FEATURENovember 23, 2016
The dust is officially settling on a heartbreaking win for hatred and bigotry in the United States, and the nation as well as the world are starting to come to terms with what our future now holds. But while the presidential and congressional elections yielded terrifying results, there were some state-level victories on November 8.
In particular, some significant strides were made for marijuana reform.
Nine states had marijuana measures up for a vote: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all had recreational legislation on the ballot, while Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota voted on medicinal marijuana. Of those nine, all but one passed measures to loosen restrictions on cannabis use.
As a result, 28 states and Washington DC now have some form of legalized marijuana, with another three to be added after their approved election day measures are implemented.
This progress is important for a number of reasons, including how it will impact communities of color that have been hit the hardest by marijuana arrests. But these wins have also been tempered by questions about how this issue will be impacted by the Trump presidency.
Meanwhile, states that approved reform are grappling with enduring opposition and questions about loopholes and implementation.
A Primer On 2016 Marijuana Reform
Let’s start with the worst weed news: Arizona, a highly conservative state overall, shocked nobody by rejecting Proposition 205, which would have legalized marijuana for recreational use. AZ Central reported that some Republicans who voted against the proposition did so because they worried about people driving while high, while others said they are not fans of how recreational legalization has played out in Colorado. (For the record, Colorado amassed more than $129 million in marijuana taxes in the 2015 fiscal year, all of which is allocated for schools.)
Not surprisingly, 56.5% of California voters passed Proposition 64—aka the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA)—to legalize recreational marijuana use. But this change won’t happen swiftly, or comprehensively; state licensing of retail outlets won’t start until January 1, 2018, and local jurisdictions will still be allowed to ban sales in their communities.
Still, it’s a promising move, especially in a state that has jailed many for marijuana possession over the years (more on that in a bit).
Voters in Maine voted to approve Question 1, a measure that will now allow people over 21 to possess small amounts of cannabis for personal use. But the Yes victory isn’t necessarily locked down. The leader of the group opposed to legalization requested a recount on the proposition last week; if this happens, it could take a month to conduct, and cost the state $500,000.
Maine’s Question 1 is also seeing opposition from an unexpected source: the medical marijuana community. Some in the medical marijuana crowd have concerns that the recreational industry could displace the medical cannabis system, according to the Associated Press.
Marijuana will become legal for recreational use on December 15, thanks to a majority “yes” vote on the state’s Question 4 on election day. “Voters chose to control marijuana rather than to continue forcing it into the underground market. Hopefully, Massachusetts will establish a system that can serve as an example for neighboring states, and others around the country,” Mason Tvert with the Washington DC-based Marijuana Policy Project told the Boston Globe.
The state passed the bill amid opposition from governor Charlie Baker, who expressed concerns about legalizing weed while the state struggles to deal with an opioid epidemic, according to the Globe.
In Nevada, 54.4% of voters voted in favor of Question 2, legalizing marijuana for adults 21 years old and up for recreational use. Nevadans will be able to ring in the new year on January 1 with up to an ounce of weed thanks to the new law. The state will have a full year to work out how they will regulate the law’s implementation, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Arkansas, defying its conservative reputation, voted to legalize medical marijuana on election day. Now that the state’s Issue 6 on medical marijuana has been passed, doctors will be able to prescribe patients cannabis for a variety of illnesses.
Not surprisingly, though, conservatives in the state are none too happy about this decision. Jerry Cox, president of the conservative education and research group The Family Council, released a statement about Issue 6 saying, “A clever and grossly misleading advertising campaign funded by the marijuana industry deceived enough people into voting for a measure that is recreational marijuana masquerading as medicine.”
Floridians voted in favor of approving medical marijuana for a variety of conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, and HIV/ AIDS. The Miami Herald reports that Amendment 2 received a whopping 71% approval from voters, far surpassing the 60% approval the Amendment needed to pass.
Medical marijuana dispensaries in Montana were forced to close down following a Supreme Court order in August, but will now be able to reopen and operate legally thanks to voters passing Initiative 182 on election day. The Flathead Beacon reports that the implementation of the initiative means doctors will have more freedom to prescribe medical marijuana to their patients (they were previously flagged for prescribing cannabis to more than 25 patients per year).
