Cannabis legalization took five steps forward in the recent United States general election. State voters elected to adopt recreational marijuana legalization in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota.
In addition to these four new legal recreational marijuana states, the voters added Mississippi to the list of legal medical marijuana states.
Doing double duty, South Dakota made cannabis legalization history as the first state ever to adopt legal medical and legal recreational cannabis in the same election.
So, what comes next for cannabis legalization?
Will Legal Cannabis Become More Widespread After the 2020 Election?
Marijuana legalization has been rolling forward since California became the first legal medical marijuana state in 1996.
In 2012, through voter referendums, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to push the cannabis legalization envelope to include recreational marijuana legalization. Since the Colorado and Washington legal cannabis breakthroughs, the number of legal recreational-use marijuana states has only risen, never lowered.
The 2020 general election boosted the tally of legal recreational marijuana states from 11 states to 15. The 2020 election also added two more states to the list of legal medical marijuana states, bringing that number to 36 states of 50 in the union.
Cannabis legalization is a patchwork of restrictive regulations throughout the U.S. Territories. Only medical marijuana is legally available to Puerto Rico, but legal consumption methods do not include smoking it. In the Northern Mariana Islands, marijuana legalization pertains for medical and adult recreational use. At the other end of the cannabis legalization spectrum, American Samoa bans both recreational and medical marijuana use. The penalties for use, possession and sales are among the harshest in the country.
Regardless of which states and territories are playing catchup on erasing cannabis prohibition, no state that has implemented marijuana legalization has reverted to marijuana prohibition.
Taking the history and momentum of cannabis legalization as indicators, legal cannabis is likely to become more widespread in the wake of the 2020 election.
When Will Legal Cannabis Be Available in the Four New States?
Unfortunately for legal-marijuana advocates and consumers, voting to pass a cannabis legalization referendum does not create an immediate legal marijuana marketplace.
Some industry figures in the legal cannabis field are skeptical that legal marijuana dispensaries—for states that voted in 2020 for cannabis legalization—will be selling to the public before 2022.
Narmin Jarrous, executive vice president of Michigan-based cannabis retailer Exclusive Brands told Forbes, “I’d be surprised if states were able to draft legislation on the regulation of cannabis in their states and get businesses licensed and fully operational in a year. I think 2022 is more likely.”
Jarrous’s optimism-with-cautions is shared by Josh Swider, CEO of cannabis and CBD testing provider Infinite Chemical Analysis Labs. Swider warned Forbes that, “It’s going to take time and money to bring quality products to market.”
Swider blames time needed to establish the strict testing procedures, quality control standards, and marketing guidelines required for legal marijuana sales for the delay between voting for cannabis legalization and participating in a legal cannabis marketplace.
Rob Woodbyrne, a California-based software provider, envisions a quicker timeline for the country’s newest legal marijuana states bringing product to market. Woodbyrne feels that states new to cannabis legalization should follow the example of states that have already ironed out processes and regulations.
The complicated marijuana legalization work that has established licensing processes, taxing strategies, and user limitations has already been calculated and implemented elsewhere, Woodbyrne intimated to Forbes. The four freshly minted legal-marijuana states should follow in the footsteps of the 11 legal cannabis states before them, and recreational marijuana dispensaries could be operating by April 3, 2021.
In line with that estimation, Arizona has set April 2021 as the start date for its recreational marijuana dispensaries. Legal recreational cannabis has an advantage in Arizona. The state has an established network of regulated medical marijuana dispensaries. Licenses for Arizona’s recreational marijuana dispensaries will initially be allotted to the state’s established medical marijuana dispensaries.
Which States Could Legalize in 2021?
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for cannabis-lobbying organization the Marijuana Policy Project told CNN that she expects “a record number of states to legalize marijuana in 2021, in part due to the financial pressures, along with the racial injustice imperative to reduce unnecessary police-civilian interactions.”
O’Keefe’s colleague Steve Hawkins, who serves as the Marijuana Policy Project’s executive director, told Marijuana Business Daily that he feels New York, Connecticut, Maryland and New Mexico “are ripe” for establishing legalized recreational marijuana through their state legislatures.
Pushes for 2021 cannabis legalization are also coming from state governors. Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia and Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf have signaled intentions to encourage legal recreational marijuana in their states. Pennsylvania’s Wolf, in common with New York lawmakers, is motivated by concerns that neighboring New Jersey’s evolution to legal adult-use marijuana could entice medical marijuana consumers from both states, eating into the tax dividends medical marijuana sales provide New York and Pennsylvania.
Could Cannabis Be Legalized Federally?
The promise of marijuana legalization mandated at the federal level as a pipe dream for cannabis legalization advocates went up in smoke, at least temporarily, in September 2020.
The U.S. House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on a bill to establish federal cannabis legalization during the week of September 21, 2020. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer blamed emergency focus on issues related to the Covid 19 pandemic for postponing consideration of the bill until after the 2020 general election.
Some representatives apparently worried that voting to advance cannabis legalization while failing to secure a second coronavirus relief stimulus would be a bad look.
Looking beyond the September 2020 setback for national marijuana legalization, it’s unlikely that the financial and governance incentives for marijuana legalization at the federal level can be resisted indefinitely. With only 15 legal marijuana states, legal cannabis is estimated to be an $18 billion industry. Potential contributions from the legal cannabis industry to tax revenue, job creation and to local and state economies could rise exponentially if all 50 states participated in cannabis legalization.
The legal-cannabis industry itself would flourish under federally legalized marijuana. As long as cannabis industry legality is determined state-by-state, legal marijuana commerce between states is forbidden. Until a federally regulated legal cannabis market is in place, legal marijuana product from one state cannot legally be transported or sold in another state, even among contiguous states. This prohibition against interstate legal cannabis commerce is seen as a deterrent to corporate investment and expansion of the legal marijuana industry.
Research group Green Wave Advisors estimates the market value of the legal cannabis industry could rise to $70 billion per year if the United States enacted marijuana legalization at the federal level.
Along with those financial rewards, legalization of marijuana at the federal level would effectively decriminalize most cannabis activity. The tax savings in no longer enforcing, prosecuting and convicting cannabis activity will be overshadowed only by the improved life outcomes of recreational and medical cannabis consumers who will no longer be defined by their government as criminals.
If the 2020 election results do become a turning point for cannabis legalization, it’s the upgrade in quality of life for marijuana users that should matter most, above how many new green rush millionaires can be minted.