Marijuana Expands Into 3 More States, But Nationwide Legalization Still Unlikely
By Daniel J. Mallinson and Lee Hannah
Michigan, which already had medical marijuana, became the first Midwestern state to fully legalize pot. It joins nine other U.S. states, Washington, DC, Canada and Uruguay in launching a regulated recreational marijuana market.
North Dakotans decisively rejected a proposal to make marijuana legal for recreational purposes.
Before Tuesday's vote, 22 American states had adopted comprehensive medical marijuana programs. California was the first, recognizing in 1996 the therapeutic uses of marijuana in easing the symptoms of serious illnesses like HIV, cancer, epilepsy, PTSD and glaucoma. Recently, marijuana's potential value for treating chronic pain has garnered attention as an alternative to opioids.
No Tipping Point
Two-thirds of all U.S. states have now legalized some kind of marijuana. After that, the argument goes, its nationwide expansion is inevitable.
As marijuana policy researchers, we question that narrative.
Our research indicates that medical marijuana progress may well stall after this latest round of successful ballot initiatives. Recreational marijuana may continue to expand into states with legal medical marijuana but will ultimately hit a wall, too.
Our caution has to do with the particular way marijuana legalization has occurred in the U.S.: at the ballot box.
Ballot Initiatives Have Power
So far, all but one of the recreational marijuana laws passed has occurred via ballot initiative, not through the state legislative process. Seven of the first eight medical marijuana laws—those in California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine and Nevada—were also adopted via ballot initiative.
Rather than relying on lawmakers to write and pass legislation on certain issues—often, controversial ones—ballot initiatives harness public opinion. They have been used to legalize or restrict same-sex marriage, place limitations on taxing and spending, raise the minimum wage and much more. Some are funded by wealthy individuals with specific business interests.
Even in states where ballot initiatives have little hope of passing, they can be an important force for policy change.
In Ohio, marijuana advocates in 2015 spent more than US$20 million in an effort to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana in the same ballot initiative. Ohio voters overwhelmingly said no—but the campaign revealed broad support for a medical marijuana policy.
The Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy organization, said it would put medical marijuana on Ohio's ballot in 2016. In response, Ohio's legislature moved quickly to craft and pass its own medical marijuana legislation.
In Utah, where Gov. Gary Herbert opposed the expansive medical marijuana proposal passed on Tuesday, lawmakers have already promised to supersede the initiative and pass marijuana legislation that would be more acceptable to conservative state legislators and the influential Mormon Church.
The Limits of Direct Initiative
So the ballot initiative is powerful. But our analysis suggests its potential for liberalizing marijuana access in the U.S. is nearly tapped out.
Of the 17 U.S. states that still have no form of legal marijuana, only five—Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri—allow direct initiatives.
The rest are mostly conservative places like South Carolina and Alabama, where legislatures have indicated reluctance to loosen restrictions. If voters there wanted medical or recreational marijuana, they would not have the option of bypassing policymakers to get the issue on the ballot.
Marijuana legalization won't end with the 2018 midterms. There is still room for recreational marijuana to expand into the 22—soon to be 24—states that have legal medicinal marijuana.
History shows that once people grow comfortable with medical marijuana—seeing its impacts on patients and tax revenues—full legalization often follows.
In our analysis, the remaining 13 states are very unlikely to liberalize access to marijuana without a significant push by the federal government.
That's unlikely, but not impossible, under the Trump administration.
Federal law still considers marijuana an illegal Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that as far as the U.S. government is concerned, the plant has no medical value.
The Obama administration took a hands-off approach to states' legalization, allowing them to experiment. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed Justice Department attorneys to fully enforce federal law in legal marijuana states.
If Sessions leaves the Trump administration, as rumor has long suggested, the DOJ's position on marijuana enforcement could change.
This article is an updated version of a story originally published on Oct. 31.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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