A common thread among states that have approved medical and/or recreational marijuana relates to state governments which don’t entirely listen to the voices of their constituents. Time and again, the people vote for medical marijuana or adult-use marijuana, but what the people thought they were voting for changes significantly when government officials develop marijuana programs to put those laws into action.
Suddenly, “legal” medical or recreational marijuana becomes “legal but with a massive amount of restrictions,” and all of those restrictions end up limiting access and raising prices for the people who voted for legalization.
Florida residents had to deal with this problem last year after the vast majority of Florida 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) 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.
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 6th of this year, 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 won’t change any laws. 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.
Can State Governments Bring Votes and Laws Together?
Variations in laws are to be expected while marijuana 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 marijuana or adult-use marijuana isn’t always turning out the way many voters envisioned it would.
Originally published 1/25/17. Updated 11/30/18.
Susan Gunelius, Lead Analyst for Cannabiz Media and author of Marijuana Licensing Reference Guide: 2017 Edition, is also President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company offering, copywriting, content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, and strategic branding services. She spent the first half of her 25-year career directing marketing programs for AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more as well as small businesses around the world. Susan has written 11 marketing-related books, including the highly popular Content Marketing for Dummies, 30-Minute Social Media Marketing, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing, and she is a popular marketing and branding keynote speaker. She is also a Certified Career Coach and Founder and Editor in Chief of Women on Business, an award-winning blog for business women. Susan holds a B.S. in marketing and an M.B.A in management and strategy.