Big Things Happened in 2016

By David Jenison on January 6, 2017

Talk about a bittersweet year. On the positive side, several more states legalized recreational and medical cannabis, and the unemployment rate fell to the lowest level since the Clinton years. On the negative side, the Trumpocalypse is only a month away, arguably making hope more audacious than ever. From the good to the bad, several huge things happened in 2016, and the following is a recap. 

Legalization Supports Hits Another All-Time High

In 2015, support for recreational cannabis reached an all-time high at 58 percent. One year later, pollsters registered yet another all-time high at 60 percent. But that’s not all. A poll last summer showed medical cannabis support at 89 percent, while yet another summer poll found that more Republicans now support legalization (45 percent) than oppose it (42 percent). This marked the first poll in which more conservatives supported legalization than prohibition.  

Eight of Nine States Voted to Expand Legalization

In 2016, state legislatures in Ohio and Pennsylvania legalized medical cannabis, three other states (Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota) did the same through ballot initiatives and Montana basically voted for medical cannabis for a second time after the legislature severely restricted a previous MMJ measure. Likewise, four states (California, Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts) voted for recreational cannabis via the ballot box, while Arizona was the lone cannabis initiative voted down by voters. Needless to say, 2016 was a huge year for expanded legalization. (Click here for a more detailed round-up of state legalization efforts and outcomes.)

More Countries Joined the Movement

The United States wasn’t the only country to make progress on the legalization front. Canada, Mexico Colombia, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Jamaica, England, Greece, South Africa and others all seriously discussed, drafted and/or voted on cannabis legalization. Mexico did not pass medical cannabis, but a pro-cannabis decision in the courts opened the door to legal challenges. Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, became Canada’s new prime minister by a wide margin, and one of his campaign promises was to legalize recreational cannabis. 

The U.S. Elected a Reality Star to Be President

Older adults living in New York in the 1980s remember Donald Trump as theoriginal Kim Kardashian, i.e., a silver-spooner who became famous through the media and crazy-rich crazy parents. While Kim utilized social media, a reality series and a Ray J sex tape, Trump went to “unpresidented” lengths to get attention via Page Six and other local media. The press loved the Donald’s antics, quotes and romances, so it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Plus, he already had a famous name thanks to his real-estate magnate father, whose infamy included a Justice Department lawsuit for refusing to rent to African-Americans, a U.S. Senate investigation into corruption, an arrest while participating in a KKK rally and motivating Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”) to accuse him of racial hate in a song. The Donald later went on to become a reality TV star himself, and with some help from the FBI and former KGB, he became president this past year. What could possibly go wrong? Which leads to...

Jeff Sessions, Too Extreme for a Judgeship, to Become Attorney General

Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for Attorney General, once said he thought the KKK was okay until he found out they smoked pot. He may or may not have been kidding, but he’s still a few evolutionary cycles behind the average. Trump claims he’ll create 25 million jobs, besting Clinton’s presidential-best 23 million, so many (including us) think he’ll direct Sessions to focus on issues that won’t negatively affect job growth. Will he go after the cannabis industry anyway? Only time will tell. 

The DEA Refused to Reschedule Cannabis

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is baffling. For example, why do they let drug cartels finance hooker sex orgies for them when the agents should be busting the drug peddlers? Even more absurd is the idea that a law enforcement agency, not a federal health department, gets to determine the medical safety and use of cannabis while simultaneously having a huge financial incentive to keep the plant wholly prohibited. The Nixon Administration made cannabis a Schedule I substance in 1970—making it more restricted than cocaine, crystal meth and OxyContin—and the DEA refused every effort to reschedule the plant, even overriding its own administrative law judge who approved a schedule change. The DEA has always been a disgrace when it came to the legal status of cannabis, but with all but five states having some form of legalization, most people assumed it would finally put cannabis on par with crack as a Schedule II substance. After a four-year process, the latest schedule-change petition finally came before the DEA, and it refused to kill its cash cow. Cannabis remained in the same schedule as heroin, acid and peyote. 

