Marijuana Makes Strides: The worst year in living memory was good for weed

2020 will go down in history as a good year for literally no one. The unimaginable combination of a global pandemic, resulting economic crisis, political mayhem and widespread panic have tested all of us more than we probably thought was possible. But as I reflected on the year through the lens of cannabis policy, I realized that even in the worst year in living memory, the legal cannabis movement made incredible strides forward.

In January, Illinois (the first state to fully legalize through the legislature — take notes, Rhode Island!) opened doors on a comprehensive legal cannabis industry and robust social equity program that set a new standard for state-legal marijuana models. In Vermont, the first state to legalize through the legislature possession, consumption and cultivation of cannabis by adults, lawmakers finally approved a framework for retail sales this September and included in it automatic expungement for low level marijuana offenders to boot. Even in Virginia, legislators decriminalized cannabis possession and laid the groundwork for legalization in the future. 

Despite an economic situation that threatened to shutter businesses of all shapes and sizes, legal marijuana sales soared amidst the coronavirus pandemic, with consumer spending up 72% in Colorado between August and October (New Frontier Data). Whether the increased demand was related to stress relief, working from home or doomsday prepping, Americans were definitely buying and consuming a lot of cannabis this year. It helped that many cannabis businesses were designated “essential,” allowing people to continue to access legal marijuana even during periods of strict isolation. 

During a tough year for most industries, legal cannabis sales amounted to $20 billion in 2020, a number expected to surpass $41.5 billion by 2025 (New Frontier Data). Furthermore, TechCrunch reports that “the legal cannabis market supports 243,700 full-time-equivalent American jobs, which are set to multiply by 250% between 2018 and 2028. This makes the cannabis industry America’s largest source for new jobs.” Amidst unprecedented unemployment, the future for the cannabis industry is bright, and public support remains higher than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans support cannabis legalization at the federal level.

The 2020 election would prove to be monumental on several levels, but cannabis was certainly the most decisive winner of the day. Marijuana reform was one of the few bipartisan issues in an incredibly divisive election year, which, coupled with record-breaking voter turnout, resulted in a green sweep across America. All state initiatives where cannabis was on the ballot passed with generous margins, with four states (Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota) approving cannabis for adult use, and two legalizing medical marijuana (Mississippi, South Dakota). The new reality is that two-thirds of Americans now have access to legal adult use cannabis, 36 states have medical marijuana programs in place and 15 states have now legalized cannabis for adult use — and that is a very big deal. 

As significant as all of these advancements are, none is more exciting to me than the MORE Act. Approved by the US House of Representatives in early December, the MORE Act is a comprehensive federal marijuana reform package — the first bill of its kind to even get to a vote in Congress. While far from perfect, the MORE Act offers an incredibly important step in the right direction. It completely removes cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, ostensibly legalizing marijuana at the federal level and allowing states to continue to regulate it as they see fit. Marijuana is currently considered a Schedule I substance, “highly addictive and with no medical value.” And yet here we are, the federal government finally poised to admit that the drug classification of cannabis has always been completely bogus, not based in reality or scientific fact. Alongside the MORE Act, the House also passed the Medical Marijuana Research Act, which would greatly improve the base of scientific evidence upon which we can build more sensible policies in the future.

Way back in 2020, my hopes of passing anything at all through the US Senate were nonexistent. Although there was bipartisan support for both bills, and President-Elect Biden has said he would sign them into law if they reached his desk, I wasn’t sure he would get the opportunity. But now, in January 2021, everything has changed. The Georgia runoff elections have flipped the Senate, making passage of progressive marijuana reform more likely than ever. I have a strange feeling (could it be hope?) that we might see the cannabis landscape change dramatically within the next few months. And if it does, we will have Stacey Abrams to thank for legal weed in the USA.