The 2020 election shows Americans remain heavily divided. But there is one issue on which voters agree–marijuana legalization. Following the election, one-third of Americans can now use recreational cannabis, and nearly 75% live in a state where medical marijuana is permitted.
Nationally, more than two-thirds of voters support federal legalization.
Now supporters are wondering what President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris plan to do next. When it comes to cannabis, Biden and Harris both support decriminalization. However, the newly elected candidates did not mention cannabis reform in their recent plan to strengthen America’s commitment to justice.
Will Americans see progress under the Biden-Harris administration, or are they facing four more years of individual state laws surrounding cannabis testing, sales, and use? Here we look at cannabis' big wins in the 2020 election and the ongoing hurdles in the fight for federal legalization.
Recreational and Medical Cannabis Wins in State Races
Americans made their voices heard in record numbers in 2020, with four more states voting to legalize recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana, which already sees broader support, added two more states to the list.
That brings the new recreational total to 15 states, plus Washington D.C., and the medical-use total to 35, plus Washington D.C. This expansion means millions more Americans will have access to safe, third-party tested products.
Here's the full list of state wins:
Arizona: Proposition 207 passed with 60% voting yes to legalize recreational marijuana. Just four years ago, a similar bill failed.
Mississippi: Two-thirds of voters said yes to medical marijuana, a massive gain in this state that has seen years of cannabis repression.
New Jersey: Public Question 1 passed with 67% voting, yes, making N.J. the first mid-Atlantic state to legalize recreational marijuana.
South Dakota: Constitutional Amendment A passed with 54% voting yes, not only to legalize recreational marijuana, but it doubled down to also require the state legislature to pass laws to legalize medical marijuana and the sale of hemp by April 1, 2022.
Is There a Path to Federal Cannabis Decriminalization?
If the Biden administration makes good on its promise to decriminalize marijuana, adults would no longer face criminal charges for possession or use. But they may still face minor fines and mandatory drug treatment therapy. Moreover, adults will still not have access to safe, tested, over-the-counter products.
The black market will continue to thrive.
In December, the House of Representatives plans to vote on a decriminalization bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act. However, even if the House passes the bill, Senate leader Mitch McConnell must agree to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. McConnell has always been against marijuana reform, so the prospects are bleak.
Moreover, if the bill makes it to the Senate floor, it may face staunch opposition from conservative leaders who currently have the majority vote. That means the future of decriminalization may depend on the results of the upcoming runoff elections, which will determine the final ratio of democrats-to-republicans in the senate.
Is There a Path to Federal Cannabis Legalization?
In their respective primary campaigns, Biden and Harris expressed opposing views regarding adult-use cannabis.
Biden said he supported decriminalization but did not support the federal legalization of marijuana. He made it clear that he prefers those decisions to remain at the state level. Harris, on the other hand, was initially vocal in her support for legalizing adult-use cannabis federally.
In his presidential campaign, Biden continued support decriminalizing cannabis, expunging conviction records, legalizing medical marijuana, and declassifying cannabis to a Schedule II substance–while remaining opposed to federal legalization. Despite Harris' progressive rhetoric in the primaries, she joined Biden in only supporting decriminalization as well.
But the liberal wing of the democratic party has refused to get in line. Based on cannabis' sweeping victories in the 2020 election, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called on Biden to listen to voters and prioritize marijuana legalization.
A Path to Cannabis Reform Through Executive Action
Any attempts to pass legislative cannabis reform face an uphill battle. Fortunately, Biden and Harris can make impactful changes without relying on House or Senate approval. For example, Biden could issue an executive order that would reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.
This type of action would greatly expand medical marijuana testing, allowing laboratories like ACS to study the plant's therapeutic powers. As president, Biden can also pardon prisoners with federal marijuana convictions.
The Bottom Line
Biden's position on federal marijuana legalization misaligns with the majority of the country. But pressure from his party, voters, and vice president could push Biden to add legalization to the agenda.
In the meantime, decriminalization is the next hurdle for the Biden administration. Only time will tell whether they can make good on their campaign promises.