***UPDATE — New Jersey approves the use of recreational cannabis in the November 3, 2020 election.
This month, voters in New Jersey will decide whether or not to legalize adult-use cannabis. By the time of this article’s publication, we should know whether cannabis is legal in New Jersey or not.
However, New Jersey’s possible legalization of cannabis for recreational use is but another step towards federal legalization.
Notably, most Democrats support the legalization of cannabis for recreational use. But Republican support also seems to be on the uptick. In fact, studies from PEW Research show that a majority of voters support federal legalization. Theoretically, nationwide legalization could happen in the future.
But will cannabis become legal in the next few years? To answer this question, let’s revisit how Colorado became the first state to legalize cannabis for recreational use.
A Long Time Coming
Cannabis’ legalization in Colorado was not exactly surprising. There were numerous efforts made to legalize the plant long before Amendment 64 passed.
California attempted to legalize cannabis twice in 1972 and 2010; Oregon tried in 1986; Nevada also attempted twice in 2002 and 2006; Alaska attempted to legalize in 2000, and again in 2004; and Colorado first tried in 2006.
While all of these attempts failed, support steadily grew. By the time Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed in the November 2012 election, cannabis’ recreational legalization was long overdue.
Public Policy Polling demonstrated just how much support the amendment had gained by releasing a poll in October 2012 that indicated 53% of Coloradans supported legalization while 46% opposed it.
In December 2013, one year after the previous poll, support for legalization remained steadfast at 53% while opposition to legalization dropped to 38%.
Interestingly, Republican support for legalization was quite high in Colorado. Tom Tancredo, former Republican U.S. House Representative and 2008 presidential candidate, endorsed cannabis’ legalization.
In a statement to The Gazette, Tancredo said, “There is no government program or policy I can think of that has failed in such a unique way as marijuana prohibition.”
Rabbi Steven Foster, a conservative, also endorsed cannabis’ recreational legalization. According to online publication Westworld, Rabbi Foster believed state laws regarding cannabis were “not working,” and legalization might ease the burden on overwhelmed prosecutors and courts.
In other words, Colorado voters saw Amendment 64 as a way to refocus law enforcement on violent crime.
The Aftermath of Legalization
According to Regulate Marijuana, one of the major reasons public support for cannabis legalization grew in Colorado was the belief that legalization would actually lessen teen consumption. The mentality behind this belief was that legislation would restrict usage to those under 21, thereby inhibiting anyone underaged from purchasing cannabis.
Regulate Marijuana also reported that prohibiting cannabis was problematic as underaged teens had to purchase illegal cannabis that may have been laced with more harmful drugs. Thus, regulation also became necessary.
Of course, a major benefit of cannabis’ legalization is potential tax revenue.
According to the Star Tribune, cannabis’ first year of legal commercial sales, 2014, generated over $75 million for Colorado, exceeding the projected target of $60 million.
Colorado’s Department of Revenue stated that cannabis sales from dispensaries in 2015 hit a whopping $996 million. This number marked a 42% increase from 2014’s $699 million.
2015 also saw tax collections hit $135 million, a 78% increase from the year prior.
Financially speaking, cannabis legalization has been a huge benefit for the state of Colorado.
With 2019 marking the first year total tax revenue added up to $1 billion since recreational legalization, Colorado has been able to fund many youth programs. Such programs include rebuilding schools, associated education centers, and children’s health programs.
Unfortunately, there have been some drawbacks to legalization as well. The Guardian has reported that homelessness and car collisions have seen a slight spike since legalization. However, there is no evidence to suggest the two directly correlate.
As NBC news reported in 2017, the major issue since legalization has been a massive 400% increase of teens going into the emergency room with THC-positive screens.
Will Cannabis Legalization Happen at the Federal Level?
Current attempts to legalize cannabis at the federal level are disjointed at best and virtually non-existent at worst. In October, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging the DEA’s prohibition of cannabis at the federal level. However, there was some promising talk throughout the 2020 campaign.
Currently, 11 states have legalized cannabis for recreational use and an additional 36 have legalized it for medical use. Among the three states that completely prohibit the use of cannabis — Idaho, Nebraska, and South Dakota — Nebraska has decriminalized it.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021 is currently the only piece of legislation sitting in Congress that even addresses cannabis use at the federal level. While the SAFE Banking Act and the HEROES Act also address cannabis, they primarily protect insurers from legal action in states where cannabis is legal, according to Property Casualty 360.
Newsweek reports the NDAA would have nothing to do with cannabis if Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii had not introduced an amendment that would allow soldiers to use cannabis derivatives like CBD.
In accordance with the complete lack of federal legalization being discussed in Congress, federal prohibition does not even recognize cannabis as viable for medical use. As such, the House of Representatives is trying to get cannabis removed from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
Conversely, federal legalization has been a discussion point throughout the 2020 campaign. Many candidates, most prominently Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., discussed federal legalization.
For example, Sanders proposed to sign an executive order allowing federal legalization within his first 100 days in office, according to Reuters. Additionally, The New York Times reported that Warren similarly sought to sign an executive order that would de-schedule cannabis via the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has alluded to federal decriminalization, but has failed to commit concretely to such a plan.
Going forward, more states are likely to vote on legalization. In recent years, such legalization efforts have often been successful with many hoping New Jersey will be the next to follow through. Perhaps, federal legalization will only occur after every state allows cannabis for recreational use.
By Thomas O’Connor