With the results of last month’s midterm elections—which marijuana basically won—ten states have now legalized cannabis for adults, while 33 allow medical use. Those victories at the ballot box capped a year in which the fight to reform prohibitionist cannabis policies advanced significantly at the state, federal and international levels.
The tally of states that allow the use of marijuana is poised to jump in a big way again in 2019, largely because a slew of pro-legalization candidates for governor also won at the ballot box on Election Day—giving cannabis reform bills a huge boost toward being signed into law sooner rather than later.
“2019 could be a banner year for legalization via state legislatures,” Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an email. “Several states across multiple regions of the country are strongly considering ending prohibition and regulating marijuana for adult use. A growing number of state lawmakers and governors are either getting behind these efforts or coming to the realization that they cannot hold them up much longer. The steady growth of public support we’ve been seeing around the country will likely translate into some major state-level victories for marijuana policy reform.”
Here are the states that are most likely to legalize marijuana next year, in alphabetical order:
Gov.-elect Ned Lamont (D) said during his campaign that marijuana legalization is “an idea whose time has come.” He followed that up after his win on Election Day by pledging during a transition press conference that moving on the issue will be one of his “priorities” in 2019.
Meanwhile, the state Senate president, who sponsored a legalization bill last year that didn’t move under unsupportive—but outgoing— incumbent Gov. Dannel Malloy (D), says that passing a bill next year is “a significant revenue item” for the state.
Even the House Republican deputy minority leader, who opposes legalization, says he “would think it would pass” when it is brought to a vote on the floor. “Many of those opposed to legalization have left the Legislature.”
Incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) made support for legalizing marijuana a centerpiece of his campaign, beginning in the primary race against fellow Democrats. At one point he even held a press conference outside of a medical cannabis dispensary.
Shortly after Election Day, Pritzker confirmed that he wants to pursue legalization “nearly right away” when the new legislature convenes.
And the state House speaker, who until now has been noncommittal on ending cannabis prohibition, says he’s on board with the incoming governor’s marijuana plans.
A study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois determined last month that legalizing marijuana would create 24,000 jobs, generate more than $500 million in tax revenue and infuse roughly $1 billion into the state economy overall by 2020.
Incoming Gov. Tim Walz (D), who is taking over for an outgoing Democratic governor who opposes legalization, has pledged to “replace the current failed policy with one that creates tax revenue, grows jobs, builds opportunities for Minnesotans, protects Minnesota kids, and trusts adults to make personal decisions based on their personal freedoms.”
He has also championed marijuana issues as a member of the U.S. House and demonstrated that he knows how to advance reform by authoring the first-ever standalone cannabis bill to pass a congressional committee.
Walz’s efforts to legalize will get a boost from the newly elected Democratic House majority, though Republicans control the Senate by one seat. Still, the election of a pro-legalization governor puts Minnesota on the list of states to watch to end prohibition in 2019.
The Granite State is one place that could legalize marijuana in 2019 even in light of strong gubernatorial opposition.
Gov. Chris Sununu (R), despite signing a bill to decriminalize cannabis possession into law in 2017, says he’s so unwilling to go further that he will veto any legalization legislation “regardless of what the language looks like.”
But now, after Democrats took control of both chambers of the state legislature in the midterm elections, the incoming House speaker said he believes that there is enough support from lawmakers to potentially override an expected Sununu marijuana veto.
That’s a bold statement, especially coming from a lawmaker who himself twice voted against cannabis legalization bills, and it indicates how quickly the politics of marijuana continue to evolve in more and more states.
Garden State Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who was elected in 2017, campaigned on supporting marijuana legalization. Since being inaugurated earlier this year, he has continued to push for an end to prohibition.
Although the governor and lawmakers have quibbled over details such as tax rates and regulatory structures, progress is already being made toward getting a bill to Murphy’s desk. Senate and Assembly committees approved marijuana legalization legislation last month, demonstrating that momentum exists to pick up the issue in the new year, when the governor and legislative leaders will continue to negotiate the finer points of exactly how to end prohibition.
The prospects for legalizing marijuana in New Mexico got a lot better with the election of Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) as the state’s next governor.
During a debate she said legalization will bring “hundreds of millions of dollars to New Mexico’s economy.” She has also supported cannabis reform measures as a member of Congress.
