Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia (D.C.), Guam and Puerto Rico have approved comprehensive medical cannabis programs, with Oklahoma as the latest state to support medical cannabis. Nine states and D.C. have also legalized recreational cannabis. The battle over legalizing cannabis for medical and/or recreational use can be a drawn-out process, sometimes between the will of the people and the will of the state.
Over the past couple years, many states have passed ballot measures that approved medical and/or recreational cannabis. However, delays in progress have happened for various reasons. Concerns over the federal status of cannabis make state officials hesitant to regulate a program that may conflict with federal law, while citizens worry over legal cannabis leading to increases in crime and unlawful sales to minors. Unfortunately, states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, North Dakota and West Virginia have suffered delays that have kept cannabis out of patient and consumer hands. Here is an updated breakdown on the progress and delays happening in each of these six states.
One of Arkansas’ medical cannabis legalization bids, The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Question, failed in 2012 before voters approved Issue 6 on Nov. 9, 2016, which adopted it as an amendment of the state constitution and allows for medical cannabis. According to the original timeline, and patients were expected to have access to medical cannabis by late last year. However, Arkansas’ effort to launch its medical cannabis program has been delayed or derailed multiple times.
In 2017, Issue 6 was delayed to give more time for regulation to be finalized, and legislation limiting cannabis regulation in a further effort to control its use was implemented. Hundreds of applications came in last minute, overwhelming clerks. A lawsuit from one of the unsuccessful cultivation applicants stopped the process entirely when a judge ruled the Medical Marijuana Commission’s decision-making process to be flawed, full of bias and unconstitutional. The dispensary application review process stopped completely until on June 21, 2018, an appeal at the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that judge did not have jurisdiction in the decision, allowing the process to now continue.
The state is already taking patient applications but will not issue recommendations until one month before cannabis becomes available. Patients under 21 will not be allowed to smoke cannabis, patients also are forbidden from smoking around pregnant women or anyone under 14. Possession of cannabis otherwise is still a criminal offense in the state.
Act 261 legalized medical cannabis on June 29, 2015, and it was expanded the next year with Act No. 96 on May 19, 2016, but regulation and availability of cannabis has been slow to start. Doctors were protected in the document by being permitted to “recommend” rather than prescribe cannabis to avoid breaking federal law, but those recommendations only last 90 days and must be renewed with an office visit.
On June 29, 2015, Louisiana had reduced the penalty for possession with House Bill 149, but New Orleans decriminalized possession entirely in 2016, making it instead punishable by a ticket.
Unfortunately, another problem slowing the process for patients is that there are currently only 15 doctors in the state qualified to recommend medical cannabis. Patients are allowed a 30-day supply of low-THC medical cannabis to be collected from one of the 10 permitted pharmacies but aren’t allowed to smoke or vape to consume. Additionally, they must be counseled every time they pick up a prescription. Licenses are being issued and hopefully dispensaries will be open early next year.
Louisiana only approved two growers, both of which are universities who have contracted with businesses to cultivate. In 2017, Louisiana signed a bill that protected medical cannabis industry employees from being arrested and prosecuted for their employment.
Louisiana recently expanded its list of qualifying conditions for cannabis with House Bill 627 on May 23 and House Bill 579 on June 1, becoming the sixth state to allow autism to be treated with cannabis.
Maine has seen a battle of wills lately, with Gov. Paul LePage vetoing bills that would have established a marketplace for recreational cannabis twice since it was legalized by voters in 2016. This year, the compromise bill LD 1719 passed with a vote of 112-34 on May 2. That was a wide enough majority to override LePage’s following veto and put commercial cannabis regulation on the books. With this, retail cannabis stores will hopefully be in place by fall of 2019. However, the promised social clubs for cannabis consumption are no longer allowed, meaning consumers have no publicly accessible place to consume.
Recreational cannabis law dictates adults over 21 can possess up to two-and-a-half ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to three mature plants, down from the six on the original law voters passed. Medical cannabis has been legal since 1999 in the state, but it took until 2009 for the state to create a patient registry and develop a non-profit dispensary system along with decriminalizing possession of under two-and-a-half ounces.
While cannabis was decriminalized in 2009, medical cannabis was approved by voters in Nov. 6, 2012, and recreational cannabis was approved in Nov. 8, 2016. However, several bills were introduced following recreational approval, which limited the voter-approved rules. For instance, allowing cities to have the power to require permits and block recreational sales brought along challenges, as 59 municipalities enacted permanent bans. The Massachusetts Cannabis Commission began immediately reviewing license applications, but recently had to rescind 10 of them for accidentally being approved instead of denied. The original start date for recreational cannabis sales was July 1, but the state has only just approved its first recreational cannabis retail business license on June 21, which is for cultivation. The state then approved the first recreational cannabis dispensary license on July 2. It has not had any laboratory applicants for the mandated testing. Possession of up to one ounce or up to 10 ounces in the home is legal for adults 21 and over. Medical cannabis patients can only get up to 10 ounces every two months, but the state allows for home cultivation.
North Dakota lawmakers originally tried to pass a bill to legalize medical cannabis, but it was widely voted against due to concerns of regulation and safety. However, the traditionally conservative North Dakota voters took matter in their own hands and approved medical cannabis with Measure 5 on Aug. 1, 2017. Unfortunately, after the approval, lawmakers made 40 amendments to the original legislation, destroying what voters approved. Changes included removing the option of home cultivation for those who live 40 miles or more from a dispensary and removing the option of edibles.
Additionally, there are only two producers and eight dispensaries permitted in the state, meaning patients and caregivers must travel a distance to obtain up to three ounces at a time. The two producers were given their licenses this May, but there is no timeline set for the dispensary applications and licensing process. North Dakota law otherwise criminalizes possession. Carrying under an ounce is punishable by one year in prison and/or being fined up to $1,000.
West Virginia attempted to legalize medical cannabis yearly between 2010 and 2015, but was thwarted by House Speaker Tim Armstead, who opposed medical cannabis regulation. On July 5, 2017 Senate Bill 386, which was heavily amended and restricts cannabis in flower form, was passed and signed into law. The rules are still being drafted, and identification cards for patients and caregivers will not be issued until July 2019. Earlier this year, another bill that included raising the number of licensees and tried to include whole plant and flower cannabis bounced between the House and Senate before the House ignored it the last day of the session, letting it die. This is unfortunate considering a 2018 survey conducted by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources showed that 82 percent of physicians in the state are interested in medical cannabis. House Speaker Tim Armstead will not be seeking re-election this fall, paving the way for new leadership and hopefully a smoother course for cannabis regulation. Cannabis possession is otherwise a felony in the state.