On Nov. 8, 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults.
The law’s immediate effect is simple: People age 21 and older are now legally allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants for personal use. The passage of Prop. 64 is likely to be remembered as a watershed moment for the national cannabis industry.
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, says he’s already getting reports that charges are being dropped in marijuana cases across the state.
“That’s great news for social justice in this country,” he says.
The new law will also allow for those previously convicted of marijuana crimes to apply to have their records expunged. Although this aspect was not a part of Colorado’s similar Amendment 64 in 2012, Smith believes the retroactive benefits of applying for record expungement will have an immediate and profound effect on those convicted of marijuana-related crimes.
It also opens the door for what a Drug Policy Alliance report estimates to be more than 6,000 people currently incarcerated in California for marijuana-related offenses to appeal for reduced sentences.
“People are already taking advantage of it,” Smith notes.
Of course, many are likely wondering when they can expect marijuana dispensaries to start showing up like Starbucks on every corner. Retail cannabis locations will not roll out until January 2018, thus California’s legislatures and local county officials will have just over a year to decide exactly how they want to embrace or restrict the cannabis industry in each municipality.
Smith believes the establishment of regulations will probably be somewhat more complicated than what Colorado underwent, in part because that state already had a “robust regulatory scheme” in place. Still, there is reason to expect a somewhat smooth transition.
“California’s legislature did pass regulations in 2015 for the medical marijuana business,” he explains. “For the most part, Prop. 64 overlays quite nicely on top of those regulations.”
For those living outside of California, Prop. 64 — along with similar recreational legalization passed by Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine — may serve as a bellwether of what’s to come.
One fascinating aspect in an election cycle acutely defined by stark contrasts is the bipartisan nature of marijuana legislation. In Florida, where 49 percent of voters supported Republican nominee Donald Trump while 48 percent voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, 71 percent of the voting populace approved Amendment 2, the state’s first comprehensive medical marijuana legislation.
While trying to predict where President-elect Trump will fall on any issue is an exercise in futility, history does show that several times during the course of his campaign Trump spoke favorably of medical marijuana and his intentions of letting states operate programs without federal interference. Smith says it may be possible that conservative attorney general candidates could pose a more serious threat, but any effort to take down the cannabis industry is unlikely to succeed regardless.
“The reality is it would it be a political disaster to try and roll back what we’ve already done in creating this industry,” Smith says. “It would also be practically impossible, because this industry is licensed by states and paying taxes. There are schools in Colorado that are dependent on the taxes that come from marijuana. It’s hard for me to believe that they would try to roll that back, given the insurmountable opposition.”
If we choose instead to read the tea leaves of the 2016 election, all signs point towards a nation unifying in its approval for regulated and accessible marijuana. In addition to California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine voting for legalized recreational usage, deep red states like North Dakota, Arkansas, and Montana, along with Florida, all approved medical marijuana laws. To look at the numbers, 60 percent of Americans now live in a state that has some form of a legal marijuana industry, and 20 percent live in a state with legalized recreational usage. This speaks to a national change in public perception.
“It’s definitely not just a Left Coast issue anymore,” Smith concludes.
From an economic standpoint, California’s legalization of marijuana will almost certainly establish the state as the new capital of the marijuana industry. Smith estimates that nationwide, the cannabis industry currently has annual sales of $6.7 billion. He says California by itself is projected to reach that yearly total by 2020.
What comes next is a move for federal changes to the law, especially with regards to banking issues. A $6.7 billion cash industry is perilous, to say the least. Smith says the time has now come for federal lawmakers to faithfully represent their constituents.
“What this means nationally is that we’ve really reached the tipping point,” he says. “The results of this election have put an enormous pressure on Congress because most members of Congress now represent a state with a legal marijuana program. They need to fix the banking problem by amending the law so state legal businesses have access to financial services. Really, it’s all eyes on Congress.”