More states will consider marijuana’s legalization in 2018. For example, there are promising efforts to present voters with ballot initiatives in Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah. In addition, there looks to be promising legislative activity in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont. Advocacy groups and activists are making advances in other states as well.
The political battles, while crucial to advancing legalization, are only part of the challenge. They address how legalization happens. But there is another element to this process, and that’s what happens—the content of legalization statutes, the rules, regulations and outcomes that result from the political and legislative process. This is policy, often compromised by the requirements of the political process.
Politics concerns what stakeholders get, but policy concerns what they want. Policy, good public policy, is what advocates keep fighting for. They may not get it the first, or second, or third time around—it’s a long-term objective. With that in mind, here are the top 10 marijuana policy issues entering 2018.
10. Elimination Of Research Restrictions
Under federal law, marijuana remains a Schedule I substance, which not only bans medical use but also establishes the most restrictive conditions on research. These include extensive security requirements, government approval of research protocols and maintenance of a government monopoly on the supply of cannabis for research purposes. These restrictions have been used to limit research that might challenge prohibitions on medical and recreational use; without them, patients would have been able to access the therapeutic benefits of cannabis decades ago.
Cannabis should be widely available for both scientific and industrial research. This is essential for several reasons, including expediting legal reforms, optimizing therapeutic benefits and catalyzing economic development.
9. Reductions In Criminal Penalties And Arrests
Legalization is underway. It may take a while. Some states may not be ready to legalize marijuana as soon as others. Many states are taking a wait-and-see approach, to observe legalization and learn from its early adopters. Other states are determined to resist calls for legalization.
Public support for arresting people for marijuana possession and subjecting them to criminal penalties is collapsing throughout the nation. There is no fairness nor justice in arresting someone for marijuana possession in one state, while someone in another state can legally buy marijuana and use it in their home.
Legalization is the best remedy for prohibition. But in states where legalization is not feasible, penalties should be reduced. This can be accomplished by a reduction in criminal penalties, replacement of arrest with a court summons, or preferably by the replacement of criminal penalties with civil penalties.
8. Universal Medical Access
There should be medical access to cannabis in every state and territory of the United States, and especially for all veterans of the armed forces. There is no longer any legitimate debate over the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in general or cannabis in particular. There are considerable, demonstrated benefits and extensive documentation regarding the safety and side effects.
In other words, there is more than sufficient research to support informed decisions by physicians and patients regarding the medical use of cannabis. Patients with medical approval for cannabis use in their home state should have access when they travel to other states. As important, patients in every state should have access to medical cannabis. No patient should be denied access to medical cannabis; this, too, is simply a matter of fairness and justice.
7. Insurance Coverage Of Medical Marijuana
Marijuana has been approved for therapeutic use in over half the states in the nation. As states transition to a legal market in marijuana, whether for medical or recreational use, the price of marijuana remains artificially high.
Marijuana has been established as an effective pharmacological tool to address the symptoms of many serious medical conditions. Most notably, it has been established as a safe alternative, in many cases, to the use of opioids for pain relief. Medicine is covered by insurance. Marijuana is medicine, and it should also be covered by insurance.
6. National Legalization
Marijuana must be legal throughout the United States. It must be removed from the Controlled Substances Act. The clash between federal and state laws must be eliminated.
No state should be allowed to criminalize marijuana use. The marijuana industry should be allowed access to the federal banking system. State and federal law enforcement must be directed to redeploy their resources from enforcing marijuana prohibition to other more important and more legitimate public policy priorities.
Once again, this is a matter of fairness and justice.
It is not acceptable that citizens in some states are allowed to use marijuana legally, while citizens in other states remain subject to arrest and imprisonment for their marijuana use. All of the preceding policy objectives would be addressed by this one; they may be necessary and incremental steps toward this objective. But by themselves the prior objectives, while representing considerable progress, are not sufficient to end the injustice of prohibition.
Why is national legalization not the number one policy objective? Because it is not enough.
Legalization is just the first step to ending the injustice of prohibition.
It will introduce a new approach to marijuana policy in the United States. But what will it take to make that approach, that new framework, effective and beneficial public policy?
