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.
DEA Denies Request To Protect Iowa Medical Marijuana Program, But State Still Considering Action
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rejected a petition to exempt Iowa’s medical marijuana program from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) this month, Marijuana Moment has learned. But the activist who filed the request plans to push again for the exemption—and the state itself is considering separately filing a petition of its own to the federal agency.
The ask here is unconventional and hasn’t been pursued by any other state that has legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. But longtime activist Carl Olsen has worked with members of the Iowa Department of Public Health to etch out a plan to pursue the exemption under an existing federal statute in accordance with a bill that state lawmakers passed earlier this year.
Olsen’s initial petition, submitted in 2019, was rejected by DEA on November 10. The agency said in a letter that it was denied “because the [Controlled Substances Act] controls marijuana under schedule I, and your requested exemption would result under the circumstances in the lapse of regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal sanctions applicable to substances placed on the various CSA schedules.”
But from the activist’s perspective, DEA didn’t do its due diligence in reviewing the statute that he claims provides for the state-level exemption. And he’s got the tentative backing of the health department, which is still considering submitting its own request, albeit on a different time schedule. The body might wait until President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, as they feel his administration may be more amenable than the current one.
DEA regulations stipulate that the agency’s administrator “may grant an exemption in his discretion, but in no case shall he/she be required to grant an exception to any person which is otherwise required by law or the regulations.”
Owen Parker, program manager for the health department’s Office of Medical Cannabidiol, told Marijuana Moment that officials are “still evaluating as how to implement” the requirement in the Iowa bill that passed this year to push federal agencies on protecting health care facilities in the state from federal punishment.
“No final decisions have been made at this time,” he said.
The language of the state legislation in question doesn’t specifically call on regulators to submit an exemption application. Instead, it broadly calls on the public health department to “request guarantees from the agencies of the federal government providing funding to educational and long-term care facilities that facilities with policies allowing patients to possess medical cannabidiol on the grounds of the facilities…or allowing facility staff to administer medical cannabidiol to a patient shall not lose eligibility for any federal funding due to such policies.”
Members of the state Medical Cannabidiol Board said during a meeting in September that the DEA exemption application process would be the most effective way to establish protections from losing funds as a result of its existing medical marijuana program.
That said, at another meeting this month, Parker reported that “internally here at the Department we are still working on that brief, and there’s other discussions that we’ll need to have before moving forward on anything.”
For Olsen’s rejected individual petition, the activist said he intends to submit a request for reconsideration by DEA—rather than go straight to a federal appeals court with a lawsuit. And in that request, he plans to stress that the state is weighing moving forward with a petition of its own.
In addition to asserting that federal law preempts state policies on marijuana, DEA also said in their response to Olsen that the agency is bound by international treaty obligations to maintain the plant’s general restrictive federal classification, and that’s part of the reason it denied the petition. But according to Olsen, those treaties only obligate them to place cannabis in certain schedules of the CSA and and do not address the U.S. statute that provides for administrative exemptions.
For what it’s worth, Iowa’s medical cannabis is more limited than those that have been established in many other states. For example, it limits registered patients to a maximum of 4.5 grams of THC per 90-day period. Prior to a reform adopted by the legislature earlier this year, patients could only access cannabis products with up to three percent THC content.
It remains to be seen whether DEA will approach the state’s application differently than Olsen’s, if and when it’s filed. The agency has historically resisted rescheduling requests, let alone full exemptions, for marijuana.
Scientists and veterans sued DEA this year, arguing that the legal basis it has used to justify keeping cannabis in Schedule I is unconstitutional. They asked for a review of its decisions to reject rescheduling petitions across several decades.
A federal appeals court denied a request from DEA to dismiss the lawsuit In August.
Read DEA’s response to the Iowa activists’s marijuana exemption request below:
Marijuana Legalization Opponents Ask Courts To Overturn Voters’ Will In Several States
Unable to sway public opinion and persuade voters to reject marijuana legalization on Election Day, prohibitionists have taken a different new in their efforts to block state-level reform: litigation.
In three states, there are lawsuits pending that seek to overturn voter-approved legalization initiatives. And in one state, cannabis opponents succeeded this year in preventing voters from even having a chance to decide on a reform measure.
While every single drug policy reform initiative that made the ballot passed in red and blue states alike this month, prohibitionists increasingly seem to be giving up the public messaging fight to change voters’ minds and are instead resorting to the courts, challenging reform measures on largely technical matters.
Those legal fights are ongoing in Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota, all of which ultimately legalized cannabis is some form on Election Day.
The Mississippi Supreme Court recently set deadlines for legal filings in a case from the city of Madison challenging the medical cannabis initiative that overwhelmingly passed with 73 percent of the vote. The suit was filed days before the election, with the mayor not weighing in on the merits of the measure but contending that its placement on the ballot was unconstitutional due to statutory signature gathering requirements.
The secretary of state and attorney general condemned the action as a “woefully untimely” lawsuit. The Supreme Court said the filers have until December 7 to submit written arguments and the secretary of state has until December 28 to respond.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use tried to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs are now pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
In South Dakota, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom and state Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Rick Miller filed a lawsuit in the state’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court last week, claiming that the proposal to legalize marijuana that passed with 54 percent of the vote should be invalidated. The suit, which is partly paid for with state funds, says the constitutional amendment violates a 2018 requirement that “no proposed amendment may embrace more than one subject.”
