U.S. Cannabis Legalization: A Matter of If and When

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If and when the question of federal legalization comes before lawmakers, will they follow the lead of their voters?

December 4, 2020

Like many in the industry, editors from Cannabis Business Times stayed up until the early hours of Nov. 4 watching the 2020 election returns roll in and reporting the results as they were called, focusing primarily on the five states with cannabis legalization measures on the ballot. We constantly refreshed pages, discovering voters passed every cannabis initiative presented to them, celebrating each win as we witnessed history together.

In 2016, voters in eight of nine states with cannabis legalization on the ballot approved the measures. That year, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada legalized adult-use cannabis—Arizona was the only state not to pass its initiative, which would have regulated cannabis like alcohol.

It was a big night for cannabis, but one that maybe was not as surprising, as traditional polling showed voters in blue states more willing to support legalization than those in red.

This year, the results were different. Voters in states both bright red and blue showed their willingness to usher in adult-use cannabis legalization in an election that was defined by close calls—except when it came to ending prohibition.

With blue New Jersey, battleground Arizona and red Montana and South Dakota passing adult-use measures, 15 states currently or are poised to regulate adult-use cannabis sales. Three dozen have approved cannabis for medical use. According to a recent Gallup poll, seven in 10 Americans support legalizing cannabis use and possession.

The potential of a new industry to help boost fledgling state economies while the world continues to wrestle control over the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overlooked. Many predict New Jersey’s legalization could encourage already cannabis-friendly leaders in New York and Pennsylvania to write adult-use bills for state legislatures to consider and pass.

“I think the Northeast, with New York, Connecticut, Maryland [and] Pennsylvania, … [has] good prospects for moving forward as early as next year,” Steve Fox, counsel at Vicente Sederberg and managing partner of the firm’s policy and public affairs consulting affiliate VSS Strategies, told CBT.

You can read our election coverage, including key U.S. House, Senate and gubernatorial results that could impact the industry, here.

In post-election interviews, industry advocates and policy experts shared their excitement and repeated the mantra we’ve all embraced but seems closer now: If and when. If, and when, cannabis is legalized at the federal level.

Consumer research and market intelligence firm BDSA predicts federal legalization could be within reach by 2022.

And, just days after the election, the U.S. House announced it was planning a floor vote in December on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would federally decriminalize cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act.

The MORE Act has been stalled in the House for more than year. Perhaps the result of this election will inspire more legislatures to advance the bill through Congress now that their constituents have shown bipartisan support.

U.S. voters have shown their willingness to end ineffective drug laws that imprisoned people while failing to stop the illicit market and prevented people from benefiting from and researching its medical potential. If and when the federal question comes before lawmakers, hopefully they will follow the lead of the voters they serve and end prohibition once and for all.