As coronavirus begins to take its toll in the U.S., many states have embraced social distancing to slow its spread. State legislatures are pausing or adjourning sessions, allowing for remote voting and otherwise modifying their procedures and schedules. At the same time, many cannabis policy reform bills are pending.
Polls reveal that 67% of Americans support legalizing cannabis and about 90% support cannabis use for medical purposes. It’s obvious that very few Americans agree with the current federal policy. Lawmakers are getting the message that their constituents are looking for sensible cannabis policies.
Legalizing medical cannabis use
On February 20, Kentucky’s House of Representatives passed a medical cannabis bill in a 65-30 vote. This was the first time the full House voted on such a bill. The bill is now with the Senate Judiciary Committee but the chairman has not decided whether he will hold a hearing on the bill or not.
On March 13, Alabama’s Senate approved a medical cannabis bill, SB165. It now heads to the House, where the speaker has not committed to giving it a vote. Polling shows that 75% of Alabama voters support medical cannabis but it doesn’t have a citizen initiative process so state lawmakers have to pass the bill.
Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin are other states considering legalizing medical cannabis.
Some voters will have the opportunity to consider medical cannabis issues themselves where initiatives have qualified for the November 2020 ballot. Mississippi and South Dakota have qualified and drives are underway in Nebraska and Idaho but it is not yet clear how coronavirus will affect them.
Legalizing and regulating cannabis similarly to alcohol
Cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, but by the beginning of 2020, ten states have already passed laws to legalize and regulate cannabis in a similar way to alcohol: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
Illinois was the first state to pass such a law in 2020, becoming the 10th state in the country and the second one in the Midwest to do so. It was not by ballot initiative like the other states mentioned above. There are only 23 states that allow ballot initiatives, so, in most states, the only way to reform laws is via the legislature.
Decriminalizing simple possession
Possession of cannabis in Virginia is currently a criminal offense that’s punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500. The new bill makes possession of an ounce or less of cannabis punishable by a $25 fine. This important reform protects patients from being arrested or prosecuted for possessing their medical cannabis.
There are 13 states – Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – that have decriminalization bills.
Legalizing adult cannabis use
Lawmakers and voters in states where legalization of cannabis narrowly failed in 2019 will be considering the question this year. Some states that could legalize it for adult use in 2020 are New York, New Mexico, Arizona, and New Jersey.
In New York, the push for legalizing cannabis for adult use continues in 2020. A legalization bill failed last year due to a rift between the governor and state lawmakers over how the tax revenue would be allocated. Negotiations over the details continue and if an agreement is reached, the legalization bill is likely to be passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature.
The House passed a bill to legalize cannabis in New Mexico last year but it stalled in the state Senate. The governor is making it a priority to legalize cannabis but it’s not yet clear whether the legislature will pass legalization legislation in 2020 or not.
On March 2 in Connecticut, a public hearing on legislation to legalize and regulate adult use of cannabis was held by the Judiciary Committee. The Capitol and Legislature Office Buildings are closed until April 13 and the deadline for moving the bill out of committee is likely to be extended from March 30 due to the lockdown.
Arizona residents are likely to have the question appear on the ballot again as cannabis legalization was narrowly rejected in a 2016 ballot measure. A legalization initiative had already received 150,000 votes by mid-January.
On February 3, in New Hampshire, the House voted to recommend passage of a bill that legalizes possession and cultivation of cannabis, although it doesn’t legalize sales.
In Vermont, where cannabis possession is legal but not sales, the governor may be open to legalizing sales.
New Jersey lawmakers voted in December to put the question on the ballot and voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that, if approved, would legalize possession and regulated sales of cannabis.
Those who support the legalization of cannabis argue that it prevents the harms caused by prohibition, such as arrests, racial disparities behind arrests, and billions of dollars that flow from illicit markets to drug cartels.
Legalization advocates say that this outweighs the potential downsides of legalization, such as increased cannabis use. Opponents believe that legalization enables a huge industry where cannabis is marketed irresponsibly and could result in more cannabis use with negative health consequences.
A final word
The fact that cannabis is legal under many state laws but still illegal under federal law creates many hurdles, from taxing and banking to interstate commerce. President Trump has opposed federal legalization and has opted to let the states decide for themselves.
The higher polling Democratic candidates all support the legalization of cannabis. Legalization is very popular nationwide, according to the polls, and activists, and lawmakers to becoming very serious about the topic. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, states could certainly use the economic growth and tax revenue that comes from legalizing cannabis, rather than spending it on cannabis prohibition.