How Does A US State Legalise Cannabis?

While Cannabis remains illegal at the Federal level in the US, states have been passing bills to legalise both the medical and recreational use of the drug since 1996.  11 states – plus the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) – have now legalised adult-use recreational Cannabis, and 33 have legalised the medical use of the drug. It is also expected that more states will follow suit in the near future. But, how does a state opt to legalise Cannabis?

Since Colorado and Washington passed Amendment 64, legalising the recreational use of marijuana, back in 2012, an additional ten states have approved the development of legal Cannabis markets. The states that have since legalised adult-use recreational Cannabis are California, Nevada, Alaska, Ohio, Oregon, Michigan, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, and, most, recently, Illinois.

The two current routes to Cannabis legalisation are through a public vote, and through policy changes passed by the legislation…

Ballot Initiatives

In the past, all successful bids to legalise recreational Cannabis were achieved the I&R system. That is, until 2018 and Vemont’s decision to legalise the use and possession of small amounts of Cannabis. This means that the choice was put directly to voters in the State. Both Washington D.C. and the state of Colorado voters passed initiatives to legalise recreational Cannabis in 2012.

A total of 26 US states allow for policy changes through the ballot initiative. This allows a petition to bring about a public vote on a constitutional amendment. These petitions require a minimum number of signatures, which vary between states, in order to progress.

More states are on track to employ a Ballot Initiative for the legalisation of either recreational or medical Cannabis. There are nine states that could hold key votes on legalisation by the end of 2020. These include motions to legalise recreational Cannabis use in Florida, Arizona, New Jersey, New York, and Arkansas.

Passed through the Legislature

There are 24 states in the USA that do not have an Initiative and Referendum (I&R) system for policy change. In these states, it is left directly up to the legislature and governor to pass new laws and amendments. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalise recreational Cannabis directly through the State Legislature (government).

The New Year also saw the official launch of Illinois’ legal Cannabis market. The state became the second state in the USA to legalise the drug through its legislature.

Of the remaining 23 states without an I&R system, New York is among the most vocal about future plans for legalisation. Governor Cuomo recently announced plans to legalise the recreational use of the drug, after failing to do so, last year.

If initiatives and votes in the previously mentioned five states are successful, recreational Cannabis could be legal in up to 16 states (plus Washington D.C.) within the next few years. 


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