As we begin a new year, I’ve been reflecting on how much has changed in cannabis policy over the past year. In terms of marijuana reform, 2018 was a huge year in many ways: multiple states legalized marijuana, pro-cannabis candidates won big, and Congress legalized hemp. But I think the biggest change was in how politicians — especially those with national aspirations — changed the way they talked about cannabis.
Marijuana legalization has been a mainstream issue for years, but it was generally driven by voters rather than politicians. But in 2018 politicians seemed to finally realize that cannabis reform is more popular than they are, and that they need to support it if they want to keep winning elections.
It’s easy to forget that 2018 began with Vermont legalizing marijuana possession and home cultivation for adults. This was the first time a state had ever legalized marijuana through the legislature, rather than a ballot initiative, and it was even signed by a Republican governor. While the new law does not allow for commercial sales, this moved the issue forward and created space for other state legislatures to go further.
Now, a much more comprehensive legalization bill is moving through the New Jersey Legislature with the support of the governor. Illinois and Connecticut both elected new governors in 2018 who spoke strongly in favor of legalization on the campaign trail. This year, there is a very good chance we will have legalization bills signed by Governor Murphy, Governor Pritzker, and Governor Lamont. Even New York, where Governor Cuomo recently changed his tune and supported legalization, is seriously debating adopting legalization in 2019. This seemed out of the question just a few years ago.
In many states, the debate is no longer about whether to legalize marijuana, but how. In New Jersey, a clear consensus for legalization exists among legislators, but the process has stalled over the details. The most recent delay has been over the tax rate for legal marijuana sales and which agency will ultimately control the program. New Jersey, Illinois and other states are spending time discussing how to include communities, particularly people of color, in the new cannabis economy through social equity and economic empowerment programs like those already enacted in Massachusetts and California.
It’s not only governors and state legislators who are finally catching up to the public on cannabis reform — we’ve had a lot of progress in Congress, too. I recently profiled the 5 best & 5 worst members of the House of Representatives. The very best member, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), is leaving the House but is now the governor of Colorado. Cannabis reform champions Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and David Joyce (R-OH) all won their races easily. Only one of the best House members, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), lost his race, and that was for reasons that go beyond cannabis reform. Marijuana policy was not a major issue in that election, so it’s unclear where his Democratic replacement, Harley Rouda, stands on the issue.
Of the five worst House members, the very worst, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, retired and will not be returning to Congress. The second-worst member, Pete Sessions (R-TX), lost his re-election campaign to Colin Allred, who spoke in favor of medical marijuana for veterans during the campaign and is expected to push hard for reform instead of standing in its way. The three remaining members — Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Andy Harris (R-MD), and Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) — easily won re-election and will be returning to Congress.
Yet even with the re-election of many prohibitionists, cannabis reformers are still making gains. In a stunning reversal weeks after the election, Rep. Kennedy announced his support for legalization. He clearly saw that he was out of step with his constituents, and may have also realized that this position was holding him back from higher office. With nearly every front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary angling to be the best on cannabis, it’s clear that the issue has become a litmus test for anyone who wants a future in the party. As I profiled in a column earlier this year, this universal support for legalization among Democratic party front runners may push the current occupant of the White House to become the first sitting president to endorse legalization in some form.
Let’s not forget that 2018 was also the year that Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) changed her stance on cannabis. Sen. Feinstein has been strongly opposed to marijuana reform for decades, even making my list of worst Senators for her early opposition to medical marijuana and recent opposition to legalizing for adults. But when faced with a strong primary challenger this year, she finally updated her position to be in line with her constituents, endorsing legalization and signing on to the STATES Act.
Cannabis reform has long been a unique issue, with most politicians trailing decades behind the public in their level of support. But that leads to unique opportunities, as it’s one of the few areas where politicians are still changing their views rather than digging in deeper.
Last year was the year the tide turned, with politicians on both sides of the aisle finally listening to their constituents on marijuana policy. Between winning elections and converting opponents, cannabis reformers have more allies in office than ever before. With continued pressure from activists, 2019 will be the year those allies turn their campaign promises into law.
Kris Krane : co-founder of 4Front, a leading investment and management firm in the cannabis industry. Follow 4Front on Twitter or subscribe to its newsletter.