In the last 26 years, we’ve seen a revolution in cannabis legalization. Since California’s Proposition 215 opened the floodgates on legalization movements in 1996, 19 states plus DC have fully legalized adult-use (a.k.a. “recreational”) cannabis, and 18 states have legalized medical marijuana; in addition, Nebraska and North Carolina decriminalized cannabis possession without legalizing medical use.
Overall, it’s a massive win for cannabis users and all who value freedom from government tyranny, giving residents in states with legal cannabis more rights and protections from police and government overreach. Legalization has filled state coffers with billions of dollars in tax revenue and stimulated the economy — plus, it’s considered one of the few industries in which the little guy has a chance at getting in on the game.
Where we are with cannabis legalization in 2022, state by state
As a political issue, cannabis sits at the intersection of many public health and social equity struggles. We think it’s important to share the state of legalization halfway through 2022 as primary season rages ahead of the midterm elections, which can often be a turning point for legalization at the state level.
Governor Daniel McKee signed the Rhode Island Cannabis Act at the end of May, and the state leapfrogged over Delaware to become the 19th state with legal cannabis for adult use. Highlights of the bill include automatic expungement for civil and criminal possession charges; adult-use sales that could start as soon as December 1, 2022; an effective tax rate of 20% made up of sales tax, a new 10% cannabis tax and a 3% municipality tax; a social equity program; and promises to reinvest a portion of licensing fees back to communities in which licenses are issued.
Supporters praise Governor McKee’s responsiveness in signing the legislation, and say that this new legislation is a “common sense” measure. The 10 ounce possession limit for home storage is among the highest in the country. The 1 ounce public carry limit is a standard amount, although some places have higher limits (you can possess up to 2 ounces in DC). The Rhode Island Cannabis Act also states that only 33 retail licenses will be issued by the state (at least in the first round), which may lock out some small businesses since existing medical dispensaries will be allowed to apply for adult-use sales licenses, giving them an advantage.
Connecticut legalized cannabis for adult use in July of 2021, but there have been plenty of obstacles in implementing the new law. The largest hurdle lies in a lottery system that prospective license holders are required to enter. Connecticut said it would issue a total of 56 cannabis business licenses. Thirty-seven thousand applications flooded in, each of which was required to pay a fee between $128 and $750. Critics say that the lottery system doesn’t encourage choosing licensees based on merit, and has created a slush fund of application fees ripe for misuse by regulators. Some regulators have also alluded to the likelihood that the first licenses issued will be for businesses owned by large multi-state operators, or MSOs, rather than small businesses with a track record of compassionate care for patients.
The second barrier to safe adult-use sales in Connecticut is overcoming irregularities in testing. The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection backed by the Legislation Regulation Review Committee passed a new standard for mold and yeast (100,000 colony forming units per gram) which patient advocates claim is roughly 10x higher than a safe threshold, citing potential for lung illness and allergies in consumers and cannabis workers. Patient advocates also note that this change was made without allowing for public comment at the legislative session, and that patients were not properly notified of the change.
Despite the Delaware House Representatives voting with a super majority to send a cannabis legalization bill to Governor John Carney’s desk, the governor’s veto was upheld on June 7, 2022 with a vote of 20-20-1. A Democratic governor defeating a legalization measure runs counter to the popularity of cannabis legalization in the Democratic Party nationwide. It comes as a massive blow to Delawareans, who don’t see a clear path to legalization until the governor is replaced, which may not be until 2025 or later.
DC, Maryland & Virginia
Even though they’re governed by three separate legislative bodies, DC, Maryland and Virgina (the DMV) have a strong interstate cannabis community in the areas encompassing and surrounding the I-495 Beltway. As of June 28, 2022, DC allows adults over 21 to self-certify their need for medical cannabis use, a policy that was implemented for senior citizens over 65 in February of 2022. The DC council voted unanimously to accept the self-certification measure in hopes that it would get more residents to purchase cannabis from taxed medical dispensaries rather than gray-market cannabis gifting shops and smoke shops. An emergency measure for self-certification and the dissolution of Initiative 71 was struck down by the DC council earlier in 2022, largely on procedural grounds. The new self-certification policy serves as a medical-market alternative to the prohibition of adult-use sales in DC as outlined by the federal budget rider that prevents cannabis sales, which was introduced by Maryland congressman Andy Harris.
In Maryland, the General Assembly referred legalization to residents in a question that will appear on ballots this year. The measure is expected to pass and will allow adult consumers to purchase and possess up to 1.5 oz of cannabis flower, removes criminal penalties for possession of 2.5 oz of cannabis, and would allow adults to grow up to two plants in their homes, which is a departure from home grow restrictions that don’t even allow medical patients to grow their own medicine.
