2020 was a disaster in so many ways. But it was a surprisingly good year for political progress on cannabis, as well as drug reform in general. In the midst of the pandemic, the fires, and divisive presidential election, we also saw big wins for cannabis advocacy, and signs that both public and governmental support for cannabis reform is on the rise. So what does all of this mean for the future? Read on to learn what we know so far.
In the United States elections this past November, voters turned out to support new cannabis legislation throughout the country. Voters in Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, and South Dakota voted to legalize adult use cannabis. These weren’t close races either, they passed with overwhelming margins, showing just how much support there is for cannabis legalization. There are now 15 states which allow for legal recreational use of cannabis. Medical cannabis also saw big wins in November. Mississippi and South Dakota both legalized medical cannabis, bringing the total number of states with legal medical cannabis up to 36. In another first, South Dakota became the first state to have recreational and medical cannabis approved at the same time.
In this year’s election, we also saw drug reform wins beyond cannabis. Voters in Oregon and Washington D.C. voted to allow for the legal therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms.
Oregon also decriminalized possession of small amounts of any drug, including psychedelics like MDMA or LSD, and harder drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. Instead of jail time, these violations will now incur a fine or require the offender to go through a drug treatment program.
These changes, while seemingly small on a national scale, signal a shift to a new paradigm, one where voters are embracing cannabis, expanding their idea of what is considered medicine, and beginning to think of hard drug addiction as a medical issue rather than a crime.
Polls have also reflected these changes. A recent poll from Gallup found that 68% of Americans now support making cannabis completely legal - a number that has doubled over the last 20 years. A poll from YouGov.com also found that 70% of Americans support expunging cannabis related convictions, while only 17% opposed. They also found that the support was bipartisan. The majority of Democrats (81%), Independents (69%) and Republicans (57%) supported expungement.
It’s not just voters who are putting their support behind cannabis. A new act sponsored by Vice President elect Kamala Harris, the MORE Act, could help make big changes on issues like expungement. The MORE Act, or Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, would decriminalize cannabis and expunge nonviolent federal cannabis convictions. If passed by Congress, it would also remove cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, allow veterans to get medical cannabis recommendations from their Veteran Affairs doctors, reinvest in communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, and provide opportunities for ownership in the legal cannabis industry.
In a historic vote, The House of Representatives voted in favor of the MORE Act. 222 Democrats and 5 Republicans supported the bill, while 158 Republicans and 6 Democrats voted against it.
“This is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States” explained Justin Strekal, Political Director for cannabis advocacy group NORML. “This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally prohibited substance and sought to close the rapidly widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies."
The MORE Act is unlikely to become law. It still needs to be approved by the Senate, and with Republicans in control, they are unlikely to do so. Still, even if it doesn’t ultimately pass through Congress, advocates like Strekal say this unprecedented governmental support for cannabis reform is another important step in the path to federal reform.
Strekal says that “by establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations -- arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
Still, some hope does remain that the MORE Act could be passed. One route to victory for the MORE Act would be if the Democrats regained control of the Senate, and that could happen if they turn out for the Georgia runoff elections being held on January 5th. Two Senate seats are up for reelection in Georgia. In November, no candidates had at least 50% of the votes, which is required by state law. So in the January runoffs, two Republican incumbents will face off against two Democratic challengers.
While Republicans could maintain their slim majority in the Senate if one or both of their candidates win, if both Democratic challengers were to win it would create a 50/50 split. In that case, Vice President elect Kamala Harris would have the deciding vote. Since Harris is sponsoring the MORE Act, she would almost certainly vote in its favor should she need to break a tie.
We have also seen victories for cannabis beyond the United States this year. Based on recommendations first made by the World Health Organization, the United Nations voted this month to reclassify cannabis out of the Schedule IV category for the world’s most dangerous drugs. Schedule IV includes highly addictive opioids like heroin. Drugs in these categories are considered "highly addictive and highly liable for abuse." They're also considered to be "particularly harmful and of extremely limited medical or therapeutic value."
The vote was a close 27 to 25, with countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, South Africa and Germany voting in favor of the change. Meanwhile countries such as China, Russia, Japan, Iraq, Egypt and Brazil voted against it.
While cannabis is still in a controlled category, and the change won’t directly impact cannabis laws in countries who are a part of the UN, the move to deschedule brings recognition to cannabis’ potential for medical use. It also acknowledges that governments are no longer seeing cannabis as the highly dangerous drug they once did. With scientific and cultural developments over the last 60 years, the way we view cannabis is shifting - not just in the US, but in communities across the globe.
So what does it all mean? While we are unlikely to have legal cannabis nationally (or internationally) for quite some time, public support is growing, and representatives in the government are taking notice. Major policy reform is a long slow road, and cannabis advocates have been publicly pushing for reforms for the last 50 years. We aren’t there yet, but we are closer than we ever have been. With public and governmental support for cannabis at an all time high, one thing is very clear: even small victories can add up to big changes in the scope of history.