Advocacy: Election Victories
State Ballot Victories Are Good News for NCIA’s Push for Sweeping Reforms Nationwide.
The cannabis industry won at the ballot box in the recent election, with four states passing laws to make cannabis legal for adults and two approving cannabis for medical purposes. These results moved the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) closer to its goal of building a robust cannabis industry while supporting state laws and advocating for federal policy reforms.
On November 3, 2020, voters in several states made a definitive statement about cannabis use. Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota approved adult use of cannabis. South Dakota also approved a medical initiative, along with Mississippi, which approved comprehensive cannabis medical options.
The NCIA has been working toward outcomes such as these since 2010. With 2,000 members nationwide, the organization is supporting the industry as cannabis becomes a thriving business and a real economic force. In recent years, NCIA has been a vocal advocate for social equity, working to promote expungement of criminal records of many people—largely from minority communities—who were unfairly incarcerated as part of the ill-conceived War on Drugs.
The results of the initiatives in these five states illustrate how far the industry has come. The people have spoken, and their voice was definitive.
“The margins were higher than we expected,” says Morgan Fox, spokesperson for NCIA. “In Arizona, there was a 60% margin, while the margin in New Jersey was 66%, 10 points higher than it was in California when it passed an adult use initiative in 2016. These results are not just political victories; they will likely have widespread ramifications. Importantly, it will be much more difficult for law enforcement to use cannabis as a weapon against minority populations. Instead, we will likely see more economic opportunities in the industry and fewer arrests overall.”
Although there were differences among the measures passed, those that supported legalization all set 21 as the legal age for use. In New Jersey, the law requires that the state set a regulatory structure, along with limits for possession and homegrown cannabis plants. Arizona established the number of plants allowed at six, while South Dakota limited cultivation to three. The law in Arizona also stated that the Department of Health Services must promote business ownership and industry participation among people from communities who have been harmed by former cannabis policies. Furthermore, a portion of cannabis tax revenue will be set aside for the newly created Justice Reinvestment Fund.
To date, almost 34% of Americans live in states with laws establishing cannabis as legal and regulated for adults. Four of the five states that recently passed laws legalizing cannabis have been responsible for roughly 60,000 cannabis arrests each year, mostly for simple possession. On the economic side, researchers estimate that the combined value of the cannabis markets in these five states will climb to more than $3.1 billion by 2025. In states where cannabis is now legal, congressional representation will increase by 29 representatives and eight senators.
In sum, cannabis is now legal for adults in 15 states, as well as the District of Columbia and the territories of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. What’s more, 36 states and several territories have comprehensive medical cannabis laws. Cannabis is now legal in some form in 47 states in the United States.
Moving Forward on Federal Descheduling
As public sentiment continues to move toward national legalization of cannabis, a significant barrier is still in place: the designation of cannabis as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Despite state legalization, this policy greatly hampers access to cannabis, even for medical purposes. As a result, no insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, can cover the cost of the treatment. It also limits efforts to build a thriving, regulated industry.
These are just two of the reasons NCIA stands firmly behind efforts to remove cannabis from this list, a process often referred to as descheduling. “The House is making steady progress toward descheduling,” Fox says. “It is supposed to vote on the MORE [Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement] Act soon, and the bill is likely to pass. On the Senate side, even with a 50-50 split, the bill is unlikely to be called for a vote in the near future, but that will probably not be the case forever. Senators will no doubt feel increasing pressure from younger voters, who are supportive of this change.”
Another favorable sign is that the incoming Biden-Harris administration is friendlier toward the cannabis industry than was the Trump administration, making policy changes through executive orders possible. Fox predicts that that an executive order could be issued to prevent cannabis possession from triggering deportation, as it does now. It’s also likely that the new Department of Justice will reinstate the 2013 Cole Memo, which was rescinded by Jeff Sessions in 2018. The Cole Memo gives clear administrative guidance that federal prosecutors shouldn’t prosecute crimes involving possession, cultivation, distribution, or sale of cannabis in states that have legalized it. “At this point, most people realize that prosecuting these crimes is a waste of resources, but reinstating it will go a long way toward easing people’s concerns,” Fox adds.
Moving forward, NCIA will continue to look for ways to build a fair and equitable cannabis industry. “Thus far, we have been successful in threading the needle to keep cannabis front and center as a legitimate issue,” Fox says. “Our goal is to build on the momentum from the election and ultimately end prohibition.”
— Marilyn Fenichel is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland.