Tuesday’s state and local elections across the U.S. saw several gains for the marijuana reform movement, as well as some potential setbacks. Legislatures shifted, cities decided on cannabis business expansion and new officeholders were seated.
A wave of newly elected prosecutors could further shape the drug policy landscape throughout the country, with a “mixed bag” of results coming out of the elections. District attorneys elected in Virginia campaigned on largely pro-reform platforms, but drug warriors kept their seats in places like Pennsylvania and New York.
From Virginia to California, here’s a rundown of the most consequential election outcomes as it concerns marijuana policy.
In Virginia, where broad marijuana reform has routinely stalled session after session, Democrats seized the majority in both the Senate and Assembly. The new composure of the legislature bodes well for the prospects of passing cannabis decriminalization and comprehensive medical marijuana legislation in 2020.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who campaigned on decriminalization during his election in 2017, said on Wednesday that the issue remains a priority, and Attorney General Mark Herring told Virginia Mercury last month that lawmakers will likely pursue that policy change first and then “get to work on a larger study about how and when we could move toward legal and regulated adult use.”
So far @GovernorVA is saying he’s looking to tackle these issues moving forward:
— Olivia Ugino (@OliviaNBC12) November 6, 2019
“The majority shift will bring a sea change to marijuana policy in the Commonwealth,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, said. “Virginia spent over $100M in 2018 enforcing prohibition, which flies in the face of public opinion. Three quarters of Virginians favor fines not crimes for possession of marijuana, and six out of ten support legalizing adult-use. Finally, Virginia has a path to implement evidence-based policies that reflect the attitudes of its constituents.”
Voters in the state also elected several reform-minded prosecutors, including Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano, who’s pledged that his office would not prosecute low-level cannabis offenses. Buta Biberaj, who also won her bid for a prosecutor position in the commonwealth, agreed that nobody should be incarcerated for marijuana possession.
In one of the most notable development of the night, a Democratic candidate who supports medical cannabis legalization appears to have beaten out an incumbent Republican in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race. Current Attorney General Andy Beshear narrowly defeated Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who has also spoken in favor of medical marijuana but adamantly opposes recreational legalization.
Beshear’s campaign site states that he wants medical cannabis legalization to be put to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment, which he said he’d vote for, in part because of its potential use as an alternative to opioids.
“I would vote for it because I’ve seen the impact opioids have had on every Kentucky community,” the governor-elect said. “So many Kentucky families have seen a loved one fall into addiction, and their lives have been devastated. If medical marijuana is an alternative and gives people the chance to get pain relief without being subjected to opioids, I think it’s something we’ve got to explore.”
Beshear also said that legalization could generate tax revenue that can be used to fund the state’s pension system—a position that puts him at odds with Bevin.
Asked about funding the pension system. @AndyBeshearKY points to gaming and medical marijuana as answers to the funding issue. @GovMattBevin says he's the only governor to fully fund it and says the system needs to change structurally.
— Christy Bollinger ABC 36 (@ChristyB_News) October 15, 2019
During an interview with WBKO in April, Beshear also voiced support for decriminalizing drug possession, including for substances beside cannabis.
“No one who is caught simply possessing marijuana should ever go to jail, or should ever go to prison,” he said, adding that those suffering from addiction to other illicit drugs should be “in treatment, not jail.”
Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, a strong proponent of the the hemp industry, held onto his seat. Following the election, Quarles celebrated the expansion of the hemp industry, noting that “during the first term we were dedicated to putting Kentucky first… and here in Kentucky, we are making hemp great again.”
Newly reelected Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles touts the recent growth of the hemp industry in the commonwealth: "You know, during the first term we were dedicated to putting Kentucky first…And here in Kentucky, we are making hemp great again." #kypolitics
— Morgan Watkins (@morganwatkins26) November 6, 2019
But while the commissioner said he’s not opposed to medical cannabis legalization, he’s decidedly less vocal about the issue compared to his competitor Robert Conway, who brought up the policy during his concession speech.
