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Update on Marijuana Legalization

05/4/2021 Politics & Law
picture of a mock ballot with yes and no checkboxes and a marijuana leaf

The movement for legalizing marijuana on the federal level has picked up a lot of momentum. Just in the past four months, five states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. 30% of the country now allows adults to possess and use cannabis for medical or recreational purposes.  There are at least another two states that are almost ready to join them.

This is a national trend that reflects a seismic shift in how Americans view marijuana.  In the past, U.S. leaders and citizens showed a preoccupation with perceived dangers, such as substance abuse or criminal activity. But now more people have realized that there is no evidence to support these ideas.

Clear Benefits

It has become clear as crystal that there are huge economic, social, and health benefits for the citizens of states with the regulated cannabis industry. Leaders in many states acknowledge the injustice of criminalization.

While the movement in states is very encouraging, there are still challenges ahead on the national level.

Biden Administration’s Current Focus

Vice President Kamala Harris has stated that the reason for the delay in considering federal legalization of marijuana has been the dire need to quickly deal with Covid 19 vaccine distribution across this country of 327 million people. The Biden administration had promised to push for reforms like decriminalization of marijuana and expunging previous marijuana records, but for now we’ll have to wait until the pandemic is better under control.

Harris stated that the administration’s all-consuming focus has had to be to help people stay housed and fed, getting kids back to school, and distributing the vaccine.  Now that the vaccine push is well underway, other national leaders are hoping to push the Biden administration to fulfill their promises regarding decriminalization – and hopefully full legalization.

Senate Majority Leader Seeks Forward Movement

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, has been an early proponent of federal legalization, having introduced a bill back in 2018. He used the bill to bolster support from Democratic voters during the 2020 election. Now that Democrats are in the majority, he is writing new federal marijuana reform legislation with Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Schumer’s support appears bold compared to President Biden’s reticence on the issue. Schumer has said that the Senate will take the initiative to move ahead aggressively at the federal level.  Just a reminder:  Biden is in favor of decriminalization, but hasn’t quite jumped on the full legalization bandwagon yet.

Like many people, Schumer’s attitudes about cannabis have evolved over time. It has helped that all the portentous warnings about legalization were not borne out in the experiences of states that legalized early.

Schumer has spent time talking about legalization with people in our awesome state, Colorado – and that has helped him to understand how legal access to cannabis products has helped many lives personally and medically, how it has brought business to the state and benefited the state’s tax base.

Welcome to Colorado (with cannabis leaf symbol) road sign.jpg

It is gratifying to hear that those in leadership are tuned into the benefits legalization will bring to citizens, and of course, listening to voters will benefit them politically. While there is still a battle ahead in Washington, the signs of change are encouraging.

State Round-Up

In Colorado, we tend to take legal recreational and medical weed for granted.  So let’s take a look at other notable states in the nation and what is going on there …

Michigan is beginning to grant clemency. Marijuana was legalized there back in 2018, and now Governor Gretchen Whitmer is reviewing egregiously excessive sentences.

Grinded weed shaped as Michigan and a joint

One 69-year-old man received a minimum sentence of 40 years for selling three pounds of marijuana to undercover officers back in 1996, coupled with firearms charges. After serving 25 years of his sentence, he was released in January of this year.  Whitmer calls this “smart justice,” and proclaims Michigan’s leadership in correcting past wrongs.

In Virginia, the General Assembly passed legislation that legalizes recreational use for adults. The original date of legalization was in 2024, but Virginia Governor Ralph Northam sped things up. The new date is July 1, 2021.  Northam pointed out that Virginians clearly support speeding up legalization. He noted that this will address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Crumbled weed in the shape of Virginia and a joint

On July 1, Virginians can possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to four marijuana plants per household. Marijuana sales, though, are still delayed until 2024. The state needs time to develop regulations for licensing commercial production and sales.

And in New York State, (former) Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill on March 31 legalizing recreational marijuana. (Medical marijuana has been legal in New York for a while now.)  The millions of dollars in tax revenue collected by the state will go to fund public schools and communities and to support those fighting addictions.

new york in block letters with crumbled marijuana overlaying it

The bill allows the records of those convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized to have their records automatically expunged. People with past convictions will now be able to legally participate in the new, legal cannabis market.  New York adults can possess up to three ounces of cannabis for recreational purposes or 24 grams of concentrates.

New Yorkers can smoke marijuana in public wherever smoking tobacco is allowed. (Some localities in New York State can create stricter regulations for public smoking of marijuana, though.) Smoking is generally permitted on city streets.

New Push to Expunge Records

Leaders in Congress are speaking out in support of legalizing marijuana and expunging drug-related records.  Rep Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) is introducing a measure with a series of policy changes to reduce mass incarceration and reform the nation’s criminal justice system.

US Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley walks from the podium after speaking
US Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley

Looking Ahead

There is still a lot of work ahead to obtain the massive shifts needed to lead to the legalization of marijuana everywhere in the United States. While changes have been incremental, the support for them has been tremendous.

Stay tuned for regular updates on marijuana news in Colorado, at the federal level and around the country!



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