Lead photo via Cultivate, one of Massachusetts’ first pot shops
Legal recreational cannabis sales are finally coming to the eastern U.S., as two Massachusetts pot shops finally open their doors after years of regulatory hurdles. From there, the wave of legalization looks to be heading towards the middle of the country: Michigan just became the tenth state to legalize adult-use marijuana, and political leaders in Illinois and New Mexico are pushing for their states to become eleventh and twelfth.
As more and more states legalize, the pressure is mounting on the federal government to finally put an end to prohibition. The new Chairman of the House Rules Committee has promised that he won’t stand in the way of cannabis reform like his Republican predecessor Pete Sessions. And now that President Trump has fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the government is moving ahead with plans to grow more pot for federal research.
In Canada, where adult-use cannabis has been legal for one month now, supply shortages are keeping black market weed dealers in business, but a feared increase in pot-related traffic accidents has not materialized. On the other side of the world, Thailand appears on the way to becoming the first Southeast Asian country to legalize medical marijuana. Back in the U.S., an increasing number of Republicans are getting behind cannabis reform bills — but are still finding ways to deny social justice for former pot offenders.
The East Coast's First Legal Pot Shops Open in Massachusetts
Two years after Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure legalizing recreational cannabis, pot is finally legally being sold — but only at two stores. Last week, the state Cannabis Control Commission approved two hybrid medical-recreational dispensaries — Cultivate Holdings in Leicester and New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Northampton — to begin retail sales Tuesday.
The excitement over making the East Coast's first legal pot purchases drew customers from as far away as New Jersey. By 6 a.m., over 70 people were waiting in line outside NETA, and by the time the store opened at 8 a.m., that number had grown to around 400. Each store held a ceremonial first sale: Iraq veteran Stephen Mandile bought an eighth of flower and a pre-roll at Cultivate, and Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz bought a THC-infused chocolate bar at NETA.
"I am actually going to probably preserve it and display it… because it is historically significant," Narkewicz said of his purchase, The Hill reports. "There has been marijuana use going on in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a long, long time," he added. “What's changing is it's now being regulated. It's now being tested. It's now being strictly monitored. That's really the major change that's happening."
Hours after opening, there were still hundreds of people lined up outside in the rain, waiting for their own chance to participate in the historic moment. Each customer is allowed to purchase up to one ounce of flower or up to 20 servings of edibles at a time, but many of the edibles on sale at these shops are reserved for medical marijuana patients only. State law limits individual edible servings to 5 milligrams each, but edibles reserved as medical treatments can contain much higher concentrations of cannabinoids.
New House Rules Chairman Promises to Allow Votes on Cannabis Bills
Over the past five years, the number of cannabis reform bills proposed in Congress has grown exponentially, but almost every one of these measures was stopped dead in its tracks by one man — Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX). In his role as Chairman of the House Rules Committee, Sessions prevented over 30 pot-related measures from being debated on the House floor since the beginning of last year alone.
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Sessions' personal war on weed just came to a end this month, thanks to Texas voters who elected former NFL player Colin Allred to replace him. Now that the Democrats have won control of the House, the chairmanship of the Rules Committee has passed on to Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), who has no intention of continuing Sessions' prohibitionist ways.
“Unlike my predecessor, I’m not going to block amendments for marijuana,” McGovern said, according to the Boston Globe. “Citizens are passing ballot initiatives, legislatures are passing laws, and we need to respect that. Federal laws and statutes are way behind… This just seems like common-sense stuff. Especially on the issue of medical marijuana — people who are opposed to that are just on the wrong side of public opinion, overwhelmingly.”
New Mexico and Illinois Could Be The Next States to Legalize Adult-Use Marijuana
Recreational (or adult-use) cannabis is now legal in ten U.S. states, but that number may soon expand to at least twelve, if leading politicians in Illinois and New Mexico get their way. Illinois Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker, who just trounced incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner in this year's midterms, has already promised to make legalization one of his top priorities. Last week, state House Speaker Michael Madigan said that he believes the new governor will stick to his word, and offered his full support in making that promise come true.
Legislators in New Mexico are also planning another bid to bring legal weed to the Land of Enchantment. State representatives Javier Martinez and Bill McCamley recently announced plans to reintroduce a legalization bill that they originally proposed in 2017. The bill did not have enough support to pass at that time, but state House Speaker Rep. Brian Egolf told the Santa Fe Reporter that he expects the bill's chances of success are much stronger this year.
