[COVID-19] Impacts on Cannabis Reform Across the U.S.

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This year began with the prospect that 2020 would be a momentous year for supporters of cannabis reform, as the year started with adult use or medical marijuana initiatives appearing in legislative bills, or slated to appear on ballots in November, in over half of the states.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak has created an obstacle to the anticipated broad sweeping reform as over half of the states’ legislatures are in an extended recess. Moreover, activists are impeded from collecting sufficient signatures for initiatives to be added to the ballots, as a large majority of states have mandated social distancing to varying degrees.  

Many Activists Struggle to Pass Cannabis Reform

Efforts are currently underway in California to convince the state’s lawmakers to permit digitally submitted ballot signatures needed to amend the state’s legal cannabis policy, in order to avoid the health risks associated with of collecting face-to-face signatures.  

Despite the growing support for the implementation of virtual signature collection, California officials have not issued a response. That also appears to be the case in Missouri and Nebraska, where activists have conceded there is no solution to allow for the collection of sufficient signatures to put cannabis legalization on this year’s ballot, and are now pondering shifting their focus to the 2022 ballot.

In New York, at the start of the year, Governor Andrew Cuomo admitted that state legalization of marijuana products would not be happening this year. In New York, there was a sense of optimism that this would be the year that cannabis legalization would finally be implemented. However, the legislature pivoted to address the substantial impact COVID-19 has had on the state. Despite Governor Andrew Cuomo’s repeated efforts to retain the marijuana issue via the budget, it ultimately proved too complex an issue to work through in the spending bill that was due last week.

Virginia government officials have reconciled their marijuana decriminalization bill drafts, with the final version awaiting Governor Ralph Northam’s approval. Advocates in the state, however, have noted that the statehouse session has come to an end and the governor has not been signing pending legislation. To the north, the state senate in New Hampshire cancelled a judiciary committee hearing on a piece of legislation, H.B. 1641, to cut back on criminal charges for the transportation or possession of significant amounts of cannabis. And, in Hawaii, an initiative to implement regulations for the jurisdiction’s CBD marketplace had been expected to conduct a hearing in its second House committee on March 16, but it was cancelled. The law had unanimously passed the Senate.

A Few States’ Activists Experience Success

Things look a little more promising in Oregon and Washington, D.C., where proponents have stopped collecting signatures in person, but are near the required number of signatures for ballot qualification. Initiatives in a number of other states—including South Dakota, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Arizona—have already gathered the required number of signatures to get their reform options on the upcoming ballots.

Cannabis reform advocates are hoping that once COVID-19 has been brought under control and social distancing mandates are alleviated or revoked, the momentum that cannabis reform had been experiencing will pick up again.  

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