Original photo by Jordan Chapell

The West Leads on Marijuana Legalization but More Reforms Needed (Part 4 of 4)

When we consider marijuana legalization, let’s face it: Western states started the movement and continue to lead the way. Voters in both Colorado and Washington state passed recreational use in November of 2012, followed by Oregon, Nevada, California and Alaska, all which now have state-run marijuana programs for adults. Arizona voters legalized adult use in the 2020 election, which leaves only Hawaii, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming without recreational use for adults, and also New Mexico — at least for now. 

But that looks to be changing, too. Lawmakers in both chambers of New Mexico’s legislature passed a bill this week to legalize recreational marijuana for adults. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supports cannabis, is expected to sign it into law. 

“While I applaud the Legislature and staff for their incredible perseverance and productivity during the 60-day in the face of these challenges, we must and we will forge ahead and finish the job on these initiatives together for the good of the people and future of our great state,” the Democrat told the NM Political Report before the vote. 

All this was happening the same week New York lawmakers approved recreational marijuana, too.

Arizona voters approved Prop. 207 in November, which created a program for recreational marijuana that is already up and running. The initiative provided for an early application process for existing medical dispensaries to apply for recreational licenses. That process began Jan. 19, and by the end of that week, there were 86 adult-use licenses already awarded to existing medical marijuana businesses, Mike Robinette, director of Southern Arizona NORML, told The News Station.

“Since the medical marijuana businesses were already in operation and known by the Arizona Department of Health Services, which administers both the medical and adult-use programs,” Robinette said, “they were quick to be approved. This resulted in an incredibly quick transition to adult-use that has been simply unrivaled by any other state in the nation.”

The Toughest Roads to Hoe

Idaho, Utah and Wyoming continue to resist recreational cannabis reform efforts. In Idaho, which has no medical program and where all use is illegal, the state Senate passed a bill that would enact a constitutional ban on legalization of cannabis and psychedelic substances. If the House approves, the bill would go before voters in 2022. 

“Idaho has been the black hole of cannabis reform,” Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project director of state policies, told The News Station.

“It’s the worst state for reform this year”

Karen O’Keefe

Utah voters approved a limited medical program in November 2018, and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah Legislature, and proposition proponents and opponents — including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — responded by crafting their own law.

The compromise bill, HB 3001, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, passed and was signed by the governor on Dec. 3, 2018. State leaders have been adamant, though, about not allowing recreational adult use there. 

“Utah is a very conservative state,” O’Keefe said.

Wyoming residents, in a recent poll, continue to show support for legalization, and lawmakers there are perhaps finally seeing the writing on the wall. An adult-use legalization bill, HB 0209, was passed by the House Judiciary Committee, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill to legalize and regulate recreational cannabis.

Many of those legislators are eager to get ahead of a possible 2022 ballot initiative or the possibility of recreational legalization at the federal level. 

“Is Wyoming ready to legalize marijuana? From my perspective it is only a matter of time before one of a few things happen,” Judiciary Chair Jared Olsen told the Oil City News.

In November Montana voters passed an initiative to allow recreational marijuana in the state. The program went into effect Jan. 1, rules are to be in place by Oct. 1, and adult-use sales are set to begin at the beginning of 2022. 

That didn’t stop anti-cannabis lawmakers from trying to derail the initiative. They failed to pass two bills that would have pushed back the deadline and limited the number of dispensaries. Other bills to limit potency and that deal with juvenile offenders are still being debated in this legislative session. Wrong for Montana, an anti-cannabis group, filed a lawsuit that suggests the proposal’s plan for spending cannabis tax revenue is unconstitutional, which would completely nullify the amendment.

In Hawaii, Democratic Gov. David Ige has said he will likely veto a bill on his desk to legalize the personal use of marijuana and allow limited sales, he says, because of its status as a federal Schedule 1 drug, even though the measure is supported by many lawmakers and citizens. 

Though the measure has wide support, both the Kaui and Maui island police have testified that cannabis is a “gateway drug” to harder substances, a claim that has never been verified.

In states with recreational programs, the saga continues. “People think we’re done now,” Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML, told The News Station. “Our opposition is out in force, not only the usual reefer madness, but public health officials, too.” 

California has faced a myriad of problems implementing its program, beginning with the fact that it allowed a huge, unregulated market to flourish after the state passed medical marijuana in 1996. Since legalization, licensing and taxation requirements kept many of the same people out of the legal market, which keeps patients in the illicit market, Komp said.

For NORML, that California businesses are allowed to drug test prospective employees is still a major sticking point. 20 states currently support employee rights. 

“What’s happening now is just about the worst thing about Proposition 64,” Komp said. 

Their organization is sponsoring AB 1256, a bill to end employment discrimination based on chemical testing while allowing employers to disallow cannabis use or intoxication on the job. 

“We’re a human-rights organization,” Komp said, “and the state did not protect employees’ use of cannabis. Less progressive states included protections for employees.”

That the Biden administration let several staffers go recently because of past marijuana use, she said, certainly doesn’t help. 

“It’s ironic considering Kamala Harris’ past,” Komp said.

“But the sod’s cracking. Nine states have proposed laws to protect employment rights”

Ellen Komp

It might take awhile to finally get legal programs straight. As a Colorado legislator reminded me several years ago in response to a question about how long it will take to get legalization right, there are still bills every year on alcohol and Prohibition ended in 1933.

O’Keefe says while Marijuana Policy Project concentrates its efforts in states where cannabis is still illegal, the organization also supports efforts to improve laws in already legal states. 

“There’s lots to be done about people being fired,” she said. “Washington doesn’t allow home cultivation. We would like to see that expanded. We want to expand social equity to make programs more robust. Some states have bills to limit potency, and most allow cities and counties to opt out of sales. We’d like to see delivery and social consumption in every state.”

Washington state legislators recently tabled a bill to allow adults to grow six plants in their own homes. Rep. Shelley Kloba said the bill “was not considered a high enough priority to consider in a year where we are hearing less legislation as a result of the pandemic.”

In Oregon, the Cannabis Equity Act, which would provide ownership chances for Black, Indigenous, Latinx and under-represented groups, is awaiting resolution. 

And Colorado lawmakers, who passed a social equity bill and another that allows for recreational delivery in the last session, are now facing one that would cap THC potency introduced this session by a Democratic lawmaker. 

It probably won’t gain much traction, but many observers believe, though there is no evidence that potency is a problem, that a bill like this could destroy the industry as we know it.

O’Keefe notes the scarlet letter that still hangs over most legal programs is the expungement of criminal records for minor cannabis offenses that are legal now, and she admitted that it will take much more time and effort to finally get it right. 

“We will be tinkering with these laws for many, many, many years,” she said. 

This is the last installment in a four part series exploring legalization across all regions of the nation. Here are the other stories: Northeast, South and Midwest.

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. His full bio is here.

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. His full bio is here.

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