This Election Could Determine the Future of Pot in America

This Election Could Determine the Future of Pot in America

Nearly 20 percent of states will make a decision about marijuana policy on Election Day

The future of pot policy in America hinges heavily on the election this year. Marijuana law reform is on the ballot in nine states, and has momentum at the federal level in the form of several bills pending in Congress, including ones to deschedule cannabis, reschedule cannabis, legalize hemp and prioritize research trials.

California, Arizona, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts will vote on adult-use pot legalization on Election Day, while North Dakota, Arkansas, Montana and Florida are considering medical marijuana. Combined, these states comprise about a quarter of the country's population. With widespread support across the nation – 57 percent of U.S. adults say weed should be legal – the issue of marijuana policy reform has achieved bipartisan regard, prompting active discussion among both laymen and legislators.

Nearly 20 percent of states will be deciding on drug policy this election – "a reflection of the fact that we've long passed the tipping point [and] that marijuana advocacy has evolved and matured in the past few years," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. But on the flip side, he says, it also represents a failure of the democratic process, since elected (federal) officials have yet to enact marijuana policy reform comporting with what polling indicates are their constituents' increasingly progressive views.

"If an overwhelming number of states that have marijuana-specific initiatives on the ballot pass those measures, that could be interpreted by federal lawmakers as a mandate," says Armentano. "But if several of them do not pass, then it is likely that lawmakers will continue to be reluctant to address marijuana law reform at the federal level."

Experts, including Drug Policy Action's Michael Collins and Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell, agree that California and Florida may be the two most critical states voting on cannabis. They think the initiatives in those states have a decent chance of passing.

California's size, economy, cultural influence and political gravitas – the state commands 55 seats in Congress – makes its approach to marijuana legalization an example for other states and federal legislators. With provisions dictating cannabis tax revenue allocation, environmental protection, community assessment, monopoly offsets, juvenile drug education and the cleansing of criminal records for marijuana convicts, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Proposition 64, which would legalize weed for adults over 21, has been called the gold standard for legalization. Despite opposition from law enforcement, pot growers against over-regulation and those fearful of Big Marijuana, Prop 64 is expected to pass, polling between 51 and 71 percent with California voters.

Florida's Amendment 2 is the state's second attempt at legalizing medical marijuana. As an amendment to Florida's constitution, it requires a 60 percent majority to pass; it's currently polling over 70 percent. If Amendment 2 passes, qualifying patients with "debilitating medical conditions," such as cancer or epilepsy, would be allowed to purchase medical marijuana from licensed "medical marijuana treatment centers," each responsible for all steps from seed to sale: cultivation, transportation, distribution, retail and so on.

Florida already has a very limited medical marijuana law, allowing only a tiny fraction of patients access to medicine in pill, injection or vaporized form. Under the state's CBD-only law, medical marijuana can have no more than 0.8 percent THC, though a few patients can get strains with slightly higher levels from state-licensed dispensaries. In 2014, an amendment similar to Amendment 2, aiming to expand the state's medical marijuana program, had failed.

If Amendment 2 passes, Florida would become the first Southern state to have a comprehensive medical marijuana program, says Tom Angell. Florida is also significant because it has a large population and is a critical presidential swing state.

The rest of the adult-use legalization initiatives on the ballot November 8th – Arizona's Prop 205 , Maine's Question 1, Massachusetts' Question 4 and Nevada's Question 2 – would tax retail sales of pot to adults 21 and over. In Arizona and Nevada, the polling is virtually even between support and opposition, while the measures in Maine and Massachusetts are polling between 55 and 40 percent, and 53 and 38 percent, respectively, according to Armentano. (Massachusetts opponents concerned about the 3.75 percent excise tax on sales, atop the 6.25 percent state sales tax, have taken to calling the state "Taxachusetts.") 

"It's important for at least one of the Northeastern states, if not both, to be successful," says Armentano. "The Northeast has been fairly progressive with regard to marijuana policy." Every state in the region has an active medical marijuana program and, except for New Hampshire, has also decriminalized cannabis. So not taking action would be regressive.

The four medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot vary in lenience and the limitations they'd impose on patients, but each is more restrictive than loose medical programs such as California's. Florida aside, the states considering medical marijuana are heavily Republican. If they pass medical marijuana, that bodes will for medical marijuana reform at the federal level, says Michael Collins.

"The end game in terms of medical marijuana prohibition is very much in sight," says Collins. Congressional leadership will determine how far cannabis legislation can get, with the worst-case scenario being no movement on pending bills, and the best case being to deschedule medical marijuana, he says. The chances of a best-case scenario are better if Democrats dominate the Senate, though there's energy among Republicans, as well.

For instance, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley is up for re-election. While he's voted against marijuana-related reforms, Grassley has spoken up in support of states' rights to do as they please with regard to pot. Other notables up for re-election include Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, who's stated support for enforcing federal law in marijuana-legal states, and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk who's up against Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth. Kirk has spoken out against cannabis and its use among veterans, while Duckworth is a veteran and supportive of marijuana law reform.

As for the presidential race, frontrunner Hillary Clinton has promised to make marijuana a Schedule II drug. Rescheduling would acknowledge pot's "accepted medical use" and clear up issues with regard to federal banking and tax deductions for cannabis businesses. In concordance with Clinton's position, pending federal legislation such as the CARERS Act aims to reschedule cannabis, facilitate research, protect patient access in green states, alleviate federal banking issues and allow access to medical marijuana for veterans in any green state.

But drug policy reformers would much prefer to see cannabis descheduled, rather than rescheduled. "Rescheduling cannabis does little to significantly loosen the grasp of federal prohibition or to make herbal cannabis readily accessible for clinical study," says Armentano. Federal prohibition burdens taxpayers, encroaches on civil liberties, disproportionately affects people of color and engenders disrespect for the law, he says.

He has hope that descheduling is in our future. "Momentum is at our backs," he says.

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