“To those who allege that marijuana law reform is a west coast phenomenon, tonight’s votes tell a different story,” said NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano on election night in November. “The majority of Americans throughout this country recognize that marijuana prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law and disproportionately impacts young people and communities of color. That is voters are rejecting the failures of criminalization and embracing these sort of regulatory alternatives.”
Trump may or may not return America to Nixonian-style cannabis oppression, but 2016 ultimately proved to be the biggest year yet for prohibition reform. How popular is cannabis these days? The top pollsters found support for legal recreational use at 60 percent and medical at 89 percent, and in the November election, medical cannabis got 50 percent more votes in Florida than Trump did! What else happened in 2016? These are the highlights.
Ohio and Pennsylvania Legalized Medical Cannabis
The Buckeye State attempted to legalize recreational cannabis in November 2015, and the effort was a disaster. Polls suggested that a majority of Ohioans supported the idea, but the ballot initiative itself, Issue 3, established a 10-farm monopoly for the people who bankrolled the measure. In the end, Issue 3 lost by such a large margin that statistics expert Ron Baiman hinted at foul play. The Benedictine University professor claimed, “The results are not only impossible but unfathomable.” Of course, the same thing was said about a Trump presidency. Organizations seeking to put a new measure on the 2016 ballot failed to make it happen, but the state legislature recognized the support and legalized medical cannabis on June 8. The state still prohibits smoked cannabis and home cultivation, and the distribution program probably won’t be operational until 2018, but it was a step in the right direction. Because of the Issue 3 controversy, Ohio got most of the headlines, but neighboring Pennsylvania passed its own medical cannabis bill, Act 16, earlier in the year.
The First East Coast States Legalized Recreational Cannabis
Maine and Massachusetts made history as the first east coast states to legalize recreational use, though the opposition remained fierce even after the tally. The Maine prohibitionists refused to concede and demanded a recount, though they ultimately waived the white flag a month later. The Maine Marijuana Legalization Measure (Question 1) narrowly passed by a few thousand votes, or less than half a percent. The Bay State, meanwhile, is largely in the pocket of Big Pharma, and the government initially suggested it would delay implementation of the new law, but it too eventually conceded that democracy should supercede prohibitionist ideology. The Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Question 4) passed 54 percent to 46.
Nevada Legalized, Arizona Didn’t
Two southwestern states went in entirely different directions. The Nevada Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Question 2) passed 54 percent to 46, while Arizona was the only state to reject a cannabis measure on election day as its citizens voted 52 to 48 against the Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Proposition 205). A massive effort went into defeating Prop. 205, which included extreme prohibitionist propaganda.
The World’s Fifth Largest Economy Went Green
California by itself makes up the fifth largest economy in the world with GDP figures second only to China, Japan, Germany and the United States. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Proposition 64) in California passed 56 percent to 44, allowing people age 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of cannabis and eight grams of concentrates. With such a prominent state economy, California was the most important vote. The Gallup report that showed 60-percent national support for legalization noted, “If recreational marijuana use becomes legal in California this year, many other states will likely follow, because the ‘Golden State’ often sets political trends for the rest of the U.S.”
The Second Time’s a Charm in Florida
In 2014, Florida voters rejected a medical cannabis bill when only 58 percent of the state voted for it. Huh? The bill failed because the Sunshine State requires a 60-percent supermajority to pass a state amendment, but 2016’s Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Amendment 2) fortunately did just that with 71-percent support and only 29 percent opposed. The new law allows therapeutic use for certain disorders, including cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others.
Arkansas Becomes the First Southern State to Legalize Medical
Much love to Arkansas! Prohibition typically has the most support in the south, but the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment passed with 53 percent of the vote. Actually, it was a bit less of a surprise than most people might think. A similar measure landed 49 percent of the vote in 2012 despite showing much less support in the polls. Arkansas is one of the few Southern states with a citizen’s initiative process, and the people used it to legalize medical cannabis to treat qualifying conditions such as cancer, AIDS, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer's disease and others.
North Dakota Joined the Party
Considering it’s usually a hunting party in the Dakotas, medical cannabis will probably prove helpful. The North Dakota Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Initiated Statutory Measure 5) passed by a 28-point margin, with 64 percent of the state approving medical use and 36 percent opposing it. This is a huge surprise because most pundits expected the Peace Garden State to vote the measure down.
Montana Made Medical Cannabis Legal… Again
As other states voted to legalize medical cannabis, Montana was the lone state looking to reestablish its voter-approved (62 percent) MMJ law instituted in 2004 and later largely repealed by the state government. Though passed by the state legislature, House Bill 161 was vetoed by Governor Brian Schweitzer, but Senate Bill 423 passed shortly thereafter without the governor’s signature. The new law limited dispensaries to only three patients each, required a state review of any doctor who prescribed cannabis to more than 25 patients in a year and allowed law enforcement to do unannounced inspections. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) didn’t waste any time raiding shops and charging operators with prison time and huge fines. Initiative Referendum 124 previously tried to reverse SB 423, but 57 percent of Montana voters rejected it, so most people thought the Montana Medical Marijuana Initiative (I-182) had little chance of passing. Big surprise! The initiative passed with 56 percent of the vote, ending restrictions like the three-patient dispensary limit.
Legalization Bills Failed in the Legislature
As 2016 demonstrated once again, most legalization progress will need to take place through citizen ballot initiatives. So far, no state legislature has approved a recreational cannabis bill, and efforts to do so failed this year in Vermont, Rhode Island, Michigan, New Mexico and Connecticut. Pennsylvania and Ohio had the only legislation passed by the state government in 2016, though both laws were for medical use. Many thought Vermont would be the first when the state senator voted in favor of legalization, but the house members subsequently voted against it. Governor Peter Shumlin stated, “The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed. I want to thank those House members who recognize that and worked to move this issue forward. It is incredibly disappointing, however, that a majority of the House has shown a remarkable disregard for the sentiment of most Vermonters who understand that we must pursue a smarter policy when it comes to marijuana in this state.”
More ballot initiatives are in the works for upcoming elections. Watch for cannabis-law amendments in Ohio in 2017 and the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, the Wyoming Medical Marijuana Initiative and the recreational Mississippi Cannabis Freedom Act (Initiative 52) in 2018. Likewise, expect another recreational initiative in Arizona soon.
Street art image by Ron English.