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“My guess is if it were to make it to the floor, it would probably pass the House," Egolf said. The Republican-dominated state Senate has traditionally opposed cannabis reform, but advocates believe that some Senators may change their minds now that Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham indicated that she would sign a legalization bill. "With a governor in office who is in favor of legalization, I think some Republicans who have been unanimous in opposition... maybe feel they can now vote the way they really feel," state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino told the Reporter.
National Institute on Drug Abuse Is Looking for Growers to Produce Pot for Research
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is looking for a few good pot growers to produce, test and store up to three tons of weed for research purposes. Although cannabis has been illegal for almost a hundred years, the federal government has allowed the University of Mississippi to grow small quantities of pot for scientific studies since 1968. Unfortunately, this institution reportedly produces some of the lowest-quality schwag the world has ever seen; so poor that many researchers have openly doubted its suitability for clinical trials.
The feds are aware of the problem, and have actually been accepting applications for additional cultivators for years, but the process stalled under the watch of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. However now this pot-hating prosecutor is now out of the picture, and NIDA just announced that they’re accepting applications for facilities that can grow, process, test, and store up to 5000 kilograms of pot (!). The applicants are being asked to produce standardized marijuana joints, extracts containing specific THC to CBD ratios, and pure extracts of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids.
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Canada Reports Persistent Black Market Weed Sales, But No Increase in Stoned Driving
As part of his campaign to legalize pot, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that legal weed would deal a fatal blow to the black market, but severe supply shortages are making this goal hard to achieve. Only a handful of legal retail outlets were prepared to open their doors by October 17th, and for those that did, a combination of supply shortages and extreme demand left shelves understocked. These shortages may be one reason why about 35% of Canadians are still buying from black market dealers, according to a new poll by market research firm Ipsos.
“Those people are absolutely going to go back to the black market because they’re not going to sit around waiting” for legal product, Ipsos vice-president Jennifer McLeod-Macey said to Global News CA. Allan Rewak, executive director of the Cannabis Council of Canada, is heartened by these figures, however, noting that two-thirds of the country's stoners are already embracing the legal market, a number that he expects to rise as supplies are refilled.
Another report brings more positive news about the country's first month of legal sales. Police departments across the country are reporting that they have seen no increase in stoned driving during the past month. “In our department, there’s certainly no rise in impaired driving by (marijuana),” New Brunswick Police Sgt. Joe Cantelo told the Canadian Press.
Manitoba law enforcement reported that they only conducted one investigation into pot-impaired driving in the past month, compared to three such investigations in the three weeks before legalization. Vancouver police have issued 18 violations for cannabis in vehicles in the previous month, but noted that most of these were for passengers smoking weed or improperly stored pot, not impaired driving.
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Thailand Advances Plans to Legalize Medical Marijuana
Legal cannabis may be finally coming to Southeast Asia, a corner of the world notorious for its strict drug laws. Earlier this month, Thai legislators officially proposed amending the country's drug laws to allow the licensed use of medical marijuana. The country currently imposes strict penalties against any citizen possessing pot for any reason, but the growing acceptance of cannabis' medical properties is convincing many lawmakers to take a more progressive view of the plant.
The proposed amendments would not allow recreational use, but could possibly clear the path for full legalization in the not-too-distant future. "If we let it be used recreationally, our society is not ready yet, so I want to do this first step first — the issue of making medicine," Thai lawmaker Somchai Sawangkarn told the Associated Press. "From allowing the making of medicine, maybe in six months or a year's time, if society is ready, it could become a food supplement. ... And eventually that could lead us to its recreational use."
More Republicans are Supporting Federal Cannabis Reform, But Not When It Comes to Social Justice
Support for cannabis reform used to fall cleanly along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Times are changing, and an increasing number of GOP politicians are throwing their weight behind pro-pot bills — as long as they refrain from offering opportunities to former drug offenders. A notable example of this new trend is the 2018 Farm Bill, which contains a provision to completely legalize industrial hemp, added at the insistence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
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The country's top GOP lawmaker has confirmed that the hemp legalization provision will be part of the final version of the Farm Bill, which could be passed by the end of the year. However, this final draft also bans anyone convicted of a drug felony from participating in this lucrative new industry, reportedly added at the request of one of McConnell's colleagues. A bill to expand cannabis research, which was passed by the House Judiciary Committee in September, also includes a provision to ban any former drug offenders from participating in government-approved research.
“I think there’s a growing recognition of the hypocrisy and unfairness of our nation’s drug laws, when hundreds of thousands of Americans are behind bars for something that is now legal in nine states and something that two of the last three Presidents have admitted to doing,” Sen. Cory Booker, lead sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act (which includes social justice provisions) told POLITICO. “If we truly want to be a just and fair nation, marijuana legalization must be accompanied by record expungement and a focus on restorative justice.”