In September, reform opponents successfully bumped an initiative to legalize medical cannabis off of Nebraska’s ballot on what essentially amounts to a technicality.
While the campaign collected enough signatures to qualify the measure, the state Supreme Court shut it down following a legal challenge. It determined that the measure violated the state’s single-subject rule, much to the disappointment of advocates. But activists have already started petitioning to get a simplified version of proposal on the state’s 2022 ballot.
Arizona activists, who succeeded in getting a legalization measure approved on Election Day, had a different experience following a legal challenge in the summer. Opponents there filed suit arguing that the 100-word summary of the initiative misled voters, but that argument did not hold up in court.
Legalization opponents point out that with voter support for marijuana reform increasing, prohibitionists are now left with few options to stop popular reforms.
NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a blog post that the opposition lawsuits are “cynical, and arguably frivolous, attempts to undermine the democratic process.”
“Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box,” he said. “Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes. Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Oregon County Prosecutor Stops Drug Possession Cases Early Following Decriminalization Vote
Prosecutors in an Oregon county will no longer pursue low-level drug possession cases.
The move comes weeks after voters approved a historic initiative decriminalizing all drugs—but also months before it’s due to formally take effect statewide.
In a letter sent to police chiefs on Monday, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office said that while it opposes the policy change, officials recognize the will of voters and feel that “having officers investigate and submit cases for a prosecution in the weeks leading up to February 1, which will not lead to any sanction or court supervised treatment, is not the most effective use of criminal justice resources.”
Under the initiative, which passed with 58 percent of the vote, simple drug possession will be treated as a Class E infraction, punishable by a maximum fine of $100 and no jail time. That fine can be waived if an individual shows a court they have completed a substance misuse assessment.
The measure also calls for investments in substance misuse treatment, using tax revenue from legal marijuana sales.
“While we fundamentally disagree with this measure, ceasing to prosecute these matters prior to February 1 is consistent with the will of the voters, which we must respect,” the district attorney’s office said in the email, first reported by Kind Leaf Journal, adding that “misdemeanor [possession of a controlled substance] is still unlawful” until the effective date.
“The decision of our office is not intended not divest local law enforcement officers the ability to conduct lawful investigations, searches and arrests,” the letter states. “Good communication about this significant change is paramount.”
This early discretionary reform action is consistent with how several counties in the state approached cannabis policy after Oregon voters approved an adult-use marijuana legalization initiative in 2014.
“It’s a smart decision to stop arresting and jailing people for personal drug possession before Measure 110 officially goes into effect as Oregon voters have spoken loud and clear that it’s time to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal one,” Anthony Johnson, a chief petitioner for the decriminalization initiative, told Marijuana Moment.
“There is simply no reason to waste law enforcement resources and our taxpayer dollars on personal drug cases,” he said. “Other district attorneys across Oregon should promptly follow suit and enact the will of the voters.”
The vote in Oregon has also inspired efforts in neighboring Washington State to pursue a drug decriminalization model. While activists considered attempting to put it on the state ballot in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic derailed that plan—and earlier this month, the campaign said they would soon be announcing a sponsor of a reform bill to push for its passage legislatively in the 2021 session starting January.
Meanwhile, New Jersey’s attorney general issued a memo this week directing prosecutors to suspend most marijuana possession cases following voter approval of a statewide legalization ballot measure this month.
Read the full letter to Oregon police chiefs on the decriminalization policy below:
As you are aware, Oregon voters passed Measure 110, which decriminalizes, among other things, possession of up to 1 gram of heroin, 2 grams of methamphetamine and cocaine, 12 grams of psilocybin, 40 user units of LSD 40 pills/capsules containing synthetic opiates.
The measure takes effect on February 1, 2021. At that time, persons found to be in possession of these controlled substances will be referred to local municipal or justice courts and subject to the newly created Class E infraction, which carries a maximum $100 fine. This fee will be waived if the offender provides proof of participation in a substance abuse assessment. There is no requirement that the person engage in treatment.
As the voting public has overwhelmingly passed this measure, effective 11/23/20 the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office will stop charging new Unlawful Possession of Controlled Substance cases that will otherwise be decriminalized on February 1. It is our belief that having officers investigate and submit cases for a prosecution in the weeks leading up to February 1, which will not lead to any sanction or court supervised treatment, is not the most effective use of criminal justice resources.
While we fundamentally disagree with this measure, ceasing to prosecute these matters prior to February 1 is consistent with the will of the voters, which we must respect.
Investigations where a juvenile is found to possess controlled substances in amounts that will be decriminalized should still be referred to the Juvenile Department so the juvenile can have the opportunity for supervised treatment. There is a juvenile workgroup convening who will eventually offer guidance about what to do with juvenile referrals after February 1.
Until February 1, misdemeanor PCS is still unlawful. The decision of our office is not intended not divest local law enforcement officers the ability to conduct lawful investigations, searches and arrests.
Good communication about this significant change is paramount. If you have any questions or need clarification about this decision, I encourage you or anyone in your agencies to contact me directly. We look forward to our presentation on December 15th where we will discuss additional specifics of M110 and its search and seizure implications.
Chief Deputy District Attorney
Clackamas County DA’s Office