US Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions can saber rattle all he wants, but America’s voters have spoken, and the electoral tide has decidedly turned against him. Last Tuesday, once again, the American public voted “Yes!” on marijuana reform and no to Sessions’ style reefer madness.
In addition to two high-profile gubernatorial races where cannabis was a key campaign issue, weed won big across the country at local levels. At a time when Gallup latest poll shows that a majority of Republicans now back legalization, some may dismiss reform as inevitable, but a survey of last Tuesday’s races reveals that, despite recent successes at the ballot box, we still have a long way to go.
After last year’s sweeping victories in 8 of 9 cannabis ballot races, 2017 wins may seem comparatively modest. But it is worth noting not all those states have been able to enjoy those wins. So far, after more than a year, only one recreational state has their program up and running, most remain stalled in bureaucratic red tape, and another just faced a crushing governor’s veto after investing nine months of crafting a workable program. Next year, in addition to state and federal level elections nationally, 36 states will vote on new governors and several states have cannabis ballot measures in the works. Here’s a round-up of how cannabis fared last Tuesday, how the 2016 states are doing when it comes to setting up their programs, and what lies ahead for 2018.
The present: 2017 cannabis-related election results
New Jersey expected to legalize in 2018
Senator Cory Booker’s high-profile federal support aside, the state of New Jersey has not been known as a progressive bastion for cannabis reform. For most of the past decade, the Garden State’s cannabis community has been at the mercy of one of America’s most mercilessly relentless prohibitionists, their soon-to-be-former governor, Chris Christie. Democrats in the statehouse have been rumbling about legalization all year, lamenting that their biggest obstacle was the man in the governor’s office. Now they’ve solved that. Democrat Phil Murphy routed his GOP opponent, Christie’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, by more than 13 points and wins the pleasure of undoing cannabis-hating Chris Christie’s reform roadblocks. Murphy is calling for a cannabis legalization bill within the first 100 days of his administration. In his victory speech, Murphy went so far as to pledge that “the criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana!” If his statehouse can match Murphy’s can-do cannabis attitude, New Jersey would be the first state to adopt full-legalization by state legislative action instead of via a citizens’ ballot initiative.
Virginia expected to decriminalize
In Virginia the governor’s race took on national implications due to the polarized positions of the nominees. Despite strong efforts by the GOP, Democrats retained the governorship and installed stalwart Dem, Ralph Northam by almost nine points. While this governorship race has not had the same level of cannabis attention as New Jersey, some cannabis experts predict reform is on the way. A doctor, Northam has already embraced the idea of medical marijuana and made cannabis reform a centerpiece of his campaign. Since winning, Northam has confirmed his intentions to move forward with a decriminalization package that had been long-delayed due to partisan bickering.
California tax measures pass
All seven local marijuana business tax measures in California passed. Cotati, Farmersville, Modesto, Pacifica, Palm Springs, Rio Dell, and Woodlake will all see increases in local sales taxes. In Humboldt and Sonoma Counties, the new taxes will also affect cultivators based on their square footage.
Colorado counties and cities increase taxes
Finally catching a clue about the gravy train of cannabis taxes pouring in since the state passed full legalization in 2012, multiple Colorado cities and counties around the state voted to increase local cannabis taxes. Sixty-nine Colorado cities have cannabis sales regulations in place, while another 168 have bans or moratoriums. The town of Rocky Ford embraced recreational sales only five years after the rest of the state. The cities of De Beque, Alamosa, and Monte Vista approved new taxes, even though they don’t have dispensaries. All in all, thirteen of fourteen Colorado cities or counties passed in new cannabis tax measures. Fort Collins voted to allow the city council to amend cannabis ordinances without having to take each issue to a city-wide vote.
Detroit, Michigan loosens up rules
Wayne County, Michigan voters passed Proposal A and Proposal B, both of which made changes to Detroit’s notoriously restrictive medical marijuana ordinances. Proposal A halved the minimum distance requirements for cannabis dispensaries. Currently dispensaries must be 1000 feet from churches, schools and even liquor stores. Proposal B allows cultivators and distributors to operate in the city’s industrial zones. The city’s stiff regulations had plagued its dispensaries, causing the closure of more than 200 of the 250 dispensaries in the area.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania elects anti-prohibition DA
Winning 75% of the vote, newly elected Philly District Attorney Lawrence Krasner had previously sued state and local governments 75 times for civil rights violations in an effort to disrupt the drug war and its reliance on mass incarceration. Though crime has dropped significantly in recent years, Krasner will have his hands full. Philadelphia currently has the highest rate of incarceration, the highest poverty rate, and the third highest violent crime rate among major US cities.
Athens, Ohio and Atlanta Georgia decriminalizing
Local voters approved a measure that reduces the fine for minor cannabis possession to zero. The new ordinance covers both possession and cultivation up to 200 grams.
