2018 marked a historic year for the cannabis industry, with thirty-three states now supporting legal use at least some level. Ten states, ranging from stereotypically progressive states like California and Colorado to more conservative-leaning states like Michigan, have passed laws permitting recreational use, while the other twenty-three only allow medical marijuana. With the number of states enacting legalization well over the halfway point now, many people are wondering if national legalization is soon to follow. The math seems obvious. A supermajority of states already allow legal cannabis consumption, and the latest Pew Research polls show approval of national legalization at 66%. So what’s standing in the way?

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Federal Red Tape and Conflicting Interests

Though many cannabis researchers and activists find this categorization spurious, the FDA continues to define marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it’s at high risk for abuse and has no medical purpose. The doublethink of allowing legal medical use for a drug that has “no medical purpose” is reconcilable when it’s state governments disagreeing with the federal government, but for a nationwide law to pass the federal government would have to admit it disagrees with itself, a much taller order.

The FDA, DEA, and the Justice Department all have a stake in keeping things as they are. This is in part because they use drug arrests as part of their metrics for success in fulfilling their mission, and partly because they’re afraid of opening the floodgates on descheduling other Schedule I drugs such as LSD and heroin. Congress could pass a law legalizing cannabis at any time, but many in the House and Senate like to defer to various government agencies when setting their policies, so until there are culture changes at places like the FDA, opposition remains steep.

Pro-cannabis elected officials are often accused of “pandering” – to the youth vote, to “hippies,” to those wily chronic pain sufferers, but the right wing is accustomed to scoring easy political points by demonizing cannabis and cannabis users and they have no reason to want to see that change. Though Democrats had a massively successful showing in the 2018 midterm elections, the blue wave was only enough to win control of the House.

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The Senate remains in Republican control for the foreseeable future, so any bill the House might pass will more than likely not pass in the Senate. Purple state politicians who don’t support cannabis legalization, whether it be because of personal beliefs or simply a desire not to offend their more conservative donors, have a plausible excuse in that there’s only so much time in a congressional session.

U.S. Capitol East Facade Front Low angled view of the U.S. Capitol East Facade Front in Washington, DC.

What To Expect in 2019

Early 2019 will be spent hammering out a budget, an always difficult task made even more challenging with the Trump administration’s mercurial and often unrealistic demands for things like funding a border wall or getting into and out of foreign wars. If the budget is ever settled, healthcare reform will be the next all-consuming topic, and although medical marijuana use is an important part of healthcare that some more progressive Senators may bring up, it can just as easily be used as a wedge issue to weaken support for progressive programs like Medicare for All.

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Even pro-cannabis legislators have to be strategic about when and how they bring up the issue of legalization, because fearmongering and racist dog whistles about drug dealers on every block and “gateway drugs” are an easy and irresistible way to rile up conservative voters.

This touches on an issue many cannabis activists, who tend to live in progressive areas or at least socialize mostly with likeminded people, can too easily ignore. While a majority of Americans nationwide support legalization, a majority of Republicans  - 55% in a recent Quinnipiac poll - oppose it.

There may be more left-leaning voters than right-leaning ones in the United States, but due to the structure of the Senate as well as House gerrymandering, they have as much if not more political power than the majority. However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. That same poll does show that 86% of Republicans support medical cannabis, so a national law allowing marijuana prescriptions may be a more feasible starting point.

Social Barriers to Legalization

Ann Arbor, MI, USA - April 5, 2014: A participant holds up a sign at the 43rd annual Hash Bash rally in Ann Arbor, MI April 5, 2014. iStock / smontgom65

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about cannabis, from the persistent belief, disproven time and time again, that people who try it are more likely to move on to other, harder drugs, to the more ambiguous question of whether it can be physically addictive. Not all of the concerns legalization opponents raise are unfounded. Even states that allow recreational use prohibit consumption before the age of 21, due to the questions about what effect THC might have on a young and still-developing brain.

Effective testing for intoxication levels is still a long way away for marijuana, which is much more complex both chemically and metabolically than alcohol. Right now there’s no way to reliably measure impaired driving in the moment, as in a traffic stop, nor are there easy rules of thumb about how long after consumption someone might be safe to drive.

Supporters can point out just as many benefits as drawbacks, such as reductions in opiate abuse and less domestic violence, but political opposition to legal cannabis is just as much about emotion and group identity as it is facts. The way people feel about marijuana use changes on a slower, generational timescale, and while public opinion is shifting undeniably into the “pro” column, the types of people who become legislators and government agency officials are not typically on the progressive edge regardless of their political affiliation.

The hard truth is there is no magic bullet for nationwide cannabis legalization. A slow, dedicated, state-by-state strategy is what’s gotten us this far and it may be the only thing that can get us to the finish line. In the meantime, there are some silver linings.

A legalization measure is an incredibly effective way to get out the youth vote, which can increase the odds of success for any other progressive measures that may be on the same ballot, and while Schedule I is an incorrect and unnecessarily punitive categorization for cannabis, if and when it’s descheduled it will immediately fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction to be regulated like other drugs.

This means arduous and slow approval processes and lots of new oversight about packaging and content that may frustrate medical patients and recreational users alike. 2018 wasn’t a failure for cannabis activism just because national legalization didn’t pass, and the same will be true for 2019. As long as there’s forward momentum, there’s progress.