Marijuana Slows Down in 2020, but Outlook Remains Bright

By FOCUS, a Leonine Business

Marijuana legislation was looking to have another banner year in 2020 – during this legislative session alone, at least 1,400 marijuana related bills were introduced, with nearly 300 of these bills taking effect. However, in March the nation was swept up by the COVID-19 crisis, causing nearly everything, including state legislatures, to shut their doors.

With state legislatures closed or operating on a limited basis, governors took the lead in issuing executive orders to control state policy direction during the crisis. As such, marijuana policy issues moved largely from the legislative to the executive branch. Predictably, no governor went as far as to legalize marijuana via executive fiat, though many did opt to label marijuana businesses as essential during the lockdown, allowing many to keep operating and in some cases thrive during the crisis. With lawmakers gone for the foreseeable future, however, this was the extent of major policy advancements during the lockdown period.

With the exception of Vermont, which sent SB 54, a bill creating a legal marijuana market, to Republican Gov. Phil Scott in September, state legislatures and governors have never been the driving force in marijuana policy. The movement has always been a grassroots effort powered by citizens and ballot initiatives in particular.

2020 is no different, with several major ballot initiatives pending for the coming November elections which may turn around the overall disappointing year for marijuana in state capitols. Legalization is on the ballot in three states, while medical marijuana is on the ballot in two. Two Nebraska initiatives on recreational and medical legalization were struck down and stripped from the ballot by the state supreme court earlier this year. The ballot initiatives this year include:

  • Arizona Proposition 207, which would allow for the possession, use and cultivation of marijuana by adults, impose a 16 percent excise tax on marijuana and would allow for the expungement of marijuana offences.
  • Mississippi Ballot Measure 1, which would offer voters a choice between two medical marijuana initiatives: Initiative 65 and Initiative 65A. While Initiative 65 was a voter-referred referendum, Initiative 65A was offered by the state legislature as an alternative to voters. Initiative 65 would specify 22 qualifying conditions, limit possession to 2.5 ounces, prohibit smoking of marijuana in public places and establish a seven percent sales tax. Initiative 65A contains no specific details related to any of the aforementioned issues.
  • Twoinitiatives in Montana, Cl-118 and I-190. Cl-118 would amend the state constitution to allow the state legislature, or the people by initiative, to establish a legal age for purchasing, consuming or possessing marijuana. I-190 would legalize the possession and use of marijuana for adults over age 21, impose a 20 percent tax on marijuana, and allow for the expungement of marijuana offenses.
  • New Jersey Public Question 1, which would amend the state constitution to legalize the possession and use of marijuana by those 21 or older, and legalize the cultivation, processing and sale of retail marijuana.
  • Two South Dakota measures, Constitutional Amendment A and Initiated Measure 26. Constitutional Amendment A would legalize the possession and recreational use of marijuana for those 21 and older, provide for the use of medical marijuana and legalize the sale of hemp. Initiated measure 26 would establish a medical marijuana program in the state.

At the federal level, HR 3884 is scheduled be voted on in the House after the November elections – a major milestone for a federal marijuana decriminalization bill. The bill is expected to pass the House, but almost certainly die in the Senate. Still, should Democrats retake the Senate in November’s elections, the outlook for similar legislation in 2021 would be bright.

Pro-marijuana advocates in states with conservative legislatures should be wary of any victories at the ballot box. However, in recent years such states have grown hostile towards citizen-initiated ballot measures, taking steps to curtail their use and even roll-back measures passed at the ballot box. Similar treatment should be expected of any marijuana policies passed that the state legislature does not favor.