2019: the five biggest moments in cannabis politics

Planet Watch2019 saw advances for cannabis freedom on both the national and global stage—but also some near-misses, from New York state to Mexico, which have left activists frustrated if no less determined. As advocates prepare to carry the fight into 2020, here's a review of what was achieved—or almost achieved—over the past 12 months.

The past year saw some crucial moments as political elbow room for cannabis expands. Some were clear victories. Others were reversals or (more optimistically) postponements in hard-fought campaigns for legalization. Here's an overview.

Farm Bill is implemented —gradually

Hemp and hemp-derived CBD were officially legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law nearly a year ago now. But the US Department of Agriculture failed to bring its regulations into conformity with the new federal law—until Oct. 29 of this year. On that day, interim regs were issued by the USDA, with a 60-day public comment period to follow before they take effect. This means a final rule will likely be in place in time for the 2020 planting season.

Establishment of the USDA's "Domestic Hemp Production Program" will help all farmers who want to grow the crop, making them eligible for federal aid packages. But it is particularly critical for the indigenous peoples of the Unites States. While most farmers could at least legally operate under state regulations for hemp cultivation, would-be growers on Native American reservations had to wait on issuance of federal regs. This means they were effectively barred from growing hemp in spite of the change to federal law. Now, the federal bureaucracy has finally caught up with the federal legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president a year ago. 

But not entirely. The US Food & Drug Administration has still failed to promulgate regs for use of legal hemp-derived CBD as an additive or ingredient. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb unexpectedly announced his resignation in March, leaving the status of CBD under the agency's regs as unfinished business. This came just after Congress members had officially written the agency to express their impatience on the matter. Since then, the FDA has not promulgated any such regs. Instead, it has only issued dark but dubious warnings about liver damage from CBD—not just once, but twice.

'Historic' House hearings on legalization

July 10 saw a Capitol Hill hearing on cannabis that advocates hailed as “historic." The hearing, convened by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, took more than two hours of expert testimony on the social ills associated with cannabis prohibition—and why it must end. Numerous lawmakers openly embraced lifting the federal strictures on cannabis—and even outright legalization. The question was especially discussed in terms of recognizing and correcting the racial and social injustices associated with cannabis prohibition and the "war on drugs." 

Entitled "Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform," the hearing weighed various possible legislative remedies—including removing the Schedule I classification that criminalizes cannabis under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. 

There are numerous bills currently before Congress that would do exactly that. And building on longstanding policy that bars federal cannabis enforcement in medical marijuana states, the House of Representatives in June passed a measure that would instate a similar hands-off approach to enforcement in states that have generally legalized. Geting such measures through the Republican-controlled Senate, however, will be a challenge—to say the least.

A near-miss in New York ...and some other states (as well as limited progress)

It was a bittersweet moment when a long hoped-for cannabis legalization bill officially died in the New York state assembly on June 19. Years of effort by activists and (more recently) state legislators to pass the Marijuana Taxation & Regulation Act, or MRTA, came to an anti-climactic end. However, reform advocates got a consolation prize as lawmakers agreed to widen decriminalization in New York state (from one ounce to two) and to expunge thousands of low-level cannabis convictions. 

In March, similar news was reported from Hawaii, where a measure to legalize cannabis died in the state legislature. But Hawaii's long-delayed medical marijuana program is finally taking off—and has now been opened to non-residents (particularly critical in a state with a huge tourism industry).

Successful passage of less ambitious legislation came in April, when New Mexico's governor signed into law a cannabis decriminalization measure, as well as another bill that expanded social space for medical marijuana users. A real if still limited victory was also seen in Nebraska in May, when a bill was passed to significantly reduce cannabis penalties. Cornhusker activists call it a "quasi-decriminalization," and are launching a new effort to get a legalization initiative approved in the 2020 elections.

Colorado in June passed a law allowing Amsterdam-style public cannabis smoking in "Marijuana Hospitality Establishments," as well as a measure lowering the penalties for cannabis in quantities exceeding those permitted for the adult-use market. In March, Alaska also approved new regulations to oversee cannabis use at licensed retail outlets. 

Progress was also seen in US offshore territories. The governor of Guam in April signed into a law a cannabis legalization measure—although actually establishing a legal market still faces opposition from local conservatives. The US Virgin Islands in January passed a medical marijuana law that allows home cultivation for qualifying patients. Basking in victory, the territory's activists still anticipate protection of sacramental use by Rastafarians—and general legalization 

Progress promised in Mexico ...and some other countries

There was also a sense of anti-climax in late October when Mexico's Congress won a six-month extension from the country's Supreme Court to pass a cannabis legalization act. This came almost exactly a year after the high court's historic decision finding that cannabis prohibition is unconstitutional. The deadline for Congress to change the law has been repeatedly extended, dashing hopes that Mexico would become the world's third country to formally legalize (after Uruguay and Canada) in 2019. It does seem set to happen in 2020, however, and foreign capital is already eyeing Mexico's emergent legal cannabis sector. Mexico would represent the biggest cannabis market among countries that have legalized, by far.

Mexico is now racing with New Zealand for the world cannabis legalization third-place prize (in terms of chronology, not market). Aotearoa (as the Pacific archipelago nation is known to its indigenous Maori inhabitants) is waiting on a promised cannabis legalization referendum to be held in 2020. Meanwhile, a domestic industry is starting to blossom, with big capital inflows reported.

Progress, short of outright legalization, was seen elsewhere around the world. The United Kingdom in February imported its first shipments of medicinal cannabis products from Canada, and its first shipment of bulk herbaceous cannabis, from the Netherlands.

Cannabis exports were approved by the cabinet in Israel in January. And in the country's April elections, legalization was aggressively taken up as a campaign plank by the far right (a development that might have seemed unlikely to the pot-smoking peaceniks of yesterdecade). 

Scientific clarity in the vape scare

This year has seen a disturbing nationwide outbreak of lung injuries, some fatal, which researchers link to vaping—either of tobacco products or cannabis concentrates. A key moment came on Sept. 6, when the FDA issued s statement naming a likely chemical culprit in the mysterious outbreak: Vitamin E acetate. This is simply a liquid oil form of the vitamin, and is widely used in skin-care products. Inhaling it, however, appears to carry serious hazards. The wave of illness has promoted a regulatory crack-down on the vaping industry—but amid serious confusion displayed by politicians and media alike. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control reported that as of Nov. 20, they had registered 2,290 cases of what is being called "e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury" (EVALI), with 47 fatalities. So the crisis here is all too real.

However, prohibitionists attempting to exploit the crisis as propaganda against cannabis legalization have got things precisely backwards. There is no Vitamin E acetate in cannabis. It is added to cannabis extract by unscrupulous vape-pen producers who peddle to the illicit market in states where cannabis remains illegal. Greater clarity on this point could help propel the legalization effort from coast to coast in 2020.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now



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