In a year of many political and social changes, in 2018 few changes were more noticeable–and notable–than the evolving legalization of both medical and recreational cannabis.
Although the year began on what appeared to be a potential setback for proponents of the US cannabis industry–when (now former) Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally rescinded the previous Administration’s guidelines protecting state marijuana laws–2018 ended on a high note with a series of substantial victories at the ballot box for legalized cannabis.
Among the more notable domestic changes in 2018, that appear to be paving the way forward for further legal sales of cannabis, one of the early victories was the state of Vermont’s legislative legalization of marijuana; the bill, which allows for adults to possess small amounts of cannabis (albeit not, as yet, via statewide legal sales) was also seen by experts as notable in that it marked the first time lawmakers’ actual votes—and not ballot initiatives—were the reason for the legal change; in addition, the fact that the a Republican governor signed the bill was also viewed as being especially noteworthy.
Unlike Other Issues, Support For Cannabis Is Not A Red/Blue State Question
2018 also appears to have been the year that support for legalization of marijuana moved beyond the divisive party lines that had, historically, divided lawmakers on the issue.
Voters in three solidly “Red States”—Oklahoma, Utah and Missouri—came out in support of legalized use of cannabis this past year; Oklahoma voters, who are predominantly both Republican and conservative, gave the green light to medical marijuana, thereby proving that the cannabis issue can no longer be defined along party lines. Meanwhile, in the midterm elections, voters in Michigan strongly approved a ballot measure that made the state the first in the region to legalize the use of cannabis.
The support for legalization of the use of cannabis also played a role in various state elections. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker campaigned on his strong support for the legalization of cannabis, as did Minnesota’s new governor Tim Walz, a longtime proponent of legalization during his tenure in Congress. Other governors, including those in New Mexico and Connecticut were also vocal in their support for cannabis legalization, with Connecticut’s Ned Lamont calling the legalization of marijuana a “top priority” for 2019.
With Jeff Sessions’ departure from the Attorney General’s office, proponents of legalization now believe there is also momentum to change federal ‘hearts and minds’—and, eventually, laws—regarding marijuana.
Much like in the individual states, growing support for legalized cannabis transcends party lines at the federal level. In fact, this past year, Colorado’s Republican Senator Cory Gardner threatened to hold up judicial appointments by President Trump over the issue of Sessions’ threat of federal attacks against legalization of cannabis. Ironically, industry observers believe that Sessions’ move against legalization actually may have had the exact opposite of his desired effect: galvanizing proponents of legalization on the federal level in both political parties.
Prominent politicians of both federal parties also appeared to, at a minimum, soften—if not in some cases, outright reverse—previous opposition to ending marijuana prohibition. Two prominent examples: both California senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, had in the past expressed hesitation of cannabis legalization; however, in 2018, Feinstein expressed support for the idea that residents of states that have passed legalization laws should not face the possibility of being arrested by federal agents; meanwhile, for her part, Harris (a possible 2020 presidential contender) also supported legislation that would end the federal prohibition of cannabis use.
Voters Leading The Way On Changing Political Minds About Legal Cannabis
The “evolution” of some political minds on the issue of legal cannabis should not come as a surprise, given the recent polling on the matter.
A Gallup poll taken this past fall indicated that a full two-thirds—66% of Americans, including a majority of Republican voters—now support some form of cannabis legalization. That’s a dramatic change from even a decade earlier, and it now appears as though the road ahead for legalization of both medical and recreational cannabis may be closer than once thought possible.
In the wake of Senator Gardner’s vocal support for ending federal “crackdowns” on states that have legalized cannabis, President Trump is said to have pledged to the Republican senator that his Administration will respect local legalization laws.
Given the plethora of issues facing the Administration with the new Democratic Congress, most observers believe that president—long thought to be sympathetic to, at a minimum, medical cannabis use—will be willing to sign any reasonable legislation on cannabis legalization that can be hammered out by leaders in both Houses.
Even longtime cannabis opponent Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has now vocally supported the legalization of hemp; that move may prove to be a critically important accelerator of the use of hemp for the rapidly expanding “CBD” market, a substance derived from hemp, and long seen as having multiple medical benefits.
America’s Neighbors—North And South—Move Toward Accepting Cannabis Use
With the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) now complete, America’s economic (along with social) ties to its neighbors to the north and south have been reaffirmed.
For the cannabis industry, that comes as welcome news given recent governmental attitudes towards legalized cannabis use in both Canada and Mexico. In the fall, Canada became the second nation worldwide (after Uruguay) to legalize marijuana use nationwide. As a result, Canada’s cannabis industry is rapidly becoming one of the country’s fastest growing business sectors; sharing the longest unguarded border in the world, it seems impossible that Canada’s move will not influence America’s national policy on legal cannabis.
To the south, Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has also expressed support for legalization of cannabis in his nation. If Obrador makes good on his pledge, that would mean the US would be the “odd man out” of the North American triumvirate, still holding restrictive cannabis laws, at least on a federal level.
2019: The Year Of “No Looking Back” For Legal Cannabis?
Many industry experts see 2019 as a “game-changing” year for the legal cannabis business.
With the inclusion of language in the 2018 Farm Bill that permitted farmers to grow hemp, both the supply and demand for the product is expected to grow exponentially in the coming year.
On the state level, most eyes will likely be focused on the progress of cannabis legalization in the Northeastern US.
Industry watchers expect that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will be among the next states to consider legalizing recreational marijuana use. Of those three states, New Jersey is seen as the state most likely to move quickly toward legalization, given the passage of state legislation in November expanding the use of medical marijuana, and moving towards legalizing recreational cannabis.
With a new federal Attorney General, a new Congress, likely presidential approval of cannabis legislation, multiple pending state initiatives, and neighboring nation states embracing legalization, it’s all but certain that the legal cannabis business will be among the industries that burns brightest in the year ahead.