Just last month, the Atlanta city council unanimously passed a major decriminalization ordinance. The mayoral election last week was expected to determine who was going to be responsible for implementing the new program. The city will have to wait for a welter of run-off elections slated for December 5th however, to even get a clue of what the future holds for the ordinance. The mayoral race and four city council positions are still too close to call.
The past: 2016 cannabis initiative updates
Arizona planning to try for RMJ again
For some in AZ, last year’s heartbreaking loss of the state’s legalization initiative has turned out to be a positive thing. Since the election, the state’s number of medical card holders has increased nearly 40% and now stands at more than 143,000 patients, the third largest program in America. For patients, the industry’s massive build-up ahead of their failed legalization measure has led to rock-bottom cannabis prices and some of the cheapest legal weed in the country. Grassroots activist group, Safer Arizona, the bad boy spoilers from the 2016 election, have filed an initiative for the 2018, their third in as many election cycles. So far, the group has struggled to collect signatures in a state that is still smarting from last year’s dashed hopes.
Arkansas program slow going
Last year’s surprise victory for medical marijuana in the land of the Bible Belt has proven to be a comparative success, even though more than half the counties in the state voted against the program and recent polling suggests that the majority of Arkansans aren’t happy with the program’s implementation. Though it is worth noting, those unhappy with the program include folks who opposed the measure all along as well as those who are unhappy with the pace of progress. Starting in June, 17 doctors signed up to issue certifications for 18 qualifying conditions. Though the state ultimately anticipates as many as forty thousand patients in the program, only twelve hundred patients have already been approved.
On the other hand, since the state opened up the cannabis business applications process in September, they have been flooded by hundreds of applications for cannabis business licenses. Only five grower licenses and thirty-two distributor licenses will be issued. Though application fees cost up to $15,000 and the required paperwork typically ran over one thousand pages, in a two-week window, the state received 293 applications. As one state worker noted when the application period opened, “You had people who arrived at 7:15 last night and slept in a lawn chair strictly to be the first to submit their applications this morning.” Those applications will not even be reviewed till January 2018, so experts do not expect any open dispensaries till next summer. On the positive side, once the licensing is settled, the Arkansas program will feature reciprocity for patients from other states and, despite the current trend of new medical programs restricting smokable cannabis, Arkansas will allow flower, edibles, and THC products.
California on track for 2018 launch of RMJ
All systems are go in the Golden State, as the massive California cannabis economy steadily continues to make progress towards launching licensing for their recreational cannabis program by January 1, 2018. When the legislature started to get bogged down last April in the process of converting the state’s popular ballot initiative into actual statutes, California Governor, Jerry Brown, a former 1970s party-boy and later cannabis opponent, stepped up and helped advance the implementation process, Brown signed a finalized version of the state’s new recreational cannabis regulations in September. Recent massive wildfires have imperiled much of this year’s crop, and growers who have spent decades operating under the radar are chafing at new restrictions, mandated worker rights, and new taxes on cultivator operations. Once legal, California’s cannabis industry is expected to generate as much as $5 billion in sales and over a billion in state sales taxes.
Florida still conflicted
Florida once again has proven to be the national poster child for dysfunction. Even though the Florida medical marijuana ballot measure passed with a tsunami-like 71% approval, the legislature decided to dismantle the proposed program and rebuild it from scratch, which led to predictable bickering and recriminations. They blew through the end-of-session deadline and had to face still more delays when the governor initially refused to schedule work on the marijuana bill during the legislature’s special summer session. Once the language was finalized, the real troubles began. Cities and counties around the state challenged the program with local bans. The program is currently being sued by the former campaign chair, John Morgan, because, in their infinite wisdom, the state decided to eliminate smokable flower from the package. In response, a strip club owner is suing for cultivation rights. Patients have been waiting for as long as four months for their medical cards. In disgust, activists are already collecting signatures for a brand new full legalization package, though its chances seem dim. Meanwhile, dispensaries have opened at an astonishing pace and attracted international scale interest, with Canadian companies like Aphria buying major stakes in Florida’s potential billion-dollar industry.
Maine setback by Gov. veto
Aside from losing at the ballot box entirely, like Arizona did, Maine has fared the worst since “winning legalization” last November. Notorious prohibitionist Maine Gov. Paul LePage initially tried to block certifying the yes-vote until January and has belittled the legislative process every step of the way. After taking more than nine months to finalize the state’s recreational cannabis laws, LePage vetoed the regulatory package citing “uncertainty” about the Trump administration’s stance on federal enforcement. When the state’s House of Representatives failed to override his veto, Maine cannabis consumers were left in a lurch. Though citizens can currently legally possess cannabis, they cannot purchase or grow and have no idea when the stalemate between LePage and their rights will end. According to Civilized Magazine, “The Maine government now has until February 1st to either pass a new bill, extend the deadline to implement marijuana legalization, or allow recreational cannabis sales without any regulatory frameworks in place.” Making matters worse for Maine’s 50,000 patients, the state recently announced stricter guidelines for their medical marijuana program that includes a new tracking system for the state’s 3200 caregivers and surprise inspections at caregiver cultivations.
