Legalization Activists Look to Salvage 2020’s “Dream Map”

By Hilary Corrigan
May 28, 2020

The pandemic stalled marijuana ballot initiatives and legislation across the U.S., but it also sped up marijuana policy.

“We’ve had fascinating regulatory shifts,” Brian Vicente, founding partner of Denver cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, said during a Wednesday webinar hosted with the Marijuana Policy Project.

Rapid Change

Vicente sees many encouraging signs in the industry’s fast track from illegal to essential.

Governors in both liberal and conservative states deemed cannabis businesses essential. This included every state with MED and all but one of the 13 REC states. (In Massachusetts, they re-opened on Memorial Day.) The essential designation applied not just to dispensaries, but also to the growers and manufacturers. 

Other rules have loosened, including for caregivers and patients. States have allowed online business license renewals and extensions, and have eased restrictions on new hires. (The industry continues to hire amid the worst job losses since the Great Depression.)

The pandemic prompted five new states and Washington, D.C., to allow delivery. And 28 states quickly allowed curbside pickup. That fast rollout occurred despite laws usually requiring sales to take place within a building.

“It’s simply remarkable,” Vicente said after the webinar.

Sea change?

He also sees what he describes as an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate marijuana reform. State and local governments will have a “dire need of funding,” and marijuana offers a new revenue line for them, he said.

“Where is this gonna go?” he asked. “Are they gonna put the genie back in the bottle?”

Vicente expects to see a lot of these policies stick. But he encouraged advocates to get involved and show how marijuana-related jobs and tax revenue can help lead the country’s economic recovery. With so many people online so much of the time, he said it’s easier to send emails and connect with elected officials.

After the webinar, he praised officials in dozens of states. Working for years on cannabis policy, “I kind of always expect a fight,” he said, recalling how regulators in the past have sort of begrudgingly licensed businesses. But regulators and elected officials increasingly accept that the industry is not going away and even view it as essential.

“I think there’s a sea change going on,” Vicente said, adding that elected officials are primed now to talk about state laws to open new markets and about ways to help these businesses thrive.

Several ballots push on

The pandemic took a toll on legalization efforts throughout the U.S.

Ballot initiatives have made up a “huge component of our success as a movement” because voters more readily approve the measures than legislators do, MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich said at the webinar. The trend has been that first MED passes, then REC, after people see how the policies work.

This year started with ballot initiatives in Idaho (MED), North Dakota (REC), South Dakota  (MED and REC), Montana (REC), Nebraska (MED), Arizona (REC), Ohio (REC), Mississippi (MED), Arkansas (REC), Missouri (REC), Oklahoma (REC), New Jersey (REC) and Florida (REC).

“This map was the dream,” Schweich said.

Now, COVID and funding challenges have left six initiatives MPP considers viable. They are Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Nebraska, Mississippi and New Jersey. Arkansas’ effort has also continued, but has a ways to go to gain enough signatures.

The New Jersey state legislature put the REC measure on the ballot, so it required no signatures. Mississippi and South Dakota had the signatures before COVID arrived. Arizona’s REC vote appears on track to reach the ballot. Schweich is “cautiously optimistic” on Montana’s REC vote. The MED push in Nebraska is still trying.

Proponents in Montana and other states had sought, and generally did not receive, relief to extend the deadline or collect digital signatures. Instead, signature collectors have implemented safety protocols to continue collecting. Some have used digital efforts, such as having people print petitions to sign and mail in.

State legislatures

About half U.S. states have no ballot initiative process, so the only way to legalize there is through state legislatures and governors. That generally entails a slow process, with lots of opportunities to kill bills.

The pandemic derailed legislative efforts in several states including REC in New York and Connecticut, both states with supportive governors. MED bills also stalled in Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina.

Legislative measures in Vermont and New Hampshire could still be viable, although Karen O’Keefe, MPP’s director of state policies, doubts New Hampshire’s Republican governor would approve legislation there. She pointed to a real possibility that legalization efforts could advance legislatively next year in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Virginia.

After the webinar, O’Keefe called legislators’ efforts to support business operations a stamp of approval. Before designating cannabis “essential,” many governors and legislators had not needed to act on marijuana policy before. Most of the legalization has stemmed from voters approving ballot initiatives.

O’Keefe also has solid hopes for this year’s election, saying it is “still going to be one of the better years” for reform. “It could still be a very big year, but it should’ve been maybe double this.”