Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a co-sponsor for the bill and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, donned a cannabis leaf mask as he presided over the floor debate in the House of Representatives on the morning of December 4. After the debate on the floor, the House of Representatives voted 228 to 164 to pass the MORE Act.
While this vote is historic and should certainly be celebrated, it is unfortunately a mostly symbolic win. During the Post-Election Analysis episode of the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, Andrew Kline, director of public policy at the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), told attendees that this bill always had strong support in the House, but not enough support in the Senate. “You know I think there is pretty much a 100% chance of it passing the House,” Kline said back in early November. “I don’t think they would’ve scheduled the vote if they didn’t have the votes.”
Kline told attendees that Republican priorities are most likely to blame when the MORE Act fails to get enough support in the Senate. “The bigger question is what happens when it reaches the Senate and I think it is all but dead when it gets there,” says Kline. “Mitch McConnell has been reluctant to move any legislation over the past four years. He’s really ignored most legislation and particularly any legislation he doesn’t like. He doesn’t like cannabis and it appears to me he barely even likes hemp. He’s really not even fighting for the hemp industry.”
While the MORE Act likely doesn’t have a chance in the Senate, it passing the House is still a monumental moment in cannabis legalization history. This marks the first time in 50 years that Congress has revisited cannabis prohibition, according to Justin Strekal, political director of NORML. “This is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States,” says Strekal. “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations – arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
Along with all of the success that cannabis had on Election Day, including five states legalizing it, the House passing this legislation is a symbol of shifting attitudes toward cannabis and serious progress on the federal legalization front.
The real question that should be asked is what will the 117th Congress do? If Democrats gain control in the Senate following the runoff elections in Georgia, it could reinvigorate the momentum behind this bill and offer a renewed breath of life.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the presidential and congressional election results.
While the votes continue to come in for the presidential and congressional elections and we have some concrete results materializing, cannabis legalization has emerged as a clear winner across the board. Five states had initiatives on the ballot to legalize cannabis in one form or another and voters in all five states approved those measures by wide margins.
As of this writing, 15 states now have legalized adult use cannabis and 36 states have legalized medical cannabis. That is a significant portion of the United States with some form of legal cannabis, even without counting the emergent hemp markets across the country.
After a tight race and mail-in vote counts diminishing President Trump’s lead days following the election, Joe Biden has won the White House. Most cannabis industry stakeholders see this as a win for cannabis as both Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris have voiced support for federal decriminalization of cannabis. The vocal support is very much so tied to their campaign on ending racial injustices and systemic racism, citing the failed war on drugs for disproportionately harming communities of color.
While it is looking like the Democrats will retain control of the House of Representatives, it is still unclear which party will control the Senate. That question likely won’t be answered until January 2021, when voters in Georgia will decide on two Senate seats in runoff elections that will decide which party gets the majority. With a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, it is entirely possible that the Biden administration could decriminalize cannabis on a federal level within the next four years. Without that majority, however, it is possible reform could come at a much slower pace.
As more states legalize cannabis, their neighbors see the potential economic benefits and want to cash in on the movement. Just take a look at the West Coast.
Well, New Jersey legalized adult use cannabis. So now it appears we are in a waiting game to see which neighboring state will move forward before the other. Alyssa Jank, consulting services manager at Brightfield Group, predicts cannabis sales in New Jersey to reach about $460 million in 2021, up from about $94 million this year. She says the market could reach $1.5 billion by 2025.
Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project, a division of HeadCount, says the New Jersey measure is pretty bare-bones, so the legislature will need to pass enabling legislation that actually creates the adult-use program. “It’s tough to tell exactly what that legislation will look like or how long it will take to pass, but it’s possible it will be approved pretty quickly,” says D’Arcangelo. “Tonight’s results could set off a domino effect that inspires lawmakers to move forward with legalization in a number of states throughout the region.”
Let’s take a closer look at Arizona: Back in 2016, Arizona had a measure on the ballot to legalize adult use cannabis that failed to get enough votes. Things have clearly changed in the state in the last four years because Prop. 207 (the 2020 ballot initiative to legalize adult use cannabis) won 59.8% to 40.2%. Arizona now joins a massive West Coast bloc of states slowly creeping inland that have legalized adult use cannabis, including, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and now Arizona, not to mention Montana. Drug Policy Alliance’s Emily Kaltenbach believes that New Mexico will follow suit as well, with three out of four voters in the state in favor of it.
Voters in Mississippi approved a medical cannabis program by a wide margin with almost 74% in favor. Even more encouraging, voters in the state rejected the legislature’s attempt to hijack the initiative with their own alternative measure that would have involved developing their own program as they see fit without any sort of deadline.
While Montana can tend to lean slightly Democrat, it is surrounded by heavily Republican-dominated states like Wyoming and Idaho. With both Montana and South Dakota voters approving adult use legalization measures, this presents a potential inroad for cannabis to reach far more conservative states in the Northern Rockies and beyond.
