In the recent 2016 election cycle, voters in eight states—Arkansas, California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, and Nevada—emerged victorious in passing new initiatives toward the implementation of either new medical or recreational cannabis programs. As of today, four of those states are experiencing pushback from officials and policymakers that may create delays to implementation of said programs. NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri criticized the delays, calling them “an affront to the democratic process.”
In Arkansas, election day voters passed Issue 6, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, an initiative to implement a state Medical Marijuana (MMJ) program within 120 days. Since, Arkansas House and Senate lawmakers voted to delay the program with House Bill 1026. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed House Bill 1026 into law on January 24th, 2017, delaying the MMJ program 60 days.
In Maine, election day voters passed Question 1, the Maine Marijuana Legalization Measure, an initiative to legalize recreational cannabis and implement a retail sales program within nine months. Maine House and Senate lawmakers recently submitted LD 88, an emergency legislation document proposing a delay to portions of the program’s implementation. LD 88 and a subsequent amendment to LD 88 update Maine’s Marijuana Legalization Measure with clarification on juvenile possession laws (in relation to medical marijuana) and clarification on concentrates, possession, and purchase limits. It also proposes to delay retail sales of cannabis until Feb. 1, 2018. LD 88 recently went to public hearing and is expected to pass as amended.
Massachusetts’ governor endorsed a six-month delay on retail cannabis sales implementation since state voters approved Question 2, the Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Initiative, supporting cannabis legalization and the start of a recreational cannabis sales program by Jan. 2018. Now, legislators are proposing further changes, including an increase in cannabis sales tax and a rollback of voter approved personal possession and home grow limits. Other policy proposals include an expungement process for those with an arrest record for possession of less than an ounce. The effective date of Massachusetts’ recreational cannabis sales is now delayed until July 2018 and if the newest proposals are approved as-is, there will be a further two-year delay on the sale of edibles and concentrates.
In North Dakota, election day voters passed Measure 5, the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act MMJ program. The initiative passed with a 90-day window to implement. Since, House and Senate lawmakers overwhelmingly passed emergency legislation proposed in Senate Bill 2154 to extend the window to implementation by approximately five months to July 31, 2017, or until the North Dakota legislature passes a new, more thorough MMJ regulation bill, whichever comes first. Bill 2154 was submitted to North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum for approval on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017.
MERRY JANE sought the perspective of policymakers who worked in states like Oregon and Colorado that have rolled out both MMJ programs and recreational retail sales programs in previous years. Amy Margolis is shareholder at Greenspoon Marder and as an attorney worked diligently to help create Oregon’s MMJ OMMP program and subsequent Adult Use recreational cannabis program.
“Setting implementation deadlines for cannabis regulation and the launching of a market or program seems, on its face, to be reasonable,” says Margolis. “Those dates hold legislators and agencies accountable and prevent unnecessary delays brought on by hesitancy or fear.”
Margolis is now working in Florida. Voters there overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2, the Florida MMJ Legalization Initiative, in the 2016 election. However, Amendment 2 didn’t specify an effective date. So, a clause in Florida’s Constitution deemed Amendment 2 effective the first Tuesday in January following the election. The Florida Department of Health (DOH) and its Office of Compassionate Use must now set program procedures and regulations on a tight, six-month deadline, by July. When the DOH released proposed rules for regulating Florida MMJ last Wednesday, Jan. 18, supporters of Amendment 2 criticized the DOH for drafting rules that limit program availability to new growers, businesses, and patients.
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“Dates need to be flexible and nimble enough to allow for thoughtfulness. In a number of states we have seen that rushing regulations have resulted in poor policies and challenges to the market,” says Margolis.
Public hearings will be held at scheduled dates in February throughout Florida, as well as an online form, allowing Florida constituents the opportunity to provide input on the DOH rulemaking process.
Bob Hoban is a Colorado attorney whose firm has been integral in Colorado’s cannabis policy and advises numerous U.S. and foreign government agencies on the implementation of regulatory framework for medical and recreational cannabis programs. When asked about the delays plaguing Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, and North Dakota, he suggested a preemptive approach.
“When it comes to the U.S., the models are out there,” says Hoban. “Our group has templates to help craft regulatory models. We base them off a 13-question chart that informs a regulatory model specific to their needs. Sixty- to 90-day delays may seem steep, but they’re not necessarily creating this from scratch. Perhaps, in some instances, they put out a request for proposal and didn’t find the right people.”
Nonetheless, delays to medicinal and recreational cannabis access loom in the four states and this affects voters from a democratic process standpoint as well as delaying access to the many voters who are patients looking to supplement health care needs with cannabis. In a Jan. 18 press release issued by the nonprofit marijuana legalization lobby organization NORML, Executive Director Erik Altieri stated, “Voters have lived with the failings of marijuana prohibition for far too long already. Lawmakers have a responsibility to abide by the will of the voters and to do so in a timely manner.”
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Since the introduction of the proposed delays, blogs and comment forums have been rife with rumors that anti-marijuana prohibitionists are supporting medical and recreational legalization delays, including speculation that prohibitionist lawmakers are pushing to extend implementation dates to allow more time for Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions to take office and put an end to cannabis legalization. Yet, voters in 28 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam suggest otherwise. A majority of U.S. citizens now support adult-use cannabis legalization and 86 percent support medical marijuana. Eleven additional states already have bills pending to legalize marijuana in the 2017 legislative session.
Hoban concludes, “The bureaucrats in government are generally very motivated to do it right and within a reasonable timeframe.”