Although the 2016 general election ushered in a Republican takeover of all three branches of American government, it was a good year for cannabis reform, with voters in eight states approving ballot measures legalizing either recreational or medical marijuana. Legal weed is on the ballot in four more states this year — Utah and Missouri will be voting on medical marijuana initiatives, while Michigan and North Dakota are voting on full recreational legalization — and recent polls suggest that at least the first three of these have a good shot at success.
Several other states have cannabis-related measures on their ballots, including initiatives to expand medical marijuana programs, reduce penalties for minor offenses, and advisory questions asking for popular opinions on legalization. But even if you live in a state that isn’t voting on legal weed, there are still dozens of reasons to get out and vote today (peep our voter guide), not least of which is the possibility of overturning the Republican majority in Congress.
Analysts are predicting that America’s state-by-state process of legalization may soon come to a halt, but the tidal wave of pot reform has already spread to both of our largest neighbors. Three weeks ago, Canada completely legalized recreational sales and use, and last week, Mexico's highest court ruled that the prohibition of marijuana is unconstitutional, setting the stage for full legalization. A Colorado court also ruled in favor of legal weed last week, setting a precedent that could stop homeowners from suing neighboring canna-businesses under federal racketeering charges.
In other pot news, a new policy to stop prosecuting low-level cannabis offenses in New York City has already led to a 94% decrease in pot-related charges in Manhattan. On the West Coast, California regulators are struggling to enforce their ban of hemp-derived CBD products, while the city of Oakland is finding that its highly-touted social equity program for legal canna-businesses isn’t as successful as they'd hoped.
State-Level Legalization Efforts Likely to Stall After This Year's Midterms
If all goes well today, medical marijuana could become legal in 32 states, with recreational cannabis expanded to 11 more. Yet even though 66% of all Americans now support legalization, insiders believe that state-level legalization efforts may stall after this year's elections. Out of the 19 states that still prohibit cannabis in all forms, only six allow voters to alter state laws via ballot initiatives. Two of these states (Missouri and Utah) will be voting on medical marijuana initiatives today, but the four others (Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming) have been notably less enthusiastic about pot. The remaining 13 states can only legalize cannabis by acts of their legislatures, which also seems unlikely given their conservative leadership.
As efforts by voters to alter state laws directly exhaust their remaining options, the burden of ending cannabis prohibition falls on the federal government, but it is seeming more likely that progress will finally be made on this front. The country's Republican leadership, once entirely opposed to cannabis reform, has seen a growing number of politicians willing to break ranks in favor of legal weed. President Trump has previously promised to support individual states' rights to legalize, and may make good on his pledge following the midterms; that is, if you believe former White House aide Anthony Scaramucci.
Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, who now sits on the board of a cannabis firm, penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal this week, urging Washington to finally legalize marijuana. “The trend could not be clearer,” the one-time prohibitionist wrote. “Cannabis prohibition is coming to an end.”
Mexico Supreme Court Rules Marijuana Prohibition is Unconstitutional, Full Legalization Likely to Follow
Just weeks after America's northern neighbor legalized pot, Mexico's highest court issued two rulings that essentially put an end to their country's prohibition of marijuana. Since 2012, a team of young attorneys have been challenging Mexico's pot laws, arguing that they infringe upon a constitutional right to personal development. Unlike the U.S., Mexico's Supreme Court must issue five consistent rulings before the decision applies to the entire country. Between 2015 and 2017, the court made three rulings in favor of ending prohibition, and last week, the court made two final rulings on the issue.
The court's decision does not completely legalize weed, however. Individuals can still be arrested for pot-related crimes, but anyone that is arrested for growing, possessing, or smoking weed can now individually challenge the constitutionality of these charges in court. Full legalization would require a change in federal law, and legislators are pursuing that goal. Key members of the country's legislative leadership have said that they are already working to repeal criminal statutes prohibiting marijuana use, after which they intend to propose legislation that would establish a taxed and regulated adult-use market for cannabis.
