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waves of uncertainty and fear over the cannabis industry and legalization supporters on January 4, when he formally rescinded Obama-era guidelines protecting state marijuana laws.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.
Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana
Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.
The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.
Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.
The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.
Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.
Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.
He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.
“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.
One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”
“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.
Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency
Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.
At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.
That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.
Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says
Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.
Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.
Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.
Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.
In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.
The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”
In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”
Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:
Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.
Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”
“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”
Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.
“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”
Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.
“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”
Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.
“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.
Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”
USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.
Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.
“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”
The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.
“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.
A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”
“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.
While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”
USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.
The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.
While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.
The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.