This year wasn’t necessarily revolutionary when it comes to marijuana in America, but it was a year marked by numerous states continuing to push the legalization efforts of their neighbors. But supporters still say it was a sea-changing year, in part because between Jeff Sessions being removed as attorney general and the first midwestern state voting to legalize recreational marijuana.
“I think 2018 was the year it crested,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) tells Rolling Stone. “It was a terrific year.”
Here, a rundown of how marijuana legalization moved forward in 2018 — and how it sometimes stalled.
Leaders in Washington Began Taking Pot Seriously
Potentially the biggest headline of the year for marijuana was that President Donald J. Trump – who says he despises drugs and abstains from alcohol – reiterated his campaign pledge to allow states to decide their own cannabis policies. He did so at the insistence of Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) who vowed to block every nominee for the Department of Justice until he received commitments from the White House that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions wouldn’t be allowed to go after marijuana businesses in states that had legalized the plant.
Still, with Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, no marijuana provisions were allowed to hit the floor of either chamber of Congress for an up or down vote. But the growing number of pro-cannabis lawmakers of both parties beat back efforts to unwind the Obama-era policy that restricted the federal government from intruding in medical marijuana businesses in states where it’s legal.
The year also witnessed two historic firsts at the Capitol: Two separate congressional panels — the Veterans Affairs and Judiciary Committees — became the first in American history to pass bills that focused solely on marijuana. Both were merely focused on expanding or encouraging cannabis research, but they were landmark nonetheless.
“This was a groundbreaking year for cannabis,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) tells Rolling Stone. “You begin to see that the pieces are falling into place.”
Marijuana’s Biggest Detractor Got Canned
While Trump ingloriously fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, marijuana policy watchers everywhere collectively cheered the departure of arguably pot’s loudest foe in the cabinet.
“This is a testament of the political staying power of cannabis and the ineptitude of one of America’s most emboldened prohibitionists,” Justin Strekal, political director of the marijuana advocacy group NORML tells Rolling Stone.
Pot advocates also lauded the ouster of possibly the second-biggest prohibitionists in Washington, Texas Rep. Pete Sessions (of no relation to the former AG). He’s a top general of Speaker Ryan’s who chaired the Rules Committee — the panel that oversees what amendments can see the light of day on the House floor. The Texan drew the ire of national activists after he was credited with single-handedly killing every marijuana-related measure advocates wanted a vote on.
Even members of his own party are glad to see him go so they can actually vote on marijuana amendments. For pro-pot lawmakers, that means an array of cannabis-related measures are already being readied for the new year.
“Under Republican leadership the Rules Committee was sort of a place that good ideas went to die,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told to Rolling Stone. “I am highly optimistic that we’ll be able to get some cannabis reform done in the 116th Congress.”
The People Spoke — Again
This year cannabis proponents also proved – once again – that they’re a force. Back in June, Oklahoma turned heads when voters in the conservative state made it the 30th state in the nation to make medical marijuana widely accessible to residents. That was just the start.
In November, voters in Missouri and Utah — over the initial protests of leaders of the Mormon Church — followed suit and passed medical marijuana ballot initiatives. Though Michigan was arguably this year’s biggest winner at the ballot box, because it became the first state in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana.
“I think that is going to spur a lot of other activity in the Midwest,” Morgan Fox, media relations director at the National Cannabis Industry Association, tells Rolling Stone. “It has definitely paved the way for a lot of states that formerly were considered very difficult lifts, in terms of getting real reforms passed, to actually being considered a possibility now.”
Fox also says a highlight of the election was the 11 gubernatorial candidates — from as diverse of locales as Illinois to New Mexico — who won their races after endorsing legalized marijuana. And his group’s PAC also dropped money on 56 congressional candidates this cycle — 46 of whom voters decided to send to Washington.
This year will also remain in the record books because Vermont became the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana from the statehouse, and not the ballot box.
“It’s absolutely huge,” Fox said. “It was groundbreaking in that it showed other state legislatures that they can do this too. They’ve always had the ability, but somebody had to go first.”
Now other states are lining up to potentially follow their lead in the new year, including Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Illinois and New York.
Congress Legalized Hemp
So hemp isn’t weed because it lacks THC — the psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes one feel ‘high’ — but it’s basically a cousin of marijuana. In the waning days of 2018 lawmakers in both parties legalized the plant that’s used to make everything from rope to clothes, a provision included in the latest Farm Bill. That was viewed by many cannabis watchers as yet another crack in the nation’s antiquated prohibitionist system.
“The significance of the shift cannot be understated, given that it is the first change in the classification of the legal standing of the cannabis plant since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970,” Justin Strekal of NORML contended.
The Bad News: Still No Access to Banks
The year wasn’t all good news for cannabis though. The nation’s burgeoning industry still faces massive roadblocks from Washington because the federal prohibition on marijuana still keeps locally legal businesses locked out of the nation’s banking sector. That’s unacceptable to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“It’s tough on the industry. It’s tough on its ability to grow just like any other business,” outgoing Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) tells Rolling Stone. “When you don’t have access to financial services and you tend to be a cash business, I think you’re more prone to criminality, and it’s tougher for state governments and local governments to collect the revenues that are owed to them.”
Even as GOP leaders refused to let rank and file lawmakers to vote on proposals to allow marijuana businesses to access banks, efforts to do that saw huge gains at the Capitol this year. The two most popular measures to address the issue — the SAFE Banking Act and its House companion — are now supported by 20 percent of Senators and close to 25 percent of House lawmakers.
All told it was a great year for marijuana despite the slow-moving ways of conservative Washington, and pot proponents argue it’s just the beginning.
“The dam has been broken — it’s a movement that’s not going back,” Democratic Rep. Correa of California said. “The pieces are there for next year to be a very significant year as we move cannabis to full legalization in the United States of America.”