StopPot 2016 Spokesman Reveals his Idiocy

Sometimes the best way to undermine anti-cannabis propagandists is to dig beneath the surface. This certainly proved to be true with Roger Morgan of the Take Back America Campaign and StopPot2016. He specifically targeted the California initiative with claims about vehicular deaths and child overdoses, but some of his best gems were found in interviews and on his website. They included a) “What hasn’t been publicized widely is that almost all of the mass murders that we’ve had in recent years, the person has been a heavy marijuana user because it changes the brain”; b) “Even the radical Islams (sic) that are doing it, that’s how they change the motivation of younger people, they give them marijuana”; and c) “Since mental health treatment is now mandated and the US has universal health care, the true cost of legalization could be 10 times greater than the tax income.” Rumor has it Trump is considering him for a cabinet position.

DNC Adds Cannabis Reform to Party Platform

After losing the primary, Senator Bernie Sanders continued to push 24 priority issues he wanted in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) party platform. His priorities included removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, which would have ended prohibition. Over the summer, the DNC’s full 187-member committee met in Orlando to finalize exactly what planks the party would put in its platform, and participating members voted to approve a cannabis rescheduling amendment. This marked the first time a major political party included prohibition reform in its official party plank. 

Painkillers v. Opioids

“Opioids Out, Cannabis In” was the title of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in November. The researchers concluded that it might be time to replace opioids like OxyContin with cannabis when treating chronic and neuropathic pain. The researchers cited a study that said pharmacies and medical facilities dispense more than 650,000 opioid prescriptions (i.e., bottles, not pills) per day in the United States, while observational studies found an association between state-legal cannabis and decreased opioid addiction and overdose. This debate is playing out in a high-profile way in professional sports where many current and former athletes want the various leagues to end their prohibition of state-legal medical cannabis. 

Bianca Green Sparked the Conversation

Culture High producer and cannabis advocate Bianca Green launched a California tour called Spark the Conversation to promote the legalization initiative in the Golden State. A full interview will post here in January, but here is a preview of what she said about the tour: “We have 30 million voters here in California. There was a huge discrepancy with [Proposition] 64 with people for it, people against it. I wanted the state to have a unified voice, at least showing we believe in something together as a community. I wanted to talk to the farmers up north and hear their perspective on drug policy reform and personal freedom so that, whether or not 64 passed, we still felt like we had a community voice. It was 22 days, right before the election. We've thrown events throughout the country, but California just seemed to be the most friendly and made the most sense.”

Santa Claus Condemned Prohibition

Alaska was the first Republican state to legalize recreational cannabis, but several communities like North Pole got initiatives on the ballot to prohibit commercial cannabis enterprises within city limits. This prompted protest from the town’s most famous resident, Santa Claus. “I am an Alaska state-registered medical cannabis patient and have successfully been taking the oil to treat my cancer,” wrote Santa on his Facebook page. “Voting NO [on local prohibition] ensures that I and many other patients can have safe, well-regulated and local access to a dispensary in North Pole.” Santa Claus, born Thomas O’Conner, legally changed his name in 2005 to assist in his work as an advocate for children, which includes visits from pediatric cancer patients. In 2015, Santa was also elected to the local city council as a write-in candidate. Unfortunately, North Pole voters approved prohibition, which led Santa to remark, “Perhaps, it's time for North Pole to do a little soul searching.”

Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson Admitted to Medical Cannabis Use

NBA Coach of the Year Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors admitted in December that he attempted to treat his chronic back pain with medical cannabis. Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson was among the whiners, but Kerr did not back down, stating, "I'm actually kind of glad it became an issue because I think it is a very important issue to talk about. You get handed prescriptions for Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, NFL players, that's what they're given. That stuff is awful…. It's only a matter of time before medicinal marijuana is allowed in the sports leagues because the education will overwhelm the perception. If you do any research at all, the stuff they are prescribing is really bad for you, and the stuff they are banning is fine." Phil Jackson, who coached the Bulls and Lakers to a combined 11 championships, backed up Kerr stating that he too used medical cannabis for pain management following spinal surgery. 

Cannabis Cafes Cometh!

The World Famous Cannabis Cafe had a legal setback, but the Portlandia smoke spot that first opened in 2009 is back for a third time with a new location. Moreover, Denver residents in November voted in favor of an ordinance that will allow for cannabis cafes, which could arrive in 2017. Alaska already allows for on-site consumption, the California and Maine legalization laws created on-site licenses and the Nevada and Massachusetts initiatives had options to allow them. With the framework set in 2016, could 2017 be the year of the American cannabis coffeeshop? 

Image by Mark Andrew Allen.

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