This year was a big one for marijuana.
From a first-ever congressional vote on federally legalizing cannabis to another large state ending its own prohibition law, 2019 saw the marijuana movement make advances on several fronts.
Here’s a look back at cannabis’s ten biggest victories of the year:
Marijuana Legalization Advances In Congress
In November, the House Judiciary Committee made history by becoming the first congressional panel to approve a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, if enacted into law, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and fund programs to begin repairing the harms of the war on drugs, which has been waged disproportionately against communities of color.
While the bill clearing a committee is the furthest that cannabis descheduling legislation has ever advanced on Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear at this point when it will get a floor vote. Its sponsor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), told Marijuana Moment that he is working to make that happen by the end of 2020. But even if the legislation is approved by the full House, advancing it in the Republican-controlled Senate is another matter altogether.
Still, a congressional committee taking the first step of voting to end federal marijuana prohibition has never happened before, and it indicates that cannabis reform has momentum heading into 2020.
Presidential Candidates Embrace Marijuana Reform
The majority of Democratic presidential candidates are running on marijuana legalization platforms—marking a huge shift from election cycle after cycle of politicians running away from drug policy reform as a political third rail.
With the exceptions of former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, every Democrat in the race has embraced the full legalization of cannabis, with most also calling for restorative justice measures to let communities harmed by the war on drugs participate in the legal industry.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have gone further, saying they would decriminalize possession of all drugs, while entrepreneur Andrew Yang supports decriminalizing opioids.
Biden, for his part, at least backs decriminalization, expunging past records, modest federal rescheduling and letting states enact legalization if they so choose. Bloomberg has also recently endorsed cannabis decriminalization and respecting local laws despite previously calling legalization “perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done.”
That most candidates back legalization—with even those who don’t still endorsing other far-reaching reforms—shows how far the politics of marijuana have evolved from the “Just Say No” era.
Trump Reiterates Support For Respecting State Marijuana Laws
Although his first attorney general revoked Obama-era guidance directing federal prosecutors to generally not interfere with state cannabis laws last year, President Trump has consistently said he backs the rights of localities to enact their own marijuana policies whenever prompted.
In August, the president reiterated his support for letting states legalize cannabis without federal interference.
“It’s a very big subject and right now we are allowing states to make that decision,” Trump said. “A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.”
While Trump has said he knows people who have benefited from medical cannabis, he does not personally support legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Still, in a November meeting on vaping issues, the president seemed to articulate that he understood the inherent unworkability of drug prohibition policies.
“When you watch prohibition, when you look at the alcohol, you look at cigarettes, you look at it all, if you don’t give it to them, it’s going to come here illegally,” he said. “That’s the one problem I can’t seem to forget.”
The remarks echo a comment Trump made in 1990, when he voiced support for legalizing drugs to undermine the unregulated market.
“We’re losing badly the war on drugs,” he said at the time. ”You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.”
Altogether, Trump’s public remarks on marijuana-related issues indicate that if Congress were to send him a bill ending federal prohibition, he would likely sign it into law.
Cannabis Banking Bill Passed By House
In other big cannabis news from Capitol Hill, the full House of Representatives voted in September to approve a bill to let banks service marijuana businesses without fear of being punished by federal regulators.
The roll call tally, 321 to 103, demonstrated broad bipartisan support for fixing an issue that industry leaders and regulators alike have pointed to as a public safety concern. Current law, by preventing many cannabis operators from being able to store their profits with financial institutions, forces them to operate on a cash-only basis and makes them targets for robberies.
While Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) had initially said he did not want to take up the legislation as long as marijuana remains federally prohibited, he later indicated he planned to hold a vote in his panel by the end of the year. But as the end of 2019 approaches, it seems as if Senate action on cannabis banking might be more likely to be a marijuana victory in 2020.
Illinois Becomes 11th State To Legalize Marijuana
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) made good on his 2018 election campaign promise to legalize cannabis after convincing lawmakers to send a bill to his desk in May. When the governor officially signed the bill into law in June, the Prairie State became the 11th in the U.S. to end marijuana prohibition.
In addition to the direct impact of making legal sales available to all adults over 21 in the nation’s sixth most populous state, Illinois’s move bolstered the reform movement’s political momentum as efforts to pass legalization bills in several other states with supportive governors failed to get across the finish line during 2019 sessions.
That said, legalization seemed to pick up momentum in several other legislatures this year, with a number seeming poised to get it done in 2020. While Illinois is the first state in the country to establish a legal system of cannabis sales through an act of lawmakers—as opposed to by voters with a ballot initiative—it is not likely to be the last.
Governors Get Serious About Marijuana Legalization
Although Pritzker in Illinois was the only governor to get a chance to sign legal marijuana into law this year, chief executives in several other states took steps to advance the issue.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) put legalization language in his annual budget submission to lawmakers. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) did the same. While those provisions got stripped out before the bills came back to their desks, the moves forced lawmakers to more seriously consider the policy change than they otherwise might have.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) also endorsed cannabis legalization for the first time this year after his lieutenant governor found massive voter support for the issue through a statewide listening tour.