In Virginia, Governor Youngkin moved to change the penalties for cannabis possession by reintroducing criminal charges for simple possession. Previously, Virginians were allowed to possess up to one pound of cannabis with a penalty of only a $25 fine for simple possession, but now possession of between one and four ounces is a misdemeanor, and possession of a pound of cannabis or more is a felony offense. Virginia also removed the requirement from its Board of Pharmacy-administered medical program in which patients are no longer required to register with the Board to hold a medical marijuana license. A doctor’s recommendation, however, is still required.
While Illinois has had legal cannabis for adult use since the beginning of 2020, it remains among the highest taxed adult-use markets in the country, and is the most corporate-dominated state market. A lawsuit filed by True Social Equity in Cannabis alleges that corporations Akerna, Green Thumb, Verano and Surterra have effectively monopolized cannabis sales and that this dominance directly benefits exceptionally wealthy families like the Wrigleys, Kovlers and Pritzkers — Governor JB Pritzker's family. True Social Equity in Cannabis alleges that this cartel behavior has artificially raised the price of cannabis products to unsustainable levels and is passing costs directly on to consumers.
The ”Chicago Cartel” lawsuit was filed during an ongoing fight for equity in licensing to benefit small businesses and operators who are victims of the War on Drugs. The state has held up more than 200 licenses via injunctions, which has many small business owners concerned for their future in the industry. Illinois has been issuing licenses based on lotteries, rather than a merit-based system, similar to Connecticut.
Louisiana, Alabama & Mississippi
These three states are among the most recent in the union to approve medical cannabis, all approving measures through the state legislature in 2021. A quick view of listed dispensaries on Weedmaps shows the accessibility in each state is pretty weak, with Alabama having a whopping zero listed dispensaries in the whole state. Mississippi has one facility, while Louisiana has it a little better with nine pharmacies, one location per major population center, except for Baton Rouge and New Orleans which each have two. Arkansas has a five-year head start with a similar legal structure and now has 32 stores and five medical cultivators, so it’s safe to assume that Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi will offer more access to consumers in five years’ time.
Readers might remember New York’s vibrant 420 celebration that manifested in a gray market renaissance. It seems like New York is doing almost everything right. The state allows residents to grow up to 12 plants per household. By the end of this year, the state aims to have the first license holders operational, and plans to reserve the first 100-200 licenses for social equity applications.
Under the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), New York offers nine adult-use license types and leased space for licensed dispensaries, which is meant to limit vertical integration among businesses. Critics of New York’s policies point out that extending leased space for dispensaries, but not cultivators, could lead to corporate weed of middling quality. New York also updated its regulations on packaging design in an effort to make them stark and plainly labeled similar to cigarette packaging, which has riled up traditional market brands known for their colorful themed designs.
New Jersey finally started adult-use sales this year the day after 4/20, nearly two years after approving the ballot measure for adult-use cannabis in 2020. Critics of policies in New Jersey were dismayed — but not surprised — to learn that the first licenses were issued to retailers that already had medical licenses before adult-use was operational. New Jersey still allows cannabis gifting per its legalization statutes, but has signaled that it plans to shut down any perceived abuses of that system.
While Florida is reportedly on the path to adult-use cannabis legalization, it has only legalized medical cannabis at this time. The type of license Florida issues to new operators is a Medical Marijuana Treatment Center (MMTC) license, 22 of which were made available for this year; eight more will be released in 2023. Since licenses are only available to vertically integrated seed-to-sale producers, only a handful of MSO corporations (some of which overlap with those mentioned in the Chicago Cartel suit) have been able to obtain licenses. Corporate licensees have brought in brands from California like Cookies and Jungle Boys to license their brands and genetics. Current license holders are likely to hold an advantage when Florida legalizes adult-use cannabis. Florida has also struggled with equitable licensing, and still has yet to issue a license to any Black farmers. More than 50 farmers applied for a single license that was to be issued to a Black farmer; the application required non refundable license fees of close to $150,000.
The Last Nug
Even though progress may seem slow, the amount of momentum that cannabis legalization has amassed is nothing to scoff at. Politicians have been saying for decades that cannabis is a “states rights” issue, so we went grassroots and took it state-by-state. While not every change is positive (corporate cannabis isn't good for anyone but the money men), the needle has been moved to the point where a majority of Americans either want cannabis legalization, or want the government to leave cannabis smokers alone. The change in attitude is a huge step in the direction of not allowing more people to be put in jail or prison for cannabis, and will lead to immense victories for workers’ rights in future. Make sure to vote this November if you care about rights for cannabis patients and consumers.