• April 14, 2021

2021 Marijuana Outlook: Will the South Follow Virginia Again?

 2021 Marijuana Outlook: Will the South Follow Virginia Again?

Tyler Osmond of Desert Noises back stage in Nashville before security arrived. Photo by Matt Laslo

While the Northeast is catching up to the West’s marijuana legalization boom, the South is one geographic area where the national legalization tracker shows little movement when it comes to recreational marijuana. Even medicinal cannabis remains completely illegal in South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. In other southern locales — even those where voters demanded legalization at the ballot box — politicians continue to resist. The resistance seems to be  slowly changing though. 

The Thaw Started in Mississippi

In November, Mississippi voters shocked many when 68.3% overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana ballot measure. Some Republican legislators have since tried to undermine the will of their own voters though. State senators attempted to create their own program, but a state House panel recently stepped in to re-insert the language explicitly approved by more than two-thirds of voters. 

“The people have spoken, with a constitutional amendment about medical marijuana,” House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III (D) said of the Senate bill his chamber defeated. “That bill went against the spirit of what the people decided.” 

Now a new lawsuit filed by the mayor of Madison, Miss., seeks to overturn the results and nullify the law. 

The mayor claims ballot signatures were gathered improperly due to a change in the number of congressional districts in the state. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments from both sides in April. 

Will Virginia be the First?

Virginia lawmakers are on the verge of making history after lawmakers crafted, debated, haggled and then passed a bill to allow the recreational use of marijuana for adults. 

The proverbial ball is now in Gov. Ralph Northam’s court. He’s been a vocal proponent of marijuana legalization, but lawmakers in the state Senate and House of Delegates sent the Democrat a quandary. He now has until the end of the month to sign it un-amended, which conservatives want so they have time to set up a regulatory system before it would become law in 2024. But progressives want him to amend it — a unique power Virginia governor’s hold — so legalization kicks in this July.  The embattled, moderate Democrat has until the end of the month to decide.     

Either way, it’s currently set to become the first Southern state with legal recreational cannabis. The last-minute drama is reminiscent of the process that landed the bill on the governor’s desk. 

The state hired MPG Consulting, which put together a group that included the Rand Corporation, who submitted a plan to legislators in November. Three months later, just hours before the deadline, the bill was sent to the governor. 

“We looked at facets they needed to consider,” Adam Orens of MPG Consulting told The News Station, “like social equity, market stuff and how it should be structured like the alcohol model. And they moved quickly.”

The plan addresses social equity concerns by allowing those affected by the ‘war on drugs’ to have first access to the market, but unless the governor tweaks it, the measure doesn’t decriminalize possession until the new law takes effect in 2024. The Roanoke Times, one of the state’s largest newspapers, said the proposal actually includes many pro-rural aspects that make it attractive to the entire state, not just suburban communities.

“It’s going to the governor now, and he has the authority to sign it or request amendments,” Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project director of state policies, told The News Station. 

She’s confident he will sign it, but there’s still plenty to be done, as advocates, foes and legislators will be seeking their own variations. 

“There’s no chance that he won’t ask for changes,” she said. “Some members of the legislature want him to make changes.” 

The Other Virginia (We Love You!)

Next door is West Virginia, where medical marijuana was legalized in 2016, even if the program only got underway this year. Republican Gov. Jim Justice has long been opposed to legalization, but at a recent virtual town hall meeting he admitted he is “weakening on that position.” That’s in part because he’s also considering the state’s raging opioid crisis as well as his own plan to eliminate the state income tax. His medical advisors persuaded him legalization could be a new tool to combat the scourge of the opioid crisis.

“I do believe that the wave is coming across all of our states,” Justice said. “And as that wave comes, if our House Republicans and Democrats and Senate Republicans and Democrats would get behind that effort from a standpoint of legalization of recreational marijuana, and they would be supportive of that, I would, too.” 

Though she isn’t sure that might happen, MPP’s O’Keefe called Justice’s comment “a fascinating turnaround for a governor who hasn’t even moved on decriminalization. It’s possible that states are hurting for money, and they finally realized that they’re spending a lot of money to arrest people. It could help other states move forward.”

Where’s the Sunshine?

If voters were actually allowed a say in legalization efforts, the entire country might thaw its freeze on cannabis more quickly, as almost two-thirds of participants in a 2019 Pew Research Center poll showed support. In Florida a legalization initiative is already listed for the 2022 ballot. 

And Floridians, more than 60% of whom voted for medical marijuana in 2016, have shown huge citizen support for recreational, enough so that many who don’t even support legalization are suggesting the legislature write and pass its own plan before voters decide for them in next year’s election. 

“If the state legislature doesn’t do it, the people of Florida will be passing a constitutional amendment,” an editorial in the Sun Sentinel opined.

