2019 was a historic year for marijuana law reform — here's why

2019 was a historic year for marijuana law reform — here's why
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Marijuana policy reformers achieved significant victories this year at the state and federal level. Here are five reasons why 2019 was among the most significant years ever for cannabis legalization.

Public opinion in favor of legalization soars to record highs

Two in three Americans believe that the adult use of cannabis ought to be legal. That’s according to a series of nationwide polls published in 2019, including those by Gallup, Pew, and the Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI).

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The percentage is the highest level of support for legalization ever reported in national polls. It represents a seismic shift in public opinion since the mid-1990s when only 25 percent of the public endorsed ending marijuana prohibition.

Further, public support for legalization has become non-partisan. Majorities of self-identified Democrats, Republicans, and Independents now say the plant should be legal.

This non-partisanship is most pronounced among younger voters — with over 70 percent of Republican-leaning Millennials now voicing support for legalization.

 At a time when political divides in America appear to be higher than ever, 2019 showed that marijuana legalization is one of the few policy issues upon which most Americans can agree on.

States move to expunge millions of cannabis convictions

Over the past months, more than a dozen states — including California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington — have each enacted legislation to explicitly expunge or seal the records of those convicted of low-level marijuana crimes.

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In California alone, officials have already reviewed and vacated tens of thousands of cannabis records, while similar policies in Illinois and New York are expected to result in the automatic expungement of over a million criminal records.

 “This a matter of fairness and justice,” Washington governor said upon signing the state’s new marijuana expungement law earlier this year. “We should not be punishing people for something that is no longer illegal in this state.”

House members vote to legitimize retail cannabis sales

In late September, members of the House of Representatives voted 321 to 103 in favor of HR 1595: The SAFE Banking Act, which amends federal law so that banks and other financial institutions can work explicitly with state-legal marijuana retailers and dispensaries. Two-hundred and twenty-nine Democrats and 91 Republicans cast ‘yes’ votes in favor of the measure.

This historic vote marks the first time that a chamber of Congress has ever held a successful floor vote on a stand-alone piece of marijuana reform legislation. 

“After six years of working on this bill, the SAFE Banking Act will go a long way in getting cash off our streets and providing certainty so financial institutions can work with cannabis businesses and employees,” said Rep. Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterDemocrats press World Bank chief on meeting with Ukrainian president amid Trump pressure 2019 was a historic year for marijuana law reform — here's why Impeachment surprise: Bills Congress could actually pass in 2020 MORE (D-Colo.) — one of the bill’s co-sponsors — following the landmark vote. “I look forward to working with Senate Banking Committee Chairman Crapo, Ranking Member Brown, and the entire Senate as they take up this important issue.”

Rep. Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonLawmakers shame ex-Wells Fargo directors for failing to reboot bank Overnight Defense: House passes bills to rein in Trump on Iran | Pentagon seeks Iraq's permission to deploy missile defenses | Roberts refuses to read Paul question on whistleblower during impeachment trial Here are the lawmakers who defected on Iran legislation MORE (R-Ohio), a co-sponsor to the bill, added, “Passing this bill keeps the right perspective: No federal regulator should block Americans’ lawful access to the financial system. This principle holds whether you are talking about firearms or cannabis. I was an original cosponsor of this bill and welcomed its passage. It is incumbent on the Senate to join the House and accomplish this important legislative task.”

Illinois lawmakers legalize marijuana sales

Lawmakers in the nation’s sixth-largest state — Illinois — voted this summer to legalize and regulate the commercial production and retail distribution of marijuana to those age 21 or older.

Illinois is the 11 state to legalize retail marijuana use by adults, and it is the first jurisdiction to do so by a legislative vote (rather than by a direct majority vote of the people).

Licensed marijuana sales will begin in the Land of Lincoln on Jan. 1, 2020.

Congressional committee votes to remove marijuana from Controlled Substances Act

In November, members of the House Judiciary Committee decided 24 to 10 in favor of The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act — which federally deschedules marijuana, thus enabling states to set their cannabis regulatory policies free from federal intervention. The landmark vote marks the first time since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 that a Congressional committee has ever voted to relinquish marijuana from the control of the federal government.

Following the vote, House Judiciary Chair Jerry NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse Judiciary Committee postpones hearing with Barr amid coronavirus outbreak House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship' MORE (D-N.Y.), a lead sponsor of the bill, said: "I have long believed that the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake, and the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has only compounded this mistake. While states have led the way in reform, our federal laws have not kept pace with the obvious need for change. With the passage of the MORE Act today, the Judiciary Committee has taken long-overdue steps to address the devastating injustices caused by the War on Drugs and to finally decriminalize marijuana at the federal level." The measure is now anticipated to receive a House floor vote in 2020.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is the co-author of the book, "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" and the author of the book, "The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws."