WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Marijuana saw major milestones in 2018 despite its continued classification by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug.
From medical marijuana programs seeping into more conservative parts of the country to the opening of the first marijuana retail stores on the East Coast, reefer madness is at an all-time high in the United States. Sixty-two percent of Americans support marijuana's legalization, according to a new Pew Center Research study.
"It's a signal to future administrations, even if it's not ultimately a signal to the Trump administration, that cannabis reform is here to stay."
And that's not all. Here's a review of major marijuana policy initiatives that took place in 2018.
A green wave
"This was a really big year for cannabis, as the existing industry really began to grow," said John Hudak, an expert in state and federal marijuana policy at Brookings.
Voters headed to the polls in November to vote on a range of marijuana policy initiatives. There was an indication of a green wave, with conservative parts of the country, such as Utah and Missouri, implementing medical marijuana initiatives.
Despite opposition from a powerful figure in Utah—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the majority of Utahns responded "Yes" to Proposition 2 on Election Day.
However, nearly a month later in December, the state legislature enacted the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, a medical marijuana program not approved by voters. Legislators, according to Circa affiliate KUTV-TV, revised the voter-approved initiative to include the blocking of some marijuana edibles and prohibiting people from growing their own cannabis, even if they live far from a dispensary.
The changes were made, according to Speaker of the Utah House Greg Hughes, to bridge a divide between the Mormon Church and Proposition 2 supporters. That decision—to make key changes to a voter-approved bill—remain controversial, with individuals coming forward to file suit against Gov. Gary Herbert.
The medical marijuana program that went into effect in Missouri in early December was less contentious, but still faces challenges, with supporters saying dispensaries selling cannabis likely won't open until 2020.
Two other states brought upon policy changes before the midterm election. Vermont became the first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana through its state legislature, while the deeply red state of Oklahoma became the 30th state to approve a medical marijuana program.
There was also a green wave from a global perspective. Canada joined Uraguay in becoming the second country in the world to legalize adult use.
"I think it shows that mature, large nations—nations that the United States sees as peers—can reform cannabis, and likely can do it well," Hudak told Circa.
"It's a signal to future administrations, even if it's not ultimately a signal to the Trump administration, that cannabis reform is here to stay. It's the future, and it can be done effectively in a large, powerful economy, and in a stable democracy."
Open for business
Marijuana went financially mainstream in 2018. Canadian company Tilray Inc. became the first cannabis stock to go public on the Nasdaq in July.
"The mature business community is starting to accept the cannabis industry as something that’s real, as something that needs to be reckoned with," Hudak added. "It suggests that changes in the ideas in a community, like Wall Street, is likely to spread to other communities across the United States that tend to be more resistant to this type of change."
And while these stocks may be soaring for now, Hudak warns that the rates of growth may not be sustained in the long term:
“There is a honeymoon period in an industry that was, for a long time, 100-percent illegal and now pseudo-legal, or fully legal in some states.”
Massachusetts became the first state on the East Coast to sell recreational marijuana at licensed shops—more than two years after voters approved legislation. Since the two stores were able to open at end of November, there have been more than $4.8 million in sales, according to Boston.com.
Jeff Sessions is out
Cannabis advocates celebrated the removal of what they saw as a major hurdle to the legalization movement: former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Some analysts say he uniquely prioritized anti-marijuana policy.
"Sessions had such a unique priority with marijuana that stands out among basically anyone in the political area," Jonathan Blanks, a research associate at the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice, said.
Blanks, along with marijuana supporters, pointed to Sessions' rescinding of an Obama-era policy, known as the Cole Memo, as evidence. The memo eased enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the drug. On paper, this meant that U.S. attorneys could prosecute law-abiding state marijuana operators at their discretion, opening the door for possible prosecution. Public concerns of possible law enforcement intervention were eventually eased after Sessions clarified that the government lacks the resources to take on "routine cases."
"[Federal prosecutors] haven't been working small marijuana cases before [and] they are not going to be working them now," the former attorney general said at a Georgetown Law event.
The changes made to the Cole Memo added uncertainty to a pseudo-legal market, but, overall, had little impact on business operators, Hudak added, pointing to increasing public approval of marijuana's legalization.
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