Massachusetts RMJ program lagging
You might think that after voters approved legalization by 10% and with a predicted billion dollars in annual sales by 2020, the Massachusetts cannabis community might be earning a little political respect, but don’t bet the clam chowder on it. Stymied by legislative shenanigans at the onset, Massachusetts finally pushed their recreational cannabis program through its first set of statehouse hurdles and are aiming for a summer 2018 roll-out of retail weed. Like Maine, possession is currently legal, though there is no legal place to buy it and even after legalization is implemented, there won’t be for the foreseeable future. According to The Cannabist’s Chris Lisinski, about one third of municipalities in the state have passed bans or moratoriums on dispensaries and/or cultivation operations. By March of next year, the state’s Cannabis Control Commission is expected to finalize regulations and open the application process on April 1st. The roll-out still promises to have cannabis in stores by July 1st, but given the resistance so far, that schedule is questionable.
Montana bouncing back
Montana, cannabis enthusiasts know it as the state which famously reversed itself on medical marijuana back in 2010, crippled its program, disqualified 90% of its patients, and arrested the state’s cannabis leadership for show-trials. Well, after the Big Sky State’s voters backed the 2016 ballot measure with a sturdy 58% yes vote, government officials wasted no time getting their newly refurbished program back in gear. First the courts had to solve clerical errors in the original initiative, then the legislature opted to tack on a 4% sales tax, but nothing stopped the wheels of progress. Sales launched this summer. About twenty thousand patients are now enrolled in the program. With 393 of the state’s 600 medical marijuana providers having made their first quarterly reports, the state has already taken in $380,000 in taxes, “well above pre-implementation expectations.” The 4% tax is expected to drop to 2% at the end of the year. New rules to be phased in next April will include testing requirements, though state officials acknowledge they don’t know if there will be enough testing labs operational in time to handle the demand.
Nevada RMJ program cranking
Winner, winner, chicken dinner … and then some. The state that knows how to party wasted no time implementing their new cannabis program when voters approved of the measure by a comfortable 10% margin. Undaunted by legal challenges from the liquor industry over distribution rights or bottlenecks due to rigorous testing requirements, Nevada’s recreational program launched on schedule, with “emergency regulations” allowing medical marijuana stores to sell recreationally. On July 1st , the gala opening weekend generated international attention and more than a half a million dollars in state sales tax in the first four days. Many of the Vegas area stores completely sold out of products before the distribution issues were resolved. But by the time the month was out, Nevada raked in over $27 million in sales their opening month. August was even better, with more than $33 million in sales. Driving those numbers are the tens of millions of tourists who descend on Vegas annually. Accordingly, Nevada’s obliging them and rapidly adopting regulations that will allow for social consumption at public events, vapor lounges, cannabis clubs, and even drive-thru dispensaries.
North Dakota MMJ slowly taking hold
The conservative political leadership of the state was flabbergasted when their state’s medical marijuana measured sailed over the finish line with a 65% approval rate. Nonetheless, in a surprising move for state governments around the country, the legislature and the governor’s office appear to be adhering to the will of the people, more or less. Just very slowly. An early version of the rules package was completed by April. While personal cultivation rights were culled, the rules still included access to smokable marijuana. Campaign organizer Rilie Ray Morgan, speaking for the activist community at the time, said they were about 80% satisfied with the final version. Since then, amid accusations that the state is “slow playing” the process, the program has lurched along towards an ambiguous 2018 start date. Just this month, the state finally filed their long-awaited revised version of the rules and are not scheduled to even hold public hearings on the rules package until April of 2018. More than a year after voters passed the initiative, the state announced that usable cannabis was still not likely to be available to patients for as much as another year.
The future of cannabis: 2018 and beyond
What will the future bring? If the past is any clue, we can predict even more marijuana victories in 2018. The election of New Jersey’s pro-cannabis governor, Phil Murphy, makes reform in that state virtually assured, but other state legislatures are also warming to the idea of reform. Activists across America are banking on cannabis initiatives continuing their successes the 2018 elections. In addition to the steady turn of public opinion in favor of cannabis reform, the reformers themselves are gaining ground as well.