North Dakotans passed Measure 5 on election day, legalizing medical marijuana, but the Bismarck Tribune reports that it could be around a year before any dispensaries open up shop. Rilie Ray Morgan, who is chairman of the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act Committee, told the Bismarck Tribune, “We’re a ways away from seeing a dispensary up and running. It’s going to take awhile to get the (Health Department) up to speed and a legislative appropriation, so it’s not going to be happening overnight. At least we got the ball rolling.”
These decisions are crucial for a number of well-known reasons—like the fact that more people will now have access to effective treatment for their ailments, and that these states will see a boon in funding from taxes (tax rates range from 3.75%, in Massachusetts, to 15%, in Nevada).
But perhaps the most important impact will be on communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests.
What Does This Mean For Mass Incarceration?
Deborah Small, founder of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, spoke with DemocracyNow! in the days leading up to the election, and told the program that with additional legalization, law enforcement would be disempowered from using marijuana as a reason to arrest and imprison people of color.
Across the board, this will hopefully mean fewer senseless and unjust marijuana arrests. The ACLU reports that in 2010, black people were, on average, about four times more likely to be busted for marijuana charges than white people, despite the fact that both black and white people use and sell marijuana at approximately equal rates.
In California, where voters passed Proposition 64, nearly half a million people were arrested for marijuana possession between 2006 and 2015, many of whom were minorities. Now, those who have been arrested and imprisoned for marijuana charges in the state can take action. Said Small:
“[A]ll the people who have previous marijuana convictions for things that no longer would be crimes under California law will be able to apply to have their records expunged. And people who are currently in jail for marijuana-related charges will be able to go to court and petition for release. And to me, as a person who’s focused on the impact of drug law enforcement and marijuana law enforcement on communities of color, this retroactive part is really important because of all of the ways in which an arrest record continues to haunt people throughout the rest of their lives.”
While this represents significant progress, it’s important to note that many still see more work to do. In a statement sent to The Establishment, California Cannabis Activists says that while AUMA is a step in the right direction, it’s still not enough:
“As policy and regulation is written and implemented, CCA would like to see a statewide educational campaign funded by the AUMA campaign chest which introduces communities of color to medical cannabis and the potential benefits for their community. We would also like to see municipalities make an effort to not continue the discrimination of prohibition to continue into the regulated era—this includes equity programs for people of color and convicted felons, small business loans for people of color, and, if necessary, affirmative action to ensure minorities are not shut out of business ownership.”
Other states that have passed reform are also poised to see an impact on their prison system. In Massachusetts, for instance, the state’s ACLU branch issued a statement in the lead-up to the election about how reform would address a racist disparity in sentencing—in the state, black people are three times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession.
All that said, in the wake of this progress, a question looms: How will the Trump presidency potentially impact this issue on a federal level?
Marijuana Reform In The Trump Era
The president-elect hasn’t said too much about marijuana, and when it has come up, he’s been vague. The Marijuana Policy Project, which gives Trump a C+ rating on his weed policies, notes that Trump told Bill O’Reilly there’s both good and bad to medical marijuana legalization.
In 2015, Trump said that weed laws should be decided on a state-by-state basis, according to the Washington Post. This leads one to believe Trump will let marijuana be a state issue. The problem with this approach? Federal action is needed for reclassification of marijuana, and to ensure that legal use at the state level does not get prosecuted federally.
But as Small told DemocracyNow!, her organization believes:
“[T]hat the federal government will have to change, because this is a train that has left the station. The people are clearly in support of this. And so, the major problem is to get Congress and our federal officials to actually begin to, you know, accede to the demands of the people around this area.”
Naturally, these state-level victories for marijuana feel hollow compared to what we now face as a nation under a president Trump—but perhaps they provide some hope that progress is possible in dark times.
Read our three-part series on the impacts of marijuana reform on the marginalized here.
Lead image: flickr/retinafunk