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.