The US towns and counties opting out of cannabis legalisation

7th June 2021

While the US states are consistently leading the way when it comes to introducing meaningful cannabis reforms, there are a number of towns and counties that continue to reject legal cannabis markets – even after their state has legalised the recreational use of the drug.

When implementing a new legal cannabis sector, state legislators will in many cases allow individual towns and counties within the state the opportunity to opt-out. However, this usually applies to the opening of cannabis businesses such as dispensaries, with local jurisdictions remaining unable to prosecute possession and use of the drug.

In this article, we will be taking a look at the towns and counties in cannabis-legal states that are choosing to hold out on the emerging market.

Cannabis Legalisation in US States

Cannabis reforms have been sweeping across the United States in recent years, with 17 states and the District of Columbia so far choosing to legalise the drug for recreational use. Furthermore, 33 states now allow the medical use of the plant.

Behind this climate of state-led legalisations, there is growing pressure on the US government to develop meaningful reforms to cannabis policies at the federal level. Now-President, Joe Biden, announced during his campaign last year that cannabis reform would be on the agenda if he and his Vice President Kamala Harris were elected to office.

This reform is likely to come in the form of federal decriminalisation as opposed to the legalisation of recreational cannabis. However, these reforms are yet to be announced, leaving state governments and voters to continue leading the way.

Opting Out of Cannabis Legalisation

In the majority of US states that have chosen to legalise the possession, sale, use, and cultivation of cannabis, towns and counties are given the opportunity to opt-out of the new market. But what does this actually mean?

The guidelines for opting out of a state’s developing legal cannabis market will vary from state to state. Often – as is seen in New York at this time -, counties and towns will be given a specific timeframe in which to pass the relevant laws.

These laws often refer to the prohibition of cannabis-related businesses such as dispensaries, wholesalers, and processors with counties and towns unable to prohibit the use, possession, and personal cultivation of the plant.

Counties and towns that Opt-Out of Legalisation

Opting out in Oregon

While Oregon was the first state in the USA to legalise the recreational use of cannabis back in 2012, there are still some counties and cities in the state that are rejecting the market. In fact, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, a total of 75 cities and 16 counties in the state have opted out of the legal market.

Oregon’s law relating to the legalisation of recreational cannabis “provides cities and counties the opportunity to prohibit recreational marijuana businesses in their jurisdiction, with the exception of labs.” The majority of jurisdictions that chose to opt-out chose to do so to the maximum extent, allowing only labs.

However, state law requires these jurisdictions to refer the banning of cannabis businesses to voters at their next general election, opening the door for future reforms.

Opting out in New York

Following years of debate in New York, the state finally announced the legalisation of recreational cannabis in March this year. The new law, which is expected to see the first legal sale of cannabis by April 2022, will allow the use, possession, cultivation, and sale of cannabis – although counties, cities and towns have been offered the opportunity to opt-out of some aspects of the legislation.

While those jurisdictions that choose to opt-out will be unable to prohibit the use, possession, or personal cultivation of the drug, they will be permitted to restrict the retail portion of the market. This means that dispensaries and on-site consumption sites will be banned.

Opting out of these retail businesses requires states to hold public hearings and a town board vote – just as with other laws. The deadline for jurisdictions in New York to opt-out is December 31, 2021.

New Mexico

New Mexico is one of the most recent states to approve the legalisation of cannabis. However, unlike other states that have previously legalised the drug, New Mexico’s rebooted proposal from legislators would not allow cities and counties to opt out of cannabis sales.

The proposed legislation has taken an approach to stress opportunities for small businesses and access for medical cannabis patients.

While this process may be similar in other states that have chosen to legalise the use of cannabis, opting-out in other states across the US will vary depending on the legislation enacted. 

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