Legal cannabis in California is a very big deal


Another huge milestone was passed in drug law reform this new year as the first legal non-medical cannabis retail outletss opened in California on 1st January, 2018. The state voted to legalise and regulate non-medical cannabis late in 2016 - along with Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine (with only the Arizona effort failing) in a ballot initiative that was somewhat overshadowed by the shock result in the presidential election.


A lot amount has been written about these changes already - but it is worth revisiting a few important points.


The first and most obvious is the wider political significance of the Californian vote that has moved from draft legislation into reality this week. California is the 6th largest economy in the world - equivalent to that of France. Its political and cultural significance within the US and globally can hardly be underestimated - meaning that the reforms will have huge impacts far beyond California itself.


Accelerating change in the US


Domestically the number of US citizens with access to legally regulated, non-medical cannabis markets more than doubles, and now almost a third of the country now live in legal cannabis jurisdictions. This makes it increasingly hard for the Federal Government to finesse the obvious tensions between state-level legalisation and still-in-force federal prohibitions. Whilst Trump himself has called for legalisation in the past, the populist law enforcement focus of the new Trump administration’s has seen increasingly hawkish noises on drug policy - led by attorney general Jeff Sessions who is famously hostile to drugs and drug policy reform. But the old school drug warrior posturing is increasingly at odds with reforms on the ground and shifts in public opinion. Even Trump’s base supporters are shifting, with recent polls showing majority support for cannabis legalisation amongst Republicans for the first time late last year. Whilst we may not see proactive federal moves led by this administration, California makes it increasingly clear that serious moves against cannabis reform - particularly a federally led enforcement clamp down - are less and less likely. And as the balance of power shifts in the Senate and Congress, notably in the mid-terms later this year, opportunities may open up for more meaningful federal reform. Democrat opponents can see that the drug warriors are on the wrong side of history and may choose to strike against a weakened administration on an issue whose time has clearly come and which is increasingly popular with their base. The Democrats do now after all have a "reasoned pathway to future legalization" of cannabis as part of their official platform.


Impact Across North America, and beyond...

In the wider North American region the reform is also of great significance. With Canada also legalising nationally (all set for launch in July this year) it means that you can now travel from the Arctic Circle to the Mexican border down the west coast without leaving a legal cannabis jurisdiction. Mexico itself now also has a legal cannabis jurisdiction on its Northern border, somewhat ironic given the vast - if futile - efforts made over the decades to prevent Mexican cannabis flowing North to meet US demand. Whilst the febrile politics in Mexico make it intrinsically unpredictable, the debate on cannabis legalisation there has made huge strides - not least due to the efforts of Transform's partner organisation Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia - who republished
Transform’s cannabis regulation guide in Spanish and have pushed the reform debate all the way to the senate and congress with an array of legislative initiatives as well as victory in the supreme court through strategic litigation. All indications are that the California reforms could be the tipping point in the Mexican debate, with repercussions that are likely to flow through Central and South America too.


At the United Nations too, the California reforms are continuing to force the debate, as the needs of member states and sub-national jurisdictions are increasingly at odds with the outdated and failing international drug control system, which continues to insist on cannabis prohibition despite the obvious shattering of the consensus needed to maintain it as a global policy. Something has to give, and soon (and Transform has also been working with colleagues to map out strategies for reform in key international institutions).



Potential risks, and alternative models..


Some reformers, whilst celebrating the US reforms, have also sounded a note of caution. The nature of the US politics and culture mean the US reform states have generally adopted more commercialised regulatory models than many public health advocates would want to see. They highlight the obvious tensions between the interests of profit motivated businesses (to increases sales and maximise profits) and public health (to moderate and reduce potentially risky health behaviours such as drug use). Perhaps the one decent argument US reform opponents have is the threat of ‘Big Marijuana’ - that, they forebodingly suggest, could one day mirror the public health disasters associated with over-commercialised ‘Big Alcohol’ and ‘Big Tobacco’. The results from the US states that have already legalised, does however suggest we don’t need to panic just yet. Early evidence from Colorado and Washington states - which legalised non medical markets in 2012 and opened for business in 2014 - is far from the cataclysm predicted by the doom-mongers. Importantly, a more commercially oriented US model is not the only game in town. Uruguay is having success with a much more strictly regulated market - involving an effective state monopoly on production, and sales of unbranded products from pharmacies (alongside regulated home grow and social clubs). In Canada different states are taking different paths - but overall it looks set to carve a path somewhere between the US commercial models and Uruguay's state control approach. Transform and others have written in more detail about how the potentially problematic profit incentives of business to increase consumption can be reigned in with effective policy design - without imposing unnecessarily on the freedom of users.   


California’s model also shows how policy thinking is evolving in response to failings and challenges that have emerged elsewhere. There are, for example, better regulations on edibles following some early problems in Colorado’s nascent market; there are efforts to support minority communities and populations most negatively impacted by drug enforcement historically - and help ensure they are not excluded from the emerging market; there is money set aside from the tax revenue for research and health education. There are welcome signs that other legalising states - notably Massachusetts - are continuing this positive evolutionary trajectory. Of course, we will have to wait for the evidence of how it all works out. As with any new policy, mistakes will be made, and particular vigilance will be needed to prevent undue influence of industry money on the shape of the evolving policy models. But even if inevitably imperfect, it will be a dramatic improvement on the disasterous historic failure that was cannabis prohibition. California’s reforms are a very big deal and set the stage for accelerating reform in the future - in other jurisdictions and of other drugs. Watch this space.       



Author: Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
Twitter: @SteveTransform