1st March 2021
By Emily Ledger
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In recent months and years, an increasing number of US states are opting for the legalisation of recreational cannabis. The momentum behind cannabis reforms in the US continues to grow despite there being little chance of federal legalisation. So, how does a State go about legalising recreational cannabis use?

States have been passing bills to legalise both the medical and recreational use of the drug since 1996. A third of the states that now have, or are ready to introduce, a legal recreational cannabis sector, have only done so in the last few months. This time last year, only ten states (plus the District of Columbia) had made the move – now, 15 States (plus D.C.) have opted for legalisation.

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The most significant wave of reforms was seen alongside the Presidential election at the end of last year. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota all came out to support the legalisation of adult-use recreational cannabis. Furthermore, South Dakota became the first state in history to legalise recreational and medical cannabis at the same time.

For those of us who don’t live in the USA, we are explaining how a US State can go about legalising cannabis. There are currently two routes to legalisation: through a public vote, or through policy changes passed by the legislation…

Ballot Initiatives

Many states (26) in the USA have what is known as an Initiative & Referendum (I&R) system. This means that citizens in these states can bring about a public vote on policy and law changes through ballot initiatives. These initiatives require a minimum number of signatures – which varies between states – in order to progress.

The vast majority of reforms to state cannabis laws in the US have been made through the I&R system and ballot initiatives. This means that in the majority of cannabis-legal states, cannabis legalisation was secured directly by the citizens. Cannabis legalisations in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota at the end of last year were all done through this system.

How Does A US State Legalise Cannabis?

Ballot initiatives have a long history in the US and, historically, have prompted higher voter turnout at elections. In fact, voter turnout in states with an initiative on the ballot has been found to be 3-8% higher than in states without. But what about states that don’t have an Initiative & Referendum system?

Passed through the Legislature

There are 24 states (including Vermont) in the US that do not employ this system. In these states, it is left directly up to the legislature and governor to implement new laws and amendments. There are currently only two states that have legalised recreational cannabis through this system.

In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalise recreational Cannabis directly through the State Legislature (government). On New Year’s Day 2020, Illinois became the second state to wave in a legal recreational market.

While states with I&R systems are way ahead when it comes to cannabis legalisation, the cannabis reform wave is continuing to spread to other parts of the country. House Representatives in North Dakota and Minnesota recently passed bills on cannabis legalisation and New York governor Andrew Cuomo continues to be vocal on his agenda to introduce a legal market.

While cannabis legalisation – both medical and recreational – continues to prompt debate around the US, many reform advocates are waiting for President Joe Biden to honour his election pledge to decriminalise the drug at the federal level. 

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