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waves of uncertainty and fear over the cannabis industry and legalization supporters on January 4, when he formally rescinded Obama-era guidelines protecting state marijuana laws.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.
Senators Cite Marijuana Arrests Of U.S. Citizens In Border Patrol Oversight Request
Three senators requested a review of Border Patrol immigration checkpoint actions on Tuesday, citing a past report that found a significant number of searches and seizures were executed against U.S. citizens for low-level marijuana possession.
The request to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) outlines a number of data points concerning checkpoint enforcement that the senators say are necessary to collect in order to assess compliance with the Fourth Amendment. That includes information on rationale for checkpoint stops, data collection and protocol for searches.
“In 2017, the GAO published a report that looked at, among other things, the Border Patrol strategy of placing and utilizing immigration checkpoints generally between 25 and 100 miles from the border,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) wrote in a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro. “As a result of this review, the GAO found that 40 percent of checkpoint seizures were from U.S. citizens for one ounce or less of marijuana.”
Though the letter—which was also signed by Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Gary Peters (D-MI)—didn’t specifically request information on marijuana seizures, it did inquire about the number of U.S. citizens apprehended and the reason for their arrests. It also asks, “How frequently does the agency analyze trends in drug seizures and apprehensions to evaluate its priorities at each checkpoint?”
“Comprehensive data on who receives additional screening at checkpoints, and the reasonable suspicion that undergirds these encounters, searches, and seizures, is fundamental to understanding if and how Border Patrol abides by constitutional limits,” the letter states.
Leahy and Murray also called for the collection of data on “the quantities of drugs detected” during canine checkpoint searches in legislation the pair reintroduced last month.
“Unless a government agent has a legitimate reason to stop and search you—a reasonable suspicion or probable cause—Americans should not be subject to questioning and detention for merely going about their daily lives,” Leahy said in a press release. “The Trump administration cannot be trusted to use its finite resources in a way that protects our civil liberties and reflects our values.”
It’s not clear if cannabis seizures for U.S. citizens remain prominent at immigration checkpoints since the 2017 report was released, but one thing that the Customs and Border Protection has made clear is that it doesn’t matter if a stop takes place in a state that’s legalized marijuana—it enforces federal law.
That applies to instances of illicit drug trafficking across the border, too. But as more states like California have legalized cannabis, border agents have seized less and less marijuana.
Congressman Tells Joe Rogan He Backs States’ Marijuana Rights But Actually Voted Against Them
Joe Rogan debated the merits of marijuana legalization on Tuesday with a Republican congressman who ultimately conceded that medical cannabis should be federally legal and states should be empowered to set their own legalization policies.
But neither Rogan nor Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) mentioned the fact that he recently voted against a House amendment to shield state marijuana laws from federal interference and has not added his name as a cosponsor of several pending medical cannabis bills.
The congressman, a former Navy SEAL, didn’t rule out the possibility of coming around to endorsing adult-use legalization but voiced several concerns about the prospect, including underage usage, the lack of technology to detect impaired driving and reduced productivity.
“I can be convinced, but I’m not there yet,” he said on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. “I’m definitely more open to just the federal legalization of medical marijuana and all the benefits that come with that. On the recreational side, I’m happy to leave that up to the states.”
“My issue with recreational marijuana still—and this is not a strong opinion I have, this is not a hill I’m dying on by any means—but if we’re going to change it, I want to understand what the point is, what the benefits are of it recreationally,” he said. “I understand the benefits medically very well, but I want to understand the recreational benefits and I want to see how this data plays out in places like California and Colorado.”
Rogan emphasized that alcohol is federally legal despite risks to young people, but Crenshaw, an avowed scotch fan, said his “counter is simply this: the alcohol issue is out of the bag” and that we’re “never going to put that back in.”
“My point is this: there’s a normalization that occurs when you legalize something,” the congressman said. “What you’ve done though is you normalized it for teenagers. There’s a lot of people who can just live their lives extremely productively and smoke pot a lot. And there’s a lot of people who can’t and there’s a lot of people who don’t.”
“Those people are lazy bitches,” Rogan said.