Politics concerns what stakeholders get, but policy concerns what they want. Policy, good public policy, is what advocates keep fighting for. They may not get it the first, or second, or third time around—it’s a long-term objective. The ultimate policy objective of efforts to end marijuana prohibition is national legalization. But that is only number six in the top 10 policy objectives for marijuana legal reform. What is required to make legalization fair, just and effective?
With that in mind, here are the concluding top five marijuana policy issues entering 2018.
5. Protections Against Employment Discrimination
The primary policy issue, here, is the use of urinalysis testing to screen job applicants, in which evidence of marijuana use is used as a basis for denying employment.
Marijuana use in the evening or on weekends, for example, has no effect on job performance during the standard 40-hour, Monday-through-Friday, work week. Prohibition is the only justification for denying employment to someone who uses marijuana off-the-job; an end to prohibition must also mean an end to this type of job discrimination.
Using marijuana on-the-job is a different issue, the same as using alcohol while at work. Every employer has the right to require that their employees are free from impairment of any kind. The medical use of cannabis should be subject to the same expectation and treated the same as any other medical substance that has side effects that may impair job performance.
4. Home Cultivation
State and federal law must protect the right of individuals to grow marijuana for their own use.
Personal cultivation may be regulated. A license may be required. There may be a limit on the number of plants per household that can be cultivated for personal use, along with a definition of a household. In a country in which citizens have a right to bear arms and brew their own beer, there is no justification for preventing people from growing their own cannabis.
In fact, this is not just a matter of individual liberty. Home cultivation will also help regulate the commercial market by providing consumers with an alternative source of cannabis, enhancing competition and reducing market size.
3. Open Market Access
Initial market frameworks for a legal marijuana market are based on the concept of artificial scarcity. The idea is to limit the number of cultivators and the number of retail outlets to a) simplify regulatory supervision and b) keep marijuana expensive.
One rationale for this approach is that expensive marijuana will discourage or limit use. It may simply be a pretext to exploit legalization for profit and tax revenue.
Allowing an open market serves both consumer and the public interest. For consumers, an open market, in which anyone can participate, produces more competition, lower prices and better service. For the public an open market reduces the opportunities for an illegal market to flourish, making regulatory policies, such as required labeling and age-limits on purchases, more effective.
Almost all job applications require disclosure of any misdemeanor or felony arrests. An arrest for a marijuana offense makes it harder for an individual to get a job. It also makes it harder to receive various benefits, such as loans and grants to go to college.
Getting arrested for marijuana offenses has made many Americans second-class citizens.
There have been 21.6 million arrests for marijuana offenses in the United States from 1981 to 2016, an average of 601,129 per year. Since 2000, there has been an average of 755,525 arrests per year. Marijuana prohibition was a mistake and a costly mistake at that. Everyone who has been arrested for marijuana should have their record cleared.
1. Consumer Protection Advocacy
The top nine marijuana policy issues listed above will not be resolved in 2018; they will persist as priorities for many years to come. If these objectives are realized, is that the end of the movement to legalize marijuana?
These nine objectives represent what it takes to end prohibition. They make cannabis a legal commodity and provide equal protection and equal opportunity to cannabis users. This, however, is a beginning—not just an end.
Such gains will need to be protected. Cannabis legalization is often thought of in terms of the victimization of cannabis users by the law, by the criminal justice system. But prohibition empowers another form of victimization of cannabis users, victimization by an unregulated market.
A legalized market does more than end arrests; it also levels the playing field by empowering consumers. Many of the issues highlighted above are consumer issues, for example, insurance, job security and personal cultivation.
One of the key conflicts after legalization will be that between the marijuana industry and the marijuana consumer, and a key issue will be the extent the government sides with industry against the consumer or with the consumer against the industry.
How will marijuana consumers protect their gains and assert their interests?
This will become the most important marijuana policy issue of all in the post-legalization age. More important, it may be the most important aspect of getting legalization accomplished. Consumer protection organizations may be both a necessary and sufficient condition for achieving a true, lasting and effective end to prohibition.