At first glance, weed doesn’t appear to be a hazy subject. Thirty-seven states have legalized marijuana for medical use. And 18 states have given recreational weed the go-ahead. Polls show that most adults in the US (91%) support legalizing marijuana. Around the world, at least four countries have also given it the thumbs up. Even the US's next-door neighbor Canada, eh.
Despite its large approval (and use) in the US, marijuana is very much illegal at the federal level. It's classified as a Schedule I drug — just like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. And has been a target in the "War on Drugs" — an initiative started by President Nixon in the early ‘70s which has disproportionately impacted Black communities ever since. Meanwhile, legal weed's grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.
So why hasn’t the federal gov turned over a new leaf? Welcome to our next edition of Breaking Down the Buzz. Where we’ll explain the arguments for and against legalization, and how the debate is impacting states and 2022 ballots. Btw, when it comes to legalizing weed, there are different terms and conditions to know. See:
Decriminalization...means those who are caught with a small amount of weed typically won't face jail time but could be hit with fines. The specific penalties vary depending on the state and if it's a first offense.
Medical marijuana...allows doctors to recommend the drug to treat certain health conditions. And some patients are eligible for a medical marijuana card that lets them buy from medical cannabis dispensaries. THC-based meds have helped cancer patients with chemo side effects. Meds that have a combo of THC and CBD have helped relax muscles for people with MS.
Recreational marijuana...means that state govs can't penalize people for using or possessing a certain amount of weed. And in some cases, it also means residents can grow or sell with a state license. But anything beyond the legal amount (which varies from state to state) can lead to fines or jail time.
Now, let’s get started. (Note: theSkimm doesn’t endorse any political candidate or organization. Any political campaigns or orgs mentioned are for the purposes of this article.)
Why Critics Oppose Legalizing Weed
Across the country, there’s a small segment of the population (by one count 8%) that thinks marijuana should remain illegal. That may be because — as Toi Hutchinson, the president and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) reminds us — “we have a generation of people who were raised on DARE programs.”
In case you forgot from elementary or middle school: DARE is a nationwide anti-drug program founded in the 1980s (not just an Urban Outfitters t-shirt design). And the program has remained “opposed to the legalization of marijuana.” Some of the same concerns that existed decades ago about weed — that many people may have learned from DARE — are still front and center, including:
Concerns over addiction: One study estimates that about 3 in 10 people who use marijuana have an addiction to it. Another found that teens are more likely than young adults to develop an addiction. You also might remember hearing in school health class that marijuana could be a "gateway drug" to things like cocaine or heroin. But there's no solid evidence of that. Also worth noting that overdosing from marijuana is very unlikely. And there’ve been no reported overdose deaths from the drug.
Market regulation: In states where weed is legal like Colorado and Washington, more children have gotten sick after accidentally getting their hands on things like edibles. Concerning, because kids’ brains are still developing. And research has shown weed can affect concentration, attention span, and problem solving.
Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID): Studies have found that weed can impair people’s motor skills. And that people who use marijuana are 25% more likely to be involved in crashes than drivers who showed no evidence of use. In Washington, deadly crashes involving marijuana nearly doubled after legalization, according to one report. But there could be some flaws in the study given that testing for marijuana is difficult.
Hutchinson said new efforts can allow “a reeducation for something that people have been told” about marijuana. And part of that reeducation is touching on the benefits that weed can bring to states and communities.
Why There's A Joint Effort To Legalize Weed
In 1996, California became the first state to say 'yes' to medical marijuana. Since then dozens of states have followed suit. In 2012, Colorado and Washington established a new first in US weed history by approving recreational weed. And they’ve shown the grass can be…
Greener on the other side: Colorado has sold $12 billion in medical and retail marijuana since sales began in 2014. And in 2021, the state brought in a record $423 million in tax revenue. Different sectors within the state are getting to enjoy the buds, err, fruit of their labor. Money from the 15% state tax on retail sales is split between funds that focus on health care and education, law enforcement, and public schools. One analysis shows CO has the second-best economy in the country.
Colorado has become a model for states looking to get in on the high. In 2021, New York, Virginia, New Mexico, and Connecticut OK’d recreational weed as well. Here are some of the reasons states are adding ‘420 friendly’ to their bios:
Reap the kush benefits: A report found that 11 states earned over $3 billion in tax revenue last year from recreational weed sales. Meaning, more money to fund things like public education and health insurance programs. But some states have seen revenue goals fall short and found making money off weed can be a complex issue.
