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waves of uncertainty and fear over the cannabis industry and legalization supporters on January 4, when he formally rescinded Obama-era guidelines protecting state marijuana laws.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.
Federal Court Dismisses Suit Against DEA Over Marijuana Growing Applications
A federal court dismissed a lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Friday after determining that the agency had fulfilled a requirement to process applications for research-grade marijuana manufacturers.
DEA was sued in June after declining to act on the more than two dozen applications that it received for approval to cultivate cannabis for research purposes. It’s been more than three years since the agency first announced it was opening the process to consider additional producers.
The suit, brought by the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), argued that the marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi—currently the only facility that’s federally authorized to cultivate the plant—is of poor quality, does not reflect the diversity of products available on the commercial market and is therefore inadequate for clinical studies.
Indeed, that’s a point that several policymakers have made, and it’s bolstered by research demonstrating that the federal government’s cannabis is genetically closer to hemp than marijuana that consumers can obtain in state-legal markets.
In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered DEA to respond to the legal challenge within 30 days—and as that deadline approached in August, the agency published a notice in the Federal Register stating that it was taking steps to approve the pending applications.
Due to the volume of the applications, DEA said it would have to develop alternative rules to process them. And on Friday the court said that DEA had fulfilled its obligations and that the suit “is now moot.” While no applications have been approved to date, there’s a public comment period that will last until October 28 and then the agency will have an additional 90 days to take action on the inquiries.
“The Court dismissed our case because, according to the Court, DEA gave us the relief we had requested,” attorney Matt Zorn, who was involved in the suit, told Marijuana Moment. “Last week, on October 11, DEA published a correction to the notice it had previously published on August 26, two days before it had to respond to the Court’s order. The Court said this second notice meant there was nothing more the Court could give us.”
“The Court also declined to maintain jurisdiction over the case, because it did not find a history of chronic delay or bad faith in the record,” Zorn said. “But it also indicated that we could return to court if DEA significantly delays going forward.”
Sue Sisley, a researcher with SRI, said that despite the case being dismissed, it “moved the ball forward for everyone.”
“We would have liked to take the case one step further to ensure that all 33 applications are processed promptly—protecting the health and welfare of our nation’s medically ill patients ought to be a national priority for this administration,” she said. “By delaying these 33 applications, the administration has prevented our US scientists from investigating the clinical efficacy of real-world cannabis to treat combat veterans with PTSD. Fortunately, the Court’s order today allows us to return to court for additional relief if Trump’s DOJ/DEA continues to violate the law and put public health at risk through delay or otherwise.”
In a separate case in May, another federal court ordered DEA to “promptly” consider applications to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act.
Read the appeals court’s ruling on the DEA marijuana application case below:
Former VA Secretary Who Oversaw Marijuana Research Blockade Now Backs Cannabis Studies For Veterans
Former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin is officially on board with having the department research medical marijuana—a development that comes a year after he was in a position to actually make that happen.
In an interview with Task & Purpose that was published on Thursday, Shulkin said that “the time is now” for VA to facilitate studies into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans.
“I believe that the VA should be involved in research on anything that could potentially help veterans and improve their health and well-being,” he said.
That appears to represent a notable departure from the position he held while he headed the department.
For example, VA under his leadership refused to provide assistance to an Arizona-based research facility that was soliciting veterans to participate in a federally approved clinical trial looking at the potential benefits of cannabis in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects,” a VA official told Air Force Times in 2017. “The researcher is free to work with veterans service organizations and state veterans officials who may not face such restrictions to identify candidates for her study.”
But according to the Brookings Institute, that’s not an accurate assessment because “doctors and researchers at the VA or in VA hospitals could conduct research into the medical efficacy of marijuana while remaining completely compliant with federal laws, regulations, and the United States’ obligations under international agreements.”
While the former secretary still said during this latest interview that congressional action is necessary to prompt VA research efforts, he seems to have become decidedly more vocal about the importance of such studies as compared to his time in office.
“In particular, with the VA’s focus on suicide as the top priority, people just don’t take their lives because of no reason,” he said. “They take their lives, often because of issues related to chronic pain, depression, substance abuse, and there is growing evidence that medical marijuana—I’m not talking about recreational marijuana—but properly prescribed, may have some real benefits in anxiety improvement, in pain management, and potentially, in the issue of substance abuse.”
“And therefore, I believe it’s extremely appropriate for VA to be researching and developing therapies that can help veterans, particularly in areas where we don’t have enough good therapies or answers,” he said.
Task & Purpose followed up to ask about potential obstacles such to having VA conduct research into the issue, and Shulkin said that because marijuana is a federally controlled substance, “the challenge of doing research with the regulations, and the hoops that you have to go through, are making it too difficult to do for many of the researchers.”