Greg Kaufman Partner at Eversheds Sutherland and frequent Cannabis Industry Journal contributor, says this election puts considerable pressure on Congress to take some action on one or more of the cannabis-related bills currently pending. “In several states, cannabis was more popular than the winning presidential candidate, regardless of the party of the winning candidate,” says Kaufman. “This suggests that cannabis is not a partisan issue, nor should it be.”
The 15 states that have legal adult use cannabis now represents about 34% of the population in our country. “During the most divisive election in modern U.S. history, Americans demonstrated unity around at least one issue – cannabis policy reform,” says Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association. He says the victories we saw this week are commendable and will lead to a lot of new jobs, tax revenue and thousands of fewer arrests, but there is still a lot of work to be done. “We look forward to building on this progress as we continue to work with Congress to end the conflict between outdated federal laws and the growing number of states with regulated cannabis markets, and help undo the racially and economically disparate harms caused by prohibition.”
While we wait to hear who will control the Senate in 2021, which will have a massive impact on cannabis reform, we leave you with this great quote from Aaron Smith: “There is still a lot of work to do, but the wind is at our backs.”
It was 1996. I was four years old. California Proposition 215 passed and for the first time, legal medical cannabis became available. I don’t remember it honestly, but that moment triggered a reckoning of outdated and ineffective efforts to control cannabis, which continues on November 3rd.
The moment in 1996 created for me and my generation of millennials a new, decriminalized lens for which to view cannabis and its potential. In my lifetime, from first experimenting with cannabis after high school and then earning my PhD in plant biochemistry, advancing cannabis research, to starting an agtech company dedicated to the genetic improvement of cannabis, we continue this march toward legalization. But another march hasn’t started yet.
The cannabis we consume today is still largely the same (albeit more potent today) as the cannabis that was legalized in 1996. There’s been little advancement in our scientific understanding of the plant. This can and should change. I believe the future and legitimacy of the cannabis crop in the medical field and in farmers’ fields is on the ballot this November.
In 33 states, medical cannabis is currently legal and in eleven of those, including my home states of Nevada and Washington, legalized adult-use recreational cannabis is generating millions in tax revenue every month. But compared to every other commercial crop, cannabis is still decades behind.
We are seeing a glacial cadence with cannabis research. As voters in five more states consider this November whether to legalize cannabis, that same tipping point we reached in 1996 comes closer to being triggered for cannabis research.
Here’s what cannabis scientists, like me, face as we work to apply real scientific methods to the long-neglected crop: I published one of the most cited papers on cannabis research last year, titled, Gene Networks Underlying Cannabinoid and Terpenoid Accumulation in Cannabis. But, as per university policy, we were unable to touch the plant during any of our research. We could not study the physical cannabis plant, extracts or any other substantive physical properties from the plant on campus or as a representative of the university. Instead we studied cannabis DNA processed through a third-party. Funding for the research came from private donors who were required to be unassociated with the cannabis industry.
While we were conducting our heavily restricted, bootstrapped cannabis research, the university lab in the next building over was experimenting with less restrictions on mice using other drugs: cocaine, opioids and amphetamines. (Quick note, marijuana is listed as more dangerous than cocaine, which is a Schedule II drug.)
I get it. Due to the federal prohibition on cannabis as a heavily regulated Schedule I drug, universities cannot fund research without the risk of losing all of their federal funding. While the USDA does not support research and SBIR grants are all but impossible, one government agency does allow research, from cannabis grown only in Mississippi. It’s the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and any research conducted using its crop is as ineffective as you’re imagining. Relevant research is likely impossible using the crop which dates back to a 1970’s strain with a potency that’s about 30 percent of today’s commercial cannabis offerings.
To change this anti-research climate, do what those in California did with Prop 215 in 1996. Vote.
Vote for legalization of cannabis if you’re in those five states where legalization is on the ballot; that’s Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota and Mississippi. The more states that align with cannabis legalization, the stronger the case becomes for the federal government to reschedule the drug from a Schedule I controlled substance. Currently cannabis is listed as a Schedule I alongside heroin. The DEA claims cannabis has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Both are not true, just listen to the scientists.
Those outside of the five states putting cannabis on the ballot can still play a role in creating a Congress that is more receptive to cannabis reform. This Congress is the oldest, one of the most conservative and least effective in our country’s history. Younger, more progressive representation will increase our odds of advancing cannabis research.
Cannabis holds far too much possibility for us to allow it to be an unstudied “ditch weed.” THC and CBD are just two of nearly 500 compounds found in cannabis which, when scientifically scrutinized will harvest – I believe – vast medicinal and commercial benefits and the tax windfalls that accompany both. But first you have to vote.
If cannabis and your representatives are not on the ballot, do something millennials have built somewhat of a reputation for failing to do; pick up a phone and call your current representative. Tell them cannabis deserves scientific attention and investment. There’s too much potential in the cannabis plant to wait any longer.
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