Create new jobs: In 2020, the legal weed industry reportedly added 77,000 new jobs in the US. And nationwide, it supports 321,000 full-time employees — more than the number of people who work as EMTs and paramedics. During the pandemic, new employees reportedly flocked to the industry seeking refuge from traditional retail jobs. (Hi, Great Resignation.)
Alcohol’s legal, why not weed?: Marijuana is typically used in a similar way to alcohol. Think: in social settings or to unwind after a long day. And advocates argue weed is safer than alcohol. The CDC says an estimated 95,000 people die from excessive alcohol use in the US every year. And while marijuana can lead to confusion or anxiety (just like alcohol) there’ve been no reported deaths from a weed overdose.
Right a wrong: When New York legalized marijuana in 2021, it also automatically expunged past convictions for certain marijuana-related offenses. California has a fund for programs that help with addiction, job placement, and mental health. States looking to go green with rec marijuana are aiming to help communities who’ve suffered the most from the war on drugs. Which brings us to…
How Marijuana Legalization Is a Social Justice Issue
Someone gets arrested for marijuana every 90 seconds. That’s based on 2020 data from the FBI. In previous years, the number of arrests has been every 58 seconds and even every 37 seconds. These stats paint a picture of the evolving war on drugs. In 1971, America officially began its campaign to make drug abuse “public enemy number one.” The war hasn’t stopped — particularly for people of color — despite growing legalization in the US. Here’s what’s happened in the decades since the crackdown started:
Large disparities in incarceration rates: A 2020 report by the ACLU found that Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than white Americans to get arrested for weed possession. Even though both groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate.
Drops in marijuana arrests aren’t created equal: As more states have legalized recreational weed, there’s been a slight decrease in the number of marijuana-possession arrests. But that doesn’t mean it’s been felt across communities of color. One example: Chicago. Despite legalization in Illinois, Black Americans were reportedly arrested three times more than others for marijuana-related offenses in 2020 in the city. Other states like Colorado have seen similar issues.
When states have legalized weed, they've tried to promote social equity as part of their plans. Think: awarding licenses to sell or grow marijuana to people in communities hit by the war on drugs and clearing former marijuana-related offenses. But that's come with some setbacks:
Cannabis convictions can be slow to clear. When CA legalized weed in 2016, it also led to marijuana convictions being expunged or reduced. But it’s up to the person to petition — a costly, time consuming process. One 2020 report found that just 3% of eligible persons received help. But individual cities like San Francisco and San Diego are speeding things up on their own. Meanwhile, WA began pardoning people with certain marijuana-related convictions…six years after it legalized weed.
A booming white business. Black Americans are being left behind in the growing market. In 2017, one survey found that 81% of weed business owners were white. Another 2021 report found that 2% of the US’s estimated 30,000 cannabis companies are Black-owned. (Check some out here.) This is in part due to how states distribute licenses to sell weed — which can involve things like lotteries and extensive applications. Many states also limit the number of licenses available.
Another big issue? Funding. Steve Hawkins, the president and CEO of the US Cannabis Council (USCC), said Black business owners in the weed industry need cash to get their businesses up and running.
“Even if you win a license, you then have to have the capital and money to actually have your business succeed. And that brings us right back to federal prohibition,” Hawkins said. “If we saw cannabis descheduled, it would allow for a lot more resources to flow from the Small Business [Administration], and other incentivized programs that exist for distressed communities.”
In order for that to happen, Congress has to legalize weed on the federal level. That way marijuana businesses and banks don’t risk breaking federal laws when they’re doing business. But lawmakers haven’t made much progress on the issue.
Where the Federal Government Stands on Weed Legalization
Over the years, Congress has taken up marijuana legislation. And a 2018 report noted that the federal gov could earn over $105 billion in tax revenue and gain 1 million new jobs by 2025 if it legalized cannabis. But, surprise, legislation has stalled. And many wonder why that is.