“I do think that the way forward is a legislative solution, much of what VA responds to are changes in the law, where medical research for veterans in this area could be streamlined and clarity around what regulations and rules need to be followed to be able to do this research, as well as guidance about the type of research that can and should be done, which reports back to Congress.”
He added that he doesn’t anticipate that President Trump would resist legislation empowering VA to study marijuana for veterans.
Brad Burge, director of strategic communication at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the group behind the study into cannabis for PTSD, told Marijuana Moment that they are “pleased that Shulkin has now expressed his support for medical marijuana research, even though that support would have been much more valuable when he was still in office.”
“Nevertheless we are looking forward to the VA’s support of marijuana research and see Shulkin’s change of stance as a promising sign for veterans suffering from PTSD,” Burge said.
It wasn’t just that Shulkin’s VA put up roadblocks to cannabis research, he also resisted providing veterans with access to marijuana by declining to change internal VA policy that could empower its doctors to issue recommendations in states where it’s legal.
The reasoning, he said in 2017, is that it’s “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs or to prescribe medical marijuana, even in states where it’s legal” because of federal law. But advocates argued that the only thing standing in the way of VA cannabis research is VA policy itself, which Shulkin could have amended.
Getting a VA cannabis reform bill passed as the former official is now recommending has already proved difficult this year, with current VA officials voicing opposition during a congressional committee hearing in June to modest proposals such as allowing their doctors to recommend cannabis or even surveying veterans about their marijuana use.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said that same month that he pulled an appropriations amendment to allow for VA marijuana recommendations from floor consideration partly because of opposition from the department.
Mexican Committees Unveil Marijuana Legalization Bill Ahead Of Supreme Court Deadline
Several Mexican Senate committees unveiled draft legislation late on Thursday to legalize marijuana.
Leaders of the Health, Justice, Public Security and Legislative Studies Committees announced last week that they would remain in permanent session to finalize the legalization bill ahead of a coming Supreme Court deadline.
The court determined last year that the country’s ban on personal cannabis consumption and cultivation is unconstitutional, though lawmakers now want to go even further by legalizing commercial production and sales.
The committees are expected to formally vote on the legislation in the coming days, after which point it will head to the full Senate and then the Chamber of Deputies. Leaders said a vote in the legislature could occur before the end of the month, though it’s possible they could ask the Supreme Court for a deadline extension.
Ayer, antes de medianoche, fue entregado a los senadores de las comisiones de Justicia, Salud, Estudios Legislativos, Segunda y Seguridad Pública el predictamen📃🌿 de la ‘Ley para la regulación de la cannabis’. Está conformado por 74 artículos y once transitorios. pic.twitter.com/8IKOF7pA1i
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) October 18, 2019
Here are some of the key provisions, according to a translation:
—Adults 18 and older can possess cannabis for personal use, cultivate up to four plants and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers.
—An independent body called the “Cannabis Institute” would be charged with issuing licenses, setting potency limits and monitoring the implementation of the law, among other responsibilities.
—Low-income individuals, small farmers and indigenous people would have licensing priority.
—Strict restrictions would be imposed on cannabis packaging. That includes requiring nondescript, standardized containers that do not feature depictions of real or fictional people or testimonials.
—Marijuana can only be consumed in private spaces.
—Only medical cannabis patients would be allowed to purchase infused edibles and beverages.
—Unregistered seeds or plants would be subject to forfeiture.
—No pesticides could be used on cannabis plants.
The bill seeks to “improve the living conditions of people living in the United Mexican States, combat the consequences of the problematic use of cannabis and reduce the crime incidence linked to drug trafficking [while] promoting peace, the security and well-being of individuals and communities,” according to the text.
Sen. Julio Menchaca Salazar, head of the Justice Committee, said in a tweet that “we are legislating to regulate the illicit market of the #marihuana and decrease the crime incidence linked to the #narcotráfico, promoting peace and security for all Mexicans.”
— Julio Menchaca S. (@Julio_Menchaca) October 18, 2019
Lawmakers have said that the legislation is largely based on a proposal that Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero filed last year while still serving as a senator, but the committees are also merging in provisions from among more than a dozen other marijuana reform bills that since have been introduced.
“They all have something good that we can be translating into law,” Menchaca Salazar, who is a member of the ruling MORENA party, said.
Debate on the measure will also be informed by findings from a series of events the Senate organized to gather public input on marijuana legalization. That includes a panel led by a former White House drug czar, who stressed the need for “robust regulations” of a legal cannabis market.
The leader of the MORENA party in the Senate, Sen. Ricardo Monreal, said earlier this month that the chamber was set to vote on a legalization bill ahead of the October 24 deadline.
“It will undoubtedly be a great discussion with the elements we have and also with all the willingness to incorporate the opinions of legislators, but it would come out this month, there are the conditions for that to be,” Menchaca Salazar said.
Read the full text of the Mexican committees’ marijuana legalization proposal below:
This story is developing and will be updated.