Marijuana Law Reform Continues To Make Progress

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Note: I’ve been working to change the marijuana laws since 1979 when I was in law school and then going on to become chief counsel and national director of NORML during the Reagan era. I co-founded the Drug Policy Foundation with American University professor, Arnold Trebach in 1986, now the Drug Policy Alliance after in merged with the Lindesmith Center. With businessman and philanthropist-activist Robert Field, we created Common Sense for Drug Policy which among other things produces Drug War Facts. We have come a long way from being a third rail political issue that no politician would touch to being a popular issue with more than 60% support nationally and over 80% when it comes to medical marijuana. A lot of people did important work to change the direction of the country on these issues.

A lot of progress continues to be made on marijuana and other drug policy. Of course, there continues to be opposition, but even when an anti-marijuana zealot, Jeff Sessions, was attorney general, the country continued to make progress with a 20% decline in federal prosecutions and five more states legalizing in one way or another. If the marijuana reform tide cannot be reversed with someone like Sessions in charge, it is hard to see how the momentum toward legal marijuana for adults can be stopped. Continuing to make progress requires a lot of people continuing to work on the issue. Below is NORML’s top ten advancements in 2018.

Marijuana’s 2018 Top Ten

Here are the top ten events that shaped cannabis reform in 2018:

#10: States, Localities Move to Expunge Past Marijuana Convictions

California became the first state to automatically review and expunge past marijuana-related convictions, under legislation enacted in October. Delaware enacted a similar law calling for the mandatory expungement of certain marijuana-related offenses, joining several other states that permit those with past records to petition to have those records sealed. Local officials in various cities in 2018, including Denver, Philadelphia, and Seattle, announced the facilitation of similar policies.

#9: FDA Approves First-Ever Plant-Derived Cannabis Medicine

Regulators at the US Food and Drug Administration in June for the first time granted market approval to a plant-derived cannabis medicine, Epidiolex. The medicine contains a standardized formulation of plant-derived cannabidiol for the explicit treatment of two rare forms of severe epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. In September, the US Drug Enforcement Administration classified Epidiolex to Schedule V — the lowest restriction categorization available under federal law.

#8: FBI: Marijuana Arrests Spike for Second Straight Year

The total number of persons arrested in the United States for violating marijuana laws rose for the second consecutive year, according to data released in September by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, police made 659,700 arrests for marijuana-related violations in 2017. As in previous years, marijuana possession arrests were least likely to occur in the western region of the United States, where possessing the plant has largely been either legalized or decriminalized. By contrast, in Midwestern states, marijuana-related arrests comprised over 53 percent of all drug arrests.

#7: Legal Marijuana Access is Associated with Reduced Opioid Abuse

Over a dozen studies were published in 2018 finding that regulated marijuana access is associated with lower rates of opioid use, abuse, and mortality. Among patients enrolled in medical cannabis access programs, use of opioids frequently decreases or is eliminated altogether.

#6: Incoming House Rules Chair to Allow Floor Votes on Marijuana-Related Measures

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern said in November that he will permit federal lawmakers to debate and vote on marijuana-related amendments when he assumes control of the House Rules Committee in 2019. Representative McGovern replaces outgoing Rules Chair Pete Sessions (R-TX), who lost his re-election bid. Representative Sessions used his position as Chairman of the House Rules Committee to block House floor members from voting on over three-dozen marijuana-related amendments during his leadership tenure. “Unlike my predecessor, I’m not going to block amendments for marijuana,” McGovern said. “Citizens are passing ballot initiatives, legislatures are passing laws, and we need to respect that. Federal laws and statutes are way behind.”

#5: Governors Campaign, Win On Marijuana Legalization Platforms

Candidates for Governor in numerous state races campaigned and won in 2018 on a pledge to legalize and regulate the adult use of cannabis. Specifically, incoming governors in Connecticut, Minnesota, and Illinois explicitly pledged to enact legalization. Re-elected Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo has also pledged to enact adult use legalization in early 2019, as has New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.

#4 Canada Legalizes Adult Marijuana Use and Retail Sales

Canadian lawmakers this summer approved federal legislation permitting the use of marijuana by those ages 18 and older, and regulating adult use cannabis production and sales. Retailers began selling cannabis in compliance with the new law in October. In November, justices for Mexico’s Supreme Court also struck down the nation’s marijuana ban – finding that laws criminalizing the private use and cultivation of cannabis by adults are unconstitutional.

#3: Congress Amends CSA to Lift Ban on Commercial Hemp Production

Hemp-specific provisions included in the 2018 Farm Bill (aka The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018) for the first-time amend the federal classification of marijuana to distinguish between cannabis and hemp. Under the new law, which takes effect on January 1, 2019, hemp plants containing no more than 0.3 percent THC are no longer classified as a schedule I controlled substance. The Act also broadens the definition of ‘hemp’ (Section 297A) to include “any part of the plant, including …. extracts [or] cannabinoids” that do not possess greater than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis. The Act also for the first time in decades permits for the licensed commercial cultivation of hemp under a partnership of state and federal regulations.

#2: Marijuana Initiatives Win at the Ballot Box

Voters in four states – Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah – passed voter-initiated measures in 2018 regulating the use of marijuana. Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah became the 31st, 32nd, and 33rd states to enact medical cannabis access laws, while Michigan became the tenth state to permit adult marijuana use. In January, Vermont legislatively enacted provisions permitting adults to grow and possess marijuana for their own personal use.

#1: Public Support in Favor of Adult Use Legalization at Historic Highs

More adults than ever before believe that marijuana use by adults ought to be legal. An October poll conducted by Gallup reported that 66 percent of adults – including majorities of Democrats, Independents, Republicans, and those over the age of 55 – back legalization. The percentage is the highest level of support ever reported by the polling firm. A 2018 Pew poll similarly reported greater public support for legalization than ever before, while a June poll by the Center for American Progress reported that 68 percent of voters nationwide endorse legalization – the highest level of national support ever recorded in a scientific survey.