Oregon’s leading cannabis reformer, Rep. Earl Blumenauer announced last week his PAC, the Cannabis Fund, intends to target prohibitionist candidates around the country. While his fund has gathered only has $2000 so far, numerous pro-cannabis political action committees will be marshalling resources for next year’s election day. In addition, Ballotpedia lists 24 initiatives collecting signatures for the 2018 elections across America. Though some of those cannabis initiatives are little more than pipe dreams, here is a short list of pending legislation or key cannabis elections to come.
Colorado will get new governor in 2018
Governor John Hickenlooper, the only governor the state’s legalization program has ever known, terms out this year. Frontrunners for his replacement are still unclear as to their position on cannabis, though chances are poor any candidate could get elected if they substantially challenged the program.
Connecticut looking at legalization
Current anti-cannabis Governor Dannel Malloy is stepping down after two terms, and this blue state’s favored Democratic candidate, Dan Drew, already supports legalizing recreational marijuana. The statehouse considered multiple cannabis reforms this past session and could seal the deal next session with a supportive chief executive.
Florida activist running for governor
Florida Governor Rick Scott is also terming out and the aforementioned mega-lawyer John Morgan (the guy suing the state over smokable cannabis) has already announced his intention to run for governor as a Democrat with cannabis legalization front and center to his campaign.
Illinois dems look to dethrone sitting governor
Republican Governor Bruce Rauner is up for reelection. Rauner has been no friend of cannabis and done little to advance the state’s restrictive medical program. Both his Democratic challengers are cannabis supporters, one, J.B. Pritzker, is calling for full legalization, the other, Chris Kennedy, backs decriminalization.
Maine waiting out LePage
Maine legislature could extend the delays on implementing the program until prohibitionist-in-chief Paul LePage is out of office, since he too faces term limits.
Michigan on track for ballot initiative
Michigan has been attempting to get a legalization measure on the ballot for years. 2018 could be the one. Michigan’s Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is on track to collect the required 250,000 signatures for 2018. A second full legalization ballot measure has also been collecting signatures, but is far off the pace. In addition to that, Michigan also faces a gubernatorial election that could shape the future of cannabis in the state. The choices could not be more stark: GOP candidate Attorney General Bill Schuette has worked to block cannabis progress at every turn. The Democrat, former state senator Gretchen Whitmer, champions legalization.
Missouri looking at legalization initiatives
Another state giving electoral reform another try, Missouri’s New Approaches organization, led in part by Dan Viets, head of the state NORML chapter, is in the middle of their signature drive. As of September, they had collected 75,000 of the 160,000 signatures they need to qualify. Two other cannabis initiatives are also collecting signatures, including one from the state’s former lieutenant governor, which might also qualify.
Oklahoma to vote on MMJ sometime in 2018
After years of grassroots effort, the Sooner State will finally get to vote on medical marijuana. Their ballot measure has already qualified. In fact, the Oklahoma’s medical marijuana initiative actually qualified for the 2016 election cycle, but was challenged by the state’s then-Attorney General Scott Pruitt. By the time the Supreme Court settled the case, it was too late for the 2016 vote, and advocates have been waiting for 2018 since then. They may even get to vote early. Anti-cannabis governor, Mary Fallin, has announced that instead of waiting for the November election, she wants the marijuana initiative vote held during the June primaries. An earlier rumor suggested Fallin might pick March. Advocates say whatever the date, they will be ready.
Nebraska doesn’t look hopeful
Yeah, they’re the folks who were suing Colorado over legalization a couple years back, so the chances don’t look that great. But, Nebraskans are collecting signatures for both medical and recreational ballot measures.
Rhode Island trying legalization for 8th time
You know what they say, “Eighth time’s a charm?” Well, each legislative session for the past seven years, Rhode Island’s legislature has attempted to pass a recreational marijuana bill. This round, a study committee has been amassing info on a legalization package and will report in March. With two fully legalized neighboring states and numerous Northeastern legislatures feeling legalization fever, Rhode Island might finally break through.
South Dakota may vote on MMJ in 2018
Though a recreational initiative failed to qualify for this year’s ballot, South Dakota might be voting on medical marijuana next year. November 7th the group New Approaches South Dakota filed fifteen thousand signatures, a thousand more than the minimum number required to qualify for the 2018 ballot. The South Dakota Secretary of State’s office estimates it could take as long as four months to rule whether the initiative will be included on the ballot.
Utah falling short of required signatures
Though its provisions are as anemic as an LDS tan, the Utah Patients Coalition has been collecting signatures for the Utah Medical Cannabis Act. So far, they have turned in 20,000 signatures of the 113,143 required signatures necessary to qualify the measure.
Vermont still batting around RMJ legislation
Vermont made history last year when their state legislature became the first in the nation to pass a bill legalizing cannabis. The Governor, Phil Scott, then vetoed it, but left a door open for the legislature to beef up the provisions. When the legislature reconvenes in January, the state’s stalled legalization will be at the top of the agenda.