocacy groups.
“[T]o advocate against home cultivation given all we know about how it works in practice from the industry side really just is kind of despicable and illustrates their greed, that they’re willing to sacrifice individual freedoms for the slightest increase in their profits,” NORML’s Altieri said.
The association’s recommendation also runs counter to what Marijuana Moment was previously told by the vice president of corporate communications for Vireo Health, Albe Zakes.
Asked about the memo following the initial Politico report that only vaguely described the document, Zakes wrote in an email that “our CEO and COO assured me that we’ve never lobbied against home grow and in fact support home grow as part of larger legislation, as long as it is regulated and controlled in a responsible manner, the same way medical or recreational markets would be, in order to protect consumers.”
(Vireo CEO Aaron Hoffnung signed an Internal Revenue Service financial disclosure form for NYMCIA last year as one of the association’s directors.)
Marijuana Moment sent a follow-up request for comment after obtaining the policy statement through the public records request, but Zakes said the he was unable to reach the company’s executives and so Vireo would have to decline the opportunity for further comment.
Advocates question whether NYMCIA leveraged its influence for the right reasons.
Is the worry really that a home cultivation policy would sustain an illicit market or complicate law enforcement activities in New York? Are concerns about the public health impact genuine? Or is it that cannabis businesses want the entire market to themselves?
“We need to make sure that we have a check on the potential greed of the industry that we can already see in these early stages based on this advocacy document,” Altieri said. “We need to make sure that the market in New York not only begins to address all the harms caused by the war on cannabis but also is oriented toward the consumer and not large industry interests.”
“Banning home cultivation benefits no one but corporations and large industry groups.”
Despite Cuomo including the home grow ban in his proposal, it seems that advocates may get more time to voice their concerns about the policy. Some leading lawmakers such as Senate President Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) are increasingly doubtful that marijuana reform will make it into the final state budget, meaning that negotiations on separate legalization legislation could end up resulting in a law that allows consumers to grow their own cannabis.
Marijuana Moment reached out to NYMCIA itself, Cuomo’s office, Etain and Columbia Care for comment, but representatives did not respond to multiple inquiries by the time of publication.
Read the full NYMCIA policy statement, including the section on home cultivation, below:
New York Medical Cannabis I… by on Scribd
Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Key New Hampshire House Committee
A New Hampshire House committee approved a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana in the state on Thursday.
The legislation, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess, purchase and gift up to one ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants (three of which could be mature), cleared the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in a 10-9 vote.
A governor-appointed commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for marijuana cultivators, product manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Possession and home cultivation would be legal 60 days after the bill passes, and the first retail licenses would be issued in November 2020.
The bill also provides for the expungement of prior convictions for cannabis-related offenses that were made legal.
This is the first time that the committee has advanced such legislation, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Last year, the panel rejected a similar proposal, but the full House voted to overturn that recommendation and then it passed an amended version of the bill that excluded commercial sales. It later died before making its way to the Senate, however.
While some committee members expressed reservations about the health impacts of marijuana and raised doubts about revenue from legal sales, others like Rep. Will Pearson (D) said such concerns are overblown and that the time to legalize “was yesterday—beyond yesterday.”
Pearson adds health effects of marijuana should not be related to alcohol, but rather compared with coffee and sugar.
Also says NH is behind curve. “The time to do this was yesterday – beyond yesterday.” #nhpolitics
— Ethan DeWitt (@edewittNH) February 21, 2019
“We applaud the committee for recognizing that marijuana prohibition is an outdated and increasingly unpopular policy that has failed to accomplish its public health and safety objectives,” Matt Simon, New England political director at MPP, said in a press release. “It’s time for New Hampshire to adopt a more sensible system in which cannabis is legal for adults 21 and older and regulated in order to protect consumers and the public.”
“We are very pleased that the committee tasked with overseeing criminal justice and public safety has recommended the passage of this legislation,” he said. “Passage of this bill would be terrible news for illicit drug dealers and good news for proponents of smarter, more effective drug policies.”
Gov. Chris Sununu (R) opposes legalizing cannabis, but House Speaker Steve Shurtleff has said he believes there are enough votes in his chamber, and perhaps also in the Senate, to override a potential veto.
Meanwhile, marijuana legislation is moving through legislatures all across the U.S.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
We followed more than 900 pieces of cannabis legislation in 2018. Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
During the last week alone, a Vermont Senate committee approved a bill to allow cannabis sales, the West Virginia House passed a piece of marijuana banking legislation and a Missouri House committee cleared a bill to provide for the expungement of certain marijuana convictions. On Wednesday, North Dakota’s House narrowly rejected cannabis decriminalization legislation.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.