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The Legalization Train Rolls On

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Election results in three states showed big wins for legalization advocates Tuesday night. Voters in Michigan opted to allow recreational use, while those in Missouri and Utah approved measures to allow medicinal use. The other ballot measure of note, which failed, was in North Dakota. So that now makes 33 states in which marijuana is legal for medical use, and ten in which residents can legally smoke for recreational purposes.

What this means for the big picture is that more and more momentum is growing toward legalization. Lawmakers in many states are coming to realize the medical benefits of cannabis, and still others are beginning to realize that added revenue from taxes on weed sales are a big boost to state economies. The more lawmakers at the state level realize this, the more likely full-scale federal legalization becomes.

Morgan Fox, the National Cannabis Industry Association media relations director, told reporters that as popular opinion in favor of legalization grows (he claims it’s as high as 66%), lawmakers in Congress are becoming more open to allowing states to regulate marijuana use on their own.

An end to federal prohibition isn’t the only goal, however. Many legalization advocates are hopeful that the steam the movement picked up Tuesday night will carry over into other areas of concern for the marijuana industry. For example, just this summer, the Senate Appropriations Committee derailed an amendment that would have allowed marijuana businesses to use and work with banks, thereby removing one of the major headaches of the industry. The hope is that changing attitudes will encourage lawmakers to enact legislation that helps the industry, even if full-scale legalization is still a little way off.

Another amendment more recently discarded by Congress would have allowed VA doctors to prescribe cannabis in states where medical use is legal. Veterans in these states are still left to fend for themselves for now and use private doctors not affiliated with the VA, or seek alternative, sometimes less-effective treatment.

Of course, one would think, if Fox’s numbers are correct, that the representative government of the people would reflect the will of the people, right? I mean, 66% is enough to override a presidential veto, for cryin’ out loud. Well, one must remember procedure. Part of the obstruction to legalization and passage of amendments like the two mentioned above has been that these amendments are never voted on by the full congressional body. They are killed in committee. In that respect, however, legalization advocates can celebrate another victory from Tuesday night in that a key member of the House Rules Committee, Pete Sessions (R-TX), lost to Democratic challenger Colin Allred. Sessions had blocked every vote on cannabis amendments, including the one concerning the VA, and Allred attacked him for it during the campaign, so there is hope that the new Congressman will be more reasonable when it comes to cannabis legislation.

The thing is, though, the movement to legalize has truly come from the ground up. In almost all cases, legalization laws have come from voter initiatives, not state legislatures. Legislators themselves are still hesitant, for whatever reason, to take a progressive stance on cannabis legislation. At some point, though, the pressure of popular opinion will become too much for them to ignore.

In Wisconsin, for example, sixteen counties saw overwhelming “yes” votes in support of marijuana advisory questions. Those questions ranged from medical legalization issues to the question of full legalization. The message from voters was clear: legalization in some form or another is the will of the people. Those advisory votes themselves may have been nonbinding, but they will be taken into account during policy discussions.

Federal legalization would be beneficial to all states, economically speaking, so it seems inevitable that some sort of progress on the federal front will be made soon. Even in legal states, an end to federal prohibition could help curb black market issues. California, for example, traditionally produced the lion’s share of the nation’s cannabis before legalization. On the whole, states with legalization have decreed that the weed sold in their state must be grown in that state. In states like California, where there has been an abundance of growers, the black market still thrives for smaller growers who would suffer under state regulations, but for whom demand still exists across state lines.

In Nevada, for example, there weren’t nearly as many local growers, which led to a higher demand than supplies could meet. Growers in California could meet the demand, though, on the black market. So in this scenario, growers and buyers run the risk of both federal and state prosecution, and, rather than capitalizing on those sales through taxes and fees, the California, Nevada, and United States governments are all spending money trying to stop those sales through law enforcement. Federal legalization would open up interstate trade, allowing all of the governments involved to get a share of the revenue.

For Michigan, Missouri, and Utah residents, the shape of legalization remains to be seen, as does the rate of change at the federal level. In any event, legalization advocates are hopeful about the new Congress – that the question of legalization moves from a state-by-state discussion to a congressional one. If it does, it could positively impact economies, prison systems, and patients all over the country.

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