Additional states seeking to legalize cannabis: Learn from the mistakes of others

“’Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

– Otto Von Bismark

Many additional states are starting to get high on cannabis legalization. But many states with laws already passed are facing significant implementation challenges. Leaders of the new states would do well to learn from the mistakes of other jurisdictions.

2020 was a resoundingly good year for cannabis

The 2020 election season was a resounding success for the cannabis industry.  Around the country, 5 states passed initiatives for recreational and medical marketplaces. California saw 32 of 35 pro-cannabis local measures pass and become law.  And of course, the Democrats won the White House and both houses of Congress, which will open up new doors at the federal level in the near future.  Even before the elections, cannabis was declared to be an essential industry in numerous states.  This solidified the legitimacy of the cannabis industry within the entire fabric of American society.

In the aftermath of these successes, many new states are discussing and planning their own legalization campaigns.  The Pennsylvania governor has included legalization in his list of priorities for 2021, and his lieutenant governor has demonstrated even more fervent support for legalization.  Next door to Pennsylvania, Governor Cuomo of New York has submitted a legalization proposal as part of his 2021 State of the State, and the legislature seems to be on board.  Also in favor of moving to legalize now are Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

If you aren’t catching the pattern here, it is looking like the entire Northeast of the United States will join the entire west coast with fully legal recreational cannabis marketplaces.  This may come to fruition by the end of the year.  Meanwhile, many other states across the country are having similar conversations, and are progressing at various speeds.

What the Federal Government is up to

At the same time, all eyes really should be on the federal government.  The federal government’s treatment of cannabis is responsible for nearly all of the struggles of the cannabis industry.  By changing its treatment of cannabis, the federal government could change the entire landscape of the industry nationwide.  There has been a shifting attitude at the federal level for many years, and while things slowed down under Trump, 2020 was not without progress.  We saw transparency regarding cannabis cultivation for research purposes, and IRS guidance related to Section 280E.  We saw the passage of the MORE ACT in the House of Representatives, and the election of a president who has promised decriminalization and expungements. The Biden administration has a far more favorable position on cannabis legalization and will make progress in the right direction.

However, we cannot forget that the federal government has always moved frustratingly slow on cannabis.  While we wait, states can make their own moves, but not everything is an easy rollout.  In fact, historically, cannabis legalization with newly passed legislation has been painstakingly difficult.  In South Dakota, the entire constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis is under scrutiny in a massive lawsuit filed with the intent of nullifying the whole thing.  The same thing has happened in Mississippi, where arguments are scheduled for April before the Mississippi Supreme Court.  And in New Jersey, efforts to agree on a bill for the framework of the recreational marketplace have completely collapsed.

Let’s not forget that the OG states aren’t without problems either, none more so than California.  The BCC was recently shut down in court over an advertising highway billboard ban (and had to cough up $150K in attorneys’ fees to the opposing party).  They also lost a lawsuit which allowed localities to entirely ban retail deliveries.  The California agency continues to trudge through the snail-paced merger between the three regulatory agencies that oversee cannabis statewise.  In short, California continues to have more than its fair share of problems.

Takeaway

While these new jurisdictions may be exuberant about joining the cannabis legalization movement, caution is required to avoid obvious hurdles that have affected other states.  Learn the lessons that other jurisdictions are teaching.  Moving too quickly, without considering the specific nuances that apply to each state, is a recipe for disaster.  (See Nebraska’s 2020 ballot measure, which didn’t even make it onto the ballot due its wording).  But at the same time, progress is important. The truth is, that as we embark on a new decade, we really are at a tipping point.  The movement of legalization is getting strong enough, and the numbers in favor of a major change are getting large enough.  If we learned anything from the Reddit vs Wall Street war, its that grassroots organizing and collective action can take on institutions and win.  We can actually make the change we all want to happen.  We just need to do it carefully.

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