Amidst the suspense and commotion of the presidential election, the cannabis industry in the United States quietly, but significantly, expanded on Tuesday night. A record number of medical and adult use initiatives were on ballots across the nation, and the large number of victories drastically expands the scope of the industry, while also likely setting the stage for further initiatives in 2018 and beyond.
According to the Associated Press, adult use ballot initiatives passed in three states – California (56 percent of voters approved Proposition 64), Massachusetts (54 percent of voters approved Question 4), and Nevada (54 percent of voters approved Question 2). Proponents of the adult use initiative in Maine are also claiming victory on Question 1, although national media outlets have refrained from calling the proposition, as precincts continue to report and the margins remain razor thin. Overall, the only blemish for recreational ballot measures last night was in Arizona, where 52 percent of voters defeated Proposition 205.
Once the laws approved at the ballot box last night go into effect, more than 64 million Americans will live in states where adults can legally use cannabis under state law. Moreover, while the cannabis movement had been confined to the West Coast, the passage in Massachusetts (and, potentially, Maine) gives adult use marijuana laws a foothold on the East Coast.
In addition to adult use proposals, Arkansas (53 percent of voters approved Issue 6), Florida (71 percent of voters approved Amendment 2), and North Dakota (64 percent of voters approved Measure 5) approved medical marijuana ballot initiatives, bringing the total number of states that have approved such laws to 28.
It remains to be seen whether 2016 will be seen as a tipping point with regard to efforts to legitimize and legalize cannabis in the United States, but last night’s victories establish significant momentum going forward. While concern remains that President-Elect Trump may appoint individuals who are antagonistic towards the cannabis industry to key positions, such as Attorney General, the likelihood that the Department of Justice will amend its Cole Memo-enunciated stance on the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (the “CSA”) seems to be diminishing. With more than half the states in the nation having now approved medical marijuana laws and approximately one-fifth of the country’s population now residing in a state that has approved recreational usage of cannabis for adults, the pressure seems to be mounting on the federal government to either address the legal dichotomy directly or, at the very least, to continue to exercise discretion while also beginning to tackle issues such as access to financial services and taxation.