That should worry legislators, who typically blanch at the thought of the great unwashed having a say in directing policy

Sun Sentinel

Gov. Ron Desantis remains adamantly opposed to recreational legalization efforts, even to help deal with statewide financial shortfalls from coronavirus. When medical marijuana was passed, he initially pushed to not allow smokable forms, a position he eventually changed and helped usher through.  

Currently, a pair of new legislative proposals would place a 10% THC cap on smokable marijuana and limit THC levels to 15% in other medical-marijuana products, excluding edibles. The bills, filed by Democratic state Rep. Spencer Roach and Republican state Sen. Ray Rodrigues would also impose advertising restrictions on doctors who order cannabis for their patients. 

On the other hand, another bipartisan plan, led by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes and Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith to allow the state’s medical marijuana treatment centers to sell cannabis products to adults 21 and older and allow higher possession limits has also been filed. The battle continues.

Still Illegal and No End in Sight

In between Virginia’s attempt to legalize and Florida’s ongoing conflicts are three states — South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama — where marijuana is still completely illegal.

That isn’t what voters in those states want, if polls are to be believed.

In South Carolina, voters have shown support for medical marijuana by a ratio of five to one, with 72% of respondents in favor and 15% opposed. Advocates are pushing the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act. Republican state Rep. Bill Herbkersman and state Sen. Tom Davis, also a Republican, filed versions of the legislation in December, both of which have now been referred to committees allegedly for more debate.

A Tennessee legislator has come up with yet another variation on state legalization. A bill to legalize medical marijuana there passed out of a state Senate committee. But an amendment added at the last minute by Republican state Sen. Bo Watson stipulated the law would only take effect if marijuana were reclassified on the federal level.

Another medical cannabis measure, the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act, was introduced in the state House of Representatives this month. It would allow patients with a qualifying medical condition to obtain a prescription for medical marijuana. The state Senate Government Operations Committee approved SB-854 in a 6-2 vote, and it now resides within the Judiciary Committee.

In Alabama, a bill to decriminalize is still in committee but creeping slowly forward. It’s being brought by Republican state Sen. Tim Melson, who sponsored a similar bill last year, which was approved by the Senate but wasn’t brought to a House vote after coronavirus ended the session. This one would establish an 11-member Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to set up rules and regulations for legal access.

Baby Step States

While polls continue to show majority voter support for legalization, North Carolina has decriminalized possession but has no medical program. In 2019, a medicinal bill was introduced and carried over into 2020. But it was not given a committee hearing or a vote before the session was closed, again, due to coronavirus.

Noting the link between racial justice and cannabis reform, the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice published a report that recommended reducing the penalty for possessing up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis to a civil fine and expunging past convictions. It has not been acted upon.

Georgia’s recent Senate run-off races helped provide national Democrats with more voices for legalization on a federal level. And though two-thirds of those polled showed support for legalization on a state level, there has been little movement. Last year the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus proposed the Georgia Justice Act to look at changes in policing policy, one tenet of which would reduce marijuana penalties so people don’t come into contact with police over a small-time crime.

Kentucky lawmakers are pushing two bills to legalize cannabis in the state. The Responsible Cannabis Use Bill and House Bill 467 would create new tax revenues, help lead to the expungement of criminal records for people convicted for past misdemeanor marijuana charges and offer a medical program to help citizens.

Louisiana already has a medical program on the books, and MPP’s O’Keefe says legislative efforts have made it stronger every year. And Shreveport businessman Cameron Meshell, who owns a hemp-based company, says he’s working on a “comprehensive recreational marijuana bill” that would help the state create revenue and jobs, saying that Oklahoma added more than 10,000 positions since it legalized medical marijuana in 2018.

All in all, despite the roadblocks, O’Keefe remains bullish on Southern efforts to finally end the criminalization of cannabis. 

“North Carolina and Tennessee are looking like multi-year efforts, and the Tennessee bills are still in committee,” she said. “I think there is a very good chance that one state — South Carolina or Alabama, or both — might get something done. It’s not a sure thing, but Virginia should become the first to at least get adult-use on the books. I’d say that’s progress.”

This is second in a four-part series. We looked at the landscape in the Northeast here. Next up, the Midwest, where at least one has found its medical marijuana sweet spot. 

Leland Rucker

Leland Rucker is a journalist who has been covering the cannabis industry culture since Amendment 64 legalized adult-use in Colorado, for Boulder Weekly, Sensi and now TheNewsStation.com. He covered the popular music industry for years, worked extensively in internet and cable news, and co-authored The Toy Book, a history of OK Boomer playthings. Sweet Lunacy, his documentary film co-written and produced with Don Chapman, is a history of the Boulder music scene from the 1950s through the 1980s. He is author and editor of Dimensional Cannabis, the first pop-up book of marijuana.

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