Voters in eight states decided on Election Day to radically amend their longstanding marijuana policies.
In four states – California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada – voters approved initiatives to regulate the production, use, and retail sale of cannabis to adults. In an additional four states – Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota – voters decided in favor of ballot measures to permit the dispensing and use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes.
In each of these jurisdictions, proponents of marijuana policy reform were forced to bring the issue directly to the voters because elected officials steadfastly refused to address it legislatively. In the weeks following the election, little has changed.
Despite these voter mandates, many lawmakers remain reluctant to move forward with the legal reforms that the public has demanded. In some cases, legislators and regulators are outright defying voters’ will by proposing measures to undermine the election’s outcomes altogether.
In Arkansas, where 53 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment — the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act — state lawmakers immediately passed emergency implementation to delay the law’s enactment, while additional legislation remains pending to prevent the law’s implementation altogether. Separate legislative efforts are also pending to significantly rewrite the law in a manner that is far more restrictive than what voters intended.
A similar scenario is emerging in Florida, where 71 percent of voters endorsed a constitutional amendment providing doctors with the discretion to recommend medical marijuana to patients for whom they believed the benefits “would likely outweigh the potential health risks.” In recent weeks, however, lawmakers and regulators have proposed rules that seek to gut many of the law’s key provisions.
Specifically, newly released regulations seek to: halt the state from licensing would-be medical marijuana providers, forbid doctors from authorizing cannabis for chronic pain patients, and to restrict qualifying patients from obtaining whole-plant cannabis (instead limiting patients’ use to marijuana-infused products only).
Things are little different in North Dakota. Despite the fact that 64 percent of voters passed the Compassionate Care Act in November, leadership in the House and Senate is moving full speed ahead to suspend the law’s enactment.
Voter-initiated plans to regulate the retail production and sale of marijuana to adults have fared little better.
In Massachusetts, a handful of political leaders pushed through emergency legislation during an informal legislative session to delay marijuana sales until July 1, 2018.
The Boston Globe summarized the event this way, “The extraordinary move, made in informal sessions with just a half-dozen legislators present, … unravel[s] a significant part of the legalization measure passed by 1.8 million voters.” Additional measures before lawmakers seek to further undue several other aspects of the law, including adults’ ability to grow marijuana in their private residence.
In Maine, lawmakers have similarly rushed legislation through both chambers to delay the enactment of voter-initiated provisions governing the retail production and sale of marijuana until the spring of 2018. The emergency measure also rolls back specific initiative provisions that permitted on site consumption in specially licensed establishments, as well as the possession of marijuana-infused edible products.
Lawmakers’ decision to disregard the will of their constituents is both arrogant and troubling. Whether or not one supports marijuana law reform, one should find legislators’ attitudes and actions an affront to the democratic process. Americans have been told time and time again that ‘elections have consequences.’ There should not be a ‘marijuana exception’ to this longstanding principle.
Voters made their opinions on marijuana policy clear at the ballot box in November. Lawmakers in these jurisdictions have a responsibility to abide by the will of the people and to do so in a timely manner. Americans have lived with the failings of marijuana prohibition for far too long.
The people’s will should not be compromised, second-guessed, or held hostage by politicians who are unwilling to recognize that they are on the wrong side of history.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an adviser for Freedom Leaf. He is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" (Cheslea Green, 2013) and author of the book "The Citizen's Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws" (Whitman Press, 2015).
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