Colorado Cannabis Company Beats Racketeering Case Over Pot Odor
A Colorado jury just ruled in favor of a local cannabis company in a racketeering case, setting a precedent that bodes well for state-legal pot firms throughout the entire country. In 2015, a Pueblo County couple sued a new canna-business that set up a greenhouse adjacent to their residence, claiming that the dank aroma of budding plants decreased their property value by approximately $30,000.
The couple argued that they were justified to receive financial compensation for this devaluation under the RICO Act — a federal racketeering law that allows private property owners to sue criminal enterprises that have damaged their properties. Jurors disagreed, finding that the smell of weed did not represent actual harm being done to the plaintiffs’ property.
Three similar cases are pending in California, Massachusetts, and Oregon, but the precedent set by this case could quash further attempts to file similar RICO suits. “The big takeaway is that the verdict is likely to curb the enthusiasm for bringing these lawsuits in the future,” Vanderbilt University law professor Rob Mikos said to the Associated Press.
Manhattan District Attorney Reports Low-Level Pot Charges have Dropped by 94%
Although New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has made numerous attempts to put an end to the NYPD's notoriously unequal enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws, the percentage of minorities arrested for minor pot crimes has actually increased under the mayor's watch. This summer, district attorneys from Manhattan and Brooklyn decided to take matters into their own hands, announcing that they would stop prosecuting non-violent pot crimes in their boroughs.
Last week, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. released a statement detailing how effective this new policy has been so far. Since the policy was implemented on August 1st, Vance's office only arraigned 168 marijuana cases; 87% fewer than the 1,246 cases arraigned during the same time period last year. This October, only 28 cases were arraigned — a 94% drop compared to October 2017. “The Manhattan D.A.’s Office has exited the marijuana business,” Vance said in a statement. “Now it’s time for New York State to legalize, regulate, and expunge.”
Hemp-Derived CBD Products Readily Available Across California Despite Statewide Ban
The growing popularity of CBD has led to an explosion of infused products — cocktails, desserts, skin creams, pet treats, lattes, you name it — intended to treat a staggering range of physical or psychological ailments. Most medical cannabis manufacturers specifically source their CBD from industrial hemp in an attempt to skirt the federal prohibition of cannabis, as the 2014 Farm Bill legalizes the production of hemp under certain conditions. In California, the exact opposite is true: under its legal cannabis program, CBD products that are sourced from marijuana plants can be legally sold via licensed dispensaries, but the sale of hemp-derived CBD products or oils is prohibited.
This summer, the state Department of Public Health released a memo announcing that adding hemp-derived CBD to food or beverages, or selling the oil on its own, is prohibited. State regulators chose to impose this unusual rule in order to remain in compliance with the Food and Drug Administration, which has lately been cracking down on CBD manufacturers for making unproven medical claims. Local authorities tasked with enforcing these regulations have not prioritized the issue, however: Orange County officials have only issued 10 CBD-related violations so far, while Los Angeles has not issued any, as the proliferation of CBD-infused products continues to grow unchecked.
Oakland's Cannabis Social Equity Program is Failing to Meet its Goals
Although a majority of U.S. states have legalized pot in some form, only a minority of these states have attempted to address the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs against communities of color. Oakland was the first city in California to propose a solution to the problem, creating a social equity program aiming to encourage minority participation in the newly legal pot industry. The program looked great on paper: at least half of all cannabis business licenses in the city were reserved for individuals living in designated high-crime zones, earning less than 80 percent of the city's average income, or who were convicted of pot-related crimes.
Oakland has received 616 applications for their equity program, but a new report from the San Francisco Chronicle reveals very few of these applicants have succeeded in actually opening their businesses to date. The program's success has been hindered by understaffing at the city manager's office, leading to slow approval times for plans and inspections, as well as disagreements over awkward partnerships the city forced equity applicants to make with established businesses. The ordinance limiting the total number of cannabis licenses is also set to expire this year, leaving the majority of equity applicants with even less chance of competing with wealthy investors, unless the city decides to extend these limits.
“In reality, these programs are giving the people of underserved communities false hopes of self-empowerment,” equity applicant Alexis Bronson told the Chronicle. “Some will persevere, but the majority will not.”
Next time we’ll check out the results of the midterms, along with the week’s other major developments in marijuana. In the fight for cannabis reform, knowledge is power, so stay tuned!