The results of the November 2016 election were so incomprehensible that the legalization of pot for recreational or medical use in eight states was discussed as a consoling afterthought. Since the White House continues to shock the world with at least one tweet a day, legal cannabis has become a topic too palatable for regular coverage. So let’s check in on the progress the nation has made since America said yes to legal weed.
Cannabis on the Federal Level
At the highest level, cannabis retains its unpopularity with the powers that be. In no small way is that attributable to current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions has made his prohibitionist views clear on more than one occasion, and that attitude may lead to enforcement of federal law. Despite its legality in 29 states and the District of Columbia, cannabis remains a Schedule I substance according to the Controlled Substance Act.
Under the Obama administration, states with regulated cannabis were protected from the enforcement of that law by the “Cole Memo,” a 2013 document indicating that the Department of Justice would place a low priority on pursuing cannabis-related activities as long as they were compliant with their state’s regulations
In September 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the DOJ’s second in command, said about the Cole Memo, “We are reviewing that policy. We haven’t changed it, but we are reviewing it. We’re looking at the states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, trying to evaluate what the impact is. And I think there is some pretty significant evidence that marijuana turns out to be more harmful than a lot of people anticipated, and it’s more difficult to regulate than I think was contemplated ideally by some of these states.”
What that comment implies is that under current law, the future of legal cannabis is tenuous. The federal government has supremacy over the states, so while it would be expensive and backward, the DOJ has the authority to take the legal industry down. The best way to protect the industry? Change the law.
On August 1, 2017, New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act to legalize cannabis at the federal level. If passed, the law would take cannabis off of the drug schedule, impose financial penalties on states that do not implement the law’s leniency and that have disproportionate cannabis-related incarceration rates, and use the money accrued by these penalties to provide community services such as financial relief from expenses related to the expungement of convictions and job training.
As School House Rock would have it, the Marijuana Justice Act is still just a bill. And it’s sitting there on Capitol Hill.
Legal Cannabis on the State Level
Of the nine states with legal cannabis on November’s ballot, all but one (Arizona) succeeded. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada legalized for recreational use while Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota legalized for medical use. The following is a status update for each of these states.
The New Recreational States
California—Medical cannabis has been legal in the state since 1996, so people with medical cards are already allowed to purchase, possess, and consume cannabis. Since the passage of 2016’s Prop 64, California residents aged 21 and over are technically allowed to consume cannabis in a private place, but recreational sales will not be authorized until January 2018. Although California seems to be on track with this deadline, it has not been an easy road. The state tried to create two different regulatory frameworks—one for the medical market and one for recreational pot. However, in June 2017, state legislation combined both industries.
The merger means that entrepreneurs within the medical industry have had to completely revise their businesses to ensure compliance, a costly and frustrating setback
Despite the challenges, it looks like California is going to make its deadline, but likely not without revision down the road.
Maine—Legal pot won by small margins in Maine, so it’s no surprise that the road to implementation since the election has been fraught with conflict. The most recent update from the state is that its governor, Paul LePage, wants to delay recreational cannabis sales until 2019. That means that people can legally use cannabis, but have no legal recourse of obtaining it. The move to delay serves only to strengthen the state’s black market.
Massachusetts—It’s been dramatic in the Massachusetts legislature this year. Almost 2 million voters chose to legalize pot by approving Question 4. The text on the ballot called for recreational sales to begin in January 2018, but in an informal session a month after the general election, the House and Senate passed a bill that would delay the beginning of recreational sales by 6 months. Today, the date for recreational sales is set for July 2018, but various Massachusetts communities are pushing for bans or moratoriums on recreational cannabis sales.
Nevada—July 1, 2017, was the date Nevada set for its first recreational sale, and it’s the day that it met that goal. After only six months, the recreational market is up in running, though not without some problems to work through. For one, a week after sales began, dispensaries were out of stock. That problem was the result of inadequate planning before sales began.
The law originally required the distribution of cannabis to happen through wholesale alcohol distributors for the first 18 months, but none of those businesses were licensed by the time recreational sales began
The Nevada Department of Taxation responded by declaring a state of emergency and expanding distribution rights outside of the liquor industry. Now that more distributors have been licensed, business is booming.
The New Medical States
Arkansas—The medical program was originally set to launch in March 2017, but, in January, Arkansas’ House voted to push that date to May to give the legislature more time to work out the program’s kinks. The dispensary application deadline was also pushed from June to July 2017. The application period closed on September 18, leaving the Medical Marijuana Commission—the board responsible for reviewing the applications—overwhelmed with documents. The commission projects that the application review process may take until April 2018. Preparation to provide the medicine will take several more months. As of today, it looks like Arkansas cannabis patients will not have access to their medicine of choice until the end of summer 2018.
Florida—In June 2017, Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that would expand Florida’s medical marijuana program to include more qualifying conditions.
Although the state claims that obtaining a medical card should only take up to 30 days, some patients have had to wait three months because of the influx of applications received since that expansion
The state is working on this bureaucratic delay by outsourcing card production to a private company and allowing electronic payment and photo uploads.
Montana—The state already had a medical marijuana program, but Initiative 182 repealed the former law’s extensive requirements, including one that disallowed providers from having more than three cannabis patients. However, a clerical error in the text of the 2016 initiative would not result in the repeal of that provision until June 30, 2017 when the intention was for it to repeal that limitation immediately. In February 2017, SB 131, a bill that revised that error, became law without the governor’s signature. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, regulators have indicated that the program would be further delayed until the spring of 2018 due to continuing regulation changes.
North Dakota—This state’s legislature was shocked to discover that, though a deeply conservative state,
65% of its voters wanted legal weed for medical use
A bipartisan bill revising November’s measure was passed in April 2017, making North Dakota’s program slightly more restrictive than the backers of the measure wanted. For example, one of the original provisions would have authorized medical patients to grow their own cannabis. The new bill prohibits that. North Dakota’s medical program is expected to launch in the spring of 2018.