When the novel coronavirus first necessitated business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders to prevent its spread in the U.S. this past March, it was unclear exactly what the ramifications would be for those working on promising state legalization efforts. Priorities, understandably, turned to mitigating the pandemic. However, in most states, cannabis cultivators and dispensaries were deemed essential and, with new regulations and social distancing measures, allowed to remain open.
Four months later, there is some progress to note. As this issue goes to press, advocates in Arkansas and Nebraska are approaching their early July deadlines to gather enough signatures for ballot initiatives that, if passed, would legalize adult-use cannabis consumption and sales in Arkansas and a medical program in Nebraska. (Editor's Note: Arkansas did not collect enough signatures; Nebraska surpassed its goal.) Arizona advocates have enough signatures but continue to collect more to ensure that the about 238,000 needed are verified to qualify for an adult-use legalization initiative voters will decide on this fall.
A campaign in Montana met its signature requirement to get two adult-use cannabis legalization initiatives on the November ballot, one that legalizes the plant and establishes a system to regulate and tax products, and another that sets the legal age minimum to purchase and consume cannabis to 21.
In New Jersey, voters will consider an adult-use legalization measure—put on hold in 2019—while NJ CAN 2020, comprising a group of cannabis advocates, is working to complement the state’s tax and regulation language by expanding on how the system would operate and prioritizing social equity programs.
States are also continuing to approve measures to improve access for patients and customers while keeping them safe during the pandemic. Some Maryland patients can apply for and renew certifications via telehealth services, and dispensaries across the U.S. could (and in some cases, were mandated) to move to delivery and curbside pickup during the early weeks of shutdowns, convenient services that continue. Additionally, New Jersey approved home delivery for its medical program in late June.
Some state tax revenues are looking grim as a result of widespread business shutdowns and lost income, and tax revenues from the essential cannabis industry looks all the more appealing. At the same time, protests over police killings continue across the country and have placed an urgent focus on racial injustice and social equity; and with expungements, pardons and social equity programs major components of legalization programs throughout the country, reform efforts to decriminalize and/or legalize cannabis are being seen by many in a new light. In June, for example, Nevada officials passed a resolution to pardon low-level cannabis convictions, and the New Jersey Assembly passed a decriminalization and expungement process bill that, as of press time, has moved to the state Senate for consideration.
Legalization offers the opportunities to create jobs, jump-start decimated economies, replenish depleted state tax coffers and begin to rectify ineffective laws criminalizing possession that were unequally applied.
As long as voters and lawmakers remember that, there is much to be hopeful for in the November elections and beyond.