The state’s House speaker said that if a legalization bill were to make it to the floor, “it would probably pass.”
Even a Republican senator who is personally opposed to legalization now publicly admits that it is likely on the way soon, saying, “I don’t want recreational marijuana, but I understand the political reality that it is here.”
A year ago few observers thought that the Empire State would be one of the next states to legalize. But in that time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) flipped from calling marijuana a “gateway drug” to saying it’s time to “legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all.” He also created a task force whose sole goal is to draft legal cannabis legislation for lawmakers to consider in 2019, and directed the Health Department to study legalization, with the resulting report concluding that the “positive effects” of ending cannabis prohibition “outweigh the potential negative impacts.”
And Cuomo, who says that ending cannabis prohibition is one of his top priorities for 2019, isn’t the only prominent elected official to evolve on marijuana this year. Three days after the governor endorsed legalization, so did onetime opponent Bill de Blasio, the Democratic mayor of New York City.
The push to make marijuana legal in New York got another huge boost on Election Day, when Democrats took control of the state Senate, where Republicans had long stymied cannabis reform efforts.
While Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has been cautious about legalization over the years, her rhetoric has shifted recently, even going so far as to suggest that the state might be effectively peer pressured into ending cannabis prohibition by neighboring states that are moving ahead.
“I’m not sure at this point it is practical to say we’re not going to legalize and regulate,” she said.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D), who has similarly been reluctant about legalization, is also now pointing to other states as a reason to more seriously consider changing Rhode Island’s laws.
“I am mindful that Massachusetts has legalized it, I believe Connecticut is going to legalize it,” he said. “I think we’re probably going to end up with more social costs without the revenues and that would probably be the worst situation of all.”
Meanwhile, the Republican House minority leader is all-in on legalization.
While Vermont lawmakers in 2018 already legalized the possession and home cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, the law does not allow any form of commercial production and sales, leaving the state without any recreational cannabis tax revenue or mechanism to regulate its trade.
Advocates believe the Democratic-led legislature is likely to send a bill adding legal cannabis commerce to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott (R) in 2019. While Scott signed the less ambitious legislation into law this year, he did so only reluctantly, and has expressed concerns about going further until the state has a better system in place to detect impaired driving. That said, the state Senate has already approved legal marijuana sales legislation in past sessions, and the House appears more open to doing so now that possession is legal—setting up a potential showdown over the issue between lawmakers and the governor in the coming months. It remains to be seen whether Scott would veto a broad legalization bill or whether lawmakers would be able to muster enough support to override him if he does so.
Still, with the regional dynamic heavily shifting in favor of legalization in the Northeast, Vermont is a key state to watch when it comes to cannabis in 2019.
Other Cannabis Moves To Watch
The above covers the states that seem poised to fully legalize marijuana in 2019. But there are others that seem potentially ready to do so via ballot initiatives in 2020 or that could pass other cannabis-related legislation in the upcoming new year.
In Kansas, for example, Gov.-elect Laura Kelly (D) supports legalizing medical cannabis, setting the state up to join its neighbors, Missouri and Oklahoma, in allowing patients to use the drug with their doctor’s recommendation.
Incoming Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) says he wants to decriminalize marijuana and allow medical cannabis, and also supports letting voters decide on a referendum to fully legalize marijuana.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who until recently said that the state is not ready for legalization, now says that he’s ready to take a serious look at the issue. He also supports moving ahead immediately with less far-reaching moves to decriminalize cannabis possession.
In Texas, recently reelected Gov. Greg Abbott (R) indicated during a debate that he is open to some form of marijuana decriminalization—something the state Republican Party officially endorsed this year. Meanwhile, advocates will also push lawmakers to legalize medical cannabis.
And advocates are making it a priority to encourage South Carolina lawmakers to legalize medical cannabis.
Looking ahead to 2020, states like Arizona, Florida, Ohio and North Dakota could consider ballot measures to fully legalize marijuana, while Mississippi, Nebraska and South Dakota could see medical cannabis questions go before voters during that year’s high-turnout presidential election.
“In state after state, lawmakers are coming out of the woodwork in favor of legalization,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said. “Be it on the grounds of criminal justice reform, community-police relations, racial justice, tax revenue or that they just see the writing on the wall, the political evolutions are accelerating at a tremendous rate.”
Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.
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.