Marijuana Policy Project: state level policy reform, what’s next? – Health Europa

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Marijuana Policy Project Communications Manager Violet Cavendish explores the growing push for adult use legalisation in Arizona.

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is the nation’s leading organisation focused solely on cannabis policy reform with the mission to end prohibition. In this article MPP discusses cannabis policy reform in the US.

MPP currently focuses most of its resources on changes at the state level. As with the end of alcohol prohibition, MPP believes the end of cannabis prohibition is being driven by states that reject the federal position. State laws transform the lives of millions, create enormous business opportunities; and produce pro-legalisation constituents for members of Congress, which adds to the increasing pressure at the federal level to legalise cannabis.

Most of MPP’s efforts and resources are allocated where we can pass comprehensive, inclusive cannabis policy reform. Not only is this the most effective way to pressure Congress, but it also establishes a strong foundation of support when the time is right for MPP to lead the effort on Capitol Hill to end cannabis prohibition nationwide.

Spearheading cannabis policy reform

Since 1995, MPP has spearheaded most of the major state-level cannabis policy reforms in the United States. Initially, MPP focused almost entirely on medical cannabis laws. Along with MPP-backed campaign committees, MPP played a leading role in successfully passing 13 state medical cannabis laws in Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Vermont.

MPP also led efforts to legalise cannabis in eight of the 11 states that have implemented laws legalising cannabis for adult use. MPP’s first adult use legalisation success started with drafting, funding, and staffing Colorado’s historic Amendment 64 initiative in 2012, which made the state the first place in history to legalise cannabis for adults and regulate it like alcohol. Since then, MPP has led the coalitions that passed initiatives to legalise and regulate cannabis for adults 21 and over in Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Nevada in 2014, 2016, and 2018.

MPP is also active in state legislatures. In early 2018, MPP successfully spearheaded the advocacy campaign that led to Vermont becoming the first state to legalise cannabis for adults through the legislative process rather than through a voter initiative. Currently, Vermont still does not allow for cannabis sales, but MPP is actively working with the state legislature to pass a bill that would legalise and regulate sales. MPP also played a crucial role in crafting and lobbying for Illinois’ legalisation and regulation measure, which was signed into law in 2019. Illinois made history by becoming the first state to legalise adult use cannabis and its sale through the state legislature.

Advocates of cannabis regulation

The Marijuana Policy Project advocates for cannabis to be regulated similarly to alcohol. As cannabis is a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol both to the consumer and to society, MPP believes it should be treated that way. Regulating cannabis like alcohol promotes public safety by removing cannabis from the illicit market and empowering state and local governments to control production and sales by licensed, tax-paying businesses.

By regulating cannabis, authorities know who is selling it, where and when it is being sold, and to whom. In a legal market, cannabis is produced and sold by commercial enterprises that create jobs and follow strict public health and safety standards. Cannabis businesses are required to test their products and adhere to strict labelling and packaging requirements that ensure cannabis is identifiable and consumers know what they are getting.

Taxing and regulating cannabis also helps to reduce youth access and use. Licensed establishments have an incentive to verify the age of their customers, because selling to minors jeopardises their licences to sell to adults.

The costs of prohibition

Through the work MPP does around the US every day, the national conversation around cannabis has been completely transformed, and public opinion regarding legalisation has drastically changed. Prohibition has been nothing short of a policy failure; and a growing number of individuals and elected officials recognise this. Polls consistently show that most Americans — regardless of their political affiliation — agree that prohibition does not work. Public opinion has shifted in favour of legalisation because the fearful predictions made by opponents have not materialised.

The prohibition and criminalisation of cannabis causes devastating and unjustifiable human and economic costs. It forces cannabis into the underground market, where it is impossible to control and regulate. Arresting consumers costs taxpayers an estimated $7.7bn a year and prevents police from focusing on real crimes – and the current policy fails to keep cannabis out of the hands of minors and does not improve public health or safety.

States around the country are rolling back prohibition and finding that regulating cannabis works. Currently, 33 states have legalised cannabis for medical use; and 11 of those states, along with Washington, DC, have legalised cannabis for adult use. The cannabis legalisation movement is establishing a strong foundation as it gains more constituents, supporters, and elected officials in Congress.

Adult use across the states

There are several states that have a real chance of reforming their cannabis policies in 2020. With an effort underway to legalise cannabis for adults aged 21 and over through a voter referendum, Arizona is among these states. In 2010, Arizona voters enacted a medical cannabis initiative — Proposition 203 — with 50.13% of the vote. In order to qualify for Arizona’s medical cannabis programme, patients must be diagnosed with one of the listed debilitating medical conditions: cancer; HIV/AIDS; hepatitis C; glaucoma; multiple sclerosis; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); Crohn’s disease; agitation of Alzheimer’s disease; PTSD; or a medical condition that produces wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, or severe and persistent muscle spasms.

As of February 2020, there were 226,677 Arizonans registered under the state’s medical cannabis programme. Registered patients may possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis and may designate one caregiver to possess it on their behalf. Arizona’s law also provides that any patient living 25 miles or more away from a dispensary can cultivate cannabis.

A new effort to legalise cannabis for adult use in Arizona is underway, nearly four years after voters narrowly rejected a similar cannabis legalisation question at the ballot. Smart and Safe Arizona, the campaign leading the effort, submitted petition language for an adult use legalisation initiative and is currently gathering signatures to qualify the initiative for the 2020 ballot. Well in advance of the July deadline, the campaign recently announced that they have collected a sufficient number of signatures to qualify the proposal.

If approved, the initiative would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. Individuals could possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to six plants in their home. The initiative also includes social justice provisions such as allowing expungement of prior cannabis convictions and establishing a social equity ownership programme.

Momentum to reform failed cannabis policies is increasing across the United States, and Arizona may soon join the growing number of jurisdictions that have found that a system of taxing and regulating cannabis — rather than prohibiting it — works.

Violet Cavendish
Communications Manager
Marijuana Policy Project

This article will appear in the second issue of Medical Cannabis Network which is out in April. Click here to get your free subscription today.