Ag Commissioner Robert Conway gives his concession speech. Says he doesn’t give a damn about the D or R next to a person’s name. He cares about the K – we’re all Kentuckians who should care for fellow Kentuckians. Gives a shout out to medical marijuana https://t.co/0OLuWeNJkY pic.twitter.com/4CBiF0Rv0R
— Matthew Glowicki (@MattGlo) November 6, 2019
Cannabis was also featured in the concession speech for Greg Stumbo, who ran for attorney general and lost to Daniel Cameron. Stumbo closed his speech “with an anecdote about medical marijuana helping a family” and called for its legalization, Courier Journal reporter Matthew Glowicki said.
Greg Stumbo up now. He lost to Daniel Cameron, now the first African American to hold the office. Stumbo keeps his speech short, closing with an anecdote about medical marijuana helping a family, calls for its legalization https://t.co/kwT82XLNaj pic.twitter.com/Ty3y7QjhkV
— Matthew Glowicki (@MattGlo) November 6, 2019
In Mead, voters chose not to allow adult-use cannabis businesses to operate in their city. Loveland voters similarly rejected a proposal to allow marijuana firms, six years after the city first banned them. But the cannabis market did get a boost in Louisville, where voters approved a marijuana excise tax and adopted a policy allowing cannabis cultivation facilities to operate in their jurisdiction.
The city of Deerfield’s Village Board voted in favor of allowing adult-use marijuana businesses to operate in their jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Arlington Heights Village Board opted not to welcome cannabis firms.
“For me, there is no compromise on this issue,” Mayor Tom Hayes said.
Voters in Camden elected to establish a process to obtain licenses for cannabis manufacturing businesses. Retail facilities for recreational and medical cannabis will be allowed under ordinances approved by voters in Newry on Tuesday.
A nonbinding referendum to allow adult-use cannabis sales in Agawam was soundly defeated in a 2,682-1,831 vote.
Ten cities throughout Michigan voted on measures to allow or prohibit adult-use marijuana businesses to operate in their jurisdictions—and seven of those opted to block the industry. The votes come roughly a year after the state’s legal cannabis law was approved by voters.
Allen Park, Hudson City, Keego Harbor, Marenisco Township, Mount Pleasant, South Haven and Walled Lake each voted against proposals to allow cannabis businesses to operate in their towns, or in favor of measures calling for a ban on recreational cannabis facilities. Crystal Township, Lincoln Park and Northfield Township residents cast votes in favor of the industry.
Efforts to reform New Jersey’s marijuana laws have been complicated, largely because of opposition from the Republicans in the legislature. Those efforts will face a slightly tougher road following Tuesday’s election, where the GOP picked up seats in the Assembly, as well as one seat in the Senate. That said, lawmakers have said they may take a shot at passing a legalization bill in the lame duck session before the newly formulated legislature is seated.
Three cities in Ohio voted in favor of resolutions to decriminalize the possession of cannabis, while three others rejected similar proposals. The pro-decriminalization votes build on gains the state has made at the local level over the past four years, which have seen more than a dozen cities approve measures to loosen penalties on possession, either through voter-approved initiatives or the local government action.
This piece was updated to add comment from Virginia NORML.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
New York Legal Marijuana Push ‘Effectively Over’ For 2020, Governor Says
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded on Saturday that it’s unlikely marijuana will be legalized in the state this year.
“Marijuana and the gig economy were two of the more complicated initiatives that we wanted to work through that we didn’t get a chance to do,” he said in response to a question about which policy issues he would’ve liked to tackle in the annual budget bill that passed this week.
“Is the session effectively over? It’s up to the legislature, but I think it’s fair to say it’s effectively over,” he added, noting that several state lawmakers have been infected with coronavirus.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation
A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.
“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.
“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) April 3, 2020
“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”
Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.
“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”
“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.
Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.
“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”
🟢🟢 LEGALIZING COMMERCIAL MARIJUANA IN D.C. 🟢🟢
I spoke to D.C.'s Delegate @EleanorNorton
She's pushing for fully legal commercial marijuana sales in the District in a 4th Congressional stimulus package.
The District needs the money.
And people are smoking weed anyway. pic.twitter.com/PL9yoDKlrj
— Adam Longo (@adamlongoTV) April 3, 2020
Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.
For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.
Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus
North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.
“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”
Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.
“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”
The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.
The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.
Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.