For years, people have been moving from states that haven’t legalized medical or adult-use cannabis to those that have, but more recently, people have been moving from states with overly strict cannabis laws to those with rules that are more in line with what they want and expect. The reason is simple. Many states that have approved medical and/or recreational cannabis haven’t entirely listened to the voices of their constituents when crafting the laws.

We’ve repeatedly seen people vote for medical cannabis or adult-use cannabis, but what the people thought they were voting for changes significantly when government officials develop laws to put cannabis programs into action.

As a result, “legal” medical or recreational cannabis rolls out with onerous restrictions that limit access for the people who voted for legalization in the first place. The many restrictions can also cause an imbalance in cannabis supply and demand, which leads to increased prices for patients and consumers.

Reality vs. Expectations in Florida

Florida residents had to deal with this problem after the vast majority of voters cast their ballots in support of Amendment 2 in November 2016. Amendment 2 was a law that would expand the state’s medical marijuana availability significantly beyond the 1,800 residents who qualified for medical marijuana at the time.

The problem was that Florida lawmakers seemed determined to blend Amendment 2 with existing marijuana laws rather than listening to voters and developing a new regulatory framework for medical marijuana. Advocates for Amendment 2 fought against this blended approach citing two primary issues.

First, the proposed blended law would limit the number of approved marijuana growers (who were also the only approved distributors and sellers in a vertically integrated market scheme) to the existing seven.

Second, the law that residents voted in favor of would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class as the nine specifically listed in the amendment if the doctor believes the use of marijuana outweighs the potential health risks. The blended rule proposed by lawmakers would require that a medical board approves each of the conditions first. Clearly, these two approaches were not in alignment.

Fast forward to 2019 and the state’s vertically integrated structure is still causing problems in the Sunshine State. Such a structure has long been cited as a path to creating cannabis industry monopolies and oligopolies, but Florida rolled out its cannabis program with mandatory vertical integration across the supply chain. In July of this year, a Florida court ruled that vertical integration is unconstitutional. The case is now in the hands of the state’s Supreme Court.

Volatility is the Norm in the Marijuana Industry

Florida wasn’t the first state to run into delays and surprising changes when creating and implementing marijuana laws. Massachusetts residents voted in favor of legal marijuana during the November 2016 election, but on December 29, 2016, the Massachusetts House and Senate passed a bill that would delay the opening of marijuana shops in the state by up to six months.

The Massachusetts bill was passed during informal sessions in both legislative chambers without a public hearing or a debate. Making matters worse, only a small number of lawmakers were actually present when the bill passed because many of them were away for the holidays at the time. Ultimately, marijuana sales in Massachusetts didn’t begin until November 20, 2018.

In Colorado, a different kind of volatility has made it difficult for some marijuana retailers to stay in business. When a law passed in 2016 requiring dispensaries and growers to have all marijuana products tested, businesses in some municipalities faced significant challenges to comply. That’s because Colorado’s marijuana dispensaries must obtain state and local licenses to operate. Without both licenses, they cannot get their products tested. Unfortunately, some municipalities didn’t have local licensing systems in place in time to meet the new law’s July 1, 2016 deadline.

The Colorado example discussed above shows how even though residents voted a long time ago to legalize marijuana, the actual laws that are written can make the industry as a whole run quite differently than how voters expected it would when they cast their ballots. In other words, there is a discrepancy between state and local rules that often goes against voters’ choices on state laws.

However, the problem is happening even before state governments are required to develop marijuana programs. On November 6, 2018, Wisconsin voters in 16 counties and two cities (accounting for nearly half of the state’s residents) were asked to weigh in on advisory referendums related to medical and adult-use marijuana, which appeared on their ballots. Wisconsin residents overwhelmingly approved those referendums by margins of two-to-one, three-to-one, and four-to-one.

These results shouldn’t be surprising to lawmakers based on a 2018 Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters that found 61% of respondents believe marijuana should be federally legalized and regulated like alcohol. However, change is unlikely to come anytime soon in Wisconsin for two main reasons.

First, the referendums were non-binding, so they didn’t change any laws by themselves. Second, just as it’s up to Republicans to legalize marijuana at the federal level, they play a key role in state legalization as well. In Wisconsin, key Republican government leaders, like Republican Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth, have publicly stated that they oppose marijuana legalization of any kind. However, decriminalization and medical cannabis bills have been introduced to lawmakers in the state, so change could finally be coming – we just don’t know when.

Can State Governments Bring Votes and Laws Together?

Variations in laws are to be expected while cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, but state and local rules should always adhere to the voice of the people. In many cases, that is not happening. A vote for medical cannabis or adult-use cannabis isn’t always turning out the way many voters envisioned it would.

Which states do you think have gotten it right for their residents? Which have not? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Originally published 1/25/17. Updated 11/1/19.