Cuomo and Wolf were joined by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who both saw legalization bills they support move through legislative committees in their states this year, at a regional summit aimed at coordinating cannabis plans in the Northeast.
The regional meeting and the budget moves by governors show that the issue of enacting legalization is gaining urgency as similar laws come online in neighboring states. No major politician wants their constituents spending tax dollars—and helping to create industry jobs—next door when they could be doing it at home instead.
Several States Decriminalize Cannabis Possession
Although Illinois was the only state to pass a new marijuana legalization law in 2019, several others at least removed the threat of incarceration for people caught possessing small amounts of cannabis.
In April, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed a cannabis decriminalization bill that treats possession of up to half an ounce with a $50 fine, after a broader House-passed legalization proposal died in the Senate.
In Hawaii, Gov. David Ige (D) allowed a modest marijuana decriminalization bill to take effect without his signature in July. The new law removes incarceration as a punishment for possession of three grams or less of cannabis and instead imposes a $130 fine. That’s far less than is decriminalized in other states, and the proposal was watered down at several steps in the legislative process, but advocates are happy they got anything at all enacted this year under Ige, who has been generally hostile to reform.
In May, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) signed a bill making it so that first-time offenders caught possessing half an ounce or less of cannabis will be subject to a fine of up to $1,000, with no jail time.
The three new decriminalization laws enacted in 2019 mean that it is now the case in 26 states that first-time, low-level possession of marijuana comes without the threat of jail time.
Two-Thirds Of Americans Say Legalize It, According To Polls
While marijuana reform was once seen as a marginalized, third-rail issue, there’s no question that cannabis legalization is now at the forefront of mainstream American politics. Two recent national polls bear this out with hard data.
According to Gallup, which has been asking Americans about marijuana for nearly half a century, fully two-thirds of adults—66 percent— now back legalization.
And Pew confirmed in a separate survey, putting the share of U.S. adults who back ending cannabis prohibition at 67 percent.
And while the issue is sometimes seen as progressive, left or Democratic, Pew says that a clear majority—55 percent—of GOP-leaning voters are now on board.
Legalization’s ascendance also appears to be on solid ground for the future, with 76 percent of millennials saying they support it—and that includes 71 percent of Republicans in the age group.
Federal Government Takes Steps To Implement Legal Hemp Market
After decades of being swept up in broader cannabis prohibition, hemp finally became legal late last year through the 2018 Farm Bill. In response, numerous federal agencies have taken major steps in 2019 to implement the legalization of marijuana’s non-psychoactive cannabis cousin.
While the most high-profile move was the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposal in October of broad rules under which states can submit hemp regulatory plans, a number of other developments occurred following the Farm Bill’s passage.
The Transportation Security Administration clarified that passengers are cleared to carry hemp-derived CBD on flights, the U.S. Postal Service said cannabidiol can be mailed and the Patent and Trademark Office clarified that it will approve trademark applications for hemp products.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency said it will no longer block applications for pesticide use on hemp plants and several federal financial regulators issued guidance clarifying that banks can serve hemp businesses without fear of punishment.
USDA, for its part, also moved to ease the importation of hemp from other countries, made farmers of the plant eligible for crop insurance and started accepting applications for intellectual property protection for seed-propagated hemp.
And while industry participants have expressed a number of concerns with the specifics of USDA’s hemp proposal, the fact that a federal agency had to issue lengthy guidelines on how to properly grow, harvest and process a form of cannabis is in itself a major victory for the reform movement.
Cities Move To Decriminalize Psychedelics
Although not technically victories for marijuana, broader drug policy reform efforts made historic advances in two major cities this year when Denver voters approved a ballot measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and the Oakland City Council quickly followed up to pass a resolution decriminalizing a number of other psychedelic substances.
Now, activists in nearly 100 other cities are taking steps to pursue similar local policy changes, with resolutions already filed in Chicago, Berkeley and Santa Cruz.
Beyond demonstrating that activists have successfully convinced voters and officials—at least in some cities—that ending marijuana prohibition is a success than can be replicated for other substances, the psychedelic-focused efforts show that the drug policy reform movement has no intention of stopping at cannabis.
And with a separate Oregon ballot measure being circulated to decriminalize possession of all drugs, as well as efforts in several cities to open safe injection facilities where people can consume illicit substances under medical supervision, it is clear that activists have plans to pursue reform beyond psychedelics as well.
Looking Ahead To 2020
All these cannabis and drug policy victories in 2019 bode well for reform efforts next year. Marijuana is likely to be a significant focal point in the presidential campaign and in legislative sessions in several states. And with cannabis initiatives likely to go before voters on ballots across the country in November, 2020 could be the biggest year for marijuana yet.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.