As late midterm votes are tallied and the last few tight races are called, cannabis rights advocates are celebrating a week that they say could accelerate drug reform across the country.
The Nov. 6 vote didnt produce a true “green wave.” Voters shot down some local and state proposals to loosen marijuana laws, and they rejected a few federal candidates with a history of supporting legal cannabis.
But on balance the industry came out ahead, with major new legalization laws on several state books and some vocal cannabis supporters heading to office in January. “The momentum to end the drug war took a significant leap forward,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “With such overwhelming public support for marijuana legalization, even including majorities of Republicans and older Americans, theres only so long that the federal government can continue to hold out.”
The shakeup continued after polls closed, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a major opponent of marijuana legalization — resigned Nov. 7 at President Donald Trumps request.
The big questions now are:
Will states and cities continue to expand legal marijuana access? Or is the movement nearing a wall unless federal changes occur?
Also, will Sessions departure and Democratic control of the House of Representatives be enough to ease federal marijuana laws, or will a new Attorney General and GOP-held Senate continue to block such changes?
States embrace legalization[hhmc]
Though North Dakota voters rejected the idea, three other states legalized marijuana on Nov. 6.
Michigan became the 10th state in the nation and first in the midwest to legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older. Once Michigans law kicks in, sometime next month, roughly one in four American adults will live in states where it is legal to possess and consume marijuana.
Also on Nov. 6, Utah and Missouri approved medical marijuana, bringing to 33 the number of states that permit cannabis as medicine.
Several more states elected governors whove backed regulated cannabis.
In California, for example, Gavin Newsom will replace Jerry Brown. While Brown wasnt a particular supporter of legal cannabis, Newsom heavily campaigned to help pass Prop. 64.
Other states that backed marijuana-friendly governors — in some cases replacing leaders whod adamantly opposed cannabis — include Connecticut, Maine, New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois.
Experts expect to see more states with legal medical marijuana programs welcome recreational cannabis in coming months, with eyes on places such as Delaware and Illinois.
Still, going forward, the momentum in favor of legalized medical marijuana faces a serious obstacle.
While most of the states that have sanctioned medical or recreational cannabis have done so through ballot initiatives, that process is available in only four of the 17 states that still dont allow medical pot. Whats more, many of the non-marijuana states lean conservative, and their legislatures havent shown support for legalization.
Cities, counties expand access[hhmc]
In California, voters passed 79 of 94 local measures related to cannabis, according to an analysis by Marijuana Business Daily. Those included Malibu residents voting to allow recreational marijuana businesses in town and voters in Santa Ana, Banning, Palm Desert and dozens more communities approving additional local taxes on the industry.
Marijuana lost at the ballot boxes in Kern County and Bakersfield, where voters refused to welcome the cannabis industry.
“You still have a vast majority of cities and counties in the state who still have no form of safe and legal access,” said Dustin McDonald, vice president of government relations for Weedmaps, a website that helps customers find dispensaries.
When his team talks to city and county leaders about why theyre hesitant to let the industry in, McDonald said the most common response they get is that theyre worried about being out of step with federal law.
Thats why experts believe a shift in federal policy will need to happen before the country sees another wave of cities and states moving to legalize cannabis.
Erik Altieri, executive director of the marijuana advocacy group NORML, didnt mince words when commenting on Sessions Nov. 7 departure.
“NORML hopes (Sessions) finds the time during his retirement to seek treatment for his affliction of 1950s reefer madness.”
In January, Sessions repealed the so-called Cole Memo, an Obama-era directive that stopped federal officials from going after individuals and businesses in legal marijuana states as long as those individuals were taking specific steps to keep cannabis from getting to kids and the black market.
Sessions move to dump the Cole Memo rules didnt trigger the federal crackdown on state-legal cannabis businesses that the industry feared. So, while advocates cheered Sessions departure, McDonald said his team immediately grew concerned about who might fill his seat.
Trump appointed Sessions former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, to serve as interim Attorney General. Whitaker has spoken both in support of medical marijuana and in favor of prosecuting violations of federal marijuana laws in legal states, according to records dug up by Marijuana Moment. So, while his appointment may only be temporary, its left some industry supporters uneasy.
Also concerning to marijuana advocates are reports that a top contender for the job is former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
“Hes a hater of our industry,” David Dinenberg, founder of Los Angeles-based KIND Financial, which makes software for the cannabis industry, said of Christie.
Until that question is resolved, Brad Alexander, who advises the cannabis industry with Washington-based McGuireWoods Consulting, said a lot of big investors are still sitting on the sidelines.
“At the moment, we are still one Justice Department ruling away from reopening the enforcement floodgates,” he explains.
The industry appears likely to lose several longtime advocates as final votes are counted — most notably Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Costa Mesa who co-authored a budget amendment that protects state medical marijuana programs from federal interference.
But the election also saw the ouster of perhaps the most powerful opponent of marijuana reform in Congress: Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. As chairman of the House Rules Committee, NORML says Sessions blocked dozens of bipartisan-led reforms — including a bill that would have helped veterans access medical cannabis and another that would have opened banking services for the industry — from ever getting to the House floor.
Rep. Jim McGovern, R-Mass., who will take over as chair of the House Rules Committee, told the Boston Globe thats not going to happen anymore.
“Citizens are passing ballot initiatives, legislatures are passing laws, and we need to respect that,” he said. “Federal laws and statutes are way behind.”
While advocates are excited about discussions on federal marijuana reform in the coming legislative session, McDonald said it remains to be seen if that will translate to real change, or if cannabis will become a pawn in bills and budget talks that include more controversial topics such as immigration.
With a new Gallup poll showing 66 percent of Americans now support legal marijuana, he said, “cannabis has the potential to be that bridge issue, to the extent folks want to embrace it.”