“Don’t you have to drink way more scotch to get even close to the basic cognitive incoherence that you’d be with just one bite of a brownie?” Crenshaw asked.
“You would, but not me,” Rogan said. “I smoke pot all the time. I could have smoked pot before this podcast and had the exact same podcast. I could have had several hits. If I gave you several hits, you’d be obliterated.”
“On a personal level, I’m just not opposed to what you’re saying at all,” Crenshaw said. “From a policy level though I just look at things different.”
That stance is reflected in the freshman congressman’s record. Despite voicing support for medical cannabis and leaving recreational legalization up to the states, he’s declined to cosponsor any legislation on the former issue and proactively voted against an amendment to protect states that legalize marijuana for adult use from federal intervention.
(On another drug policy issue near and dear to Rogan that didn’t arise during the interview, Crenshaw also voted against an amendment from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that would have removed barriers to research on the benefits like psilocybin and MDMA.)
Crenshaw said his perspective wasn’t formed out of naivety and that he tried marijuana and didn’t like it. He also argued that cannabis “does reduce productivity I think more than alcohol does.”
“As a policymaker, I have to look at the whole situations. I see people like you and you’re like you’d be fine, why not?” he said. “But I do have to take into account the entirety of the situation and ask myself, ‘well, what is the benefit to society doing this?'”
Rogan said that marijuana facilitates community bonding and makes people happier—to which Crenshaw responded “I don’t know, I think alcohol is much more of a social lubricant—it definitely makes you meaner too—but I mean as far as getting along with people and interacting with human beings.”
“I’m not dying on this hill. I have questions, and those questions are unanswered,” he said, adding that the “bottom line is that’s a state decision” to legalize recreationally.
“As far as the battles that we should fight at the federal level, we’ve got to start with the medical side. I think the science is clear there,” he said.
“Another reason I’m a Republican is because I believe in somewhat slower policymaking too. These conversations have to play out in society and we don’t always need to solve the problem right away. I think the medical conversation is the one we should be fighting for. I think the recreational side is a few steps beyond that. We’ll get to know and we’ll know more.”
Later in the podcast, Crenshaw defended the broader war on drugs and argued that “you might feel like you’re losing all the time, but you’re mitigating” drug use through prohibition enforcement.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Joe Rogan Experience.
New York And Connecticut Governors Talk Marijuana Legalization On Fishing Trip
The governors of New York and Connecticut went fishing and talked about marijuana legalization on Tuesday.
The conversation comes after lawmakers in both states were unable to pass legalization legislation before their respective sessions’ ends this year, despite having the support of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D).
“We talked about policy issues like the marijuana issue, which is obviously also relevant to contiguous states,” Cuomo said at a press conference following the fishing trip. “What Connecticut does on marijuana is relevant to New York, what New York does is relevant to Connecticut so we talked about that and a lot of issues. So we had fun.”
Watch Cuomo’s marijuana comments at about 5:00 into the video below:
Cuomo had described legalization as a top legislative priority for 2019 and included it in his state budget proposal. But after months of negotiations with lawmakers, the plan fell through, due in part to disagreements about how to allocate tax revenue and whether to allow individual jurisdictions to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses.
The governor did sign legislation in July that expands the state’s marijuana decriminalization policy and provides a pathway for expungements of past marijuana convictions.
Over in Connecticut, Lamont campaigned on legalization during his election bid last year and described it as one of his administration’s “priorities” after he took office. But as with neighboring New York, the legislature failed to advance a legalization bill beside multiple successful committee votes and hearings throughout the year.
The specifics of what the governors talked about during their fishing expedition on Lake Ontario aren’t clear, but both are presumably gearing up for another round of legislative efforts marijuana over the coming year and could take lessons from each other as reform talks continue.
Another East Coast state, New Jersey, has also struggled to move legalization legislation forward, with lawmakers saying that the issue should be taken up by voters in 2020 rather than pushed through the legislature, though there has been discussion lately about another try at moving a bill before year’s end. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) did sign a decriminalization and expungements bill in May, however.
Photo courtesy of CBS 6.