Do you remember last year at this time? We were celebrating the quiet passage of a federal government ban on medical marijuana. For a movement that began decades ago, this was seen as a major win. The measure forbids the federal government from using any of its resources to impede state medical marijuana laws, something Congress had rejected half a dozen times since the 1990s.
Looking back at 2015, a number of baby steps were taken to advance cannabis reform in the United States. Here’s an overview of some of the more significant activities.
1.State Legislation Overview. More states attempted to join the existing 23 states and Washington, D.C., where medical cannabis is already legal. Legislation to legalize medical marijuana failed in 18 states (Iowa, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia). Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia all passed pro-medical marijuana legislation—though this does not necessarily legalize its use.
As 2016 approaches, states continue to push for reform. Utah State legislature will consider two medical marijuana bills in early 2016. Recently, Kentucky Senator Perry Clark filed the Cannabis Freedom Act, which rolls medical and adult-use cannabis together in one bill, and if passed, would regulate cannabis just as Kentucky regulates alcohol. North Dakota’s secretary of state approved a medical cannabis petition that could put medical cannabis legalization on the 2016 state ballot. Pennsylvania and Florida both have legislation pending to legalize medical cannabis, and Florida Governor and Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush just declared his support for marijuana decriminalization. And, Rhode Island and Vermont may become the first states to legalize adult-use cannabis via legislative action rather than by popular vote (see #4).
2. Cannabis a Topic of 2016 Presidential Race. Presidential candidates are talking about marijuana reform. Candidates who stand out as pro-reform include Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Democrat Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—though other candidates are beginning to announce less strict views on reform and/or decriminalization. No one has been as steadfast as Sanders; to reinforce his stand, Senator Sanders introduced the Ending Federal Prohibition Act of 2015, a bill in November to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and to remove it from the Schedule 1 list of dangerous drugs.
3. Federal Legislation. In addition to Sanders’ bill, 13 additional federal bills/amendments were introduced in the House and/or Senate. Senators Rand Paul, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the CARERS Act of 2015 (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015), which would extend the principle of federalism to state drug policy, provide access to medical marijuana and enable medical cannabis research.
While these Federal bills are still in committee review, some saw related actions. In June, the Obama Administration removed the Public Health Service Review—a review that can take months to complete—from the overall federal requirements needed to conduct marijuana research; this was a reform included in the CARERS Act.
And, in November, the Senate approved funding for the Veterans Equal Access Act, which allows VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to patients in states where it is legal; funding will now be negotiated with the House’s version of the Act. This was the first time the U.S. Senate has ever voted on cannabis law reform.
4. Letting the People Vote on Adult-Use Cannabis. Ohio was potentially leading the way this year in legalizing adult-use cannabis by popular vote. The heavily criticized Ohio initiative would have created a monopoly of growers and citizens voted it down. A number of other states are looking at 2016 initiatives to legalize adult-use cannabis including Nevada (the only state that’s got an initiative on the ballot already), California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Michigan.
While the United States has taken baby steps toward cannabis reform, we watched as other countries passed medical and adult-use cannabis laws. Perhaps the most significant country to make headway was Canada. Soon after his win as Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau mandated a provision to “create a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana.”
When will the U.S. see major change in cannabis reform? No one can really answer that question. Throughout history we’ve seen the cannabis pendulum swing between prohibition and attempts at reform. While the activities to reform cannabis in 2015 actually look quite numerous, they have been baby steps toward a goal of complete reform and decriminalization.
January 2016 is a short two weeks away. We hold out hope that legislative bills reviewed in 2016, initiatives on next November ballots, and the actions of the next American President will be based on sound and fair regulations and that medical and adult-use cannabis will no longer be associated with high incarceration numbers, outdated stereotypes, and misuse.
That’s a lot to hope for. It’s sure to be an interesting year for cannabis reform.