The 2018 midterms were some of the most fiercely fought, closely watched elections in recent memory, for a number of reasons. The biggest winner, which went largely unnoticed by pundits before and after election night, was the legal cannabis industry. In ballot boxes across the country, voters supported policies and candidates that stand to change the future of marijuana policy reform in a major way.
In the states
The biggest and most immediate victory was the passage of Proposition 1 in Michigan. With 55 percent of voters approving the measure, which makes cannabis legal for adults 21 and older and will create a regulated cannabis market, Michigan became the second most populous state in the U.S. to legalize adult-use cannabis, behind California.
When the new law takes effect, adults will be able to possess 2.5 ounces in public or 10 ounces at home, as well as cultivate up to 12 plants per residence. In addition to seriously curbing the thousands of annual arrests for cannabis possession in Michigan, the proposal calls on the state to license and regulate cannabis cultivators, processors, testing labs, retailers, and microbusinesses (which may cultivate up to 150 plants and sell directly to consumers). It outlines an excise sales tax of 10 percent, levied on sales at retailers and micro-businesses, which is earmarked for local governments, K-12 education, and road and bridge maintenance. Municipalities will be given the authority to ban or limit cannabis establishments within their jurisdictions, and the state will play a central role in monitoring and regulating packaging, labeling, and advertising. Legal sales are expected to begin in early 2020.
In Missouri, residents approved one of three separate medical cannabis initiatives. Amendment 2 passed with an overwhelming 65 percent majority. The measure, favored among the three by NCIA and other national reform groups, legalizes cannabis for medical purposes, creates a licensing system for cultivation, testing, and dispensing of medical cannabis, and sets up a 4-percent tax on cannabis sales. State tax revenue from the program will be spent on healthcare services for veterans.
It is worth noting Amendment 2 received more than 300,000 more votes than Republican Senator-elect Josh Hawley, providing more evidence cannabis is a winning issue across party lines and more popular than most politicians on either side of the aisle.
After a contentious campaign, voters in Utah narrowly approved a medical cannabis initiative as well, becoming one of the most socially conservative states to do so at the ballot. After heavy spending by prohibitionists on misleading ads and questionable campaign tricks, and firm opposition from the powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the campaign appeared to be in trouble. However, both sides agreed to cease campaigning as long as lawmakers promised to enact some form of effective medical cannabis legislation in the immediate future. That compromise had a positive effect on voters, who ended up approving the initiative anyway on election day. Stakeholders now are expected to work with the legislature during a special session to determine how to amend the law.
In North Dakota, which legalized medical cannabis in 2016 but has yet to fully implement its program, a grassroots effort to legalize cannabis possession for adults exceeded expectations by getting an initiative on the ballot. The campaign put forth an amazing effort but faced tough polling from the start and was massively outspent by opponents. The initiative garnered only 40 percent of the vote, but it laid the foundation for a renewed effort in 2020.
While the victories in these states will make direct and concrete improvements in the lives of their residents and open new markets to cannabis entrepreneurs, the midterm elections also paved the way for future progress at both the state and federal level.
As the first state in the Midwest to make cannabis legal for adults, Michigan stands to have a tremendous impact on nearby states as it begins to reap the benefits of a regulated legal cannabis market. Its location, as well as the size of the projected market, make it a game-changing state to watch for cannabis reform. This is particularly true in neighboring Illinois, where activists have made great strides with lawmakers in recent years and where voters elected J.B. Pritzker governor. Pritzker made legalization a central platform of his campaign early on, and it paid off with voters.
In addition to Illinois, eleven other states elected governors who publicly support legalization. Among them are Gavin Newsom in California and Jared Polis in Colorado, both long-time supporters who have been keynote speakers at past NCIA events. Strong pro-legalization executive officers will make it much easier to enact, maintain, and improve regulated cannabis systems in those states and may even help convince skeptical lawmakers to come around on this issue.
At the federal level, the midterm election results were a potential windfall for cannabis policy reform in Congress. Dozens of candidates who support changing federal cannabis laws won their races, largely due to increasing public support for legalization and nearly ubiquitous support for medical access. Politicians across the spectrum are realizing the politics of cannabis have changed, and continuing to push outdated policies will come with consequences. Supporters of legalization garnered unexpected wins, such as Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who narrowly defeated the anti-legalization incumbent for Senate. Meanwhile, in conservative Texas, incumbent Congressman Pete Sessions lost his seat and his position as chair of the House Rules Committee, where he stifled popular cannabis-related legislation for years, to supportive Democrat Colin Allred. In addition to popular opinion and common sense, nearly 50 congressional candidates won their elections with the help of donations from NCIA’s Political Action Committee, which will help bolster reform efforts in the 2019 congressional session and beyond.
The addition of even more supportive members of Congress is made all the more powerful by the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. Many Republican lawmakers have been pioneers on this issue, but GOP leadership has been blocking efforts to change federal cannabis laws for years, making the impending transfer of control over the House vitally important for moving sound cannabis legislation closer to passage. With control of the House Rules Committee passing to a Democrat, the chances that the House will hold hearings on marijuana-related bills has increased dramatically. And with bipartisan support in Congress growing daily, this could make all the difference, even while challenges remain in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Cannabis policy reform advocates got another unexpected gift immediately following the elections: the ouster of notoriously anti-cannabis attorney general Jeff Sessions. His brief tenure as head of the Department of Justice was marked by a period of “reefer madness” that threatened to permeate the federal government, most notably his assertions that “good people don’t use marijuana” and his decision to remove guidance to federal prosecutors not to prioritize enforcement of marijuana laws in legal states. His departure in disgrace was met with cheers by cannabis policy reformers, but we should be careful not to count this as a victory too soon. A more effective attorney general who is not embroiled in other political struggles, even one that is less zealous in his or her hatred of cannabis, could spell big trouble for legal cannabis providers. Advocates are hopeful, however, that Sessions’s permanent replacement will be someone who understands it is a waste of resources to target state-legal cannabis businesses that are creating jobs and displacing the criminal market.
Cannabis policy reform is moving in the right direction, and this progress would not have been possible if not for the nearly 2,000 businesses that support the cannabis industry’s policy and advocacy efforts through their membership in NCIA and the many forward-thinking cannabis professionals who donated to the NCIA-PAC.
But this is not the time for advocates and the industry to rest. The fight is far from over, and there is much work to be done. NCIA will continue to collaborate with our allies on Capitol Hill, old and new, to make sure cannabis businesses and consumers have a voice in Congress. With your help, we can end cannabis prohibition, allow legal state markets to flourish, and set right a great injustice in our nation.
Morgan Fox is the media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, the largest and most-established cannabis trade organization in the United States. For more information or to get involved in NCIA’s efforts to advance marijuana reform, visit TheCannabisIndustry.org.