Hawkins said the government shares the same concerns that come out of the state level. “Underage consumption and impaired driving are both seen as public safety concerns,” he said. Here’s how those worries have affected marijuana legislation so far:
The MORE Act: On April 1, the House voted 220-204 — largely along party lines — to decriminalize marijuana. The measure would also create a process for expunging some marijuana convictions. And set up a sales tax on cannabis products. A similar bill passed the House in 2020. But didn’t make it past the then-Republican-controlled Senate. And it’s unclear if the bill has enough support to survive the Senate filibuster this time around.
The SAFE Banking Act: It would prohibit federal banking regulators from punishing banks that work with the cannabis biz. In February 2022, the measure passed the House for the sixth time (as part of a larger piece of legislation). But while the act has bipartisan support, some senators want to focus on legalizing marijuana before moving on to banking.
The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act: It would remove cannabis as a federally controlled substance, expunge nonviolent marijuana-related crimes at the federal level, and regulate and tax weed (states would still be able to set their own rules). Reports say Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) may intro the bill in April.
Hutchinson says the trouble with legalizing weed at the federal level runs deep. “Why can't we just fix this? Because this is criminal justice reform. This is drug policy reform. This is case studies and how you reinvest in communities” she said. And given today’s political climate, creating impactful change is difficult. Especially since…
Weed isn’t a priority: The pandemic and its effects on the economy have taken up a lot of the gov’s bandwidth recently. And while Americans largely want to legalize weed, it’s not a top priority for them either. Forty-three percent of US adults also reportedly have access to rec weed. So, the urgency to get the federal gov involved may not be very high.
An old-guard mindset: In the past, President Biden has been blunt about his position on marijuana: He doesn’t believe in legalizing it. And he’s not alone. Only 32% of American adults 75 and older support legalizing weed for rec or medical use. Biden said he wants more research on marijuana's effects before changing his stance. But he has previously supported decriminalizing weed (a hot take for someone who helped spearhead the country's war on drugs).
But the gov’s inaction on weed will have to change eventually, according to Hutchinson. “We cannot have state governments in direct conflict with the federal government…That is a conflict that our system is not designed to bear for very long,” she said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers aren't the only ones who have the power in this fight. In 13 out of 18 states, voters have approved recreational marijuana via ballot measures. If you do the math, that means 72% of the time that marijuana legalization was left directly to voters, they said ‘yes.’ And that’s a trend that could continue this year.
Where Could Voters See Weed on Ballots in 2022?
In January, US Senate candidate Gary Chambers (D) literally lit up his campaign with an ad advocating to make weed legal. Chambers is running in Louisiana, where a smokable form of medical marijuana is now legal. Watch it below:
In a tweet, Chambers said he hopes the ad sparks “a new conversation that creates the pathway to legalize this beneficial drug, and forgive those who were arrested due to outdated ideology.”
But Chambers isn’t the only one putting weed at the center of their campaign. In Pennsylvania, 60% of people support legalizing marijuana. And the issue has become a major campaign platform for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA), who’s running for a US Senate seat. And groups in several states are trying to get marijuana on the ballot. Including in…
Arkansas: The state has a medical marijuana program. But new petitions are vying to expand the laws so that anyone 21+ can purchase weed. Groups are still gathering signatures so TBD on what ends up making it on the ballot come November.
Ohio: This state also allows medical marijuana. But many want recreational cannabis too. In January, a group advocating for it managed to get enough signatures for their petition to be sent to a higher level. Now, the state legislature has four months to take action (aka adopt, reject, or amend the proposal). If lawmakers reject it (which is likely), then advocates would have to gather another round of signatures to bring the measure to voters in November.
Maryland: Medical marijuana’s also a thing here. But in November, voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. If approved, anyone over 21 would be allowed to carry up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis starting in July 2023. And the measure would mean automatic expungement of some marijuana convictions and allow for resentencing.
While states have passed marijuana measures, regulation continues to be a WIP in some states (see: California). TBD if additional measures on regulation make it on the 2022 ballots. In the meantime, other states like Wyoming and Florida are pivoting efforts to create or expand marijuana policies to 2024.
America is living in two different realities when it comes to recreational marijuana use. And it's affecting marginalized communities the most. Until the federal government changes laws that many see as outdated, the war on drugs could continue to have detrimental effects on people's lives.
Updated April 19 to include the House passing legislation to decriminalize marijuana
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